A/N – For those who read Summus Proelium, there was a commissioned interlude posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can do so by clicking right here
At two o’clock in the morning, the streets of the quiet, suburban town of Acantilado, Texas were almost entirely empty. An occasional car would pass, sometimes filled with boisterous teenagers whooping and hollering through the surrounding night air. Now and then, a stray dog or cat out for a prowl would make themselves known. But, for the most part, the town was silent. There were certainly no buses running at that moment, and there wouldn’t be for another four hours.
Despite that, one figure was sitting at a bus stop on top of a hill near the edge of town. Behind her was the local high school, while most of Acantilado was stretched out below. It was a relatively new school, built within the past five years at what, at that point, had been just out of town. In the intervening half-decade, enough new houses had been built to put the high school right up against the edge of it, essentially marking the town border.
Asenath had not known any of that before, of course. She’d learned it while researching the town before coming here. That and a lot of other fairly useless trivia facts about its founding, past governments, and the record of their football team. Part of that had been simply to pass the time, while another part had been about researching the place she had to go to get the answers she had been looking for for so long. Answers that probably weren’t even here to begin with, yet she couldn’t bear not to actually search through every conceivable lead, no matter how slim.
Now, sitting at the bus stop in the dark as she watched the town spread out below, Asenath glanced up to see an owl fly overhead before quietly murmuring, “How does it look to you?”
The owl looped around and glided down before transforming into the dark-skinned figure of Twister, shaking herself off while the fox-like set of secondary ears on top of her head twitched. “One of these days, Ol’ Assy, I’m gonna trick you and be the animal you don’t expect. I swear, it’s gonna happen. And when it does, bam!” Her fist punched into her palm. “I’ll uhhh… I’ll never let you live it down, that’s for sure.”
Snorting despite herself, Asenath offered a wry, “It’s good to have goals to strive toward. So, like I said, what do you think of this place?” Her hand rose to gesture at the streets and house in the distance.
“What do I think of it?” Echoing her words, Twister turned to plop down on the bench beside her with a heavy sigh. “I think I’d never willingly come here if I had a choice. I mean, sure, it’s fine and quiet and all. But it’s boring. It’s boring as hell. There is nothing to do in this town. There’s nothing going on here. This has got to be one of the single most boring towns in the entire known universe. I would spend ten years in Flick’s old place in Wyoming without my shapeshifting powers before I’d spend a single year in this place, swear to God.”
Asenath glanced to her in silence for a few seconds as though considering that answer. Then she nodded. “Yeah, that’s kind of the impression I’ve been getting. And you know what? I don’t think that’s an accident. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s completely intentional. Manufactured, even.”
Her words made the other girl look at her with a frown. “Manufactured? What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying someone made this town this boring and empty? How? And why?”
Straightening up to her feet, Asenath answered, “I think there’s some kind of spell on this town. It’s making anyone who isn’t human even more bored than they should be. Pushing them to not want to stay here. It’s not powerful enough to outright control us or anything, especially if we have a real reason to be here. But it’s still kind of a constant, low level push to find this place really boring, so we’ll want to be done with it and leave as soon as possible.”
“Wow,” Twister retorted with a brief grin while pushing herself back to her feet, “It’s a spell making me this easily bored? All these years I thought I was just immature and obsessed with shiny, loud things.”
Rolling her eyes, Senny pivoted back to her. “You’re definitely still all of that, believe me. But in this case, there’s that spell.”
“You can sense magic now?” Twister arched an eyebrow. “I mean, you still can’t cast it, right? So…”
Senny’s head shook. “No, still can’t cast it and can’t really sense it. But Shiori let me borrow this before she left on that rescue mission.” She held up a knife with a bone-handle and a blade that looked like it was made of blue glass. That blade was glowing a bit. “It’s Seth’s anti-magic knife. It’s been warm and glowing the whole time we’ve been here. And when I hold it, I don’t find this place nearly as boring as I do when I let it go.” To demonstrate, she held the knife out. “Try it.”
Twister, in turn, shrugged before taking hold of the knife by the handle. After holding it for a few seconds, she breathed out and nodded. “Oh yeah, that’s definitely some kind of spell. Wow.”
