Canto 153 – Stealth
The corridors of the Ruined Palaces were empty and still. Much dust danced through an empty-hall ballet as the stillness of disuse filled the place. Then, as suddenly as a star goes nova, there was a loud crack as Jadalaqstbr brought Ged Aero into the palace by teleportation.
Ged’s brown fedora fell from his head and began rolling away.
“Are you all right, Ged-sensei?” Jackie’s brown face showed concern even though recently Alec Songh had led her to be a bit disrespectful and defiant.
“I didn’t know teleporting left you disoriented like that,” said Ged, trapping his hat with a foot before it rolled too far.
“It doesn’t do that to me, but Alec says it bothers him.”
“We may need to be quieter in a place we have invaded.”
“Yes, sorry,” Jackie whispered. “Are you ready for me to go back for the next one?”
At the word from the master, another thunderous crack marked Jadalaqstbr’s departure. Ged used the moment to begin his planned transformation. He changed his head into a tiger’s head for the sensitive nose, but it was not an earth tiger. It was the head of a large black Talosian tiger. And Ged did not settle for the mere body of a tiger. The cat-form he created was sheathed in armor plates much like the armored auger-creatures of the planet Nix, supple yet impenetrable. It also had wings like the great war-eagles of Barad Allamar, large enough to carry a ton of creature mass through the air.
When Jackie cracked the air next, it was Phoenix she carried. She set him down and immediately imploded through space again.
“Ged-dono?” asked Phoenix, hesitation in his sarcastic voice for the first time that Ged was aware of.
“Yesss, thiss iss mmmme. New formmmm.” The tiger’s tongue was thick and slurred in his huge mouth.
“Good trick,” said Phoenix, nodding. “I have one to show you, too.”
Phoenix’s transformation was even more alarming than Ged’s. Fire started around his hands, and then began to crackle around his entire form. He seemed to become a boy of living flame.
“RRRRrrrr?” questioned Ged.
“I call it fire-form,” said Phoenix. “I am intact under here and able to breathe normally. I’m really just wearing fire like anyone else would wear clothes.”
Ged nodded his massive head. It was a good trick that might serve Phoenix well.
Jackie burst onto the scene once again with Rocket Rogers in her grip. She dropped the cowboy-hatted boy onto the floor tiles and vanished yet again.
“Wow!” said Rocket, “I’ve been missing quite a party.”
“Look into my mind, Rocket,” said Phoenix from within the flames. “You can do this too.”
Ged had been impressed during lessons at how willingly Phoenix would teach his skills to Rocket. The cowboy fire-starter was a quick learner, too. Ged wasn’t entirely sure he was comfortable with Phoenix becoming a better instructor than Ged himself. He couldn’t deny, though, that Rocket could learn more effectively from someone who shared the same skills.
Jackie disappeared yet again.
Rocket burst into flame, his cowboy hat sizzling away to cinders.
“Dang!” said Rocket. “I goofed. I burned up all my clothes and my best cowboy hat.”
“Did you burn yourself?” said Phoenix’s fire-form to Rocket’s fire form.
“No, I’m okay. I get the part about a cool layer just below the flame. I can do the temperature layers just the way you pictured it for me, but I have to learn to get the thicknesses right.”
“You learrrn fast,” remarked the Ged tiger.
“Thank you, sensei. Phoenix is a good teacher, just like you.”
When Jackie reappeared she carried Shu Kwai, the final member of the strike team. He was dressed in a white leather vest, tooled with interlocking spider designs, a white loincloth, and white tabai boots. He carried a pearlescent trident with three wickedly sharp tines. For a boy of twelve, he looked formidable. He had learned enough martial arts skills from Ged and from Alec Songh to be deadly, even when he didn’t enhance his blows with telekinesis. Like Ged himself, though, this boy was dedicated to winning any battle without causing any injury or death.
“Are we ready?” asked Phoenix within his fire-form.
“We will find our way easily,” said Shu Kwai with that quiet confidence that made him so spooky. “The mission will be no challenge.”
Ged had to wonder if the Gaijinese boy was trying to reassure himself and the others, or was simply stating what he knew to be a fact. Ged knew one of these three boys would end up being the leader of the entire group. He simply didn’t know which. But the time had come for action. Ged’s tiger nose detected the approach of rotting flesh and circuitry. Rot warriors were headed their direction.