Vanessa Moon

Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?

Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.

For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”

Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”

For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”

“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”

Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.

“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”

December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”

Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.

So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.

Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”

Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”

“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”

A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.

Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”

“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”

“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”

“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”

Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”

“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”

Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.

So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.

The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.

Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”

As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”

Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”

“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.

Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”

Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.

“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”

Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”

That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”

The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”

“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”

The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.

While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”

Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”

“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”

“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”

“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.

The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.

“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”

Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.

“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”

“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”

“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”

Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.

“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”

Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”

The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.

Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.

“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”

“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”

With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.

It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.

“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”

“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”

“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”

Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”

“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”

“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.

Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?

And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?

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Causality And Casualty 5-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Please note that the Heretical Edge edition of Patreon Snippets will be posted on Friday for Patrons and Saturday for the public. This is to avoid making everyone wait even longer to get back to the plot while not making my wonderful $10+ Patrons wait too long to get their own snippets as well. 

The girl’s name was Dakota Coalbright. Apparently, four years ago, when she was nine years old, her father brought home some kind of plant from Canada. The plant turned everyone in her family, including the girl herself, into murdering psychopaths. Her whole family was killed (by each other), leaving only Dakota. Exactly how many of those deaths she was… well, responsible for was the wrong word, given the situation. Exactly how many of the deaths she had been forced to participate in was not something the girl was talking about, according to Sands. For all we knew, she might not even remember exactly how it went. Actually, I was… kind of hoping she didn’t, honestly. 

How terrible would that have been? By that point in my life, I’d only had my dad. How would I have felt if some plant, or any other effect, made me kill him? It would have destroyed me. I was seriously unsure if I ever would have recovered from something like that. I had no idea what kind of horrific sights, sounds, even smells were locked in this girl’s memory. But it had to be really bad. 

For four years, the girl had been in some mental hospital somewhere, as everyone believed that she had killed her entire family all by herself. I had to believe that had something to do with the Bystander Effect making them believe that a nine year old girl could kill an entire family like that. Not just psychologically, of course. There were plenty of fucked up people out there. But physically. I kind of doubted it was physically possible for her to do some of the things involved in those killings. But the Bystander Effect knew that magic was involved, so it made them think this was possible. Or something. Or maybe they just didn’t want to look too closely into it.

Either way, the point was that the kid (well, now thirteen-year-old) broke out of her prison/hospital when she heard some voice in her head, the same voice that apparently had convinced her and her family to kill each other before. Realizing that it meant the monster was back and loose, she broke out to get home. My best guess was that she wanted to save whoever was in her old house. But it didn’t work. Apparently when she got there, the people didn’t listen to her. They heard the voice and left, rather than kill each other. Probably because the voice in their heads (Kwur, obviously) had actual instructions for them beyond violence. 

But Dakota herself had been left to deal with the ghosts of her dead family members, which led to her hiding in the same basement area the murder plant had previously been left in, when Sands, Sarah, Triss, Felix, and Kohaku found her and heard the whole story. Hearing about ‘Canada’ made them call us. Or try to. Apparently no calls had been able to reach us while we were talking to Prelate at the Gehenna outpost. They’d tried a few times, only getting through once we were out and back to the bus. Finally, Sands was able to get through and we found out the rest of the story. 

It was… kind of convenient, really, that Sands and the others managed to get hold of someone who had been infected by Kwur’s spores or whatever right when we needed someone like that. I wondered, honestly, if that had been some kind of trap or something. But I couldn’t figure out what the point would be. This Kwur guy (if guy was the right word for him) couldn’t know that Kohaku would investigate some random ghost sightings. And even if he did, there didn’t seem to be a point to it. No, I had no idea if this was anything more than coincidence. But if it was, it didn’t seem to be something that Kwur set up. That said, I still wanted to keep my eyes open.

In any case, the girl had very clearly been infected by those Kwur spores, which meant she could help us track down other infested people, or even the main part of Kwur that was out of the prison. As Vanessa and Tabbris had explained, it wouldn’t be an instant locator spell or anything. At most, it would let us know if we were anywhere near someone like that. But it was something. And something was more than we’d had before.

