Columbus Porter

Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over enough billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Mom!” Shiori blurted, already starting to take a step that way as her eyes widened at the sight. 

My hand snapped out to stop her, but Asenath was there first, catching her sister by the arm. “Wait,” she said quickly. “Don’t get close to her.” As she said it, Senny was staring hard at their mother, a heavy, smoldering rage visible in those suddenly intense, dark eyes. “Let… her… go.” 

“Oh, don’t be like that!” Jiao blurted in a voice that I knew was entirely uncharacteristic. “Don’t be spoilsports! You’re all finally here, and we’re gonna have so much fun together!”  She sounded cheerful, energetic, like some kind of perky cheerleader hyped up on coffee and school spirit or something. This was absolutely not Jiao talking to us right now. Not even a little bit.  

“You really wanna have some fun?” Sands all-but snarled while clenching her hands as she stood next to Sarah. “How about we tell ghost stories and toast marshmallows around a bonfire. There’s a lot of fuel for it in this place.” With one tight fist, she indicated the plants around us. 

Instead of Jiao, it was Julius Harn who spoke next (or rather, he who Kwur spoke through). “Oooh, you’re just so precious with the threats and the angry little fist! Probably should have paid more attention in wilderness survival when they taught you about dead wood being better for making fires, but still! You’re adorable, I could just pinch your little cheeks!” That same broad, probably uncharacteristic manic smile was on the old man’s face, as he beckoned. “Come! Come, let’s not dawdle any further, we have so much to talk about. So many things to prepare!”  

“Listen, you chlorophallic weed!” That was Shiori, and she had both of her disc weapons out, as they sparked with electricity. “The only thing you need to prepare for is letting go of my mother!” 

Absent of any apparent feeling of intimidation, Kwur-Jiao spoke up. “Sweetie, as adorable and precious as your fleshy anger is, there is no need for it. Everything’s going to be just fine. Come, let me show you.” She pivoted, starting to walk deeper into the forested area before calling back in a slightly darker, yet still fairly cheerful voice. “That is, unless you’d prefer to see how well my having control of your mother can serve as a motivator, or as a punishment?” Even as he said it, Jiao’s hand moved to pull part of her jacket away, revealing some kind of explosive securely strapped to her back. “She was good enough to bring the party favors, after all.” 

Fuck. He was right, unfortunately. We couldn’t chance anything or he’d use those explosives. And I was pretty sure even an old vampire like Jiao couldn’t survive something like that. 

So, with a collective sigh and an exchange of looks promising each other that we’d find an opening, Sands, Sarah, Miranda, Asenath, Columbus, Bobbi, Shiori, and I reluctantly followed after Kwur-Jiao. Behind us, I heard and felt Kwur-Harn trail after, whistling cheerfully to himself as if nothing was wrong at all.

There was a narrow trail through the trees and bushes. Narrow enough, that was, for me to feel the leaves and branches gently brushing over me as we passed through. I didn’t think too much about that until I caught Kwur-Jiao glance back at me with a little smile just as one branch in particular brushed over my arm. Then I realized it was intentional. The plants were sticking out just far enough to touch us on the way past on purpose, like a… like a caress or something. It was enough to bring bile to my throat, before I turned sideways to avoid them. The others must have either picked up the same, or realized what I was doing, because they followed suit. 

The path led us in a loop, and we mounted a set of stairs that had been placed against the edge of the tracks to reach the platform. Not that it was easy to tell exactly where we were just from looking around. The entire platform was even more overgrown than the tunnels, with thick grass under our feet, along with bushes and trees all around. Enough of the latter were so tall and thick that they entirely blocked out the ceiling. It was like being in an actual jungle. Except for the whole lack of animal sounds. Which, in some ways, seemed even more eerie. The whole place was uncomfortably quiet, raising the hair on the back of my neck. I wanted to demand that Kwur stop this, that he tell us where we were going. I wanted to do a lot of things that might have made me feel better, or at least less useless, for a few seconds. But I kept quiet, for now. 

On the way, I focused a bit on seeing through Marian’s eyes. Jason, April, and the Alters who had been guarding our actual bodies before we were switched around looked completely baffled. There were bodies of other attackers lying around, some alive and some not. It was clear that Kwur had sent more people after us, but our new friends had pulled through in keeping us safe. Until we were switched. Now they clearly had no idea what to do. Especially considering, from the sound of things, they were still being attacked now and then. Before long, they’d be in real trouble. 

Quickly, I moved Marian, getting their attention as I had her paw touch the ground and focused on my image inscription power. Using that, I created a message on the pavement in bright red letters, giving them the phone number to contact Dare and tell her where they were so they could get help before they were overwhelmed. It was the best I could do just then.  

By then, we’d mounted the steps and moved across the subway platform. There was a hole in the wall ahead of us, one that had clearly been added for all this. The concrete there had been punched through, leading to a smaller, clearly more recent tunnel through the dirt and rock beyond. Without hesitation, Kwur-Jiao led us into the tunnel. It was just wide enough for us to pass through in a single-file, and Asenath went first. She was followed by Shiori, then the twins, Bobbi, and Columbus, with me bringing up the rear aside from Kwur-Harn. A quick check through my connection to Marian showed that April was already on the phone. Hopefully Dare would get to that group soon, because it kind of sounded like they were in trouble. Kwur wasn’t exactly reacting well to so many of his little puppets being freed from his control, apparently. 

As we walked through the tunnel, there were actual windows along either side. The windows peeked into large, hollowed-out caverns. But they weren’t just caverns. They looked like rooms in a house or apartment, complete with carpet, furniture, lights, everything. It was like… like a television or movie set, I realized. Or like the stage of a play. The rooms were sets, with the windows being where the fourth wall would be. And on those sets were people. Some Alters, some human, but just… people. They seemed to be carrying about their lives as if totally unaware of the windows looking in on their fake apartments and houses. Like… like a tv show. That’s what it was. That’s what all of this was, a living, breathing tv show. 

Even as I came to that realization on my own, Kwur-Jiao reached out to touch a button by one of the windows. Suddenly, we could hear sound coming from within the ‘house’ there, and it was… yeah, it was a TV show in real life. The human woman was lecturing some kind of amphibian boy who was apparently ‘playing’ her son about his grades and how if he didn’t get them back up, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the picnic the next day. The Alter kid even said ‘gee willikers.’ It was fucking bizarre. 

We moved on and watched a couple more for a minute. They were all just like that. They were people being controlled by Kwur into acting out these ridiculous scenarios. And belatedly I realized that there were plants in every one of those scenes. Usually just house plants or flowers. He was watching. He was watching them play out these insane living television scenes. 

What in the serious living fuck was wrong with this monster? 

“You see?!” Kwur-Jiao cheerfully urged after muting the most recent scene and beckoning for us to keep following her through the tunnel. “We can all have such a wonderful time working together. I just know you’ll be fine additions to the cast, and we’ll have your friends join in soon enough. With all of you here, the show will be better than it ever was!” 

Through gritted teeth, Columbus demanded, “Are you seriously acting like this whole thing is just a bunch of tv shows, or… or movies or whatever for you to watch?” 

“Puppet shows,” Miranda corrected in a flat voice. “He’s making puppet shows for himself.” 

She was right, of course. This whole thing, all of it, was one big collection of puppet shows. And from the sound of it, that’s what he wanted to do with all of us. Maybe the whole world. He wanted to start this entire war in Vegas in order to get strong enough to spread his plants everywhere and turn the whole world into his own personal living puppet show to act out these stories. All of which made this quite possibly the strangest, most fucked up thing I’d ever seen. And that was actually a pretty long and exhaustive list of strange, fucked up things at this point. 

Kwur-Harn was talking from behind us. “So many of your people misunderstand me. They think I hate you flesh-things. Absolutely not! I think you’re amazing. You’re such wonderful creatures. But you waste it so much. You waste your lives on such frivolous, boring things. Surely you must agree by now. Look at how many wars there are on just your world. Look at what the Seosten have turned all of your species into. Nothing but fighting and killing. You ignore so many of the wonderful stories you could tell. Television and movies are your greatest achievements, you should embrace them. Act out the stories you like and then move to another!” 

Sarah spoke up quietly then while taking her sister’s hand. “You’re a little insane.” 

With a shake of her head, Kwur-Jiao insisted, “My methods may seem harsh, but I am trying to free all of your people from this endless cycle. There will be violence first, enough to give me the power I need to spread over this planet. But once I am strong enough, I will take the people of this world in hand, and give them better stories to tell than the ones they have been trapped within for so long. I know that may be very difficult for you to accept, but it really is for the best. You will be happy. Well, not always. Sometimes you’ll be sad, when the story says you should be. But I’ll make sure to give you happy stories too. Some of you may even see each other again. Sometimes you’ll be enemies, sometimes friends. It will be wonderful. And so very interesting!” 

“You want to play with us like the fucking Sims?” Shiori blurted. “You want to treat the entire world like a bunch of Sim games, movies, whatever. You think you can puppet our whole population into being your entertainment?!” 

That eerie, creepy, disturbing smile stretched across Jiao’s face once more, as Kwur made her respond with an enthusiastic, “It’s just as I said! So many think I hate you fleshy things. But I love you all. I love you all and I will protect you. I will give you much better lives. You’ll just have to trust me a little bit. There will be some harsh growing pains, but it will be wonderful in the end!”

With that, Kwur-Jiao turned back to us. More lights came on behind her, and I saw that the tunnel stretched on for what seemed like miles. There were dozens more windows that we hadn’t seen yet. How long had he been doing this?! How many people were down here? This was insane! Well, that much was obvious, but still! 

“You see?” he asked through Jiao, “I am not really your enemy. In fact, I believe we can all be quite good friends. If you cooperate, I will make absolutely certain that you get the best stories. We can even negotiate on keeping you together with those you care about! You won’t have to fight for your lives anymore. You won’t have to worry about all the bad things that could happen. Everything will be just fine.” Kwur-Jiao looked straight to me. “You won’t have to worry about all the terrible things that are waiting for you.” 

“Sorry,” I shot back, “I never really wanted to be an actress. I think we’re gonna have to pass.” 

“You’ll change your minds,” Kwur-Harn knowingly insisted, smiling the whole time. “Maybe if you see a few more of our shows down here, you’ll understand that it’s not a bad thing at all.” 

“Actually,” Miranda put in, “I think we’ve seen just about enough.” With that, she glanced toward me, hand rising with the Kwur-tracking stone cupped in her palm. She’d used a spell to summon it from her Theriangelos. It was giving off an intermittently bright green glow. “Getting dimmer here, it’s the other way!” 

Even as she said that, Asenath and Shiori were moving. The two sprang at their mother, Shiori lashing out with a fist that hit Kwur-Jiao in the face and rocked her head backward. At the same time, Senny’s blurred form rushed past her before pivoting with something held up in one hand. It was a piece from the explosives strapped to Jiao. “As if my mother didn’t make sure I knew how to disarm her bombs,” the vampire snarled. 

“Well then,” Kwur-Harn began in a voice dripping with that same false-kindness. 

“We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way,” Kwur-Jiao finished. 

Suddenly, a pair of stone walls shot out up from the ground as Sands raised her mace. They wrapped around Harn while the girl blurted over her shoulder toward Miranda, Bobbi, Columbus, and me. “Go!”

The four of us went. On the way, two duplicate Mirandas split off from the original and went to help Sands and Sarah with Harn, while yet one more raced back to where Shiori and Asenath were still trying to contain Jiao. 

Meanwhile, we sprinted back through the tunnel. And it wasn’t exactly a peaceful trip. Suddenly, the people in those glass enclosures weren’t acting out scenes anymore. Instead, they were pounding at the glass while screaming at us. It was creepy as hell.  

Then it got worse. Because the glass retracted, and the tunnel was suddenly filled with a bunch of random figures of all ages whose entire focus was on stopping Columbus, Miranda, Bobbi, and me. And we definitely couldn’t fight them. 

