Miranda Wallbern

Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had something for us.

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Perennial Potentate 4-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 3-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Something tells me we’re not getting back to the school tomorrow,” Miranda announced. She was laying on the couch in the living room of the hotel suite that she and I were sharing with Vanessa, Shiori, December, and Tabbris. Six was a lot of people, but there were three bedrooms in this place. Miranda and Vanessa were sharing one, Tabbris and December another one, and I was sharing with Shiori. Asenath and Bobbi were in another, smaller suite, while the boys (Tristan, Columbus, and Jason) were in a third. We’d asked April, but she’d said that she didn’t need a room. Apparently she was planning on standing guard outside the casino in a squirrel or bird or something all night long. According to December, the Calendar were good enough at… piloting animals that they could leave instructions of some sort for the animal to follow while the Seosten dozed inside of them, only waking up if specific conditions were met. Which just reminded me of the times over the summer that I’d seen Savvy or the other Seosten toddlers occasionally find an animal like a squirrel to nap inside of. They also napped inside of Prosser or one of the other powerful people who weren’t in any danger of being taken over by a kid. 

I wasn’t sure if April really thought she needed to stand guard, or if she just didn’t want to be in here with us. Either way, she’d had a long, private conversation with December before heading out. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed like she was telling her to be careful. 

“It’ll be Sunday tomorrow,” Vanessa replied. The blonde girl was standing by a large window, looking out at the brightly lit signs that decorated the Vegas strip. “There’s no school anyway.” 

Stepping up beside her, I looked out as well. Damn, we were high up. Seriously, it wasn’t the top floor or anything, but this place was still pretty ridiculous. We were still at the Vestil casino, where they’d insisted on putting us all up for the night after catching that Sarez guy. Refusing just so we could go back up to the station had felt… wrong. Particularly considering there was still a chance that someone would get more information out of him. A slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Not to mention the fact that they were working on securing us an audience with this King of Canada guy. Oberon, Alberich, or whatever he went by. The King of the Fae, now King of Canada. Seriously, how did that never occur to me when I was thinking about who a mythological king powerful enough to resist Heretic incursion could possibly be? 

Well, because I didn’t really know the Fae were an actual thing like that, honestly. The whole idea that there was a completely separate group, people who weren’t humans and weren’t Alters was just… kind of bizarre. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, all things considered. But still, it seemed like the more I learned about everything that was out there in the universe, the more it turned out there was to keep learning. I wondered how long that would keep being the case. 

I also wondered if I’d survive… or be free… long enough to get to the point that it wasn’t. With Fossor Day getting closer and closer with each passing moment, I kept finding my thoughts drifting inexorably toward what would happen when he finally made his move. I was doing everything I could, training, learning, practicing the spells that Shyel, Jophiel, and others taught me, and trying to contact Fossor’s sister’s ghost. But it didn’t feel like enough. It never felt like enough. The fear, anticipation, anger, all of it was building up day by day in the back of my head. This, distracting myself with the mission to find the missing girl (and now Shiori and Asenath’s mother and the other children) was good. It kept me from obsessing too much. 

But apparently it didn’t keep all of the worry off my face, even in the reflection of the window, because Shiori stepped up and wrapped both her arms around me from behind. She leaned up to set her chin on my shoulder, voice quiet. “Maybe this King guy can offer some help when we talk to him. They said he’s tough and strict, but fair. He can’t actually like having Fossor around. Nobody likes Fossor. And he’s powerful enough to drive out the Committee. He could know something, or… you know…” She hesitated, clearly unsure if she should go on. 

“Or maybe he’ll let you stay with him.” That wasn’t Shiori. It was Vanessa. She was talking while still looking out the window. “If he’s powerful enough to drive out the Committee, he might be able to keep Fossor away, so you could be safe until someone deals with him.” 

“And how long would that take?” I asked pointedly, looking first to Vanessa and Shiori, then to Miranda, who was sitting up on the couch. Tabbris and December were in one of the bedrooms.

“It’s not like Fossor is a new problem. No one’s been able to deal with him for all the centuries he’s been here on Earth, even after he created the Black Plague and nearly wiped out humanity. So how long exactly would I have to stay with this King guy, even if he was amenable to it? Which, in and of itself, is a stretch. We don’t really know anything about him other than the fact that he doesn’t like Bosch Heretics. I just–” Hesitating, I swallowed hard. “Seriously, let’s say he agrees, then I… what, sit around in his palace or whatever for… how long? And while I’m sitting around, Fossor gets annoyed and starts coming after the people I care about. He had plenty of time with Chef Escalan last year to find out who the best people to target would be.” 

