Akaila and Jagra searched the facility from top to bottom, but found no trace of the mysterious fourth man, and found that Michael was affected by the same memetic effect as Marcus. Tulpa hadn't been working there long enough to bother learning people's names or identities in the first place, and as a result they were able to explain the situation to him, coupled with a brief demonstration of its effects on Michael to convince him it wasn't a trick or some complex prank to play on the intern.
They decided to remain vigilant, but beyond that they couldn't do anything about it. Two days passed uneventfully while they stayed at the research facility, waiting on the insurance claim to be processed. Helma never appeared like he said he would, but given his abilities he could have come and went without being noticed.
At the dawn of the third day, Michael arrived with exciting news. Marcus's findings turned out to be accurate, and he'd prepared an experiment to put them to use. Everyone was asked to gather in the main laboratory, around a quite sizable array of magnets and crystals. The majority of the facility's power grid was entirely dumped into the machine, and by time they entered it was already humming with energy.
Marcus sat proudly at the control panel, “There's a whole load of technobabble I could wow you with, but I'll save time and spare ego and put it in lamens, I'm going to attempt to do with a machine what Akaila did with her mind. We're going to attempt to push a batch of radioactive molecules into a parallel universe, then pull it back out again. By observing the radiation from the isotope, we'll be able to tell not only when it makes the jump, but how much time passes, in case it's a non-euclidean plane. In order to get accurate readings, we're using a very volatile isotope, so get behind the radiation barrier before we begin.”
Jagra, Sapien, and Akaila got behind a foot-thick sheet of glass and Tulpa entered wearing a radiation suit, holding a small lead wafer on a pair of long tongs, a tiny pellet in the middle, glowing orange hot from its own radiation. He slowly moved it to the magnets and a large ring began spinning among them, mist wafting off of it as it was drenched in liquid nitrogen, turning it superconductive and lifting the pellet into the air.
He made a hasty retreat to the radiation barrier and Marcus continued the startup sequence. Soon the ring was a blur and the pellet was spinning rapidly in the center. Neutron reflectors moved into position and the isotope began heating up further, soon becoming a white-hot glowing blob. The heat of the globule and the cold of the superconductor caused a steadily building air current, growing stronger and stronger and starting to distort the air around it.
The current reached critical mass and a bank of capacitors began charging, ready to fire the pulse to send it through. As Marcus began the countdown, however, there was a sound of gunfire from the hallway outside. Marcus called over the whirring of the machinery, “I can't shut it down at this point, Tulpa, find out what that wa-”
He was cut off before he could finish by Helma stumbling through the doorway, one wing torn to shreds by claw marks, and a bullet hole in the opposing shoulder, “You've all got to flee, now!”
Tulpa pulled a shotgun from under a table, aiming it at him, “And why's that?”
“There was a power shift in the syndicate, they're killing off the Edor family and all of our accounts, that includes you!”
A half-feral jackal ran into the room, lunging at him, but was shot out of the air by a volley of buckshot, then reduced to a mangled, quivering mess by three more rounds from Tulpa. Right behind it was a man in full-body armor. Tulpa fired at him, but the buckshot just buried itself in Kevlar and ricocheted off steel.
The man brought up an assault rifle and fired back, but Tulpa jumped out of the way, hiding behind the radiation shield. The volley of bullets hit the capacitor bank and they began violently shorting out, sending electricity arching across the entire room. Marcus's entire control booth was wreathed in unpenned energy and only his screams gave evidence he was still there. As the capacitors ran dry, the lightning subsided, and a charred corpse fell onto the control panel, dials and levers being spun and moved randomly, causing the machine to completely destabilize.
The assassin brought his aim to Helma, but started struggling to keep his gun on target. A strong wind started pulling towards the magnetic array, and multiple metal objects across the room started lifting from their mounts, flying through the air and slamming into it, being reduced to a torus of churning shrapnel.
