Chapter 1: The Rescuers
"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.
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."
Chapter 2: Beauty and the Beast
The souls of those who commit suicide become edelwood trees, deadened to any pain.
Kubo drags Darci off to fight The Beast, and his creator, the Moon King, but without the Sword Unbreakable, or the Lunar Shamisen, there is no hope of victory.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Things weren't great.
Obviously, the fact that the President of the United States was a half-demon Blood Mage who'd made a career of destroying entire civilizations to slake his insatiable thirst for being an asshole was sort of sucky. So too was the fact that Darci and most of her friends had been forced to flee Arcadia Oaks to avoid Merlin's lackeys, which now counted among their numbers the Secret Service, FBI, and U.S. Armed Forces (the crime - conspiracy to kill the president - was at this point pretty much a fair assessment of their current goal). The sole bright point was that most of Darci's friends were here (including her girl Claire, who'd crossed the infinite void to rescue Tobias Domzalski from the fate of everyone he cared about thinking he was dead), but that was offset by the fact that 'here' was a previously-abandoned troll city that was uncomfortably damp even after they'd drained the lake.
Darci had no idea how she was going to explain this in college applications.
But at this particular moment, the upsetting thing most occupying Darci's mind was the alien wizard currently shaped like a fox who was perched on the foot of her bed.
"I get you're like, crepuscular or whatever, but it's a-" Well, it wasn't a school night. Mr. Strickler and Blinky had teamed up to keep the teenagers up on their schoolwork, but their hours were a little more flexible, given that one of their students was a creature of the night. Still, a girl needed her sleep.
Kubo shook his head, a jerk of movement. "We don't have time to argue," he said. "I need your help."
"Ugh," Darci groaned, "the last time you needed my help it was to punch your stupid ghost aunt in her face."
"Well, you won't have to do that again," Kubo replied. "And from what I heard, you left quite an impression on my grandfather."
"The Moon King," Darci confirmed, scowling at the memory of the old man, capable of seeing despite his blindness, but unwilling to acknowledge anything he hadn't already decided was true. "I wouldn't mind punching him in the face."
Kubo's ears drooped, his body hunching down. "It might be for the best," he acknowledged. "Something in him is - susceptible to Merlin's corruption. I freed him once, but Ryuujin - Merlin's dragon familiar - ensnared him again."
"But we're not fighting him, are we?" The Moon King had boasted he couldn't be defeated without the Sword Unbreakable, which was lost, or the Lunar Shamisen, which had been destroyed. He'd backed off when Darci had threatened him, perhaps seeing something in her bluff, but Darci didn't know what it was.
"No - not unless you're terribly unlucky." He turned, his tails (and Darci stared a moment, to figure if she was seeing things, or if Kubo really had two tails) flicking behind him. "And we cannot afford any bad luck in this mission."
"The mission I haven't agreed to take yet?" Darci asked, and Kubo flinched back. She sighed; the fox (the boy, or Constellation, whatever that meant) had, despite his tendency to show up in the middle of the night with dire warnings, proven to be less confident than he appeared. "Maybe you should tell me about it, Kubo, so I can decide if I want to do it." When Kubo remained huddled at the foot of the bed, Darci pulled herself sitting up and patted closer to her folded legs. "Come on," she said, "tell me the story."
Kubo huffed, but his ears perked up as he stepped into the offered space. "Well, have you ever read Dante's Inferno?"
"Yeah, finished it a couple weeks before all the shit went down. Why?"
"It makes the explanation a little easier," Kubo said. "Do you recall reading about the Seventh Circle, where the souls of people who committed suicide were made into trees?"
"Yeah." Darci shivered, tucking her arms close around her. She hadn't been moved much by the book, but the forest of suicides had left her shaking when she'd read it. She'd set the book aside for a day and a half after that, and her mind kept returning to it - the injustice of suicide condemning someone to Hell.
"It's not - entirely made up," Kubo replied. "People who commit suicide are lost, and the souls of the lost enter the Unknown - the realm between this world and the next. The people of the Unknown call the trees born of suicides Edelwood."
"Ugh!" Darci muttered. "Out of all the parts of that book to be true-"
"It's - probably not torment," Kubo said. "Most scholars of the subject believe Edelwood deadens the spirit encased within. However…" He trailed off, tails twitching anxiously.
"However what?" Darci demanded.
"However, a Blood Mage discovered you could render Edelwood down into oil, and use that to create a - construct, a creature that subsists on Edelwood oil-"
"I'm going to kill that bastard," Darci growled. The sheets were clenched in her fists, only the cloth preventing her fingernails from digging into her skin. She was shaking, not shivering but furious.
"What?" Kubo's ears flicked back.
"Merlin made one of these constructs, didn't he? And you need my help killing it."
"I mean, that was the goal, but-"
"I'm in," Darci growled. "You said those spirits - the suicides - were at peace, right? And Merlin's burning them for fuel? Yeah, I'll help you rip that thing apart and shove it up Merlin's ass."
"I mean - not at peace, exactly," Kubo protested. "The shell of Edelwood deadens the spirit - to the pain they felt in life, to the peace they might feel in the afterlife. But yes," he concluded, "The suicide golem causes the victim spirit unimaginable pain, and...consumes them."
"How do we get there?"
"Technically it's very easy, but given I presume you want to return to the world of the living afterward-"
"Things will be a little more complicated."
Hui stepped out of the phone booth, handing the hawk perched on the door two quarters (the cost of practically anything that could be bought in the Unknown was two coins of any denomination). Wirt stepped away from the nearby tree he'd been standing next to rather than try to figure out whether he should make conversation with the hawk.
"So, did you reach your friend?"
"This does not appear to function like a normal telephone," Hui replied, "so not in the manner you indicate. And once I realized I could not simply relay a coherent message to a friend, I deviated from our plan."
"Deviated?" Wirt demanded, heart fluttering anxiously. "How? We were going to call someone from the subreddit-"
"A less practical decision when we are sending prophetic visions instead of a voice mail," Hui said. She glanced at Wirt, eyes tilted in worry. "I am sorry I underestimated the threat. I thought the sui-"
"The Beast," Wirt corrected. The people of the Unknown already spoke of it in hushed, fearful tones, and there was something so - clinical about the phrase 'suicide golem'.
"The stories said suicide golems are sustained by a flame set within a lantern forged in the depths of Hell," Hui said. "It was natural to conclude the Beast would conceal it somewhere we could steal it."
"Instead of…" Wirt trailed off, waving vaguely. Hui nodded, understanding; she'd been there when they'd found the Beast, a colossal steel-banded construct, an elk-horned humanoid creature with a massive furnace burning in the place of its heart. Even Greg would have hesitated to attack it, probably.
"Who - did you call, exactly?" he asked.
Hui's shoulders slumped. "Someone who I think can help," she said. "I do not know his real name, but I knew him online as 'Foxmoon'. He made - allusions that have made clear he is not an ordinary human. And he knows more about the Unknown than anyone else I have spoken to."
"And we're, uh, going to wait for him to come join us?" Wirt asked.
"No," Hui said. "You heard what the Beast said - about who made him. The Moon King has two known vulnerabilities, and I am certain you have as little experience in swordcraft as I do. But you are a musician, right?"
"Are we there yet?" Darci asked. Ahead of her, Kubo paused as he landed on a tree root, turning back to her, eyes bright in the gloom of the forest.
"I couldn't say," he said. "The Unknown is the realm of lost souls; it's very difficult to find your way here."
"Seriously?" Darci growled, falling sideways against a tree (not Edelwood, Kubo had assured her - she didn't know how she'd feel, leaning on a tree that used to be someone). "I thought you knew your way around this place."
"I know this realm," Kubo corrected, "but navigation is another matter altogether." He sniffed at the air a moment before circling a few degrees. "Let's try this way."
Darci rolled her eyes, but followed, because she didn't have any better idea. After a few moments of walking, however, she asked, "How do you know this place? It doesn't seem like your…"
"Paradigm?" Kubo asked. "It isn't, really. But I spent some time here, once, looking for my parents." His dead parents, Kubo didn't say, but Karasu had said Kubo's mother had received a traitor's reward, and she couldn't imagine they would have treated his father much better.
"So, is there like a visitor's center we could find - get some pamphlets, maps?"
Kubo paused, turned, pointed head lifting to stare blankly at Darci. "A visitor's center, to the Unknown. With maps."
"I don't know - you said there's a town where a cat governs a bunch of skeletons; there could be anything here!"
"...Anything," Kubo mused, stilling as he looked at apparently nothing.
After a moment, Darci waved her hands in front of his face, causing him to start. "What's going on?"
"I was just thinking," Kubo said, "a suicide golem is a creature of Blood Magic, which means an orichalcum blade should be able to defeat it."
"Then you should have gotten Toby for this," Darci said.
"Mmmm, no," Kubo replied. "Defeating a suicide golem - I need a warrior who fights death."
"Dr. Lake, then."
"Anyway, all anyone can say about the Sword Unbreakable is that it's 'lost'," Kubo continued, ignoring Darci's protest, "and you can't get more 'lost' than in the Unknown."
"We're in the Unknown."
"And we've got no idea where we're going," Kubo concluded. "Still...there was a witch who was good at keeping her eye on what's going on around here - albeit with a nasty habit of stuffing people's heads with wool." He narrowed his eyes at the trees before bounding forward. "Come on! If we can find someone, I bet they can tell us where to find Adelaide."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that," Darci muttered as she trudged after the fox.
They found a tavern, eventually, where men spoke of a fearful Beast stalking the woods, but confirmed Adelaide lived along the ferry route. The ferry itself was uneventful, which was just as well, because when they arrived at Adelaide's house-
"Oh," Kubo muttered as they peered in through the broken front door. The one-room cottage had, it seemed, once been the home of someone who knitted or wove almost obsessively (filled people's heads with wool), except the tools were shattered, contents ransacked, and no sign of the witch Adelaide.
Darci glowered at a pile of instruments - a guitar, violin, and a few others (she saw something she thought was a lyre, unless she actually had no idea what a lyre was) by the far wall. Something about them, about the empty cottage, bothered her, but she couldn't quite identify it. She took a circuit of the room, surprisingly easy for a place that had been robbed, stopping next to Kubo, who had settled next to the wide bed at one side of the room. He was sniffing at the sheets.
"This isn't a weird fetish, is it?" Darci asked, earning a glare from the fox.
"I'm trying to see if I can track where she went," Kubo said. "But her scent is just sort of - worn in. It's like she just-"
Darci yelped and spun, throwing the nearest thing on hand (a pillow) at the door, where a pale woman caught it neatly in one hand. She offered Darci a brief smile, understated but likely genuine.
"Who - what - how-"
"My name is Lorna," the woman said. "I do apologize for startling you, but I'm afraid there wasn't much to be done; no matter how much I try, Auntie Whispers says I walk like a cat." She stepped into the cabin properly, walking straight from the door to the side of the bed (and that's what was odd - the ransacking had left clear paths throughout the cottage, the neatest breaking and entering Darci had seen), where she set the pillow down. "As for what, and how, I was here to visit Adelaide."
"Friend of yours?" Darci asked.
"Well, no," Lorna replied. "She is - well, was - Auntie Whispers' sister."
"Was?" Kubo asked.
"Auntie Whispers is strong in body, but her magic is weak; Adelaide was the reverse. Her magic was powerful, but she was frail in constitution. The night air...disagreed with her." She tugged at the sheets, straightening them, the motion almost compulsive. "If the doors and windows were open when you arrived, the air got in and…"
"You said she disappeared," Darci said.