Shiori squeezed herself against me, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I just… I wish there was a better answer. Any answer.” Her voice was soft and plaintive. All she wanted to do was solve this problem. All she wanted to do was help me. 

“I know, Shy,” I murmured, turning to pull her into a hug. “I do too. We’ll figure it out. I still have options, things that could pan out.” I wasn’t going to talk about Fossor’s sister. Not here, in a potentially insecure room with December nearby. She was a cute kid, but I wasn’t sure about her ultimate loyalties, and the last thing I needed was another powerful Seosten like Cahethal getting involved. For all I knew, the old Olympian would decide to use Rahanvael’s ghost to her own advantage somehow. Or she might decide that me ending up with Fossor was already to her advantage and sabotage the whole thing somehow. 

Whatever, I just didn’t want one of the very few potential advantages I might have in this whole situation getting out. That was, if Rahanvael would even actually be an advantage. She might not even be able to show up again before our time was up. 

Yeah, I was getting dour again. Stop that, Flick. 

At least I had a good way of getting my mind off things. Specifically, kissing Shiori. Which I did, while the two of us stood in front of the window overlooking that absurdly amazing view of the Vegas Strip. Not that I would’ve cared that much if we were kissing in the bottom of a mine or in a fleabag motel. Kissing Shiori was still kissing Shiori, wherever we happened to be at the time.

By the time we pulled apart a bit, Miranda had gotten up and moved over on the other side of Vanessa to look out as well. “You think they’ll get us that audience with the King?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty motivated to find those kids and keep the peace around here. And if any group has the power and resources to make the King of Canada pay attention and talk to us, I’m going to guess it’s the people in charge of Las Vegas. I mean, they’re good enough to keep Heretics out of their city. If they’re the ones saying we’re on the up and up, he’ll probably pay attention to that. At least, I hope he will. Because from what the others were saying, sneaking into his territory to go after Jiao and the others really wouldn’t work.” 

Dryly, Miranda replied, “You mean there’s some crazy dangerous stunts that even you won’t try?” 

Sniffing, I retorted, “I never said I wouldn’t try it, just that it probably wouldn’t work. All I know for sure is that we’re not leaving Jiao or any of those kids out there. The guy said the only way to get answers was to go to Canada, and Columbus’s group got the name. Azlee Ren Kotter. We tell this King guy that we’re looking for that person, and hope he lets us in on a pass, like these guys did. Or, hey, maybe he’ll grab the person himself and let us talk to him. Or her. Sounds like a her. Either way, they’re our best–only lead. We’ll find a way to talk to them. Whatever it takes.” Because like hell was I going to go into this Fossor thing in a few weeks without getting Shiori and Asenath their mother back. Not to mention Asenath’s father, if this Bol guy’s info panned out. I was going to make sure that was taken care of before my birthday, damn it. 

Vanessa spoke up then. “Maybe this King guy could help and maybe he can’t. Maybe he won’t. But whatever happens, just don’t try to handle it on your own.” She turned from the window to look at me intently, brow furrowing. “You helped get my parents back, both of them. You try to handle getting your mom back on your own, and I’ll be mad at you. Don’t make me mad at you.”

Managing a small smile, I nodded. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But jeez, everyone keeps warning me against running off and dealing with this whole thing by myself. Do I really look that stupid?” 

“Not stupid,” Miranda informed me, “just determined not to let Fossor hurt anyone else by protecting you. Which, if you were to go off on your own for that reason, you should know that we would all throw ourselves right at him anyway. Then we’d either die or kick your ass for doing something like that once we finally saved you. Whatever happens, we do it together.”  

“I got it, I got it.” A soft, mostly humorless chuckle escaped me. “I won’t be an idiot and run off by myself just to protect you guys, or the others. Scout’s honor. Which means if I lie about that, you can have her shoot me.” It wasn’t much of a joke, but I didn’t want to dwell on… all that anymore. There were more important–okay, at least more pressing things to focus on right then. 

“How’s Avalon’s thing with the spell going?” Shiori asked curiously, clearly on about the same page as I was regarding the whole changing the subject bit. “She called earlier, didn’t she?” 

