The story so far:
I had no idea how much time had passed, where I was, anything. I was seated fairly comfortably, my back leaning against something soft. I heard a hiss. Felt the ground shift beneath me.
I was in the box.
A dull sensation permeated the air; it took me a minute to identify the waves around me. Drowsiness. Contentment. Numbing. The same cocktail we’d found in the boxes, the mix that had kept the victims in stasis.
Somehow, I’d woken up anyway.
I wrote it off as luck and dissolved the waves, clearing the way for me to think. I felt the soft padding around me, figured out where the opening was. Could I even open it from the inside? I wasn’t sure, but wasn’t ready to find out yet. Not until I had some idea of what was on the other side.
No sounds came from outside the box. Was that because I was alone, or because the box was soundproof? I vaguely remembered something from one of the reports about the padding stifling sound, but I couldn’t recall the details.
My answer came in the form of a muffled voice. It wasn’t completely soundproof. And I wasn’t alone.
A higher voice responded. I couldn’t make out the voices clearly, but I had no question about who the second person was. May-she-ever-be-cursed-Willsey.
Last time, I’d been taken off guard. I hadn’t had much time to formulate an attack. It had been hasty, unplanned. No wonder it had failed.
This time I had an advantage. She expected me to still be in stasis, trapped in her little scheme. Her new source of magic power. I had the element of surprise. Not only that, but I had time to plan it properly. She wasn’t catching me off guard again.
If I really was her new source, then she’d be opening the box at some point. Soon? I wasn’t sure. But that was my best shot. If I found a way to open the box myself, I wouldn’t know where exactly she was. It would take a moment to locate her, to target her. Possibly enough time for her to brace herself.
But if I waited until she opened the box, then I’d know exactly where she was. I could be ready.
I huddled down and focused. Prepared. As soon as that box opened…
The voices outside abruptly quieted. I listened, waiting.
The latch on the box clicked.
I built up my energy, braced it.
The lid opened. I jumped to my feet, sending out a fast and vicious wave. It was perfect. Flawless. I saw bodies tumble away from me, swept away by the intensity of helplessness, weakness, and humiliation I’d thrown at them.
Dum. Dee. Grif.
Panic hit my throat, hard and sharp. I turned to see her fluttering several feet away, braced neatly by a layer of shields.
She’d known it was coming. Somehow she’d been tipped off. I cursed silently as I dropped back into the box, barely dodging the blast she sent my way in return.
“Clever,” she called out sweetly. “Very, very clever. And somehow strong enough to break through my waves! That’s certainly new.”
Another blast echoed over the top of the box. It started to curl inward, but I blocked it out. Still, it pounded heavily against me. It took all my focus to keep it off.
“I chose well, I see. I had my doubts about giving up my whole collection to come after you, but clearly it was worth it. I think you’ll provide more than enough to make up for that warehouse.” She chuckled, sounding closer now. “Based on the little taste I already got, I think you’ll provide enough to make up three warehouses’ worth.”
My hand flew to the back of my neck. Felt the bruise, the fresh scab. I cursed again.
Another blast. This one nearly squashed me flat into the bottom of the box.
Waiting. She’d give me an opening. She might be clever, but she was still an idiot. And idiots always left holes. I just had to wait for it to appear.
“Still, you are quite a bit stronger than even I realized. I’ll have to come up with something new to make sure we don’t have any further problems.”
Another blast. This one was different. I sniffed it out almost immediately; she was toying with cooperation now. Trying to get me to hand myself over, apparently.
And there was the hole.
I put a hand up. “You’re right. You’re stronger than me. I surrender.” That’s the sort of thing weak people said, right? I hoped she bought it.
There was no answer from outside the box. No new attack, either.
I turned myself to face the spot I was pretty sure she was by then. I’d only have one shot at this.
I stood. She was hovering only feet from my face. I saw her shield, but I was ready for it this time.
“Put your hands—” she started, but she never got a chance to finish.
I was inside her shields in a matter of seconds. She tried to put a block in front of her forehead, but it was too late. I was already there, already in.
I knew exactly where to find the control center this time. She’d blocked it up well, but it wouldn’t take me long.
She was faster this time, though. I already felt her around me, struggling to force me back out.
I saw it before I ran into it this time. Her wall. I backtracked, slid through another portion of her mind, trying to find a new way in, but she’d already beat me to it. Her defenses were flying up faster than I could move.
