She missed Seth.
Boy was that something that Asenath had never really thought she’d say. Not only because of how much the two of them tended to argue, but also because he was always there. Seth had been a near constant in her life for basically as long as she could remember. He was an aggravating big brother who never stopped finding new ways to irritate her. And yet, he had also been dependable when she really needed him, even if she hadn’t admitted it to herself at the time. He was a strong figure in her life throughout her development into the person she was.
He was always there. Maybe not for everything, but certainly when she needed him. He’d be a dick about it and often make her voice regret for involving him, but those were just words. In action, he’d probably been the single most dependable figure in her life beyond her mother for the majority of it. Her father had been gone since she was a child, hundreds of years earlier. With his absence, Seth had become the most important, most stable (for what that was worth) male influence in her life.
And now he was gone, murdered by the Seosten known as Abaddon. A Seosten who needed to die for what he’d done, whatever that took. The vampire had already promised herself that he would pay.
But that would have to wait, possibly for a very long time. At the moment, she was riding the forcefield elevator down into what was being called Unitown (for both University Town and Unified Town), the neighborhood of houses in the dome where the mostly adult students were living.
The faculty and other adults had their own arrangement similar to this one, though somewhat smaller. They had houses lined up in a circle surrounding a small lake. Nowhere near the size of the one where many students had already taken their first seafaring classes, and even smaller than the one back where the Atherby camp had been. But still, a pleasant little lake with large houses surrounding it for all the faculty to live in. They were allowed their own houses or they could live with others. For her part, Asenath lived with Nevada and Virginia. And Twister when she was around.
Not that Twister was a teacher. By her own words, she didn’t have the temperament for it. But she was still helping the new and reborn Rebellion. She did her own work, helping out in ways other than working with students. Mostly that involved spying, considering her natural gifts for that sort of thing. Not only could she shift into any animal and watch people, but she was immune to Heretic’s special Reaper sense. And even when she wasn’t shifted into animal form, very few people took what looked like a preteen girl all that seriously.
Which, given the one called Chayyiel, was a blind spot that one would think the Seosten of all people teach their puppets to get past, but neither Asenath nor Twister were going to complain.
Bobbi Cameron was at the school too, though she was spending most of her nights in the dorm for students her own age. She would live with Asenath and the others over the weekends. Or at least, she would when she wasn’t visiting Wonderland, where Namythiet had invited her to come whenever she wanted.
In any case, the elevator deposited her on the ground, and Asenath stepped off just in time to be grabbed in a hug by the girl waiting there.
“Oof,” she grunted with a small smile. “Hey there, sister.” Returning Shiori’s embrace, she noted, “You do remember that we just saw each other last night?”
Releasing her, Shiori bobbed her head eagerly. “Of course! Like I’d forget something like that. But this is different, cuz we’re gonna do it today.” She paused, squinting that way. “We are still doing it today?”
Asenath chuckled. “And risk withering under the destructive force of your sad puppy eyes if I said no? Of course we’re doing it today. That’s why I’m here.” She paused slightly before glancing around. “Your brother’s coming, isn’t he?”
The younger girl nodded again. “He’s in the back yard working on you-know-what. He said to get him when we’re ready. So, I guess we should go get him.” There was a clear eagerness in her voice, her excitement for the evening quite palpable.
As they walked toward the house, Asenath asked, “You know what’s going on with Flick and the others?”
“Dinner with Aylen’s family,” came the response. “They asked if I wanted to go, but there were already a lot of people. And it seemed like it was going to be complicated anyway, so I said I’d wait to hear about it. Besides, we’ve got our own thing tonight.”
That they did. And the two of them soon found Columbus working steadily and intently in the backyard. He had a couple tables laid out with equipment and tools, a welder’s mask on as he used a powerful blow torch on something laid out on the heat-resistant table-shaped forcefield he’d set up a couple feet off the ground.