Tulpa's shotgun and the assassin's rifle both flew into the grinder, being reduced to nothing but fragments in seconds. Tulpa braced himself against the wind, but the assassin's own armor was beginning to drag him across the floor.
Both Akaila and Helma were crying out in agony, their amplifiers being drawn towards it, but their mere ounces of titanium and mythril weren't producing nearly as much pull as the fifty pounds of steel on the man's body armor.
Without warning, the mysterious fourth member of the research team arrived, running through the door and ramming into him, knocking him off his feet before grabbing onto something himself. As the assassin was sent flying through the air, the fourth man pulled a necklace from under his clothes, a glowing pendant on it. He flipped a switch and it began emitting an ear-splitting beeping noise.
Blood and bones were sent churning in every direction from the mangled assassin hitting the vortex like a blender with the lid off, and the sheer intake of mass expanded the torus until it touched the globule in the middle. In an instant, it was grounded out against the magnets and crystals, exploding and sending shrapnel in all directions.
The grinder of debris was gone, but the magnets remained, and now there was a very distinct void hovering in the middle of them, a black disk, sucking air in with all the potency of space itself. The pull of wind was getting stronger and stronger, and eventually the very objects they were mooring themselves to were broken loose, sending several of them spinning into the abyss.
Sapien hung on for dear life, but she was inevitably drawn through. She felt herself being pulled apart from all directions. The air was sucked out of her lungs, she'd have passed out if not for the searing pain of her blood boiling to keep her alert, though through her distorted and darkening vision, the things she saw made no sense at all, she could see flavors and smell space, taste thoughts and touch sounds, every sensation was shorted out and without meaning.
Through the encroaching void, she could barely make out points of light in the distance, a starry night sky. It occurred to her she was looking at space, somehow suspended in nothingness. Her last waning vision was a large creature slithering among the lights before everything went black.
As her senses started coming weakly back, she heard faint, distant voices. She struggled to make them out, but then suddenly heard Akaila's, clear and distinct, “Hello, is anyone there?”
Sapien tried to reply, but her throat wouldn't respond, she couldn't even draw breath, so she replied in thought and hoped Akaila was able to hear it, “I'm here, I'm alive, I think.”
“What the hell happened?”
“I don't know. I can't move...I can't feel anything either.”
“Neither can I.”
“Are we dead?”
“I think we are. If this is being dead, then being dead sucks.”
“Wait, listen, the voices, I think I can make them out.”
They both quieted their thoughts and strained to listen, and the two voices became clearer, one male, one female.
“...Really, you're fine. Quit worrying about it.”
“But I fired the beacon at max power, I know it was panic, but a committee won't see it that way.”
“You're right, they won't, because it wasn't panic. The situation warranted it.”
“The situation warranted a class four distress beacon? How?”
“That gateway was unstable and expanding fast, if your beacon hadn't called my attention to it, that entire reality would have unraveled, and more agents than you would have been lost to the void.”
“Speaking of lost people, what about the four that came through with me?”
“The dwarf and the dragon endured the void with survivable injuries, but I had to use some drastic measures to save the wolf and the fox.”
“What kind of drastic?”
“Look for yourself, they've been listening to us for the last few seconds.”
Sapien mustered a strong thought, “You can see us? How? Where are we? What's going on?”
The female of the two voices came closer and spoke softly, “Don't strain yourself. You were exposed to the void without any shielding. It's a miracle I was able to keep so much as your souls intact, let alone any remains of your bodies.”
Akaila spoke up, “So we are dead then.”
The voice chuckled slightly, “Not quite, but you came very close. There was less than half of each of you that could be saved by time I got there. I was forced to merge your souls together to keep them from each breaking apart. I'll give you your senses back so you can see, but I need you both to promise me you won't flail about. The body I gave you will be durable enough to even handle the void when it's ready, but right now it's fragile, the glue hasn't dried yet, so to speak.”
They both calmed themselves and responded as one, “Okay, do it.”
