Paul Bunyan

Commissioned Interlude 14 – Archangels (Heretical Edge 2)

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Zadkiel 

“Are you angry, sir?” The question came from a tall, thin figure wearing a dark hood and ruby-red metal mask that left his eyes exposed. Three other figures dressed similarly stood somewhat behind him. All of their attention was focused on the man who stood a short distance ahead of them, his back to the entire group. Although some might have objected to calling the being a man. He was half-Seosten, half-Fomorian, a creature born not of some romantic union, but two separate beings who had been forcibly merged together in the bowels of Tartarus. Standing almost eight feet in height, the creature’s normally Seosten-handsome features were broken by the influence of his Fomorian-self. His skin was gray and pallid, eyes almost twice the size they should have been. The wings that had emerged from his back were partially solid, bat-like structures where the bones in such a creature would have been, while the flat parts that would ordinarily have caught the wind to propel lift were filled by solid energy. 

“Angry?” the one who, as a potential point of contention against his missing self went by the title of Godfather (alternately Maestro and even his original Seosten name of Zadkiel), echoed with a small smile. A very slight giggle escaped him, which echoed weirdly through the underground cavern the group were standing in. “Why would we be angry?” 

That prompted the four masked figures to look at one another briefly, wondering if their report had been heard correctly. None of them knew who each other was. That was the reason for the masks, enchanted as they were to prevent any powers from seeing through them. It allowed their master to ensure that only he was aware of all those he had turned. They would leave this place separately, and for the most part would forget what had happened during their time here. It would sit at the back of their thoughts, a subconscious knowledge of who they belonged to, though they would be mostly unable to directly recall it until he called for them again. Another safety measure against their connection to him being uncovered. Not even Seosten possession would reveal his influence. 

His. Their. Which was it? The terms seemed interchangeable. The hybrid sometimes spoke as a singular, sometimes as plural. None who interacted with him (or them) knew the reasoning behind it. Perhaps even they themselves (or he himself) didn’t. He… they… simply were

Finally, the figure who had spoken first tentatively replied, “They know of your existence. And the Olympian has disappeared after the death of her Committee host. She knows you were responsible for her beloved’s presence on Aiken’te’vel, and clearly blames you for her death. Now she has returned to Earth safely. She and those who take her side will be watching for you. It is… not good news.” 

There was a moment of silence before the tall hybrid slowly turned to face them. He reached out, his long arms extending to put his hands against the mask of the man who had spoken. The minion froze, going completely still while Godfather very tenderly brushed too-long, too-thin fingers over the metal that covered his face. “We are not angry,” came the slow, deliberate response. “After all, to be angry would imply that their knowledge will make any difference. Forewarning of a storm does not prevent it from accomplishing its destruction. They may flee, they may prepare, they may do anything they wish in advance of our arrival. But when the time comes, none of it will save them.” 

As he spoke, Godfather’s fingers slipped under the mask. He pulled it down, looking into the face of the man beneath. The three figures behind stirred a bit, but remained silent. They could not see their companion’s face, not from that angle. Nor did they wish to. Seeing his face would have been against their master’s orders, and to go against their master was to face immediate death. 

But their master could see. He could look into all of their faces, could look through their souls. He knew them, he owned them. They were his tools, tools he would use to further his own goals. And if they failed him, if they faltered, he would cast them aside, their bodies and souls erased before they even touched the ground. 

“No,” Godfather quietly repeated, “we are not angry. Let them try to prepare. Watching the ants as they scurry in such panic may lead to something…” There was a pause before they gave another eerie giggle. “… interesting.” 

That said, he released the face of the man he had been holding and turned to face the nearby blank cavern wall. “Go now. Return to your lives. The time will come when I require you again.”

The hybrid figure stood there then, waiting for the group to obediently disperse. Only once they were gone did he reach out to touch the seemingly blank wall. Under his hand, part of the wall faded and vanished, allowing him to step through into what appeared to be the interior corridor of a ship, buried deep within this cavern far underground.

“Soon,” he murmured, reaching out to run a hand over one of the nearby consoles fondly. “Soon, you will be completed. They are already on their way. Before long, they will bring us the one we need to finish your construction, the one whose genius will finish what we began.

“And that will be the… Spark of the flames that will burn it all.” 

******

Remiel 

Stand! Rise!” The bellowed call, erupting from a figure who seemed entirely too small and slight to produce such a powerful sound, filled the air of the battlefield where a motley assortment of several thousand figures of various species had slumped in preparation of their impending defeat. The land, once a lush valley, had been scorched, burned to dirt and pockmarked by various craters from incredible impacts and explosions. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty seven beings lay in various states of exhaustion behind a makeshift dirt wall that had been built up to shield them from the army of steadily approaching biological horrors. It was an army that was repeatedly repelled, yet came onward inevitably. 

The army here had once measured several times larger than their current numbers. They had been fighting for their lives for days now, with barely any rest. And still, the army of Fomorians showed no real signs of abating. Their enemy was a tidal wave of death and destruction, one that could not be resisted. This world, a small out-of-the-way place near the edge of Seosten territory, had already mostly fallen to the monsters. The Seosten simply did not have the resources to defend it right now. Perhaps they would be back to wipe the Fomorians away before they could establish a firm foothold. But either way, it would be too late for the inhabitants of the place itself. 

Most of the actual Seosten had already abandoned this place, leaving on their ships to reinforce other positions. And they had taken the strongest among the planet’s defensive military with them. It hadn’t been the Seosten’s first choice, but they were needed to ensure the Fomorians could not overwhelm a different, more strategically important position. All of which left the planet’s only defenders as ill-trained, ill-equipped, doomed figures who could do little more than stave off the inevitable while allowing as many of their people to flee on ships as possible. 