Lorna shrugged. "Auntie Whispers said she was dust held together with wool." She looked around the rest of the room, frowning. "I can understand why someone might wish to get rid of Adelaide, but there's no cause for making such a mess." She jerked her gaze onto Darci, her brow wrinkling. "I hope you won't object to helping me."
"Actually, we do," Kubo interjected before Darci could agree. He wound between Darci's feet to stand between her and Lorna, tails lashing. "We're in something of a hurry."
"It only takes a few moments to clean up after yourself," Lorna chided.
"But every moment we dawdle, the Beast grows more powerful, and takes more lives," Kubo retorted.
Lorna looked down to him, her frown easing from something disappointed to something...sad, hands sliding from a prim grip in front of her to her sides. "If you intend to face the Beast, you can tarry a few moments - Death will not begrudge you being late to your appointment."
"We don't intend to die!" Kubo snapped.
"If you intend to fight the Beast, you do," Lorna said. "Auntie Whispers says-"
"No disrespect," Kubo said, "but your Auntie Whispers isn't the ultimate authority on Blood Magic constructs. The Beast isn't - it's more like a nightmare than a proper creature. It can be beaten-"
Lorna hummed. "But you need help. And Auntie Whispers can help you…after we sort things here."
It took more than a few minutes, but Lorna did most of the work, moving with practiced ease, slipping around Kubo and Darci as they struggled to straighten up the abandoned cabin. She patted her hands against her now-dusty apron once they were finished, smiling at Kubo as she did. "Now, if you like-"
"Yes, let's go," Kubo said, bounding to the door. But Darci paused, eyeing one of the walls of the cottage. There were hooks along it, set just so you could hang a musical instrument from them. In cleaning the cottage, they'd returned a dozen or so instruments - a guitar, violin, and others - to their place, but there was a gap, a space where there should have been an instrument, but there wasn't.
Darci approached the wall, raising a hand to the empty space, before letting it fall. She was certain she stared only for a moment, but then something tugged at her pant leg, and she looked down to find Kubo's scrunched face glowering up at her.
"I wasn't just trying to avoid doing chores," Kubo said. "We are in a hurry."
"I - know," Darci replied. But she didn't move toward the door, instead turning, narrowing her eyes to take in the rest of the room - neat, now, everything in its place...except for that one last instrument. "What went here?" she demanded of Lorna.
The woman drifted to Darci's side, humming as she stared at the hooks - cataloguing them, Darci thought.
"I'm afraid I don't know," Lorna said, at last. "But Adelaide was fond of strings - you can see there is a lyre, and a guitar, a crwth, a khim…"
"We don't have time for this!" Kubo snapped. "Every moment we waste-"
"He has a point," Darci said, apologetically (because they did need to hurry, but something about the wall of instruments nagged at her). "So maybe we should go see Auntie Whispers."
But she spent the journey, a day-long walk through increasingly-dark woods through which Lorna ambled without any apparent concern, worrying at it. Because Kubo had mentioned a tool that could be used to fight the Moon King, a string instrument. She wondered if the Lunar Shamisen could be used to kill Kubo, and who might try to steal it from a witch who was guarding it (the Moon King had no reason to want his enemies to believe there was a weapon capable of harming him, so she wasn't certain it was truly destroyed).
When they arrived, Lorna paused at the door of Auntie Whispers' home, a dour, imposing building that seemed to have several extensions stuck onto it. She gave Darci and Kubo brief glances before nodding.
"You should stay here for a moment," she said. "Auntie Whispers...isn't used to unexpected visitors."
She vanished inside before Darci could ask questions, but Kubo paced on the ground. Darci considered asking him about the shamisen, but as it was less than a theory, basically a wild notion, she decided against it. And then the creepiest woman Darci had ever met appeared at the door - a sallow-faced woman with a wide mouth, bulbous nose, and huge, elongated pupils that were somehow dwarfed by even larger yellowed eyes.
"Hello," she said, "Lorna has told me you have come to see me. That you did not kill my sister Adelaide, though she found you in her ransacked home."
"We really didn't," Kubo said.
"Oh, I don't mean to suggest you did," the woman said. "Although I would not be surprised - Adelaide made many enemies. Still. Lorna tells me you intend to face the Beast."
"We must," Kubo insisted. "My - it is vital."
The woman twisted her head around, her smile widening. "I can see that. The Beast is your grandfather's work, and you feel responsibility for his crimes."
"Wait - what?" Darci glanced down at Kubo, whose ears flicked back against his head, tails tucked around his legs, looking the part of a contrite dog. "You didn't say-"
"Does it really matter who made it?" Kubo snapped, ducking down. "We have to destroy it anyway."
"Well, no," Darci said, resisting the urge to give the fox a reassuring pat. "But it would have been nice to know." And she wasn't bothered, really. But she was beginning to think the key to winning this fight - beating Merlin - rested on things they didn't know. Secrets and things people didn't think to mention. She didn't know how knowing Kubo's grandfather made the Beast helped them, but it was bound to.
"I'm just saying, I don't like the way the moon is - looming," Wirt said, waving at the sky. It was hard to say how long they'd been in the Unknown, or how long that meant they'd been gone from the world of the living, but the moon had hung, pale and full, in the sky every night. Like an unblinking eye, ever-watching-
Hui slapped Wirt's shoulder, startling him out of his reverie.
"We do not have time to daydream about the moon," she said. "You should be practicing-"
"Practicing what?" Wirt demanded. "I told you I only studied the bass for a few months, and this - Japanese guitar or whatever, only has two strings." They'd wrested the instrument, weathered, battered, and ancient, but sturdy, and weighty with its untold history, from the witch Adelaide, taking from her a skein of wool from which they'd fashioned one string, which miraculously produced some tone. They'd found a music teacher, Miss Langtree, who'd scrounged up another string, but it was clear as a weapon, a two-stringed shamisen would be found wanting.
"And even if you do find a third, it won't be much use against the Moon King."
Wirt yelped, and Hui kicked a foot out, connecting with something that let out a yowl. There was a hiss, a scrabbling of leaves, and a moment later, a dark form clambered up on a nearby tree stump. It was a cat, glowering at Hui as they licked cautiously at their side.
"That was uncalled for," they said, reproachful.
"You should not have snuck up on us," Hui retorted. "We are hunting the Beast - we are not the sort of people who should be startled."
"It won't help," the cat said. "Killing the Beast. Not as long as the Moon King lives."
"The...man who made the Beast?" Wirt asked.
The cat sighed and settled on the stump, ears falling. "The Moon King is more than a man - he is a king, or a god - a Constellation - who claims dominion over everything the moon can see. He and I...don't see eye-to-eye about a lot of things. He made the Beast, and if you destroy that, he will remake it. So you see?"
"Then how can we defeat the Moon King?" Hui demanded.
"The Sword Unbreakable," the cat replied. "But he has set an implacable, indestructible guardian to watch it."
"But there is another way," Hui protested. "I had read that the Lunar Shamisen could strip him of his powers - surely with that, we could weaken him."
"But that is not the Lunar Shamisen," the cat snapped. "It's a - ship of Theseus."
But the cat hadn't been talking to Hui; he'd been talking to Wirt, who understood. He lifted the instrument, examining the aged wood. "You mean - this may be the same body of the shamisen called the Lunar Shamisen, but it's not...the same. It's something about the strings, isn't it?"
"It's not the strings, it's-" The cat growled in frustration, tail whipping as he leapt to his feet. "To bear the Lunar Shamisen, you must build it yourself. The strings must represent yourself, or your triumphs, or the goal to which you intend to turn it."
"We have won yarn from the lair of the witch Adeladie," Hui said.
"And Miss Langtree gave us a string-"
"But only by stringing it with the hair of one of the Moon King's progeny may the instrument harm him," the cat declared.
"And how do we know we can we trust you?" Wirt demanded. "You're-"
"I am Enoch, mayor of Pottsfield, the longest-established community in the Unknown," the cat said, rising to his full height. "I am guardian to the unmourned and forgotten, and the Moon King and his wretched construct burned down my village! So believe me when I say I have a great deal of investment in seeing to his destruction."
They were quiet a moment after that; it was hard to find words to respond to Enoch's impassioned speech. It was Hui, who after all had been best at keeping them on task, who spoke first.
"Could the Moon King's own hair be used to harm him?"
Enoch's ears perked up. "I suppose, if you defeated his immortal guardian, bypassed his magical defenses, and bested him in single combat, so you could pull one of his hairs, you could subsequently use the instrument to defeat him."
Hui narrowed her eyes at him. "Do not think I cannot recognize sarcasm," she said.
"I don't think he's being sarcastic," Wirt said.
"I was," Enoch piped up.
"But if we somehow did get ahold of the Moon King's hair, we could defeat him, right?" Wirt waited until Enoch nodded. "Then how about we work that out, and try to find him. Do you have any idea where he is?"
Enoch narrowed his eyes at Wirt. "Where do you think, if he keeps the Beast as his constant guard? The edelwood groves."
"So, I've heard a lot of talk about the Beast, but no idea what they look like," Darci commented as she followed Kubo through the dark woods outside Auntie Whispers' home.
"From what I was told, a horned king formed of edelwood," Kubo replied. "So you're going to want to watch out for the pointy bits."
"You haven't forgotten we still don't have any weapons, right?" Darci said. "Because I didn't take your aunt down with my bare hands."
"Yes, I'm aware," Kubo replied, pausing to sniff at a tree before shaking his head. "But Auntie Whispers was right - I'm a sorcerer of the Moon King's own lineage. I should be able to confront the Beast myself."
"Then why-" Darci scowled as the fox hopped over a root, giving no indication of listening. "Hey!" she snapped; Kubo paused, turning toward her, ears perked up, alert. "You're planning to do this yourself?" she asked. After a moment, Kubo nodded, and Darci felt a flicker of - annoyance, disappointment, something. "Then this whole dragging me out of my bed, the 'you're the only one who can do this', what's the point?"
Kubo stepped back, ears falling back, tails curling around him, as he peered up at Darci, eyes wide - wet? "I didn't want to do it alone," he said, voice quiet. "And you reminded me of…" He looked away, suddenly, ears flicking to the side.
"My mother," Kubo said.
Darci felt the flush of hurt, anger, confusion, wash away, and looked at the fox again. He was small, a social creature left walking the world on his own. His parents were dead, and Darci had-
"Really?" she asked.
Kubo nodded. "You have her ferocity, her sense of protectiveness. Her courage - you never quailed in the face of the favors I asked of you. I...lied, when I said I asked you for help because of your connection to the moon. Or - I thought you could do it, because my mother had, once before."
It was strange, how comforting that admission was. Kubo's strange pronouncements that Darci had a connection to the moon had worried her. She didn't know what power was judging her alleged connection, what that connection gave her. But hearing she reminded an orphan of his mother, a warrior-mage who had fought to protect him?
She understood what he saw in her. What he expected her to be. Brave. Fierce. Protective. Nothing more (he didn't expect her to be able to fight the Beast, but she knew she would anyway; its existence grated at her).
The ground shook under their feet; Darci caught herself against a tree, and Kubo braced his feet apart as a bone-shuddering sound echoed through the forest. Darci stood, cautious, when the movement stopped.
"What was that?"
"The Beast," Kubo said, and broke into a run. Four legs made him faster, but being several feet shorter than Darci, she more or less kept up as he sprinted through the trees. The occasional roar swept past them, with further minor earthquakes, and it occurred to Darci that Kubo had not told her how large the Beast was.
(And it was hard to tell as they ran, but the trees seemed to change as they moved. There was something in their shapes that left her uneasy, strange patterns within the whorls and knots of the bark. She didn't have the breath to ask if this was edelwood or not, but this close to a beast who consumed the souls of suicides, what else could they be?)