“Yeah. I told her what was going on and she said she was going to try to get away to help, but they’re in a really important part of the spell so they keep needing her. She’s going to be annoyed if we get to meet the King without her.” Smiling faintly, I shrugged. “I told her either way it probably won’t be the last time. Either we’ll make friends with him, or… or we won’t, but we’ll still have to talk to him. As long as we don’t screw this up to the point of completely pissing him off. Which… please do not let us do that. I’m pretty sure we have enough ungodly powerful enemies who want to squish us into a fine paste on the ground without adding him too.” 

The others agreed, and we talked a little bit more before settling in for the night. Or rather, they all did. I, naturally, wasn’t tired. So, first I checked in on Tabbris and December and found the two of them asleep together in a bed. They’d both seemed pretty tired earlier, my little sister barely keeping herself awake long enough to check on what new powers I’d picked up from the lizard guy on the roof and the two guys I’d killed on top of the car. From the first, I’d gotten infrared vision. Yeah, it let me see heat signatures. I’d played around a little bit with that with the lights off. Pretty fun, once Tabbris showed me how to make it work. Meanwhile, the intangible guy actually hadn’t given me his intangibility. Instead, I was able to connect any two reflective surfaces within my general area. Which meant I could put my hand through one and have it come out the other. Or use it as a doorway, if they were big enough. It only worked for me, I couldn’t take anyone with me. 

Finally, the guy I’d killed while knocking him back onto the motorcycle he’d arrived on had given me the… gift was probably the wrong word considering how I’d acquired it… Anyway,  that power allowed me to, with a physical touch, mark an object. At any point after that, I could ‘activate’ the mark and both see and hear through it for about ten seconds or until I willingly cut the connection. I could have up to five marked objects at any given time, and could use the mark three times before it faded. 

Those were the powers I’d picked up. Infrared vision, mirror doorways, and seeing/hearing through marked objects. And thanks to Tabbris, I knew what the powers were without having to guess and experiment. 

Satisfied that my sister would be okay without me for awhile, I quietly left the room to avoid disturbing anyone. I would walk around the hotel a bit, maybe go outside and look around to see all the lights from close up. 

And I definitely would not obsess over the fact that my birthday was like six weeks away, right? Right.  

*******

I obsessed over the fact that my birthday was like six weeks away. For a couple hours, I just wandered, first the hotel, then the area outside, lost in my own thoughts. No one really seemed to care that much. I avoided the actual casino section, so I was left alone for the most part. Part-daydreaming and part-worrying, I found my way out to one of the parking garages a couple doors down from the hotel. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing there, I was just… walking. 

At least, I was walking until the pigeon landed on the ground in front of me. It gave a sharp squawk, then proceeded to bash its head hard against the ground. As I realized what was going on, a glowing form emerged from the now-dead bird and resolved into April. The red-headed Seosten cracked her neck while looking at me. “Hi,” she greeted me simply. “Are you running away?” There didn’t seem to be any kind of accusation to her voice, just curiosity. 

“What–no.” My head shook. “Jeez, why does everyone expect me to run off on my own? I’m just getting some air and… thinking. That’s all.” 

With a shrug that told me she wasn’t really all that concerned either way, April asked, “Sure. You want me to leave you alone, then?” 

“I–” Pausing, I shook my head. “No, it’s fine. I kinda wanted to ask what’s up with December.” 

Clearly bristling a little, she stared at me hard. “What do you mean, ‘what’s up with her?’” There was a very clear defensiveness, bordering on going offensive, in her voice. 

Raising both hands in surrender, I quickly assured her, “I don’t mean like that. I just mean… she kind of… she uses her boost a lot, like… all the time. How does she do that? It’s related to that bracelet thing she wears, right? And why is it so hard for her to talk slower? I don’t–I’m just trying to understand, that’s all. She seems really cool, and–” 

April interrupted. “She is–as you… put it, ‘cool.’ She’s fine. She just–” There was a brief pause before she admitted, “I think she’s fine. We think she is. But she is young. She is small. She was not… intended to survive this life for long by those who sent her to replace the previous December.” 

That made me blink. “Wait,” I put in slowly. “Did you just say the previous December?”  

“Of course,” the Seosten retorted, “none of us are the first of our kind to fill these roles. The Calendar has existed for a long time in service of Cahethal. They are our names, but they are also titles. The December before this one was an old man.” 

