Chapter 29: Into the Fire

“Let’s go!” Kasai took a step toward the door.

“Wait.” Onin grabbed her arm. “It’s definitely a trap.”

Kasai opened her mouth to protest, but Onin held up a finger.

“Yes, we’re still going, but we need to have a plan first.” Onin glanced over at the closed door. “Also, we need to straighten out this matter of potential allies, first.”

“I’m in.” Aiden held up her phone. “This message was for me to finish up here and report to the depot ASAP. With this body, I’m the best weapon the Union of Free Allied Planets has against the Natas, but I can’t take on thirty of them single-handed.”

Tannin glanced over at Saija and they both burst out laughing.

Kasai glanced over at them. “Something wrong?”

“Nope.” Tannin took a deep breath and stared at the far wall.

“Not a thing.” Saija said.

They both covered their mouths to stifle more laughter.

Cerina slapped the back of Tannin’s head.

“Ow.” Tannin turned around. “What was that for?”

“Guys!” Onin glared at them. “Knock it off. If we go confront the Natas, we’ll be out-numbered three to one. We need to think this through.”

Aiden raised her hand. “I’m familiar with the layout of the depot. It’s an older station and has several docking ports. If we can dock with the station at a main port, but then space-walk around to a maintenance port, we should be able to sneak in.”

“Yeah!” Tannin pumped his fist in the air. “Then we split up and take them out!”

“Nope.” Saija shook her head. “Bad idea. Whenever a group splits up in the movies, they get taken out one at a time.”

“She’s right.” Aiden tapped at her phone, then held it out in front of her. A translucent three-dimensional map of a space station rose into the air. “Those Natas are crazy-strong. Our best chance of victory is to stay in a group. Sneaking in will give us the element of surprise, and the smaller maintenance corridors will act as a funnel so we can all take on one Natas at a time.”

Tannin cocked his head to the side. “I don’t get it. If the hallways are too small for a big group of Natas, aren’t they too small for all of us, too?”

Aiden poked at a section near the bottom of the hologram of the station, and it zoomed in on that area. “That’s why we enter here. There’s a large workbay here, but only one small access corridor to get to it from the rest of the station.”

“Okay, sounds like a plan, right?” Onin looked around at everyone.

Kasai nodded and slipped her hand into his.

Aiden knocked at the door. A guard opened it, and Aiden stepped out. She was back in moments, a large frown on her face.

“So.” She huffed out a breath. “They gave me a lot of excuses, but the short version is the Kagoshi are still afraid of you.”

“So you’re telling us we’re stuck here.” Cerina said.

Aiden sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “Well, I really should talk to the Kagoshi and convince them that we’re all on the same side. That’d take too much time though. By the time I pounded the idea into their hard purple heads, the Natas would have taken over the depot and cut off food and equipment to millions of people.”

Aiden bit her lip and looked over her shoulder at the thick metal door. “I’m not quite used to this body yet, but I think I can break down the door, and we can all make a run for—”

“Yeah, or—” Saija waved her hand and a purple portal swirled into existence. “—we can just step on over to the ship.”

Aiden did a double-take. “You can do that?”

Saija smiled. “Yup.”

“Wow.” Aiden frowned. “We really do need to ensure that the Natas don’t get any more of your species for hosts.”

“Agreed.” Onin swept his arm toward the portal. “Let’s get back to the Potato and head for that depot.”

“Potato?” Aiden looked around at everyone, the confusion on her face evident.

“Yeah, the explanation will take a while.” Amaryllis gently pushed Aiden through the portal.

Kasai sighed. Life with Tannin was always interesting. She shrugged and followed the others through the portal, Onin right behind her.

Kasai emerged from the portal onto the bridge of the Iridescent Potato. She slid into her seat and fastened the restraints. Tannin leapt over the back of the pilot’s chair and started flipping switches and pressing virtual buttons as soon as his butt hit the seat.