Still, the girl didn’t want to go to Canada. Which, given her history with just one plant from that place, I couldn’t blame her for. And we didn’t want to send her into Vegas, given it was apparently rapidly deteriorating into a warzone. The best place for the kid was up in the star station. So, Vanessa, Tabbris, December, and I were going to go up there. We’d talk to the kid, see if we could find out anything else specific from her (like if she recognized the name Kwur at all), and get the samples we needed for the tracking spell. Meanwhile, the others would go back to Vegas itself, try to calm things down if they could, and look around for any hint of the evil plant. Maybe someone had given a flower gift somewhere in one of the casinos? Yeah, cuz that would be incredibly easy to narrow down. 

Either way, they were trying. We just had to hope that this Dakota girl’s contribution would be enough to find that piece of Kwur before things got a lot worse than they already were. 

Coming through the portal that Haiden had set up, the four of us emerged into one of the transport rooms. As soon as we appeared, I saw Abigail and Dare, standing with one of the other male adults whose name I couldn’t place. He was a thin, fairly short Latino guy who appeared to be in his fifties. I was pretty sure he was one of the former Garden Heretics who was teaching some classes here now. 

The three adults were deep in conversation, but when we appeared, it stopped. The Garden guy leaned in to say something to Abigail more quietly, while Dare stepped forward to meet us. I saw her eyes flick briefly to me before she addressed the group. “Long couple days, huh?” 

Groaning, I bobbed my head up and down. “You could say that. And they’re not over yet.” 

“Butit’sreallyinteresting,” December piped up from where she was standing next to Tabbris and just behind Vanessa and me. “It’salotmorefunthan… justrunningboringsurveillence… allthetime.”

Exchanging a brief look with me, Vanessa asked, “What about the stuff up here? Are they almost finished with the spell yet?” We’d been told before we left the first time that Dries and the others were just about finished adjusting the anti-possession spell so that it would block any of our people from being possessed as long as they returned to the station periodically for a refresh. That was the whole reason Avalon stayed behind instead of going on this trip to begin with, because they needed her to be close for the last bit before the spell would be ready. 

Dare grimaced slightly. “There were a couple of hiccups on that front. Turns out to make the spell work properly, they needed a… let’s call it a rare crystal. And by rare I mean we only knew of a few of them on Earth. The good news is, one of the crystals we knew about is in Brazil.” 

I blinked, starting to ask why that was a good thing. But Tabbris quickly blurted, “That’s where Hasty and the other werewolves went.” When I glanced at her, she blushed before explaining in a somewhat quieter voice, “She told me where they were going cuz we’re supposed to watch the new Fallstrider season on DVD but she made me promise to wait until they got back.” 

Yeah, apparently over the past couple months, Tabbris and the werewolf known as Hasty from Mateo’s pack had bonded a bit over a shared interest that Fallstrider anime. Now, whenever the pack was around, those two would find a quiet place to pop in the show. Which, honestly, was pretty awesome. I’d been interested in seeing what the fuss was about, but I’d look into it on my own. I didn’t want to butt in on what was clearly something Tabbris liked having with someone else. She deserved that.

December, in that moment, looked a little confused. “Waityouhaveafriend…namedHastyand…. it’snotme? Butbeinghasty… iskindamything.” 

Tabbris giggled, head shaking. “Hasty’s her nickname. I think you’d like her. And you can watch the show with us when she’s back. Oh! I’ll have to show you the rest of it first.” 

“Youcanshowme…” December informed her, “Butifit’satvshow… itwon’tdomuchgood.” 

Tilting her head, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Do you not like TV? Is it because you have to sit down?” 

“IcansitdownifIwantto,” December sniffed before shaking her head. “ButIcan’twatchtv… cuzthere’snomagic… inthescreen… soIcan’tseeit.” 

Frowning uncertainly at Tabbris, who was frowning back at me, my mouth opened. But Vanessa beat me to it. “December, are you blind?” 

Defensively, the girl insisted, “Ihearandsmellandtasteandfeelreallygood. AndIseemagic. Iseemagicevenbehindme. Allaroundme. ItbouncesoffthingssoIknowwheretheyare. Ievenknowwhattheylooklike…. cuzthemagicsenseisreallysensitive. Anddifferentcolorsfeeldifferent. Iseemagic… andsoundwaves… andheatandelectricityandstuff. But… I can’t… see… normal not-magic screens… andstufflikethat.” She offered a shrug, clearly still self-conscious. “Icanseewithanimals!” 