“And then he… he died?” I asked carefully, not sure if I was pushing over sensitive memories. 

“Most do, who cease being Calendar. Almost all,” she replied simply. “But not the previous December. He… quit.” 

“He quit?” I was surprised by that. “I didn’t know that was possible.” 

“He abandoned us.” April’s voice was hard. “He is a traitor, who abandoned us for a human man. We were supposed to be his family, and he…” She stopped, clearly realizing that she was talking to me instead of one of her own people. With visible effort, the girl forced those reactions and feelings down. “This December, our December, is the important one.” 

Figuring that pushing any harder on the previous December issue would go badly, I glanced around the lot to ensure we were alone before asking, “You said they didn’t expect her to survive for very long?” 

“Of course she wasn’t,” April informed me. “She is small and young. Seosten age slowly, but only once we reach our teenage years. She’s still a child. Those who sent her assumed she would be killed in one of her first missions. They don’t care. They’d just replace her with another one. There is a reason Mendacia don’t have names. We are just… Mendacia. Lies. Our own people loathe us. We are less than slaves. They expected December to die. But Cahethal gave her an opportunity.” 

“This has to do with her whole boosting thing, doesn’t it?” I asked carefully. 

She nodded. “Cahethal gave December the choice to take some experimental drugs that would allow her to boost much more effectively and for a longer time.  The drugs altered her body, allowing her to process and convert energy from the gems you saw on her bracelet. The gems gradually absorb magical energy from the world around December. Then she can… basically inject herself with the energy they’ve gathered. She does that several times a day, or before doing something… intensive. They improve her boost to the point of allowing her to keep up with much stronger opponents. They allow her to survive. But as a side effect, she thinks and talks much faster all of the time. Not as fast as her full boost, just… faster. It’s hard for her to slow herself down.”

“That’s… some experiment,” I managed, thinking about how it would feel to be constantly boosted, at least mentally, like that. Did December hear everyone else talking in slow motion all the time? No wonder she was so easily bored. Well, that and the fact that she was a kid, of course. 

April squinted at me. “She survived. That is more than she would have done without the aid of the experiment. We are not stupid. We know that we are only on Cahethal’s good side for as long as we are useful to her. But she gives us more than most others would have. She allows us to act on our own. She allows us to retain our titles and care for one another.” 

“I get it,” I assured her. “Trust me, I understand that. I’m not– I’m not going to start badmouthing her in front of you or anything. I know she’s helped you, even if–nope, not gonna say it. Look, I’m just glad you guys are here to help, okay?” There was a lot more I wanted to say, but it felt like pushing things too far, too fast. “I get the feeling we’re gonna need all we can get for this. And for whatever comes later. Speaking of which, do you know much about the King?”

There was a brief pause before she replied, “I know that he is not the only threat within his claimed territory. There are other strong figures who have become his hands, who act in his stead. They are divided into two camps, the Summer and Winter Courts. Those of Summer rely on open battle, a full display of strength and power. Those of Winter are more… underhanded. I met one member of the Summer Court a few years ago.” Now she sounded thoughtful. “He allowed me to sit on his giant blue ox after I promised not to possess it.” 

“Giant blue ox…” Blinking, I looked that way. “Are you saying you actually met–” 

Before I could continue, both of us heard someone approaching. We turned to see Haiden come into view. “Good,” he announced, “you’re both here. You should get some sleep and be ready for tomorrow. 

“Thanks to our friends here, we officially have an appointment with the King.” 

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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 3-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Like a pair of very enthusiastic stones (Herbie’s sisters maybe), Miranda and I fell through the air after leaping off the roof of the casino hotel. The wind rushed past me as I centered my gaze on the car that was pulling away with our target inside. My fingers tightened around my staff, and I reached my other hand out to catch onto Miranda’s. Here went nothing. 

Jerking the staff horizontal above my head, I triggered the boost. Now instead of falling straight down, Miranda and I were falling at an angle toward the departing SUV. And the cars that were escorting it. Yeah, there seemed to be two in front and three behind. All of them black with obvious armor paneling and deeply tinted windows. It was like this guy was the president or something. 

And Miranda and I were still falling. Falling with style, but still falling. As many powers as I had picked up over the past year, I didn’t actually have one that would let me survive pancaking against the ground from that high up. Luckily, I had other things. 