Onin looked up at the main display. “Chibi-chan, we need to leave in a hurry. Can you release the docking clamps?”

“Sure I can, nyan!”

“What the…” Aiden’s voice trailed off.

Kasai spun around to look at her. “Are you okay?”

“Um—” Aiden raised a shaking finger to point at Chibi-chan. “What the flerk is that?”

“I’m Chibi-chan, nyan.”

“It’s the ship’s A.I..” Kasai said.

“I’ve never seen an A.I. like that before. And these walls.” Aiden shuddered. “Where did you get this ship?”

“We, uh, found it.” Tannin looked over his shoulder and grinned.

“Salvaged, actually.” Amaryllis said.

Aiden covered her eyes with her hands. “I’m not going to ask.”

“Jumping in five.” Tannin called over his shoulder.

“You think the walls and A.I. are bad?” Cerina snorted. “Just wait for this.”

Kasai took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut. Hopefully Ryogin would be able to do something about the engines. She didn’t see how they’d be able to fight after too many of those crazy hyper jumps.

The world blurred, then snapped back into focus. Kasai opened her eyes. Colors swirled outside the main viewer. Or window. Or whatever it was. Inside the ship things were relatively normal, except a small motion blur.

“Huh. This isn’t so bad.” Kasai waved her hand back and forth in front of her face. “Why was it worse the last time we jumped?”

Tannin swiveled around in his chair. “Probably because we got pulled out of hyperspace by an artificial singularity.”

“What?” Cerina raised an eyebrow. “First: how do you know that big of a word? Second: how could you possibly know that?”

“It’s just like in Space Pirates IV: Game of the Year Edition. Imperial I-42 Interdictors can pull you out of hyperspace using an artificial singularity. In each of the games, the special effects were different, but in SP4, they had a motion blur and stretching effect.”

Cerina sighed. “I’m not sure what worries me more. That all of our pilot’s experience comes entirely from video games, or that the games are so accurate.”

“I’m not sure I want to know.” Onin stood, crossed to the front of the bridge, and leaned over to look at the pilot’s console. “How much longer ‘til we reach the depot?”

“About eight hours.” Tannin leaned back in his chair. “According to Chibi-chan’s map, we’re still at the edge of Kagoshi space.”

“Okay. I’m going to get some sleep.” Onin yawned and headed down the spiral staircase that led to the rest of the ship.

Kasai watched him go. He didn’t even look back at her. It was only a day or two ago that he’d kissed her and told her that he loved her no matter what she looked like. She sighed. He’d hardly paid any attention to her since then. Did he really mean it?

She shook her head. Onin was under a lot of pressure since they’d elected him captain, and they were flying into a trap. This wasn’t the right time for romance. Kasai bit the corner of her lip and glanced at the floor. Perhaps she’d better get some sleep, too. Kasai got up and headed for her room.

She flopped face-first down onto the bed and tried to hold back tears.

“Why am I even crying, anyway. Onin’s busy, we all might die. Get a grip.” Kasai took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Things would work out.

A knock sounded on the door. Kasai cracked an eye open. “Who is it?”

“It’s Saija. Um, can I come in?”

Kasai rolled over onto her side. “Sure. It’s your room too.”

The door cracked open. Saija peeked through the gap between the door and the doorframe for a moment, then slipped in and closed the door behind her. She took a breath and sat on the edge of Kasai’s bed.

“Um, do you want to talk about it?” Saija asked.


“Hey, I’m new to this whole ‘friends’ thing, so cut me some slack.” Saija looked away and sighed. “So. Uh, you were staring after Onin when he left the bridge, and it looked like you were crying when you left.”

Kasai debated whether or not to open up. She did want to talk about it, kind of, but she didn’t really know Saija all that well yet.

“Look,” Saija turned to face Kasai. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but you’re the first person in my whole life to ever be kind to me without wanting something back.” She looked down and picked at her fingernails. “I don’t know. I care about you.”