Most of the Seosten were gone. Save, of course for one. The one who was already standing at the head of their embattled position. The small woman who barely topped five feet in height. Her coal-black skin was offset by brilliant blue eyes that seemed to glow with power far exceeding her very slight stature. Her dark hair was worn quite short.

“Stand?” one of the planet’s original inhabitants (tall, green-skinned humanoid figures with yellow faces and black lines across his arms) echoed, his voice full of disbelief. “Rise with what? Your people already abandoned us. They went off to defend something more important. We’re all gonna die anyway. Why do you think we should get up again? Why shouldn’t we just end it? Who cares if it’s now or when they get here?” His hand thrust toward the sound of the approaching Fomorians. His words were met with an assortment of exhausted agreement that spread through the mostly-broken people. They had lost all hope of escape from this place, and nearly all hope that they would be able to help others flee. Their faith was broken, their morale shattered. 

“What,” the Seosten woman returned, “is my name?” She stood in front of them, waiting a moment while they stared her way before raising her voice to a bellow once more. “What is my name?!” 

Finally, the group called back, “Remiel!” 

She, in turn, gave a firm nod. “I am Remiel. And by my name I will tell you this. The Fomorians come. I am going to meet their charge. I will take their approach and I will blunt it against myself, so that your people, your people may escape. Yet I am but one person. I will do as I must. I will stand in the path of these creatures to protect your people as I would stand to protect any in this universe against the scourge that approaches. These creatures are a flood. They are a rushing river. I will stand in the water’s path. I will hold back all I am able. But when they pass me, what will they meet? Will they see a wall of soldiers? Will they see brave forces, standing in their path to ensure your children and families have another second to flee, another moment to reach their ships, another minute to rise into the stars? Or will they see cowards, lying in the dirt awaiting their deaths?” 

With that, she turned and began to climb the dirt hill. 

A slight pause followed her words. The assembled exhausted soldiers looked to one another. Finally one rose, then another, and more. A little under three quarters of the almost thirty-five hundred motley soldiers tiredly took up their weapons once more and forced themselves to climb that dirt hill. Their bones ached, their eyes burned from lingering poison gas. They longed to lay down and sleep for days. Yet they followed the Seosten woman at her words. 

When they reached the top of the hill, the troops found themselves facing that woman. Her back was to the approaching Fomorians, still over ninety seconds away before the nearest would reach them. 

“And so here you are,” Remiel noted, her voice a soft rumble, like distant thunder rolling through their ranks. She raised a hand, speaking a single word. As she did so, a flash of brilliant blue light filled the air behind the assembled group. They spun back, to find that those who had chosen to stay behind, who had not risen to join them, had vanished. 

That, of course, gave rise to a rush of confused, fearful words about what she had done. But Remiel kept her hand in the air, speaking over the crowd. “They are safe! You will see them soon enough. Despite their fears and fatigue now, they served well. They tried their best for as long as they could. I do not fault their exhaustion, mental or physical. I have sent them to join your people as they leave this world. A moment of faltering does not erase the blood, sweat, and lives that all of you have sacrificed in this battle. Yet they were not prepared for what comes next. I had to know which among you were strong enough.” 

“Strong enough to die against those monsters?” one man demanded, barely capable of holding his rifle up to indicate the incoming horde, barely twenty seconds out. 

Remiel, however, gave a very faint smile. “No, I do not need those strong enough to die.” At those words, her own archangel wings emerged from her back. Made of brilliant blue energy, matching the color of her eyes, they stretched out impossibly wide, enveloping the nearly two thousand, five hundred troops in a ring of blazing, nearly blinding power. The troops were forced to look away, lest they be blinded. 

And then the wings were gone. As was the battlefield itself. They were somewhere else, some entirely different world. A world free from Fomorian invasion. 

“You may visit your people soon,” Remiel informed the confused group. “They are already safely fleeing. Once they are settled in a new home, I will ensure you are able to see them. Of that you have my word.” 

“What–what happened?” One of the troops stammered. “Why–how–what? Why… why are we here? Why did you bring us here?”

“Why?” Remiel echoed. “Because I do not need sacrifices. I do not need people to throw themselves uselessly against an enemy they stand no chance against, to protect a world that has already been lost. I need those, as you, that I can build into something more than you are now. As I said, I do not need those who are ‘strong enough to die.’

“I need those strong enough to train.”  

*******

Selaphiel 

A tall woman, fully six feet in height, with long, flowing blonde hair (including heavy bangs that covered her forehead down to her very light green eyes) stood at the very edge of a mile-wide crater that marked what had at one point been the Earth-based outpost of the Gehenna prison organization. Her face, which looked as though it had been chiseled from marble, betrayed no emotion as she surveyed the destruction. Not that there was much to survey in the first place. Nothing had survived the devastation of that magical explosion. 

“Fossor sure did a number on this place, didn’t he?” The man who spoke stood inside the crater. Yet despite the pit itself being almost fifteen feet deep, he was still almost eye-level with the woman as she stood on the edge of the lip. 

“Paul Bunyan,” she remarked simply, “I presume.” 

“That’s right,” he drawled. “And you’re the Seosten. Well, do they still consider you a Seosten these days? You’re the one they call Selaphiel.” An archangel (or Dyeus, as they were technically called) who had joined Gehenna. She was one of the organization’s leaders. 

“I shall always be Seosten,” the regal woman informed him. “Though I have endeavored to become more than I began.” She turned her gaze to him with a slight nod. “And yes, Fossor has dealt this organization quite a blow. Not a mortal one. But quite damaging nonetheless.” 