There was a scream, and then another voice, speaking unfamiliar words that Darci somehow understood.
"You will not touch him!"
And then another voice spoke, one smooth and prim and hateful, and Darci's blood boiled at the sound of it.
"I hope you do not believe a few words of the angels' tongue will save you," the Moon King said, "not when you are fighting one of the Constellations."
"I'm going to kill him," Darci growled.
"How?" Kubo demanded. "Just stay back, and I'll try to-"
And then they stumbled onto the scene. The Moon King stood at the far end of a circle of cleared trees several hundred feet across. There were two figures at the leftmost edge of the circle, one holding one hand out toward the Moon King, motes like stars whirling around their feet, and the other behind them holding-
"He said it was destroyed," Kubo whispered, staring at the instrument cradled in the human's arms.
"I'd say so, too, if I were him," Darci said. "Keep people from looking too hard. But your shamisen isn't our concern right not."
Because the clearing also held the Beast. It was, technically, a horned humanoid, but at thirty feet tall without the horns, it dwarfed all but the largest trolls Darci had seen. Metal bands braced the wooden form, dark metal interspersed with the strange patterns of edelwood. And in its chest burned a fierce white light (it should have been red, or black, an evil color, instead of white, Darci thought), the cage of a lantern embedded within the creature's body. Its eyes glowed with the same steady light of the lamp, and its face nothing more than two slits of a nose and a mouth open wide (round and wide to accommodate the trunk of a tree). There was something, a strange third horn glimmering in the twilight, protruding from its forehead.
"Grandfather!" Kubo shouted, and the Beast and Moon King both turned toward him. Looking directly at the Beast, Darci could see its torso clearly, the twisted patterns within the wood.
Faces twisted into eternal screams, agonized expressions fused into the Beast's skin.
"Kubo," the Moon King said, voice placid, unmoved. "I see you continue in your impertinence. Are you aware the boy you travel with threatened my life?"
"Boy?" Kubo asked, as Darci bit her lip, fighting through the jolt in her chest, the twist of fear and uncertainty (what did the Moon King see when he looked at her?). "I don't-"
The Moon King laughed. "You truly are blind, Kubo. That child - plays at being a girl, denying the truth of his birth."
And Kubo snorted. "And which of us had our eyes plucked out?" he demanded. "We are Constellations, you and I. We are masters of form and phase, of the transformations effected by belief. Surely you cannot deny that a person can make themselves into what they believe themselves to be."
"One of us, perhaps," the Moon King retorted. "But not a human, not a mortal."
Darci didn't understand half of what they were saying, but she did know Kubo was defending her, refusing to listen to his grandfather's insults. She'd...worried, vaguely, that, being centuries older than her, he'd hold similar views, that learning she was trans would have led him to the same conclusions his grandfather had. But it was - reassuring, a strengthening warmth, to know the cautious affection she'd felt for Kubo was not misplaced.
"She knows herself as well as any of us do!" Kubo screamed.
"And how can you say you know yourself?" the Moon King asked, "when you cannot even escape the shape I forced upon you?"
Darci narrowed her eyes, staring at the Moon King. Something in the way he spoke was...strange. Needling, insulting with every word...it meant something.
And then the Moon King shouted, pained, and a flicker of movement drew Darci's gaze down. One of the two other figures was sprinting toward the one with the shamisen while the Moon King turned toward them, face twisted in fury. "Destroy her!" the Moon King ordered, and the Beast moved, reaching a hand down to grab whoever it was.
Kubo leapt forward, both tails twisting behind him, and spat out a line of gold-edged flames that singed the Beast's reaching claw. It howled and swatted at him while it shook its hand to extinguish the flames. Kubo hopped to the side, and the person running away from the Moon King scrambled further away. Kubo lashed one tail out as the Beast lumbered after the fleeing woman, and suddenly there were four of her, and the first one it grabbed fell apart into a whirl of leaves. The Beast stomped on the ground, and branches snapped up to entwine the other three forms, two of them vanishing, and the third struggling against the hold. As the Beast drew closer, the light of its eyes and heart illuminated the figure, the flash of a reflection showing something in her hand-
"A hair?" Darci murmured.
Kubo bounded to the other woman's side in two jumps, hissing as the Beast drew close, and reached up to slash at the Beast with his claws when it didn't slow. Chunks of wood flew away as deep gashes appeared in the Beast's hand.
It paused, a moment of perfect stillness, before it slammed the injured hand on the ground, sending Kubo and the woman, who had been furiously snapping the branches away, stumbling. It turned, reaching for the nearest tree, pulling it free from the dirt with no apparent effort, and lifted the tree to its mouth.
A sick horror whirled in Darci's gut as the Beast shoved the tree into its gaping maw - shoved an edelwood tree, a human soul, into its mouth - and wood grew to heal its injured hand. Tears pricked at her eyes, mouth and hands clenched, as she watched, furious, miserable, because she couldn't fight it, couldn't help these people who'd lost too much already.
She felt something, then. A hint of breath against her ear, or the sense of a presence next to her, and she remembered.
Kubo had said she reminded him of her mother.
Had said she could be who she believed herself to be.
And she could fight.
"Stop it!" she yelled, and her voice carried, a forceful sound that gave human, Beast, and fox pause. "I won't let you do this anymore," she said, pointing at the Beast. "I won't let you torment them further. They shouldn't have to go through this, not after losing the battle with their own pain. They shouldn't be tormented further. It isn't right!"
"And what would you do to stop it, boy?" the Moon King asked. "You do not even have a weapon."
"Doesn't she?" Kubo asked. Something settled in Darci's tight-gripped hand, and when she looked down, there was a katana held tight in her hand, hilt worn but blade dark and pristine, glittering with stars.
"Though we commissioned it, we were never meant to wield the Sword Unbreakable," Kubo said. "We are the shapers of legends, and so we made a weapon fit for a hero - a soul of unquestionable honor. And an orichalcum blade will always respond to the need of its true owner."
Darci looked up, and found, between Kubo snapping at his grandfather, the Beast fumbling at its forehead, where the strange central horn was gone (the Beast had not been guarding the blade, strictly, but the effect was much the same). Darci hefted the blade and considered, for a moment, charging at the Beast. But standing in a forest of edelwood, it could heal any injury, at the expense of another wounded soul.
"That sword is anathema to any work of Blood Magic," a voice hissed at Darci's feet. She glanced down to find a black cat sitting just a foot away, looking up at her with bright eyes.
It sounded like the cat was telling her she could destroy the Beast with the sword, but…
Darci turned, looking at the edge of the clearing, the edelwood trees twisted, as if reflecting the pain of their souls. And she squinted until a face resolved into the surface of the wood. Blood Magic, she remembered, was creating something from sacrifice. And saying it like that…
The golem wasn't Blood Magic. You could make a golem out of anything.
"The trees are Blood Magic," she whispered.
"They kill themselves to end the pain," the cat said. "And in that sacrifice, they create a shell to protect themselves from all sensation. Unwitting, they deny themselves the chance to find true peace. They are lost, more than any other soul in the Unknown." The cat sounded wounded, miserable, as if they understood that pain - and maybe they did.
And Darci, who had defeated the Moon King's daughter when she stopped thinking and acted, did what her heart told her to do, and stabbed the Sword Unbreakable into the heart of the nearest edelwood tree.
The tip of the blade stopped before it could penetrate the wood, however.
"You really shouldn't do that without thinking of the consequences."
Darci tried to turn toward the voice, but she couldn't move, frozen in place. She felt a spark of panic, a racing of her heart-
Or would have, if she'd had a heartbeat.
"Calm down. We're in one of the billions of moments between one moment and the next." A woman - dark-haired, grey-eyed, with a sharp edge to her outline - stepped around Darci. "The moment when decisions are made."
"I made my decision," Darci ground out, the answer coming, somehow, though her mouth couldn't move. "I want to free them."
"To what?" the woman asked. "They cannot pass into the afterlife - so long as they are lost, they will remain in the Unknown."
"I don't know, but anything's better than this!" Darci snapped. "Give them a town or something so they can commiserate, so they can heal and - pass on, or whatever!"
"It's an interesting thought," the woman said, and glanced to her feet. "Would you welcome them in Pottsfield, Enoch?"
"All are welcome in Pottsfield," the cat, Enoch, apparently, said, lazily. "And I've worried about these poor souls for a long time."
"Well. Are you resolved, then?" the woman asked Darci.
And then the world started moving again. The blade sank into the wood, and something snapped. The hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees around them vanished, yanked up out of the ground and gone in an instant. Darci turned, slowly, expecting to find the Beast still looming over her.
But all that was left of the construct was a three-foot-high cage of metal, battered, dented, and empty of all but a single dying ember. Darci looked up to the Moon King and bared her teeth at him.
"So," she said, easily, "are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"
To the side, a guitar (shamisen) chord drifted across the now-empty plain. "Okay, that's an 'E' chord," someone muttered. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Let the music flow through you," Kubo said, crouched between Darci and the Moon King, eyes fixed on his grandfather.
"I sort of meant what song to play," the shamisen player protested. "I don't exactly know a lot of songs-"
"I think whatever you play, it'll be fine," Darci said.
"Oh, um. Okay." There was quiet a moment, and then a sharp staccato tune rose around them, a rousing song Darci almost recognized. She took a step forward, and her foot landed heavily. She looked, and found metal coating her form, armor covered in elegant tracery. She looked back up and found the Moon King watching her with a calm gaze.
"I see," he murmured. "You were a Valkyrie all along." He closed his eyes and bared his throat. "Then this is one battle I cannot win. You cannot just heal or redeem me, this time, Kubo. Myrddin's corruption runs too deep. You are the next Tsar Lunar; make it so."
Darci was angry, still, knew the Moon King had to die (not just because she hated him, but because Merlin had a hold on him his grandson had been unable to break). But she had expected him to rage, not to submit quietly. And as she readied the blade for a quick strike, she saw his lips moving. She strained for the words, wondering if they were a prayer or a plea.
"My life was his, so yes, deny him my death."
After, they sat on the dirt and watched the full moon sink toward the horizon. Wirt, the shamisen player, looked to Kubo. "He said he cursed you into a new form. Shouldn't you - be back to normal, then?"
"It was the work of Celestial Magic," Kubo replied. "I can undo it when I understand what I am well enough to change it - and I have something new to learn about myself." He sighed and dropped his head onto his paws. "It's not so bad, for now. We should be waking, soon. It is the way of the Unknown, when you conquer the demons that brought you here." His tails flicked idly. "Thank you. It was clever, getting his hair like that, and we couldn't have killed him without the shamisen's magic weakening him."
"We should return it," Hui, Wirt's companion, said.
"No need. I'm not the Moon King's grandson anymore; I won't need it. And…" Kubo sighed. "Dark days are coming. You might need it." He shook himself and rose to his feet. "Come on, Darci. It's time we went home."
"Not yet," she said. "You need your shape back, and...we can't just leave Enoch to rebuild on his own." And she wasn't certain, yet, she'd defeated the demons that had brought her here. The spirits of the edelwood trees were still lost, and she'd agreed to take responsibility for their fate. "I think we can afford to bring a little peace to this world."
There was a woman standing in the middle of the Somerset County Hall, in the chambers of the Council. Someone had been by to speak to her, explaining she was trespassing, and that the Council was supposed to have a closed meeting, anyway, but had come back and said it was fine.
They'd done this three times before giving up and hoping she just wouldn't make a fuss.
But when the chairperson called the Council to session, the woman spoke up, in a voice that carried despite the soft volume. The voice was smooth, gentle, but impossibly compelling. You could not imagine ignoring it, even if you had a really exciting song queuing on your phone, or were trying to watch the new episode of a show you'd been looking forward to.
