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Legacy of the Demon Mage

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"If this is Alcatraz I could probably just-"

"Just what?" Claire demanded, from where she was unsuccessfully trying to pick the lock of their cell with a barrette. "Cause the whole place to cave in on us?"

"Hey, I'm better than that," Toby retorted.

"Yeah, well, I don't trust Merlin not to have booby-trapped the whole place to explode if someone tries to use inborn gravity powers or teleport to the Shadow Realm," Claire said, rattling the door and kicking it when it didn't open. "Fuck it; I'm out of ideas." She looked to the still form of future-alternate-universe Claire, scowling. "Do you have any thoughts?"

Future-alternate-universe Claire huffed once, before the noise turned into a rough cough. "I didn't build the place," she said. "But I've been to Alcatraz once or twice - obviously they wouldn't be exactly the same between our worlds, but it feels...different than what I remember." Toby gave future-alternate-universe Claire a careful look; given the amount of blood she'd lost when Merlin drained the alternate-universe Light of Creation out of her body, the fact she was still (barely) alive was a surprise. What was also a surprise was he wasn't certain how to feel about her. Sure, she'd joined up with Merlin, and had banished Toby to an alternate universe.

But she'd done so to avoid having to kill him, and to keep Merlin's other allies from killing him themselves - at the cost of putting him out of the reach of any of his friends. But she could have dropped Toby somewhere a lot worse than a world where everyone was glad to see him. And there were worse motivations than wanting to keep Merlin from messing up more than his own universe (although if Merlin were threatening to escape their universe, Toby was certain they could find a way to stop him without killing everyone else).

"Are you saying this isn't actually Alcatraz?" Claire asked.

"What I'm saying," future-alternate-universe Claire said with a brief fit of coughing, "is that if it is, Merlin adapted it for his own use, first."

"Excellent deduction." A man stepped out of the shadowy corners of the cell, pale, angular, and smirking, as he sidestepped Claire's barrette when she reflexively threw it at him. "Good aim," he said, "although lacking the centuries of combat training I have, you had exactly zero chance of hitting me."

At which point Toby, who had actual combat training, and had been itching to punch someone on Team Merlin for ages, slammed into the pale man's side.

Or tried to, as his form melted to smoke, reforming on the far end of the cell when Toby scrambled up from where his momentum had dropped him. The man smirked.

"I'm not certain you get what 'centuries of combat experience' really means," he drawled.

"Means you're a smug asshole who thinks he can't be beat," future-alternate-universe Claire growled. "Hello, Pitch."

"Clara," Pitch allowed. His smirk faded to something - well, not quite sad, but he wasn't rubbing her current condition in her face. "I see Myrddin Wyllt grew tired of you."

Future-alternate-universe Claire snorted, coughed. "And how long before he's tired of you?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm certain he already tires of me," Pitch replied. "The effort of killing me, however, is still outweighed by the benefits of keeping me alive." His smile twitched. "Though I can't say I'm not impressed - convincing Rowan they killed the boy so Merlin wouldn't doubt your loyalty to him? A brilliant tactic. Ultimately pointless, but brilliant."

"What are you doing here, Pitch?" Future-alternate-universe Claire asked.

"Isn't it clear? I'm the warden." Pitch grinned at them all. "Merlin isn't dumb enough to think he can just leave you unsupervised in a cell, even if it's a dead ringer for his old cell." He shrugged. "So I thought I'd pop in and say hello, see if you need anything. You know, other than a way out." His body began darkening, dissolving back into mist. "I'll check in now and again, see if you've succumbed to despair, that sort of thing."

And then he was gone. Claire punched the door, yelping when the blow bruised her hand. "Does Merlin just attract smug fuckboys?" she demanded.

"I think you'll find, if you think about it for a moment, the answer," future-alternate-universe Claire said, pushing herself carefully off the floor. "But you'll also find he made a critical error."

"Um, are you sure you should be walking?" Toby asked. He wasn't worried for future-alternate-universe Claire, although he wasn't eager to see her die right in front of him, which seemed like a real risk if she moved too fast, even if she didn't seem to be actively bleeding.

