Bol Sampson

Interlude 5B – Fossor (Heretical Edge 2)

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Four Years Ago

Jefferson Coalbright missed his family. Yes, the trip up here to fish and camp in the Canadian wilderness with his buddies was important. It was tradition, one they had kept alive for the past twenty years, even through the deaths of a few of their close friends. And now, not taking the trip would feel like dishonoring that memory. To say nothing of how much he’d hate himself for letting his living buddies down. But still, two weeks was a long time to be away from his wife, his father, and all six of his children. He missed them more than he could say. 

Still, this trip was just about over. Then, he supposed, he would spend most of the year looking forward to the next one. That was how it always went. The grass was greener, and so on. 

At the moment, Jefferson was washing his hands in the restroom at the edge of the campgrounds he and his friends had chosen this year. Hearing the squeak of the door, he glanced up at the mirror, only to smile at the reflection. “Well, hey there, Freddy. You haven’t gone home yet, huh? I thought you were taking off yesterday?”

“Oh, not just yet,” the slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a soft, inviting expression that made him look like that friendly uncle everyone knew replied easily. He crossed the restroom with something in one hand, setting it up on the sink between them. “Just can’t bring myself to leave this beautiful place.” ” He inhaled and exhaled with pronounced satisfaction. “It was Astrid’s favorite place to come, you know.” A lost, faraway expression crossed the man’s face. 

Biting his lip, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “I know, buddy.” Fred was a man he’d only met a few days earlier, yet the man was so friendly, so full of wonderful stories of his late wife (who shared a name with Jefferson’s own lost mother), that he felt as though he’d known the former stranger for a much longer time. “She’d be glad you were still coming up here, I know she would.”  

Changing the subject then, he gestured to the object that had been placed up on the other sink. It was a white-red rose in a flower pot. “Now that’s just gorgeous, where did it come from?” 

“Hmm?” Glancing to the flower as though he’d forgotten about it for a moment, Fred paused. A somewhat sad smile crossed his face briefly. “Oh… there’s a grove of them a few hours’ hike from here. Astrid… Astrid loved them, so I always make sure to take one to her grave after one of these trips.” Shaking his head, he noted, “And then I went and forgot I’d already picked the one for her earlier. Took a second one and didn’t even… notice…” Trailing off, he seemed to lose himself in memories (happy ones, Jefferson hoped) for a few seconds before coming back to the present. “Ah, actually, I’m glad I found you. You’re heading out this morning, aren’t you? Why don’t you take that one home to your own wife? Let her know just how much you missed her.” 

After briefly considering, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “You know what, I think I might take you up on that. Here, let me buy it off you.” He reached for his wallet. 

“No, no, no, don’t be ridiculous.” Shaking his head, Fred took the flower pot and pressed it against Jefferson. “You take this and make the missus happy, you hear me? It’s plenty enough payment just thinking about the feelings this little plant here is going to give your whole family.” 

Thanking him again, Jefferson Coalbright took the flower, sniffing it curiously before the sound of a familiar horn honking drew his attention. “Right, that’s the guys. I’ll see you next time, Freddy! Maybe next year.” 

Watching the man leave with the flower under one arm, ‘Fred’ slowly straightened. His cheerful expression remained, but it seemed decidedly less friendly in that moment. “No, Mr. Coalbright,” Fossor murmured under his breath while standing on the ashes he had magically spelled to be unnoticeable by the humans around here. 

“I don’t think you will.” 

*******

Three Years Ago 

 

Clipping the badge that identified him as a doctor onto his white coat as he strolled out of the elevator onto the children’s wing of the psychiatric care hospital, Fossor gave a polite wave to the woman behind the desk who knew him as Alvin Carver. She barely looked up from the phone, too busy with her own work to even say hello as he passed by. She certainly didn’t notice the ashes that sprayed out of the canteen he held in one hand and coated the floor in front of him before just as quickly vanishing after he had stepped on them. 

It was late enough in the day that things were pretty quiet, save for the rapid babbling coming from the nurse’s station, as Fossor neared the room belonging to Dakota Coalbright. One quick visit, in and out, just to continue fulfilling his end of the bargain with the creature known as Kwur. The plant-being had grown particularly fond of this girl and wanted her checked in on now and then. 

Fossor, of course, could sympathize with growing somewhat attached to a child that he saw as his own. Young Felicity, of course, would be… fourteen now? Just entering high school. He’d have to pay her another visit soon. It had been a couple years since that time in the dentist’s office, and he was certain her mother would appreciate some new pictures. 

The things he did to show his affection for that woman, honestly. He was clearly growing soft. 

Just as he reached out for the door to see how Dakota was doing, it opened on its own. The old necromancer was taken slightly by surprise, stepping back as two figures emerged. One was a very heavy-set, round-figured beachball of a man with a broad smile. The other was a young blonde girl. Both emerged from the room together in mid-conversation. 

He hadn’t heard them before. Magic. There had to be magic involved. It had kept their presence in the room as well as their conversation secret, likely to avoid being overheard by nosy nurses. And now, they both looked up to see the man who had just been about to go into the room. 

The girl was nothing. She simply smiled absently, starting to excuse herself with a polite apology. She didn’t know him, had no idea that anything was wrong. She would go on without another thought about it. 

The man, however, was a different story. The moment their eyes met, Fossor knew. This was a man who knew him, one who recognized him. He too, vaguely recognized the other figure, though the specifics were escaping him at the moment. But that hardly mattered. What did matter was that the man knew who Fossor was. And that was something that couldn’t be allowed. He’d seen Fossor about to walk into Dakota’s room. That was a story that would get out, and the entire point of this charade was that when the time came, people couldn’t know that Fossor had any connection whatsoever to the girl in that room. Otherwise, the whole game would be ruined. And it happened to be a game that Fossor was determined to win. 

Yes, this was definitely a problem. One that he needed to take care of now. 

The fat man was already reacting, recovering from his own surprise as he reached for something in his pocket. His mouth was open, starting to blurt a warning while his other hand moved to shove the blonde girl behind him for protection. 

But Fossor had been doing this for a long time, and had been reacting even before he fully understood the situation. A thought manifested several ghosts surrounding the pair. One yanked the door into Dakota’s room shut before the girl could notice anything wrong. Another covered the blonde girl’s mouth and yanked her up, while two more covered the fat man’s mouth and held his arms down before he could grab whatever he had been reaching for. 

The ghost who appeared next was different from the others. He was larger by over a foot, and purple rather than blue-gray, with burning red eyes. His name was Ahmose, and both hands covered the fat man’s eyes. The resulting scream of agony from the man as the torture-spirit used his power was only barely muffled by the other ghost’s hands over his mouth. Within a few seconds of that, he had collapsed. 

Gesturing for his spirit troops to gather up the fat man, Fossor gave a look toward the blonde girl, who was giving her own muffled scream while struggling against the ghost holding her. The scream, at least, stopped as Fossor waved a hand, focusing his flesh-crafting magic to seal her mouth. He’d have to kill her, of course. But he’d first like to at least… wait…

Frowning, Fossor looked up and down the hall. Something about the girl was off. Things still looked clear, so he directed the ghosts to carry the unconscious fat man and the still-struggling (even more now that her mouth had been temporarily sealed) girl into one of the other rooms. The patient in that one was safely asleep, knocked out every evening by a very strong cocktail of drugs, so Fossor was quite certain they wouldn’t be interrupted. Giving one last glance toward the nurses station, he waited until he was also certain that no one had noticed anything. Then he crossed the hall. Near the door, he glanced toward Ahmose. “Watch for intruders,” he ordered. “Stay out of sight.” 

That said, he stepped into the other room, where the ghosts were just depositing the fat man on the floor. Ignoring him, Fossor stepped up to the struggling blonde girl, extending a hand to touch her shoulder before frowning. “Hmm… someone… very powerful is keeping a bit of an eye on you, aren’t they? Well, that makes this a little more complicated. You see, I would simply make you disappear. But… that would attract this person’s attention, and attention is a bad thing for me.” 

His frown turned to a smile. “I suppose we’ll just have to make sure neither of you remember any of this.” 