Taking the knife back, Senny agreed, “Yeah, wow. Now the question is who cast the spell.”
The Pooka girl squinted. “You think it has to do with your dad, don’t you?”
At first, Asenath was quiet. She glanced over to the streets stretched out below them before murmuring, “You know how this whole thing went. That Vestil from Vegas, Bol Sampson, promised information about my dad in exchange for helping save the girl. The information was the name of a man who supposedly saw him last, Arturo Moreno.”
“Yeah, and Arturo Moreno lives in this place,” Twister finished. “But here’s the thing. That info originated from Fossor. So what the hell makes you think this actually means anything? I mean, besides blind hope?” Pausing, she flinched before adding, “Sorry. That didn’t–I wasn’t trying to…”
“I get it,” the vampire murmured, before heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I get it. I was suspicious too. But Bol said they used magic to test the name against the name of my father, and got a definite link between them. Which Fossor probably knew they’d do. Or someone would. The point is, whoever this Arturo Moreno is, he did have a direct connection to my father. And now he’s here, in a town blanketed with a ‘don’t stay here for very long, go away, nothing to see here’ spell. It’d be a pretty damn huge coincidence if there was no relation between those things.”
Considering that briefly, Twister agreed, “Fair. Still, let’s keep our guards up, huh? I don’t trust this not to be some kind of trap, even if there’s some level of truth to it. Because I definitely don’t trust that dead Necromancer any more than I could throw the planet he slithered off of.”
“Guards up, for sure,” Asenath murmured while turning the knife over in her hand thoughtfully. “That’s why I didn’t want to bring Bobbi. She’s amazing but–but I’d rather you and I check this place out first. She’s still a kid, and she’s just getting back into the whole going to school thing.”
“Don’t have to convince me, babe. The two of us running this thing together, old-school, is where it’s at.” Grinning almost ferally, Twister added, “But, just to check, did you get the ahh… you know what?” The question was accompanied by a raised eyebrow.
Senny, in turn, gave a short nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, it’s done. I haven’t really, uhh, you know. But yeah.”
“In that case,” Twister replied, “you know we’ve gotta do one more thing, right? No way we’re moving on yet. Not til I get to see the shiny.”
So, the two of them took a few minutes to do what they needed to. Finally, the Pooka clapped her hands once. “Right, we’re good, so let’s hit it. And speaking of hitting it, you think that knife can break whatever this spell is? Because I’m suddenly starting to think about how much I need to check on a couple old friends in Atlanta that I haven’t talked to in like… over eight years. And something tells me it’s not because they just happened to pop into my head naturally.”
Asenath, however, shook her head. “Pretty sure it’s not the kind of spell this thing can break just by slicing randomly through the air. If we could find the source of the magic, then maybe it could do something.” Considering the blade thoughtfully, she added, “On the other hand, maybe this thing can lead us to that source. I think the whole effect gets stronger the closer we are.”
“Well, in that case,” Twister cracked her knuckles. In the next moment, she had transformed into a small, mangy-looking cat, which looked up at Asenath pointedly. “Let’s go play hot-and-cold.”
So, that was exactly what they did. Walking together, the vampire and cat strolled away from the bus stop, heading deeper into town. Asenath tucked the knife inside her jacket out of sight to avoid any unwanted attention. Even though the streets were empty, she didn’t trust that there weren’t any busybodies peeking out their windows in the middle of the night. To say nothing of active surveillance. After all, someone had to have set up and been maintaining that spell.
Nonetheless, everything seemed just as quiet and peaceful as ever while the two of them silently made their way through the dark neighborhoods. As expected, the knife grew warmer the closer they got to the source of the spell. It was warm and bright enough that they were both sure they’d found the right spot. Turning to look up at the building they had stopped in front of, Twister scoffed in her cat form. “Oh, that’s just super-fucking appropriate to go looking for clues about your missing vampire dad, isn’t it? Perfect.”
Senny couldn’t exactly disagree. After all, the spot they had stopped at, the place the spell seemed to be originating from, was a large, rather imposing church. It had incredibly gothic architecture, complete with looming gargoyles and twisted spires. It definitely looked out of place in this sleepy, quiet town. Even without the help of the knife, she would have guessed that there was something special about this particular building. Especially with the scent.