“Flick!” Randi blurted, tossing the stone underhanded to me before creating half a dozen quick duplicates. “Go, just go!” The seven of them quickly moved to block for me, the main one snapping, “Ears!” As soon as we all (including her six duplicates) covered our ears, she let loose with a deafening scream that filled the tunnel and made all of our attackers stumble. Then another Miranda extended both hands, summoning some kind of three-inch thick metal poles from each palm that shot out a good thirty feet before snapping to either side to knock the deafened figures out of the way.

Bobbi, Columbus, and I shot through the briefly cleared path, sprinting down the tunnel as fast as my feet could carry us. On the way, Columbus snapped at Bobbi to go, and she was suddenly gone, using her superspeed to get a hell of lot further than we could. As soon as she did that, the boy reached out to catch my arm, teleporting the two of us as far down the tunnel as he could see. He did that twice more in rapid succession before we reached the platform where Bobbi was waiting.

As we landed, I checked the stone in my other hand. The glow was getting brighter. The main part of Kwur. That was the important part, the most important part. I had to get to the main part of Kwur. Once we destroyed that, the rest would be a mop-up. 

But first I had to get there, and Kwur was not going to make that easy. I realized that as I looked out over the platform and saw even more guys coming for us. It was a mixture of people in the same ‘normal life’ costumes from those plays going on back in the other tunnel, and people in actual armor with weapons and such. Clearly, he was throwing everything at us. 

“Flick, get to Kwur,” Columbus told me sharply. “You’re the one with the–just go.” He looked to Bobbi. “We got this, right, kid?” 

“Sure,” she replied, already cracking her knuckles. “We got this.” 

I didn’t argue with them. There wasn’t time. As Columbus teleported into the midst of the incoming group and Bobbi created a wall of energy to clear a path for me, I took off running once more. 

Unfortunately, I’d barely crossed half the platform before seeing an even thicker, incredibly dense wall of plants in the way. They were growing in my path, even as I got there. Within seconds, there were three new trees blocking my way that simply grew up out of seemingly nothing. 

“Oh,” I snapped under my breath, “we’re playing that way, huh?” With that, I snapped my staff down, using a burst to launch myself into the air. I went straight toward the nearest tree. It was tempting to use my wood-traveling power, but given the warning against possessing people who were infected by Kwur, I really had no idea what traveling through one of his plants would be like. Too risky. 

Instead, I landed feet first on one of the branches, my staff already converted into its bow form. Drawing back an energy arrow, I quickly muttered a word to activate one of the spells Shyel had taught me. It turned my blue-ish arrow red. When I released it, the energy shot out, colliding with the thickest set of bushes and trees in my path before exploding into a burst of red-hot fire. 

Before the plants could grow back, I launched myself that way, sailing through the opening before rolling as I hit the ground. More plants. More plants everywhere, and none of them the actual one I was looking for. But the stone said to keep going that way, so I did. I raced through the thick jungle, avoiding more and more bushes and trees that kept growing in my path to slow me down. 

A figure appeared from behind one of the trees, gun raised. I didn’t even hesitate before snapping my staff out to slam into the side of his head. Another two emerged from a bush, and I hit them with an energy-arrow that knocked them flying before they could take aim. Kwur was getting desperate.

Which meant I was getting close. 

There! I saw another tunnel opening on the opposite side of the platform from where Kwur had taken us. That had to be it. Even as I saw it, an enormous, thick tree sprang up to block the tunnel. But I didn’t care. A simple redwood wasn’t going to stop me from getting where I needed to go. Not now. 

More people were emerging to stop me, but I ignored them aside from tapping my staff against the ground as I ran, leaving a few concussive mines for them. Most of my focus was on that tree, even as plants sprang up all around me. One tree burst out of the ground right at my feet, making me stumble and nearly lose my footing before catching myself. 

But I kept going. Just before reaching the tree, I sent a cloud of sand ahead. But this wasn’t just any sand. It was super-heated. The sand itself was protected from turning to glass because it gave off heat rather than being hot itself. I wasn’t sure how that worked, exactly, but it did. Somehow. 

In any case, the super-heated sand cut through the tree in a brief few seconds. As it fell, more were growing into its place, branches twisting around like hands reaching out to grab me. But I used that open moment to dive through the opening, rolling as I ended up in an open cavern. 

There. There was a single pine tree sitting in the middle of this cavern, attended by warming lamps and a sprinkler system keeping it warm and damp. 

Unfortunately, before I could even recover from my dive, something caught me by the arm. It was a thick root growing from the wall. The root yanked me back against the wall, before half a dozen more popped out and secured me there. I couldn’t even budge. 

“It’s too bad.” The new voice came from the far corner of the cavern, before an emaciated-looking figure stepped into view. It was a human (or looked human anyway, and didn’t set off my Heretic-sense) man who looked like he was barely this side of dead. “We could have had so much fun together. But the shows will go on without you. Still, unfortunate.” 

He paused then, head tilting a little. “Why are you smiling?” 

“Because you lost,” I informed him. “You let me find your heart right there.” As much as I could from my pinned position with a dozen different roots holding me in place, I nodded toward the tree. The one the enchanted stone, now bright red, had led me to. 

The emaciated-man looked that way, then turned back and shook his head. “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do anything about that now. And your companions are already being brought into line.” 

“See, a lot of people have thought that they had me under control,” I retorted. “You think you’re the first? Hardly. They always get a little surprise. Heretics have super powers, you know.” 

“No powers that will let you get out of this,” he noted. “We know what you are capable of.” 

My eyes narrowed. “Buddy, you have no idea what I’m capable of.” 

After letting that settle, I turned my tone conversational then. “See, awhile back, I picked up a little power from something called a Blemmye. Long story short, it lets me know exactly where places I know about are, in relation to where I am. Like, right now I know the Vestil casino is exactly sixteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven feet north-north-east of here. Or three point two miles. I know exactly how far this place is from my old house, or my elementary school. I know exactly how far we are from our new base.” 

“Curious, how exactly does that help you now, in this position?” the thin figure asked. As he said it, a couple more roots crept out of the ground to hold me even tighter, just in case.

“Three reasons,” I replied slowly. “First, because I know exactly where something else is. Last spring, a few friends and I traveled on a prototype ship to get back to Earth from Seosten space. Some of our people have been spending months fixing that thing up to get the cloaking device working, and now it’s hovering above Vegas. It’s been waiting up there. 

“Two, you may think you’re close to people when you infect them, but my little sister is closer to me than you’ll ever understand. Right now, she’s on that ship. 

“And three, the fact that I know exactly where things are down to the inch works both ways. It means I know where I am exactly in relation to where they are. Or, in this case, where a certain little tree is, exactly sixty-three feet and seven inches east of me.” 

As I said it, dawning comprehension appeared on the Kwur-infested man’s face, and he spun that way. But it was too late. My eyes snapped shut, as a terrifying, deafening, blinding flash suddenly filled the cavern. 

The six-foot wide laser from the ship-mounted cannon tore through the pavement, the ground underneath, blew into the cavern itself, and obliterated Kwur’s special tree. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So here we were. Everyone else was busy with their own situations, leaving Sands, Sarah, Miranda, and me to trudge our way through the secret subway tunnels under Las Vegas. And we weren’t even using our own bodies for it. No, we had to use our Theriangelos animals because those same tunnels were filled with plants that may or may not turn our normal selves into crazy mass-murdering monsters. Four of us were down here looking for the largest concentration of Kwur’s consciousness, so we could destroy it and get the hell out of here.

We also couldn’t bring most of our regular powers into this. I’d learned to channel some of my abilities through Marian, thanks to Shyel. And the other three had a couple gifts of their own they managed to use through practice. But for the most part, what we could do was very limited. 

Long story short, this was going to be a pretty… interesting time, particularly if Kwur had as many people guarding his main consciousness as I was pretty sure he did. Four of us, limited powers, using animal bodies, against an evil plant monster and all his minions. Fan-damn-tastic. 

There were so many plants in here, trees, bushes, flowers, vines crawling up the walls, and more, that it was like moving through a very narrow jungle. But there were at least a couple things in our favor. Firstly, we knew for a fact that while Kwur was aware enough to know we were somewhere around his plants, he didn’t know exactly where. Those guys from before hadn’t been able to pinpoint my location. I had the feeling it was sort of like a human having a tiny germ inside their body. They might feel the effects of it being there, but narrowing down its exact location was harder. He was generally aware that we existed, but he didn’t have enough of his consciousness in these plants to point his people to a specific spot, thankfully. 

And beyond that, the other positive was that between my fox and Miranda’s raven, we could pretty easily scout ahead without giving away our position. The two of us stayed close to the top of the trees and the ceiling of the tunnel as we took turns, swapping between scouting ahead and watching behind just in case a group tried to sneak up behind us. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino and Sarah’s crocodile moved over the ground. They were the muscle, while Randi and I were the eyes and ears, alert to the point of paranoia as we all moved together through the tunnel. 

And yet, even with that level of alertness, we were still almost taken by surprise. I had Marian perched at the top of a tree, carefully watching the silent, vegetation-filled tunnel ahead for any sign of movement ahead of us. Seeing nothing, I was about to jump to the next tree, when something made me stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, aside from some vague feeling. I hesitated for an extra couple of seconds, asking myself what exactly had made me freeze like that. 

There. Ahead and a bit to the right, near the ceiling of the tunnel. A portal opened, and a lithe, thin figure dropped out of it before catching themselves on the branch of the tree. The figure was humanoid, but with an extra leg on each side and a very long neck with a small, ball-shaped head on the end of it. They were also carrying a very long rifle, already setting themselves up with it from their perch as they used the scope to scan the ground. 

Stay back, I quickly warned the others. Sniper in the trees. Maybe more than one, they’re really quiet and came through a portal, so there might be more in other spots. I’ll deal with this one. 

Right, ‘deal with this one.’ I was glad my telepathic voice sounded so damn confident. Now all I had to do was actually follow through. Not to mention doing it without letting Marian ‘die’, and hopefully without alerting any other snipers that may be in the area that they were under attack.

To that end, I quickly shifted Marian’s colors to match the wall of the tunnel before hopping over to the very small, decorative bar near the ceiling. Keeping my eyes on the sniper, who was panning his gun from one side of the tunnel to the other, I thought about what powers I had access to in this form. It took a lot of practice and effort to channel Heretic-gained abilities through the Theriangelos. At that point, I was able to use my shifting power to change Marian’s colors, the imbuing power to use instant spells, my enhanced dexterity, agility, and reflexes making the fox even more of a crazy acrobat, some of the enhanced strength making her stronger than she should be for her size, my ‘sense all objects around me’ power, and the ability to copy any sound I heard into an object and make that object produce that sound. 

So I was a tiny fox who was faster, stronger, and more agile than she should be, who could instantly create images and words (and thus spells) with a touch, sense all objects around me, change my colors like a chameleon, and make anything I touched produce any sound I heard.

Oh, and I had that whole ‘see through stealth powers and camouflage’ ability I’d gotten from the Pantler back in Seosten space. Which, come to think of it, was probably how I saw this sniper guy to begin with. 

So, I didn’t have anything too flashy. I didn’t have my weapon, and I was in the body of a tiny fox. But I could deal with that. I could take this guy down before he knew what hit him. Hopefully.

Moving slowly along that bar, resisting the urge to rush and give away my position, I kept my eyes focused on that sniper. He was still totally focused through the scope, intent on waiting for our group to blunder into his line of fire. He had no idea I was there, gradually getting closer.

Orrrrr maybe he did. Suddenly, the figure snapped that gun up to point directly at me. Only the fact that I’d been paying so much attention, combined with those enhanced reflexes, saved Marian from being blown to pieces. The instant the barrel was pointed my way, I lunged sideways off the bar. Behind me, a chunk of the wall about as wide around as Marian’s entire body was blown apart by some kind of totally silent and invisible shot. It was like a blast of air or kinetic force or something. Whatever, it was strong enough that one hit would have completely obliterated my fox. So avoiding being hit was probably a pretty good idea right now. 