******

Several Weeks Ago

 

The door of a small hole-in-the-wall bar in the Alter-filled town of Strangefield swung open as the blue reptilian-skinned man known as Azlee Ren strolled out. On the way, he called over his shoulder. “Now don’t you even think about staying out too late, Minnsy! We’ve got that brunch date with Carolina in the morning and if you make me listen to the old lady’s stories all by myself, you’re gonna wake up with a shaved you-know-what, I swear to Pete and his dragon!” 

Whistling, the only member of the Gehenna guard who actually spent a fair amount of time in the town their outpost was near (there was a reason he was put in charge of interacting with outsiders) strolled off around the corner of the building to the small parking lot. On the way, he plucked the communication device from one pocket. To outsiders, it would look like a cell phone, but was actually capable of much more. For the moment, he simply used it to compose a quick message for his sister. She was stationed at one of the other outposts, but the message would be sent along through the Gehenna intergalactic communications network and she would get it within a day or two. He had to let her know that they’d both been wrong about who had written that book they were both obsessed with as children. It was the Benestean, Tuuv R’ken. 

“So… I… guess… we… both… owe… each… other… dinner.” With that typed out, Azlee clicked the device shut, dropped it in his pocket, and reached out to grab the door of his car. He could have called for a teleport in and out of town, of course. But Azlee preferred to drive. It gave him time to think. Or not think, and just let his mind wander. Besides, the scenery was gorgeous here on Earth. Much better than the place Tala was stationed. He’d have to send her more pictures. Or would that be considered rubbing it in her face? Hmmm… it was a fine line. 

Stepping down into the car, he hit the button to turn it on while shutting the door. For a moment, he fiddled with the radio to find a station playing something he could groove to. Then the man shifted the car into reverse and turned to look over his shoulder to back up out of the lot. He was met with the sight of a man in his back seat holding a small spray bottle up. Before Azlee could react, the man triggered the spray into his face. Instantly, he felt his throat close up, his heart bursting. As darkness filled his vision, he collapsed sideways into the passenger seat with a violent spasm, blood gushing from his mouth while Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight played. 

Sighing, Fossor set the spray bottle aside. He listened to Patsy’s song for a few seconds while waiting for the poison to finish its job. About halfway through it, he felt the death complete, and sent a bit of his power into the body. Immediately, Azlee sat back up, and Fossor gestured. “Let’s go get you cleaned up, my friend. And pick up the pace, hmm? There’s much to do, and we can’t have anyone notice you going missing yet. Not until you acquire a few things for me.” 

Without speaking, the dead Azlee pulled the car out of the lot before starting to pull away from the bar, all while Fossor casually hummed along with that old song.  

*******

Several Days Ago

 

Back when he was alive, the man known as Randall Puzler had been a detective for the Las Vegas police department while secretly working for the Three Ruling Families of Akharu, Oni, and Vestil. For months now, however, he had actually been a dead man being puppeted by Fossor toward one end: becoming friendly with the Vestil man who was, at that very moment, punching the wall of the precinct on his way out. 

“Hey!” the puppeted zombie called out toward the glass-like man full of colored smoke and liquid. “Something wrong, Bol?” 

Bol Sampson sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Puzler. Turns out your people can’t really help me after all.” 

“Well, what happened?” Adopting a concerned expression to the zombie’s face, Fossor directed it to hold a hand out. “Maybe I can do something, you know? It’s not… the Oni acting out?” 

“Not yet,” Bol confirmed darkly. “But they will soon enough. It–” He sighed once more. “Princess Rowan’s missing, and none of our people or your people have any idea how to find her.” 

“Hmm.” Pretending to consider that, ‘Puzler’ snapped his fingers. “Hold on, what you need is outside help. You heard of that Heretic rebellion thing, right?” 

Bol sounded doubtful. “Something tells me they have their things to deal with.” 

Offering his ‘friend’ a smile, the zombified police officer shook his head. “Trust me, they will if you have the right thing to offer in exchange. See, I was ahhh… I was angling to get some help of my own from one of those vampires who works for them. I hear she’s pretty good. Asenath?” 

“Heard of her too,” Bol confirmed. “But she’s got a direct connection to the Akharu, Tiras. Which means she is not going to have happy feelings about my people.” 

“She doesn’t have to have happy feelings,” ‘Puzler’ pointed out. “Not if you’ve got something to trade for her help. Like I said, I’ve been looking for a way to get some help from her myself, but if it’ll save that little girl and stop what’ll happen to this place if you don’t get her back, it’s all yours.” 

“You really think you’ve got information that could get her to drop everything and bring the cavalry to save Princess Rowan?” Bol asked, curious by that point. 

The dead man smiled encouragingly. “Oh…

“I’m pretty sure she’ll trade just about anything to find out where her father disappeared to.” 

*******

Four Hours Ago

 

The unmarked yellow van pulled to a stop in front of an ordinary-looking suburban house on the edge of Las Vegas. The man standing by the fence watching the van arrive raised one hand in greeting, while the doors slid open to allow a handful of Gehenna agents to hop out. Their leader addressed the man waiting for them. “You’re the representative of the Three Families?” 

“Nah,” the man drawled, not moving away from the fence. “I’m the dead guy making sure you end up right on top of the spell the stunningly handsome and brilliant necromancer who made me his puppet set up for you.” 

“Wh–” That was as far as the Gehenna agent got, before the promised spell abruptly ignited. All six of the van’s newly-emerged occupants were engulfed in white-blue flames that reached ten feet into the sky and stayed that way for a full ten seconds before fading. The men looked outwardly unharmed. But their vision was totally vacant, and all six collapsed lifelessly to the ground a moment later.

Once they were down, Fossor emerged from the house. A cloud of ash sprinkled the ground ahead of him as he casually ambled his way out to stand on the sidewalk, watching over the dead bodies. “Well,” the necromancer announced while rubbing his hands together, “we should get busy. 

“So much to do before someone notices that you’re late to saving the day.” 

 

********

Present

 

In one of several dungeon-like rooms deep within his own home, Fossor watched several projected holographic images against the wall. The one he focused on showed the view through the eyes of the leader of the Gehenna field team he had ambushed and… prepared. 

“I can’t tell you how much I hate those motherfuckers.” The announcement came from the Akheilosan mercenary Fahsteth, who stood behind Fossor with his arms folded. “You sure I can’t have some popcorn for this?” 

“I’ll send you a copy,” Fossor assured him. “Feel free to enjoy it on your own time with any snacks you like.” 

That said, he turned his attention away from that particular projection, allowing things to proceed mostly on what the humans would call auto-pilot as the field team leader and his companions made their way toward the Gehenna outpost. In the meantime, Fossor focused on the other two projections. One showed the view through Azlee Ren’s eyes as he was escorted by the Seosten with the phoenix tattoo, while the other revealed one through the eyes of one of his other zombies, a slaver who was already working with his companions at the junkyard to line up what they thought would be a delivery of fresh cannon fodder for Fossor’s battle arena. 

Hearing Fahsteth snarl, Fossor glanced over to the first projection. Azlee was looking at the girl, Hannah. Or Avalon, as she went by now. “You’ll have your turn,” he calmly told the man. 

A couple of things happened almost simultaneously in two of the projections then. Up at the Gehenna base, the one called Prelate came into view as the group entered the lobby, approaching at a brisk pace. “Kwur’s escape attempt has been halted, then,” the Gehenna outpost leader declared, a smile touching his blue-scaled face. “Good. Things can get back to normal. What else do you have to report? Where is Azlee? And what of this potential alliance with the Heretic rebellion to track down our other wayward prisoner?” 

“Well,” Fossor began, his voice traveling through his power to make the puppet in front of Prelate say the same thing. “Turns out we have two things to report. First, we really shouldn’t let ourselves get so distracted. And second, we are shit at identifying when people are already dead.” 

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Azlee had looked at Felicity. And Felicity had looked at him. In that moment, Fossor saw the recognition in her eyes. She knew. She knew the man was dead. And she proved that by immediately taking control of him. She made him stop. She made him sit down. And then, then she started to shout a warning. 