“You smell that, right?” Twister added, leaning forward to sniff once more with her cat nose.
“Yeah,” Senny confirmed in a quiet mutter. “Alters went by here recently. Lots of them. At least one troll, a few weres, smells like a Rakshasa or two, maybe a… yeah, that’s an Aswang.” Grimacing, she added, “And more. I’d say we’re in the right place. And possibly a bit outnumbered. We should–”
Unfortunately, she was interrupted before she could suggest they do more recon and possibly summon help. Because in the next instant, the sound of grinding stone made both of them snap their gazes up in time to see three of the Gargoyles leap off the edge of that twisted church roof. These weren’t the ordinary Bystander decorative gargoyles. They were the real deal. Which meant they were actually diminutive, foot-tall gremlin like creatures who created and manipulated a material that looked like stone, but was much stronger. They used that to create larger, horrific-looking monster suits for themselves as a sort of armor. Bystanders had seen such things lurking at the edges of buildings back during the Middle Ages and interpreted them as decorations before creating their own. Which made it so much more difficult to tell when the things on the roof were actually the real deal, particularly given the fact that their armor shielded them from giving off any scent. Which was just helpful enough for them that Asenath was pretty sure the Gargoyles themselves had had a hand in the propagation of such statue designs.
Either way, now three of them were dropping rapidly toward the ground. Senny and Twister each dove in different directions, just before the trio of stone-like armored suits slammed into the concrete right where they had been a moment earlier, sending shards of cement flying.
Both were back on their feet in an instant, Twister shifting out of her cat form to become a much larger grizzly bear, while Asenath yanked the knife back out of her jacket. But before she could do anything with it, a blurred form slammed into her from the side. They were moving so fast that even Senny couldn’t react before the knife was knocked out of her hand and she was sent tumbling end over end. Just as she hit the ground, a cage made of glowing energy bars appeared around her.
At the same time, the figure who had hit the girl turned and pointed toward Twister, forming a second energy cage. This one, however, was a solid bubble, including the ground under her feet. “Good luck finding an animal that can get you out of a solid forcefield, Pooka,” the figure’s male voice muttered.
“And as for you, vampire…” With that, the man turned to face Asenath in the energy-cage while the three gargoyles loomed up behind and around him. He was a handsome Latino man who appeared to be in his late thirties, with piercingly dark eyes, an inch or so under six feet. His black hair was long but clearly meticulously maintained. “Feel free to try to bite your way through that. It might be funny.”
Glancing sidelong to where the knife lay in the grass a few yards from the cage, Senny then turned her attention back to the man. “Stardrinker,” she murmured. That was it. The man was a member of the same species that had given Bobbi her powers. Hence how fast he was, and his ability to create these energy structures.
Twister, who had shifted back to her human form, tapped her foot impatiently before calling, “Think we should’ve brought the kid now, babe?”
Rather than reply to that, Senny simply focused on the man himself. “Arturo Moreno?”
Her words managed to bring a very slight expression of surprise to the man’s face. “Wow, you’re two for two. You know what I am, and who I am. Now I suppose it’s my turn to ask you something about who you are. But, to tell you the truth, I really only need answers from one of you, and you’re easier to keep contained.” With a shrug, the man added, “Can’t kill a Pooka, not for good anyway. But I’d say getting rid of her for awhile is good enough.” Winking at Asenath, he turned toward her equally-trapped companion and gestured with one hand. As he did so, the bubble around Twister began to rapidly shrink. He clearly intended to crush her inside it.
Seeing that, Senny instantly launched herself toward the bars while summoning her own speed. It was slower than a Stardrinker, of course. Not to mention the cage itself was still in her way. And yet, just before she would have slammed into them, Asenath’s form changed. In mid-lunge, her entire body shrank and shifted into an actual bat. Flipping sideways in the air, she sailed right between the bars, even as the two gargoyles who were still looking that way cried out in alarm.
