Eldridge Vichniac

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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Perennial Potentate 4-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Section Four?” Shiori asked curiously. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are her. You are the descendant of Lyell. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All-Out 3-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Of all the places in the world, I can’t believe they went to Canada.” As she spoke, Miranda (there was only one of her right now) faced the window of the conference room back in the hotel. The others had caught up in a van and gave us a ride back here as we explained what our captive had said. Now we were sitting back here talking some more while the casino owners did their thing to try to get more information out of him. I really didn’t envy that guy. But I also didn’t pity him that much, especially with the whole princess and now other children being missing thing. Not to mention Senny and Shiori’s mother. It had been all we could do to stop Asenath from ripping the guy apart to find out if any answers were written on his lungs or kidneys. 

We, those of us in the conference room at the moment, consisted of Miranda, Shiori, Asenath, Bobbi, Tabbris, December, and me. The others were apparently on their way with Haiden, having gone through some kind of ordeal of their own that I hadn’t caught the details of. 

Standing up from the chair where I had been resting for a minute, I demanded, ”Okay, seriously. What the hell is the thing with Canada? Everyone keeps hinting about it and talking around it. I know there’s some guy that calls himself a king or something up there and people are afraid to piss him off. What’s the deal? Who is he? Why is he so strong? What is everyone so afraid of when it comes to him?”

December quickly piped up with, “Sometimesbeingafraid…  isasmartthing… likebeingafraidofjumping…. intoalivevolcano. That’sprettysmart… andyou’dprobablygetfurther… bypunchingthelava… thanyou’dgetby… tryingtotelltheCanadaking… todosomethinghedoesn’t… wanttodo.”

Asenath spoke up. “Not all of us are afraid. Most of us just have a healthy respect for him, and for Canada in general. It’s mostly Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics that have the problem. And Seosten, apparently. He generally doesn’t like you people very much, mostly because they kept trying to find new ways to invade his territory. Canada is right there, after all. They were trying to expand that way, and didn’t exactly take no for an answer. At least until he killed off a couple Committee members.”

My eyes widened, but before I could say anything to that, Shiori beat me to the punch. “Whoa, whoa, wait, wait! Now you’re saying that he’s actually killed Committee members? Like, multiple ones in a single fight?”

Miranda put in, “And at least one Victor, from what I heard. Yeah, they have to go through all these special treaties and things to visit that place, and people who come from there have a whole list of rules they have to follow about going back-and-forth. He’s pretty particular.”

Shaking my head, I glanced toward Tabbris briefly before asking, “But how is he so strong? Who is he? What is he? The answer to that keeps getting pushed off, but I’d say it’s pretty damn relevant right now. Is he working with these kidnappers? Do we need to worry about facing off with somebody that could beat multiple Committee members at once? Because that’s just not going to happen. I know we’ve pulled off some pretty impossible things, but… no. Just.. no. So what the hell is he?”

“It’s better if we talk with everyone at once,” Asenath informed me. “Columbus and the twins are going to want to know about him too. And I have no idea how much Jason knows. Haiden might be able to explain some too.”

There was a knock at the door then before anyone could say anything. But just as I started to think the other group was already here, Eldridge stepped in. “Okay, so that guy’s not saying anything else. They’re using truth spells and other things, but nothing is coming out. He’s got some kind of protection. Until it wears off, there’s not much else we can get from him. And trust me, they were thorough. And it turns out doing our best to keep a couple of those Siekun guys who jumped in to fight for him alive was a waste of time. They had some kind of suicide spell so they couldn’t be taken prisoner.”

He glanced toward Miranda and me then while adding, “Also, for the record, what you two pulled back there on the street was one of the most fucking amazing and crazy things I’ve ever seen in my very long life. I think part of me is supposed to tell you that it wasn’t really in keeping with the whole be subtle thing we were talking about, but fuck it. Plus, you did it for a good reason. And you even caught the guy, so two thumbs up. Just don’t be surprised if Bystanders start talking about people filming some crazy action movie here.”