“The King wants to know what you’re all going to do now,” Paul informed her simply, turning his gaze away from her to look out over the vast barren emptiness. Roughly a quarter of the way into the crater, a much deeper hole stood. The magic explosion had been intentionally formed to force most of its destructive power to follow the path of the building deep into where the underground portions had once been. Nothing was left of the Gehenna structure. 

Selaphiel gave no response at first. Her pale green eyes simply passed over the same hole his own gaze had locked onto, while a very slight frown wrinkled the center of her forehead. Finally, she broke the lingering silence that had formed over those moments. “You mean, he wishes to know if Gehenna will rebuild here, move to somewhere else on the planet, or leave entirely.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” Bunyan confirmed. “With Fossor dead, he won’t be a problem anymore. But he’s not the end of the enemies you all have. And enemies targeting Gehenna, now that Fossor’s proven you’re not invincible, could bring problems to Canada. The King isn’t exactly bursting with joy at that idea.” 

“They are no threat to him,” Selaphiel pointed out flatly. As she spoke, the woman flicked her hand out, summoning a long golden staff, richly decorated with magical runes, with a brilliant gleaming emerald at one end. The jewel itself pulsed with power, sending lines of green light running down the shaft and over each of the runes in a clearly deliberate pattern.

“Nope,” the man agreed. “They aren’t really a threat to him. But he can’t be everywhere at once, and he’d prefer not to put his people in danger. Which is why he wants to make a new deal.” 

His words made the Seosten woman turn her gaze to him, one eyebrow rising. “A new deal?” 

“He says your people can rebuild here,” came the response, “but he gets to have a few of his own people on-site to help keep the place safe, and as outside observers to the situation.” 

“I do not know that the other directors will be eager to accept such a requirement,” Selaphiel carefully informed him. “We do not allow such oversight in other places.”

“Sure,” Paul drawled, “but something tells his majesty that your people really want to keep an outpost here. Fossor’s gone but you’re not pulling up stakes. There’s more to why you want to be on-planet. We’re not sure why, but he thinks whatever it is will be enough to make you agree to those terms. We put people in your new location, help you watch out for any of your new… friends that might take a shot, and we get to help make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” He indicated the crater stretched out before them. 

After a few moments of silence, the woman finally gave a short nod. “Agreed. Have your king draw up the necessary contracts so I may peruse them. You have my contact information.” 

Without waiting for a response, Selaphiel extended the staff toward the deep hole. It began to glow brighter, even as the woman’s brilliant, nearly blindingly bright wings emerged from her back and spread out to their full extension. The wings were the color of malachite, nearly matching the emerald atop the staff. They pulsed with power of their own even as the woman began to chant a series of indecipherable words from some long-dead language. The power around them grew and grew, forcing Paul to withdraw several steps and turn his head away. 

Finally, an explosion of power erupted from the staff, careening toward the hole in the ground before impacting with enough force that Paul felt himself, despite his height, recoil a bit. When he looked that way, shielding his eyes with one hand, he saw the emerald light fading to reveal a tower standing there. It was just the same as the last one, a tall black obelisk rising toward the sky. 

“That was fast,” Paul remarked with a cough. 

“We have no time to waste,” she informed him. “There are no prisoners within the structure, and will not be until your king agrees. Go and see the contracts drawn up, so that we may put the building to use.” 

With that, she made the staff disappear with a flick of the hand that was holding it. Then the tall Seosten woman touched two fingers to her forehead, brushing her blonde bangs out of the way to reveal a tattoo there of two emerald-colored serpentine eyes. Those eyes began to glow under her touch, before rapidly becoming three-dimensional. The eyes emerged from her forehead, followed by the rest of a reptilian face. It grew exponentially by the second, a truly massive green lizard creature rising out of Selaphiel. 

No, not a lizard. A wingless dragon, fully large enough to swallow the twenty-foot-tall Paul Bunyan whole. It towered a full fifty feet high, scales gleaming with inner power. Not a true dragon, of course, but similar to the phoenix summoned through the tattoo of another Seosten member of Gehenna, the one called Larees. 

The summoned creature extended its tail, allowing Selaphiel to stride up toward its back. As she did so, her own wings faded from her body before reappearing on her companion, forming the actual wings of the dragon. From there, the woman stood atop her partner as those powerful glowing energy wings flapped down hard, sending both the creature and the Seosten herself upward. 

In a moment, they had vanished from sight, disappearing into the clouds. 

******* 

Gabriel 

Through the remains of the secret facility that had once belonged to Kushiel, three figures strode purposefully. Well, one strode more purposefully, with the other two hurrying to keep up.  The one in the lead was a woman who would have been considered Asian if she had been human rather than Seosten. She wore a sleek dark blue bodysuit under a long white leather coat. Her black hair was held in a long, tight braid, and her light brown eyes gleamed with anger.  

“Why was I not informed of this place while it was still in use?” Her demand came in a sharp, no-nonsense voice while she marched onward, heels clicking sharply against the floor with each step as she glanced briefly through various doorways leading into facility rooms where labs and prison cells were before making a disapproving sound and moving on after each. 

Of the two figures following, one was a Seosten man who appeared to be much older (but in actuality was several full millennia younger), while the other was a Relekun female hurriedly taking notes of everything that happened. It was the Seosten man who spoke up. “Ah, well, Miss Gabriel, the decision was made that there was no need to involve you, or distract you from your own work unless sufficient progress was seen. To avoid corrupting either your work or theirs with–” 

In a sharp voice, Gabriel interrupted. “I would hardly appreciate you defecating into your own hand and giving it to me as an explanation, let alone simply offering the excrement someone else has handed you to pass along. I am not a fool, Seurateis. I know precisely why I was not included.” She stopped, pivoting on one heel to face him. “Because I would never have approved of such a facility. I was told that I would be given charge of all research groups devoted to correcting our peoples’ population problem. And yet, I was kept entirely in the dark when it came to this place. Inform the Seraphs that if such a discrepancy is found again, they will not enjoy the measures I take to ensure it does not happen a third time.” 