So intent was the boy on his work that he didn’t notice his sister and adopted aunt standing there watching him for a minute. Only once he’d stopped and taken a breath with the torch held down by his leg did he seem to notice something from the corner of his eye (or perhaps through one of his powers). Either way, he glanced that way, jolting a bit when he saw them before reaching up to take the welder’s mask off with a grumbled, “Don’t do that. I know you’re a vampire and vampire-adjacent, but sneaking up on a guy and giving him a heart attack is just mean.”
“Sneaking?” Asenath echoed, a slow smirk crossing her features. “Oh, that definitely wasn’t sneaking. But since you clearly need to know the difference, I think I’ll make sure you end up getting a really good look at it.”
Groaning, Columbus hung his head. “Oh God, what’ve I done?”
“Made a very big mistake,” Shiori informed him cheerfully. Then she gestured to the thing he had been working on. “How’s it coming?”
In response, Columbus grinned. “You’re just in time. She’s ready to turn on. I hope.” With that, he leaned down and took a moment to close up several panels on the thing he had been working with, quickly sealing them before picking the thing up, turning, and setting it on the nearby table.
It was a porcupine. Or a metal facsimile of one, at least. The thing was about as big as a medium-sized dog. The body was black and somewhat rotund, with short, stubby legs and feet. Its face was rodent like, with gleaming purple eyes. But the bulk of its body was covered with rigid silver needles. The needles were razor-sharp, and the tips glowed faintly violet, like its eyes.
“Okay,” Columbus murmured, “Let’s do this.” He was clearly nervous, considering this was something he’d been working on for months by this point. He had taken many lessons from Harrison Fredericks, had a couple false starts, but this was his first real test. This was his baby.
With the other two watching, Columbus reached out and placed both of his thumbs against the new cyberform’s purple gemstone-like eyes. “Zero zero zero one c, rise and shine.” His voice shook a little bit as he said the words, praying this didn’t go wrong the way A and B had in his first early attempts back when he had been entirely too eager and cocky.
There was a slight humming noise for a few seconds as his creation slowly booted up. It lasted only for a few seconds before mostly fading. Then light came into the creature’s violet eyes, and it straightened slightly. The head tilted one way, then the other before settling its gaze onto him. Its small mouth opened and a tiny squeak came out. It sounded curious.
Covering his mouth to muffle the sound of joy and elation, Columbus gingerly put a hand out for the creature to touch its cold metal snout against. “Hey there, girl. Run self diagnostic. How’re you doing?”
He held his breath then, watching intently while crossing his fingers. A few tortuously long seconds passed before the cyberform gave another squeak. The lights in its eyes flashed a couple times before turning a faintly lime green. A mix between yellow and green then. Red would have meant there were near catastrophic problems. Bright yellow would have meant it was functional, but only marginally. Bright green would have been perfect. Yellowish green meant it was mostly okay with a few minor issues that would need to be ironed out. That was probably as good as he could possibly have expected.
Seeing the lime green color, Columbus couldn’t help but pump his fist into the air with an exuberant, “Yes! Hell yeah!” He immediately went to as the cyberform gave a soft squeak of alarm and shuffled a couple steps back.
“Shit, sorry, girl.” Gingerly reaching out once more to rub under the robot animal’s small snout, Columbus smiled. “It’s okay. You’re amazing. Come here, guys. Check out Amethyst.”
Stepping forward with Shiori, Asenath echoed, “Amethyst, huh? Because of her eyes and the tip of the needles?”
Columbus nodded, watching as his sister let the creature sniff at her hand. “Amethyst the porcudilo. Amy for short.”
Shiori gave him a weird look. “The hell is a porcudillo?”
With a grin, he replied, “Amethyst, dillo-mode.”
As soon as he said it, the little robot gave a chirp of acknowledgment. It straightened up a bit more, all of its needles retracting into its body with a quick whooshing sound. Once they were in, leaving only the holes behind, its entire back flipped around. The bulk of it body, save for its head, legs, and a thin layer of its ‘stomach’, completely flipped around. Now the part of its round body previously hidden inside was on the outside and the part with the needle holes was hidden inside.