Cursing frantically in my head (and probably aloud back with my body), I sent Marian lunging from one branch to the next, leaping quickly through several trees while Mr. Sniper kept shooting, totally destroying every branch an instant after my tiny paws left it. I barely had time to focus on evading the next shot, let alone try to figure out how to get closer to the bastard. It took everything I had just to keep Marian ‘alive’ through those brief handful of seconds (which felt like an eternity). I dropped to the lower bushes, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t stay still for a single second, or the next shot would have destroyed my Theriangelos. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would still be a pain in the ass to create a new one and meet up with the others. Especially in a situation like this, where every second counted, considering the rest of our people in Vegas were in the middle of their own battles to take out Kwur. 

Somewhere in the midst of that, the shots abruptly stopped. It took me a moment to realize that it had been a hot second since the last invisible blast had blown apart part of the ground where my furry butt had been an instant earlier. Even then, I figured it was a trick or he was just taking more careful aim. That was, until Miranda’s silent telepathic voice reached me. Got him, Flick. 

Stopping short, I blinked up that way. Sure enough, the sniper was stretched out unconscious across the high branch. His rifle was dangling from another part of the tree lower down where it had fallen. And Miranda herself, or her raven anyway, was perched beside the man. You make a really good distraction, you know? Her voice was very slightly teasing. 

Right, distraction, I muttered silently. That’s totally what I was going for. 

After reporting to Sands and Sarah that the first threat was taken care of, Miranda and I joined up at the top of that tree (I took it a bit slower to catch my breath from the panicked rush of adrenaline that those few moments of being shot at had been), watching for any more snipers. 

There were none immediately in view, and we called for the other two to move forward. Then the two of us kept going. This time, Miranda and I stayed together. If there were people ready to ambush us, we really needed both of us to deal with them. That much had just been proven. 

We moved back and forth as a pair, checking behind our small group, then ahead. A couple times we found more snipers waiting, but we dealt with them. Mostly by Miranda or me causing a distraction, before the other would move up behind the would-be ambush to knock them off their perches to the ground below. There, Sarah, whose crocodile form was almost as stealthy as the two of us despite being much larger, would make sure they weren’t in any shape to fight.

It was slow-going, to say the least. But it was also the best shot we had at making our way through these tunnels without ending up with our Theriangelos blasted apart. Which wouldn’t exactly be useful as far as reaching the main part of Kwur (that wasn’t already in the prison) and burning him went. 

Finally, Miranda and I both stopped. Ahead, the tunnel opened up into what looked like another station. And there were definite defenses there. The snipers spread through the trees may have been fairly subtle up to that point, but this was anything but subtle. Six literal turrets with dual-linked cannons that looked like they had come off an actual starship were set up along the entrance into the station, facing out into the tunnel toward us. They were each manned by a figure who watched the small jungle intently. What I could see of the station beyond them was even more filled with plants than the rest of these tunnels had been, the vegetation incredibly thick. I couldn’t see all the way through it to where the opposite tunnel was, but I had no doubt that they had cannons facing that way too. 

Yeah, it may have been a stretch, but I was pretty sure this was the spot. A guess that was proven as the enchanted stone hung around Randi’s raven gave off a firm, steady glow. It wasn’t flickering anymore. Whatever else was in that station, it was definitely where Kwur’s strongest presence in Vegas was. Now we just had to do something with it. Because not only were those cannons enough on their own to totally destroy each and every one of us (probably with one shot), but they undoubtedly weren’t the only defenses in this place. Kwur knew we were in the area. He knew we were looking for him, and he’d had time to prepare. Our only real saving grace here was that all those other groups were hitting more places where he had extended other parts of himself. Which might, maybe stretch his resources too thin. Even then, he’d have plenty of defenses if this really was his main… self here in the city (dealing with a being who could stretch himself through millions of plants and had multiple levels of consciousness was really complicated to even think about).

You ever miss being kids in school, investigating silly things? Miranda asked while the two of us stared at those turrets and tried to think of a way past them. 

Hey, a lot of that stuff was totally important, I retorted. 

Sure, Randi agreed. But we never had to deal with giant laser cannon turrets while we were working out the case of the missing crate of chocolate milk. 

Smiling inwardly despite myself at that particular memory, I replied, And just like Alison Kotters, Kwur’s gonna get exactly what’s coming to him. There was a brief pause before I added thoughtfully, Maybe not the head covered in sour milk, but hey, the day is young. 

Passing information about what we could see back to Sands and Sarah, the four of us held a brief conversation about what we could do. In the end, we went with the best plan we could come up with. Which amounted to me sneaking my way up to the turrets and using magic to secretly disable them while Randi provided overwatch support with her literal bird’s-eye view, letting me know when it was safe to move and when to remain still. Once the turrets were down, the four of us would crash the party inside the station, find the main plant, and make sure it burned.

Okay, so, stealth. I could do this. Never mind that only a few minutes earlier, that sniper had seen me. This was different. These guys were talking to each other, chatting back and forth while manning their cannons without scopes. And I had Miranda watching to tell me when it was safe to move. I would be okay. I could absolutely, definitely do this. 

Repeating that to myself as I crept as carefully and silently as possible through the underbrush, I kept to the corner of the tunnel. Camouflaging Marian with the same colors as the bushes she was moving through, I froze whenever Randi said to, not moving again until she gave the word. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I moved closer to the cannons.

Eventually, I was close enough to hear the men’s conversation. They were fairly tense, but chatting about some ball game or something. I wasn’t sure. The point was, from the sound of their voices, they were afraid of something. But whether that something was more our group, or the thing they were guarding, I wasn’t sure. Hell, I wasn’t sure how much these guys were actually themselves and not mind-controlled. Though the fact that they were chatting about sports implied there were still at least some of their own thoughts. 

Whatever, if we got through this and managed to destroy the Vegas portion of Kwur, I’d make sure to ask these guys what it was like. But for now, I had to make this work. So I kept moving whenever it was safe, inching my way up to the edge of the first turret. I was basically right under the wooden platform that the guy manning the turret was standing on. Peeking up, I could see him, an orc figure standing there, leaning against his enormous weapon while chatting about someone or something covering a spread. 

Carefully, I stuck one paw up through the cracks in the platform. Finding the bottom of the starship turret, I focused on one of the spells that Shyel had taught me. Essentially, it was a ‘jamming’ spell that would prevent any electronic equipment it was applied to from working for a short time. Hopefully, that would be long enough for all of us to get through. 

I didn’t activate the spell just yet, of course. Instead, I worked my way down through the line of turrets, carefully reaching through the gaps in the platforms with Marian’s tiny paw to apply it to each of the weapons in turn. 

Finally, they were all marked. I crouched in the corner, still hidden. You guys ready for this? 

Born ready, came Sands’ reply. I didn’t know exactly where she was, but she and Sarah had both moved into position and were apparently just out of sight. Miranda was still high above, hidden at the top of one of those trees. 

Counting down from five, I hit zero and activated the spell. At the exact same time, there was a sudden thunderous crash as one of the trees literally fell over when Sands’ rhino ran right over and through it. She tore through the entire tree like it wasn’t even there, charging directly at the line of turrets. 

Obviously, the guys manning those turrets reacted. First they laughed. But that laughter turned to confusion as none of their weapons worked. Soon, they were cursing out loud, just as the rhino (its strength and speed temporarily raised by Sands’ Seosten-gained boost ability) slammed into the middle turret. The guard there went flying with a scream, while Sands demolished that weapon, then turned to slam her horn into the one to the left. Meanwhile, Sarah, whose crocodile was perched on the rhino’s back, leapt off and crashed into the guard to the right. 

I made my move then, quickly lunging up to climb the leg of the man on the far left turret, using the same electrical-shock spell I’d used on the guy in the first station to put him down. On the far end of the line of turrets, Miranda’s raven was dealing with the last guy. 

We were through. The four of us basically blew right past these guards, rushing into the jungle-filled station. 

Then all four of us stopped short. Because a man was standing there between two trees. He was alone, and recognizable. It was the guy from the painting in the casino. The one who had apparently posed as a doctor to help Dakota seal Kwur’s flower away, or tried to. Julius Harn, that was his name. He was just standing there, as if he was waiting for us. 

“Oh, hello, girls!” the man called pleasantly as we came up short. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face. Or… well, I suppose not quite. Let’s try that again.” 

With that, he snapped his fingers. As he did so, I felt a sudden twisting sensation. My whole body shook, bile rose in my throat, and then I was there. My real self was there. I was sprawled across the ground at the base of the grass-covered subway tracks in my real physical body. Around me, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were there too. Focusing briefly, I could see our new Alter friends up above staring at Marian and the other animals in confusion. He’d used some kind of… spell or power or something to swap our bodies, putting our real selves where the Theriangelos were and vice versa. 

The four of us scrambled to our feet, while Julius continued. “Isn’t that better?” 

No. No, it was definitely not better. The bushes, the plants, they were all around us. Even at minor strength, how long would it take them to completely leave us mindless as Kwur’s emotional manipulation took over? How long did we have? Minutes? Seconds? Far too short to get anywhere. The entire tunnel system was filled with these plants. And besides, we still had to destroy Kwur. 

Destroy Kwur? No, why would we do that? That was silly. Kwur was our friend. Why would we try to burn our friend? He was the most helpful friend I had, the best friend any of us had. He was going to help me deal with Fossor. He’d gone out of his way to make sure we could–

“Flick!” The voice suddenly cut through all the bullshit in my head in that second, and my gaze jerked just in time to see a blur of motion as a figure rushed right up to me. Something grabbed my arm, then a small pill was shoved into my mouth and my head was snapped backward to make me swallow it. The next thing I knew, my thoughts cleared up. 

Asenath. It was Asenath. She gave me a quick wink, then blurred her way to Sands. Another super-fast figure was with her, already shoving a pill into Miranda’s mouth. It was Bobbi. The two of them made all of us swallow those pills, and our minds cleared up. 

Shiori was there too. She and Columbus came rushing out of the same jungle the four of us had just passed through. Moving right to me, Shiori quickly blurted, “Are you okay?! The Gehenna people, they came through with the pills. They’re supposed to protect from…” 

She trailed off then, staring at the man who had greeted us. Asenath had already stepped over in front of us, with Columbus and Bobbi a bit behind her. 

If he was intimidated by facing the eight of us, or even annoyed that we suddenly had protection from Kwur’s powers, Julius Harn (however much of him was really Harn and not just Kwur) didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled broadly, arms outstretched as though he could just hug all of us at once. “What wonderful timing! I’m so glad you all got the invitation!” 

“Invitation?” Asenath echoed, her voice snarl. “How about I invite you to tell me where our mother is, before I–” 

“Senny,” a new voice interrupted. “Don’t be rude, dear.” With those words, Jiao appeared. She came from the thick clump of trees nearby, moving to stand next to Harn with a totally fake, plastered-on smile. Like a pod person. 

“After all, our host has gone to such lengths to bring us all together. The least we can do is be polite.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay uh, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean you’re here to recapture Fossor?” Shiori demanded while I just stood there with my mouth open, unable to even think straight, much less talk. “You’re saying that you people are the good guys?! And you’re actually going to deal with the problem of the psycho evil necromancer who escaped from your prison?” Her hand was squeezing my arm almost painfully as she stared at the blue-scaled man. “Are you serious?” 

“Seosten call them Gehenna,” April informed us with a curious expression. She looked like she suddenly understood a few things better. “I’ve never seen any of them, but…” She glanced to Prelate Kotter. “Now that you’ve explained that much, that is who your organization is, yes?”

His head gave a short nod. “Yes, the Seosten and their adjacent peoples refer to our organization as Gehenna. We take the most wicked, those who could pose a true threat to the overall universe, and hold them where they cannot harm others. It is our purpose, and we hold no allegiance or debt to any government or individual save our own. We are neutral in all things save for our duty.” 