“I–uh.” Seurateis faltered. “I am not entirely certain that I can pass along that tone of message. But I will… ensure that they are aware of your disappointment in the situation.”

Gabriel, in turn, made a soft scoffing sound under her breath before looking to the Relekun woman. “Daen,” she spoke the girl’s name a bit more gently, “what is the number one rule of working in such advanced scientific fields?” 

There was the slightest pause before Daen carefully recited, “Your actions have consequences.” 

“Precisely,” Gabriel confirmed, turning back to Seurateis. “The knowledge we gain, the power we unlock, the weapons and spells we create, everything we do can have untold consequences. We know that quite clearly from the fate of Cronus, and the rising of our Fomorian foes. We know that from the state that our own people have been in for hundreds of thousands of years. What we do carries repercussions, often grave ones. It is important that we remain respectful of those consequences, lest we create an even more dire threat than that which we already face.” 

She paused deliberately, allowing those words to sink in before continuing. “Let there be no misunderstanding, we have long-since sunk below the moral high ground. The things our people do in service of victory over the Fomorians do not make us heroes. Yet I do believe they are necessary things. But I will not tolerate such… evil as this, not for our own people and not for others. Every Seosten who worked within this facility is to be put to work going through every file, every scrap of information we have about those who were imprisoned here. Those who did not survive are to be identified, their families notified and compensated fairly. The bodies, if they remain, are to be delivered to their homes so that they may be disposed of in whatever manner their loved ones prefer. Those who survived, Seosten and otherwise, are to be released onto a world of their choosing.” 

“But most are criminals,” the man protested. 

Gabriel’s eyes sharpened, glowing amber wings appearing behind her as she dangerously replied, “They have served their sentence. Release them.” 

With that, she pivoted once more and began to walk away, wings fading from view. “Daen, assist him in the endeavor.” 

The Relekun woman gave a short nod before tentatively asking, “And what of the medical data that was collected?” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Gabriel stopped walking. Then she replied simply, “Moral or not, we will not cast potentially valuable information into the flames. That would simply make the sacrifices of the people held here even more pointless. Gather it, we will see if there is anything useful. And when you have taken all this facility can provide, I want it erased. Destroy every scrap of it.

“While I exist, such evil will not be glorified.”  

*******

Jegudiel

Is that all you have brought to face me?!” 

The bellowed demand came from a tall, shirtless Seosten man, who stood an inch over seven feet in height, his long black hair worn all the way to the middle of his back. His bare, heavily tanned chest, rippling with muscles and gleaming from sweat, was adorned by the tattoo of a sword that rose from navel to just under his throat. In one hand, he held a long, blood-stained axe, while the other gripped a hammer with one flat edge and the other a sharp point. The remnants of pulverised organs and various fluids adorned each. A pair of long, crimson red wings stretched from the man’s back, illuminating the otherwise dark area surrounding him with a deep red glow.  

His name was Jegudiel, and he stood at the center of what had, up until moments earlier, been a battlefield. Now, it was the site of a mass execution. Where once had stood hundreds of Fomorian monstrosities, now there was only ashes. Nothing of their intended invasion force on this moon outpost had survived his onslaught.

“I have been told so much of the ferocity of the Fomorian forces assaulting this place!” Jegudiel shouted into the darkness. “But what do I find when I come to face it? No worthy foe, no battle deserving of my name! Bring forth your creatures, bring forth your own people! Bring me a foe I can sink my teeth into, so that I may tear out their heart and bathe in the blood of one worthy of being torn asunder!” 

There was no response to his cry, the Fomorians who might have remained long-since having retreated from the field rather than uselessly throw themselves against the threat he presented. Finally, with a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, Jegudiel turned to stride back the way he had come. On the way, he paused before turning his head sharply to look out into the darkness, his tone dangerous. “Present yourself.” 

After a very brief hesitation, a smaller, slightly more pale Seosten man stepped into view. “I see your excursion here has been successful.” 

Jegudiel, however, scoffed at that. “Hardly a battle worth my time, Pravuil. But…” He paused before admitting, “I am glad that this place is protected once more. I do not fault those who require assistance, nor do I wish harm to them. Few can stand against the forces the Fomorians bring to bear. The people of this outpost are safe now, and that… that is good.” He sighed. “I only wish to find a true battle, one that will secure my legacy and ensure my name will never be forgotten.” 

Pravuil, in turn, offered him a faint smile. “In that case, perhaps you will be interested in a bit of information that has come our way.” He waited for the man to give him a nod to continue, then explained. Over the next few minutes, he told his leader exactly what whispers had reached him. 

When he was done, Jegudiel had straightened to his full height, gazing down at him intensely. His crimson wings were even brighter than before, glowing powerfully. “Is this true?” he demanded. “Do not give me such false hope, Pravuil.” 

“As far as I have been able to confirm it,” his subordinate confirmed, “it is true. My sources are quite confident.” 

There was no response at first. Jegudiel’s wings slowly folded in against his back. “Well then,” he finally announced in a far quieter, far more introspective voice. “Inform the leadership that I will be taking that vacation they have been insisting upon for so long. 

“Tis time I visit Earth. And see my daughter.” 

*******

Raphael And Chayyiel

“You must want this thing pretty badly, to ask for help.” The drawled words came from Raphael, as the tall, lanky man with long gray-blond hair stretched lazily. He was standing just outside of a small antique shop somewhere in Boston. The subject of his comment, the deceptively young-looking (they were all that, but her even more so) Chayyiel, stood in front of the door, reading the sign posted there about the hours. 

