As it turned out, there was almost an incident with our new Calendar companions before we had even left the transport room. An incident that started when Tabbris leaned over to whisper something into December’s ear while we were getting ready to leave. She put her hand up next to the other girl’s head and started to lean in. When she’d done so, December had jolted a bit and looked surprised as she twisted that way with her arms partially raised as though to defend herself. At the same time, April made a quick, yet hastily-aborted move as though to intercede. There was a brief, kind of tense moment between all three of them. April looked intense, December looked confused, and Tabbris… also looked confused. Belatedly, I (and the others, I was pretty sure) realized the problem. December had no idea why someone like Tabbris, a ‘normal’ Seosten, would willingly touch someone like her. Someone the other Seosten called a Lie. When Tabbris had moved to do so, December had reflexively thought it was some kind of punishment or something.
That brief moment of tense confusion had lasted only until Tabbris simply leaned in and whispered as she’d started to in the first place. December had remained tense for a moment, before slowly smiling at whatever Tabbris said. Then she’d started to respond before hesitating. They froze like that, with December in mid-motion to whisper back to the other girl but clearly afraid of doing so.
Again, Tabbris solved it by leaning her head forward and turning to put her ear close to December’s mouth. So she whispered to her. Tabbris giggled, and… everything was calm again.
Which meant it was time to go through the portal and get this show on the road. I could only hope that any future incidents during this whole thing were solved that easily.
Then there was another delay. This one was my fault, as I abruptly slapped my own forehead. “Wait, wait. Um. Asenath. How exactly are you planning on…” I gestured to her, then to the portal. “It’s daytime down there, isn’t it?”
Without answering at first, Senny turned to look at her sister. “You were right, she did catch it before we left.” She flipped the girl some kind of coin before looking back to me. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Reaching under her shirt, she pulled out an amulet on a chain. “Your brother enchanted it. The thing works somewhat like the shadowcloak power Avalon’s biological father had, just… with magic. As long as it holds up, which Wyatt said should be at least a couple days before it needs to be recharged, it’ll put a shadow around me. Like a magic umbrella. Seems pretty spiffy.”
“Oh. Well, guess I should’ve known Wyatt would be on top of that.” Shrugging, I gave her a thumbs up.
The moment we stepped through the portal and ended up in the back lot of some quick-marriage church, we were all met by a couple figures. One was a tall, handsome man with piercing gray eyes and short red hair wearing a white suit over a black silk shirt. The other was a massive, ogre-like figure with dark brown skin, an enormous, bulbous nose almost too large for their already-large head, and long green hair. Belatedly, I realized that the figure was female. Both set off the Heretic sense.
“Greetings,” the ogre-like woman began in a pleasant voice while giving all of us a very distinct bow. “It is a distinct honor to meet such figures of change. I am pleasured to introduce myself as one Luiena Faa Ne Shuten-dōji.”
“Shuten-dōji?” Vanessa echoed. “Those are the leaders of the Oni side of Vegas, right? Those middle two words, my Oni isn’t great, but I think they mean ‘linked to?’”
The woman bowed again. “You are as bright as advertised, Vanessa-san. Yes, Luiena is my name and I am linked or bound to the family of Shuten-dōji. Linked by contract, not blood. It is my honor and pleasure to serve the family in any capacity they require.”
The red-haired man stepped forward then. “And in this case, they require her to be here to help greet the Heretics who are coming into our territory.” He nodded to them while adding, “As for me, the name’s Eldridge Vichniac. And yeah,” he added with a glance toward Vanessa, “that makes me part of the vampire ruling family. But only distantly. My great, great, great uncle Messek is next in line for leadership.”
“Still,” Asenath noted, “sounds like you’re pretty high up there if you’re actually part of the family.”
“Technically,” he allowed, “Though half the court would have to die before anyone so much as looked in my direction for any kind of leadership.” He grimaced briefly before turning it into an easy smile. “And having said that out loud, I suddenly realize that it’s probably given me a violent shove into prime suspect territory for any family murders over the next fifty years or so. Whoops. You ever realize how bad something sounds after it comes out of your mouth?”
With a glance back to the rest of us, who were all waiting, Asenath took a step that way, bowing to the Oni woman before shaking the vampire’s (or rather, Akharu’s) hand. “You know why we’re here.”
“We do,” Luiena confirmed. “And we wish you great luck in preserving the peace that has been so beneficial for all three of our families. To that end, I’m afraid it’s time for the very slight unpleasantries before we can move on.” She looked to Eldridge expectantly.
With a nod, the red-haired man took over. “Right, your group is being offered a temporary and provisional pass to operate within Las Vegas and Paradise.”