"No, but we aren't going anywhere fast if we don't move," future-alternate-universe Claire retorted.

"Oh, wow," Claire said. "I had not thought that we should try escaping from this evil wizard prison. Thank you for your amazing wisdom!"

"Your sarcasm is noted and not appreciated," future-alternate-universe Claire grumbled. Using the wall as a brace, she edged to the door of the cell and paused. "You might want to stand back," she warned.

"Wait - why?" Toby asked, though he flailed to grab Claire's hand as he edged away. "I distinctly remember real Claire saying this place might collapse if we started using magic."

"Well, that was when we knew nothing about this place," future-alternate-universe Claire replied. "And we thought Merlin could have just pumped this whole place full of booby traps. But Pitch told us this is basically a copy of the prison they stuck Merlin in, and if there's one thing I know about Merlin is that he's lazy. He wouldn't add booby traps to a place that was so inescapable he had to talk his way out of it."

"Since when was Merlin in prison?" Toby asked.

Future-alternate-universe Claire shook her head. "I said Pitch made a critical error, but technically, he made two. The first is letting slip what we can expect out of this prison. The second is putting you in here with someone whose knowledge of Myrddin Wyllt is second to the demon himself." She slammed a palm into the heavy metal door, which immediately began to rust and crumble. Once it had fallen to pieces, opening into a dim hallway that stretched out in either direction, she looked back at them, giving them a fierce smile that, if Toby had seen on Dr. Capulet's face before, would have told him instantly that she was actually Claire Nuñez.

"So. Who's up for a jailbreak?" future-alternate-universe Claire asked.

Future-alternate-universe Claire wasn't much up for anything, after that display; she had, after all, had a lot of her blood drawn, and probably a lot of the magic she'd been using to sustain herself over however long she'd been doing this. But she spent their trek through the magically-altered Alcatraz sharing her fractured knowledge of Merlin. Not all of it was relevant to them (not every iteration of Merlin was a monstrous Blood Mage with a millennia-long history of destroying civilizations), but there were common themes, common aspects to his personality (he was selfish, and lazy, preferring shortcuts or making other people do his work for him), and locations, artifacts, and people that were always connected to him (he and Morgana were always enemies, bound magically to each other in enough universes that she might not be fully dead, even if Merlin had slit her throat in this one).

They already knew one of his weaknesses - that like any Blood Mage, he possessed a grail, a repository of the power he'd gathered over his lifetime. But there was another - a mystical metal that was a death sentence to creatures who used Blood Magic to sustain their existence. There were no natural sources of it on Earth, but legendary weapons had a tendency to be made from orichalcum. Mjolnir, Toby's hammer, was almost certainly made of it. There was a katana, the Kongouken, that might, as well.

And then there was Excalibur.

In every universe where future-alternate-universe Claire found Merlin, Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, had commissioned an orichalcum blade for the purpose of destroying him. It could destroy grails and phylacteries, turn vampires to dust, and was all but impervious to magic. She gifted the sword to her champions - the House of Pendragon, in the age of Camelot, and sometimes others in the modern age - to wield against the wizard.

Which - it wouldn't surprise Toby if the Lady of the Lake had chosen Dr. Lake to kill Merlin, but it felt like something was missing from the story. Something future-alternate-universe Claire didn't know - or wasn't telling them.

But he didn't have time to think too much on that, because Alcatraz wasn't just an endless maze of dark corridors. After an hour or so of wandering (and the real Alcatraz wasn't nearly that large) Future-alternate-universe Claire yanked at Toby's shoulder, and hissed, "hide!"

Toby didn't do anything dumb like ask, 'why', or debate about whether future-alternate-universe Claire knew what she was doing. Instead, he grabbed Claire's arm and pulled her into a cell whose bars had rusted away, tucking future-alternate-universe Claire behind them. They waited, quiet, for a few moments, long enough Toby was about to actually ask future-alternate-universe Claire if she'd just been hearing things, when-

Something like a reptilian spider or scorpion lumbered past their hiding place, hissing with every twitch of their legs. It didn't pause, slithering past them in just a few moments, but Toby held still, silent, for a full minute after that.