Haiden stepped in front of us, his back stiff as he stared at the man. “And the reason King Oberon didn’t tell us you were up here when we spoke to him was the oath of secrecy our friend over there mentioned?” he asked with a gesture toward Decker, standing nearby. “You actually got the King of Canada to agree to be bonded under a magical oath like that somehow?” 

“The good king understands that the service we provide to the universe should not be threatened,” Prelate replied simply. “The more who know of our presence and location on this world, the more dangerous that presence becomes, both to us and to his people.” 

Finally, I found my voice. “Because there’s gotta be a whole lot of bad guys out there who would love to smash their way into your prison here and release your inmates, right? I bet someone could cobble together a pretty damn good army that way. And if the people you’re holding on to are as dangerous as you’re saying they are… if they’re on the level of Fossor? That’d be bad. And you guys are up here all by yourselves.” 

“Indeed, Miss Chambers,” the man agreed. “It would be very… bad, as you say. Two points of correction, however. First, we are not alone. Not only would others of our organization arrive in short order to assist, but we would also have the aid of those who bear the Mark of Gehenna to bring forth their Leau Drema, their… as you would say, Spirit Animal.”

“Spirit Animal,” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Mark of Gehenna, spirit–you mean tattoos? Like Larees, she has a–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yes, a phoenix Leau Drema. Larees bears the Mark of Gehenna, and is thus bound to aid our organization when called for. Those of the Mark swear oaths to ensure, at any time of need, that our most important prisoners do not escape, and to thwart all attempts of their minions and sycophants to retrieve them.”

“But we saw another guy,” Vanessa pointed out. “He had a tattoo that could become a giant snake, and he’s definitely still loyal to the Seosten.” 

Prelate gave a short, careless shrug. “Loyalties to governments and ideologies do not matter when Gehenna is in need. The one you speak of is named Nahash. He and Larees may fight on opposite sides at any other time, as may any of our other Marked. But when Gehenna calls, they will fight together to ensure the overall preservation of the universe at large.” 

That said, the man looked back at me. “The second point of correction to your earlier remark is that our prison is not ‘here.’ The structure you see behind me contains an entrance to our prison, along with multiple temporary holding cells and a barracks for our troops on this world. But it is not the actual prison itself. There are several such buildings like this one spread across the universe, wherever Gehenna establishes an outpost. But there is only one full prison, connected through magic to each outpost for immediate transport of our subjects.”

“Sounds like the Pathmaker,” I murmured before focusing. “The King spoke to you before sending us up here, didn’t he? That’s what he was doing that whole time.” 

Again, he nodded. “He made arrangements for this meeting, but we asked that he not give you the full story until we were able to speak in person. You may call us paranoid, but keeping our secrets is an important part of how our prison remains secure. We asked for the favor that he direct you our way, yet allow us to decide when and how to speak to you directly. He agreed, again, because not allowing word of our presence here to leak is in everyone’s best interests.” 

“Wait, hold up.” That was Jason. “I know I’m just the clueless nobody new guy around here, but if that place right there is just an entrance that connects to the prison, couldn’t you just shut it down if you were attacked here? I mean, yeah, they’d probably be able to breach the building itself with a strong enough force, but then what do they have? If you turn off the connection to the prison or whatever you use, they’ve basically got nothing. So what’s the big deal, exactly?”

Tabbris was the one who answered him. “There’s still a connection to the other place even after they shut it down. Especially if the link between locations has been there for a long time.” 

Prelate actually gave a faint smile at that, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, as the young miss said. If they were to take this structure, we would of course close the connection to the prison. But a force that was strong enough to take this place from us would likely be skilled enough to reopen that connection through the lingering magic from the previous link. Perhaps before sufficient aid could arrive.”  

“The same reason we have to be careful about where we connect portals to our own base,” Haiden reminded us, while clearly taking care not to give away any more information than necessary about the star station. “Because Crossroads and Eden’s Garden could potentially grab the lingering energy from a recent portal and use it to create another one, leading them to our home.” 

“Right, I guess that makes sense. Bad idea to let them do that.” As he said that, Jason looked over to Columbus. “Didn’t you say those goggles of yours can see lingering magical energy?” 

“Among other things,” the boy confirmed while looking toward our new host. “And if I can do it, anyone strong enough to attack this place and get anywhere definitely could. Plus, they’d actually know what to do with it. So, we can’t really blame these guys for being paranoid.” 

“Blame them for being paranoid?” Asenath echoed, her voice sharp. “No. But I do want answers, and I want them now.” She moved up, stepping beside me to focus on Prelate Kotter. “Someone kidnapped the princess from Las Vegas. When we investigated, they came back and abducted several more children and my mother. One of the people who helped them get away with that second abduction was a blackjack dealer, who told us to come here to Canada for answers. And while that was going on, a group of Heretics invaded another casino. When one of them was possessed, he gave us a single name. Azlee Ren Kotter. Whoever helped the Heretics break into the casino was going to take the kids they abducted to see that person.” 

If he had any reaction to hearing that, the man didn’t show it. Which was probably because he’d already heard all of it from Oberon the night before. Instead, he gave us a slight nod before replying, “There is much to discuss. Which we should do inside. But first, there are a few steps to take to ensure that you may safely enter the outpost without any… unfortunately accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

December’s hand snapped up quickly. “Waitwhenyousayguestsdoyoumeanguestsorguests?” Her eyebrows waggled pointedly. “Youknowwiththesinistermusicandstuff. Cuzthosearedifferent.” 

“What the kid said,” Haiden agreed. “Exactly what do you mean by making us your guests?” 

In the background, I could see Paul (with Babe) and Nuliajuk watching us from their place beside Decker. None of them looked like they were about to interrupt, though the big lumberjack (still in his smaller, more manageable form) did meet my gaze briefly and wink with a mouthed, ‘It’s okay.’ Somehow, that actually was reassuring. Knowing that… okay, believing that they had our backs if this went wrong helped a bit. As strong as this Gehenna group might’ve been, I refused to believe that they would just willy nilly piss off the King of Canada by attacking us right now. 

“Your caution is understandable, given this situation,” Prelate was saying. “I can assure you that we mean you no harm. But, for your own peace of mind, if you would like, you are free to leave some of your number here. They may, in turn, act or call for assistance should you not return promptly and safely. It is entirely your own decision. But I can only answer further questions inside.” 

As a group, we all exchanged glances. I was going in there, no matter what. They didn’t just have information about the missing kids and all that. They also knew things about Fossor. Things that might end up being useful, when… when the day came that I had to face him. So, whatever the others decided, I knew that I had to go in and find out whatever I possibly could. 

Apparently that wasn’t even much of a surprise, considering Shiori promptly announced, “I’m going in with Senny and Flick.” Yeah, she knew Asenath would go in there too, for her mother. 

“We can stay outside,” Vanessa pointed out. “If Tristan and I each possess someone who goes in for a second, we can use that connection to know if anything bad happens in there.” 

“The last person I possessed is back home at the school,” Tristan put in. “If I just stand out here and don’t possess someone, but Vanessa does, she can tell me if something bad happens. Then I can recall to the school and grab a whole crapload of cavalry. You know, like Mom.” 

“Whatever you decide to do,” Paul Bunyan spoke up after exchanging a few quiet words with his group, “Decker and I’ll stay with whoever waits out here. Nuliajuk can go inside with the rest.” 

In the end, we went with Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, December, and Bobbi waiting outside with Paul. Tabbris had the same benefit with me that Vanessa had with her own father (he was the one she chose to briefly possess). She could check in on me from outside to make sure we were safe. And December wanted to stay with her. With Bobbi, Paul, Babe, and (hopefully) Decker’s group protecting them, there was at least a decent chance they’d be okay long enough for Tristan to recall up to the station and get help. Which… yeah, we were probably being overly paranoid, but still. Wyatt would say we weren’t being cautious enough. This felt like the least we could do while still getting the information we needed. At least, assuming this Prelate guy was on the up and up. And I thought he was.

Yeah, if this Gehenna group had anything bad in mind, the people out here were in as good of a position to deal with it as they could possibly be given what we had to work with. 

Which left Haiden, Asenath, Miranda, Shiori, April, and me to go inside. With Nuliajuk, of course. Once we’d sorted all that out, Prelate nodded acceptingly and stepped over to Haiden first.  Carefully, he used what appeared to be their own version of a field-engraver to draw a magic symbol on the man’s arm. When he was done, he powered it and the spellwork disappeared, apparently activated. His voice was calm. “For the next twenty-four hours, or until it is revoked, our defenses will not bother you. Do not attempt to replicate the spell you just witnessed. There are elements you could not see, and specifics are changed often.” 

“Darn,” Haiden replied, “And here I was hoping to cover my body in spell tattoos and magic Michael Scofield my way into your prison.”  

“He broke out, not in,” Tristan reminded him. 

“Depends on the season you’re talking about,” April of all people put in. “And it depends on–” 

“Are you guys really having this discussion right now?!” an exasperated Vanessa demanded. Despite everything, the look on her face was actually pretty funny. I stifled my reaction though. 

Under Vanessa’s squinting gaze, the rest of us had our spell tattoos put on. Once we were suitably protected from the prison’s defenses, Prelate pivoted on his heel and started to move while beckoning. A massive ruby-red door with a bunch of white spell runes appeared at the base of the building as we followed him toward it. When we got closer, the man held up his hand. I had a brief glimpse of white spell runes on his palm before he held them in front of the door. The spells on the building seemed to glow brighter for a second, then the door opened. 

We stepped through that massive door and found ourselves in the lobby. But this definitely wasn’t a welcoming lobby. There were heavily armed troops, a dozen of them, waiting for us. They were dressed similarly to Prelate, each of them holding a complicated-looking advanced  rifle of some kind that probably shot lasers or nuclear explosions or something. They weren’t pointing them at us or anything, But I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much if we were to act up. Plus, these guys were reinforced by a bunch of turrets all along the walls and ceiling. And I saw more spell work along every surface. Those runes glowed briefly when we stepped onto the floor, and I saw the spell that had been painted on my arm flash back to life for a second before it faded once more, with the defensive spells doing the same. Somehow, I was really glad that I hadn’t stepped into this place without that. It wouldn’t have ended well, that was for sure.

As for the room itself, it was circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that was slightly curved and around thirty feet high. Beyond the turrets that I could see, there were also spots where I was pretty sure more defenses could pop out if need be. We weren’t seeing everything. Probably because they wanted to keep at least some secrets in case this went badly.  

Prelate said something in another language to the assembled soldiers, and they dispersed into pairs, going through various doors that appeared and opened as they approached before immediately disappearing again. He looked to us then, his tone softening somewhat. “Pardon our paranoia, this is quite an unusual situation. If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain what’s happening and how we can help each other.” 

So, we did. What else were we gonna do, leave? We trailed after the man as he walked to the middle of the room. Once there, a circular portion of the floor around us began to sink, as we were taken down on an elevator. There were smooth metal walls around us, with more obviously defensive spellwork.

Asenath clearly couldn’t wait any longer. She squinted at the man, demanding, “Would you like to finally explain what your people have to do with those kids and my mother being abducted? Because right now, it’s not looking very good for your people, I’ve gotta tell you.” 

“I’d also like to know why it seems that your people are trying to start a war in Las Vegas and using Heretics to do it,” Haiden lightly noted, though there was a slight edge to his voice. I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think the man in front of us was an enemy, but he also definitely wasn’t in the mood for any kind of runaround. 

“Yes,” Prelate agreed with them both. “First, I must confess that the spell I used to allow you into this building did more than what I said. Nothing harmful, but it also tested you for infection.”  

We all started to ask what he meant by that, but the elevator stopped. Rather than doors appearing, part of the wall turned transparent and we could see into a large chamber. It looked like some kind of zoo exhibit or something, a big rectangular room, about fifty feet by eighty feet with a twenty foot ceiling. The whole place was filled with plants. There was grass, a few gnarled-looking trees, some bushes, flowers everywhere, vines along the walls, the works.