“Thanks, Saija.” Kasai reached out and took Saija’s hand. “I think I’m still weirded out by the wings and tail, and finding out that I’m half-dragon.” Kasai sighed. “Throughout my life, the monks were the only ones that haven’t abandoned me after finding out the truth about me. Now I have friends who really care, and it’s all a bit new for me, too.”

“Yeah, well—” Someone knocked on the door, and they both turned to look at it.

“Come in,” Kasai said.

The door opened and Amaryllis stepped in. Instead of her usual dress, she wore a pink t-shirt and matching pajama shorts. Her ears were partway down, and the tip of her tail flicked back and forth.

“Um, I’m not interrupting, am I?”

“Nope.” Kasai patted the bed. “Come on in and have a seat.”

“Thanks!” Amaryllis smiled and took a seat next to Kasai, careful to curl her tail around herself.

Kasai watched Amaryllis sit. “Can I ask a personal question?”

“Sure.” Amaryllis smiled. “Uh, that’s kinda why I’m here.”

Saija pointed at Amaryllis and raised an eyebrow. “You’re here to ask personal questions?”

“No.” Amaryllis giggled. “I saw the look on your face when you left the bridge, Kasai. I, uh, thought you might need someone to talk to. Seems Saija beat me to it.”

“Guys…” Kasai sniffed and wiped away a tear. “It’s great to have people still care after seeing you turn into a monster.”

“You’re not a monster!” Amaryllis and Saija said at the same time. They leaned over and pulled Kasai into a group hug.

“Having a tail makes you different, but not a monster.” Amaryllis batted Kasai’s face with her tail. “Onin knows that. He’s just under a lot of stress right now.”

“Yeah.” Kasai sighed. “I know. Just insecure, I guess. Thanks for caring.”

“Anytime,” Saija blushed and looked away.

“And now for the cheering up portion of the evening.” Amaryllis reached into her pockets and pulled out two decks of cards. “Anyone up for a game of Usagi Kyorinrin?”


Aiden tossed and turned on the couch in the common room where she was trying to sleep. She’d been restless ever since meeting the Gesarans. Not in a bad way, but it was like a memory was floating just outside her reach. Maybe the host did stand a chance to recover after all. She rolled over onto her back and did some deep breathing exercises. Sleep still eluded her, but she did settle into a restful state.

Light stabbed into Aiden’s eyes. She blinked and rolled over onto her side. Apparently she had fallen asleep at some point.


Aiden looked up. The blonde-haired male waved at her. What was his name again? “Tannin?”

“Yo.” He stumbled over to the counter and rummaged through a cupboard. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you but we’re about an hour out from the depot. Probably want to get ready.”

“Thanks.” Aiden sat up and yawned.

Three of the other girls entered and made their way over to a table, talking and laughing the whole way. The Nekotian—Amaryllis, was it?—rose and went over to the cupboards.

The dragongirl, Kasai, looked around, caught Aiden’s eye, and waved her over. “Aiden, please come eat with us!”

Aiden blinked a few times, then crossed the room and sat in an empty chair at the table. Kasai and Saija were talking about some game that Aiden wasn’t familiar with. After a moment, Amaryllis set a bowl of brown mush in front of her. Aiden poked at it with her spoon.

“It’s oatmeal. You’ll like it. I added extra sugar.”

Aiden scooped out a small amount and spooned it into her mouth. It was warm, sweet, and chewy. Possibly grain based. She’d never had anything like it before. Before she knew it she’d scarfed down a few more spoonfuls. Apparently this body was used to this type of food.

“So,” Kasai spun around in her chair to face Aiden. “Um, have you been able to contact the host yet?”

Aiden shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. You said you didn’t really know her, though?”

“Well, no.” Kasai twirled her hair around her index finger. “We didn’t get a chance to know before…”

Kasai’s voice trailed off, and she looked at the floor.