"What was that?" Claire whispered.

"Nothing good," future-alternate-universe Claire replied. "The people of the Golden Age put Merlin in prison because they couldn't figure out how to kill him, but he wasn't the only thing they put there. The Dream Pirates, the Fearlings, and things that were much worse." She waited a beat. "Than the Fearlings, not Merlin."

"So, that was...not a Dream Pirate?" Toby asked.

"Almost certainly not. But it might be best if we consider this more 'Metal Gear Solid' than 'Call of Duty'."

"What?" Claire demanded.

"Stealth," future-alternate-universe Claire sighed.

"Well, lucky you've got a master Shadow sorceress on your side," Claire said, twisting her right hand in a quick circle.

"Wait-" future-alternate-universe Claire started, but it was too late, as the air around them dimmed, shadows concealing them from casual attention. There was a snort and a growl from further down the corridor, and then the floor shuddered to the rhythm of a heavy gait.

And then the spider-lizard-scorpion, jaws slavering with black, glistening drool, slammed into the wall nearest the cell, stone and rusted metal falling away from the blow. It twisted toward Claire, mouth snapping toward her as its segmented tail flailed behind it.

"Some creatures like this can smell magic!" future-alternate-universe Claire shouted.

"Well, when you said you had no clue what it was," Claire snapped, "I assumed that meant you had no clue what it could do!"

Well, given the cat was out of the bag, Toby couldn't make things much worse by using his own power. So he thrust a palm out, generating enough force to throw something the size of the dragon-spider against the far wall of the corridor.

Correction, Toby amended when the spider-lizard sid back a few inches and turned to spray a mist of stinging black saliva at him, enough force to move something the size and expected density of the dragon-spider. He raised both hands, only to nearly lose one as the spider-dragon snaked their head forward to snap at Toby's arms. Claire, thankfully, appeared to have practiced some form of telekinesis, as she pulled Toby out of the way of the monster's bite. She had not, however, appeared to have practiced fine control, as he collided with her and future-alternate-universe Claire, sending them into a bruised pile. Toby was on his feet in an instant, dragging the Claires with him, skittering back away from the spider-dragon.

It spat at them, catching Toby's arm, which began to burn almost immediately. Future-alternate-universe Claire swore (or so Toby thought; her words, not English or Spanish, had the vehemence of a curse) and shoved forward past Toby. She flicked her hands around her (the gestures of Shadow Magic, Toby had come to understand, were a form of focus, rather than the precise forms needed to make Light Magic work), hissed at the dragon, sliced her hand vertically in front of her, and the spider-dragon collapsed, black blood spilling from its chest, back, and throat (like someone had tried to cut it in half).

Future-alternate-universe Claire dropped, hands braced on her knees, as she coughed, a rough, wet sound that splattered blood on the floor beneath her. Toby took a step toward her, only for her to wave him off.

"I'm - well, not fine," she said. "But there's nothing you can do, unless you've got a spare infinite well of energy I can use to replace the one Merlin ripped out of my arteries. Which, spoiler alert, would not be a good idea." She struggled back up to her feet and gave Toby a tight smile. "But you might want to think about how to deal with more of these things without my help, because I'm pretty sure I can't pull that off again."

They managed to kill three more of the spider-dragons, and evade a dozen more, as they wandered the prison, taking every opportunity to go up to another floor. And then Toby walked into a mass of air cold enough to frost his breath, and froze.

"Um, guys?" Toby looked back to the Claires, regular Claire hovering close enough to future-alternate-universe Claire to catch her if she started hacking up blood again. "Is this something we should be hiding from?"

"Hm, no," future-alternate-universe Claire replied. "You don't hide from Fearlings. You pray to God you have an orichalcum blade, or you run."

