“Something tells me we’re not getting back to the school tomorrow,” Miranda announced. She was laying on the couch in the living room of the hotel suite that she and I were sharing with Vanessa, Shiori, December, and Tabbris. Six was a lot of people, but there were three bedrooms in this place. Miranda and Vanessa were sharing one, Tabbris and December another one, and I was sharing with Shiori. Asenath and Bobbi were in another, smaller suite, while the boys (Tristan, Columbus, and Jason) were in a third. We’d asked April, but she’d said that she didn’t need a room. Apparently she was planning on standing guard outside the casino in a squirrel or bird or something all night long. According to December, the Calendar were good enough at… piloting animals that they could leave instructions of some sort for the animal to follow while the Seosten dozed inside of them, only waking up if specific conditions were met. Which just reminded me of the times over the summer that I’d seen Savvy or the other Seosten toddlers occasionally find an animal like a squirrel to nap inside of. They also napped inside of Prosser or one of the other powerful people who weren’t in any danger of being taken over by a kid.
I wasn’t sure if April really thought she needed to stand guard, or if she just didn’t want to be in here with us. Either way, she’d had a long, private conversation with December before heading out. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed like she was telling her to be careful.
“It’ll be Sunday tomorrow,” Vanessa replied. The blonde girl was standing by a large window, looking out at the brightly lit signs that decorated the Vegas strip. “There’s no school anyway.”
Stepping up beside her, I looked out as well. Damn, we were high up. Seriously, it wasn’t the top floor or anything, but this place was still pretty ridiculous. We were still at the Vestil casino, where they’d insisted on putting us all up for the night after catching that Sarez guy. Refusing just so we could go back up to the station had felt… wrong. Particularly considering there was still a chance that someone would get more information out of him. A slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Not to mention the fact that they were working on securing us an audience with this King of Canada guy. Oberon, Alberich, or whatever he went by. The King of the Fae, now King of Canada. Seriously, how did that never occur to me when I was thinking about who a mythological king powerful enough to resist Heretic incursion could possibly be?
Well, because I didn’t really know the Fae were an actual thing like that, honestly. The whole idea that there was a completely separate group, people who weren’t humans and weren’t Alters was just… kind of bizarre. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, all things considered. But still, it seemed like the more I learned about everything that was out there in the universe, the more it turned out there was to keep learning. I wondered how long that would keep being the case.
I also wondered if I’d survive… or be free… long enough to get to the point that it wasn’t. With Fossor Day getting closer and closer with each passing moment, I kept finding my thoughts drifting inexorably toward what would happen when he finally made his move. I was doing everything I could, training, learning, practicing the spells that Shyel, Jophiel, and others taught me, and trying to contact Fossor’s sister’s ghost. But it didn’t feel like enough. It never felt like enough. The fear, anticipation, anger, all of it was building up day by day in the back of my head. This, distracting myself with the mission to find the missing girl (and now Shiori and Asenath’s mother and the other children) was good. It kept me from obsessing too much.
But apparently it didn’t keep all of the worry off my face, even in the reflection of the window, because Shiori stepped up and wrapped both her arms around me from behind. She leaned up to set her chin on my shoulder, voice quiet. “Maybe this King guy can offer some help when we talk to him. They said he’s tough and strict, but fair. He can’t actually like having Fossor around. Nobody likes Fossor. And he’s powerful enough to drive out the Committee. He could know something, or… you know…” She hesitated, clearly unsure if she should go on.
“Or maybe he’ll let you stay with him.” That wasn’t Shiori. It was Vanessa. She was talking while still looking out the window. “If he’s powerful enough to drive out the Committee, he might be able to keep Fossor away, so you could be safe until someone deals with him.”
“And how long would that take?” I asked pointedly, looking first to Vanessa and Shiori, then to Miranda, who was sitting up on the couch. Tabbris and December were in one of the bedrooms.