She was taking this seriously. And I was running out of options, fast.
New presences entered her mind. Her assistants. They were rushing to her aid, to help drag me back out. I felt them grasping at me, yanking me backwards.
If they got me back out now, I’d never have another chance. I’d be stuck in that box for the rest of my life. She’d get away.
I couldn’t let that happen.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed harder, breaking through blocks, tumbling my way through. I had to find some flaw, some weakness. Some way into the control center.
A particularly strong tug drew me back. I held on with all my might, but I was losing ground fast.
There had to be a way. There had to be something. There had to be…
I felt him there, trying to drag me out. Her puppet, helpless to her control. But maybe there was another way.
The Maker said I should be creative. With any luck…
I spun around. Grabbed onto Grif with all my might. And climbed his trail right back out of Willsey, across the room, and straight through his thick forehead.
I heard her screech behind me. I had to work fast. She’d have to disentangle from the others before she could come after me, but it wouldn’t take her long.
Luckily for me, this was the last thing she’d expected. No blocks. No walls. There was his control center, lit up with her energy like a beacon, beckoning me on in.
I found him there. Not the puppet him, but the real him. He was still weakly struggling against her control.
I found her seal in a matter of moments. There was a network of defenses in place, ready to drop at the slightest trigger, but those were designed to prevent anyone from entering in the first place. I was already in. It was too late.
I dug around the seal, broke through the bindings with ease. It lurched threateningly, but I parked my own protections around it. Piece of cake. She’d assumed I’d be so thoroughly fooled by her little puppet act that I wouldn’t investigate closely. She hadn’t made as thorough a trap in Grif’s mind as she had with the former Dum. And why should she? She could easily withdraw from his mind at any point, leaving behind no evidence of where she’d gone. There was no risk of being caught.
With the seal gone, it was easy to dissolve the rest of her influence over Grif’s mind. He joined me, relief washing through him.
“Now!” I shouted, hoping he was at least smart enough to know what I was talking about.
He followed me back across the dissolving puppet link—through his mind, back across the room, back into hers.
She screeched again.
Her mind had turned into a madhouse of traps, blocks, and seals. She was wildly tossing them up left and right, frantically trying to regain control of the situation. Dee and Dum were still trying to work their way back in. Useless. That’s what you get for relying on Urnets.
Grif panicked at the tangle, drew back, but I pulled him onwards. She was panicking. That was good for us. If idiots leave holes, panicked idiots leave even bigger ones.
She had split herself again, more times than I could count. Like the snakes on Medusa’s head, she came at us from a hundred directions at once, clawing, fighting, struggling to drive us back out.
But I’d found my foothold, and I wasn’t about to let go.
“What do we do?” Grif shouted. He was starting to panic. Idiot.
She saw his weakness. Targeted him.
And that was when I saw it.
A great big seal, right behind the multi-headed monstrosity she’d become. Complete immobilization. And it wasn’t quite finished yet. She’d still been making it when Grif distracted her.
I shoved through one block. Grabbed another and used it to push myself up. Several of the Willseys grabbed at me, trying to push me back, but I could tell her focus was still primarily on Grif. She figured I didn’t have anywhere to go, anyway. She hadn’t seen the gaping hole she’d left open for me.
I reached the seal. Finished the weaving quickly, adding one little touch of my own.
“Go, now!” I shouted, drawing back out as fast as I could. I felt Grif stumbling his way along behind me.
Willsey chased after us, fighting all the way, but I ignored her. Had to get out. Fast. Now.
I slid out through her forehead with plenty of time to spare. Slid my way back into my own body. Grif struggled, fought, and finally made it back out just in time.
Willsey built up a wave, her face twisted in fury as she raised her arms to attack.
Grif shouted and cowered, covering his head with both arms.
I rolled my eyes. “Get up, Grif.”
He peeked out from under one arm. Stared with wide eyes as Willsey’s frozen form dropped to the ground.
“You… you killed her.”
I rolled my eyes again as I climbed out of the box, brushing a variety of ash and debris from my clothes. “She’s in stasis.”
“How… how did you…”
I didn’t bother to answer. I turned instead to Dee and Dum. As I’d suspected, they hadn’t managed to untangle themselves quickly enough to escape before the seal was triggered. They’d been caught by the immobilization as well.
I smiled. This turned out to be a good day after all.