“We saw the moment the Natas possessed her.” Saija’s voice was soft, and she wrapped her arms around herself. “No one should have to go through that. I should know.”

Amaryllis sat in the chair next to Aiden. “We just wanted to let you know we’ll help any way we can.”

“Thanks.” Aiden took another spoonful of oatmeal. This group of Gesarans seemed overly friendly. Perhaps that was just because the others of their species that Aiden had seen were all possessed by Natas.

Aiden sighed and took another bite of oatmeal. “Can I ask a dumb question?”

“Sure.” Saija jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “With Tannin here, we’re used to those.”

Aiden smiled. “Nekotians are mostly carnivorous. This looks to be some sort of grain, so we must be omnivores, correct?”

“Yup.” Kasai nodded.

“Okay, good.” Aiden sighed. “The Kagoshi eat mostly minerals with a light sprinkling of tough vegetation. When I first inhabited this body, I wasn’t sure what to eat.”

Amaryllis smiled. “We’re pretty versatile. And feel free to ask us any other weird questions. It’s gotta be strange to be in a different body.”

Aiden looked at her fingers as she flexed them. “Usually it’s not, because there’s a host to merge with, so it’s new but familiar at the same time. This is different, and yeah, it’s a little unnerving.”

The ceiling beeped. Aiden looked up at it. “What was that?”

Chibi-chan appeared on the wall next to the door. “We’re almost at the destination, nyan! Pilot is requested on the bridge, nyan.”

“That’d be me!” Tannin jumped up from his chair and rushed out the door.


Tannin settled into the pilot’s chair and glanced at the controls. They were about five minutes out from the depot. He pressed a couple of buttons and leaned back in the chair. The A.I. did almost all of the work. Just pick a docking port, click the icon. Yeah, the others teased him, but it really was almost the same as in the Space Pirates games.

The ship approached the depot, and Tannin tapped the docking port on the screen. It lit up with a transparent green overlay. Tannin half-turned toward the stairwell, and heard the clang of the docking clamps secure them to the station.

“All right, we’re here.” He stood and stretched. “So are we just walking in or still space-walking over or whatnot?”

Aiden frowned and glanced down at her phone. She had a really pretty face. High cheekbones, pink lips, and her shoulder-length hair framed her face. Nice body, too, but not as sexy as Saija’s. Tannin blinked. This really wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. Best to distract himself before he started leering at his friends.

“So.” Tannin looked around. “Do we just go out the cargo bay, or do we have a plank, or…?”

Cerina rolled her eyes and turned away from him. That girl had no sense of humor. She was gonna give herself a stress-related apoplexy one of these days.

Aiden put her phone away and glanced around at the group. “I’d still say space-walking over to the cargo bay is our best bet. They have to have noticed our approach, and they’ll be expecting us to enter via the docking arm.”

“Sounds good.” Onin turned and led the way down the stairwell and out to the ship’s cargo bay.

Tannin stood back and let the others go before him. Kasai jumped up and stretched out a hand to Onin, who didn’t even notice. Tannin sighed. How oblivious could that guy be?

Tannin was the last one to enter the cargo bay. The others were already standing in front of a row of lockers. Everyone had picked out a locker, and were examining baggy looking space suits. Tannin opened the locker next to Onin’s.

A one-piece space-suit made of a sheer iridescent fabric hung on a hanger inside the locker. Tannin took it out and held it in front of him. It looked to be about three sizes too large for him. Tannin frowned and looked up. Everyone else was holding their suits up as well. All of the suits appeared to be the same size.

“One size fits all?” Tannin stretched the suite out as wide as it could go. “I think I could fit three of me in here. Ooo, wait, I’ve got it! This is a circus ship!”

Cerina turned to face him, frowned, and raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“It all makes sense now!” Tannin pointed to the walls and flopped the suit. “The colors, these ginormous suits… They’re uniforms for the circus!”