“It’s not like Fossor is a new problem. No one’s been able to deal with him for all the centuries he’s been here on Earth, even after he created the Black Plague and nearly wiped out humanity. So how long exactly would I have to stay with this King guy, even if he was amenable to it? Which, in and of itself, is a stretch. We don’t really know anything about him other than the fact that he doesn’t like Bosch Heretics. I just–” Hesitating, I swallowed hard. “Seriously, let’s say he agrees, then I… what, sit around in his palace or whatever for… how long? And while I’m sitting around, Fossor gets annoyed and starts coming after the people I care about. He had plenty of time with Chef Escalan last year to find out who the best people to target would be.”
Shiori squeezed herself against me, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I just… I wish there was a better answer. Any answer.” Her voice was soft and plaintive. All she wanted to do was solve this problem. All she wanted to do was help me.
“I know, Shy,” I murmured, turning to pull her into a hug. “I do too. We’ll figure it out. I still have options, things that could pan out.” I wasn’t going to talk about Fossor’s sister. Not here, in a potentially insecure room with December nearby. She was a cute kid, but I wasn’t sure about her ultimate loyalties, and the last thing I needed was another powerful Seosten like Cahethal getting involved. For all I knew, the old Olympian would decide to use Rahanvael’s ghost to her own advantage somehow. Or she might decide that me ending up with Fossor was already to her advantage and sabotage the whole thing somehow.
Whatever, I just didn’t want one of the very few potential advantages I might have in this whole situation getting out. That was, if Rahanvael would even actually be an advantage. She might not even be able to show up again before our time was up.
Yeah, I was getting dour again. Stop that, Flick.
At least I had a good way of getting my mind off things. Specifically, kissing Shiori. Which I did, while the two of us stood in front of the window overlooking that absurdly amazing view of the Vegas Strip. Not that I would’ve cared that much if we were kissing in the bottom of a mine or in a fleabag motel. Kissing Shiori was still kissing Shiori, wherever we happened to be at the time.
By the time we pulled apart a bit, Miranda had gotten up and moved over on the other side of Vanessa to look out as well. “You think they’ll get us that audience with the King?”
I nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty motivated to find those kids and keep the peace around here. And if any group has the power and resources to make the King of Canada pay attention and talk to us, I’m going to guess it’s the people in charge of Las Vegas. I mean, they’re good enough to keep Heretics out of their city. If they’re the ones saying we’re on the up and up, he’ll probably pay attention to that. At least, I hope he will. Because from what the others were saying, sneaking into his territory to go after Jiao and the others really wouldn’t work.”
Dryly, Miranda replied, “You mean there’s some crazy dangerous stunts that even you won’t try?”
Sniffing, I retorted, “I never said I wouldn’t try it, just that it probably wouldn’t work. All I know for sure is that we’re not leaving Jiao or any of those kids out there. The guy said the only way to get answers was to go to Canada, and Columbus’s group got the name. Azlee Ren Kotter. We tell this King guy that we’re looking for that person, and hope he lets us in on a pass, like these guys did. Or, hey, maybe he’ll grab the person himself and let us talk to him. Or her. Sounds like a her. Either way, they’re our best–only lead. We’ll find a way to talk to them. Whatever it takes.” Because like hell was I going to go into this Fossor thing in a few weeks without getting Shiori and Asenath their mother back. Not to mention Asenath’s father, if this Bol guy’s info panned out. I was going to make sure that was taken care of before my birthday, damn it.
Vanessa spoke up then. “Maybe this King guy could help and maybe he can’t. Maybe he won’t. But whatever happens, just don’t try to handle it on your own.” She turned from the window to look at me intently, brow furrowing. “You helped get my parents back, both of them. You try to handle getting your mom back on your own, and I’ll be mad at you. Don’t make me mad at you.”
Managing a small smile, I nodded. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But jeez, everyone keeps warning me against running off and dealing with this whole thing by myself. Do I really look that stupid?”
“Not stupid,” Miranda informed me, “just determined not to let Fossor hurt anyone else by protecting you. Which, if you were to go off on your own for that reason, you should know that we would all throw ourselves right at him anyway. Then we’d either die or kick your ass for doing something like that once we finally saved you. Whatever happens, we do it together.”