In the Gehenna base, the field team leader and the other five members of his team all moved as one to yank their shirts open. This revealed the intricate spellwork that had been carved into their chests. A single spell that continued through all five men. Prelate had time to see that much, his eyes widening and a shout coming to his lips. 

But Fossor was faster, reaching out to touch the nearby wall while speaking the single command word. Instantly, all of the slaves and slavers in the junkyard shown in the third projection were killed. Their life forces went to power two spells. The first half of the energy went to the spell carved into the flesh of the men in the Gehenna base. The resulting explosion would annihilate the entire Gehenna outpost and leave a one mile wide crater in every direction.

Meanwhile, the other half of that energy went to Las Vegas, into a very different spell that had been etched into the skin of Azlee Ren’s corpse. As with the others, the result blew the man apart, literally making him explode in a burst of white energy. But the point of the spell was not destruction. Instead, the energy that erupted from the dead man literally enveloped its single target, Felicity herself. And in the next second, she was gone. 

As all three projections went white and faded, Fahsteth’s laughter filled the room. The man could barely keep himself upright, he was so amused. And obviously delighted by the destruction of the Gehenna base on Earth. 

“Well,” Fossor announced happily. “That’s over with. Shall I lead you out?” 

“What–hey,” Fahsteth muttered, “What about the girl? Isn’t she about to show up?”

With a chuckle, Fossor started out of the room, shaking his head. “We have some time to wait. Remember, thanks to my… agreement with dear Joselyn, I cannot allow harm to come to her daughter until she is eighteen years old and no longer a child. That’s not for another month.” 

Fahsteth paused, looking back into the room they were leaving. “Uh, sure looks to me like you jumped the gun a bit.” 

“Nonsense,” Fossor insisted. “I have not allowed any harm to come to her. In fact, she will be safer through these next few weeks than she could ever possibly be.” He smiled faintly. “Considering she will not experience them.” 

Squinting at him for a moment, Fahsteth got it then. “You sly motherfucker. You’re using time travel. You’re cheating, jumping the girl straight to her birthday. Why the hell didn’t you just do that years ago?” 

“You know as well as I do that time travel magic is expensive, particularly done against one’s will,” Fossor reminded him. “Besides,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m not entirely certain the oath spell will actually work this way. There’s always the chance that it will read from her physical age, not the calendar date. In which case, holding her without harming her for a few weeks will be much easier than it would be to hold her for years without being able to harm her. Like trying to raise a child without ever being able to resort to physical discipline. This way, if the oath works off the calendar date, everything will be just fine. And if it works off her physical age, well, then I just wait a few weeks while she sits here nice and safe. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and give Joselyn the good news. 

“She’ll be so excited to know that her daughter is on her way.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“So what are the rules for addressing this King Oberon guy?” I asked later that afternoon while standing in front of a window of the airport watching the planes down on the runway. 

Yeah, all the magic and superpowers and everything else available to us and we were taking a plane to get from Las Vegas to Canada. It was actually part of the king’s rules for allowing us entry. People he didn’t know and trust didn’t get to teleport into his territory. That and I was pretty sure he was also going to have people on the plane checking us out the whole way over to make sure this wasn’t some kind of trick or something. He struck me as a pretty cautious guy, from what I’d heard. Which was completely understandable when it came to dealing with both Heretics and Seosten. 

Still, it felt weird like this. For all the traveling I’d done over the past year, I hadn’t really just flown on a plane. It was… both mundane and also a bit exciting. Which was just absurd for me to feel, considering I’d been on an actual spaceship. Multiple spaceships, come to think of it. 

The others, save for Twister and Columbus, were all gathered around or sitting nearby. We had this particular section of the waiting area to ourselves, courtesy of a couple well placed spells convincing anyone who came near to find another place to wait. 

As I asked that question, Asenath spoke from where she was sitting. “I haven’t met him, but from what Twister says, use the terms your majesty, your highness, and King Oberon. Lord Fae apparently works too.”

While she said that, Senny kept a wary eye on the nearby window. Even with the amulet thing keeping her in shadows, she didn’t like the idea of being out in the sunlight. I supposed after a few hundred years of avoiding it save for very special occasions like this, that was a pretty fair reaction to have. 

“Hold on,” Tristan put in, “did you just say that Twister knows this Oberon guy? Like she actually met him before?”

“Damn straight,” Twister herself informed him while she and Columbus approached with a tray of drinks they had gone to pick up. “Obs and me are like this.” She held two fingers up, crossed over each other. “We go way back. But just for the record, if any of you call him Obs, he’ll probably kill you. I’m exaggerating. Sorta. Just don’t call him that.”

She and Columbus started passing out the drinks, and I looked to the boy. “Are you doing okay?” The last time he had been in an airport, of course, had been when Charmiene grabbed and possessed him. This couldn’t be bringing up pleasant memories. 

He hesitated, but gave a short nod. “Yeah,” the boy grunted, “it’s not great, but I just keep picturing the look on her face when I blasted her out that window and you finished her. Good times.”

Before responding to that, I glanced down to the other end of the waiting area we’d commandeered, where Tabbris was sitting with December and April. The two kids were engrossed in rapid conversation, but the red-haired girl was looking at us. There was no judgment or accusation in her eyes. There wasn’t much of anything at all. She just sat there watching, as though she was curious about what I was going to say. 

“Yeah,” I finally agreed, “Charmiene had it coming.” It might not have been the single most tactful thing to say, but it was the truth. Columbus was my friend, and that bitch had enslaved and basically emotionally tortured him for a long time. She absolutely got what she deserved, no question about it. 

Whatever April thought about me saying that, she didn’t reveal. Instead, she simply got up, stepped over, and spoke to Haiden. “Will your mate be joining us? From the briefings we’ve had, this would seem to be a situation she would wish to be involved in.”

Giving her a brief look, the man flatly replied, “My wife will not be there, no. She wants to, but… but she has a lot of her own work to do. That and we thought this might be pushing the King far enough as it is. He seems to dislike your people even more than he does Heretics. We’re trying to keep this whole thing cordial, so aggravating the man by bringing more Seosten than we already have felt like a bad idea. But trust me, if we need her, she’ll be there, King be damned.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, April replied, “Then let us hope that we do not need her.” There was a brief pause before she added, “From your reaction, I feel as though I should note that I meant no disrespect when I referred to Sariel as your mate rather than wife. In our society, one who is a mate is one who has successfully borne or provided children for you. It was not my intention to dismiss the state of your union, only to acknowledge that the two of you have produced viable offspring. I was… attempting diplomacy.”

“You hear that, Nessa?” Tristan piped up while nudging his sister, “we’re viable offspring. I am totally putting that on a college application.”

“We’re not going to college,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not that kind of college, anyway.“ She still sounded just a little bit distraught at that fact, despite everything. 

With a grin, Tristan retorted, “Well, no. But it’d be fun to imagine what kind of reaction those recruiters would have to some of the stuff I could put on the application.”

Snorting, Miranda took a sip from her drink. “Can I put down a tree as my previous address? Or do I have to specify which branch?”

Jason, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke without looking up from the cell phone he was tapping away at. “You’d probably have to use Section Four for that.” 

Most of us just blinked at him blankly, though I could see the look of recognition on Haiden’s face. 

“Section Four?” Shiori asked curiously. 

“Yeah,” the boy confirmed with a blank look as he glanced up. “Don’t you—oh, shit, right. You wouldn’t know about that, I guess. Section Four, it’s this joint thing between certain Alters and Heretics. Natural Heretics, that is. Basically it’s just people who work in various services like the mail or the fire department or anything like that, who are in the loop about all the stuff Bystanders don’t know. Police departments with detectives who can point the right kind of people at certain cases, doctors in hospitals who know how to recognize magical poison. Or postal workers who can deliver to certain places that normal ones can’t.” 

“Yeah,” I muttered in agreement, “that definitely doesn’t sound like anything that our brand of Heretics would be involved with. God forbid we work alongside other species.” 