The man spoke while we were taking that in. “As I said, we hold the most dangerous threats in our prison. But the single greatest threat is the being the prison was originally created for. The first prisoner. Or, as we call him, Ehn. One, in your language. Prisoner number one. Ehn, in our language. He is actually from your world originally. A human who became what you call a Heretic, bonded to a dragon.” 

That made Shiori’s gaze snap around, blurting, “Wait, like Arthur?” 

Like the king known as Arthur, but not him,” Prelate informed us. “Ehn predates that man by quite a bit. And he is far, far more dangerous. He is a monster who must remain contained. As must his closest followers. There are eight of them. The next eight prisoners after Ehn. All are potential world-ending catastrophic threats, given their own proclivities, strengths, and the fact that Ehn spent a long time using his dragon abilities to boost his lieutenants. They are dangerous, and they can never be allowed to escape.” 

He nodded then to the room ahead of us. “I already mentioned Kwur, or Three in your words. Kwur is different from the others. He cannot be left in the same place for long and must be moved every few months. The longer he stays in one general location, the stronger his ability to influence emotions becomes.” 

“Influence emotions? So he makes people violent, scared, that kind of thing?” Columbus asked. “And where is he, behind one of those bushes or in one of the trees?” 

“He is the bushes and the trees,” Prelate corrected. “Kwur is a plant-based life-form, of sorts. He grows and spreads through the plants. They are his body. And yes, he can influence those within a certain range of himself to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions, given the opportunity and enough time in an area. Normally that is a fairly short time, but our defenses render him mostly safe, for awhile. Eventually, however, his power will overload our ability to contain it and he has to be moved again. This was his time to be here, in this outpost. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his spores managed to infect one of our people somehow, and that person carried more spores into Las Vegas.”

“But why?” Miranda asked. “Wait, spores? Like… pieces of himself?” 

“Yes,” the man confirmed. “While he is capable of influencing people’s emotions, he is also able to influence them even more strongly, sometimes directly, by infesting them with his spores. That is what happened with the Azlee Ren you are looking for. Ren was infested with spores and, in turn, infested several others. We learned the truth too late, and they escaped. We didn’t know where they escaped to, but sent forces to search for them, to no avail until we were contacted by King Oberon, who told us of your questions. We now believe that the infested Ren and the others have contracted mercenary groups on this world for aid.” 

“But why?” I asked. “And what does that have to do with Las Vegas, and those kids? And why did that guy tell us to come to Canada to find them?”

In answer, Prelate replied, “Kwur feeds off of hatred and violence. His spores can grow faster and stronger in the middle of a warzone. Particularly one where peace previously existed. We now believe that Ren and the others under his influence are attempting to create a war in Las Vegas in order to grow his spores. The more of his spores grow, the more people he will be able to infest. And the more he infests, the greater his ability to provoke even more hatred and violence on an exponential scale.

“As for the man who sent you to us, it is very possible that at least some of the mercenaries employed by Ren and the others are under the impression that they are following our instructions, that Ren is acting in some official capacity. Whatever they believe, the result is that they are working to destabilize Las Vegas in order to create an environment which will best allow Kwur’s spores to grow much stronger and more numerous. If they grow strong enough, he will be able to manifest his core consciousness beyond this prison. 

“And if that happens, his evil will spread through every plant on this world, locking every being who lives here in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred.” 

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.

“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”

She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him. 

Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.

Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”

Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on. 

The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit!  I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.” 

Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.” 

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.” 

“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.” 

There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded. 

Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”  

For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.” 

Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.” 

As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow  I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.  

Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances. 

Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased. 

Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.” 

With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”  

Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”  

Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.” 

As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation. 

I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”

From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?” 

“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.” 

After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.” 

My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”

“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.” 

“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.” 

“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.” 

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”    

Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”

Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.

We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming. 

Finally, we reached Strangefield itself.  and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence. 

Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them. 

“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”  

“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.” 

Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those. 

A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.

Winding our way through with the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors. 

The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more. 

At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.” 

The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.

There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side. 

“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.” 

He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four. 

“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Oberon wasn’t in his throne room. Instead, we were led through the top floors of the hotel that served as his Calgary palace and to an elevator. Conner, acting as our escort, produced a gold key as we stopped outside of it, glanced over to our group. He seemed to be doing a mental count before he stuck the key into a slot beside the doors and murmured some kind of incantation. 

He pulled it out then, and the doors opened to reveal a large elevator beyond, big enough for everyone to fit in. And that was everyone. Miranda, Vanessa, Tristan, April, December, Tabbris, Haiden, Jason, Shiori, Asenath, Columbus (with Amethyst hanging over his shoulder), and me. We all exchanged brief, curious glances, then stepped in. A moment later, we were descending, as smooth jazz music filled the air. The whole thing was honestly kind of surreal.  

“The king is waiting in one of his gardens,” Conner informed us. “Will you be okay with that?” 

It took me a second to realize he was addressing Asenath, who touched her shirt where the sun-protection amulet was covered. “Haiden and Bobbi gave the toy a bit of a recharge. It should be fine for now. I think,” she added a bit dryly, “If it’s not, we’ll find out pretty quick.”  

“As the reigning authority on things that people don’t find funny but really are,” Shiori informed her sister with eyes narrowed into a squint, “that was absolutely and definitely not funny.” 

Jason, however, chuckled a little. “Don’t worry, I’m sure someone around here knows a fire extinguisher spell. Or maybe someone has water powers? It’s hard to keep track with you guys.”

“If not, I’m good at the old stop, drop, and roll,” Asenath promised sagely. “Comes in handy.”   

Kicking her sister in the leg, Shiori retorted, “You guys think joking about dead vampires is sooo funny, but I don’t think you understand the stakes.” There was a brief pause then, a half-smile teasing the corner of her mouth before she hung her head and groaned. “I can’t turn it off.” 

The elevator door opened then, and we found ourselves facing something very different than the lobby I’d been expecting. Apparently we weren’t taking a car or something to this garden the king was at, the elevator had taken us there itself. Ahead of us was… well, probably the most beautiful garden I’d ever seen. There were brick pathways leading in a maze through hundreds of patches of exotic plants of every shape and size. Flowers so wild some of them had to be from different worlds were everywhere. A few of them were as big as actual trees, with brightly colored petals on top that were as large as surfboards. Others were of a more normal size, but definitely didn’t look like any flower on Earth. Throughout the brick paths that meandered through the garden, I could see tall metal poles with beehives attached. Like the flowers, the hives were many different sizes. Which explained a few of the giant bees that I could see hovering up around the enormous flowers. Those bees were as big as a decent sized dog, which made the idea of being stung by one pretty scary. It’d be like being stabbed by a sword. 

Giving us a moment to take that in, Conner pointed ahead. “Follow that path right in the middle through the garden to the other side. You’ll know where to go when you see it, believe me.” 

Right, apparently we were supposed to go on without him, considering his words and the fact that he stepped back by the elevator. Wait. I glanced that way, finding the elevator door itself sitting there in the middle of the field. It was like the first time I’d woken up back with the bus, when this whole thing had started. Only with an elevator door instead of a normal door. 

“Deja Vu,” I murmured, receiving a curious look from Conner that I waved off. “Never mind.” 

We started walking, December’s gaze moving up to look at the house sized beehive perched several stories above our heads as we passed one of the giant metal poles. A wide, excited grin stretched across her face as she blurted, “Iwannabeagiantbee! CanIbeagiantbee?! It’dbesofunandtheylookstrongandfasttoo! I’dbeallBuzzBuzzBuzzhahI’verupturedyourspleen!” 

Before I could respond, Tabbris spoke up. “I’m pretty sure Mr. King Oberon Guy likes the bees, so it’d probably be a bad idea to do anything that means one of them would have to die, you know?”  

Poor December deflated visibly at that. “OhyeahIforgot,” she murmured in a voice that was somehow depressed despite still being very quick. The kid actually looked pretty sad that she wasn’t going to be able to possess any of the giant insects and fly around like that, giving a look up that way as we moved on with a little wave. “ByebeesIwon’thurtyou! Goodluckmakinghoney!” There was a sad sort of… resigned emptiness to her voice. 

Wow, that sucked. Every once in a while, the whole SPS thing snuck up on you. December didn’t want to hurt anyone. She just wanted to possess a bee and go for a ride. But she couldn’t even do that without killing the bee afterward. She couldn’t possess anything without killing it afterward. And she and all the others like her had to build their entire lives around that. 

Tabbris seemed very intent about that too, as I saw her staring at December while the other girl walked along with her gaze on the ground. April had joined her partner and was whispering something to her that seemed to make December feel a little better, but clearly didn’t change anything. The two of them walked ahead of us, and Tabbris glanced to me with an expression that made it obvious she was very deep in thought and planning mode. She kind of reminded me of her mother that way. Something was wrong, and she wanted to fix it. Somehow. 

I didn’t really have time to ask what she was thinking,  because it wasn’t long before we passed through the thick, tall flower garden and saw exactly why Conner had said we would know where to go. Mostly because it was pretty hard to miss the giant man waving to us. Yeah, seriously. And by giant man, I didn’t mean like… seven or even eight feet tall. No. The guy we could see standing off on the other side of the field was much bigger than that. My guess from where we were standing was that he had to be at least fifteen feet tall. Maybe even bigger. He was this massive figure who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack. Big and burly, wearing blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, with a thick black bushy beard and long hair. Actually, part of him reminded me of my own father. Not that Dad was that big, but still. The general look. That or Davis from the Committee, who also had the lumberjack look. But no, for some reason, my dad was the thought that leapt more to mind. Maybe it was his friendly and open expression. 

And even if that guy hadn’t been enough to get our attention, the giant blue ox standing next to him would have done the trick. The ox was big enough that it almost made the man himself look small, its shoulders standing slightly above the top of his head. The thing was gigantic. 

“Babe,” Miranda managed in a voice that was full of awe. “You… that’s… Babe. That’s Babe. Flick, that’s Babe. And that’s… that’s…” Her hand was raised, pointing that way shakily. “You mentioned him,” she whispered, clearly barely able to speak. “You mentioned him, but I didn’t think he’d be here.”  

Belatedly, I remembered something and looked that way, “Wait, you did a project about Paul Bunyan in school, didn’t you? About the stories, I mean. It was for English class. Wasn’t he like your favorite legendary figure or something? You– oh my God, you’re meeting your hero!”

My words made the black girl flush, ducking her head as she stammered something about meeting plenty of heroes and important people before. It honestly didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was pretty clear that she was incredibly embarrassed and nervous about the whole thing. 

April seemed surprised by the reaction, glancing toward December before offering, “If you want, I can introduce you. We’re on pretty good terms. Like I said, he let me sit on his ox before.” Belatedly, she added a thoughtful, “I suppose that sounds like an innuendo.” 

Tristan’s mouth opened, but Vanessa covered it without looking at him before speaking up. “It looks like he’s waiting for us with the king. We should just go over there.” 

So, we did. And I saw that my initial estimates had indeed been a little short. Pun intended. Paul Bunyan was more like twenty feet tall, his ox slightly taller than that and much bigger around, like a fucking truck. They were both utterly, almost mind-bogglingly enormous. As I stood there staring at the pair, part of me wondered if they both might’ve come from the same world as the Amaroks. Were giant human-like beings a thing on that world? I wasn’t sure, but it definitely looked like Bunyan and Babe belonged there. If nothing else, they could defend themselves. 

Oberon was standing by the giant man’s foot. He looked even smaller than usual like that. And he wasn’t the only one. There was another figure waiting for us as well. This one was a woman who appeared to be Inuit, with long dark hair that reached past her knees. 

Bunyan was the first to greet us, his giant hand raised as he called, “Ho there! And welcome to our garden. We were just talking about all of you. But I suppose a couple introductions are in order, aren’t they?”

Of course, Tristan immediately spoke up with, “Let me guess, you’re Thumbelina.” 