Bobbi’s head nodded up and down quickly. “Yeah, when you guys jumped off the roof, I thought you were insane. Actually, you probably are a little insane.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “A lot of that was crazy. But we couldn’t let him get away.” Actually, it only really hit me afterward just how insane all that stuff had been. In the heat of the moment, I haven’t really had time to think about it. I just did it. Now? Now I felt weak in the knees just picturing half that stuff. 

“Definitely crazy,” Eldridge replied, “but you got the job done better than we could have expected. Unfortunately…”

“Canada,” Asenath finished for him. “What kind of relationship does Vegas have with the King?”

“Not as bad as the one that Boschers have with him,” he pointed out mildly. “It has its ups and downs, I guess. But that’s not the point. The point is that the King does not allow armed and violent incursion into his territory, which is what our people are going to want to do to get those kids back. And your mother,” he added with a glance toward Asenath and Shiori. “Between the ones who are gonna want to go charging in and the ones who will just completely write them off and try to find a way to arrange the entire new political situation in their favor with the princess gone, this whole thing just got even more complicated. Think of it like Britain nowadays sending an armed special forces team into Delaware. Yeah, they’re all on pretty good terms overall, but that shit just wouldn’t fly.”

“So we need to talk to the King himself,” I pointed out. “Explain what we’re doing, why we’re there, that kind of thing. We can’t just let them take those kids and Jiao. We still don’t even know why they went through all that to grab them. Why grab the witnesses later instead of picking everyone up right then? Did they realize that the kids saw something they shouldn’t have and they just didn’t know it? And why take Jiao at all? I don’t get it. But that’s the point, we need to find out. Which means we need to go to Canada. And from what you guys are saying, first we need to talk to this terrifying King guy and get permission to be there.”

“We need more than that,” Asenath announced reluctantly. I could tell how badly she wanted to go running off to find her mother. To say nothing of the fact that we were supposed to get information about where her father was out of all this. Still, she shook her head. “Canada’s a really big place. There’s no way the King is going to let us go traipsing around his entire country without something more to go on. We need a name or something.”

“Well,” Tristan’s voice spoke up as he and the others filed in through the door behind Eldridge, “how about if we give you three names?” Despite his light words, the boy looked like he’d been through the wringer. Bruises were slowly fading on his face, leading me to wonder just how bad they’d looked a few minutes earlier. His clothes were caked in mud and other things, and he had one whole side of his shirt that was ripped away. 

Seeing Columbus come through the door equally covered with mud and blood all over his face, his clothes ripped and torn and Amethyst hanging over his shoulder with what seemed like an exhausted expression on her small metal face, Shiori bolted up right and went that way. “What happened?!”

“I’m okay,” Columbus insisted. “Mostly thanks to Twister showing up at the right moment.” 

In response to that, a small brown mouse that had apparently been perched just behind Amethyst hopped down, transforming into the girl in question. “Hey,” she airily announced, “couldn’t let that guy finish carving up your pretty face, could I? He had it coming.” 

“What guy?” Shiori demanded, her eyes snapping back and forth between the Pooka girl and her own brother. “There was a bad guy?” 

“Several.” Haiden was the one who said that, as he came through the door with his daughter. “We ran into a bit of trouble. Some enterprising and morally dubious soul left a couple teleporters in the Akharu casino that let in a few loyalist Heretics.”

“What?!” I blurted, my eyes widening. “How did that happen? What the hell?“

“It wasn’t a full invasion.” Those words came from April. The red-haired Seosten girl was right behind Haiden. “It was simply a small group of Eden’s Garden Heretics who were told that they could attack the main vampire den inside Vegas by taking the portals that were provided. They didn’t know who provided the portals, only that they’d gotten that kind of information from them before and it paid off. Their benefactor always used a go-between.”