Wincing a little at that, Haiden nodded. “Anyway, refer to the man as King Oberon, Majesty, all that stuff that Asenath was saying. Be polite, be cordial, be deferential. Don’t forget that we’re there by his permission. If he gets annoyed, he can send us right out again. And if he gets too annoyed, well… just don’t annoy him that much. Don’t be rude and don’t be impatient. If he asks you a question, answer it. We’re his guests, and we can’t forget that.” 

We talked a bit more about all that, before it was time to go board the plane. On the way, Bol and Eldridge showed up to wish us well. They were clearly itching to go too, but had to stay to keep a lid on the trouble that was already brewing. Las Vegas was really close to going to war with itself over this missing children thing. If we couldn’t find Rowan and the others pretty damn quick, there was going to be a hell of a lot of violence around here. And if the families of Las Vegas went to war, I had no doubt that loyalist Crossroads or Eden’s Garden people would take advantage, which would take away one more relatively safe haven that the world’s Alters had. 

We had to find those kids, and Jiao, as soon as fucking possible. 

As a group, we moved over to get in line. My eyes glanced around, as I asked myself if this Oberon guy’s people were already here. He definitely wanted to get a read on us throughout this flight, so it would make sense for them to already be here. Were they other passengers, some of the flight attendants, or both? Probably both. And I doubted I’d be able to catch them. Not if they had been hand-picked by this guy to watch us. Actually, it might be considered rude to try. I was just going to sit back and try to relax as much as possible. 

Sitting next to Shiori (I let her take the window seat) and across the aisle from Tabbris and December, I settled in. We had a few hours of flight ahead of us. A few hours where I couldn’t do anything except relax. At least, relax as much as I could. With Shiori there, that sounded like a pretty good time to me. 

And if we were lucky, the plane would make it all the way to Calgary without being attacked by a giant Roc or some kind of Manticore or something. 

Wait, why the fuck did I let myself think that?!

*******

Believe it or not, we actually were lucky, despite me having that stupid thought right as we were about to take off. The plane made it to the Calgary International Airport without issues. I never even noticed who might have been keeping an eye on us, so they were either really good, or there wasn’t anyone there. I was betting almost exclusively toward the former. They were just that good. 

As we came off the plane, there was a dark-skinned man with intricate red tribal-like tattoos all over his body (or at least the arms and neck that I could see), face, and bare head standing in front of us. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt, jeans, and held up a sign with the words, ‘Vegas Hunter Party’ written on it. That was us. We were coming from Vegas, and we were hunters, of a sort. It was a joke, apparently. Unfortunately, Shiori didn’t even snicker. She was too worried about her mother to really notice. 

Not that the guy needed the sign, considering he obviously knew who we were. As soon as we came into sight, he stepped forward and lowered the sign. “Welcome to Canada,” he announced. “My name’s Conner, but there’ll be time for more thorough introductions later. I’m sure you’re all in a hurry, so let’s go. We’re bypassing Customs. Well… Bystander Customs, at least. This way.” 

That, the man turned and began to walk at a brisk pace. The rest of us exchanged brief glances before following after him. I had a feeling that falling behind and ending up separated from the man that King Oberon had sent to collect us wouldn’t exactly look very good as far as first impressions went.

As promised, Conner led us through the airport, going through a staff door that bypassed Customs entirely. We walked through the maze of corridors, past a few people who looked confused at our presence but didn’t say anything. At one point, a man in a police uniform approached, but walked on after a brief word from our guide. 

Eventually, we made it out of the airport and down into one of the parking garages. The man walked us over to a shuttle bus, where the driver was waiting with the door open. Rather than wave us on, however, Conner turned to us. “Okay, like I said in there, sorry for rushing you. It’s rude, but given the reason for your visit, we were pretty sure you wouldn’t mind skipping over a lot of the formalities.” 

“We don’t,” Haiden assured the man. “And we thank your king for his generous acceptance of our presence.” 

“Yeah, you can thank him yourself in a couple hours,” Conner replied. “King Oberon is, unfortunately, tied up by events he couldn’t escape on such short notice. He has his own responsibilities, I’m sure you understand. But he’ll meet with you as soon as physically possible. In the meantime, we’re to take you out for supper and give you a place to get cleaned up before meeting the king.” 

Asenath spoke up then. “The last thing we want is to be rude or ungrateful, but we really do need to hurry. We have to find those missing children, especially Rowan, before things… escalate too much in Las Vegas.” 

“And our mom,” Shiori put in, standing next to her sister. “We have to find our mom too.” 

The big black guy with all the tattoos bowed his head gracefully. “Of course. I promise you that all of this is proceeding as quickly as possible. We don’t want to see anything happen to those children any more than any of you do. King Oberon is absolutely aware of the urgency of the matter. That’s why he allowed you to come here on such short notice. You will have every bit of aid we can give, just as soon as the king assures for himself that you are… well, legitimate. I hope you understand that he is wary of Bosch Heretics intruding in our land. It has a tendency to go wrong.”

We agreed, because what else could we do? As much of a hurry as we were in, we still had to go through these motions. So, as a group, we filed onto the bus and found seats. Conner stepped on after us, having been joined by a gold-skinned humanoid woman with black wings. Her face had no mouth and no ears. Just very black eyes and a nose.   

The bus started moving, while Conner introduced the winged woman as Dia. Apparently, she was one of Oberon’s chief assistants, or whatever. After being introduced, Dia stepped up to the center of the aisle between the bus seats and looked over us.

Hello. 

The word, just like that, appeared in the air in front of her. Like, physically appeared. It was gold writing in mid-air, a solid shape several inches thick and about a foot in height. A second after it appeared, there was an audible voice, female and authoritative, speaking it. The voice came from the letters themselves. A second later, the letters dissolved into dust, and the words, Welcome to Canada appeared in their place. Those too were spoken aloud just after appearing, and then disappeared. 

This was how Dia spoke. The words physically appeared in front of her and were given sound by… something. Huh. That was different. 

Over the next couple minutes, the woman exchanged greetings with us, getting everyone’s name before asking where we’d like to eat. She provided a few suggestions, and all of it sounded good. Despite the rush we were in, I was hungry. We all were. And we couldn’t just run off without Oberon’s permission to start searching. Hell, we were going to need his help to make sure we found these guys in time before they just disappeared again. They probably thought they were safe enough from pursuit for the time being, but… well, we had to hurry before they changed their minds about that. 

Unfortunately, we needed help and support to do the actual searching part properly. Not to mention the fact that we wouldn’t get very far on empty stomachs. So, we picked a place for dinner, and the bus headed that way. 

There was one readily obvious thing in the restaurant: there were Alters there. A good number, actually. A good third of the patrons and several of the wait staff were setting off my Heretic sense or just plain looked like obvious Alters. Some of them looked curiously at us, but we still had the enchanted necklaces to hide that we were Bosch Heretics, so no one seemed too upset. Though I wondered how they would’ve reacted if they did know who we were.

We got dinner, and while we were all eating, Dia asked to speak with me privately. So, with a shrug toward Shiori, I stepped away from the table. The two of us moved to an out-of-the-way corner of the room, and she looked me up and down for a moment before speaking, the words appearing in front of her before being spoken in a much quieter voice than before. 

You are her. You are the descendant of Lyell. 

Blinking in surprise, considering I’d expected her to ask me about my mom, I nodded. “Uh, Lyell Atherby, you mean? Yeah, he’s my great-grandfather. You knew him?” 

There was a brief pause before she gave a short nod, looking wistful. He was a dear friend for a long time. And then much more than a friend for even longer. 

“I–oh. Ohhh.” Blushing a little, I looked to her. “You and Lyell…” 

And Edeva, came the response. We were very close. I miss them both, though I am quite glad to see their descendant has become such a good person. From everything I have heard while performing these background checks for King Oberon, they would be very proud of you. 

The words didn’t come all at once, of course, but just a few at a time. It was like watching closed captioning in real life. Catching up with all that, I slowly shook my head in wonder. “You–huh. I’d kind of like to hear more about… about Lyell and Edeva, whenever you’ve got the chance. I don’t really know that much about them.” 

She bowed in acknowledgement, replying, Assuming this pressing matter is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, I would love to speak with you some more. My first allegiance is to my king, of course. 

