Tristan Moon

Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know, I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve seen, all the magic, the aliens, traveling clear across the universe… I’ve still barely ever driven a car.”

Making that announcement while walking along a hard pavement in the middle of the hot Nevada sun, I looked over toward my two companions. “I’m almost eighteen and I’ve only legally driven like… once in the past year. Is that weird? That seems weird. Come to think of it, if I do turn eighteen and manage to not be horrifically murdered or enslaved by an evil necromancer, how do I get a new adult license? I don’t exactly live in Laramie Falls anymore.” 

The pair I was walking with were Sands and Sarah. As promised, the two of them had joined our little expedition group to try to fix what was going on with the whole Vegas kidnapped children situation. Mostly because adding more people to the search was the only real chance we had to track down where this Kwur guy’s spores were (and thus hopefully find this Azlee guy) before things escalated to the point of open warfare. Because Vegas going to war would just make Kwur stronger, and if he got strong enough to make one of his spores out here his primary body… things would get very bad. 

So yeah, we’d all met up again, bringing in a few reinforcements like the twins here. With the spore-detection enchantments finished, we split up into smaller groups and were essentially walking around hoping to find what we were looking for. Canvassing random streets wasn’t exactly the most elegant or quickest solution, but it was the best we had to work with right then. 

It was important enough that we weren’t even forced to be escorted by the Vegas people. We were checking in occasionally, but right now, we needed as many groups as possible combing the city to find any trace of Kwur’s influence before it was too late. So we divided Vegas up into a grid pattern and went out, mostly in trios and quads, to pound the pavement for hours.

Just in case someone around here happened to maybe recognize me from the chase through the city a couple days earlier, I was using my shifting power to disguise myself with black hair, slightly darker skin, and wider, lighter eyes. That should be enough for me to stay anonymous.

Sands was shrugging my way. “It’s not hard to get a license that’ll fool any Bystander system. Just–” Pausing, she thought about it for a second. “Actually, huh. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do now that we’re… now that we left Crossroads.” Her face twisted a little, looking briefly annoyed at the entire situation before she sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet our mom could help us handle that. And hey, maybe you can give us lessons. Growing up on a small island doesn’t really leave much point to driving. But now there’s gotta be times when driving would be useful, right?”

Beside her, Sarah gave a short nod. She was looking away, glancing at a couple of homeless people staggering down the street across from us. They looked drunk, given the hard time they were having staying upright. “Can’t always portal everywhere,” the girl murmured absently. 

“Especially when we don’t know how to do that spell,” I agreed. Glancing at the small green stone I was holding in one hand, I watched as it flickered slightly with a very dim glow now and then, like a mostly dead flashlight straining mightily to keep going. 

“Still not solid?” Sands asked. “So it’s still just getting traces. What was the distance for a good lock, again? It’s supposed to be obvious when we’re close enough.” 

“According to Sariel,” I replied, “it should lock on if we’re anywhere within about a block of one of them. But the range could be shorter if it’s only a small spore or if they’re shielded somehow. And yeah, it should be obvious. It’s supposed to get brighter the closer we are, and turn red as soon as we get the thing right up within spitting distance or so of the main plant that the bulk of Kwur’s… you know, consciousness or whatever is in beyond the one Gehenna’s got.” Pausing, I added, “The point is, we’ll definitely notice when it goes off.” 

Unfortunately, up to this point, all we’d managed to get was this very slight flickering. Which, according to the others, meant the stone was picking up faint traces of the plant guy. But it was so faint that it could just be from an infected person passing by sometime within the past day or so. Plus, the others had picked up similar faint signs. We were trying to follow ours in a very slow and difficult hot-and-cold game. It was hard when the slight flickering came so slowly and sporadically. The trace here was just… too faint. Hopefully, one of our groups would find something stronger soon. 

Sands started to say something else, when the communication badges we wore abruptly activated. Tristan’s voice came through. He was with Vanessa and their mother at the Vestil Casino where they had been waiting to get information about that painting. “Okay, so we’re talking to these guys and they said the guy in the painting is Julius Harn. Apparently he’s some dude who used to live in the city and contributed a whole bunch of magic, money, and time to the Separation War. You know, the battle to force Heretics out of Vegas and keep them out. He was pretty big in the city up until the eighties, even served on their ruling council for a long time and helped establish a lot of their rules. Then he sorta became a recluse and ended up disappearing entirely about twenty years ago. No one around here’s seen him since then. They checked his house and it was cleaned out. No word, no notice, nothing like that. Guy just started showing up less and less before poof, totally gone.”  

“Not totally gone,” Miranda’s voice pointed out from wherever she currently was with April and Jason in their part of this search. “Since he apparently spent a lot of time in that hospital Vanessa and that Dakota girl were at, pretending to be this Doctor Folgers. Or maybe he really was a doctor and changed his identity. Whatever, that was just a few years ago, right? So he didn’t die or anything. He showed up there and helped Dakota seal off the plant at her house.”