"Good evening," the woman said, gaze sliding across the Council members, each feeling, in the frozen moment that they met her eyes, fixed in place, seen in a way they had never been before.
"This is a closed meeting-" the chairperson started.
"I am aware. But as I bring an issue of some urgency to your attention, I felt it would benefit to dispense with the niceties."
"Niceties?" the chairperson sputtered.
"Yes. A great evil is coming to Somerset. It will lay waste to your fields, burn your villages, and spill the blood of all who stand before it."
"Who are you?" one of the Council members asked, leaning forward to peer at the woman. "Are you a county resident?"
"I am not a resident of this county, or this world, but this place holds many passages to my kingdom. You may call me...Titania."
"Ha! Like the Queen of the Faeries?" another Council member laughed.
"No, not 'like' her. I am her," Titania replied. "And I have come to you at the behest of my cousin. Her enemy comes seeking Avalon, and when he finds the door closed to him, he will turn upon the people of Somerset, in the hopes they can open the way for him."
"Enemy? What enemy?"
"And Avalon? Do you mean Glastonbury Tor? That's a tourist attraction!"
"If you think the Army will put up with nonsense like that-"
"He is a sorcerer of power unmatched by any living creature," Titania retorted. "And now is the head of the most powerful army in the world. There is nothing you can do to stop him, save allowing us to shield you, to remove Somerset from the bounds of this world until the threat has ended."
The Chairperson slammed his hand down, bringing the chamber to silence. "I think you should explain," he said. "No riddles, no roundabouts. Who is coming to Somerset? And what does he want with Avalon?"
"The wizard Merlin," Titania replied. "And he comes for the king sleeping within our halls. For it was told to him, 'Your legacy alone can be your end, o sorcerer, though it shall neither be by dawn nor midnight, eclipse nor noon. But know too, that while Pendragon sleeps, you may not know defeat, but until Pendragon wakes, you may not know victory.'"
"Merlin? You expect us to believe-"
"She's the Queen of the Fairies, Phil, don't be an arse!"
"But why are we protecting ourselves from Merlin?"
"Merlin has conquered the Bear and the Eagle, and the Dragon too shall soon fall to him," Titania snapped, whirling on the one who'd questioned her. "He is the downfall of every civilization he touches, and yours will be no exception. Our time grows short - his plane will be landing in London within the hour."
"Plane-" another council member murmured. "Eagle - are you talking about President Walters?"
Titania's grim smile was the only answer they needed. And perhaps it was fantastic and impossible, but so too had been President Martin Walters' (Merlin's) ascent to the presidency. Aliens, sorcerers, and sleeping kings, were too much to expect the people of Somerset to handle, so with an overwhelming majority, they accepted Titania's offer - the protection of her people, concealing Somerset from Merlin's prying eyes.
"And when will we return?" the Chairperson asked.
"When Merlin lies dead, or my palace burns," she replied.
WHOOOPS forgot to thank incognitnoinfo who helped me a bit with coming up with people on the supernatural subreddit, including Hui here.
Chapter 3: Never Cry Wolf
Between the werewolves and the Immortal Legion, Seamus wonders if he made the right choice staying in Arcadia Oaks.
Seamus blinked, but found his eyelids dragged when he tried to pull them back open. At the head of the classroom, their substitute history teacher ('replacement', but Seamus was, like most of the rest of the school, waiting for this 'treason' thing to blow over so Mr. Strickler could come back) was droning about "post-War" America, a subject that would have been infinitely more interesting if it'd been coming from someone who wasn't just reading straight from a textbook commissioned by some hyper-conservative Texas school board.
He dropped his gaze to his phone, and the last message in his text chain with Krel Tarron (Krel of the House Tarron), sent shortly before the President had been assassinated by the director of - Area 51 or whatever - and been replaced by a man Mary had assured them, in her last message to the group chat, was actually the evil alien-wizard Merlin.
But Seamus hadn't somehow gotten roped into a long-running text chain with Mary. Once Krel had outed himself as a space alien, explaining what had turned out to be only half of the things that Seamus had found incredibly weird and off-putting about him, and helped him take down Mr. Palchuk (Secretary of Defense Palchuk, now, if Mary's claim hadn't been evidence enough this new administration was trash), he'd started acting like he and Seamus were friends.
They had a lot in common, and Krel was expressly impressed by Seamus' intelligence. And no one was quite as enthused talking about math as Krel was, which provided an easy topic of conversation (not that math was the only topic of conversation; Seamus tried not to Pepperjack out on him and demand an endless string of questions about space, but Krel liked talking about it. And then there were movies and video games, things Seamus was guiding Krel through so he didn't waste his time with crap).
But ever since Krel (and Aja, Darci, the Lakes and Nana Domzalski, the Pepperjacks, Steve, Mary, Mordred, Douxie, and the trolls) had disappeared, fleeing the long reach of a government now in the hands of their enemy, Krel had been silent.
I mean, it's not fucking rocket science - am I right?
Seamus resisted the urge to groan, to reveal he hadn't been paying attention. Because as a last exchange between them, it was pretty shitty - a debate about statistics, which Akiridions were apparently much better at understanding than humans. And now it was pretty clear that could be their last exchange - Merlin's servants, serving his incarnation as The Sleeping God, had killed Krel's parents and forced him and Aja to flee to Earth for some semblance of safety.
His phone vibrated, and a new text appeared, from an 'Unavailable' number.
Hello, my dude.
It has been a long time without seeing each other.
Seamus frowned at his phone; normally, he would ignore an unsolicited message like this, but.
The awkward language, which he might usually write off as a scammer, sounded...familiar. Seamus casually tapped at his screen to reply.
Who is this?
Three little dots appeared for just a moment, and then-
I believe we decided on the phrase 'extrasolar refugee'.
Seamus grinned at his phone with sudden delight; the debate on the appropriateness of the word 'alien' had been the moment Seamus had realized he considered Krel his friend. But he paused before responding, finger poised over the screen. Krel could have easily said his name, but had instead given an oblique reference only Seamus would have understood.
Good to see you. Or. You know. What's the occasion?
He took the few moments it took Krel to reply to change the contact name for the number to 'ESR' - nothing that anyone could connect to Krel.
I have a new phone. Certain people have been using most of our bandwidth.
I'm glad you're alright.
Are you alright?
Seamus bit his lip, suddenly unsure at his words. They were friends, of course, but he didn't have to be sentimental about it.
Everyone is fine. Better than fine, even!
...You can't tell me about them, though.
I can't stay up to date on your favorite comics, either.
So we don't have to talk.
But I wanted to know you were doing okay.
...I wanted to know you were okay, too.
Seamus bit his lip again, and, chest tight, sent another message.
I want to hear from you when you want to talk, even if you can't talk about much.
"Mr. Johnson, are you using your phone?"
"No," he replied, smoothly slipping his phone into his pocket. "Just taking notes."
"Good," the teacher said. "Then you can pick up where I left off."
Seamus' days had gotten longer since his friends had vanished from Arcadia, and today was no exception. He left school exhausted, feet dragging, the only bright spot the revelation that Krel was okay. Mulling on that, he didn't pay attention to his surroundings, despite the rumors filtering through the internet, whispers he heard on the street. Pale-faced shadows carrying badges; grim, dark-eyed men who police dismissed as "feds"; and, of course, the wolves who howled in the night around Arcadia Oaks (Wolves had torn apart so much of the leadership of Russia that a minor functionary had ended up in charge of the country - not so different from what had happened to America).
So he didn't expect the hand that snagged his shoulder, a crushing grip that dragged him out of the street and into the alley next to the movie theater. Panicked, Seamus fumbled in his pockets, cursing the fact he'd stashed an iron horseshoe in his backpack instead of a more easily-accessible place. He came up empty-handed just as the hand slammed him into a concrete wall, and a face wearing a sharp-toothed grin looked up at him. Slick grey-brown hair nearly overwhelmed the face, square, as close to black in shade as Seamus thought humans could get, gold eyes shining in the shade of the alley.
"Hey, Seamus, right?" Seamus' assailant asked.
"Excellent," they replied, voice rumbling in a way that sent a twitch of panic through Seamus.
"Hey! Fangface!" The person whirled, freeing Seamus' shoulder as their fingernails lengthened into claws, and they bared teeth that looked more like fangs than they had before. Shannon Longhannon stood at the end of the alley, dressed like she'd stepped out of a Renaissance Fair, except for the pistol she had pointed at the stranger. "Silver-tipped bullets, in case you were wondering," Shannon said. "Just as effective, at a fraction of the cost."
Seamus' assailant (who Seamus was now putting his money on 'werewolf') snarled, grabbing Seamus' wrist to yank him in between them and Shannon, before scrambling up one wall just high enough to grab the fire escape and crest the roof of the building before Shannon could get a clean shot.
It was quiet a moment before Shannon sighed and sheathed the gun. "Hey, Johnson," she drawled.
"It's been, what, ten minutes since school ended? Why do you look like an extra from the Lord of the Rings?"
"Because when my brother was stockpiling this shit, the Janus Order had all the modern enchanted equipment," Shannon replied, tugging the chain mail over her clothing to straighten it. "But I suspect you're more concerned why I'm running around town in enchanted armor at all, and the answer to that is that there's a pack of werewolves watching the town, and we don't have a Trollhunter to protect us."
"So you're, uh, werewolf hunting?"
"Well, no," Shannon said, shrugging. "It's more like werewolf wrangling - they tend to bolt pretty fast when they smell the silver, and apparently being a werewolf gives you supernatural strength and dexterity that outmatch someone who ranks in the bottom quintile at foot speed and stamina in high school phys ed."
"She," Shannon corrected. "Kahina's something of my Jean Valjean."
"I think she was looking for me," Seamus continued.
"Ha!" Shannon gasped and then began snickering. "Sure, Seamus Johnson, star of his own supernatural romance YA novel."
Seamus' face burned, flushing as he glared at Shannon. "I didn't think - she wasn't-"
Shannon snorted. "So how about you relax, Johnson? I'm watching these lycanthropes like a - well, whatever watches werewolves." She patted his shoulder and turned him back toward the main street. "Now, I've got the rest of town to patrol. Good luck!"
Seamus watched Shannon saunter out of the alley. It didn't exactly make him feel safer seeing her wandering around town armed, but the fact she had access to an armory her brother had built was one of the least concerning things he'd learned over the last few weeks.
The encounter hadn't left Seamus more watchful, however, because he yelped, leaping back and nearly hitting a light pole when an unexpected voice said, "Mr. Johnson."
A man in black stood to his right, wide-shouldered, dark-haired, face slim, marked with scars and the crooked signs of ill-healed wounds. His close-mouthed smile was polite, professional, and blue eyes bright.
"Um. I don't think we've met."
"No, we haven't," the man replied. "And for that, you should be grateful." His smile twitched, a flash of teeth setting Seamus on edge. Another werewolf?
"Um, look, my dad's expecting me home-"
"Then I'll walk with you." The man flipped a square of leather out of a pocket and snapped it open, revealing a picture of himself, several lines of tiny, illegible text, and the 'FBI' logo. "And I'm law enforcement, so no one will bother us."
Seamus wasn't so sure - if the special agent were a werewolf like Kahina, Shannon might attack him anyway. And with him walking next to Seamus, Seamus couldn't work up the nerve to consider, or even question the man.
"So," the man said after a few moments of silence. "It seems a number of your friends left town, recently."
"Ah - I guess," Seamus replied. "People say-"
"You knew a lot of dangerous people, Seamus," the man said. "It would behoove you not to seek them out. And if they were to - reach out to you...it would be in your best interest to tell someone."