“No, no, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “We just…” December was like that Daredevil guy back in Seosten space that I’d fought? What she was describing was the same thing Apollo had talked about back then. He’d said it was a rare mutation that was the result of various experiments the Seosten had done to cure their pregnancy problem. So this kid had both that and SPS? Geez. 

“You can see electricity and soundwaves and magic and stuff?” Tabbris had jumped straight to that, her eyes shining with delight as she started. “What does that stuff look like? What does anything look like? Do you–” Realizing they were holding things up, she shot a quick, apologetic look toward Dare before stepping back as she pulled December with her. The two lowered their voices to talk.

With a shake of her head and a small smile, Dare nodded to Vanessa and me. “In any case, yes, the pack was in Brazil. So Avalon, Rebecca, and Aylen went with Deveron and Lillian to see what they could do about getting that crystal they need. They just left right after classes this morning.” 

Grimacing at the revelation that I’d missed Avalon, I exhaled. “Makes sense, they’ve gotta get that spell up.” Pausing, I looked toward December briefly before adding, “I wish we had time to help them…”  

Giving me a look that said she knew exactly how I was feeling, Dare gently replied, “I think they’ve got it handled for now. You’ve got your own situation to deal with, it sounds like.” 

“Situation to deal with… yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Seriously, monster alien plant thing, gonna try to break out the evil version of Arthur if we don’t put a lid on his bullshit. And part of said bullshit is starting a war in Las Vegas. So, ya know.” 

“We really need to talk to this Dakota,” Vanessa finished for me, voice slightly calmer than mine. 

Abigail spoke up then. “Yes, you will. She’s in one of the guest rooms with Sands and Sarah. They’re taking care of her. But…” She paused, clearly considering her words. “Be… careful, girls. I’ve barely spoken to her, but she’s obviously fragile right now. I know this is important, but don’t push her too hard. Making her think about what happened back then, it’s… it’s not a good idea.” It sounded like she was having a hard time even letting us go talk to this girl about the source of her trauma. Which was completely understandable, especially for someone like Abigail. Still, we didn’t have a choice. Not with Kwur (or at least a piece of him) out there ready to put a lot more trauma on a lot more people. She was our best, maybe only, chance to find him before things got so much worse for everyone. 

“It’s okay, Abigail,” I assured her, meeting my older sister’s distraught and conflicted gaze. “We won’t push her any more than we absolutely have to. We just need to get the samples from her and ask if there’s anything she knows that might help find this plant thing.” Offering her a small, hopefully somewhat reassuring smile, I added, “We’ll deal with this and then get right back to doing the school thing.” 

Returning my smile somewhat, she retorted, “You better. Don’t think you can blow off as many classes as you want just because we’re related. I’ll throw your butt in extra detention just to make an example out of you.” 

Making a show of shuddering at the idea of what extra detention would be like, I replied, “Well, we better get to it then. Guys?” I glanced over to Tabbris and December. “Ready to go?” 

They were. Dare escorted us out of the room, leaving Abigail and the other guy, who belatedly and briefly greeted us before returning to his conversation with my older sister. It sounded like they were talking about some kind of situation with the rebel Garden people who weren’t up here. I hoped they were okay. We kind of needed all the allies we could get. 

“What’s Mr. Echolls talking to Principal Fellows about?” Vanessa asked Dare curiously as we moved down the station corridor at a pace slightly faster than normal walking, but not quite jogging. “It sounded important,” she noted, glancing back that way with a thoughtful frown.

Without looking that way or breaking stride at all, Dare replied, “The Garden people have been having a bit of a problem with a group of Blemmye and their Manticore pets hitting a couple of their supply lines while they were in the middle of a fight with their own loyalists. They couldn’t spare the resources to deal with it without being hit hard on that other front. Nevada and Hisao took a few older students with Gordon, Douglas, Jazz, and Koren to help clean out that little problem. Abigail asked to be kept up to date with that, given… her daughter.”   