“Uh, Paradise?” I asked uncertainly. “You’ve got a place called Paradise?”
It was Vanessa who answered. “That’s the name of the main strip everyone knows about. It’s not actually part of Las Vegas… legally I guess is the right term. It’s an unincorporated town. But basically everyone just considers it part of Vegas.”
“You’ve done your homework,” Eldridge noted with an approving smile.
“It’s Vanessa,” Tristan muttered, “she always does her homework. We could be in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and she’d still find a way to turn in her Chemistry labs complete with detailed extra credit essay answers that the teacher never even asked for.”
Primly, his sister informed him, “Well, a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t be an excuse to do sloppy work anyway. Why wouldn’t I maintain some level of standards?”
From the look Tristan gave her, he was just as clueless as I was as to whether she was messing with him or not.
Eldridge chuckled. “Oh, I think I’m gonna like you. Which actually leads me to the next point. Don’t fuck it up. Like I said, you’re being given a pass to operate here for this job. But you abuse that, you kill anyone you don’t need to for protection or in the course of fulfilling this request, and things’ll go south really quick. Using those enchantments of yours to stop everyone from losing their minds about having Heretics around is a good idea. The whole world doesn’t need to know about you being here. Try to keep things as quiet as you reasonably can, and behave. Consider this a test run. We worked with Joselyn’s old group before…” For just a second, his eyes flicked toward me before returning to their general scan of everyone. “And maybe we can do the same thing here. We’ll see. Don’t fuck up and make us regret the whole thing, cool? Cool.” Belatedly, he added, “And Asenath, you still owe me for that bit in Toulouse.”
“Toulouse was ninety-four years ago,” she pointed out in an easy retort that made me feel like they’d had this conversation many times before. “And I used that bottle to save your life.”
“That wine was probably worth more than I was at the time,” he informed her with a cheeky wink. “And it’d certainly be worth more than I am now, if it had survived. Which–” He stopped at a look from his Oni companion before clearing his throat. “Right, back to the more pressing business.”
“Indeed,” Luiena agreed. “The one called Moon has asked for his children, and any who wish to accompany them, to visit the Akharu casino where the missing child was last seen.”
“Shouldn’t we all go?” That was Miranda, stepping over beside me as she watched the large woman. “If it’s where the kid was last seen, I mean.”
Eldridge shook his head. “She was last seen at our casino, but Rowan was in the company of several Vestil friends. That’s where Jiao is, and she’s asked for the presence of her daughters.”
From what I’d heard about how Jiao had sent Shiori away in the first place in order to keep her safe from all the bad guys who were after the girl’s father, I was kind of surprised that she apparently let these people know about their relation. Maybe it was a trust thing, or he had just guessed. I made a note to ask about it later.
Either way, it turned out that we had to split up, as expected. Making arrangements to meet up later, we did so. Shiori, Miranda, Bobbi, Tabbris, and I chose to go with Asenath. Meanwhile, Vanessa and Tristan were joined by Jason and Columbus. The latter wanted to go with his sister at first, but she insisted that we had enough people and that he should keep the others company.
As for our so-called Calendar guests, they split up too. Probably to keep an eye on both groups, as I was pretty positive that they were here in the first place to let Cahethal know about everything we did. But hey, help was help, and knowing about how the Seosten treated people like them, I kind of just wanted to hug them both.
December came with our group, while April went with the others. Tabbris was the main reason for that, as she and the fast-talking young Calendar girl (wait, shit, no that was a terrible mental term for them!) hadn’t stopped whispering back and forth into each other’s ears basically the entire time we’d been standing there, ever since that first little incident in the transport room. They were just in the background, constantly leaning in with their hands cupped against the side of the other’s head and whispering. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I was trying to decide if I was worried about it considering the Calendar’s loyalties and how it might end up going badly for Tabbris’s feelings, or just really proud of her for making a friend that quickly.
In any case, as expected, we had split up almost immediately upon getting down to the Vegas strip. I wasn’t sure where Twister was at the moment, but she would obviously make herself known when it was time. Meanwhile, Asenath, Bobbi, Shiori, Miranda, Tabbris, December, and I followed Eldridge to a couple unmarked sedans. There, we split up a bit more, though we were all heading for the same place. I took the rear car with Miranda, Tabbris, and December while Asenath, Shiori, and Bobbi took the front car with Eldridge.