“It’s important,” she murmured absently, before glancing over to him. “And you are the one who sent a message saying you wanted something interesting to do.” 

He grinned in response. “That’s because I know you’re always doing something interesting, busy little feun.” He referred to a small mammal native to their homeworld that was essentially a miniature beaver that could fly like a bat with long wings. They created homes inside massive trees that grew up out of the abundant oceans. “Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention to what I hear about your trip across this world. You’ve been raising a few eyebrows back home. And that’s just from the parts they know about.”  

“I keep myself occupied,” she agreed idly before nodding to him. “If you’re ready for this?” 

He nodded lazily while stretching his arms over his head. “Sure thing, but ahhh, why don’t you take a step to your left? Scooch over.” He made a little flicking motion with his hand until she did so, moving out of the way. Then the man cracked his neck to both sides before glancing over to the nine-month-old English Bulldog currently sniffing a nearby fire hydrant. “Check this out, Zad.” 

The bulldog, in turn, plopped on its haunches and looked that way. He had been well trained to know what was coming when his new owner spoke in that tone of voice. Particularly as it often meant he would end up with treats afterward. 

And with that, satisfied by his audience, Raphael allowed his golden-white energy wings to emerge, flared them out behind him… and then fired a beam from each. The beams tore through the facade of the antique shop, literally erasing it (and the myriad of protective spells and weapons that had been waiting to cause problems) from existence within a bare handful of seconds. When the beams finally stopped, there was little left of the shop other than a smoldering ruin with a metal hatch in the middle of the floor. One more brief, incredibly casual shot from a single wing erased the hatch itself, revealing a ladder leading down. 

“Probably a good thing you had the right place, huh?” Raphael casually remarked. “Would have been pretty embarrassing for you to get that wrong.” Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that he himself would not particularly have cared that much. But he knew she did, and didn’t mind at least making the slightest attempt to follow her preferences in such a matter as far as collateral damage went. It was why he had made certain to contain his beams to only hit the building itself and not blast any further than that.   

“I made sure,” she informed him while already moving toward the hole in the floor. Zad accompanied her, leaning over it to stare down into the dark abyss while sniffing curiously. 

“Sure you don’t want any more help?” Raphael asked, stepping up to look that way as well. “No telling how much trouble you might run into down there. I’d feel sort of bad if I went to all the trouble of blowing away the front door defenses just for you to get in trouble down in the tunnels. Especially if you’re right about what’s in that place. They’ll be protecting it pretty heavily.”

“I can handle it,” she assured him, “but thank you.” Turning that way, Chayyiel listened to the sound of the people below reacting to the intrusion. “You should go, get Zad some lunch. He’s hungry.” 

“He’s always hungry,” Raphael pointed out before stooping to scratch behind the ears of the animal in question. “Maybe we’ll try that… what did you call it, a Morongleen Barby Q?” 

“Mongolian Barbecue,” Chayyiel corrected, even as the sound of multiple weapons being readied directly below them reached their ears. “Two blocks down to the west.” 

With that, she touched something on her shoulder, activating a protective spell before hopping into the broken hatch. As she fell toward the people below, the gunfire and screaming started.  

“Ahh well,” Raphael remarked, straightening and turning away from the sound of fighting going on below, “Let’s go, Zad. 

“I’d like to find out if these ‘Mongolians’ are any good at cooking.” 

*******

Michael And Chayyiel

Two heavily armed humanoid figures wearing golden armor stood outside the entrance into a clearly heavily reinforced bunker in the middle of the woods. The man on the left held an enormous trident weapon with a shotgun attachment, his gaze panning over the trees in front of them while he asked, “So what do they have the old man working on now?” 

His companion, a slightly smaller female figure with a sword at her hip and rifle in her hands, shook her head. “Fuck all if I know. You think they tell me anything more than they tell you? I’m only your senior by like three weeks. All I know is it’s something big and they don’t want any interruptions, so keep your eyes peeled. Hell, if we’re lucky, maybe they’re having him build something that could wipe out those fucking Boschers for good this time.” 

“Actually,” a voice from above and behind them remarked, “at the moment they want him to create something that hides all of you from any of those Boschers. You know, a permanent, perfect cloaking field around all your facilities that can stand up against their powers.” 

The sudden interruption was, to put it mildly, surprising. Both guards spun that way, snapping their weapons up. They found themselves staring at a small, young Seosten girl crouched there on top of the bunker’s roof, eying them curiously. The unconscious figure of the sniper who had been stationed further back on the roof lay next to her, his rifle discarded a bit to the side. 

“What th–shoot her!” the female guard snapped, already starting to open fire on the crouched figure. A rapid series of small purple lasers erupted from her rifle with the speed of a minigun, flooding the air with a hundred shots within only a couple seconds of pulling the trigger. The shots were intentionally spread out to cover an area roughly the size of a human male in order to hit any conceivable weak point on the body, and to cover any immediate attempt to dodge. 

Beside her, the male guard fired several quick rounds from his shotgun-like weapon. The destructive force from the explosive pellets the weapon fired could easily blow apart a car.  

All of that firepower, however, accomplished nothing. They simply hit a glowing forcefield that appeared in front of the girl. No, not a forcefield, a wing made of energy, which stretched out from behind the men and reached up to cover the crouched figure. 

Within seconds, the guards had stopped firing. Their heads slowly turned to find a slim man with gray hair and wire-frame glasses standing behind them. The glowing energy wings came from his back. 

“Afternoon,” Michael greeted them. 

“I’m truly sorry about this.” 