"So...do you think I could do the 'Thor' thing and summon Mjolnir?" Toby asked, eyeing the dark corners of the corridor. "Or are we running? And if we're running - got any idea which way?"

"Just. Run," future-alternate-universe Claire said.

So they did.

For the first minute or so, Toby felt ridiculous, jogging ahead of Claire, who was keeping future-alternate-universe Claire moving, running through empty halls, but then the awareness of...something began creeping up on him. He shivered as a chill spiked through his veins, stumbled as the halls darkened, falling through dense mist.

His whole body jerked with the shock, heart racing as he tried to find his footing in the vague darkness ahead of him. He couldn't find his balance, every step feeling like he was teetering on the edge of some abyss (when Shadow Weaver had pulled him into the Shadow Realm, the freefall had left him with sickening vertigo for an hour after she'd finally dropped him on solid ground). He tried to brace himself, but his hands grasped at empty air.

"Claire?" His voice echoed in the darkness, and no response came. "Future-alternate-universe Claire?" His voice wavered, and his steps slowed. The air grew colder, and he thought he could see movement within the shadows. What had future-alternate-universe Claire called them? Fearlings?

Icy fingers jammed into Toby's chest, not painful except that his mind screamed at him for how wrong it was. He flailed out, hands swinging through mist, nothing to grab onto, as he spun, trying to find some sight of his attackers.

"Claire!" he screamed again.

A pinpoint of light flared to life in front of him, which shifted from spark to blazing light in an instant, before exploding into a blinding wall of radiance, forcing Toby to cover his eyes. And when the light faded and Toby pulled his hand away, the corridor was brightly (but not painfully) lit by a steady, sourceless light emanating from Claire's hand.

The light went out and she sank to her knees, coughing and retching.

"I did warn you," future-alternate-universe Claire said from her position against the wall. "You can kill them with sorcery, but it's hell on your constitution; it's why people mostly use orichalcum weapons."

"I'll remember that the next time my friend's being double-teamed by Dementors," Claire coughed out. "Fuck. Okay. Let's get moving."

Thankfully, they didn't run into any more Fearlings as they climbed the prison (and if Toby were counting right, either they'd been way underground, or the building was much higher than pictures he'd seen of Alcatraz). But Toby could sense the tension as they traveled, the unspoken feeling that they were approaching something big. And he was sure they all had the same thought.

Pitch Black, king of nightmares, lord of the Fearlings.

And indeed, they eventually found a door, another dozen floors up, and when they stepped out, it was to blinding sunlight, a courtyard a thousand feet wide floored in obsidian, and the pale, sharp-faced man in dark clothes enshrouded in shadows (more Fearlings? or a manifestation of his own magic?).

"Huh," Pitch said as they stumbled out of the prison, "I would have thought the Nameless Horrors would get you. Or the Fearlings - but you seem the types to power through or find deep wells of courage to fight them. Bravo, I'm quite impressed."

Toby grit his teeth and clenched one hand at his side. (Could he?) "I don't care if you're impressed. You're going to let us go, or we're going to kill you."

"Are you?" Pitch asked. The shadows began billowing away from him, filling the edges of the courtyard before rolling in toward them. "And how do you intend to do that?"

Future-alternate-universe Claire began glowing, at first barely, and then as bright as Claire when she'd banished the Fearlings, and then ten times, a thousand times as bright. Even looking away with his eyes closed, Toby still saw the brightness against the inside of his eyelids. It was strange - it wasn't warm, but cold, terribly cold, a fierce light. Through it, Toby kept his focus, hoping (this wasn't quite a comic book, but things kept being strange, and sometimes oddly close to how the legends said). And then the light was gone, future-alternate-universe Claire coughing violently. Toby opened his eyes and looked up, and they were standing in a wide circle clear of shadow, nearly two hundred feet across. But the Fearlings, or Pitch's power, boiled at the edge of it.

"Not enough," Pitch said, shaking his head. "Not nearly enough."