“Of course,” I agreed with a nod. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything to upset your… liege, I guess? Whatever, we’re definitely trying to stay on good terms. Thanks for… um, telling me who you are. I’m really looking forward to talking with you later.” And I was. The idea of talking to someone who knew Lyell and Edeva that well? Sign me up. 

Either way, we sat back down and finished our supper. As soon as we were done, Conner stood up. “Okay, sounds like King Oberon is ready now. If you’ll come this way, we’ll go see him right now.” 

Once more, we followed our two guides to the bus. After our little detour for dinner, it was finally time to meet the King of Canada. 

And then, with any luck at all, we’d be on our way to save Jiao and those kids.

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All-Out 3-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The dealer in question was apparently named Sarez. He was a dark blue-skinned humanoid with white spots on his neck and forehead, along with three evenly-spaced eyes instead of two. He was also not on the casino floor anymore, though he was in the building still. Going by the cameras, he had made his way to the staff kitchen and was having food with a few others. 

Asenath wanted to go grab the guy immediately, but Bol initially made her back down with the reminder that we were in their casino and their own people would take care of getting information out of him. We were just supposed to watch the security feed while they picked the guy up. Which led to all of us staring impatiently at the screens for what felt like way too long even to me. For Shiori and Senny with their mother missing, it had to have felt like hours

“Come on!” Shiori blurted out loud while pointing at the screen of the nearest laptop. “What’s going on, why don’t they grab that guy and drag him out already? He’s right there, and he’s gotta know where Mom is! What’re they doing, letting him finish his meal first or something? Wait, is this a last meal he doesn’t know about?” 

Bol, who was holding some kind of small golden orb that was apparently a communication device, tucked it away while responding with a flat, “Unfortunately, there is a problem. Our people ran passive magic checks over Sarez and he appears to be in possession of a particular artifact which allows him to mark any person. From that point, if any marked person approaches him with hostile intent, or even targets him directly with anything like a teleportation spell or attack, he’ll sense it ahead of time. We don’t know how long he’s had it–” 

Miranda groaned, “But it’s probably been long enough for him to mark everyone on your security team, if not everyone on your staff. So if they go to grab him, or teleport him anywhere, or whatever, he’ll know and get the hell out of Dodge. That’s why he feels safe enough to sit around eating lunch or whatever. Because the second you come after him, he’ll just bounce.” 

“So let us do it,” Asenath told Bol and Eldridge, giving the men a sharp look. “We’re new, there’s no way he could have marked us. We’ll grab the guy like I wanted to in the first place. Bobbi still has to get close to him anyway to make sure he’s the right one. I mean…” She glanced at the laptop screen, showing her teeth with a low snarl. “He is, but it’d be nice to have confirmation.” 

“That’s our other problem,” Bol replied with a snarl of his own that showed just how frustrated he already was. “Look at his wrist when he reaches for his drink again. There, see the silver bracelet? It’s got a partner on his ankle. They’ve got what you call Double Jump spells on them. The second he feels threatened, he’ll activate one, probably with a voice command. The Double Jump means it’ll teleport him twice. Once inside the building, and once outside of it.”

“The first jump will take him to another place where he’s tampered with the anti-teleport security,” I murmured. “Like the one in here, but it could be anywhere in the building.” 

Eldridge nodded in agreement. “Sounds about right. Then this pain in the ass can teleport through that hole in the security to get outside the building. And the fact that he’s got two on probably means they’re keyed to each other. So if you take one off, it’ll trigger the other automatically. You’d have to the one from his wrist and the one from his ankle simultaneously, and too quickly for him to say the command word before you manage to get them off him. And they’re probably spelled against things like telekinetic or metallokinetic control. Which is just–”  

“Wecandoit!” That was December, jumping up and down with obvious excitement. Though whether it was at the prospect of being helpful, or just at doing something given how bored she was, I couldn’t say. She was gesturing back and forth between herself and Bobbi. “She’saStardrinker. They’rereallyfast. AndI’mreallyfasttoo. MyboostisboostedandIcanboostitmore. Sowecanbothbe reallyfastandgoget themagicthingsoffhim. Andwecandoitatthesametime. Cuzwe’rebothreallyfast.” 

“I think I followed that pretty well,” Miranda murmured. “But could that really work? They both just superspeed into the room and grab the teleport bracelets off that guy before he can react?”

“It could,” Bol thoughtfully replied while staring at the nearest screen. “And I believe it may be the best chance of making sure he doesn’t escape in the time we have to work with.”  

Asenath was already heading purposefully toward the door. “Right, so point us in the right direction. We’ll get close, send the speedsters in to make sure he can’t escape, then nail him to the wall.” Pausing, she added, “And I mean that figuratively… mostly. Okay, if nails are in the immediate vicinity, I won’t be held responsible for how literal it becomes. I’m just saying.” 

Miranda and I exchanged brief looks, before I offered her a thumbs up. “See?” I asked while following after Asenath. “We know how to make a trip to Vegas fun even without the gambling.”

“At this point,” Miranda informed me, “gambling seems like a downgrade in excitement.” 

So, Bol and the other Vestil escorted us to just down the hall from the room in question. Our guy was still in there, just enjoying his food while apparently unaware that he had already been found out. Which, given that little artifact of his that was supposed to let him know if anyone he’d marked was coming straight for him with hostile intent, made sense. But still, that was some patience on his part, to pull off something like that and then just sit there eating food while waiting for the lockdown to be over? 

Actually, if he could teleport out, why didn’t he? Was he hoping to keep his job here if they couldn’t figure out that he was the one who had done it? Or was he waiting for something else specific? Was there a certain time he was waiting for? Maybe someone else was going to arrive or… be available? Or maybe it was some thing that was being brought in? We’d have to ask as soon as we had him contained, because damn, that was really bothering me. 

Soon, we were set up in the hall. I could see the door ahead of us, and murmured in Bol’s direction, “I know we’re in a rush, but what exactly are this guy’s gifts, his powers? Besides using hold and pass magic. What are we about to walk in on? More importantly, what are we about to send Bobbi and December over there against when they grab those bracelets off him?” 

“Sarez is a Heaul,” came the answer. “Each of those white spots you see on his neck and forehead, and other parts of his body, can grow into a separate layer of armor you have to break through to get to anything vulnerable. Heaul can either stack their armor plates like that for more protection, or wait until you break through one, then activate another one. The stronger ones can grow back damaged shell spots fast enough that as long as they drag the fight out enough, they can keep cycling through fresh armor. And that third eye in the middle can do a paralyzing stare, as long as it’s looking at you and using it, you won’t be able to move.” 

Asenath nodded. “Right, well he can armor up all he wants, considering we have questions to ask. As for his paralyzing powers, we outnumber him and we’re hopefully about to take him by surprise.” She looked to December and Bobbi. “You two ready? We’ll be right behind you. The second you’ve got the bracelet and anklet off, bail and leave us room to grab him. Got it?” 

December’s head bobbed up and down so fast I seriously thought it might fall off. “Yupyupyupreadytobeusefulcuzwe’resupposedtobeusefulandifwe’renotusefulthenwhatareweevendoinghere–” From the corner of my eye, I saw Tabbris make a weird, funny face at her. She crossed her eyes, tilted her head, and puffed out her cheeks. It made December suddenly laugh, sputtering a little before actually slowing down a bit. “Imeanwe’reready. We’rereadytogo. Youknowassoon… asyousaytheword.” That was accompanied by a deliberate thumbs up toward Tabbris, who returned it with a giggle. 

We had one of the laptops letting us see the security screen, so that the two speedsters would know exactly where their target was. I held it up in front of them, while Asenath counted down from three. At the last second, the lights behind us went out. Not a surprise considering Bobbi had warned us it was coming. She needed the extra boost from that power. 

I also saw December touch something on her own wrist. There was what looked like a medical alert bracelet or something there, only with a dozen little dark blue gems. One of them dimmed as she touched it, just before Asenath reached zero. 