“I got it, I got it.” A soft, mostly humorless chuckle escaped me. “I won’t be an idiot and run off by myself just to protect you guys, or the others. Scout’s honor. Which means if I lie about that, you can have her shoot me.” It wasn’t much of a joke, but I didn’t want to dwell on… all that anymore. There were more important–okay, at least more pressing things to focus on right then.
“How’s Avalon’s thing with the spell going?” Shiori asked curiously, clearly on about the same page as I was regarding the whole changing the subject bit. “She called earlier, didn’t she?”
“Yeah. I told her what was going on and she said she was going to try to get away to help, but they’re in a really important part of the spell so they keep needing her. She’s going to be annoyed if we get to meet the King without her.” Smiling faintly, I shrugged. “I told her either way it probably won’t be the last time. Either we’ll make friends with him, or… or we won’t, but we’ll still have to talk to him. As long as we don’t screw this up to the point of completely pissing him off. Which… please do not let us do that. I’m pretty sure we have enough ungodly powerful enemies who want to squish us into a fine paste on the ground without adding him too.”
The others agreed, and we talked a little bit more before settling in for the night. Or rather, they all did. I, naturally, wasn’t tired. So, first I checked in on Tabbris and December and found the two of them asleep together in a bed. They’d both seemed pretty tired earlier, my little sister barely keeping herself awake long enough to check on what new powers I’d picked up from the lizard guy on the roof and the two guys I’d killed on top of the car. From the first, I’d gotten infrared vision. Yeah, it let me see heat signatures. I’d played around a little bit with that with the lights off. Pretty fun, once Tabbris showed me how to make it work. Meanwhile, the intangible guy actually hadn’t given me his intangibility. Instead, I was able to connect any two reflective surfaces within my general area. Which meant I could put my hand through one and have it come out the other. Or use it as a doorway, if they were big enough. It only worked for me, I couldn’t take anyone with me.
Finally, the guy I’d killed while knocking him back onto the motorcycle he’d arrived on had given me the… gift was probably the wrong word considering how I’d acquired it… Anyway, that power allowed me to, with a physical touch, mark an object. At any point after that, I could ‘activate’ the mark and both see and hear through it for about ten seconds or until I willingly cut the connection. I could have up to five marked objects at any given time, and could use the mark three times before it faded.
Those were the powers I’d picked up. Infrared vision, mirror doorways, and seeing/hearing through marked objects. And thanks to Tabbris, I knew what the powers were without having to guess and experiment.
Satisfied that my sister would be okay without me for awhile, I quietly left the room to avoid disturbing anyone. I would walk around the hotel a bit, maybe go outside and look around to see all the lights from close up.
And I definitely would not obsess over the fact that my birthday was like six weeks away, right? Right.
I obsessed over the fact that my birthday was like six weeks away. For a couple hours, I just wandered, first the hotel, then the area outside, lost in my own thoughts. No one really seemed to care that much. I avoided the actual casino section, so I was left alone for the most part. Part-daydreaming and part-worrying, I found my way out to one of the parking garages a couple doors down from the hotel. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing there, I was just… walking.
At least, I was walking until the pigeon landed on the ground in front of me. It gave a sharp squawk, then proceeded to bash its head hard against the ground. As I realized what was going on, a glowing form emerged from the now-dead bird and resolved into April. The red-headed Seosten cracked her neck while looking at me. “Hi,” she greeted me simply. “Are you running away?” There didn’t seem to be any kind of accusation to her voice, just curiosity.
“What–no.” My head shook. “Jeez, why does everyone expect me to run off on my own? I’m just getting some air and… thinking. That’s all.”
With a shrug that told me she wasn’t really all that concerned either way, April asked, “Sure. You want me to leave you alone, then?”
“I–” Pausing, I shook my head. “No, it’s fine. I kinda wanted to ask what’s up with December.”
Clearly bristling a little, she stared at me hard. “What do you mean, ‘what’s up with her?’” There was a very clear defensiveness, bordering on going offensive, in her voice.