“It was a distraction,” Vanessa murmured. “And an assassination mission. Whoever sent those guys gave them a list of key people to kill to do the most damage possible. They had pictures and information about where they’d probably be, everything.”

Hearing all of that, Eldridge had gone even more pale. “Who… how many…”

“A few,” Haiden quietly admitted, his expression serious. “I’m sorry, it was a coordinated attack and we couldn’t save everyone. But… but most of the Heretics died. A couple escaped through new means. Not the same way they came in. That was closed off almost immediately. Your people believe it was intentional, that… that whoever left the teleportation spells to bring them in meant for them to be trapped there so they’d do as much damage as possible before being killed.” 

“And wouldn’t be able to tell the Vegas people anything about who put them up to it,” I muttered. 

Jason, who had been standing back in the doorway, rubbed the side of his head where a heavy bruise had formed. “Yeah, and let me tell you, they did not expect to find us there. I mean, Mr. Moon mostly. He really kicked their faces in.” 

“So they all died or escaped before you could get anything out of them about–” I started before catching myself. “Wait, no. How would you know for sure they were Eden’s Garden Heretics, or that they were working with someone else, unless you got something out of them. Plus, Tristan said something about three names. Did they–April?” 

The Seosten’s head tilted as she looked back to me before giving a single nod. Her voice was simple. “We were told to help. I helped.” 

“She possessed one of them and got as much information as she could,” Haiden translated. 

“And they weren’t working for your boss?” Miranda asked, watching April’s reaction about as closely as I was. 

“No,” the red-haired girl replied coolly. “Cahethal has no knowledge of this invasion attempt.” Pausing briefly, she amended, “At least, that is what she said when I asked. And I believe if she did, the attack would have been far more surgical in nature.” 

“Surgical, cuz she’s a scientist,” Shiori muttered, “I get it.” Despite her love of wordplay, she obviously didn’t look happy. Being worried about her mother was clearly hitting her hard.

It was hitting Asenath hard too, despite her being better at hiding it. She’d just lost a guy who was like a brother to her a few months ago, and now on the cusp of getting information about her father’s whereabouts after literally centuries, her mother went missing. Yeah, I didn’t blame either of them for being worried. 

“Besides,” April was adding, “the King doesn’t like the Seosten either. Worse than Heretics, actually. Cahethal would not be doing anything in his territory.” 

Haiden continued. “I think April’s right, this doesn’t seem like a Seosten thing. Anyway, before killing the guy, she got as much as he knew out of him. Which wasn’t much. But he did apparently overhear one side of a conversation that their go-between had over the phone with their benefactor. The only thing that stood out was something about taking the kids to see one person in particular. Someone named Azlee Ren Kotter.” 

“A name. You got the name of someone they were taking the children to see,” Asenath breathed. 

“And you’ve got the country,” Tristan pointed out while leaning against the nearby wall. “That Canadian King guy might not like it if we just say we want to traipse willy nilly everywhere across his territory on the off chance we stumble across the people we’re looking for, but that name might help. Maybe he even knows this… Azlee.” 

“Which brings us back around to visiting Canada and talking to this King,” I pointed out. “Which means we need to know what we’re dealing with.” 

Eldridge spoke up. “I… need to go and check on my people. Bol and the others here will provide anything you need. Good luck, and I hope we see each other again before you leave. If not, come back and visit. I–” It looked like he felt torn between his worry for the other Akharu and vampires, and his duty here. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. You have my number.” 

“Go, Eldridge,” Haiden urged. “See to your family and friends. We’ll handle this.” 

We watched the guy step out, and I saw a couple Vestil out there having an intense conversation with the Oni woman, Luiena. Whatever they were all saying (it was clear that they were using some kind of privacy spell), I was pretty sure none of them were very happy. Though I wasn’t sure if they weren’t happy with each other, or just the situation. Either way, things were probably getting pretty bad. 