Proper sound returned first, a crackling fireplace, then smell, burning hickory and incense, then touch, lips upon their own, and finally vision. A shapely human face was directly before Sapien's eyes, save for a pair of horns on the brow, and the oddity of her own eyes, swirling violet pools of energy.
She found herself gazing directly into them hypnotically, unable to look away. The swirls seemed to be getting larger and closer, stronger, she started to feel like she'd actually be sucked into them until the woman blinked and the trance was broken.
Akaila saw all of these images as well, but they felt somehow distant, like images in a dream, not seen with her own eyes, but no sooner than her focus shifted to perceiving the room around her, she suddenly became incredibly aware of every single sound and noise. She could hear them, yes, but she could also feel them. Every sound brought with it a vibration that might as well have been touch on her own skin.
Skin. Not fur, skin. She moved to try examining her own body and found herself to be incredibly flexible. Her arms and legs seemed to not have any joints in them anymore, and the bulk of her body felt like it was nestled inside a very close, very warm bed.
Sapien shivered as she felt cold air on her back, and Akaila was startled by her bed suddenly vibrating. The woman only chuckled again, “As I'm sure you're noticing, one of you is now living inside the other. I had to improvise to keep you both alive, but I think I did a decent enough job, what do you think of it?”
She moved away and a body length mirror was brought before them, but Sapien's eyes didn't go to the mirror, they went to the woman. Her face was human enough, but the horns curved back around her hairline in a decidedly demonic way, and everything below the neck was anything but human. A dozen arms hung at her sides, and a dozen breasts adorned her chest. On her back, fuzed to the arms themselves, were several complex wings, still massive even in their folded state. Where her hips would be, her body instead flared out to twice as wide, becoming a massive snake's body, periodically adorned with massive purple gemstones, pulsing in a heartbeat. Looking at them was equally as calming and hypnotic as her eyes.
Eventually, Sapien pulled her gaze away from the snake maiden to see her own reflection. She was still a vixen, for the most part, but she was far taller and more robust. Her petite vulpine traits now had a tint of wolven bulk to them, and her bright orange fur was now charcoal and black, and on several portions of her body were glowing red patterns, pulsing in heartbeat just like the snake woman's, even her eyes had a glow to them, but a piercing, almost glaring glow, even though it was her own gaze she was looking at, it made her blood run cold staring at the two slit-pupiled crimson orbs.
She saw something slithering behind her and caught herself halfway through a reflexive jump, remembering the caution not to strain the body quite yet. As she looked at the objects more carefully, she realized they were part of her, though moving of their own accord. Four violet tentacles, adorned with three-jawed mouths on the ends.
Akaila's words came to her faintly, sounding just as shocked as Sapien was, “That's me...that's why I feel so flexible...that's why I can't see right...”
The woman responded, a little saddened, “Yes, it is you...I...I didn't have a lot of material to work with.”
Sapien cautiously approached her, the caution born more out of the fact she was a full foot taller now than out of any actual fear, and embraced the woman, holding her tightly, “You don't need to apologize for saving our lives.”
Akaila added in, “I'll just have to get used to it, I guess. I seem to have echolocation now, so that could be handy.”
She smiled and hugged back with all twenty-plus arms, “I'm glad. You can call me Veronica, by the way.”
Sapien took a look around and noted where they were. It was a very nicely decorated room with stone architecture, clearly ancient but well-maintained. There were windows, but no light came through them, there was only a saturated blackness outside, not even starlight came through, and simply looking at the inky blackness was somehow giving her motion sickness. Her focus went from the windows to the furnishings and she saw many bookshelves and framed works of art, and a large fireplace. Sitting there was the mysterious fourth man.
It was still his face, but his skin was now red and there were a pair of bat's wings behind his back. She narrowed her now glowing eyes at him and she could smell the twinge of panic her new gaze sent shivering through him as she spoke, “So he worked for you then?”