Gripping Miranda by the hand tightly, I swung my arm forward as we fell, throwing the girl ahead of me. Then I inverted the staff. It was out of energy by then, but I had a trick. Namely, a spell that Jophiel had taught me. With a thought, I used my image inscription power to create the rune on my staff and triggered it. Instantly the staff was back to full charge. I couldn’t do that too many times in a row, because it drained me to do it. But it was still a handy trick at a time like this.  

With my staff newly recharged, I pointed the end down while triggering a series of short, measured bursts to slow my descent. Using every last bit of energy that I had just given it, I slowed my fall just enough to drop onto the roof of the rear-most SUV without killing myself. I rolled with the impact, nearly going right off the front of the damn thing before catching myself, sprawled out across the top. The vehicle was armored enough that my impact didn’t even dent it. 

The second I came down on the roof with a loud clatter, I heard shouting from inside. Apparently my loud crash landing hadn’t gone unnoticed. 

Meanwhile, Miranda was on the roof of the next car forward. She had simply created a duplicate of herself while falling, one that didn’t have all that momentum. The duplicate had appeared on the roof of that vehicle before the one who was falling simply disappeared before impact. Now she was up there and I was back here. And neither of us were on the vehicle we actually needed. We’d have to fix that. 

First, I had to deal with the guys in this vehicle. Apparently they had decided that having a hitchhiker on their roof wasn’t a good idea. They expressed this dislike by electrifying the entire damn vehicle. Fortunately, while it didn’t exactly tickle, my combination of pain resistance and electricity resistance meant that it didn’t do much more than make me grunt. It wasn’t super fun, but definitely didn’t have the impact they wanted. 

Next, they started swerving from side to side. We were out of the casino parking lot by then and pulling onto the street with a squeal of protesting tires as they swept the back end of the vehicle to the left. Rather than just let myself be flung off, however, I sent my staff back to its spot on my belt with a thought and focused on my fingernails. They grew a couple inches and became as hard as steel. Quickly, I used my strength to drive them into the hard metal of the car roof, clinging tightly to it as the vehicle swung back-and-forth trying to dislodge me. On either side, I could see other cars with drivers and passengers alike pointing and staring. I had no idea what they thought was going on here or what the Bystander Effect would let them retain. Right now, my attention was a little diverted. 

Namely, it was diverted by the semi-translucent man who floated up through the roof and stood there right behind me. He had a gun in one hand, solidifying before pointing it my way to pull the trigger. But I’d already put a portal up with one hand, sending the bullet right back at the guy from behind. He twisted, but it still grazed his shoulder. By that point, I had rolled back to my feet. With him up here, the vehicle wasn’t swinging around quite so much. It still did a little bit, but my enhanced sense of balance coped with it without much input from me. 

Focusing on the guy in front of me, I swung my staff after calling it back to my hand, but the man simply turned intangible so the weapon passed through him. Then he punched me in the face. I staggered back a step from the impact, and the car suddenly swung wildly to the left, nearly plowing into a sedan that got too close. They were trying to throw me off, but once again, my enhanced balance kicked in and I compensated before snapping my staff back the other direction. Again, the man went intangible and I whiffed, damn it. That time, I snapped my head to the side before he could punch me. Ghost-fire, I needed ghost-fire. Having Triss here would’ve been really useful, considering she could ignite her claws with it. 

But I didn’t have her. What I did have, however, was a few really good teachers and a paranoid older brother who repeatedly drilled into my head that I had to be prepared for any situation. So, as the guy in front of me flashed a brief grin about my attacks totally whiffing, I moved my thumb to a small, prepared symbol on one spot of the staff. As I muttered the command word, the weapon in my hand turned semi-translucent. I could still feel it, but it was nearly invisible. My opponent’s eyes snapped down that way, just in time for me to smack him right in his intangible chin with the shaft. That time, it connected, and he staggered back a step. Before he could recover, I reversed my grip on the staff and drove it right through his chest with a quick, hard thrust. He doubled over, and I pivoted while snapping my leg out in a kick that sent the man off my staff. And off the vehicle entirely. His body bounced and rolled along the pavement. 

Dropping back down to my knees while grabbing onto the metal roof, I focused on ignoring the rush of pleasure that shot through me. Turned out that the fear of falling off a speeding vehicle was a pretty good motivator for that. 