Vanessa clearly agreed, because she turned back away from the doorway as it closed behind Eldridge and announced, “We have to go find Rowan, Jiao, and the other kids before everyone here goes to war with each other. They were talking when we were coming over here and there’s a lot of Akharu and Vestil blaming the Oni, some of the Oni think the Vestil are framing them, some Vestil think the Akharu are trying to keep the hybrid princess to themselves, and vice versa.” 

“So we have to find her, and the others, and prove it was an outsider,” I muttered, folding my arms with a glance toward where Tabbris and December were deep in quiet, yet rapid, conversation with each other. “Or Vegas is gonna get a lot less friendly for everyone. And a war in Vegas would end up with a lot of Bystander casualties, since they have no way to defend themselves.” 

“Yeah…” With a long sigh, Haiden looked toward Twister. The two seemed to have some brief, silent conversation mostly consisting of facial expressions before he turned back to the rest of us. “Have a seat. We’ll talk about Canada before seeing about… about securing passage there.” 

So, we sat down, and Haiden started with, “The story of the King of Canada… or rather, the source of his strength, doesn’t start in Canada. It starts in ancient India.” 

“I’m sorry, what?” Tristan stared at his father. “What does India have to do with Canada?” 

“Wel, technically a lot of things given world history,” Haiden pointed out. “But in this particular case, nothing directly. The place we know as Canada simply happens to be the burial place for the Astra.” 

I started to ask what that meant, but Vanessa was already speaking up. “Supernatural weapons in Indian mythology. They were all connected to various deities and had incredible power.” 

“I’m sorry, deities?” I cut in. 

“Our best guess is unbelievably powerful Alters in ancient times,” she replied. “They made these Astra as the ultimate expression of their power. Like the Agneyastra, a weapon capable of summoning fire that could burn anything and was almost impossible to put out by any normal means until it destroyed the target it was meant for. Or the Varunapasha, a rope fashioned into a noose that nothing, not even these ‘gods’, could escape. Or the Bhargavastra, a bow that fired thousands or even millions of arrows in a single shot. One pull of the bow string could rain death on an entire battlefield. Or Maheshwarastra, which could shoot a beam of heat capable of turning even deities into ash. There’s more, but you get the point.” 

“Okay, one, those all sound fucking awesome, and I want one,” Tristan announced. “And they’re buried in Canada?” 

“They were buried in Canada,” Haiden corrected. “Not all of them, but enough. A lot. And with the Astra was buried the body of the Indian hero Karna, alongside the armor and earrings he had worn from birth that made him invincible until he removed them. The body of Karna, his armor and earrings, and the Astra were all buried as far from India as possible, apparently to keep them from being misused. Honestly, like Vanessa said, no one really knows what these ancient ‘deities’ really were. No one knows where the Astra or Karna’s armor and earrings truly originated from. They’re probably a mix of incredibly powerful technology and equally strong magic. Magic stronger than almost any that’s ever been seen on this planet. They were hidden away to stop anyone from getting that kind of power. Then he found them. Or was guided to them, it’s not clear.” 

“And this ‘he’ would be the King of Canada?” I asked, trying to think of what even a normal person armed with the kind of weapons Vanessa had described could do. And there were even more than the ones she listed? 

“That’s him,” the man confirmed before continuing. “Though he wasn’t known as that at the time. Before finding the hidden burial chamber where they were kept, the King was… in some ways, a refugee, one fleeing from Crossroads Heretic oppression. He was–” The man stopped, looking over toward Twister, who was giving him literal sad bunny eyes, having transformed partly into a rabbit with her ears down. 

“Oh, okay, tell them,” Haiden relented with a gesture. “I know you’ve been waiting to.” 

“Yup, he’s a Fae!” Twister informed us with a grin. 

“A… a Fae?” I asked, feeling a bit dazed. “What’s–what? Like a pixie or a fairy?” 