Raising both hands in surrender, I quickly assured her, “I don’t mean like that. I just mean… she kind of… she uses her boost a lot, like… all the time. How does she do that? It’s related to that bracelet thing she wears, right? And why is it so hard for her to talk slower? I don’t–I’m just trying to understand, that’s all. She seems really cool, and–”
April interrupted. “She is–as you… put it, ‘cool.’ She’s fine. She just–” There was a brief pause before she admitted, “I think she’s fine. We think she is. But she is young. She is small. She was not… intended to survive this life for long by those who sent her to replace the previous December.”
That made me blink. “Wait,” I put in slowly. “Did you just say the previous December?”
“Of course,” the Seosten retorted, “none of us are the first of our kind to fill these roles. The Calendar has existed for a long time in service of Cahethal. They are our names, but they are also titles. The December before this one was an old man.”
“And then he… he died?” I asked carefully, not sure if I was pushing over sensitive memories.
“Most do, who cease being Calendar. Almost all,” she replied simply. “But not the previous December. He… quit.”
“He quit?” I was surprised by that. “I didn’t know that was possible.”
“He abandoned us.” April’s voice was hard. “He is a traitor, who abandoned us for a human man. We were supposed to be his family, and he…” She stopped, clearly realizing that she was talking to me instead of one of her own people. With visible effort, the girl forced those reactions and feelings down. “This December, our December, is the important one.”
Figuring that pushing any harder on the previous December issue would go badly, I glanced around the lot to ensure we were alone before asking, “You said they didn’t expect her to survive for very long?”
“Of course she wasn’t,” April informed me. “She is small and young. Seosten age slowly, but only once we reach our teenage years. She’s still a child. Those who sent her assumed she would be killed in one of her first missions. They don’t care. They’d just replace her with another one. There is a reason Mendacia don’t have names. We are just… Mendacia. Lies. Our own people loathe us. We are less than slaves. They expected December to die. But Cahethal gave her an opportunity.”
“This has to do with her whole boosting thing, doesn’t it?” I asked carefully.
She nodded. “Cahethal gave December the choice to take some experimental drugs that would allow her to boost much more effectively and for a longer time. The drugs altered her body, allowing her to process and convert energy from the gems you saw on her bracelet. The gems gradually absorb magical energy from the world around December. Then she can… basically inject herself with the energy they’ve gathered. She does that several times a day, or before doing something… intensive. They improve her boost to the point of allowing her to keep up with much stronger opponents. They allow her to survive. But as a side effect, she thinks and talks much faster all of the time. Not as fast as her full boost, just… faster. It’s hard for her to slow herself down.”
“That’s… some experiment,” I managed, thinking about how it would feel to be constantly boosted, at least mentally, like that. Did December hear everyone else talking in slow motion all the time? No wonder she was so easily bored. Well, that and the fact that she was a kid, of course.
April squinted at me. “She survived. That is more than she would have done without the aid of the experiment. We are not stupid. We know that we are only on Cahethal’s good side for as long as we are useful to her. But she gives us more than most others would have. She allows us to act on our own. She allows us to retain our titles and care for one another.”
“I get it,” I assured her. “Trust me, I understand that. I’m not– I’m not going to start badmouthing her in front of you or anything. I know she’s helped you, even if–nope, not gonna say it. Look, I’m just glad you guys are here to help, okay?” There was a lot more I wanted to say, but it felt like pushing things too far, too fast. “I get the feeling we’re gonna need all we can get for this. And for whatever comes later. Speaking of which, do you know much about the King?”
There was a brief pause before she replied, “I know that he is not the only threat within his claimed territory. There are other strong figures who have become his hands, who act in his stead. They are divided into two camps, the Summer and Winter Courts. Those of Summer rely on open battle, a full display of strength and power. Those of Winter are more… underhanded. I met one member of the Summer Court a few years ago.” Now she sounded thoughtful. “He allowed me to sit on his giant blue ox after I promised not to possess it.”
“Giant blue ox…” Blinking, I looked that way. “Are you saying you actually met–”
Before I could continue, both of us heard someone approaching. We turned to see Haiden come into view. “Good,” he announced, “you’re both here. You should get some sleep and be ready for tomorrow.
“Thanks to our friends here, we officially have an appointment with the King.”