There was a distant rumble. Pitch didn't look away from them, his expression almost sad (he still owed Eli for saving him from imprisonment by Morgana, Toby thought - could they do something with that?). But Claire looked up, and gasped, and so Toby risked looking away from Pitch.

Stormclouds roiled above them, gathering high above Merlin's Alcatraz, lightning dancing across them.

"Oh." Toby grinned and looked down at Pitch. "Awesomesauce."

"What are you happy about, boy?" Pitch asked. "Shadow Weaver might have been able to take me at the height of her power, but now-"

Toby raised one hand over his head. "Yeah, but she was the only one Merlin thought could take me." A sound like thunder slammed into them from above, and a moment later, something slapped into Toby's open hand. "Well. Me and Mjolnir."

He hurled it to the side, where it slammed into the shadows at the edge of the circle, proving them to be Fearlings, or some other construct of Blood Magic, as it vaporized them as it touched them. The shadows boiled away, retreating, but Toby was running at Pitch, hand out to call the hammer back even as he ran. Pitch turned, perhaps to run, but Claire was suddenly behind him, hands yanking upward. The obsidian flowed like water or quicksand, and Pitch sank a few inches before sticking, trapped in place.

Toby raised Mjolnir high and slammed it through Pitch's center of mass.

He broke into wisps of shadow.

"God. To think that could have been me." Toby spun around to find Pitch (or another clone) standing high on the wall surrounding the courtyard. Toby crouched, ready to jump. "Oh, please, don't strain yourself," Pitch said. "I'm not going to fight you."

"What? Why?" Claire demanded.

"Because you'd probably kill me?" Pitch replied. "Try to keep up." He shrugged. "I honestly don't know what Merlin expected; I didn't do a good job watching this place when he was imprisoned here. Well." He paused, glancing down at them. "I couldn't say where your friends are, except not Arcadia - the place is crawling with - I suppose you'd call them Secret Service. Popular people, your friends. Best of luck."

He was gone, then, in a flurry of shadows, leaving Toby, Claire, and future-alternate-universe Claire standing-

Well, Toby and Claire standing. Future-alternate-universe Claire was seated, slumped forward, a few yards away. Toby hurried forward, remembering how Claire - regular, present, this-universe Claire - had nearly collapsed after defeating the Fearlings earlier. "Dr. Ca - Clara - are you okay?"

"Of course not," future-alternate-universe Claire replied. "Merlin drained half my blood to steal the magic stored in it, and then I helped a couple of teenagers escape from a magic prison. I was running on fumes before, and when you're in that sort of state, using magic can shorten your lifespan." There was something odd about her voice, deep but muffled.

"Oh," Claire whispered.

"What?" Toby demanded.

"Shadow Magic relies on your own energy," Claire replied. "If you're low already…"

"Heh," future-alternate-universe Claire huffed. "Got it in one, kid. You try to destroy a horde of Fearlings with half your blood gone, well. There's only one outcome."

"Oh," Toby added. He looked back at future-alternate-universe Claire, whose stillness made a great deal of sense. "So you're, uh."

"Yes, I'm, uh," future-alternate-universe Claire replied. "To be honest, it's sort of a relief. I've been doing this so long...a break sounds nice."

Toby stepped closer to future-alternate-universe Claire. "It's - dying, not a vacation."

Future-alternate-universe Claire laughed. "Fuck, a big emotional moment and the only thing I can think to say is from fucking Harry Potter. And fuck if my last words are going to something J.K. Rowling wrote. So, fuck it, I guess. Keep him safe, Claire." Her voice sounded again, the words inaudible, and then her voice fell silent.

And that was it, it seemed. They stood around, awkward, a few minutes; Toby tried to speak up a few times, but couldn't find words that didn't seem dismissive, or too dark. It was Claire, eventually, who spoke.

"I feel like I should say something," she said. "Like-"

"Future-alternate-universe Claire was technically working for Merlin, but she sort of saved us from another one of Merlin's lackeys?"

