Twister

Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

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.”

Previous Chapter

Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had something for us.

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Perennial Potentate 4-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Section Four?” Shiori asked curiously. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are her. You are the descendant of Lyell. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All-Out 3-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, deities?” I cut in. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oberon, the Faerie King.”

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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