The shouts drew Arturo’s attention, making the man spin back that way. Unfortunately for him, bats were incredibly fast to begin with. A single Brazilian free-tailed bat, which was exactly what Asenath now appeared to be, was capable of reaching speeds of one hundred miles per hour. Multiplying that by her brief speed boost, and she was already all the way to where the knife had fallen by the time the Stardrinker even started to turn. An instant later, she was back in her human form, had scooped the knife up, and hurled it unerringly. When Arturo finished turning to face her, hands raised, the weapon was already right there. He had time to make a very short, shocked sound before the hilt of the knife slammed into his forehead with enough force to instantly knock the man unconscious. He dropped to the ground in a heap.
The moment he was down, the forcefield around Twister vanished. With a grin, she cracked her neck and stared down the trio of suddenly very-confused Gargoyles. “You wanna try that whole thing again? Cuz I can’t wait to get through your tin cans to the chewy center.”
Between the two of them, Asenath and Twister made short work of the three gargoyles. Soon, the two of them stood over the fallen form of Arturo. Glancing to one another, they each produced a set of handcuffs, carefully attaching them to the man’s wrists and ankles. Then they hauled him over onto his back and waited for the man to wake up. Rather, Asenath started to wait, but Twister got bored after roughly eight seconds and kicked the man hard in the side. She was about to do it again when his eyes opened. Taking in his situation, he immediately tried to do… something. Whatever it was, the man instead jerked and cried out in pain.
“According to a very good friend of ours,” Senny informed the stunned man, “those magic cuffs are gonna send that pain through you every time you try to do anything you’re not supposed to. Violence, mostly. Trying to use your power, try to break the cuffs, anything like that. So be a good boy and lay there so you can answer questions.”
“H-how–how?” Arturo was staring at her. “You were a bat. You turned into a bat. Vampires don’t do that!”
Senny offered him a faint smile. “Not normally, no. But see, I have a certain friend. Her father was a vampire, and someone went through an awful lot of trouble to… upgrade him so he could use the powers other people had by drinking their blood. Now, after months and months of very smart and talented people studying that dead piece of shit’s remains, so do I.” She shrugged a bit. “They’re temporary. The powers only last until the borrowed blood works its way through my system. But still pretty useful. Especially when I’ve got a shapeshifter around who doesn’t mind me taking a sip now and then.”
“Just think,” Twister put in, “if you’d gone for two bubbles instead of being an arrogant prick with that cage thing instead, the shoe would still be on the other foot right now. Speaking of which–” She reached down, grabbing the man’s expensive Italian loafers. “You tried to kill me, I’m taking these.”
“Okay, look,” Arturo snarled, “whoever you’re here to break out, it’s not gonna work. There’s a hell of a lot more guards in there than just me and a few goyles.”
“Break out of–” Senny blinked. “Are you saying this place is some kind of prison?”
The man stared at her. “You don’t even know what y–yes it’s a prison! The hell are you doing here if you don’t even know that? It’s called Desmoterion.”
“I’ve heard of that place,” Twister put in. “It’s like a… a mercenary prison. They don’t worry about courts or judges or anything. They just kidnap and hold people for as long as they’re paid to.”
Snarling a little, Asenath grabbed the man by the throat, bringing the special knife up close. “Have you been holding a vampire–an Akharu, named Tiras?” Even as she said it, the girl couldn’t stop her voice from shaking a little bit. If this was true, if after all this time, her father was right in that building…
Arturo echoed the name.“Tiras? Yeah. Yeah, we had someone by that name for awhile. We’re not the ones who caught him, just held him for someone else who brought him in for about a… I’d say seven, eight years? That was about thirty years ago. Then the Heretic asshole who brought the guy in took him back. Paid pretty well too. Nice tip.”
“Heretic asshole?” Senny frowned sharply. “What Heretic asshole?” Her mind was racing. Her father had been here for eight years thirty years earlier, then some Heretic had paid to take him?
The man was nodding. “Yeah, one of those Eden’s Garden leaders. What do they call ‘em? Victors. One of the Eden’s Garden Victors. His name was ahh… Kyril Shamon.
“You wanna find this Tiras guy, you gotta talk to Kyril Shamon.”