"Like - I think she cared about you," Claire retorted, crossing her arms. "Or future-alternate-universe Toby, or whatever." She shrugged, looking away from Toby. "Probably felt bad for - whatever."

"And - do you care about me?"

"Is this really the time?" Claire retorted. "We're in a prison crawling with nightmares and Nameless Horrors, and if Pitch is right, we can't go back to Arcadia."

"Well," Toby replied, "One of those problems sounds like something I'm well-equipped to handle. And can't you like, use the power of friendship to navigate your teleporting?"

"Well, sure, but-"

"And if Jim's on the run from - wait, did future-alternate-universe Claire say the Secret Service?" Claire shrugged, and Toby decided it wasn't the time to worry about that. "Anyway, I bet Rico's with him, and however you feel about me, Rico I know you care about."

Claire flushed, scowling. "I didn't say anything about not caring about you," she grumbled. "But yeah, give me a second."

"I'll need a minute to bring this place down, anyway," Toby replied, and centered himself. He set Mjolnir next to him and cracked his knuckles. And then he reached down - down, down (and he could sense it, space twisted up like a prison-shaped TARDIS), to the foundation, and pushed. The ground shuddered, just a little, as the weight of the building settled unevenly on the foundation. Toby couldn't feel the moment when the foundation cracked, but he knew the moment the damage had progressed far enough the building couldn't stand on its own any longer. "So," he said, cautiously, "do we have a ticket out of here? Because we've got like, five minutes before this place collapses under us-"

"Well, either I do or I don't, but I've got a good feeling about it," Claire replied. She stepped next to Toby and grabbed his hand. "So, next stop: tearful reunions."

The cold of the Shadow Realm was there and gone in an instant, and then Toby landed on a floor that immediately bruised his back in a dozen places. Claire let out a pained 'oof' a foot over as she landed.

"Not exactly a precision jump there, Nuñez," Toby muttered.

"Yeah, well, you teleport using the power of friendship as a guidance system and see how off-target you are." Claire struggled up before reaching a hand down to Toby. "Where are we?"

"Huh. I…" Toby turned in a slow circle. They stood alone at the edge of a dark pool, an underground lake that stretched for - well, it could be miles, or only a few hundred feet. Except after a few moments, he thought he could see light glimmering in the depths - a dying gleam that made the cave seem colder than it was. "I don't know."

"So you're going to want to watch your step - I nearly broke my neck over here - though I guess you have less of a problem with that, seeing in the dark and everything." The voice chattering from above sounded vaguely familiar, but the one after that was moreso.

"Yeah, trolls really are the complete package. Now, you said you actually found a Heartstone down here?" It was clearly Rico's voice, drawing closer as he spoke.

"I think so - I wasn't here a long time, but-"

"It's hard to mistake anything else for a Heartstone - even a dead one," a voice that sounded like Aster said. "Besides, I remembered they built a Trollmarket somewhere around here."

And then Rico bounded into view, scrambling down a hill of loose stones. A light trailing behind him revealed Jamie, Aster's friend, and then a tall, humanoid rabbit-

Toby wasn't sure if Claire had been watching him, or if she knew him that well, or if she'd spontaneously developed some sort of foresight, because she grabbed his hand before he could throw Mjolnir. "It's Aster," she hissed. "Long story."

And Aster's ears twitched, and he turned. He flashed his teeth at Toby and Claire. "Rico, I don't suppose you could tell at a glance if someone's your sister or some sort of dread doppelganger, could you?"

"Claire?" And Toby froze, because he knew that voice - less so with a trollish rumble than hearing it in human tones, but he'd know Jim's voice anyway.

"Jimbo!"

The stones above shifted, a whole shelf sliding in a little avalanche as Jim, in troll shape, scrambled over the side, stopped from launching himself at Toby by Aster's hand on his shoulder.

"In case you didn't understand the thrust of my request," Aster said, "I was attempting to determine if this is the real Claire Nuñez or some sort of trap. Rico?"

Rico, in troll form, had scambled closer in the commotion, and was grinning at Claire, just out of reach. "Can't be anyone else, Big A," he called. "I could recognize the smell of her hair product anywhere."