Also a pretty good motivator? The guy who showed up on the back of a motorcycle and jumped onto the roof with me (there was another driver on the motorcycle that he’d left). He had an uzi or something like that in one hand, but as he aimed it my way, I shoved myself up with both hands, kicking out with one foot from my prone position. I was too far away to hit the guy… but not with portals! In mid-kick, I summoned one right in front of my foot, so that it came out to hit the guy in the side of his wrist. The gun went off, sending a spray of bullets just past my ear, while I yanked my foot back out of the portal and dismissed it, rolling backward and to my feet before the man could correct his aim. Without a word, I snapped my hand out, summoning a small coin that I’d already enchanted. The coin flipped through the air before exploding into a flash-bang. Yeah, basically the first spell I’d ever learned. Sometimes the classics were the best. And I’d learned to make my particular flash-bangs a lot… flashier.

While the man was still staggering from the blinding light in his eyes, I added to his problems by summoning a gel ball of nauseating liquid that flew right into face. 

He threw his arms up defensively, but it was too late. The ball of liquid had exploded, leaving the man retching and coughing. He stumbled a bit, clearly completely out of it, and I just waited for a second to see the best opening before giving a quick, sharp swipe of the staff, cutting through his throat with the bladed end. 

Rather than just letting his rapidly dying body fall, I took two quick steps that way, kicking out to send him flying right back to the motorcycle that had dropped him off. He crashed into the driver, knocking him off and sending the vehicle clattering along the ground. 

Okay, that was just about enough of playing around up here. After waiting for that wave of pleasure to pass, I spun back toward the front of the vehicle. With one hand, I created a small portal in front of myself, with the other end ahead and to the left. Timing things just right, I triggered the kinetic-mine laying part of the staff, setting it to use all the energy it had accumulated before hurling it through the portal. It came out the other end flying back toward the vehicle. Specifically, toward the front left tire. Even as the staff hit the tire and deposited the mine, I was already sprinting forward. I ran down the windshield while the men inside shouted. With a thought, I summoned my weapon back to one hand and triggered the explosive while hurling myself forward off the hood. The speeding vehicle’s momentum was instantly halted as it was flipped up and backward behind me, ending up skidding to the side on its roof with a shower of sparks. Like the motorcycle a moment earlier, but bigger. 

Meanwhile, I was left leaping through the air just above the street with the next vehicle too far ahead to land on. I had momentum from being on top of the other car, but it was fading fast and the one ahead of me was pulling away. Nor did I have the speed to catch up with it on foot. At least, not in this form…

With a thought, I triggered my Seosten-absorbed boost. As the world around me seemed to slow down, I did two things simultaneously. First, I sent my outer clothes into the little compartment inside the tiny (on the outside anyway) pocket of the Seosten bodysuit that I was wearing under them. Second, I focused on shifting my body into a very different shape. 

With the help of the boost, the change only took a moment and by the time I landed on the pavement, I was in full werelion form. The impact barely registered, and I was already running at top speed. Which, for me in that form with all my enhancements was around sixty miles an hour. Add in the boost and I could kick it up to about eighty in very short bursts. Which I did, hurling my lion self after the next car in a rush of tawny fur. 

There were two Mirandas on the roof, dealing with another guy. From the look of the body that I went sprinting past, he wasn’t the first guy they’d faced. As I closed the distance, my mouth opened and I let out the loudest, most terrifying roar I could. 

That got his attention. The man’s gaze snapped over his shoulder toward me just as both Mirandas drove their shields into his stomach and the back of his neck respectively. They turned in unison, throwing the man off the vehicle to the road, where he bounced and tumbled before coming to a stop at an odd angle. He wouldn’t be getting up again, a fact proven as a pair of glowing auras appeared around my friend’s twin bodies. 

Horns were honking all around us. I could see people leaning out of their cars with phones up to record… whatever it was they thought they were seeing. Would the Bystander Effect allow them to see a lion chasing a car at eighty miles an hour while identical twins fought people on top of said car? I was going to guess it would probably… adjust some of that just a little bit.

Speaking of running eighty miles an hour, before my boost wore off, I gave a short roar of warning toward Miranda. Then I lunged and swiped a single massive paw toward the left rear tire with my dagger-like claws extended. The claws ripped right through not only the tire, but the entire wheel and its housing. The whole thing broke right off, and that end of the car slammed down onto the pavement, throwing up a shower of sparks along with the sound of screaming, tortured metal. It spun out toward the left with the broken wheel as a pivot point, sliding just out of my way as I ran straight past. Miranda (only one of her was visible at the moment) leapt off to the right, landing on top of a nearby bus. 