“What?” Aiden’s head whipped up. “These are standard Union of Free Allied Planets space suits.”

“Standard?” Tannin frowned. “The food in the galley here isn’t good enough to make everyone fit into these things.”

Aiden rolled her eyes. “It’s self-adjusting. You slip it on—” She reached down and pulled on the bottom of her shirt.

“Hey, wait!” Aiden’s navel came into view and Kasai leapt in front of her. “You can’t change out here in front of the guys!”

Aiden cocked her head to the side and her brow furrowed. “Why not? We need to change into these suites for the mission.”

“Because.” Amaryllis stretched out her staff and a wall of opaque ice formed blocking off the view of the girls. “The boys will need to concentrate for this mission. Go ahead, now.”

Tannin took a step forward at the sound of sliding fabric coming from the other side of the ice wall. He choked and jerked to a stop as the collar of his shirt was grabbed from behind. He looked over his shoulder to see Onin glare at him.

“Sorry.” Tannin rubbed his throat. “Shiny ice wall.”

Onin raised an eyebrow at him, but let go of his shirt.

“Okay, you can remove the ice now.” Aiden’s voice drifted over the top of the wall. “They need to see this part.”

“Are you guys done changing?” Kasai asked.

“Almost.” Onin stripped down and slipped into the baggy suit. “Hurry up, Tannin.”

Tannin shrugged and followed suit. The material was smooth, and had a little give to it, yet didn’t feel like it was going to shred if he tugged on it too hard. He slid his arms into the sleeves. Yup, it was about three sizes too big–at least.

“I’m going to trip if I try walking in this potato sack,” Tannin said.

The ice wall dissolved in a puff of steam. Tannin waved his hand in front of his face. When the steam cleared, he could see Aiden was holding the collar of her suit.

“Hold it here–” Aiden pinched the right side of the suit’s collar with her right hand. “–and the other half here–” she grasped the left side with her other hand. “Now, see those metal tabs?”

Tannin held each side of the front of the suit out where he could see it. The left side of the collar had a small metal disc on the inside. The right had one on the outside.

“Press and hold those together.” Aiden suited actions to words.

About a second later the front seam of her suit sealed itself together, and it shrank down to hug her curves. Tannin followed her lead, and his suit shrunk to fit as well. The suit was now skin-tight. Tannin flexed an arm. It wasn’t constricting at all, he could still move freely.

“Nice.” Tannin bent over to touch his toes. “This is much better. But how’s it a space suit? I still need to breathe.”

“Tap the back of the collar three times.” Aiden said.

“What, do we get a wish granted?” Cerina crossed her arms over her chest.

“Ooo! Magic suit!” Tannin tapped the back of his neck.

Transparent crystal grew from the collar of the suit and encased his head. There had to be some sort of air supply, since he could still breath. Cerina’s lips were moving, but he couldn’t hear her. Perhaps it was a magic suit, it’d made Cerina a lot easier to be around.

A rainbow-hued translucent heads-up display popped up in front of him, scrolled a list of stuff too fast for Tannin to see, and minimized down to an icon in the lower-right corner of his field of vision.

“It looks like your suit’s online, nyan! Do you want to enable external comms, nyan?”

“Chibi-chan?” Tannin looked around.

“Yes, nyan?”

“Are you in the suit, too?”

“No, I’m still in the ship, nyan. But the suits are linked to the ship, so I help manage them, nyan.”

“Makes sense.” Tannin shrugged and slipped the straps of his backpack over his shoulders. “Sure, turn on external comms.”

“Okay, is everyone ready?” Aiden’s voice sounded a lot closer through the suit.

“I think I’ll stay here with the ship,” Ryogin said.

Onin nodded. “Good idea. The rest of us will head over to the depot and capture or kill that Natas.”

Ryogin saluted him and left the cargo bay.

“Oh, sounds so easy.” Cerina put a hand on her hip. “And do we have any sort of plan?”