Our driver was an onyx-skinned Alter with ruby-like eyes and six arms. Four of those gripped the wheel while his other two waved back and forth, pointing out various tourist attractions with an excited, incredibly hyper voice as we pulled away from the curb and started following the other car. December and Tabbris both kept asking him questions, which made him even more eager to tell us basically everything he knew about every building we passed. And that was a lot. It was kind of fun to just sit back and listen to him talk, because he was a really good tour guide. If we managed to get through this without fucking anything up too badly to talk our way into coming back, I kind of wanted to just drive around with him without the weight of a missing girl on our shoulders.
It was still early, so the strip wasn’t lit up. Still, we were all gawking, pressing up against the windows to stare at everything. It was gaudy, yes, but it was also really freaking cool. I summoned Jaq and Gus to my shoulders and let them watch, while also holding up Herbie in one hand. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I whispered during a time that our driver was taking a breath. “We’ll come back and see them all with the lights on.”
“Heyyoureallydohaveapetrockthat’scooltheysaidyoudidbutIdidn’tthink–” Stopping short in the midst of that burst of words, December took a breath, eyes crossing as she forced herself to slow down. “I… didn’tthinkthey…. weretellingthe… truth. I thoughttheywere… messingwithme.” She kept slowing down between groups of words, making it somewhat easier to understand and keep up with the girl.
“His name’s Herbie,” Tabbris announced proudly from where she was sitting next to the other young Seosten. “He’s the best, most handsome rock in the whole world.” She added something in Latin that I wasn’t good enough yet to catch all of, but sounded like a string of military titles and accolades.
December was staring at me in a way that was… not really uncomfortable, but definitely intense. “Ourbosssaid… thatyoukilled… someofherpeople.”
“Our people,” Tabbris correct her. “You’re Seosten too, you know.”
“I’m Calendar,” the other girl replied with a shrug, as if that was all she was. And hell, to her group, it was probably the truth. Seosten ‘Lies’ were treated like such shit, it was no wonder they wouldn’t actually see themselves as part of their own species. With this group banding together thanks to Cahethal, it also wasn’t hard to see why they’d only see themselves as ‘Calendar’ and not ‘Seosten.’
Miranda spoke up then. “Flick kills people who attack her and the people she cares about. Or innocent people. Any Seosten she’s killed had it coming.” Belatedly, she added, “Especially Manakel.”
“I didn’t even kill him,” I pointed out mildly, watching the dark-haired Seosten. “Sariel did that. She just… used my body. And… sorry, this is probably a bad thing to talk about.” Boy, this was awkward.
“Lotsoftheirpeop–” Stopping, December settled on, “LotsoftheSeostenare… reallymadatyou. ManakelandCharmeinehad… alotoffriends. They’re… notreallyhappythat… theycan’tcomeafteryou… becauseofthetruce. Cahethal alreadyhadtotellthem… shewon’tbreakitjustto… letthemhuntyoudown.”
“I guess it’s a good thing Cahethal’s sticking to the truce then,” I murmured, thinking about that. There were Seosten out there who wanted to get revenge on me? Great, because I didn’t already have enough things to worry about as it was.
“Sorry,” December piped up. “Ireallywasn’ttrying… toscareorthreatenyou… oranythinglikethatIswear. Cahethalreallydidsay… thatweshouldplay… nicewhilewe’rehere.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her with a shrug. “I’ll just add ‘random overzealous Seosten with a vengeance streak and little patience’ to the list of things that might kill me if I’m not careful.”
“Hey, the kid’s right, that’s some rock you got there,” our six-armed driver suddenly complimented, as though deliberately choosing that moment to jump in and change the subject to something less serious. “Not to brag but ahh, I collect rocks too. Yessir, I’ve got a whole display shelf back home with a rock from every single state in the US. Also got a few from some other countries, and some of the… ahhh, more exotic places, if you know what I mean. Hell, I’ve even got a bona fide piece of ground straight out of Desoto from before it… before the bad times.”
He went quiet for a moment before using one of his half-dozen hands to point at me. “Rocks are good things to collect, that’s all I mean. Especially, ahhh..” He turned a bit while driving, glancing toward Herbie curiously. Particularly toward the little sword the dashing young adventurer had. “Especially ones that are armed. Those seem rare.”
Snickering a little, I gave him a thumbs up. “You hear that, Herbie? Even this guy knows how important you are, this… ahh… Mister…?”
“Oh, you can just call me Person,” came the response. “That’s the only name I need. Just Person. No way you’d be able to pronounce my real name, humans can’t do it. My friends, they all say I’m Personable. So that’s me, Person Able. Just Person’s great.”
“Err, okay…” I shrugged, looking to Miranda briefly. “Nice to meet you, Person.”
