73 Dark Falling Star
As Zoey contemplated her next move, the mercenaries packed up and headed deeper into the cathedral. The Sand Sharks carried the frozen Athena in her cage with them as Serena and her Siren Vultures led the way. Thankfully, Zoey had plenty of ways to follow them.
The upper area of the cathedral was a myriad of support structures, balconies, trusses, and arches that made it easy for her to silently follow the mercenary groups from above. As for freeing Athena, all she needed was a distraction and she could snatch the control rod and free her friend. Viridi would have been the default choice to cause a distraction, but ever since she had entered into Zoey's inner world, she had been oddly silent across their link.
Zoey kept on following her target until they reached the inner area of the cathedral where the black energy pillar was located. Doris and his group had already arrived and were inspecting the pillar when Serena and Loxon led their groups in. Zoey made sure that nobody would notice her as she silently moved along the rafters to get a better vantage point. She counted about sixty mercenaries in total between the three groups. She would have to get inventive to get her friend out of there. Loxon never moved more than a meter away from Athena's cage, and he had instructed all his men to form a perimeter around it. He sure was paranoid... though maybe with good reason.
As she waited, Zoey calmly pulled out her 9mm Custom reinforced by the Mk1 Prototype Armament and prepared it for what she knew was coming. She didn't want to kill anyone here, but she was not above crippling a few idiots that kidnapped her friend. She made a mental note to avoid shooting anyone from Doris's team when the action started as thanks for not participating in Athena's capture. Let it never be said she was not a benevolent person.
From the conversations she overheard drifting up from below, the mercs were trying to find a way out of the dungeon. They seemed to think that the pillar had something to do with it, but nobody had been able to get through the outer wall of the pillar. The black energy seemed to reject them for some reason. Of course, Zoey knew that it was not the way out. It had simply been a containment for the Dark Star shard that was now in her possession. The exit had to be somewhere else. There was a staircase leading deeper into the cathedral on the other end of the room, but nobody had scouted it yet. They were all focused on figuring out the pillar.
Zoey needed the advantage of surprise against the large number of mercs, so she bided her time. While she waited she used her Aether Engineer talent to fabricate some tools she would need to free her friend. Low velocity impact rounds for a non-lethal, but painful alternative to normal rounds, tear gas pellets, some spider taser mines, and finally, concussion grenades.
Her Aether Engineer talent could not fabricate complex organic or chemical compounds yet, so she had to do some engineering acrobatics to get the devices to work like they should. But, with some ingenuity, her magic arrays, and the help of her interface, she was able to fabricate what she needed. Additionally, her defence array had to be upgraded to filter the effects of the gas and protect her from the concussion grenades.
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Once she was ready, the mercs were settling in to rest for the night. At least Zoey assumed it was night. There was no day night cycle in here so who knew what time it was outside the dungeon. The light in here was a constant grey glow that seemed to come from nowhere, giving no indication of time. Once the night watch rotation began, Zoey got to work. Moving stealthily across the rafters, she placed her traps and wired everything to an array she could control remotely.
The setup took only an hour, then she waited for the right time. Between five and six hours into the night would be the perfect chance. Most of the mercs would be deep into the second REM sleep cycle and the second watch guards would be too groggy to react in time. The minutes ticked away as the mercs slept, unaware of the danger that watched from the dark roof trusses above.
When the time was right, and the mercs were sleeping the heaviest, Zoey got up and moved into position. She was like a shadow moving in the air above her prey as her cold emerald eyes looked down searching for her target. There he was, Loxon, sleeping only a few meters away from Athena's amber cage. Even in his sleep he cradled the control rod to the cage like it was his child, and he was drooling on it no less... gross.
Zoey pulled her mask across her face and activated its built-in Dark Star Vision. If any of the mercenaries had been looking up into the rafters at that exact time, they would have seen two eyes come to life in the dark like twin molten suns shining from the abyss.
Zoey activated the array she had prepared. In complete silence, thirty concussion grenades dropped from the rafters towards their targets. A moment after the grenades dropped followed a rain of smaller, far more numerous tear gas pellets. The grenades and pellets were spread out to cover all the different areas in the room, with a heavier concentration around Athena's cage where the Sand Sharks were clustered and fewer in the area where Doris and his Flame Scorpions were sleeping.
When the concussion grenades were a meter and a half off of the ground, they detonated. What took place after that was an insane bedlam of flashes and deafening bangs that went off in inconsistent intervals that overlapped to create a cacophony of sound that left behind only a ringing deafness and absolute confusion.
To add the the horror that the mercenaries awoke into, the concussion grenades triggered the activation of the tear gas pellets coming in behind. The grenade shockwaves burst the pellets and released their payloads into the air less than two meters above the ground creating thick cloud of tear gas that covered the entire room.
This ruthless storm of shock, concussive force, and debilitating nerve gas left every mercenary in the room in a state of reeling, drooling, coughing, incoherent hell.
While all of this was taking place, Zoey dropped from her perch towards her target like a falling star. Through the detonating concussion grenades and bursting clouds of tear gas, only illuminated briefly by the flashes of the grenades she came down, her glowing molten eyes never leaving her target. She landed lightly over the writhing form of Loxon right as the last concussion grenade went off and immediately grabbed for the control rod in Loxon's hands.
To her surprise, Loxon had maintained some of his function through the assault and realized through his concussed haze that someone was trying to take his most prized possession from him. His snot, drool, and tear covered face was twisted in horrified anguish as he gripped the control rod with every ounce of strength he had left.
For his persistence, he earned a point-blank, low velocity impact round to the chest. The impact slammed him to the ground and put him out like a cracked light fixture. Zoey could only shake her head at his pathetic state as she claimed the control rod from his limp hands. He had brought this on himself. Wasting no time, she moved through the fog of tear gas to Athena's cage and drove the control rod into the amber surface. The cage glowed with magical light as the release sequence activated, and the amber fluid that trapped Athena flowed out across the floor.
Zoey quickly saw that her friend was in some kind of tranquilized sleeping state, likely an effect of the cage. With an easy economy of movement, Zoey picked the much larger Athena up with a fireman's carry across her shoulders and headed towards the exit, not forgetting to grab Athena's staff on the way. She quickly made her way through the chaos that had consumed the area and down the staircase on the far side of the room. As she descended, every so often she tossed out her final gift for the mercenaries; spider taser mines. Those would cover her escape for a time and would let her gain some ground after they recovered enough to give chase.
Phase one of the rescue was complete!