Shiori spoke up then. She, Asenath, Columbus, and Bobbi were in their own group. “Maybe he had to take on another identity because of someone here in Vegas, one of the powerful players.” 

“We’ll ask him if we find him,” Haiden assured us. While the rest of his family was at the casino, Haiden was with Dare, Triss, and Felix. “All we know for sure is that he’s connected to Kwur through Dakota. How he connects to this Azlee Ren guy, who knows. We’re still missing things.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I touched the badge that was hooked against the pocket of my red button-down tee-shirt before speaking. “What if Folgers-errr, I mean Julius Harn wasn’t completely safe when he locked away that plant in Dakota’s house? What if Kwur’s spore was able to worm its way into him and that’s what brought Kwur’s attention to Vegas as a good target? If Harn was such a big player for so long setting this place up, he’d know a lot about the people here, even if he was out for a couple decades. You know, cuz if Kwur’s spore was able to grow and eventually twist this guy to his own ends over the past couple years, that might explain why Vegas was targeted to begin with as soon as they had Azlee’s help to pull it off.”

Sariel agreed, her voice thoughtful as it came through the badge. “I believe you may be right. We need to find Kwur or Harn to verify, but it fits what we know. If Harn was infected at the time, even faintly, Kwur’s spore could have laid in waiting for the right time. You said that the Gehenna people told you they transfer Kwur around a lot. Perhaps this is the first time he’s been here on Earth at a time when the spore had enough control over Harn to push this ploy.”  

“So nothing’s changed, right?” That was Asenath. “We trace the spores until we find Harn, Azlee, or whoever else they lead to. Then we get answers out of them about where Mom and those kids are. And we do it before these guys manage to start this war they want so badly.” 

“Yeah, keep looking,” Sariel confirmed. “We’ll check a little bit more around here in case anyone has unofficially seen Harn since he disappeared. Then we’ll hit the streets if we don’t find anything useful. Keep checking in and let everyone know the moment any of you get a hit.” 

We agreed before signing off. Then I looked back to the twins. “Well, I guess we just keep moving then? What do you say we head over to that apartment building on the corner and take a ride up and down the elevator just for the hell of it? Maybe the traces this thing’s picking up comes from someone on one of those floors.” 

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a long, low sigh. “And if that doesn’t work, the map says there’s a mall right down the street that might be a–” She paused then, glancing over to her sister with a frown. “Sarah? You okay?” 

In answer, Sarah looked back to us and gave a slight shake of her head. Her voice was low. Belatedly, I noticed that she had activated one of the privacy coins and held it low. “Those guys over there aren’t actually drunk,” she informed us softly. “Don’t look at them right now.” 

Thankfully, I’d already managed to stop myself from reflexively glancing that way, instead focusing on the girl herself with a confused frown as I slowly asked, “The homeless guys who were wandering around across the street? What do you mean, they’re not actually drunk?” 

Sands, who had caught herself in mid-turn and used the motion to instead scratch the back of her neck idly, nodded. “Yeah, how do you know? They looked pretty drunk to me.” 

“One at a time,” Sarah informed us. “They… stagger one at a time. One staggers and almost falls over, but the other catches him, balances him. Then they switch. They’re play-drunk.” 

Raising a hand, I pointed to the apartment building I’d mentioned before, pretending to be suggesting we go there. With my other hand, I activated the badge. “Could someone check with our hosts to find out if they have a couple watchdogs pretending to be homeless drunks keeping an eye on us? I don’t want to go anywhere with this if it turns out they’re just secret babysitters.” 

It took a moment, through which Sarah, Sands, and I pretended to debate about which way we should go next. I used the time to get a look at the men in question once more through the corner of my eye. They’d settled in an alley across the street and a little bit up from where we were, and were currently passing a bottle back and forth as they took turns swigging from it. 

Finally, Sariel’s voice came back. “They’re not official watchers. Someone back up the girls.” 

Do you need help? Tabbris’s voice came through my mind through our connection as she used the partial recall without actually coming all the way to me. I could–

No, it’s okay, Tabs, I assured her. You and December stay where you are. What you’re doing is a lot more important than a couple of maybe bad guys. Plus, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. 

Sands was saying much the same to Sariel. “It’s two guys. We can at least check them out. We’ve got this.” 

While Sariel and Haiden both warned us to be careful, and Miranda checked in to say her group would head our way to play back-up, I thought about it. Then I nodded while starting to move to that apartment. “Come on, I’ve got an idea. Act like we’re going this way. Can you cover me?” 

The twins did so, both stepping up to position themselves so that the guys across the street wouldn’t see exactly what I was doing. I used that to summon a small, prepared bit of wood to one hand. With my other hand, I created a quick portal that was blocked from view by Sands’ body, activated the spell on the wood, and quickly tossed it through the portal before letting it close. The other end of the portal was on the far side of the street, near a couple mailboxes.

“You’re gonna have to guide me,” I warned the other two before focusing my attention on the spell I’d just activated. It was my Theriangelos, of course. The fox. Or Marian, as Tabbris called her. Seeing through her eyes in addition to my own, I closed mine, taking the hand that Scout offered so she could guide me while I focused mostly on controlling my little summoned friend.