“Um–” Kasai stretched out a hand to Cerina. “You did want to stop him, right?”

“Yeah. But it works better if we have a plan.”

Onin sighed. “Isn’t that the truth. Well, we’ve all studied the map of the depot, right?”

Everyone nodded. Tannin grinned. The layout was simple enough.

“So, we head over there–” Onin pointed out the bay door in the direction of the depot. “–we find suit man, and all gang up on him.”

Cerina shrugged. “Eh. Better than some plans we’ve had. Let’s go get it over with.”

“Yay, optimism!” Tannin pumped his fist in the air.

Cerina shot him a dirty look over her shoulder.

Onin punched a command into the panel on the wall. The main lights in the bay went out, and red lights came on.

“Cargo Bay depressurizing, nyan!”

After a moment or two, the large cargo door clanged and cracked open. In another moment, Tannin was staring at the gray metal underside of the depot. A white-speckled starfield framed the bottom of the depot. Tannin stared at it. It was even better than the graphics in Space Pirates.

“Gravity reduced, nyan. You are clear to exit, nyan.”

Aiden pushed off the deck with one foot and floated out to the station. “Follow me, everyone. The suits have micro-thrusters, but we shouldn’t need them if we make a soft jump over to the station.”

Tannin let everyone else go before he ran off the edge of the cargo deck. Aiden was right, they just floated straight over to the station, then magnets or something in their boots caught and held them to the station’s hull. Tannin grinned and followed the others across the station’s hull.

The view with the stars below him was incredible. And the combination of weightlessness and the distorted sense of direction–this was better than an amusement park ride. Tannin sighed as they approached the depot. The hull didn’t look smooth from here. Multiple plates were riveted together to make up the hull of the space station. Conduit, ladders, antennas and various access ports littered the surface. Tannin grabbed the ladder closest to him and followed the others across the hull.

Aiden stopped at an access hatch that looked about three people wide. Once the others had gathered around her she opened a small panel recessed into the frame of the hatch and typed on a control panel. The hatch hissed and slid open. Tannin peered inside. It was deeper than it was wide, and a matching pressure door was on the far wall.

Tannin followed the others inside. Once everyone had entered, Aiden activated another control panel, and the outer hatch slid shut. An overhead light came on as soon as the hatch closed, and in a few seconds a panel above the interior hatch lit up green.

Aiden tapped the back of her collar three times, and the transparent crystal helmet melted down into her collar. The others repeated the motion.

Tannin grinned at Onin. “Now we bust some Natas heads!”

“What?” Cerina narrowed her eyes at Tannin. “They’re non-corporeal beings! How are you going to ‘bust some heads’?”

Tannin rolled his eyes. She had to be messing with him. Even he knew what a metaphor was.

“Knock it off, you two.” Onin pointed to the door. “We need to go through there, sneak up on the Natas, and take him out.”

“Right.” Tannin nodded.

Aiden pressed the door control, and the inner pressure hatch slid open. Tannin leaned over Onin’s shoulder to peer into the next room. It was brightly lit. The walls were pure white, and the room was big enough to comfortably house the Iridescent Potato.

“That’s odd…” Aiden’s voice trailed off.

“What’s odd?” Kasai looked over Onin’s other shoulder into the large room. Amaryllis and Saija crowded up behind them.

“This is a cargo bay.” Aiden said.

Cerina tapped her foot. “And?”

“Where’s all the cargo?” Saija asked.

“My point exactly.” Aiden took a step into the bay and examined the empty walls from the doorway. “This should be full of supplies for various colonies, and the lights should be off.”

“It’s a trap, obviously.” A woman’s voice echoed from the other side of the cargo bay.

Tannin pulled a rubber chicken from his pack and held it in front of himself. To his left, Onin generated a servitor.

Onin took a step forward. “And who are you?”