With the flipped body, a hard shell had been revealed. The shell was lined with armor that Columbus had tested against as much damage as he could. He’d gotten the metal for the armor from Athena. He wasn’t exactly sure where it had come from, but the metal had stood up to incredible amounts of damage without so much as cracking.
“Turtle up!” he ordered, before watching in delight as Amethyst promptly rolled into a ball surrounded by her armor, a nearly impenetrable little fortress.
Knocking against the shell, he grinned at the others. “Porcudillo. Part porcupine, part armadillo.”
Teasing the boy, Asenath informed him, “I would’ve gone with Armapine. You know, because what she’s got is the armor and the pines. The needles.”
Columbus chose to ignore the sense that made, instead looking back to his creation. “Amethyst, needle mode.” Again, a sound of pure delight and amazement escaped him as the thing he had built shifted back into its porcupine state, the gleaming needles extending into place.
Next, Columbus carefully removed one of the needles, pulling it out of its slot to show them the small glowing marble sized orb attached to the bottom of it. “The orbs are enchanted with spells,” he explained. “Amethyst can shoot them out and make the spells hit things before they activate. It takes a while to enchant all her quills, and they can’t be that complicated, but it’s still worth it. Especially if they don’t expect the needles to do anything.”
He also showed them how the cyberform could shift into a shield form that fit on his arm in either defensive armadillo mode or porcupine mode with her sharp quills extended and ready to fire.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Asenath assured him while holding the cyberform from beneath and tickling under her chin. The metal creature was very shy, but seemed happy.
“Right,” Columbus decided, “I think I’m gonna take her with us, let her stretch her legs a little bit. That is, if we’re still going?”
“Absolutely,” Asenath replied. “If you’re both ready, we can head up to the departures room. I already booked a portal.”
With Amethyst toddling along in front of them excitedly looking everywhere with constant squeaks of curiosity, they headed up. Before long, the group had been sent through the portal they had reserved and arrived near an old cabin with a tall, gnarled tree close to it. It was illuminated by the moonlight, casting a view that was equal parts eerie and tranquil.
Shiori gave a soft gasp, slowly looking around before her gaze centered on the charming small cabin. “This is really the place? This is…”
“This is where we lived.” The response came not from Asenath, but from the doorway of the cabin as Jiao emerged. Her voice was almost as calm and serene as ever, though somewhat tainted by emotion when she looked to her two children.
Shiori crossed that way quickly, embracing her birth mother tightly. “You made it.”
Tenderly returning the embrace, Jiao nodded. “Of course, I wouldn’t miss this little history lesson. Even if it has been quite some time since this place was home.”
Asenath exchanged embraces with their mother as well, before Jiao’s gaze turned to Columbus. “And it looks like you have a new friend,” she noted simply while nodding to Amethyst as the cyberform porcupine hid behind Columbus’s leg nervously.
The boy introduced his creation, letting the shy creature get to know her for a minute before asking, “Our parents, they’re… okay?”
Like many of the potentially endangered parents and other relatives of Bystander-kin students, Shiori and Columbus’s adopted family had been put in a sort of witness protection program that even they didn’t know about. Their memories were adjusted and they were put into new identities elsewhere, hopefully out of the easy reach of overzealous Loyalists. It was the safest thing to do, given how dangerous all of this was. They still remembered who their children were, they simply believed the two were at boarding school.
Jiao nodded. “I checked on them yesterday. They still believe I’m the overly friendly realtor who sold them their house. It gives me an excuse to check in now and then. And yes, they seem to be doing just fine, though they are looking forward to seeing both of you soon.”
With a somewhat guilty flush, Shiori hurriedly agreed, “We wanna see them too. I told Flick she could come with us. And… maybe Senny too? We could say that she’s my sister and we found each other online.”
Asenath chuckled. “Yeah, I think I can pull that off. I kind of want to meet them anyway.”
That settled, Columbus showed Jiao more of what Amethyst was capable of while the girls took a walk around the cabin.