And then they were off. I could see a slight blur of motion from December, but almost nothing from Bobbi. They were just gone. Meanwhile, on the screen, Sarez suddenly fell over backward with what sounded like a blurted magical word. The trigger for his escape spells. But nothing happened. And we were already on our way. Asenath used her own speed, becoming a streak of color rushing ahead of us to reach the room even as the last syllable of his useless escape spell left the man’s lips. 

An instant later, I had passed through the doorway right behind Shiori, with Miranda just behind me. Tabbris had already recalled into me right as all this started, and Asenath was right in front of the man with her fist swinging for his face. December and Bobbi were in opposite corners. 

Unfortunately, not having his escape hatch apparently didn’t mean the man was totally vulnerable. Which we found out, as he suddenly blurted another word, and a concussive wave of force erupted from one of the rings on his hand. It slammed into all of us, sending us backwards. I was hurled out of the room entirely, crashing into the far wall while everyone else hit the walls inside the actual room. 

But it wasn’t just the pain of hitting the wall. There was something else to it too. Even as I slumped to the floor, I felt a strange… listless sensation. It wasn’t exhaustion or anything, it was just… a moment of not really caring about anything that was going on. I wanted to zone out and think about… birds. Birds sounded interesting. How did they fly, really? And why did they come in so many colors? It was a mating thing, right? But why were some bright and others were so–

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head snapped me out of it. Belatedly, I realized we were running down the hotel corridor. Wait, why were we running? 

Then I ‘remembered’, though it was less remembering and more having the past few seconds dumped into my head. As soon as I hit the wall and went out of it, Tabbris had taken control just in time to see Sarez flee through the door we had just been flung out of. He hit Bol, Eldridge, and the others with some kind of slow spell before taking off the other way. So Tabbris had given chase while inwardly screaming for me to wake up. And now that I knew what was going on, she relinquished the reins, just as I saw Sarez hit the door leading to the stairwell. It slammed shut right behind him, and I saw three different semi-transparent glowing chains appear around it. A spell to keep it shut. 

I didn’t even hesitate. Grabbing the knob, I turned while shoving against the door and the lock spell shattered under my ‘passage through locked doors’ power. I hit the stairwell in time to see the guy heading up instead of down. He glanced back, a gun appearing in his hand. In the same instant, I felt my body suddenly jerk to a halt as his third eye focused on me. He took a second to aim, then fired. Just as he did, I summoned a portal in front of my face, sending the other end of it back toward the guy’s leg. I hoped to slow him down, but the bullet barely seemed to do much. A second later, the reason became apparent, as a spot of white broke out through his pant leg where the bullet had struck, expanding outward to form a full suit of armor around the man. 

His hand snapped up, another ring on his hand glowing as a ball of white-hot fire appeared there before it was sent flying my way. Instantly, I focused on absorbing all that energy. By the time the explosion of fire faded, my whole body felt uncomfortably warm as it fought to contain that much power, and the sound of Sarez’s footsteps was fading as he ran.

“Oh no you don’t,” I muttered, already calling my staff instantly to my hand. Transferring all that power I’d absorbed into the staff itself to instantly charge it, I sent a burst out through the bottom to launch myself over the edge of the stairwell and into the open space leading all the way down to the floor far, far below. Before I could drop very far, Gus was launched upward in his grapple form, slamming into the ceiling far overhead to stop my fall. Then I expended the rest of the charge I’d just absorbed, channeling it into a boost from the other end of the staff that sent me rocketing all the way upward, past stairwell after stairwell. 

Where were the others? Were they okay? I couldn’t think about that. They’d be fine. I had been fine, eventually. I just had to catch this guy, right now, before he somehow managed to get away. That had to be why he was going up instead of down, right? He had some kind of backup escape plan. Another one. 

He also must’ve been using some kind of speed-enhancement spell, because even with the rocket-boost yanking me past all the stairs to the top, he still beat me up there. Barely, but he beat me. I saw him disappear through the roof-access door while leaving two injured security guards on the floor nearby. Very injured, if I had to guess from a glance. 

Tabs, help them! I blurted inwardly while giving my little partner a mental push as I went for the door. I’ve got this! 

Without hesitating, Tabbris popped out of me from behind, solidifying as she dropped down to do what she could for the security guys. Meanwhile, I could hear the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps and hoped it was Asenath and the others. But I couldn’t wait to find out. This guy could be gone by then. So, staff raised, I went right through the door.

Yup, it was definitely a roof alright. Sarez was ahead of me, racing for the edge. Before he could get any further, however, I summoned a quick little portal and shoved my staff through it, letting the other end pop out right in front of him before triggering a blast from the energy that had stored up since I landed in the stairwell a few seconds earlier. It wasn’t a lot, but it did manage to take the guy by surprise enough to make him stumble back a step or two. And that gave me an opening to hurl a small ball of goop that I’d summoned to my other hand. The goop was that nausea-inducing liquid, solidified into a gel. It stayed that way just long enough to splatter against the back of the man’s head. 

Unfortunately, that armor of his must’ve protected him from the effects of the gel, because he barely reacted before throwing a marble at his own feet. As the marble shattered, a wide wave of metal spikes, taller than I was, erupted from it and went shooting along the ground toward me. But I was ready, running forward to meet them. At the last second, I leapt up, planting my left foot against one of the spikes before pushing off. There were several lines of them, all staggered in size and placement, and I bounced from one to the next, ducking under a couple, hopping over one, trusting my instincts and reflexes. 

Once again, Sarez was almost to the edge of the roof. I opened another portal while leaping off the side of the last jagged metal spike, hurling myself that way as the portal appeared in front of me with the other end directly in front of the fleeing man. That time, I literally threw my staff through it while triggering the charge. The explosion of energy knocked the man backward, and I used the new power I’d just gotten at the theater a couple weeks earlier to summon the staff back into my hands as I landed on one knee, swinging it for the back of his leg. He was tough, but the strength behind the blow coupled with the concussive explosion of force he’d just taken to the face made the man stagger. 

I took advantage, springing to my feet before grabbing for his chest. But nothing happened when I summoned the Seosten possession power. There was just… nothing there.

The armor, I realized. The power couldn’t get through that white exoskeleton armor, which had completely covered him. Just as that came to mind, the man’s fist found my stomach, and then he was hurling me over his shoulder to the roof. His voice was a vicious snarl, “You don’t know what you’ve brought upon yourself!” 

Rolling backward to my feet, I was about to snap a snarky retort, when Asenath’s voice interrupted. “Why don’t you tell us then?” She was there, along with the others. Miranda, Shiori, Bobbi, and December were coming out right behind her. “And while you’re at it, tell us where you sent my mother and those kids.” 

I couldn’t see the blue man’s expression through the exoskeleton helmet that covered his face. But I saw the contempt in his eyes, and heard it in his voice. “Why don’t they explain it, in detail.” 

They, in this case, apparently referred to the entire swarm of lizard-people in suits (seriously, they looked like reptilian humanoids all wearing perfectly tailored tuxedos) that appeared in a literal flash of gray-green smoke. One of them screamed something about oppressors before they all threw themselves at us. In the background, I saw Sarez leap from the edge of the roof, throwing something ahead of himself that seemed to slow his fall. 

Then two of the lizard-men were on me. I ducked under one, snapping my staff up to rebound off the other’s chin before flipping the weapon around to drive the bladed end down into his foot. Using that as a brace, I shoved myself up into a double-kick, planting both feet against the first reptilian’s chest. But I didn’t just kick him. I also possessed him in the same motion. As he fell back, I took control, summoning my staff back to his hand (telling myself to cheer over that part actually working later) before spinning to cut the blade across the throat of his companion while simultaneously shoving my own host into unconsciousness. 

Then I just staggered for a second as the rush of pleasure from that kill filled me. It wasn’t all that strong, but still. Without Tabbris muting the sensation, it hit me more than it might have. I shook it off in time to see another lizard guy coming for me, holding a weird jeweled khopesh. 

He, in turn, was knocked to the ground by Miranda as she tackled him. “Go!” She shouted at me. “Get that guy!” Even as she said it, another Miranda appeared, already running. 