Eventually, both cars stopped in front of an enormous resort casino. The place was frankly pretty absurd, stretching high into the sky with gleaming windows, a giant fountain in the front with two giant golden statues of a man and a woman on either side of it, and spotlights everywhere that probably made a big show at night. The fountain kept shooting water hundreds of feet into the air while people oohed and aahed at it and took pictures.
Putting Herbie back in my pocket, I stepped out with the others. Asenath and the rest from the other car were already there (with a dark cloud of shadow around the vampire girl now that she was standing out in the open), and Eldridge took a moment to make sure we were all still fine before escorting us along the elaborate walkway, past the giant statues and the incredible fountain.
Asenath looked up to the casino, murmuring a quiet, “This is the main headquarters on the strip for the Sampsons, the ruling family for the Vestil side of the alliance.”
“Like that Bol guy who came in the first place,” Shiori pointed out. “His name was Sampson.”
“Yup,” Eldridge confirmed. “Bol’s basically like me. Got the family name and a bit of influence, but far, far from any kind of real decision making. So, let’s go in and see Jiao and those Vestil kids, shall we?”
With that, he led us to the front doors. There were were a couple guys out next to the entrance who also set off the Heretic sense. They looked like secret service types, and I was guessing they were part of the security for this place. One seemed human save for the fact that a faint glow was coming from his eyes, slightly visible through the shades that he wore. The other was dressed the same, but was basically an anthropomorphic turtle with purple leathery skin and a much darker purple shell that stuck out through the back of the suit.
Don’t call him Donatello, don’t call him Donatello, don’t call him Donatello, I repeatedly told myself, offering the men a faint smile as they looked us up and down. Both were tense until Eldridge said something in what sounded like Italian. Then they settled… somewhat.
The human-looking guy with the glowing eyes simply announced, “They’re still in the conference room.”
Thanking him, Eldridge led us inside the lobby. Seriously, if the outside of this place was ridiculous, the inside was… was… wow. The lobby was basically an enormous oval, with soft golden lighting that gently illuminated the gold and black marble floor. All along both sides of the oval ahead of us was open space leading into the actual casino part where games and tables waited. At the far end opposite the entrance were grand glass elevators rising into the hotel, and in the middle of the room was a large circular desk where people were being checked in. To the far right I saw the barred off area where people exchanged money for chips and vice versa.
“IwannaplayIwannaplayIwannaplay!” December blurted, staring with wide eyes at the loud, bright slot machines in the distance.
Before she could dart off, I quickly put a hand down on her shoulder. “Ah, that might attract attention even the BS Effect won’t erase, buddy.”
For just a second, December froze. The whole idea of going to play the slot machine seemed to vanish as she just stared at me. Slowly, her eyes moved to look at her arm, then back to me. “What are you doing?” she asked, voice sounding normal for once. I had the feeling that, for her, that was like a regular person talking extremely slowly and carefully.
“Oh, sorry.” I released her, flushing a little. “That was probably rude. I just–I didn’t want you to run off because you seem impulsive and we can’t really–right, not helping. Sorry. Thanks for not running off, though.”
She didn’t say anything. Nothing. The girl was just silently staring at me, even as Eldridge agreed that we had to stay away from the casino part. He led us to the elevators and we followed, with December watching me the entire time.
As we rode the elevator up, Shiori took my hand and gave me a brief smile. It was enough to make me blush, losing myself in her gaze for a moment before Eldridge started talking.
“Right, here’s the situation. These kids were the last ones to see Rowan, the girl we’re looking for. According to them, they were all playing in front of the Akharu casino. A car that looked like the one that always picked up Rowan showed up, and a man who looked like her driver, at least from a distance, stepped out. Rowan went to the car, got in, and it drove away. Thirty seconds later, the real car showed up. The driver said he was stuck at several red lights. We’ve vetted him thoroughly. He’s a friend of their family and… well, let’s just say he’d die before he let something happen to that girl. Jiao’s been talking to them, but apparently she thinks you all might be able to–”
The elevator doors opened, revealing two men standing there. Both were obviously Vestil. They looked like how Shiori had described that Bol guy, glass-like figures full of swirling, colorful gas that kept shifting randomly to liquid and back again. When the first spoke, the sound clearly came from the gas-liquid spread throughout the body, and sounded vaguely like someone was humming very quietly at the same time.
“We have a problem.”
“What problem?” Asenath immediately asked while stepping off the elevator. “Take us to those kids, and my mother.”
“That’s the problem,” the second Vestil announced. “They were in the conference room, and now they are not. They are not anywhere in the casino.
“Jiao and the child witnesses have disappeared.”