The giant man roared with laughter, head shaking as he slapped his ox on the side. “Thumbelina! You hear this one, Babe? He’s a funny one. Keep an eye on him.” With a wink, he added, “He keeps making such good jokes, you might have to step on him.” 

Then the man was laughing at his own joke before taking a knee. He still towered over everyone else, obviously. But it put him a little closer to our eye level. 

Part of me wondered if we were supposed to be going through any kind of special greeting with the king. But he wasn’t even paying attention to us at the moment. Instead, he seemed to be focusing on the long-haired woman beside him, the two of them deep in conversation. 

Meanwhile, the giant lumberjack lowered his voice and continued with, “Yeah, I guess you know who I am. Still, pays to be polite. The name’s Paul Bunyan.”

Oberon and his companion still seemed intent on their conversation, so we all introduced ourselves. When it came to April’s turn, Bunyan interrupted with a large pointed finger. “That one I know. April of the Calendar. You know Babe over here wouldn’t stop going on about how he wanted you to come back for another ride? If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was trying to replace me.”

Straight-faced, the red-haired girl informed him, “I’m afraid those would be some very large shoes to fill.”

Giving another loud, bellowing laugh that seemed to shake the ground around us, Bunyan slapped Babe on the side again. I had the feeling that he had gotten into the habit of doing that because he couldn’t smack the back of the person he was talking to. The ox didn’t seem to mind. “Yes! Big shoes! You have no idea how hard it is to find a Footlocker that carries my size!”

Grinning through his bushy beard, the man cleared his throat, seeming to try to get down to business despite his clear preference to keep joking around. “In any case, I suppose, when you get down to it, I’m here to stand in for what we like to call the Summer Court.”

“That’s the open warfare people, right?” Columbus asked while using one hand to carefully scratch under the metal porcupine’s chin. 

Bunyan gave a soft chuckle. “Well, I like to think we do more than fight wars. But if you mean are we the ones who act in the open and let everyone see us, then yeah. That’s Summer. We keep everyone’s attention while Winter acts more… subtly. And speaking of Winter, this here is their representative for this little meeting.”

As he said that, the Inuit Woman turned to face us, giving a very slight bow of her head before speaking in a quiet voice (or maybe it just seemed quiet after the boom of Paul’s). “I am Nuliajuk, also called Sedna.”

Vanessa‘s mouth opened, but that time Tristan was the one to cover her’s, as he spoke up first. “The girl who refused to marry anyone, so her parents left her and when she tried to climb into their boat her father chopped off her fingers so she sank to the bottom of the water and became goddess over the sea mammals?” 

Nuliajuk raised an eyebrow before replying, “Very good, Tristan of Moon. The legends you have read are not precisely accurate, but you clearly know what you’re speaking of.”

With a shrug, the boy removed his hand from his incredulous-looking sister’s mouth and gave a tug at the necklace around his throat, turning it into the large snake. He told me once that he kept Bobbi-Bobbi in her necklace form most of the time because she preferred to sleep through a lot of the day. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but then I’d asked Nevada and she explained that the more the snake was in recharge mode, the more powerful shots she could fire more quickly when a battle came. The snake personality she had been given was content to simply rest and observe from her necklace shape. 

He did, however, seem to wake the snake up whenever he was feeling anxious. Which he obviously was as he rubbed under her head while murmuring, “One of my best friends for a long time was a Nereid. Is a Nereid. It got me interested in sea myths.”

Yeah, no wonder he was feeling anxious enough to need comfort from his snake. It was going to be at least another four years or so before our timeline caught up enough for Tristan to see his old friends on Nicholas Petan’s ship. By the rules of time travel (which was still a really weird thing to even think despite everything), he couldn’t go see them anytime sooner than that or he’d risk exploding. And that would be a pretty bad way of having a reunion.

Oberon stepped over to join us, and we all bowed as much as we could. He returned it with a slight nod of his head before speaking. “Paul and Nuliajuk are here as representatives from their courts. They will be accompanying you as you search for this Azlee Ren Kotter.”

In other words, they would be making sure we didn’t overstep our bounds and act appropriately if we did. They were guides, but they were also babysitters of a sort. Which I couldn’t even start to blame these guys for. Not with our reputation. 

Haiden asked, “May we take this to mean that you have information that could narrow our search somewhat, your majesty?” 

Oberon confirmed, “Yes, in fact. There is a town far to the north. It’s not known to any Bystanders. It’s a town of Alters. They call it Strangefield. As it turns out, the name Kotter is… important within the town. Whether there is an Azlee or not, I can’t say. But that would appear to be your best chance of finding a lead for your quest. As I said, you will be accompanied by these two. They will take you to Strangefield and ensure there are no incidents, from either side.”

Right, a town full of only Alters. This would be interesting. Actually, part of me wished we were having this little tour and introduction to Canada under more pleasant circumstances. It would be nice to just be here learning this stuff without the added pressure of looking for Jiao, the missing kids, and trying to prevent a war in Las Vegas. To say nothing of needing to get the information about Asenath’s father when this was over. 

I also noticed that Oberon didn’t say that he didn’t know if there was an Azlee Kotter, only that he couldn’t say. I had a feeling that was deliberate.

For a while, we talked to the king and his people about specifics, where we were going, how we would get there, what rules we were operating under, that kind of thing. Apparently Oberon was going to allow us to use a portal to go a large portion of the way before we would take a bus the last couple hours or so. I had the impression that this Strangefield was going to use that time to prepare to receive Heretic visitors. This whole thing was clearly going to be very testy for everyone involved.

Eventually, Oberon dismissed us. But he made it very clear that he would involve himself immediately if we overstepped or caused any problems. Things were tentatively polite with the man, yet he was obviously not one to be trifled with. 

Once it was clear we had been dismissed, we all turned and started to leave the garden. We were accompanied by our two new guides. 

“Just out of curiosity,” Jason asked Bunyan, “how do you not stand out to normal humans? Does the Bystander Effect make you look like a tree or something? Does Babe look like a truck?”

That loud, bellowing laugh returned. “Oh, don’t you worry. Bystanders mostly just see me as a tall guy. Which isn’t a lie! Hey, look at that, I’m a poet.” He grinned. “Anyway, we can still be a bit of an armful, which is why this is pretty useful.” As he spoke, the man produced an engraved bit of wood from his pocket, touched it to his shoulder, and spoke to spell on it. Instantly, he shrunk down. Soon, he was ‘only’ seven foot, two inches. Still gigantic, but at least manageably gigantic. He did the same to Babe, who was then just a really big, though still blue, ox. 

“Well,” he announced, “shall we go save these kids and the vampire lady?”

We continued back toward the elevator, and I glanced toward Miranda, who had been pretty quiet throughout all of that, only speaking up in a very squeaky voice to introduce herself back there. “You know, Randi,” I informed her in a whisper, “I’m starting to think that it was more than academic interest that made you do a project on him before. Do you have a cru—”

It was in that moment that I found out that even a thoroughly embarrassed and shy Miranda could kick pretty damn hard. 

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, we told the King the whole story, everything we knew about the situation. I was pretty sure he already understood a large part of it, if not everything we knew. But he wanted to hear it from us, in our words. Through it all, he never interrupted or reacted much at all. He simply sat there on his throne, watching the person talking with an intense stare that made it clear he was focusing on every word, despite his lack of outward reaction. 

Finally, we finished, and the short, beautiful man glanced away from us. He gazed off into the distance, apparently lost in thought for a few long moments. I glanced at the others and they seemed just as uncertain. None of us thought it would be a good idea to interrupt or rush the man, that much was clear. So, we stood there and waited, despite the pressing urgency I felt in the back of my head about what could be happening to those kids and Jiao. 

Finally, the man straightened from his throne and stepped over in front of us. “This is quite the mystery you’ve been pulled into. Someone trying to spark conflict in Las Vegas by abducting children… or one child first, then others. Why do you suppose they did that? Why would they take one child and leave the others standing there, only to later engage in a much riskier operation to abduct more?”

I’d been thinking about that a lot and started to open my mouth when he asked the question, only to catch myself. Unsure of the etiquette, I, somewhat awkwardly, raised my hand. When he looked to me and nodded, I offered, “Maybe they couldn’t get the princess to do something they wanted her to do and took her friends hostage to make her listen to them?”

“That implies they had a reason to take her other than as the spark of a war,” he noted with a curious expression. “What could that possibly be? What could the young hybrid daughter of a Vestil and an Akharu actively do, that they would need so badly as to engage in this scale of operation?”

My mouth opened and shut helplessly. Honestly, I had no idea. I didn’t know what someone like that would be capable of, let alone what these people, whoever they were, would want her for. 

Then Vanessa raised her hand and spoke up once he looked to her. “What if it has to do with that throne thing, whatever it is? The thing on their home world that they were all fighting over for so long. The Akharu won it, and then the Vestil cursed them. So maybe these people, whoever they are, need someone who is both Akharu and Vestil to get to the throne.”

It was Miranda’s turn to snap her own hand up and blurt, “Maybe there’s two different groups involved, people who are working together. One of them wanted to spark the war in Vegas, and they were working with people who wanted the princess for this other thing, either what Vanessa said or something else.”

Tristan took his turn to add, “We know Eden’s Garden Heretics were involved at least in the assassination attempts, and those have to be related. Whoever let the Heretics in the backdoor wanted to cause chaos and do as much damage as possible even after they had Rowan and the other kids. That does kind of sound like one group that’s focused on hurting Vegas and another group that’s into whatever they wanted Rowan for.”

Oberon watched us carefully, his expression betraying none of his own opinions. ”So, you believe these two groups, whoever they are, became allies. One with the intention to destabilize Las Vegas likely for some kind of takeover, and the other with the end goal of actually using this hybrid princess for some purpose, such as the ‘throne’ on the Akharu-Vestil homeworld.”

Haiden finally spoke. “It makes a certain kind of sense. If there was one group that wanted to start a war in Vegas and another group that took advantage of that to get what they wanted, namely Rowan… otherwise taking the other kids doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re just her friends. They’re definitely important to their families, but I don’t think they’d do enough to help spark this war to warrant the risks and effort these people went to in grabbing them. They’ve already got the princess. And they can certainly do damage on their own, we saw that with the Heretics. Taking the children always seemed like a lot of effort for little pay off. But if they were taking them to get Rowan to cooperate, that implies something they want her to do. Which makes the whole Vegas conflict thing seem unimportant. Except they sent Heretics in to do more damage. There being two different groups does help explain that a little bit.”

Bobbi piped up then with, “So we find this Azlee Ren Kotter person and find out which of the groups he’s with. Or she. Whoever they are, they’ll be able to answer questions. So why aren’t we already out there looking for them?”

Oberon regarded her briefly, his expression narrowing slightly before he offered a very faint smile. “An impulsive Stardrinker-Heretic. How in the world did you manage to make a bond with something as powerful as that? Unless… a childhood friend?”

Her head shook rapidly. “Not a friend. Just a stupid jackass who was part of some crime family in my neighborhood, shaking down businesses. They were taking money from this gas station and things got violent. I distracted him and then he got shot.”

“Ah.” The king took all that in with a slight nod. “It does seem as though no matter how powerful one gets, arrogance combined with distraction often leads to a downfall.”

That said, the man exhaled and continued. “Which is why I’m going to let you search for this person you’re looking for. Make no mistake, I have very little love for most Bosch-connected Heretics, after all the things you’ve done on this world. And I appreciate the presence of their Seosten puppeteers even less. But I believe that you are different.” He glanced at me, adding, “And I owe Lyell a debt, both of friendship and for everything he did in his life.”

Letting out a breath of obvious relief, Haiden spoke up. “Thank you, your majesty. We have no intention of abusing this privilege, or any of your hospitality. We only wish to find Jiao, Rowan, and the other missing children. Then we will leave you and yours in peace.”

“No offense,” Jason put in from where he had been silently standing with December and April through this whole thing, “but how are we supposed to find this person? I mean, we’ve got a name, but Canada is a pretty big place. Do we just Google it, or what?”