Asenath and Shiori were across the roof, engaged in a fight back to back. December and Bobbi were together too. All of them were busy. They didn’t have time. We didn’t have time. Not before Sarez got away. 

Running to the edge of the roof, I looked down. He was far below. Far, faaaaar below, a speck that was already landing on the pavement near a waiting SUV.

“With me?” I blurted, looking to the nearby Miranda. 

“Since second grade,” she shot back, already planting her hands on the edge of the low wall and starting to push herself up. I followed suit. Together, the two of us heaved ourselves over the edge of the roof. 

Then we dropped, plummeting through the air hundreds of feet toward our escaping target… and the ground. 

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All-Out 3-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“What?!” 

The blurted demand came from both Shiori and Asenath in the wake of the news that, rather than being closer to finding the latter’s father, now their mother had disappeared. Both of them looked like they were reminding themselves that killing (or even just smacking) the messenger was both totally wrong and would be a really bad idea right now, all things considered. 

But, of course, they controlled themselves. Senny found her voice first, while the two Vestils and Eldridge all looked briefly nervous. “What do you mean, they’ve disappeared? How can that happen? This…” She took an obvious calming breath, though I could see her fist tighten at her side, fingers digging into her palm. “This place has ridiculous security measures, doesn’t it?” 

“The ridiculousiest,” came an answer from a new approaching figure from down the hall. It was another Vestil, and from the description Shiori, Columbus, and Senny had given of their visitor that started all this, I was guessing that was this guy. An assumption proven right as the Vestil glanced in the direction of Bobbi, Miranda, Tabbris, December, and me. “Bol Sampson. Glad you could all make it. And yes, our security is absolutely top notch. It has to be, to run a casino like this. But that doesn’t seem to have helped, in this case. Come on, I’ll show you what happened.” 

His voice was tense despite his attempt to sound cordial. Which made sense. Even ignoring the security failure, having a bunch of children apparently abducted right from under your nose, to say nothing of a temporary ally who was trying to help you find what amounted to a literal supernatural mob princess? Yeah, no wonder the poor guy sounded like he was right on the edge of an actual breakdown. 

Together, we all followed Bol. The other two Vestil trailed behind us, along with Eldridge. The hall we were walking along had an open wall to one side overlooking one of the casino floors, clearly meant to entice everyone with all the bright, flashy games below. Glancing that way, I saw plenty of humans obliviously enjoying their gambling. But I also saw other things, Alters of every shape and size. There were Relukun, crystal people, various elementals, a couple orcs, and more. Most were having fun, though there were a few who looked like they had just gambled away the last pennies in their pockets. One guy in particular, a large onyx-skinned humanoid with burning flames where his eyes were, looked like he was about to cause a scene. But just as he started winding himself up, two figures dressed the same as the security guys I’d seen outside stepped that way. One leaned in and whispered something to the man while putting a hand on his arm. After a second of that, the upset guy gave a short nod, stepping back as he deflated a bit, the moment neatly deescalated. With a somewhat embarrassed-looking expression, the big guy hurriedly left the gambling floor.

Eldridge had moved behind me as I watched that, his voice quiet. “If their security is anything like ours, those guys just informed him that a nice bottle of something they know he enjoys was sent up to his room, on the house. Then it’s his choice to either go up and enjoy it or escalate things. With a little reminder of just how that kind of thing tends to go inside these places. Which, believe me, isn’t well for the person making a scene.”

By that point, we’d reached the conference room where the kids were supposed to be. The place was one of those with a bunch of plush, comfortable chairs arrayed in a semi-circle in front of a smallish, slightly raised stage. There was room for a hundred or so people in the room. At the moment, there were various toys, books, and coloring things all over the place, along with a few snacks and drinks clearly meant for kids. Apparently they didn’t want their young witnesses to be bored. Which was nice. I wondered who had been in charge of that. 

Asenath moved immediately to the front of the room, near the stage. She crouched, putting a hand on the floor before exhaling. “Mother was here. Right here, just a few minutes ago.” 

“What happened?” Shiori asked, voice tense as she stepped near her sister and stared at Bol. “How could someone make our mom and a bunch of kids you guys were supposed to be taking care of just disappear right from under your noses? You’ve got like… anti-teleportation things?” 

“Yup!” That was December. She hopped right up on a chair, pointing up to a corner of the room. “There’sonethere…” And then she started literally leaping from chair to chair, hopping around the room while pointing seemingly randomly in every possible direction. Seriously, she was like some kind of bouncy ball, a blur of motion and energy. “Andonethere… andthereandthereandthere…” Turning to us after stopping on the back of the last chair, she brightened cheerfully. “Doyouwanttogo… backdownthehallso… Icanshowyou…. alltheothersIsaw?” 

See, I had no idea what I expected SPS Seosten under Cahethal’s authority to be like, but this? This wasn’t it. Was it all just because she mostly left the so-called ‘Calendar’ on their own? 

“Ah, that… “ Bol shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t believe that will be necessary, Miss…” 

“Ember,” she promptly supplied with a cheeky grin, barely able to restrain the obvious giggles. 

“Miss Ember it is,” Bol agreed with a slight bow, the glowing, multi-colored smoke-liquid in his glass-like body pulsing with what I… thought might be a silent chuckle of sorts before he moved on. “Yes, the room, like the rest of the casino and hotel, are filled with anti-teleportation markers along with defenses and sensors against other magic. But even with those… well, here.” With one hand, he produced a small blue ball with runes drawn on it. “You should see for yourselves.”

With that, he activated the ball. Immediately, a bunch of glowing figures appeared in the room around us. Holograms. They were holograms of all the Vestil children. Each of them looked different. Like, really different. There were a couple humanoids, but there was also one shaped like an octopus, a big dog, a bird of some kind, even one that was basically a long snake. The only way I could tell they were all Vestil was that each body, no matter what shape it happened to be, was clear and filled with colored smoke and liquid. I supposed since these people’s physical bodies were essentially just magically-summoned constructs, what they actually looked like didn’t actually matter. They were basically a race of shapeshifters or whatever. Crystal shapeshifters. Briefly, I wondered what it was like to grow up in a society where everyone literally just shifted between liquid and gas forms, with your only physical bodies being whatever you conjured and shaped to place yourself in. Bodies that looked like whatever you wanted. Did that end prejudice sooner? 

No, I reminded myself, they didn’t have to be as prejudiced against each other as humans have been, because they had three other intelligent species on their planet to compete against. 

Jiao was there in the magical hologram too, of course. Just as Asenath said, the woman was standing on the stage. She was watching the kids scattered around the room while alternately looking at a phone in her hand. Then she turned, looking off toward what appeared to be the wall. A second later, they all vanished. Just like that. One second Jiao and the kids were there and in the next, poof. Gone. 

“What was she looking at?” Miranda asked, stepping up to where Jiao was before turning to look in the same direction she had right before the whole disappearing thing. “It’s a wall.” 

“One of the teleportation blockers,” Asenath replied, already stepping over that way. She pointed to a small, barely visible design half-hidden in the woodwork. “That’s what this is, right?” Frowning, she added a quieter, “But there’s something wrong with it.” 

Bol joined her, leaning in to examine it himself while the rest of us approached. “Yes,” he agreed. “Someone has definitely tampered with this one.” Glancing that way, the man added a quiet, “Good catch for someone who can’t use magic at all yourself.” 

“I’ve learned to adapt,” Senny replied flatly before looking over her shoulder. “Bobbi, come taste this. See if you can figure out anything about it.” 

“Taste…?” Bol echoed curiously. He, Eldridge, and the two other Vestil watched as the younger girl stepped up to put her hand against the symbol. 

“There’s… there’s two kinds of magic there,” Bobbi murmured. “One is older, sort of… set into the wall. It’s been there for a long time. Or at least the shape of it has. But the other magic is new. It tastes… strange, like it doesn’t belong there.” 

“Would you recognize it if you felt it again?” Asenath asked while everyone else watched. This, from what the vampire had told me, was a new trick Bobbi had picked up over the past few months, being able to identify what she called the ‘taste’ of the energy in magic to know the general type of spell it was and who had cast it. Or at least, that the same person had cast a particular spell. 