*****

Thirty seconds later, Michael used his wings once more to blow a hole through the bunker door. Then he gestured for his companion. “After you, my dear.”

Chayyiel, in turn, gave a short nod before proceeding inside and down the hall. She was already counting out a handful of previously enchanted marbles into one hand. At the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, she reared back, triggered the spells upon the marbles, and chucked them. The marbles careened down the hall, bouncing off walls, floor, and ceiling. With each bounce, they emitted a stunning electrical shock. Soon, she heard them reach the incoming troops, who began firing uselessly at the tiny orbs while the sound of their cries filled the air, followed by dull thuds as their unconscious forms collapsed. 

“An elegant solution,” Michael noted. 

“Thanks,” she replied. “One makes do when you don’t have magic wings that can blast through everything in their way.” 

And so it continued. Chayyiel and Michael made their way through the entire bunker, casually dispatching anyone who happened to be in the way. Eventually, she reached the heart of the structure, a workroom filled with various tools, equipment of every shape and size, books full of spells, various types of field-engravers, and more. A single figure stood within that room. He was a tall (almost seven feet), heavyset male figure with dark blue skin, a turtle-like shell on his back, a pair of compound eyes centered on his face with two slits above that were used as a nose, and a mouth below. Four antennae, two small at only two inches and two large at almost six, adorned the top of his bald head. His long arms reached all the way to the ground if it let them droop, and had seven incredibly dextrous looking fingers at the end of each. 

“Are you here to kill me?” the man asked without looking up as the door slid open. His attention was on the oblong box he was carefully inscribing something into. “If so, might I ask that you wait until I finish this? An interruption could create a vortex that would swallow this entire facility and several hundred surrounding square miles.” 

“We’re not here to kill you, Quervus,” Michael informed the man before nodding to Chayyiel. “I was simply helping my young companion here find you. She’s been looking for quite awhile.” 

Chayyiel spoke up. “You did a job for a friend of mine about fifteen hundred years ago. You enchanted a piece of dragon bone and turned it into a sword.” 

There was a brief pause before Quervus nodded. “I remember it. You want another of those, I need another dragon bone.” 

“Not a sword,” she replied, reaching into her pocket to produce a bag, which she unwrapped and reached into, taking out a square chunk of dragon bone about three feet across. “Let’s just say, I acquired this from an old antique shop. I need you to turn it into the chest piece of a suit of armor.” 

Finally, Quervus turned to look at her. His eyes scanned over the bone she was holding. “For one of you, or the man the sword was for?” 

“Neither,” Michael put in. “But I have the measurements for you right here.”

Chayyiel nodded in agreement. “We have someone else in mind. 

“We need you to make it for a woman named Joselyn.” 

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Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so… that was a lot to process, to say the least. We’d gone to Vegas to help find a missing little girl. When we were there, more kids as well as Asenath’s mother were abducted too. Then Heretics attacked one of the casinos and the information our two groups had gained led us up to Canada to meet King Oberon. From there, we’d been directed to some pure Alter town in the north wilderness. And because that clearly wasn’t enough, there turned out to be an outpost of an interuniversal prison up there, who were on Earth partially to eventually do something about Fossor. But while they were here, one of their other dangerous prisoners, a… sapient plant of some kind, had extended pieces of himself into the outside world, where they were infecting people to do bad things. If he managed to make enough bad things happen, he’d be able to manifest his primary consciousness in the outside world, escaping prison to do horrific things. 

Okay, one, my life was really fucked up. And two, the most surprising thing about all of this was that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Seosten at all. According to Prelate, the Seosten mostly left them alone (though they did have a few Seosten members), recognizing that the Gehenna provided an invaluable service. And, I imagined, recognizing the futility of attacking a group who could just decide to unleash all of the most dangerous and deadly monsters in the universe if you really pissed them off. 

So yeah, now we had at least some idea of what was going on. Even if it was really fucked up. Somehow, one of the Gehenna guards, this Azlee Ren, had been infected by spores from the prisoner they called Kwur. Azlee had set about trying to create a war in Las Vegas by abducting the princess, Rowan, with the help of mercenaries he either contracted or infected with more spores. Or both. Probably both. Some of those mercenaries thought they were working for Gehenna itself, which was why Sarez sent us up here to Canada. They’d also abducted the other kids as well as Jiao to continue pushing Vegas toward outright war with each other.  

It wasn’t a bad plan, overall. Especially when he brought Heretics into it. Vegas was a powder keg that could easily blow up. Seriously, I didn’t know much about the Oni, but the Vestil and the Akharu were eons-old enemies. They had found peace in Vegas because two of their number married and started a family. The best way to break that peace was obviously to break the family. They took the kid to light the fuse, then took more kids to make things even worse. And now, if we didn’t do something to stop it, Vegas would go to war and Kwur would be free. 

Obviously, we asked Prelate why they couldn’t just move this Kwur guy off-world. He said it wouldn’t make any difference. Kwur’s spores were out there now, and moving the main body wouldn’t change that. Someone had to find the spores and either bring them back to the prison to join up with the main body, or destroy them. That was the only way to actually fix this whole situation before everything ended up getting a hell of a lot worse. 

Prelate had also mentioned that they couldn’t just kill Kwur because if they killed the part of his body that held the core consciousness, that would allow him to manifest it into one of the other parts of his body. And while he was handing out warnings, he’d mentioned that possessing anyone who was infested would be a bad idea, because that would give Kwur a chance to infest the person doing the possessing. 

So yeah, that was all just great. We had to retrieve or destroy all the pieces of that plant asshole the hard way. Oh, and save the kids and Jiao, of course. We had to get those children back to Vegas to prove what really happened. 