Right, the Blemmyes. Those were the humanoids with no heads but faces on their torsos that I’d seen (and fought against) when we were at Eden’s Garden looking for Roxa all those months earlier. Almost a year, come to think of it, considering it happened right at Thanksgiving. Damn. 

I also knew that the only reason Dare wasn’t out there with Hisao and Koren herself was likely because she wanted to know what happened with me being in Canada. Hell, the fact that Hisao was there was probably the only reason she wasn’t there with Koren. I wondered if she was having him keep her just as informed about what was going on as Abigail with that Garden teacher. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had a spell ready to jump straight there if need be. 

Rather than address that, of course, I just shook my head. “Lots of things going on right now. It feels weird to know that… you know, Koren and Jazz and the others are out fighting one thing, Valley, Rebecca, and Aylen are dealing with something else, and Sands and Scout went out earlier and ended up bringing back this Dakota girl.”

“You mean it feels weird that they’re out doing all that and you’re not there?” Dare asked with a raised eyebrow before pointing out, “It’s not as though you’re sitting on your laurels, Felicity.” 

Flushing a bit, I nodded. “I know, I get it. They probably feel the same way about me being in Vegas, then Canada and all that. I guess you get used to feeling helpless like that and just having to wait to see how it goes.” 

“If you do grow accustomed to it,” my secret grandmother informed me in a soft voice, “it hasn’t quite happened for me yet. But you do learn to tolerate it. Just be there when you can.” She gave me a brief, yet meaningful look, offering a small smile of reassurance. “That’s what matters.”

Before long, the five of us reached the area with the guest rooms. Or at least these ones. I was fairly confident that there were a lot more, considering the size of this place. Felix and Triss were outside in the corridor, apparently having a conversation about some band they both liked. When the two saw us coming, Felix’s eyes lit up and the Nekomata Hybrid grinned. “Well hey, looks like neither of you bet enough to lose your shirts in Vegas.” At a sideways kick to the leg from her half-sister, she coughed. “And that’s a good thing. Very good thing. Don’t gamble. Or something.” 

“Felix,” Dare spoke warningly, raising her voice just a little bit so that it shifted from more casual conversation to the tone of an authority figure. That was all she said, that one word. But it was enough. 

“I know, I know,” the girl conceded. “That one was a bit over the line. I heard it as soon as I said it. I might be pushing it a bit hard to avoid thinking about… other things.” The white cat ears on top of her head flattened a little as she looked to the nearby door. 

Exchanging a brief look with Vanessa to make sure we were on the same page, I spoke up. “It’s okay. What’s going on with the girl?” 

Triss replied, again with that faint Russian accent I’d noticed the first time we met, “Sarah and Sands are in there with her. They’re playing one of those Zelda games. Apparently they had it in the hospital the kid was in and she knows it backwards and forwards, inside and out. She keeps telling the twins all about the lore of the whole series. Something about multiple timelines.” 

“Sounds like something Shiori’d be able to help her with,” I noted. “Is… do you think she’s okay to talk right now?” 

Both of the sisters looked to each other before Felix nodded. “Kid’s pretty tough, considering what she went through.” 

So, we went inside. I saw Sands and Scout sitting on either side of a couch. Sure enough, they were watching the Zelda game on a large screen, while the girl in question sat between them. She was pretty tiny, looking practically malnourished, with very pale skin and dark hair that apparently refused to be tamed. When the door opened, the girl turned quickly, reacting almost like she had been shot as she stared at us. 

Then she had an… odd reaction. I saw her face light up with recognition, and she blurted, “Vanessa!” In one move, the kid flung herself over the back of the couch, landing on the floor before bolting that way to embrace the girl beside me. “Vanessa! You’re here, I didn’t know you were here!” 

“Whoa, hey,” I teased while stepping back. “Didn’t know you had history with the new girl. How come you didn’t say anything? Dakota Coalbright’s a pretty unique name.” 

Vanessa hadn’t pulled back from the embrace. She stood there, returning it while looking at me of total and complete confusion. She mouthed a silent, ‘I don’t remember her.’ 

Wait… no. That was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was perfect. She’d never forgotten anything in her life. 

So how could this Dakota girl know her so well that she instantly went for a hug, while Vanessa didn’t remember her at all? 

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Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had something for us.

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