Oberon replied, “I may accept your presence here, but neither I nor any of my people want to have Heretics traipsing all over our territory knocking on doors randomly.  The sooner you find what you’re looking for and with the least amount of attention, the better. You will retire to private rooms for the evening, while I have my own people look into this. We will give you as much information as we can about this Kotter’s location. My people will narrow down your search. Then you can take this person, find out what they know, and leave.”

As much as I didn’t want to sit around a room waiting for his people to do the work, I knew we weren’t going to get a better deal than that. Oberon was being pretty nice, as far as that went, but I could still detect simmering danger just under the surface. He was a man of great power who was accustomed to being obeyed in everything he said. Arguing with him felt like a bad idea, to say the least. 

Beyond that, I was also pretty sure he knew more than he was telling about this whole situation. It was just a feeling I had. I didn’t think he was a bad guy or anything. I just… had an idea that he was more informed than he was letting on. 

Everyone else seemed to feel the same way, at least about not upsetting him, because we simply gave our thanks before Oberon dismissed us and ordered a waiting Conner to take us to the rooms he had mentioned. Bowing, the dark-skinned man with those intricate red tribal tattoos all over his body turned and beckoned us sharply with two fingers before turning to walk to the door. 

We followed, and I glanced back toward Oberon on the way. He was standing there, meeting my gaze when I turned. He said nothing, though he did wink before turning to say something to a woman who approached him from the other side. I had no idea what that was about. Was he just winking to be friendly, or something else? Had the past year simply made me incredibly paranoid? Probably.

Either way, I was shaken out of my musing when Miranda spoke up, addressing April and December. And Tabbris, I belatedly noted, who had been standing very silently behind me through that. “You guys were pretty quiet in there.”

April simply replied, “As you heard, he has no like or patience for Seosten. We are here to aid you. Annoying the man into ejecting us from his territory would not be helpful.”

Tabbris bobbed her head up and down. “We didn’t want to make him mad.”

From in front of us, Conner almost cheerfully agreed, “She’s got a point. Keeping quiet in there was probably the most helpful thing those three could’ve done. Being visible and quiet, that is. The King may not like knowing there are Seosten in his territory, but not knowing exactly where they are in that territory would be even worse.”

“Which means no sneaking around,” Haiden informed the two Calender members with a sharp look. “No possessing random animals and ‘just taking a look.’ We’re here as very tentative guests. That means we don’t push our luck. He wants to know where you all are, so you don’t give him any reason to think you might be trying to hide, understood?”

The two agreed, as did Tabbris. Even December was clearly taking it seriously, despite how hard the order to simply stay in the rooms and not to go exploring had to be for her.

So, I supposed that was it. We were just going to go sit in these rooms and wait for Oberon’s people to find out whatever they could. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too long.

Because as frightening as the idea of upsetting Oberon might have been, tomorrow was Monday, and we could only miss so many days of school before Abigail would turn into her own brand of terrifying. As it was, I’d already missed the weekend visit with Dad. He understood, of course, but we really needed to deal with this. 

Because those two being annoyed with me and teaming up was almost more dangerous than any of these kidnappers could’ve been. 

*******

The rooms that we had been taken to were no less comfortable and extravagant than the ones in Vegas. It was obvious that the king spared no expense or effort in keeping the people he allowed into his palace happy. As long as you weren’t a prisoner, I supposed. 

Either way, it didn’t really matter how comfortable the place was. We all just sat around trying to will time to pass so we could get on with this. There were games to play, movies to watch, even ping pong tables, arcade machines, and the like. Not to mention the exercise rooms. We all drifted back and forth through them for most of the evening until people were tired enough to sleep. Then they rested, everyone taking one of the separate yet quite large bedrooms that have been provided.

I, meanwhile, had another training session with Shyel. She wanted to see the new powers I’d picked up and incorporated them into training. That was the way sessions with her went. Sometimes we used powers, sometimes not. She wanted me to be able to fight with and without it, as well as with and without magic.

I also asked her what she knew about Oberon, but it wasn’t much. She said the real her might have more knowledge, but it wasn’t something she’d included much of in her upload. Which made sense, considering she had been focused on making sure the tutor in my head was good enough to teach me how to fight and protect myself, not give lessons about Canada. 

Either way, it was a long and grueling session that left me exhausted enough to sleep for a full three hours afterward. Yeah, sometimes having the Amarok’s power was pretty damn spiffy. 

Anyway, I was awoken in the morning by the sense of someone watching me. Lifting my head from the pillow, I looked over to see Tabbris silently watching as she ate a piece of toast. Maybe the smell of that had helped wake me up too. 

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

Chuckling, I sat up and shook my head. “She doesn’t know anything about why they took those kids, or what this throne thing might be. The real Chayyiel might have more information, but it wasn’t part of the lesson plan. Any word from our host yet?”

Handing me part of her toast, the younger girl made a face. “Nuh uh. That Dia lady stopped by to say they’re still narrowing it down and that they should have something by this afternoon.”

Groaning, I bit into the toast and chewed it before looking back at her. “I guess there’s worse places to be stuck doing nothing, but I still don’t like it.” Deciding to change the subject, I added, “What do you think of December and April?”

Brightening a bit at that, Tabbris quickly replied, “December’s smart! And funny. And… and I wish she wasn’t part of Cahethal’s group. But… but if she wasn’t, she might be dead by now. Or just basically a slave. She’s only December because of Cahethal.”

“I’m really glad you made a friend, Tabs,” I said with a little smile. “She does seem cool. They both do. Makes me wonder what the rest of their group is like.”

“December says they’re her family,” Tabbris informed me. “They all take care of each other.” Belatedly, a slight frown crossed her face. “Why do you think they use our calendar month names and not the Seosten system? Or at least the Roman names. I mean, some of them are the same, but not all of them.”

Shaking my head, I got up to dress quickly. “My guess is to separate them from what Cahethal sees as ‘real Seosten.’ They’re here on Earth, so they use Earth calendar names. It reinforces that they’re not part of her real society, even if she is granting them their own identities. Hell, even calling them their own identities is a bit of a reach. The names are titles, they inherit them from other SPS Seosten who had those names before.”

Tabbris didn’t say anything to that at first. She just waited for me to get dressed, then stood up and walked over to silently hug me. Her grip was tight, and I returned it just as tightly. After a few seconds of that, the girl quietly murmured, “I hope they don’t go back to her.”

Running a hand through her hair, I nodded. “We just need to show them that they have a choice. They’re loyal to each other, so we need to make sure they know they’re welcome here and that they can bring the rest of their family, right?”

She agreed, and the two of us left the room. The bit of toast Tabbris had shared was good, but I was really famished and it was going to take more than that. I needed some real food. 

Luckily, real food was exactly what was on the menu as I walked into the dining area that had been provided. The others were all there already, and the table was positively bowing under the weight of the feast that had been laid out on it. Seriously, it was insane.

Amethyst and Choo were In the corner, having a breakfast of metal shards and pancakes, respectively. So I produced Jaq and Gus, sending them over that way before taking a seat next to Shiori. Columbus, sitting on the far side of her, leaned forward a bit to look at me. “You know, the next time Shiori and me go back to visit our parents, we’re not gonna know what to do when they just point at a box of cereal for breakfast.”

Snorting, I started to load up the empty plate in front of me. “I know, right? If these people aren’t careful, we’re gonna get used to this kind of thing.”

From where he was sitting on the far side of the table, Haiden noted, “That’s why the trick is for you to make this kind of food for them. I’m sure Twister would help you out.”

“Help you learn to cook it, maybe,” the Pooka replied. “You know, for a price. All you people keep forgetting that I’m a mercenary. One with a heart and standards, maybe. But still a mercenary. I like money. Especially the kind I can swim in like Scrooge McDuck.”

Before I could respond to that, Jason spoke up. “I can help you learn how to cook if you want.” He gestured to his head. “It’s a good way to keep one half of my brain busy when I’m stretching that whole ‘focus on two different subjects at once’ thing. I also paint miniatures and work on puzzles.”

Curious, I asked, “So what is the other part of your brain focusing on while one part is eating and having this conversation? Or is that split between the two of them?”

“Nah,” he replied, “I’m also obsessing over this whole situation and having a bit of a mild panic attack about how I’ve gotten in over my head and that I might die out here.” His voice was incredibly mild considering the actual words, and he followed it up by offering, “Syrup?”

Haiden winced while I took the extended glass jar. He looked to the boy. “Believe me, anytime you want to head back, no one would blame you. You were in Vegas as someone who might be able to help with that, but no one expects you to stick around when things get this crazy.”

Jason took a moment, staring at his plate before looking up to the man. “Yeah, I’m scared. Screw that macho noise, I know just how many things can step on me like I’m a bug. Especially out here. I don’t get special level-up powers every time I kill something. But I also know that this is important. And if it turns out I could’ve helped at some point and ran away, I’d never forgive myself. So, whatever, I’m here. I’m staying here. Just, uhhh, remember that some of us aren’t quite as durable as the rest of you, huh?”

We agreed, and breakfast continued. Then there were a few hours of waiting around some more. It was basically pure torture. Torture with movies, games, lots of time spent with Shiori, and so on, but still. 

It was vaguely possible that I wasn’t one hundred percent on what torture actually was. But hey, in a few weeks, I was sure Fossor would be all too happy to help me learn.

Right, my brain needed a change of subject. Which it finally got, about midway through the afternoon, as we got the summons to appear in front of the king again. 

He had something for us.

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Perennial Potentate 4-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday focusing on Sariel’s last unknown child. If you have not read that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Now that I was looking around a little more as the tour bus made its way toward our meeting with Oberon, I saw the same kind of thing I had noticed in the restaurant. There were obvious Alters walking around in plain sight all over the place. Not that the Bystanders noticed, but still. Beings of all shapes, sizes, and colors were walking, driving, and riding bikes through the city streets. I saw a guy in a taco truck with amphibian features and eyes on stalks handing over a bag of food to a group of goblin-like figures. There was a twelve-foot tall ogre-like being patiently waiting to cross the street along with a group of ordinary humans. High above was a flock of clearly magical multi-colored birds that left a glowing rainbow behind them as they flew through the night sky. 

“Dude…” Tristan murmured reverently, “Canada’s the tits.” 

Smirking as his sister elbowed him, I nodded. “Yeah, I would’ve found a better way to phrase that, but seriously. This place seems pretty great.” Frowning then, I added, “So why don’t all Alters just live here? They’re basically safe from Heretic attacks considering Crossroads and the Garden don’t dare invade.”

The answer to my question came from Conner, who took a few steps down the bus aisle to look at me. “There’s a few things, some of them better reasons than others. Some don’t want to leave their homes or Bystander people they care about behind even if they can’t explain things to them. Others don’t believe it’s really that safe and think that the Heretics are going to attack en masse someday. So they think that living here is just putting an open target on their backs. Some people think the King is really evil, that this whole thing is a trick and he’s sending slaves to the Heretics and that’s why they leave him alone. Some just don’t know how to get here. Some want to fight. Some don’t want to live under his rules, considering he requires a magical tax paid that allows him to maintain certain effects over this land and upkeeps his weapons.”

“Magical tax?” I asked. “Like those enner things? The coins that people exchange with their own magical energy in it like money.”

“Pretty much,” the man confirmed. “King Oberon is incredibly powerful. But maintaining that power and being ready to act with it if Heretics or anyone else decides to invade requires a lot of magical upkeep. That means everyone contributes a portion of their energy every month. Some people don’t like the idea of dumping basically all our hopes into one basket and making themselves weaker to boost the King.”

“Even with all that,” Shiori noted, “it still seems like this would be a better place to live than any place that Bosch Heretics can go.”

Conner smiled slightly at that. “No arguments here. But hey, to each their own. Anyone who is willing to follow the rules, live with Oberon as king, and pay their taxes are welcome. With exceptions, of course. King Oberon has final say. If he says you’re out of here, you’re out of here.