Claire rolled her eyes, but having been told it wasn't a trap, Jim was clambering down after them, not quite rolling, but Toby guessed the moment had left him distracted. He slowed, then, as he reached the bottom of the slope, and stared at Toby for just a moment before looking back to Claire.

"Claire...what is this?"

"It's Toby, duh."

"It-" Jim shook his head. "It isn't. Death told us - the Black Fire consumes your body and soul, and there's no coming back - you didn't steal some other universe's Toby, did you?"

"Yeah, I have it on good authority that doesn't help anybody," Claire replied. "No. I figured out - Shadow Weaver didn't have the nerve. She was supposed to kill Toby, but she was me; she couldn't do it. So instead, she made it look like she'd killed him and threw him through the Shadow Realm to another universe. It took like a dozen tries before I found where she'd stashed him, but. This is your Toby." She smiled, but the expression looked a little uncertain, wavering at the edge. "Happy birthday?"

"No," Jim whispered. "No no no no no, you can't - this can't be real."

Toby felt his chest hitch at Jim's distress; he hadn't imagined that Jim wouldn't be happy to see him. "Jimbo? Kinda freaking out here a little."

Toby wouldn't be able to say if the sound that escaped Jim's throat was a laugh or a sob, but then he was enveloped in a nearly crushing hug, and Jim was definitely crying over him. And as Toby hugged back, leaning his head against Jim's chest, he felt his chest ease up, and weeks of stress just - pass.

Of course they still had to kill a wizard, and some of them might still die (again). But Toby was back where he belonged, and he'd fucking rip the head off of anyone who tried to say otherwise.


Clyde froze when he stepped into the Vice President's office; sitting at Vice President White's desk was-

The horrifying shape melted back into that of Ruth White, a woman who up until five seconds ago Clyde had assumed to be, like him, an unassuming white person who'd been won over to Merlin's side by promises of a world where they were finally given the respect they deserved.

"Um," Clyde said.

Ruth laughed, a cheery sound that sent shivers down Clyde's spine. "Oh, the look on your face! How are you, Secretary Palchuk?"

"Who - what-"

Ruth rolled her eyes (brown, Clyde had thought, but there was a tint of red now that he knew to look). "You're going to be impossible until you get an explanation, aren't you?" She stretched, form flowing until she stood next to her desk, body now in the shape of Neasa Kubritz. "I'm a Polymorph, silly!" she explained as she sauntered toward Clyde, expression still in a cheerful expression Clyde had never seen on Neasa's face.

"We were spitballing this whole 'leapfrog the presidential succession via assassination' thing and I pointed out any good dictatorship needs a scapegoat - a boogeyman you can blame problems on, use as justification for brutal crackdowns, et cetera. So we slapped some glamours on a Nyalagroth, stuck me in a Colonel Kubritz suit, shot up Congress, and voila! A troll holds the second-highest political office in the United States, and no one will listen to Neasa Kubritz's ravings about what we really are." Her smile went sharp, exposing fangs she didn't need to have, thanks to her shapeshifting abilities. "I'd like to think Morgana would be happy for us." She patted Clyde's shoulder, taking the shape of Ruth White, and guided him toward her desk. "So, what's up?"

"Uh." Clyde, trying to settle himself, shifted at the edge of the desk. "It's Arcadia. Oaks."

"Oh, don't worry about Arcadia!" Ruth replied with a chuckle. "We're keeping a very close eye on Arcadia - especially if any of those little troublemakers show up." She paused, looking up at Clyde. "Although - one of them's your son, isn't he? Should we be worried about that?"

Clyde huffed. "Not at all. The kid's seventeen - old enough to face the consequences of his choices."

"Haha, back it up, edgelord," Ruth said. "Just curious - we don't need any more people on the team who make last-minute grabs for redemption."

"But, uh - just for my information. Who is keeping an eye on Arcadia?"

"Who else?" Ruth laughed. "The Immortal Legion."