She looked back and forth between them and responded, “Keely is one of several agents the Abyss put in place to monitor the fractured planes. You should be thanking him, if he hadn't fired that distress beacon, you and everyone from that plane of reality would be scattered across a dozen dimensions and destroyed irrecoverably.”
“You mean the whole universe, destroyed?”
“Yes. Normally the fabric of spacetime is thick enough to handle a little tear hear and there, but that gateway opened on a spot that was already weak and cross-braced against other realms, and it was like pulling a seam out of a dress, the entire thing was starting to unravel. I put a quick patch on it, then grabbed everyone I could that had been pulled through.”
“So we're not in our own reality right now?”
“No, not in the slightest, you're inside me.”
She blinked and Veronica smirked, “I'm a goddess. You're talking to my corporeal body, but my true form is all around you, and this castle is suspended inside it, I am my own self-contained plane of reality, so I have a place I can go to when I need privacy.”
Sapien looked down at her feet for a moment, then glanced at one of Akaila's tentacle tips which was looking back at her, then sighed, “Is there any way to send us back to our own world?”
“At the moment? no. That reality is being held together with glue, string, and wishful thinking right now. It's torn right at the fourth dimension. If I were to dump you back in from this side, I'd have to go forward or back by at least a century to avoid breaking it completely, and even then there'd be significant risk. The only way you could possibly get back there would be to go to a neighboring realm and come in from that side. And since all of my power is on this side, you'd be reliant on a local power-source. To put it bluntly, your reality can't handle me. If I so much as touch it outside of a mortal body, it'll be completely annihilated.”
Sapien sighed and collapsed to her knees. Akaila coiled a tentacle on one arm, attempting to comfort her, and spoke mentally to them both, “Even in this demonic body, we need to get back. The syndicate was going through a restructuring, if somebody doesn't step in, a lot of innocents will get caught in the crossfire.”
Sapien whimpered, “Assuming the island's even still there...they're probably all dead, my friends, my parents, Marcus...all dead.”
Veronica wrapped her coils around Sapien, lifting her from the floor and carrying her into her many arms, wiping away the tears at the edges of her eyes, “It's still there. When I stopped the tear, it was no more than a few feet across. Anyone who wasn't in the immediate area should still be alive and well.”
Akaila commented, “That's her parents at least, but we know Marcus is dead, it was his corpse falling on the control panel that caused the tear in the first place.”
She grimaced at that, “At the very least, if he died before the gateway opened, his soul likely escaped in one piece.”
“I don't think that's very comforting.”
“I didn't say it was.”
Veronica lifted Sapien's muzzle, kissing her on the nose, then gently stroked her mane back, “There's a fire in you, I sensed it while I was piecing you two back together. Keep that fire alive and you'll be fine.”
She set her back down on the floor, then slithered over to a bookshelf, grabbing some scrolls from it, “Keely, watch the castle while I'm gone.”
“I'm going with Tanya to help her find her way home.”
Sapien looked up, one ear back, confused, “Tanya?”
“That's your true name, isn't it?”
She blinked, “How did you-”
“I'm a goddess, remember? You didn't desire that name just out of a passing fancy, it's your true name. Knowing it actually helped me in patching you up.”
Akaila commented in, “What about mine?”
“Fair-Weather. Ah, here it is.”
She pulled a massive book from the back of the shelf, hidden by the many scrolls in front of it, carrying it to a table which already had Tanya's brass book on it. It was easily as large as a pizza box and three times as thick and bound in odd, darkly-tinted metals, with the leather of the cover suspiciously similar to human faces.
She laid them beside each other and began reading through one of the scrolls. After several minutes she tapped a finger on one passage.
“I can take a more human-friendly form, and I can disguise you two as an ordinary grey fox, but hiding this will take something a little more potent.”
She picked up the massive book and set it on top of the brass book, the two fusing together. Leather bindings appeared and shrouded the dark alloys, then the faces, and finally the runic markings that covered all of the remaining surface. The pair shrank and reformed until they took on the appearance of an ordinary leather backpack.