"And when you say 'someone'..." Seamus began.
"My card," the man said, flipping a business card to Seamus. Unlike his badge, it didn't mention the FBI. On one side, it had a phone number - an 800 number, so no hint of where it was located - and on the other side, three words.
'The Immortal Legion'.
"Who are you?" Seamus asked.
The man stepped close, bending down so his eyes were at Seamus' level. He smirked, his teeth bright, smooth, and human. "We are the men President Walters calls in when there are - problems. You may think of me as - one of his eyes."
And the werewolves, Seamus guessed, were his hands. It was a worrying setup, and sent an unmistakable message:
Arcadia Oaks was under watch, and if anyone stepped out of line, or showed signs of sympathizing with Merlin's enemies, they would be destroyed.
Jim woke to a knock at his bedroom door. "Is everyone in here decent?" Toby asked.
Toby pushed the door open and slipped into the room, frowning as he did so. Jim looked around, trying to see what Toby found objectionable. The room, like most of those in the abandoned Sheyich Trollmarket (tentatively named New Arcadia Trollmarket), was made of stone, carved smooth. They'd made a single trip to an IKEA that had supplied most of the furniture in New Arcadia, including the sturdy, king-sized bed that was the only thing that could comfortably fit Jim.
"What's wrong?" Jim asked.
"Well, one, this place is dead - no decoration, no flair. Nothing to say 'Jim Lake lives here'," Toby said.
"I'm not exactly planning to make a life in New Jersey," Jim replied. "Plus, most of my stuff is back in California - presuming the cops or Secret Service or whatever haven't taken it."
"So? Even Galahad and Mordred have those little carvings Galahad made in their room - unicorns and shit."
"There aren't any unicorns," Jim replied. "Galahad's never actually seen one."
Toby raised one eyebrow. "If I had to guess which of the Camelot Twins had never seen a unicorn-"
Toby waggled his eyebrows at Jim. "Come on. Galahad's all about purity and shit. And, you know, with you and Mordred…"
"Me and Mordred what?"
"Come on, Jim," Toby whined. "I'm not asking for the play-by-play, but you and Mordred have been inhabiting separate bodies for, what, two months?"
"More or less," Jim agreed, ducking his head because the wide grin on Toby's face, and the fact he'd knocked on Jim's door, which he never did, implied things, things Jim may have staunchly Not Thought About when he and Mordred had shared the same consciousness, and had avoided discussing since he'd won Mordred's soul back from the afterlife.
Toby huffed and sat next to Jim, patting his shoulder. "Look, Jimbo. I know - everyone's made jokes about it, which I am just realizing might have made you uncomfortable, so. Right here and now, if you tell me you have no interest in getting it on with Prince Pendragon, I'll get everyone else to shut up about it."
Jim fell back, dragging Toby with him so they were flat on their backs, staring at the smooth, frankly boring ceiling. "I should put, like, glow-in-the-dark stars or something up there," he said.
"Jimbo," Toby said, voice a little sharp. "Come on. It's feelings time. We might all be dead in a month."
Jim winced at the reminder, of the grim period when he'd thought Toby was dead, worse than dead, erased from existence entirely. It was a low blow, using that feeling as leverage, but he couldn't find it in himself to be mad. Because…
"I don't - not want to...you know." He flushed, rather than continue, because he'd had...a few dreams exploring what 'getting it on' with Mordred might entail, one of which occurred during the time between Jim's return from the Void and the destruction of the Amulet where the barrier between their thoughts was thinner. And Mordred had never given any indication of having experienced that dream (he hadn't mentioned any of Jim's other, less...erotic dreams, but Jim had worried anyway - it had been a telling dream). "But it's complicated."
"Looks pretty simple from over here, buddy," Toby said. He reached up and patted Jim's chest. "Boy meets boy. Boy thinks boy is cute. Boy travels into the underworld to bargain for the soul of other boy. Boys kiss."
"Yeah, that's the problem," Jim muttered.
"The kissing?" Toby asked. "I mean, I guess your face is a little different than it used to be-"
"The underworld part," Jim said. When Toby's forehead crinkled, the other boy confused, Jim waved at the ceiling. "I saved his life - brought him back from the dead! I can't pressure him to date me after something like that!"
"Jim. Jimbo. Come on." Toby sat up and poked his shoulder. "Mordred's known you for like a year - more than enough time to figure out you wouldn't do something like that."
"But what if he feels pressured anyway?" Jim demanded. Mordred was nice - too nice. He'd died because he thought it was the only way to keep Morgana in check. He'd suffer a relationship he didn't want because he thought it'd make Jim happy.
Toby snorted. "Come on."
Toby leaned over Jim and grinned, a smile with a little too many teeth in it. "Do you think we joked about your invisible boyfriend because we thought you had a crush?"
"Yes?" Jim asked, slowly, because the fact that Toby had asked the question meant the answer was probably wrong.
Toby's smiled widened. "The guy thinks you're awesome. The best Trollhunter since Gawain. And he tried really hard to take care of your mom when you were gone - not cooking, obviously, but - ha!"
"What?" Jim jerked back, nearly falling off the bed in the process. When he found his balance and looked at Toby, the other boy's grin was still there. "What?"
Before Toby could answer, someone rapped at Jim's door. He glanced over. Krel was standing in the open doorway; when he saw Jim looking, he waved.
"I don't mean to interrupt but we have a. Problem. Maybe."
They were off the bed in a moment, Jim grabbing a shirt because trollish fashion (or lack thereof) left him feeling exposed, and Toby turning Krel away to give Jim some privacy.
"Soo," Toby started as Jim joined them. "What's our problem?"
"I got a text from." Krel paused. "Well, Seamus."
"Weren't we supposed to be off the grid?" Jim asked. Mary had talked at them for like twenty minutes about user permissions, location data, and zero-day exploits before they'd agreed to radio silence, except for her continuing monitoring of, well, everything.
"Mary said I could use a burner if I was careful not to expose myself," Krel replied. "And it's a good thing I did - there are werewolves threatening people in town, and the...FBI, or something. Seamus thinks they're like, Merlin's right-hand men or something."
Jim growled, causing Krel to stumble, and Toby to grin. But Jim was preoccupied, annoyed, angry. They'd fled Arcadia to keep Merlin from threatening their friends, families, and neighbors to get at them, an endeavor apparently doomed to failure.
"Mary says Darci says Kubo says the problem is Merlin's final battle is going to be in Arcadia," Krel continued. "He wants to keep an eye on it."
"So maybe we should be keeping an eye on it," Toby mused.
"Shannon Longhannon already is, apparently," Krel said.
"Shannon didn't want anything to do with - supernatural stuff," Jim said. "She was pretty sure about that."
"Well, things changed," Krel replied, voice quiet, a sudden reminder that out of all of them, Krel's life had been changed the most by Merlin and his lackeys. He probably hadn't intended to cross the galaxy to fight an ancient god.
"So Arcadia Oaks is sort of fucked," Toby said. "What are you suggesting we do?"
"I - don't know," Krel said, slowing. "It's not like we can - do anything, right?"
He was right; they were trying to do too much already, Jim thought. They had too much they had to do. Mary had Blinky, Dictatious, Aaarrrgghh, Mr. Strickler, and anyone she thought useful at the moment trying to locate Merlin's grail. Draal, Bular, and the Eclipse Knights were helping the rest of the world's trolls evade Merlin's allies; with most of the Janus Order on his side, they were hunting down trollkind with a vengeance. Darci and Kubo had vanished several weeks ago, leaving a note they had 'things to do' - likely tracking down the Moon King to give him a well-earned beating.
"We could send a raiding party," Toby said. "A couple of people to wreck shit, let Merlin know he can't just waltz around like he owns the place." He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Send some real firepower like - Jim, Aja...Mordred."
Jim glared at Toby over Krel's head; Toby, for his part, just winked. And there wasn't a good way to argue - as a troll, Jim could probably technically hold his own against a werewolf, and not being human, was probably immune to lycanthropy. The same went for a half-fae Shadow sorcerer who'd trained under Morgana and an alien warrior queen.
"That does sound like a plan. Aja has been - on edge - since we arrived," Krel said. It was a nice way of saying 'pacing around, training at all hours, and suggesting the solution to every problem was to break into the White House to finally kill the son of a bitch', but Krel was probably used to his sister's moods. And Jim could almost understand; he knew objectively they were actively working to take down Merlin - as long as he had a grail, he could draw on its power to heal any wound, as well as fuel his most powerful magic - but it felt like they were just sitting around waiting for the wizard to find and kill them.
"Soo, how about you find Mordred, Jim, and you track down your sister, and we'll meet at the armory? Sound good? Great!" Toby was gone in an instant, leaving Jim to glower at nothing. But as Krel went off to wherever Aja was hitting walls or something, Jim shook off the annoyance and headed for the library.
Dictatious and Blinky had made several trips back to Arcadia Oaks to retrieve the majority of Dictatious' library, and had subsequently secured other tomes from troll communities around the world. Still, the library that this community had once housed had been enormous, and the half-empty shelves at the entrance looked forlorn, a collection of scraps.
Mordred was there, sitting at a table by himself while Jim's mom and Aster debated over a tome at another. Mary and the other researchers were likely poring over news reports and her social media stream. Jim lingered at the doorway until Mordred looked up at him, grinned, and waved him over. Jim went, feeling off-balance, much the way he had when he'd first learned to move in his troll form (the only form he had, now). He was usually good at keeping his - feelings about Mordred - from interfering in their day-to-day interactions, even when people joked about them. But Toby's honest questions, his clear belief Jim had to deal with it-
Brought those feelings clearly to mind.
"You're troubled," Mordred said as Jim arrived next to him.
"I'm-" Jim bit back the protest, because it would be a lie. "Toby told me to get you. We're heading back to Arcadia."
"Excuse me?" Jim jerked around at his mom's voice; she rose from her table, trailed by Aster as she drew near. She wasn't quite glaring, but her expression was stern.
"Apparently, there's werewolves and some sort of weird dudes hanging around, so Krel and Toby think we should rough them up a bit."
"What do you mean, 'weird dudes'?" Aster asked.
In the end, he came with them, demanding an explanation from Krel; at the end of it, he was scowling himself, face scrunched up in a way that wouldn't have been threatening in his weakened, bunny rabbit form, and was still a little cute for an angry face.
"I know the Immortal Legion," Aster grumbled. "They're a group of soldiers who made a bargain with Merlin for immortality. Whatever alchemical brew he got Fin to make for them, it made them ageless, and far stronger than an ordinary person. I ran across them a few times, and they're a nasty bunch - a strike team or special ops unit for Merlin."
Jim's mom huffed, and for a moment he worried she'd tell him they couldn't go. But instead she shook her head and waved Jim over. She pulled a delicate silver pen from her pocket and made a few quick strokes along Jim's forehead, before stepping over to Mordred and doing the same to him, and, ignoring Aja's brief questioning protest, to her. Aster squinted at their foreheads for a moment before giving Jim's mom a sidelong glance. It was hard to read the rabbit face, but Aster's ears twitched - interested, or alert, Jim thought.
"Where'd you see the Mark of Cain?" Aster demanded.
Jim's mom shrugged. "I've read close to thirty books on the subject of runes." She glanced at Jim's forehead, pursing her lips. "It should be alright, though."
"It should be," Aster agreed. "It'd be better if you didn't have to telegraph it like that, but." He shrugged.
Aja squinted at Mordred's forehead. "What is it?"
"An old sign," Mordred replied. "It should return any harm done to us sevenfold. It can't protect us, but it's a warning we can give as good as we get."
Aja grinned. "I like having a warning sign. Are we ready to go?"