“So, uhh, considering you are about to meet him, let’s have all of you try to make a good first impression, okay?”

********

Calgary wasn’t Oberon’s primary residence. Apparently he maintained homes (or rather, had homes maintained for him) in almost every major Canadian city. All of his homes were linked through various portals to allow him quick transport throughout the country at any given time. 

This one, as it turned out, was in the top floor of a five star hotel in the middle of downtown Calgary. As our bus stopped in front of the hotel, we were joined by a new entourage of guards. These guys were obviously making a show of force, considering all of them were heavily armed. They were also all very clearly Alters. Even if my Heretic sense hadn’t been going off, that much would have been clear. This was, without a doubt, purposeful. They wanted us to know that they were Alters and that they were in charge. Which, even though they were supposed to know that we were from the rebellion group, I couldn’t really blame them for. Not after everything I’d seen Heretics put their kind through. It was going to take a lot more for them to trust us. 

So, with the assortment of heavily armed guards surrounding us, we made our way into the building. The doorman was a Relukun, who actually introduced himself briefly as Attkius before opening the doors and gesturing for us to go right inside. The lobby looked empty, which I had a feeling was also intentional. They were keeping innocent people out of our way. Again, fair enough. With the reputation Heretics had, I couldn’t blame them for taking every possible precaution. Though they had allowed us to go to a restaurant full of people, including Alters. Had that been a test of some kind? Were the people in that restaurant really average civilians? 

Walking across the grand lobby to the elevators, we split up a bit to all go up at once. I ended up in one with Miranda, Tabbris, December, April, and three armed and very twitchy-looking guards. I could tell that Haiden wasn’t super happy about all of us splitting up even for a short elevator ride, but on the other hand, if the King was actually going to do something at this point, there wasn’t much any of us could do about it even if we were all together. And I really doubted any of these guys would risk his wrath by pulling something on their own. 

As the elevator rose, I glanced toward the nearest guard. He was a thin man with intricate red scales lining his entire body, and a lizard-like head with two different pairs of eyes, one set near the top of his face like normal and a second pair down by his throat. “Do you guys know why we’re here?”

There was a brief pause, where I had the feeling he was trying to decide if he should speak to me or not. Finally, he gave a slight nod while his throat-eyes widened. A beam of light shot from both of them, turning into a full-sized image of Jiao. “You’re looking for the missing vampire.”

“Don’tforgetthemissingchildrenandmobprincessgirl,” December (very quickly) pointed out in a rush. “HeyspeakingofprincessdoesKingOberonhaveone? Imeanhisownprincessnotthisone. IsthereaQueenCanadaandaPrinceandPrincessCanada?”

One of the other guards, a man who looked like an anthropomorphic lynx, answered, “No offense, but we’re not going to tell you anything about our King’s family, if it exists, before he says you’re okay. That just seems like a good way to end up having a really bad day. Which, if he decides you’re not okay, is what you’ll be having anyway. But we don’t particularly want to join you.”

Yeah, definitely couldn’t blame them for not wanting to overstep their bounds and upset their boss, especially when that boss was capable of telling the collective Bosch Heretic world to stay out of an entire country and making it stick. 

Finally, the elevator reached our destination. As the doors opened, I heard other doors from more elevators opening around us. We stepped out into the hall with our escort, and I saw everyone else. We’d all made it up here with no issues. Yet. 

Once we were all together again, Conner and Dia lead the way down the plush carpeted hallway, past several other doors until we reach the one at the far end. That was a set of grand double doors with an intricate design of a man with a sword and shield defending against a dragon breathing fire inlaid on the wood. 

Rather than knock, both of them stopped short in front of the door and stood there. The guards escorting us stopped as well, as Conner glanced back. His voice was soft. “When his majesty is ready to see you, he’ll let us know.”

We actually didn’t wait that long, only a couple minutes. I was pretty sure that was just this Oberon guy’s way of making it clear that we were doing this by his schedule, not by ours. Still, a part of me bristled a bit at the fact that all of this was necessary, considering the stakes for Jiao and those kids. I couldn’t even begin to think of how much it was taking for Asenath and Shiori to keep themselves together through all this. 

But, finally, the doors opened and we stepped through. Except we didn’t move into a normal brand hotel suite. No, instead we found ourselves in an actual palace grand audience chamber. Seriously, that’s what it was. The ceiling was a good fifty feet up. The walls and floor were made of some kind of brilliant golden marble or something. There was a fifteen-foot wide ruby red carpet under our feet leading up toward an actual throne in a room filled with gold and silver statues, masterful paintings line the walls, the whole shebang. It was like we had been transported back in time to see an actual king at the height of their power, and I wondered briefly if this was anything like what Arthur’s audience chamber had looked like in his palace. 

As my eyes followed the carpet all the way up to the grand golden throne at the far end, I had my first look at the so-called King Oberon, the man powerful enough to scare the entire Committee into staying out of his claimed territory. 

He was standing up in front of that throne. Which revealed that he wasn’t a very tall man. He was rather short, in fact. Actually, I was pretty sure he was a couple inches under five feet. But for all his lack of height, the King was the single most gorgeous looking male I had ever laid eyes on. He had long golden brown hair, a strong jawline, intensely blue eyes, the works. He wore dark leather pants and a gold breastplate with the image of what looked like an even brighter golden sun turning supernova and exploding emblazoned across it, with the lines of the exploding sun stretching out in every direction. Staring at him, I couldn’t decide if he was more beautiful or more handsome. He was the perfect mix of both in a way that actually made my knees a little weak. I liked boys and girls, and this guy was basically the perfect combination of each. He was flat out fucking gorgeous. 

“Wow,” Shiori murmured beside me, “I don’t even like boys, and wow.” She glanced to me, squinting a little. “Are you okay?”

Flushing despite myself, I nodded quickly while we all began to walk again. The king said and did nothing as our group walked right up to the edge of the carpet before the guards stepped out to either side to take up flanking positions. 

“Your majesty, High King Oberon,” Conner began while stepping forward and turning to face us with a raised arm. “I present to you the envoy from the Joselyn Atherby Fusion School.”

For a few long seconds, the beautiful man stood there watching us in silence. His gaze swept over our group with clear assessment. I could feel the power emanating off of him, waves of magical energy that seemed to feel out the shape and strength of my own, judging it alongside the others. The whole while, he said nothing. Nor did anyone else. The room was silent enough that I was pretty sure I could hear more than one heartbeat. 

Abruptly, the king raised both hands, a broad smile lighting upon his face like the sun coming out from behind a cloud (one that, thankfully, wasn’t exploding like the one on his armor). “Glorious!” he announced in a loud, booming voice that filled the entire medieval throne room. “Well now!” Through saying those two words, the man was simultaneously chuckling. It was a laugh of genuine delight, not one of intimidation or belittlement. He was happy. “Isn’t this remarkable?”

He came forward then, stepping down off his dais and approaching until he stood right in front of our group. Right in front of Vanessa, to be specific. “You,” he started in another booming voice that made the girl jump a bit, “you’re the one who enjoys her studies so much, the student whose devotion to learning was exceeded only by her devotion to her family. The one who spent so long searching for them. In the span of a year, they were returned to you, one by one. Now you’re together. For a quest of such import to be concluded so happily is a rarity indeed. But has it changed who you are? Has lacking such a goal set you adrift? How much of your budding identity has been built around finding your family, and how much remains now that they are here?”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Tristan about to say something. But his father put a hand out to touch his arm with a very subtle head shake. We needed to let this play out the way Oberon wanted it to. 

Vanessa, for her part, stared silently at the powerful man in front of her before exhaling. “I thought it would be polite to introduce myself, but you seem to know a lot about me already, your majesty.”

That beaming smile returned, as the man nodded. “I know a lot about all of you. It pays for one in my position to understand the events that are shaping the world, as well as those who are doing the shaping. I have friends… and enemies, come to think of it, in many places who have spoken of you. Some good, some bad. But all find you genuinely interesting. And I seek after little as much as I do genuinely interesting people.”

He stepped over by Haiden then, his smiling expression softening into what appeared to be genuine regret and empathy. “Your sister, the one your daughter is named for… she was one of those genuinely interesting people. I did not know her well, but we met, even if she did not know it. Her loss was a loss for this world and for all who could have known her. You’ve named your daughter quite well in her honor. And thus far, she appears to have lived up to it.”

It took Haiden a second to find his voice, before he managed a slight nod. “Thank you, your majesty.”

With a brief glance toward April, Oberon noted, “You’re the one my favorite lumberjack tried to lure away from your commitments. You made quite an impression upon old Paul, you know. Something about a bright red deer?” 

The Seosten girl gave a short nod. “It was maroon, to be specific.” 

“Whatever shade it happened to be,” he replied, “Paul had a good time hunting it with you for those three weeks. He’s the one who said that I should make an exception to my no Seosten rules this time. So be glad he remembers you. And don’t make him regret the recommendation.” 

Then the king was in front of me. He paused, looking me up and down for a brief moment in a way that made my heart instinctively start beating much faster. After another second of silence, he started with, “‘If the school does not provide its arts and sciences even one-fifth of the budget it provides to its sports, then our education will be as lacking as our quarterback’s ability to complete a pass was on Saturday.’

For a second, I just stared at him, open-mouthed. Finally, I found my voice. “That’s from an article I wrote two years ago for the school paper.”

He winked. “As I said, I like to know interesting people. You weren’t wrong about your quarterback, either. He really did stink that day. Cost me five dollars and three hot dogs.”

Stepping away then, Oberon announced loudly, “But, we all know that you are not here to listen to how interesting I find you. You are here for something far more important. You wish to search my land for villains who have abducted children… and a mother.” His gaze glanced toward Asenath and Shiori briefly. “You wish for permission to hunt for such monsters in my territory.”

Senny spoke up, after the man let silence drag on long enough that it was clear he was waiting for a response. “Yes, your majesty. We need to find our mother and those children. If we don’t bring Rowan back to her families, they’re going to go to war with each other. And if that happens…”

Oberon cleared his throat. “If that happens, the false angels and their pet Heretics will take advantage and claim that territory, removing yet another safe haven for non-humans from a list that is already vanishingly short.” 

As the vampire nodded silently, Oberon seemed to consider for a moment. “I believe that you have been truthful about your intentions here, and that your pursuits are noble. I believe that it is very important that the child and her friends be returned to where they belong.” Pausing pointedly, he looked over all of us before continuing. “But this is still my land, I will only allow your trespass upon it provided you bring me enough blood of three slain dragons that I may fill my goblet for a year with their taste.” 

He let that hang for a few seconds, watching our collective reactions of horror and disbelief at the demand before he abruptly laughed out loud. “I’m kidding!” the man blurted as his shoulders shook with amusement. “Honestly, you should all see your faces. I do wish my wife were here right now, she would have loved that. Wouldn’t she, Esevene?”

Belatedly, I remembered that was Twister’s real name, though I’d only ever heard Gabriel use it. 

Making a face at the use of her name, Twister still nodded. “Yeah, well, she always was easily amused.”

Rather than being offended, the king chuckled lightly. “In some ways, yes.” Then he looked to the rest of us. “As I said, I was kidding. You are hereby granted allowance to search for your missing people here on my land, with supervision from my own people. I will provide you with my mark and you will be guided. However, let me be clear. Should any of the citizens upon my land be hunted or harmed without being directly involved in said abduction, or with the permission of my agents, or in an act of defense, there will be hell to pay. I mean that as literally as I possibly can. The people who live here do so under my protection. Make me regret offering you this opportunity, and I will ensure you regret every remaining moment of your life, a life which I will ensure lasts until all who survive you know that Canada is not to be trifled with. Is that understood?” 

We all quickly agreed, and the king’s stern expression melted into another broad smile. “Good! Very good. And now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, let us discuss the specifics of your quest. 

“Because from what I have heard of you all, whatever comes next will be most interesting indeed.”

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