Now, the girl hesitated, touching the symbol again before giving a hesitant nod that grew a bit more firm after a moment. “I–uh huh. Yeah, I think so. It’s pretty distinct magic. Whoever put it there, if I can feel their magic, I’ll know it’s them.” Her words were somewhat uncertain at first, but gradually became confident toward the end. “I can do it, I can identify them. Mr. Rendell’s been teaching me.” 

“A Stardrinker-Heretic,” Eldridge noted with an approving tone. “Now those are rare. Particularly one so… young.” 

“Yeah, she’s pretty special,” I agreed with a thumbs up at the girl in question, a gesture that she returned with a bright smile. Then I turned my attention back to Bol. “Please tell me you guys locked this place down as soon as they disappeared. Not that I expect it’ll stop them if they were able to teleport Jiao and the kids out past all your security anyway, but still.” 

“Actually,” came the response, “we know they haven’t left. They may have been able to get a teleport past our security, but we still detected it. Our alerts let us know it was happening, and it hasn’t happened since. We locked everything down, and the only spot the teleport happened was right here in this room.” 

Tabbris piped up then. “Could they maybe have not been in this place to start with? Like, maybe they set the spell up and then left before triggering it.” 

If answering a girl as young as Tabbris was bothering Bol, he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. “What they did was hard enough to begin with, just doing it from the inside. I don’t believe it’s physically possible for them to project magic through the defenses we have around the outside of the building. At the very least, our alarms out there would have detected it. The magic had to be triggered from within this building, we locked everything down the moment the one and only teleport happened in this room right here, and there’s been no alert of another one since.” 

“So whoever did it is probably still in the building,” Miranda put in with a small frown. “Maybe this was a one-time thing? Or they’re just arrogant enough to think they can wait you out. I mean, important or not, you can’t lock down this building forever.” 

“We have magic keeping the Bystanders from thinking about leaving,” one of the Vestils whose name I didn’t know announced. When we looked that way, he added, “Peace, we do not use it constantly or without cause. The magic is used to keep Bystanders inside when events are happening outside that would be hazardous to their health, and difficult to explain. We ensure they win enough to compensate for their time and to keep them happy, magic or no.” 

“The point,” Eldridge informed us, “is that the Bystanders aren’t wondering why they can’t leave, and the non-Bystanders know something’s up and that they’re supposed to sit tight. Everyone’s still having a good time, so no one’s going to panic or get upset. People at the front?” He added with a look toward Bol. 

“They’re being turned away,” the other man replied. “Our security is informing them that the venue is at capacity, given certain construction that’s taking place, and that they should try their luck at one of our other locations.” 

Shiori spoke up. “So we just have to get Bobbi near everyone in the casino so she can check them? That… um, seems like the person would notice something first and maybe get away if they decided to bolt for it. Or just, you know, kill themselves rather than be taken by you.” 

Eldridge gave a nod of agreement, “The Dhampyr is right. We don’t have time to take the girl near every single patron, and the moment we start doing that, the… perpetrator will probably notice something and escalate the situation.” 

“So use her to confirm it’s the right person,” I pointed out, “but narrow it down some other way. We can do that, right? If this is a casino, you’ve got cameras all over the place. We just have to look through the footage and find anyone doing what might be magic. That should help cut down on the possibilities.” 

“What if they were doing it in the restroom, or their hotel room?” Miranda asked. “Then we won’t see them at all.” 

“Simple,” I replied, “they look through the footage themselves and check it against guest records. Make a note of anyone in the hotel who is not on the footage, as well as anyone who was in the restroom at the time the teleportation happened. If we don’t find the right person while watching the people we can see, it was one of the people we can’t. Then it’s still narrowed down.” 

“Do we have time to look at all the camera footage?” Shiori sounded (understandably) worried. 

Bol snapped his fingers to one of the other Vestil, who left the room quickly. “Yes, we’ll keep things as calm as we can. Our own people are looking through the footage as well, but… perhaps you will see something they don’t. Take a look, see if you can narrow it down while we make a note of anyone not on camera at the time.” As he said it, the Vestil who had left came back in the room. Behind him floated a half dozen laptops, which flew around to land on various surfaces. On their screens I could already see camera footage playing. 

“It will be within a two to three minute window at the time of the abduction,” Bol informed us. “See if you can spot anything before our own people do.” 

So, we spread out around the room with the provided computers and spent the next little while staring at the camera footage. We watched the same couple minutes over and over again from as many different angles as possible. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, zoomed out, we watched all of it again and again. Miranda even split herself into several duplicates to watch her screen with multiple pairs of eyes. 

None of it helped. The only magic we could see being used was some of the dealers making cards float back to them, flip through the air, change colors or give off little sparks, that kind of thing. Clear and obvious entertainment tricks for the non-Bystanders. Showmanship. 

“Uuuurgggh,” December groaned. She wasn’t watching a screen. Instead, the girl was hanging upside down from one of the ceiling lamps, watching us. “Sooooo bored, can’twejustgopunchsomeone?” 

“We have to know the right person to punch,” Tabbris reminded her, though I could tell she was bored too. It was frustrating, staring at the same two minute time period, sometimes slowed down and sometimes sped up, while trying to spot any of the guests doing anything untoward. But they just weren’t. The security in this place was too good. They would have noticed a guest casting a spell if they were on camera. Which–

Wait. 

My hands quickly danced over the controls on the keyboard, adjusting the playback timeline as I rewound and then pushed it forward, my eyes staring intently. 

“This is impossible,” Shiori announced, clearly too distraught about her missing mother to sit and focus on this for any longer. “All these people aren’t using magic. I swear we’ve stared at every single guest in this whole place and not one of them is–” 

“That’s because it wasn’t a guest,” I cut in. “Camera thirty-two, zoom in on the dealer at the table and go back an hour, then play it forward at five times speed.” 

They all did so, and I pointed. “There, see it? Pause… there.” 

“Yeah, he’s using magic,” Asenath confirmed. “They all use magic, the dealers. It’s just performance art, and not powerful enough to actually trigger a teleport for one person, let alone a whole group.” 

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah, but look at his other hand. He’s using hold and pass magic.” 

Most of the others asked what I was talking about, while Bol took a step my way, his voice clearly surprised. “Are you sure?” 

“Hold and pass magic,” I quickly explained to the others. “It’s…basically you start the very bare bones of a spell and then hold it, hold the… the shape of it. Normally you do that by repeatedly tracing a rune of the spell against your palm or a flat surface or something every minute or so to keep it fresh. You hold the power that way, keep it shaped the way you want it so the spell doesn’t fade. The pass part comes from the way you empower the spell. Basically, you kind of… push it into someone else, let the spell take some of their power, usually so little they don’t notice it’s gone. Then you pass it into someone else and take a bit more power from them, then someone else, and so on. You can empower really big spells without draining yourself by passing the spell back and forth between willing or unwilling subjects, even without letting them know what’s happening if you’re careful enough. And that’s what this dealer guy right here is doing. For an hour before the teleport, he keeps putting his thumb against his palm like right… there. He’s tracing a spell against his own hand and passing it through people that sit at his table, empowering it over that hour. He’s using hold and pass magic to set up the teleport.”

The others stared at me, Miranda finally asking, “How do you know about that?” 

Chayyiel, of course. She’d been giving me magic lessons in addition to the combat ones. I couldn’t do the hold and pass spells yet, but I had the basic idea. I also couldn’t tell them about it. 

So, I settled on a simple, “I have really good teachers.” It wasn’t a lie. “But that’s him, that’s your guy.” I looked at Bol pointedly. “And it’s why your people haven’t caught him yet. Because they’re looking for a guest using magic.” 

Bol stared at the screen, his eyes focused on the dealer who had apparently helped abduct Jiao and a whole group of Vestil children. Not to mention the fact that this guy was obviously connected to the original disappearance of the Vestil-Akharu princess. 

“Well then,” the man murmured. 

“I think someone should go have a little chat with our new friend.” 

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Interlude 2A – Asenath, Shiori, and Columbus (Heretical Edge 2)

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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.”

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