“Forgive me for not introducing myself.” The woman stepped into the cargo bay out of a doorway on the opposite end of the room. Her hair was black, wavy, and shoulder length. She wore a high-collared purple dress that dipped down to show an impressive amount of cleavage. The bottom of the dress fell to just above her knee on the right, and down to her ankle on the left. “I am Arjuketa; the Puppet Master of The Seven.”

Saija gasped behind them.

“Heard of her?” Onin asked.

“Yeah.” Saija swallowed audibly. “I don’t know any details, but the name is familiar. She’s supposed to be one of the highest ranked Natas.”

Tannin cocked his head to the side. “Well, she’s dressed like an anime character.”

“What, really?” Cerina crowded through the door into the cargo bay. “Sheesh. Another half-naked big-boobed chick.” Her shoulders sagged. “My life is turning into a crappy harem anime.”

“Aww, don’t worry.” Tannin clapped a hand on Cerina’s shoulder. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. If this were a harem anime all the girls would be all over Onin, and Ryogin and I wouldn’t be here. Also, they seem too intent on killing us.”

Cerina sighed and held her head in her hands. “I had to ask…”

Arjuketa raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. I was led to believe you would be formidable foes. Instead, I get to deal with a group of idiots.” She turned to Saija and snorted. “Well, in that company…”

“Dang.” Tannin clapped Saija on the shoulder. “They really don’t like you.”

“Mmm.” Saija nodded, sniffed, and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Eh, don’t let them bug you.” Tannin gave her a quick side-hug. “Despite what they say, they’re afraid of you. If they really meant all that crap, they’d just ignore you.”

Amaryllis smiled. “That’s really insightful.”

“Especially for someone who blames every slightly weird thing he sees on mushrooms,” Cerina said.

Arjuketa pinched the bridge of her nose. “Are we going to fight now, or are you idiots going to blather some more?”

“Sorry about that.” Tannin twirled his rubber chicken. “I’ll take this one. You guys get the others.”

“Hah!” Arjuketa raised her right hand and spread her fingers. “It’s not going to be that easy.”

Cerina stumbled forward. “Hey, what the–” She swung a fist at Tannin’s temple. “I’m moving and I can’t control my body!”

“Sure.” Tannin intercepted the punch with the chicken and backpedaled. “I’m not that dumb. You’ve wanted to punch me for a while now. But this isn’t the best time.”

Arjuketa giggled. Tannin risked a look in her direction. She covered her mouth with her hand and giggled more while she stared intently at Cerina.

“Tannin! It’s not Cerina, it’s Arjuketa!” Saija pointed at the Natas. “She said she was the puppet master, she’s controlling her!”

“Very good.” Arjuketa clapped slowly. “Ten points for Saija. Now–” she lifted her other hand “–can you fight all your friends without hurting them?”

Kasai, Onin, and Saija lurched toward him. Tannin spun around and weaved back and forth avoiding blows. In theory, he should be able to incapacitate his friends without seriously injuring them. He dodged left as Kasai’s fist flew past his face.

“No!” Saija screamed and dropped to her knees. “I’m done being controlled by you things!”

Tannin dropped to a crouch and rolled between Cerina and Onin to land next to Saija.

“Anything I can help with?”

“I can’t hold out much longer. Hit me in the carotid artery. Hard.”

“Right.” Tannin kicked Onin in the gut. “Sorry!”

He swung the chicken into the side of Saija’s neck, wincing as he did so. She crumpled. Tannin fell forward, caught her, and lowered her head to the deck. Then quickly rolled to the side as Kasai’s fist slammed into where he’d just been lying.

Tannin jumped to his feet. Onin, Kasai, and Cerina were circling around him. Saija was on the ground, still breathing. Where was Amaryllis? Tannin took a step back and looked around. She was still in the entryway to the airlock, knelt down with her eyes closed. At least she wasn’t fighting him, too.