Unfortunately, the thing kept spinning around while continuing down the freeway at breakneck speed. Which meant it was coming back around behind me just as the driver overcompensated, losing control so that it flipped over onto its side and tumbled end over end along the freeway right at my back. Like the boulder that chased Indiana Jones, only a big SUV version. 

But I had my item sense power, so I knew exactly where it was and how it was positioned without looking. I kept running, waiting for the car’s insane momentum to carry it closer. At the last possible second, as the partially crumpled vehicle’s latest bounce along the road carried it right above my head at a sideways slant, I acted by… shifting back into my human shape. My staff was in my hand already at a thought, and I triggered the blast from it straight down while still in mid-lunge from my lion form. 

The staff boost shot me straight up into the air, where I passed perfectly through the shattered window of the passenger’s side of the vehicle and into the car itself while it was in mid-tumble. The occupants were taken completely by surprise as I passed through their compartment and toward the opposite window before they could think about reacting. On the way, I threw a handful of nauseating liquid at them. Because what the people in this car that was bouncing and tumbling along the freeway at high speed needed was more help being sick. 

As I shot through the driver’s side rear window, the vehicle hit the ground beneath me with a terrifying crash. In mid-air, I shifted back into my lion form, landing on the car’s side to knock it fully onto its hood, then lunged off it and kept running. Miranda, who was still on that bus, jumped free before landing on my back. And we were off. One vehicle still stood between us and the one our new friend Sarez was on. Aaand that one vehicle was shooting at us. Bullets were spraying our way, tearing up the ground around my feet. A couple hit home, but between the adrenaline and general werelion toughness, I didn’t care all that much. They weren’t silver or anything. They were just annoying. 

Then I saw some kind of large gray and black cannon-rifle stick out the back window. The end of the barrel was several inches wide. Okay, that one might be a little more dangerous. 

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. I had Miranda riding on my back, and she immediately leaned forward, holding her shield up. A glowing forcefield was projected from it, appearing in front of me and moving along with us as I ran. The energy shield manifested just as the big gun fired a shot that bounced right off it with a deafening boom. Two more shots came in quick succession, each equally blocked. The shield was holding, for the moment. But I could see it flicker just a tiny bit under each of those powerful shots. This couldn’t hold up forever. Worse, I couldn’t boost anymore right then. I needed a break before I’d be able to do it again for anything more than the second it took to shift forms. And the cars ahead of us were already pulling away. I could do fifty to sixty without boosting, but eighty to ninety? Forget about it. And those guys were hauling ass. For some reason, they didn’t want to stay and talk to us. Weird. 

Luckily, Miranda was already on it. After deflecting a couple more shots, she lowered the shield, took a breath, and screamed. Her scream was loud for me. Painfully loud, really. But it was a lot worse for the guy sticking the gun out the back of that car. I saw him drop back in the vehicle, rifle falling from his hands to bounce along the ground as the sheer force of the sonic attack knocked him onto his ass and shattered all the windows in that SUV. 

With the gun out of the way, Miranda reared back and hurled her actual physical shield. It flew through the air, passing through the broken windshield and into the vehicle itself. A second later, a new Miranda appeared where the shield was. Apparently Miranda had figured out how to make duplicates appear not only around her, but also at her shield’s location even if it wasn’t with her. Useful. 

There was a brief scuffle before the driver of the SUV and one other guy went tumbling out. The Miranda in the vehicle slowed down just a bit, allowing her other self and me to catch up. As we got there, my Miranda leapt up onto the back of the car, and I jumped as well, shifting into my human self in mid-lunge before landing in a crouch beside my best friend. 

The Miranda inside the car hit the gas, and we were off once more. The SUV directly ahead of us was the one that had Sarez. I could see the guy sitting in the backseat looking over his shoulder at us. His gaze met mine, and he said something to the driver. 

Faster. He told the guy to go faster. 

We sped up too. Miranda and I crouched, watching the car ahead of us intently ahead as it weaved in and out of traffic. One of the leading SUVs pulled to the side and slowed down to let us catch up, clearly intent on blocking for Sarez’s vehicle. The windows went down, and several guns opened fire. But Miranda had already taken the shield from her duplicate down below, passed up to her through the window. As the shots came from the car pulling alongside us, she summoned another forcefield on that side, catching the incoming bullets. 