Her head shook as she contorted her face back to the way it was supposed to look. “No, like a Fae. They’re not human, they’re not Heretics, they’re not Alters. They’re Fae. They’re humans or Alters who were either magically transformed to become something very different from humans, or the biological descendants of beings like that. People who were changed by some magical ritual, or by accident, or anything like that to become something very different from what they started as. Like dwarves. They’re Fae now, but they started out as humans thousands and thousands of years ago until this old sorcerer wanted to create beings who were good at mining for him, so he transformed a few to start. Then they bred.” 

“So a Fae could start out as any race,” Miranda asked carefully, “and then something magical happens to change them to the point that they can actually pass on those traits to create what amounts to a whole new race?” 

“Some can’t pass on their traits and are still accepted as Fae,” Asenath informed us. “But generally, yes. Fae are usually lumped in as Alters by Heretics, but they usually don’t appreciate that. It’s also not a thing limited to Earth, from what I’ve heard. Any race out there can have magical mutations that become Fae.” 

Taking that in, I looked to Twister. “And this King of Canada is a Fae.” 

She nodded. “That’s right, he’s a Fae. One who found the burial chamber of all those weapons. He took Karna’s armor and earrings, so he’s basically invulnerable to almost anything. Seriously, it’s basically impossible to kill him as long as he has the armor and earrings. That was Karna’s whole thing, he was supposedly born with the armor and earrings already attached to him and as long as he had them, he was basically immortal. Nothing could penetrate the armor.” 

“Did they try throwing him into the sun?” Tristan asked. “That usually helps kill things.” 

“In this case, it would be a bad idea,” his father informed him. “Karna’s armor and earrings supposedly came from a Sun Deity. Whatever the truth is, the more sunlight they’re exposed to, the stronger they make him.” 

“He’s God damn Superman too?!” Tristan blurted. “He’s supercharged by solar energy?!” 

“Well, you know,” Haiden drawled, “Joe Shuster was Canadian. But yes, the armor and earrings make him incredibly strong and fast as well.” 

“So this King guy has access to all that, and all those weapons, those Astra,” I murmured, staring first at her, then at Haiden. “Which… what else could they do, Vanessa?” 

She gave a helpless shrug. “Lots of other things. It depends on which ones he has. There was one that could dispel any magic at all, or one that could summon wind strong enough to lift an entire army. There’s dozens of them, some are a lot more vague about what they do than others, but as I said, they’re all supposed to be directly connected to a deity figure. There’s one that’s supposed to summon a mountain and drop it on your enemies.”

“A… a mountain,” I echoed dully, staring at her. 

“Maybe it was actually a meteor or something and they just embellished,” she admitted with a shrug. “I don’t know. The point is, it summons a really big rock that falls down and destroys armies.”  

While the rest of us were reacting to that, Haiden explained, “The Fae King basically used some kind of ritual magic to bind the weapons to himself, so he can summon them from wherever he is, or send himself to any of them. The only downside for him is that whatever force put those weapons in that chamber wants them to stay there. So the Astras lose their charge and return to the chamber after just a relatively short time of being used or if they’re taken too far away.”

“Let me guess, the borders of Canada are about as far as they can go,” I piped up. 

He nodded. “Yup. So basically he’s a powerful Fae on his own, who now wears enchanted armor that makes him almost invincible, and is capable of summoning dozens of superweapon-level magical artifacts bonded directly to himself that give him Committee-level powers. And now, we’re going to go ask him very nicely if we can step onto his land.” 

“Do we know his name or anything else that might help?” Tabbris quickly piped up, sounding equal parts fascinated and worried. 

“Oh, we definitely know his name,” Asenath confirmed. “So do you, in fact. At least, if you ever read Shakespeare. His original name was Alberich, but he’s better known by the French equivalent.

“Oberon, the Faerie King.”

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All-Out 3-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All-Out 3-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“What?!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well then,” the man murmured. 

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

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