And there was another reason to solve all this, as if we needed more incentive. According to Prelate, they could help me with my Fossor situation by giving information that might be useful. But they would only do that if we helped solve this problem and get their prisoner back under control. You’d think they’d be super-invested in dealing with Fossor too, but apparently this Kwur thing was a more immediate and dangerous problem. Which–yeah, I could see how him getting out would be bad. If he was capable of spreading through all of the plants on an entire world (or even potentially beyond)? That could be apocalyptically bad. So we had to make sure that didn’t happen. We had to find his spores and deal with them before he managed to provoke enough violence to escape his prison.

Find and destroy the spores, save Jiao and the kids, return said kids to Vegas, avert a war, and in doing so, get information from the Vegas people about where Asenath’s father was, as well as information from the Gehenna group that might end up helping me deal with Fossor. 

There was just one problem with all that, of course. We had no idea where this Azlee Ren was. Or where any of the spores were. What were we supposed to do? How could we track them down? Finding Azlee was the key, but Gehenna had no idea where he was. So what now? 

We were all still wondering about that an hour later, as we left the prison outpost to meet up with our escorts, and the rest of our group, once more. Prelate had said that they would help in any way they could to deal with Kwur. They had numbers, power, weapons, they just didn’t know where his spores were. Or what they called his spores. I’d come to find out over that hour that his ‘spores’ were essentially any plant that wasn’t part of his main self. So finding infested ones? Not easy. They’d given us a spell that was supposed to identify any infected plant or person once it was applied to them. But we couldn’t just wander the entire North American continent using the spell on every person and plant we saw. That would get tedious pretty damn fast. 

We were just going to have to talk it through and see if any of us could come up with a good idea of how to find these people. And I really hoped that one of the others would have something, because I was drawing a really unusual blank. All I could think about was the fact that those guys in that tower were supposed to keep Fossor prisoner, and the fact that he had escaped in the first place to ever be a threat here on Earth was their fault. And how did I meet up with them in the first place? Because another prisoner of theirs had at least partly escaped. 

Okay, I knew that wasn’t fair. These people were responsible for the worst of the worst. They kept the vast majority of them contained. Having one of their charges escape a few thousand years ago, and then another work on escaping now was hardly the worst track record. 

Still, logic didn’t always work against emotions. And my emotions right now were telling me that Fossor wouldn’t ever have been a problem at all if these guys had kept him under control. I just had a lot of extremely complicated feelings about this whole messy situation, to say the least. 

Nuliajuk was talking as we left the tower to join up with the others out front where they were still waiting. “This is very… troubling news. If the plants themselves may become our enemies, sparking violence in those who inhale their scent, King Oberon must be warned. Canada,” she added in a dry voice, “as you may have noticed, has something of an abundance of plants. Something will have to be done to ensure they do not present a threat to the Court.” 

April piped up, “You’re not going to burn all of them are you?” Her voice sounded accusatory as she squinted at the Inuit woman. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those plants are completely innocent. You can’t just take a flamethrower to every tree and flower in the area because one–” 

“We are not going to burn our gardens and trees,” Nuliajuk assured her calmly. “But precautions will have to be taken while this situation persists. As I said, the King must be informed of this.” 

“Informed of what?” That was Paul Bunyan, speaking up as he approached, still in his much smaller (yet still tall) form. He stopped in front of us, hugely muscled arms folded across his chest. “And what’s this about burning plants? You know if you need a plant taken care of, all you have to do is point Babe at it. If there’s plants to eat, he’d give me the silent treatment for a month if I didn’t give him first crack at it.”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was staring at us. She clearly had been paying attention to what happened in there through her father, judging from the look on her face. Tristan seemed to know what was going on too, as he leaned over and whispered something in his sister’s ear. 

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Haiden replied with a glance toward the rest of us. “Right now, we need to get back to King Oberon and tell him what’s going on. Then we can start helping these Gehenna people put a stop to this whole situation. And that’s gonna be fun, let me tell you.” 

Decker and his group of armed soldier-types (Strangers, as they deliberately called themselves) escorted us back to the bus. We would take the bus to the hangar and then portal to Oberon. Even if we had wanted to stay longer, Strangefield’s residents apparently weren’t interested. Well, the ones who knew we were there weren’t interested, at least. They wanted us out of their territory so they could go back to their ‘normal’ Heretic/human-free lives as soon as possible. Which, again, was fair. These people had been screwed over by humans losing their memories of being allies and then trying to kill them more than once. I couldn’t blame them for giving up on us.

During the ride back to the hangar, we carefully filled the others in on the whole situation and everything we’d found out. I saw Decker and a couple of his men give us double-takes once in awhile, but they stayed out of the conversation. Clearly they were all serious about not getting involved in this kind of business anymore, and just keeping to themselves. Still, I was pretty sure they would be paying a lot of attention to any plants that were in their city once they got back.

Meanwhile, April and December were deep in a private conversation that seemed pretty intense. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that the guy we were after was a magic plant monster and they served the Seosten who had posed as Demeter, who was basically supposed to be goddess of the plants or whatever. Not that I thought there was any kind of connection between them beyond that, but still. Maybe they thought there was? Or that she could do something? 

“Prelate gave us a stone that we can use to contact him as soon as we have anything substantial about this Kwur guy,” Haiden was saying. “And he said their people are going to continue doing their jobs to track down those spores themselves. But for the most part, we’re on our own with this. They have no idea where Azlee might be holed up, but it must be somewhere near Vegas if he’s trying to start a war there. Not that ‘somewhere near Vegas’ tells us much.” 

Paul spoke up thoughtfully, “Now that the conditions of the secrecy spell have been fulfilled, King Oberon might be able to tell you more. Maybe he’ll have something you can use.” 