Jim looked to Mordred, whose brow was a little tight - Jim flushed, aware the other boy could sense his continuing unease. But it wasn't the time to talk about it.
"Yeah, let's go," he said.
"Could Seamus Johnson please come to the main office?"
Seamus looked up from his phone, an odd hitch in his chest. Ever since Clyde Palchuk had broken into the school to kill Toby Domzalski, an unexpected call for someone to go to the main office left him uneasy. But no one else seemed perturbed, and as Miss Janeth caught his eye, Seamus knew he couldn't just ignore the call.
He rose from his seat, grabbing his backpack (and the supernatural warrior's weapon of first resort inside it) as he went. He felt better about the decision when he arrived at the main office to find a slim-faced man in a dark suit, face marked by scars (was it a different pattern than before? Seamus couldn't be certain). The man smiled when he saw Seamus - it was clearly meant to be a reassuring expression, but Seamus was enough on edge that he could only see the threat.
"Mr. Johnson," the man said, clapping a hand on Seamus' shoulder (a heavy hand and a tight grip - friendly to a casual observer, but another threat). "Let's talk outside, yeah?"
He sat Seamus down on the bleachers overlooking the football field and, hand still on Seamus' shoulder, leaned back.
"You've been a bad boy, Mr. Johnson."
The hand on Seamus' shoulder tightened as the man sat up, looming despite his stature, eyes cold. "Don't play games, Mr. Johnson. You've been texting a number we're having a bitch of a time tracking down, talking very innocuously about anything but current events."
"That doesn't prove anything-"
Seamus yelped as the grip on his shoulder became painful. The man's smile grew crooked, threatening. "You are laboring under the misconception, Mr. Johnson, that I am concerned with proof and evidence, that if we believe you to be a threat to Myrddin Wyllt, we will arrest you and have a trial to lock you up. We will kill you, and if we are mistaken, all that means is that you die a little earlier than you otherwise would. The badges we carry are masks, and the time when we remove these masks is fast approaching."
The man let out a startled grunt and fell forward, then, a dark shape perched on his back as he tumbled down several rows to the field. A form dressed in dark colors (green and grey and brown, not black) flailed at the man as he scrabbled for some leverage or weapon. The man suddenly kicked up, sending his assailant flying towards the bleachers with a yip that sounded like a dog-
Seamus saw wide gold eyes in a dark face as he saw Kahina, Shannon's werewolf nemesis, fly over his head. Halfway through rising, Seamus froze in indecision. Obviously, the FBI dude wanted him dead, but he had no idea what Kahina wanted.
"I thought you had learned your lesson the first time," the man growled, rising to his feet. He had a long knife gripped in his left hand, sharp, simple, and worn (well-used).
"Silver and fire, old man," Kahina retorted, rising from the crumpled metal and shattered plastic from where she'd hit the bleachers.
"Well, I'd hoped," and here the man moved - a blur across Seamus' vision as he slammed into Kahina, a swipe of his arm leaving a bloody tear across her stomach, "you would take the beating my brother gave you as a friendly warning." He stabbed at Kahina's throat; she caught his arm, struggling for a moment, before he slammed it down. It missed her by an inch, and the force of the strike buried the blade to the hilt through the metal frame of the bleachers.
Kahina lurched forward, ignoring the blood seeping from the wound on her stomach, and grabbed Seamus' hand as she hopped down the rows of seats. "Come on," she growled, "unless you literally want to die!"
And at that point, the choice was relatively easy - the FBI dude clearly wanted Seamus dead, and Kahina obviously wanted him alive at present - so Seamus followed her. Behind them, metal groaned and snapped, making the whole structure shudder.
"Don't look back!" Kahina snapped, as Seamus tried to turn. "We are leaving!"
"Tch," the man said. Seamus saw it, the blur of movement, and then the man was in front of them. "Didn't anyone tell you what happens when you try to run from the Immortal Legion? You die tired."
There was a sharp 'pop', and the man's eyes widened, a look of shock.
"Yeah, and what happens if you shoot them?" Shannon asked.
Kahina tugged Seamus on, around the man, and there was Shannon, just a few feet behind him, holstering her pistol. She narrowed her eyes at Kahina, but made no threatening moves, clearly recognizing that the enemy of her enemy was not someone she wanted to shoot in the head right now.
"What are you waiting for?" Kahina demanded. "Run."
"What are you talking about? I shot him?"
"Even an ordinary bullet would run the risk of failing to pierce my skin if it struck bone," the man said, easy, casual, as if he hadn't just been shot at point-blank range. "But silver-tipped bullets are already too fragile to do so." He turned, the sharp, threatening grin back on his face. "Do you think I was exaggerating when I called myself one of the Immortal Legion?"
Before he could make a move toward them, however, he fell. Seamus glanced down at the man's feet, where a rip or tear had appeared in the ground itself, what looked like a bottomless hole, entirely black within. The portal snapped closed a moment later, and the field was quiet.
"That was excellent!" The voice was unmistakably that of Aja Tarron, and when Seamus looked up, she was in fact jogging toward them, trailed by a dusky-skinned boy with iridescent black hair whose hands were enshrouded in shadow. "Where did he go?"
"Not far, I'm afraid," the boy replied. "If you'd wanted to banish him to the other side of the planet, or another dimension, you should have brought Claire; she is much more practiced at teleportation."
"What are you doing here?" Seamus demanded. "These weird FBI dudes are looking for you, and there's...werewolves…" He paused, glancing at Kahina, suddenly uncertain what her place in all this was.
"We know," Aja retorted, slipping around the place where the other boy had created the hole in space, grabbing Seamus by the shoulder to pull him in for a hug. She was grinning when she pulled back. "Krel sent us to help you."
"Of course. House Tarron never lets its friends down."
"Hey!" Seamus, Shannon, and Kahina all jerked, turning toward the direction of the new voice. Seamus felt a flush of relief realizing it was just Jim, blue, trollish, but still the guy who'd dragged them all into this 'protecting the world' bullshit. "Can we move this somewhere darker?"
"What…?" Jim paced the boundary of the Longhannon's basement, filled with weapons, a full set of armor, several crates full of junk that looked magical as hell. Mordred had gravitated toward a book with a scorched cover, which he was already reading. Jim turned to Shannon, feeling something - disbelief, concern, a spark of anger - rising in his chest. "Where did you get all this? I thought you didn't want-"
"My brother," Shannon replied. "Shawn." When Jim shook his head at her - he didn't know what her brother had to do with it, Shannon gestured at herself. "The penultimate Trollhunter."
"I-" Jim remembered conversations with the man who'd held the Amulet of Daylight before him, and couldn't deny the resemblance now that it had been drawn to his attention. "He never said-"
"He didn't want me involved," Shannon said, brusque. "But then things got - bad. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Yeah," Jim agreed, stomach twisting in a guilty knot. If he'd been a little more suspicious, a little more like Sloane, he might have figured things out before it had been too late. "I'm sorry I-"
"Are you honestly trying to take the blame for this?" Shannon shoved Jim's chest, not forceful enough to send him backward, and glared up at him. "Merlin made the Amulet - you wouldn't have been able to do anything to stop him. And in any case, we've got more immediate problems. Starting with you." At the last, she threw a dagger pulled out of her sleeve in the same motion, and the blade slammed into the drywall just next to the young woman who'd introduced herself as Kahina, and been identified as a werewolf by Shannon. Kahina flinched back from the projectile, hand retreating from the stack of bracelets spread over a workbench. "What the hell are you up to?"
"Saving your friend's life," Kahina retorted, folding her arms. "For which you haven't even thanked me."
"You're a werewolf!" Shannon snapped. "My brother said the - Emperor of the Moon or whatever tells you what to do, and he's one of Merlin's lackeys, ergo..."
"Ah." Kahina shrugged, rubbing her hands along her biceps. "That's technically true - we can't disobey the Moon King's orders, but there's been a...regime change." When Shannon didn't react, Kahina sighed. "His grandson popped up out of nowhere and killed him, and the kid's been running around trying to get the packs to stand down. Those that will listen, anyway."
"Aha!" Shannon pointed a finger at her. "You said werewolves can't disobey him; how can they choose to ignore him?"
"I don't know," Kahina replied. "All I know is some packs are stuck up their own asses with some fake-ass 'alpha wolf' bullshit, some just fucked out of here at the first opportunity, and some decided to get back at the jerk who wanted to be king of the werewolves. I, in case you can't figure out, am one of the latter. Well, at least until we had a run-in with the Immortal Fucking Legion."
"Yeah, who is he?" Seamus asked. He waved a square of paper at the group. "I got a card from a guy."
"Who are they," Kahina corrected. "And they're exactly what they sound like. Thirteen warriors. Nigh-indestructible, because every time one of them dies, the others get that much stronger."
"What? The math doesn't add up, there," Aja said, shaking her head. "Even if there's only one of them left, that's - thirteen times the strength of a normal human, which is - as strong as a troll warrior."
"I didn't say the strength of the defeated warrior is divided between the remainder," Kahina said.
"Oh," Aja said, at the same time Seamus said, "Fuck."
"What?" Jim demanded. "What's she-"
"When the first warrior dies, the remaining twelve get twice as strong," Seamus said, "and when the second one does, the remaining eleven get twice as strong again, making them four times as strong-"
"How many of the Immortal Legion remain?" Aja demanded.
"Presuming you didn't kill that guy - seven."
"Sixty-four," Aja concluded. "They're sixty-four times as strong."
"And if you kill one of them, the rest will be one hundred twenty-eight," Kahina said, "so you can imagine our dilemma. How do you get rid of them without killing one and making the rest of them stronger?"
"Well," Mordred mused, snapping the book he'd been perusing closed, "the magic can't be instantaneous, so if you got them in one place, and killed them within, oh, two seconds of each other, you wouldn't have a problem." After a moment of silence, he looked around the assembled teens. "What?"
"How do you know that?" Shannon demanded, while Aja asked, "Will it really work?"
Mordred tried to step back from the two gazes, bumped into the wall, and then scooted a step closer to Jim. Drawing his nail absently along the spine of his book, he shrugged. "It should - it's impossible to make a spell effect every point on Earth at once."
"Yeah, but you're talking about killing a guy who's bulletproof," Seamus protested. "No, correction, seven bulletproof guys! And you don't even know how many are here, which you need to know because if you don't kill them at the same time, the rest will get stronger!"
"It's Merlin's magic - or that of his servants - that did it, right?" Aja asked. At a nod from Kahina, she grinned. "Then I have a plan."
"How?" Shannon demanded.
"For one," Aja replied, "it is possible an orichalcum weapon could kill them no matter how strong they are. For another, they are here to keep an eye on Arcadia Oaks without risking Merlin or one of his important servants. And that means a big enough problem can get all of them here to deal with it so Merlin doesn't have to."
"Do you have an idea?" Shannon asked, "or is this just thinking out loud?"
"Merlin doesn't know you're alive, does he?" Aja asked, looking to Mordred. "And with the trouble he went through killing you and your mother the first time around-"
"No," Jim snapped, stepping between Mordred and Aja. "You're not going to use him as bait. He's been through enough with what Merlin did to him-"
"You say that," Shannon interrupted, "but it isn't your decision." She glanced at Aja, lips pressed thin. "Merlin really wants him dead?"
"Me or my mother are supposed to be the ones to kill him," Mordred replied, "and if he dies, it's going to be in Arcadia. If he finds out I'm alive and here, he'll do everything in his power to kill me, but stay away himself until he's sure I'm dead."
Everyone - Aja, Shannon, Kahina, and even Seamus - nodded, watching Mordred as if they were taking the suggestion seriously, as if it was okay to dangle Mordred in front of Merlin, to risk him dying again, for a - chance at killing the Immortal Legion.