Kasai rushed in and swung a high-kick at his head. Tannin blocked with his chicken and pivoted, diverting the blow and throwing Kasai off balance. Before he could resume a defensive stance, Onin’s fist connected with Tannin’s back. Tannin stumbled forward and dropped into a roll. He turned that into a forward flip and landed a few yards away.

This wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped. Tannin shrugged out of his backpack, pulled out another chicken, then tossed the backpack to the side.

“Upgrade to dual-wield!” Tannin swung the chickens around into a guard position. “Come at me, bro.”

Onin charged in, feinted with his right, and swung for Tannin’s gut. Tannin deflected the punch with a chicken and spun around trying to get behind Onin. He frowned. Why wasn’t Onin using his servitors?

Tannin swung for Onin’s neck, but his friend ducked down and aimed a sweeping kick and Tannin’s legs. Tannin jumped over the kick and jabbed down. Onin rolled to the side and leapt back to his feet.

Kasai was behind him now. Tannin held a chicken between himself and each of his opponents. Disabling them might be harder than he’d hoped. Something else nagged at the back of his brain, like he’d forgotten something. Tannin shook his head. Worry about that later. He swung a chicken to deflect a punch from Kasai, then one from Onin. They were attacking in unison now.

Tannin wove back and forth between the two, dodging punches and kicks, keeping them away from Saija and Amaryllis, and looking for an opening to counterattack. He’d found a few openings, but his goal was to try to knock them out, not hurt or kill them. Onin and Kasai were fighting purely offensively. Arjuketa apparently didn’t care if her pawns got hurt.

He’d have to concentrate on one of them at a time. Tannin sent a flurry of strikes at Onin. That should draw Kasai in. He leaned into his gift to reinforce his suit around his ribs, shifted his weight to his right leg, and left an opening. Any decent fighter would see it for the trap that it was, but he was betting that Arjuketa wouldn’t care.

Sure enough, Kasai jumped at him and swung for his ribs. Tannin put all his strength into a kick. Kasai’s punch landed, but so did his kick. Kasai went sprawling across the room. He turned to Onin and swung his chickens. Onin didn’t even try to block, but kept right on punching. Tannin whirled to the side and slammed reinforced chickens into Onin’s forearms. That’d leave some bruises, but it should slow him down a little in the meantime.

Tannin deflected a few more punches, then finally found the opening he was looking for. He swung his chicken into the side of Onin’s neck. Onin’s eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the floor.

“Sorry about that.”

Tannin rolled his shoulders and glanced around the room. Kasai was on the floor next to Amaryllis. Amaryllis was still kneeled down, but her left hand was resting on Kasai’s temple.

“I’m just barely able to hold her off.” Amaryllis’ voice was just above a whisper. “Reinforce your thoughts, and you should have no trouble keeping her out.”

“Right.” Tannin nodded.

He turned to face Arjuketa and raised a chicken. Arjuketa smirked and lifted her hand. Tannin took a step toward her. Arjuketa frowned and stretched out her other hand. Something buzzed in the back of Tannin’s brain. He focused on the mission. He needed to stop Arjuketa and save his friends. The buzzing in the back of his mind faded. He took another step forward. Arjuketa’s eyes grew wide and she took a step backward.

“I don’t think so.” Tannin ran at her.

Arjuketa screamed and waved one hand behind her. A wispy black portal swirled open behind her.

“The next time we meet, you’ll face my full power.” She turned and leapt through the portal, which snapped closed behind her.

Tannin let out a sigh. “Why do they always say that? Shouldn’t she have led with her best attack?”

Amaryllis groaned and collapsed over backward. “That was intense! No wonder the others couldn’t resist her.”

Tannin scratched his head. “Not really. It was a little irritating, but–wait, the others!” He whipped his head back and forth. Onin, Kasai, Saija, Amaryllis. Ryogin was back at the ship. “Wait, where’d Cerina and Aiden go?”

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