She picked it up and handed it to Tanya, “Here, you'll be carrying my grimoire.”
“Grimoire, like, history of a bloodline grimoire?”
“Yes. And if you don't want to spontaneously explode, only open the second pouch for storing things. Opening any of the others will break the illusion.”
A cork popped and Veronica turned around to see Keely already pouring himself a glass of wine. She narrowed her eyes at him disdainfully, “That bottle is 300 years old.”
“And I saw well over a thousand just like it in the cellar.”
“It's from a planet that doesn't exist anymore.”
“And you haven't read the second half of that passage yet.”
She picked up the scroll and skimmed through it, “Helghen berries...how the hell...”
“They used the same spell to put me in her dimension.”
He grinned and handed her the glass, “I can keep the rest of the bottle, right?”
“You're the reason I hate working with Incubi.”
“And yet you're willing to trust me to keep up your castle while you're gone.”
“Only because I know you know I'd erase you from existence if you broke anything.”
She took the glass of wine and put it on the table along with several sprigs of dried herbs. With some minor preparation, she had three glasses prepared of a very strongly scented and thick liquid. She handed one to Tanya and took the other three each in one hand before slithering towards the door to the hallway, “Go ahead and drink it now.”
“What is it?”
“A stabilizer. It will make it easier for me to make sure we all arrive in the same location and at the same time. It might not surprise you to know that aiming in the fourth dimension is a lot harder than aiming in the third. To say you have to lead your target is an understatement.”
“Do we both have to drink it or just me?”
“Both, split it evenly with Akaila.”
Tanya drank half of the thick liquid, nearly gagging on the overlapping mint flavors, then held it out for Akaila, who spent more time figuring out how to drink with a tentacle than actually consuming it. By time the glass was empty, they were in a trophy room, where Helma and Jagra were waiting.
Tanya took a quick look around the room as Veronica was handing the potions to them and explaining their purpose. There were suits of armor made for species she'd never conceived, weapons who's use was alien, to say nothing of their names, and entire galleries dedicated to full indexes of ammunition variants. It wasn't so much a trophy room as a museum of the last millennium of warfare.
Her attention finally went back to the others as they approached. Helma's wounds were patched, but his wing still looked unsuitable for flight, and Jagra appeared fine except for bruises on random spots over his entire body.
She took note of them and asked, “How was it we were ripped to pieces, but you two are unscratched?”
Jagra chugged down the liquid, apparently unaffected by the potent flavor, “Feeling like every piece of your body is being ripped apart, the dimmest lights like knives pressed to your eye sockets, air ripped from your lungs and blood on your lips as everything burns and freezes at once? That just describes a monday hangover for me.”
Veronica chuckled to herself at that, “Apart from moderate bends syndrome, Jagra wasn't in too bad of a shape, Helma was a bit harder to save.”
Helma set his empty glass down, “As it turns out, having open wounds in the vacuum of space is like leaving a valve open in a water line. Regardless, I'm ready to get back to my own reality and get a little revenge on the Laguna family any time you are.”
He turned to Veronica and held a claw out, shaking her hand, “If we don't land in the same place, I want to thank you now for saving me. Once this affair is dealt with, the Edor family will owe you a huge debt. Speaking of debts...”
He turned to Tanya, Akaila, and Jagra, “It seems we have a common enemy, if you stick with me until this is over, I'll consider your own debt paid in full.”
Veronica began focusing, four of her hands pressed together, the rest in a large circle around them, light beginning to distort around her. As she was preparing the portal to send them back into the physical world, Tanya took one last look around and a thought flickered across Akaila's mind,
“Shit! Where's Tulpa!?”
Veronica glanced towards her, “Tulpa?”
“A vulpren, he was in the room with us when the portal opened, a human, Michael too.”
“I only saw you three when I arrived. The portal's ready, everyone exhale, and don't try breathing until you feel air around you again.”
She parted her four central hands and everything went black and silent around them.