"No!" Jim howled; everyone jerked away from him at the sound, the sight of him angry, even Kahina. "I'm not watching someone else I love-"
Something came to rest on Jim's back; he twitched, turned, and found Mordred standing next to him (he hadn't moved away), one hand against the small of Jim's back. Mordred's eyes darted to meet Jim's gaze, and Jim felt his heart launch into a furious, racing beat. He bolted from the room, ignoring Mrs. Longhannon's startled shout at the sight of a troll bursting out of her basement, shoving the nearest door open and sitting back against it to keep it closed while he tried to ride out the trollish equivalent of a panic attack. His claws only scratched the skin of his palms as he clenched his hands in his lap, biting back a full-body growl and fighting down the urge to rip into the source of his fear (because Jim was the source of his fear, or Mordred, and attacking either of them was unthinkable, or impossible, in some combination). Because it was going to happen - a high-value target like Mordred was the best way to attract the rest of the Immortal Legion without risking the wizard himself showing up. And then-
Something slipped out of the shadows at the corner of the room; Jim was shifting to rise before a familiar scent (human, albeit with fresh, chill scent Jim suspected was the result of Mordred's inhuman heritage) came to him, and he stumbled, the instinctive growl turning into a rough cough. Mordred tugged the rolling chair behind the desk (Jim took a real look to realize he was in some sort of study) around and sat on it just within Jim's reach. He wasn't smiling, but his gaze, steady, green, bright in the dim room, was unafraid.
"I meant it," Jim said, voice softer than he'd been accustomed to since his assumption of a troll form became permanent. "It wasn't a - I've felt this way for a...while. But you weren't - it wouldn't have worked, when you were dead, and then I didn't want you to feel pressured, or to think you owed me anything, after I went to the Underworld to get you back. And - you don't, you don't even owe me an answer. I just wanted you to know, if you, or I, or both of us, die, how I felt."
Jim let his breath out in a huff, and the panic went with it. Whatever happened next, it was out of his hands.
"Hm," Mordred murmured. "Galahad thought so. Of course you would have begged Death for Toby's or your mother's life, but." He bit his lip, and his cheeks flushed. "It was different, with us." He was quiet a moment. "But I...can't." Jim's chest clenched, precursor to a pain he had to put off until when he could afford to find Toby and mope. "I made things worse the first time I was alive - if I have the chance to make them better, even at risk to myself, I have to take it."
"What?" Jim's chest was still tight, but the confusion, the disconnect between what he'd expected to hear, and what Mordred had said, eased the pain.
"You can't tell me what to do, Jim," Mordred said. "No matter...what we are to each other, it's my life, and my nature, to make this choice."
And the tightness was gone, replaced with a buzz, an electric feeling in Jim's bones. "And what's that?" he asked. "What we are to each other?"
"A trick of fate," Mordred replied. "Two souls never meant to meet, and yet." His lips quirked upward. "Your courage and compassion entranced me, and now…" He sighed, shoulders slumping a little. "A selfish little voice wants to find another way, an excuse to guarantee another day with you. But it isn't me, and I think, once you calm down, you'd know it isn't you." He reached out, thumb brushing across Jim's cheek, and his smile was gentle, fond. "But yes, I like you quite a lot, too, James Lake Jr."
The man, who when pressed, had said Seamus could call him 'Legion', squeezed Seamus shoulder, a painful grip. They were standing at the exact center of the high school football field, the floodlights illuminating them, and the rest of the field.
"You had better be right about this," Legion muttered. "My brothers had important business elsewhere."
"I didn't teleport you to - where did you end up, anyway?"
"It isn't important," Legion snarled, nails digging into Seamus' arm. "Just if it is true…" His grip loosened. "It was the right thing to do, calling us. Mordred La Fay is a dangerous creature, and even if it is not him - you understand your friends are in the wrong. We serve Merlin - the wisest sorcerer in all of history."
If Seamus hadn't befriended Krel, who had seen first-hand what sort of world Merlin wanted, hadn't learned that one of Merlin's most fervent servants was the man whose influence had tormented one of his best friends for years, the spiel would have sounded more convincing. But he smiled at Legion, the polite smile he used when nodding along with his dad's surly rants, and hummed.
"Hello?" Aja's voice echoed across the field as she, and two other figures, stepped through the entrance. "I am looking for Seamus, my brother's friend whom we trust implicitly, enough to bring our friend Mordred with us, even though his existence is supposed to be secret!"
Seamus tried not to groan; in hindsight, it was clear the only thing that have saved Aja and Krel from being discovered as not human before was that everyone had presumed them to be a different type of alien than they actually were. Instead he waved.
"Hey, over here!"
"Oh, look, Mordred!" Aja called out. "Our friend Seamus, and another friend about which we have no reason to be suspicious. Let us walk over there to greet them."
And Legion, like many adults, was so certain he was smarter than all of them, that he wasn't suspicious. Of course, it was Mordred, the elvish stretch to his face and ears, hair black like a raven's wing, eyes glittering green like his mother's. Jim trailed behind him, unarmed because he didn't have a magic sword anymore. Aja, leading the way, slowed when she saw Legion, eyes widening slightly.
"Seamus? Who is this?"
"Forgive me for not bowing, your majesty," Legion said, "but my brothers and I have business with your companion, there."
And six figures, men in suits, all but identical (except for the scars), stepped in from the corners of the field. "You may have heard of the Immortal Legion. Or not. It makes little difference, because the end result of this encounter will be the same."
Legion reached into his jacket, for a gun or what Seamus didn't know, so Seamus lunged at Legion on instinct.
"Oh no," Aja said halfheartedly, "curse your inevitable betrayal, weak-minded human." But because the time for deception was over, she was already turning to stand back-to-back-to-back with Jim and Mordred. "So, I'll take the two on the right, Jim takes the two on the left, and-"
Seamus gasped as Legion grabbed him by the neck, holding him at arm's length as he finished pulling a flask from his pocket, popped it open with a flick of his thumb, and splashed the contents over Aja, Jim, and Mordred by swinging it in a wide arc.
"What the hell?" Aja demanded, the dark liquid spreading as it dripped down her forehead, obscuring the faint symbol painted on her skin. "Is this-"
"Blood," Mordred said. "And if I had to guess - I'd say it was dragon blood."
"Did you think we'd come unprepared to kill a sorcerer?" Legion asked. "We have dragon scale mail, a few other surprises I won't elaborate on, and, of course, that little surprise, which should be just enough of a hindrance to let us kill you."
Legion dropped Seamus and lunged at Mordred while his brothers sprinted toward them as well. Aja kicked at Legion with no effect except to make him sidestep her as he slammed a fist into-
Well, Jim's stomach; trollish reflexes apparently counted for something in this fight, as Jim shoved Legion back. One of the approaching men (Legion Number Two, Seamus decided) screamed as a wolf leapt out from beneath the bleachers and landed on his back, snarling as they swiped at his chest. Another pair tackled Number Three; numbers Four and Five, apparently quick on the uptake, turned as the some dozen other wolves that made up Kahina's pack burst out onto the field.
"Clever girl," Number One muttered, slamming into Jim's stomach, low, to use his leverage to throw Jim out of the way and close in on Mordred. Mordred, however, had used the time Jim bought him to take off his bloodstained shirt, and threw Number One aside with a swipe of an open palm. Six was caught up around the 20-yard line, fighting Shannon, who was wearing the full samurai regalia she'd been keeping in her basement, and carrying an axe nearly as tall as she was. He was fast, but the blade seemed to swing to intercept him any time he tried to break past (moving ahead of her, like the blade was wielding Shannon, instead of vice versa).
The Immortal Legion might have unholy strength, durability, and reflexes, but they had apparently written Seamus off completely, because Seven did not see the horseshoe coming until it slammed into the side of his skull, with all the force a third-string quarterback could put into the throw.
And the Immortal Legion might have been strong, and fast, with iron bones and stone skin, but that just meant when something collided with their skull, their brain rattled against a harder surface than mere bone. Number Seven stumbled, swaying as the shock of brain against skull threatened to pull him into unconsciousness, and Seamus rose, picking up the horseshoe as he stood. One of the Legions (Number Three? There was a wolf gnawing on his ankle, and he was pushing another's jaws away from his throat) stepped in front of Seamus and grabbed his hand. He squeezed, forcing the edges of the horseshoe to dig into Seamus' skin.
"There is a price for betraying Merlin," the Legion hissed.
"Yeah," Seamus said, "I die a little sooner, right?"
The Legion's face, tight with pain, twitched until it showed a vicious rictus. "There are fates worse than death, Mr. Johnson." He snarled and reached up, ripping the wolf away from his back and hurling them to the side, before clamping his free hand around Seamus' throat. "But we don't really have time for creativity."
As Seamus fought for air, vision dimming as he struggled against the Legion's grip, he thought he heard something. A voice, whispering in his ear. He thought he felt something. The brush of hair along his arm. He thought he saw something. Eyes, grey and kind, but sad.
Your death does not have to be for his benefit…
A desperate, airless gasp instead drew air into Seamus' lungs, a startling relief as he sank to his knees. In front of him, face frozen in shock, was the Legion who'd tried to kill Seamus. Blood welled up from the Legion's mouth, probably because of the blade, glimmering like stars, piercing his chest. Behind the Legion, Jim, face grim, eyes stormy, stood, and when he met Seamus' gaze, he nodded and pulled the sword free.
"My death is his," the Legion murmured as he slumped forward. "And my brothers'."
"Goddamnit, Jim!" Aja shouted. "You had one job!" Seamus heard the sounds of - dull explosions or something (he remembered Krel had mentioned they'd brought some sort of laser gun with them; he felt dull disappointment he was too exhausted to look to see it). And then Aja yelped.
"I wasn't going to let him die!" Jim retorted. Something slammed into Jim's back - one of the Legions, holding Jim down with his foot, the sword (it had to be Excalibur) pinned beneath him.
"Didn't they tell you how the Immortal Legion works?" the Legion on Jim's back asked. "You kill one of us, and the others get stronger. So now we overpower you, kill you and baby Pendragon over there, and kill your friend anyway. Nice job."
"Get off him," Aja snarled. One of the Legions had her arms pinned behind her back, but she was struggling, her eyes a bright, almost glowing shade of electric blue.
"You are not a queen any longer," the Legion pinning Jim retorted. "You fled your planet before it could fall, and your people labor under the Sleeping God."
"But I still have my people!" Aja snapped. "Me, my brother, Tobias...and Jim is his brother - and you will not hurt him!" She dropped her center of gravity, like a wrestler, and, twisting on her feet, yanked the Legion off his balance, and sprinted at Jim. Another grabbed her wrist; Aja growled, pivoted in place, grabbed his arm, and twisted, throwing him off his feet. He bounced into the turf twenty yards away while Aja grabbed the Legion on top of Jim by his forearm and yanked. There was a tense moment where he strained against her grip, trying to keep his balance and stay in place, but then Aja pulled again, forcing him around to face her.
He used the movement, though, to wind up a punch to her gut.
Or would have, if she hadn't caught his fist in one hand, twisting it around to push the hand away. Her teeth were bared in a vicious smile.
"I am Aja, Queen of Akiridion 5, and these people, this planet, are under my protection."
And she slammed her skull into the Legion's jaw.
Seamus could only watch as she engaged another Legion while her prior opponent spat blood and shook his head, trying to steady himself. She was strong - stronger than any individual member of the Legion (who were one hundred twenty-eight times as strong as a human). Krel wasn't that strong.