“Unless there’s a magic ‘point me at the evil plant dude’ spell,’” Tristan pointed out, “I don’t think even the King of Canada can help that much. I mean, he’s crazy super powerful, sure, but how do you narrow down a search like that? Besides having lots of manpower, and I don’t think sending a huge force of Canadian Alter troops to Vegas would do much to calm the situation. You’d be playing right into what this Kwur wants, provoking a war. Seriously, it doesn’t matter if it’s one he made or another, right? Violence and anger is violence and anger, and he’ll be right there to soak it in.” 

“At least he has to be nearby,” Miranda muttered. “Imagine if he could just take in violence from anywhere in the world to get stronger.”

April’s reply to that was flat, seemingly emotionless. “If he gets strong enough to spread, that’s exactly what he’ll be able to do. Think about it,” she added after letting that hang for a moment, “his growth is exponential. As soon as he’s strong enough to break out of that prison and put his full consciousness into the outside plants, he can spread through those and keep growing. He’ll spread himself out to everywhere there’s conflict, and keep generating more of that to get even bigger. The more violence and anger he incites, the stronger he gets, which will allow him to incite more violence and anger in more areas.” 

Asenath, speaking up for the first time since we’d left the tower, murmured a quiet, “This could be very bad.” Her voice was subdued. I had a feeling that she was getting more and more worried about her mother’s prospects with every bit of information we found out. After she said that simple sentence, Shiori leaned in and hugged her sister, the two of them sitting quietly like that. 

“The Heretic war,” I pointed out after swallowing hard to push away the thought of anything happening to Jiao. I had to focus. “The Rebellion. If he gets a taste of that, he’ll make it worse. It’s hard enough to negotiate and have conversations with Hardliners, but with someone like Kwur inciting things in the background? There’d be no chance for peace or any kind of… of understanding. He’ll make sure everyone kills each other, just for the power boost he’d get.” 

“Basically, the whole world is fucked if that son of a bitch breaks out of that cell,” Haiden summed up. “And he’s not even the biggest threat they’re holding in that place.” 

Nuliajuk, with what I was pretty sure was deceptive calmness to her voice, spoke. “That is perhaps the most pressing issue. This Kwur will not simply content himself to ravaging this world. He will put his efforts, once he is strong enough, toward freeing his master, the Dragon-Heretic they call Ehn. If that happens, I fear the fate not only of this world, but of all worlds.” 

“But no pressure or anything, right?” I managed with a slightly crazed, high-pitched laugh. “No big deal, just stop Apocalypse Plant from unleashing evil Dragon God and destroying everything everywhere.” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Tristan assured me. “We can handle this. We just need… I don’t know, Vanessa, what do we need?” 

Promptly, the girl replied, “What you really need is a spell to track this plant guy, or his spores.”

Tabbris piped in with, “You could do that with the spell they gave you, but if you want to do it… you know, faster and less… tediously, you need someone who was infested before, but isn’t now. I think…”  As everyone watched her, she went on eagerly with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you need. Someone who was infested but isn’t now. And is still alive. See, it’s like… there’s a couple spells that are kinda sorta right, especially if we change them a little bit. But none of those ones are ever gonna tell you exactly where to go. You can’t just like… enchant Google Maps and get an exact place.” 

Vanessa nodded along with our younger sister. “What she said. Basically, if you combine a tracking spell with the identification spells they already gave us, then get some of the plant or its remains, and some material from a previously infested person, you could probably jury-rig a spell to tell you if you’re anywhere near another infested or the plant itself. But the range wouldn’t be that long. You’d have to be within a short distance, like… a block or so, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Butifit’sthateasy,” December demanded while her head snapped back and forth between Tabbris, who was sitting across the aisle from her, and Vanessa, several rows forward, “thenwhydon’ttheGehennaguysjustdothat? It’stheirjobtokeep… theplantguyinprisonright?” 

“Because it won’t be easy, right?” I put in. “I feel like we kind of skimmed over the ‘find someone who was infested, but isn’t now’ part. But wait, what about Sarez? You know, dealer guy? He was infected, he had to have–wait. No. Shit. Was he infected or just being used? Prelate said they used hired mercenaries who thought they were working for Gehenna because of who he was and–shit, he’s not, is he?” 

“We’ll find out,” Haiden announced. He took the phone from his pocket, making a call. As the rest of us watched, he went through a quick, private phone call. I saw him make a face several times, and it made my heart sink. 

“Okay,” the man finally announced while disconnecting the call. “That’s a no-go. Let’s just say if we need a living subject, Sarez isn’t going to be best choice. Someone assassinated him in the cell where they were keeping the guy. They’re working on finding out who did it, if it’s connected to our big bad or just one of their own people getting pissed off and making a move. The point is, he’s not gonna be providing any living material.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I managed. “So we have no host to work with. Which means we’re back to the plan of going door-to-door in Vegas looking for this Azlee guy. If we can find him, we can use him to find any of Kwur’s spores and deal with them. But we have to find him. Unless anyone happens to know where any other former Kwur hosts might be? Yeah, I didn’t think–” 

My phone rang. Blinking down at it, I checked the name. “It’s Sands. I–hold on.” Answering the phone, I started with, “Hey, Sands, we can’t really–wait…

“I’m sorry, you’re standing there with a little girl who was what?!

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elevator door opened then, and we found ourselves facing something very different than the lobby I’d been expecting. Apparently we weren’t taking a car or something to this garden the king was at, the elevator had taken us there itself. Ahead of us was… well, probably the most beautiful garden I’d ever seen. There were brick pathways leading in a maze through hundreds of patches of exotic plants of every shape and size. Flowers so wild that 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 activated the 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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