The other car that had been ahead of Sarez pulled back as well, on the opposite side. They were each flanking us, taking shots while trying to give the man himself time to get away in his own vehicle. 

Miranda and I looked to one another, each nodding before she used her shield to create a forcefield on either side of us, protection from both vehicles. As the hail of gunfire tore into those shields, I knew they wouldn’t last long. But they didn’t have to. They only had to last for a few seconds. 

While the shields flickered and sputtered, I raised one hand. Triggering the button on my staff, I sent a cloud of sand out of the tiny portal at one end. The sand formed up into a ball around my raised fist, turning white-hot after a few brief seconds of concentration. Then it split off into two small clouds, each flying in opposite directions. The clouds of sand, giving off enough heat to melt through metal, collided with the tires of the vehicles. With an explosion of sound that was even louder than all that gunfire, they were both taken out of the chase, spinning off to either side. 

One left. Sarez’s car. And we were catching up. He was clearly desperate to escape, his driver taking absurd risks as he cut in and out of different lanes, slamming the SUV into cars here and there in his rush. But the driving Miranda was keeping up, swerving around the bits of debris and entirely stopped cars that the other vehicle left in its wake. We were getting closer and closer.

Miranda saw it first. “Portal!” she shouted, pointing ahead to a glowing green shimmering square that the SUV was driving straight toward. “He’s going for the portal!” 

“Oh, fuck no,” I blurted. “Sonic that window!” With that, I took a few running steps forward, triggering almost the entire store of energy in my staff into a single boost. It launched me up and forward, rocketing me through the air. In mid-flight, I flipped over, looking down and forward toward the back of the SUV. It was almost at the portal, almost there…

Right on cue, Miranda’s sonic scream filled the air, shattering the SUV’s back window. The instant she did, while I was still in freefall from launching myself, I launched the grapple from my staff. It shot that way, and straight into the now-exposed vehicle. 

“No… you… don’t!” I snapped in mid-fall, as my grappling hook slammed into Sarez’s shoulder. The man cried out in surprise and pain, as I dropped toward the ground. The energy cord that connected the grapple to my staff went taut, and started to yank me that way. But I triggered the last of the energy in the staff in the opposite direction. Instead of yanking me around with him, Sarez was hauled backward out of his ride an instant before it vanished through that portal. The man hit the ground and tumbled wildly. 

I, meanwhile, shifted back into my lion form one more time. I still landed hard, but the lion could take it. My lion body basically rolled with it, bruises and pain exploding everywhere until I finally sprawled to a stop on my side. The motion finally stopped and I… I just needed to nap for a–

“Flick!” Miranda was there, or one of her was. She’d stopped the car and was crouched beside me. “Flick, are you okay?!” 

Realizing that at some point while half-conscious, I’d shifted back to my normal self, I groggily opened my eyes. “Hmmm…? Umm.. uhh…” Blinking a few times, I sat up, groaning a little. Yeah, that hurt. Blinking around, I could see other cars stopping, people jumping out to come find out what the hell was going on. “Did… did we win?” 

The Miranda above me turned a bit to gesture toward the nearby buildings. “He ran off. I’ve got a few me’s looking for him. We already broke his teleport toys, so he’s on foot. And the others’ll be here any second. He won’t get far.” 

While she was talking, I reached down to touch my staff. Gus, still in his grapple form, was covered in blood. Sarez’s blood. My fingers brushed through it, and I focused on the Harpy’s blood-tracking power I’d gained so long ago, back on the Meregan world. 

Instantly, I knew the truth. With a nod, I murmured, “Yeah, he won’t get far.” 

Then I turned, rising to stab the Jaq-blade end of my staff right into the space beside Miranda. There was a grunt of surprise, before Sarez himself appeared, his invisibility spell fading. An invisibility spell that had shielded him from my item sense, but not my blood tracking power. The blade was through his other shoulder, and he collapsed to the ground as I gave him a shove that way. 

“Not very far at all,” I finished, as Miranda finished jumping in surprise. 

Laying on the ground, the man gave a dark chuckle. A bitter, angry chuckle. “You think this is over? You think you won? Girls, if you want to save the children and the vampire, you’re going to have to go get them. 

“In Canada.” 

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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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