Eventually, Asenath led Shiori to the tree, standing there running her hand over it. “I was swinging from this the last day Papa was here. He saved me from breaking my neck.” A smile of both fond memories and deep longing touched her face before she gave a long sigh. “I wish we had any idea where he was.”
Seemingly in response to those very words, there was a sudden chiming sound and a soft blue glowing portal appeared nearby. An instant later, before anything else had a chance to happen, Jiao was there, standing beside her daughters with a wary eye on the portal. A pistol had appeared in her hand and was pointed that way.
Columbus teleported over to stand next to Shiori, just has something emerged from the portal. It was a white flag, held up on a long walking stick. The flag waved back and forth a few times as if making sure it was seen before the person holding it followed, emerging slowly and carefully through the portal.
The figure was humanoid on the surface, though he appeared to be made of very fine glass or crystal that was fully transparent. Within the glass was a mixture of smoke or gas and liquids of various colors that seemed to change (both color and state between gas and liquid) at random. Green gas would drift up through his arm, shift to blue, then red before reaching his hand, then turn into a liquid that bounced through the fingers, shifted to purple, and fell back through the arm before becoming a gas once more. There were no internal organs or skeleton visible. He was a glass figure in the shape of a man, with the shifting liquid and gas moving through his body in an intricate, beautiful pattern. His eyes were pools of that liquid.
The shifting liquid-gas was the actual person, not the body on the outside. His glass-like humanoid ‘shell’ was what amounted to a magical projection that could be altered and reshaped at any point, including becoming much larger at the cost of more power. His people varied their shells wildly between any number of shapes. Some preferred to appear humanoid, others took on more animal forms, or even very eclectic bodies. The shell could look like anything, because it was the gas-liquid within that was the actual person.
Asenath knew all that about the man, because she knew what he was. Not who, but what. At first glance, she knew he was–
“Vestil,” Jiao noted, not lowering her weapon an inch.
“The mage-people from the Akharu world?” Shiori piped up.
The man seemed to grimace a little, the colors in his glass face dimming before he quietly spoke. Except his voice didn’t come from his mouth. It came from his entire body. Or rather, it came from the swirling gas-liquid within. There was a slight humming effect to the voice, as if coming through an imperfect speaker. “In the interest of peace, I’m going to mostly ignore that you called it the Akharu world. You might as well call Earth Spanishland during the age of exploration.”
“Who are you?” Asenath demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“Ahem.” Clearing his throat, the man replied, “My name is Bol Sampson. And believe it or not, I’m here to help. I put up a spell on the edge of the property just to let me know when you were here. Apologies for the intrusion.”
Jiao narrowed her eyes at him. “Your people created the curse that forces the Akharu, and vampires, to drink blood for survival. The last time I heard from my husband, he was going to do something about your people still trying to wipe his out. Then he disappeared and we’ve heard nothing sense. You’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat skeptical about you being helpful.”
With a slight bow, Bol murmured, “You have every right to be suspicious and angry, good lady. But not all of my people are the same, as with any other species. And we have our own history as to why such a curse was our only option. The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. But that is neither here nor there. I haven’t come to discuss ancient history. My focus lies more in current affairs. Specifically, the current whereabouts of your husband.”
Eyes widening, Asenath suddenly blurred that way, grabbing the man by his glass-like shoulders. “You know where he is? He’s alive?”
Bol touched a ring on his hand, and a gentle, yet firm telekinetic force pushed her back a step from him. “Yes to both. At least, I have information about his recent whereabouts and situation. Information I will gladly give to you in exchange for a favor. I come from Las Vegas, I assume you know the situation there?”
Jiao nodded. “Akharu and vampires share the city with Vestil and Oni.”
“It’s a somewhat fragile alliance in many ways,” Bol noted, “but one that is very useful. We keep the fanatical Heretics out of Vegas. But now I’m afraid that alliance is endangered. The youngest grandchild of the Vestil and Akharu married family is missing. Every side in our city is already blaming the others. We need outside help.
“Find the missing girl, and figure out who was responsible for taking her. Then I will tell you everything I know about Tiras.”