Right, the fox was crouched by the garbage cans, staring at a wall with random graffiti on it. Quickly, I made her turn around and peek out from behind them. Ahead, I saw the two ‘drunk’ guys watching our group walking away from them. Their act had disappeared as soon as it became clear that we were leaving and (apparently) not paying attention. I saw one of the guys saying something, but couldn’t hear what it was even with Marian’s keen sense of hearing. She was still too far away. But I did notice that the other guy didn’t respond at all. Yet a few seconds later, the first guy nodded and said something else. He wasn’t talking to his partner. He was speaking through some kind of communication device or spell, like we had been. Either to whoever they were working for, or maybe to other partners they had to catch up with us. Whichever it was, neither seemed to be in a hurry to follow. Instead, they turned and walked back into that alley. 

After checking to make sure the coast seemed clear and that no one was watching, I sent Marian after them. The tiny fox went running silently along the sidewalk, sticking near the edge of the nearby building to be as invisible as possible. The fact that it was red brick and the fox was also reddish-brown helped with that. 

Actually, wait a second. Thinking about it, I wondered if I could channel my shifting powers through the Theriangelos. Some Heretic-gained powers seemed to work easily, others took a lot more practice or didn’t work at all. Focusing on the brick I could see next to the fox, I thought about shifting her fur to more fully match. After a moment of that, while still trotting along, I had her glance down. Sure enough, she was more… brick-colored. Huh, that was cool. Chameleon-fox. 

By then, Marian had reached the edge of the alley. There was a dumpster there, and I quickly sent her under it so she could peer out from relative safety. It wasn’t hard to spot our two watchers. They were nearing the far end of the alley, where there was seemingly nowhere else to go. But one of the men simply reached out, pressing his hand into one of the bricks there. It pushed inward, before there was a slow grinding noise as a doorway-section of bricks moved out of the way, admitting the two men. 

“Diagon Alleying!” I blurted through my own mouth. “They’re Diagon Alleying!” While Sands asked what the fuck that meant, I quickly directed Marian to follow. She darted out, running quickly along the ground before slipping into the doorway just before the bricks could slide back into place. Passing through the opening, the little fox emerged into what was actually a dingy, very dimly-lit concrete stairwell. But it was wide, not narrow, with a metal handrail in the middle. Ahead, the stairs led down. It was dark that way, but I could hear the footsteps of the men who had been watching us. Actually, the whole place reminded me of…

“Subway,” I said aloud. “Brick wall with a hidden door leads to some old subway entrance. But… uhhh that sounds wrong. Unless I’m really behind, Vegas doesn’t have a subway service. Hold on, let me see…”

With that, I sent Marian scampering down the stairs. On the way, I matched her fur to the color of the concrete in an attempt to blend in a bit more. The fox’s night vision was pretty good, which helped as things got even darker away from the entrance. Ahead, I could hear the men still descending, talking to each other in low voices. Before long, I was actually able to make out what they were saying. 

“—get so close in the first place?” one voice asked with obvious annoyance. 

“Some kind of detector,” the second, more patient one replied. “A spell or tech from Gehenna. Whatever it is, they’re picking up traces of the Potentate.” 

Potentate. I knew that word, it was like… king or ruler or whatever. A monarch. Were they talking about Kwur? He was (apparently) just one of that evil Dragon-Heretic guy’s minions. But that was probably good enough to be a king to most people. And I had to figure that anyone nasty enough to be one of the most dangerous and evil prisoners in the universe almost had to have the kind of ego that would make his minions call him their king, or some version of that. 

“Will they track him here?” the first voice asked while the sound of the footsteps on stairs quickened a bit. I sent Marian scampering faster, hopping from step to step to catch up. 

“No,” came the response. “Whatever means of detection they have won’t penetrate our hiding spells. The Potentate will be safe.”

A moment later, Marian reached the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, it opened up into what looked… well, like a subway station. Seriously, there was a wide platform, a spot for the train itself straight ahead, and the entrance into the tunnel at either end. It was a subway. It looked like any other subway I’d seen in movies and stuff. Except for one thing… the plants. 

Yeah, plants. They were everywhere. I saw vines covering the walls, flowers and bushes along the floor, a couple small trees growing out of the railway tracks, and more. It was a miniature garden down here. Actually, not-so-miniature. 

“Guys, we’ve got it,” I said aloud. “We’ve got the bad guy.” 

“Flick,” Sarah’s voice cut in, sounding urgent. 

So, I opened my eyes and looked around. We were behind that apartment building from before. And we weren’t alone. A small army of heavily armed figures stood around us. They were a mix of humanoid and very, very not. All of them looked very pissed off. Which seemed at odds with the flower leis they wore, unless you knew what Kwur’s whole deal was. Yeah. These people were clearly all under his thrall, and we were surrounded by them.

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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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… unfortunately accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had something for us.

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Perennial Potentate 4-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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