But Krel could create shields made out of force, and Toby could cause buildings to collapse under their own weight. There was a hidden power in the people of Akiridion 5, and Aja's had finally awoken.
But as strong as she was, despite her backup, Aja was fighting six people - hardened warriors with centuries of combat experience between them. One caught an arm, and as she tried to turn, another caught her other arm. So pinned, it was easy for a third to grab her throat, standing to the side to avoid a kick.
"A nice trick," one of the Legions said, "but ultimately futile. No one has defeated more than one of us."
"She didn't need to defeat you," Mordred said. Seamus jerked his gaze to where Jim had been laying. Mordred had one hand pressed against the bloodied blade of Excalibur. "She just needed to get you all in one place."
Tendrils of shadow erupted from the ground underneath each of the Legion, ensnaring their arms, legs, throats, before retracting, dragging them into a puddle of darkness beneath their feet.
Mordred swayed, the sword falling from his grip, and probably would have fallen if Jim hadn't been suddenly right next to him, one arm holding Mordred steady against his side.
"Are you alright?" Jim asked.
"It takes...a lot more to travel between worlds than across one," Mordred said. But he gave Jim a smile (something soft, tired, and affectionate; Seamus felt a flush on his cheeks realizing Mordred might not have been so open if he remembered other people were here). "But they won't be hurting anyone - not for a long time."
"I thought we were going to kill them," Kahina, shifting from wolf to human shape with an easy stretch.
"I'd really rather not," Mordred said. "And I didn't exactly send them somewhere pleasant. Now," he continued, "I really would like a shirt. And there was a book in your brother's collection that may be of some use to us."
Kovacs frowned as they arrived at another split in the tunnel. He looked back at their guide, a human scholar successfully plied with the promise of valuable anthropological data, from whom they had (probably) successfully hidden their true natures.
"Which way?" Kovacs demanded.
"Ah." The scholar looked down at their notes, shuffling through dozens of translations of three or four interviews allegedly made of Galahad, the only person who'd ever seen the Holy Grail. Their concentration was likely improved by the fact that the first wrong turn they'd made had lost them half their human contingent to a pit trap.
Or maybe their concentration was eroded. Not everyone was used to working with the threat of certain death hovering over their shoulders.
Kovacs wondered, briefly, if some encouragement would help.
"I believe in you," he said, earning a startled look that was likely their guide's expression of gratitude. He nodded, satisfied that he was doing well at this 'leadership' thing. If the changeling race survived Merlin's rulership, Kovacs might have a real future within the Janus Order.
"Well, the notes say that in the end, one who would drink this cup will sit at the Lord's right hand, so-"
"Excellent!" Kovacs turned to the right and strode forward, only to be brought up short when their guide grabbed his wrist. He spun on the guide, certain his eyes flashed as he glowered at them. "What is the meaning of this?"
"That's the wrong way," the guide said. "The Lord would be sitting on a throne, so his right hand would be-"
"Left," Kovacs agreed. "Ah." He turned down the left path, pausing after a few steps. "Thank you."
Their journey down this path, the last path, was uneventful, and Kovacs felt his excitement growing. A flicker of light ahead suggested they were approaching their final destination, and Kovacs sped up.
"Remember," the guide said, "I am fairly certain someone involved in The Last Crusade knew what they were talking about; there will be a choice, and the correct grail will be simple, wooden-"
"The cup of a carpenter," drawled a familiar voice.
And Kovacs stopped in the entrance to the chamber. It was wide, empty except for a table set against the far wall. It was ancient, sturdy, and covered in hundreds of chalices. The cups were of every shape and size, from cups that were all but thimbles, to wide, two-handle chalices.
What they had in common is that every single one was carved from wood.
And leaning against the nearest side of the table was a tall, slim troll, eyes glittering green as she smiled toothily at Kovacs.
"Do you wonder what happens if you pick up the wrong cup?" Nomura asked. She pushed herself up from the edge of the table, stalking toward Kovacs and the rest of the team, hair twisting lazily behind her, expression fixed in her smug grin. "We took great care not to find out - Squab may be a goblin, but he is a loyal friend."
"Chaka!" A green goblin with a mustache drawn in pen on his face waved at Kovacs from the middle of the pile of cups.
"Is that a demon?" their guide asked, voice wavering.
"Certainly not," Kovacs said. "Nomura is a changeling, like myself - like most of this little party." He shed his human guise, extending his claws. "She threw her lot in with those who hold the foolish belief they might someday kill Myrddin Wyllt." He cracked his neck, and his knuckles. "Indulge my curiosity, Nomura - what brought you here?"
Nomura rolled her eyes. "We - the little band of fools - were talking, and thought it was odd Merlin got his hands on artifacts that embody three of the six fundamental magical forces. The conversation...devolved to this weird tangent about hedgehogs and some sort of glove, but it was more or less decided that Merlin's got his eye on some sort of cosmic control afforded someone who commands all magic. And as for how we got here - finding things is why we kept the goblins around." She turned briefly, flashing the goblin a thumbs up.
And then she was smiling at Kovacs again.
"So...are you feeling lucky?" she asked.
Kovacs laughed. He couldn't help it; all this effort, and they didn't get it. "Have you gotten this far without understanding Merlin, Zelda? If there are a thousand cups on this table, and each wrong choice will kill the hapless soul who picked it up, he will kill a thousand people to find it."
"No, we know exactly how Merlin thinks," Nomura replied. She drew her khopeshes, the sound echoing strangely, as if-
Kovacs spun to his right, where, standing next to the table, in the shadows on the edge of the room, was a figure folded up in robes, twin blades held at the ready.
"Mr. Kovacs?" the guide asked, voice wavering.
"You had to know you would have to fight," Kovacs said, "and you must have known we would come in full force. There are two score changelings with me - by which I mean, you will need more than two people to beat us."
"Funny," the robed figure said, "that you think there's only two of us."
From each of the wooden cups rose a creature - smaller than a goblin, but winged, brightly colored, blue, green, and yellow, and holding two swords. Tiny swords, but sharp, he was sure.
"My name is Toothiana, last of the Sisters of Flight," the robed figure said. "And I have a quarrel with your employer."
Chapter 4: The Reluctant Dragon
Eli has an idea, and it's sort of a terrible one. But they have few enough ideas that they're willing to try anything.
"Hey!" Eli looked up from his math homework (if the world didn't end this year, he'd still like a chance at getting into college). Mordred, shirtless and leaning on Jim to a degree that it probably counted as being carried, tossed a book from the library door. Eli caught it neatly (It had been easier to improve his reflexes than train Steve out of a long habit of throwing stuff to people instead of handing it over like a normal person), finding it a slim notebook that seemed to be slightly scorched.
"What-" He looked up, but Mordred and Jim were gone (they looked exhausted, and if Eli remembered correctly, they'd gone to help out around Arcadia, so they'd probably fought something nasty). So he looked down at the book, flipping it over when he realized he was looking at the back of it, and his breath caught in his throat.
The Summoning of Dragons, the title proclaimed.
Eli read the book; it didn't take long. He read it a few more times; it took longer, this time. On one hand, the book was very short, its contents simple. A man who understood very little about dragons had somehow found out about the realm between worlds in which dragons resided, and had searched for a way to reach through and pull something - someone - back. Between the rambling pseudo-philosophy and terrible spelling was something real, a spell to invite dragons into the real world - not a summoning as people understood, because no power could compel a dragon. But dragons hadn't retreated from the world of their own volition; reality lacked the ambient magic to sustain them. They argued endlessly with each other for lack of any other stimulation, so a way out? With a sacrifice of power, magic to anchor them? It might as well been a compulsion, because no dragon would resist an invitation like that.
In the wrong hands, the spell could be used to raise an army.
And in the right hands...the spell could be used to raise an army.
(The last few pages of the book were burned, following warnings about how the dragons summoned were reflections of the summoner, a clear promise of terrible things if Merlin got his hands on it.)
Eli wasn't stupid, which is why he didn't rush off immediately. But he did scoop the book up and hurry from the library, intent on finding someone-
Well, not Dictatious, which is who he ran into on leaving the library. Eli fell back with a yelp, book dropping from his grip. As he bent to retrieve it, Dictatious plucked it from the ground, eyes narrowing as he took in the burned cover, the spidery hand in which the title was written.
“Where did you find this?” Dictatious asked.
“I don’t know - I mean Jim found it, probably around Arcadia when he and Aja-“
“It’s a troublesome book,” Dictatious said smoothly. “Causes a great deal of mayhem every time it resurfaces. I wonder what you were planning to do with it.”
“Nothing bad!” Eli retorted, grabbing at the book. Dictatious let it go easily, but his smile was sharp, a smirk with the hint of tooth to it. “I thought-“
“Thought what?” Dictatious demanded, looming, close, teeth exposed, sharp, a reminder that he had until recently sided with the Gumm Gumms. “Dragons are the most intractable beasts in the universe; a summoned dragon is as likely to turn on you as obey you.”
“I know, but-“
“And what could you possibly hope to accomplish by summoning a dragon? We have two already - one-and-a-half, technically.”
Eli took a deep breath. “I didn’t think summoning one dragon would do much good.”
Dictatious' grin faded as he raised one, two, three eyebrows. The expression - incredulous, judgmental - made Eli's chest hitch anxiously. After two quiet moments, the troll shrugged. "Well, as we're clearly throwing all sense to the wind, I might as well tag along."
"I-" Eli took a step back, clutching the book tightly to his chest. He wasn't certain what he'd expected from Dictatious, but jumping onboard wasn't it. "I hadn't quite gotten to the 'action' phase of this plan."
"Well, then, you are in luck - action is my middle name!"
"Dictatious Action Galadrigal?"
Dictatious glared at Eli, but a little more centered (remembering he could be several times larger than Dictatious and breathe fire if he wanted), Eli didn't quail back. "Anyway," Dictatious ground out, "I am an expert at turning the half-formed visions of madmen into concrete plans."
"Yeah, but everyone you've worked for is dead," Eli retorted, ignoring the possible suggestion that Eli numbered among the 'madmen' Dictatious wanted to assist.
"I actually successfully raised my brother without getting either of us killed," Dictatious snapped. "And Morgana trusted me with babysitting. And have you forgotten who brought the 'raise Mordred Pendragon from the dead' plan to the table? So how about you drop the attitude?"
"Okay!" Eli stepped fully out of the library, letting his hand drop to hold the book loosely at his side. "What's your plan?"
"We're going to need some muscle and, I hesitate to add, some additional magical expertise." Dictatious grinned at Eli. "Let's go find Dr. Lake."
Finding Dr. Lake meant finding Aster, and Blinky. The three had gathered in what had once been this community's forge, a wide room containing a massive hearth, rusted anvil, and piles of broken weapons. The Toymaker, Nicholas St. North, had opined the room would make a passable replacement for the workshop Merlin had destroyed, presuming they could find enough fuel and a passable anvil. He was off negotiating with Gatto, and Bular and Jack there as backup.
Dr. Lake and Aster were arguing about runes, and Blinky was offering occasional interjections; when he saw Dictatious, however, he scowled and bared his teeth at his brother. In a moment the expression was gone as he hurried toward Eli.
"Elijah! Good to see you. How can we help you?"
"Uh." Eli glanced at Dictatious. "Dictatious said we needed Dr. Lake's advice, so…"
"And what exactly are you planning?" Blinky demanded of Dictatious.
Dictatious shrugged. "I'm just trying to help out Elijah, here. Because he has an idea that could turn the tables on Merlin, which, if I remember the orientation correctly, is the reason we're all here?"
"Oh Lord," Dr. Lake muttered. "Uth Dwiirok Qethsegol," she said in a steady tone, barely louder than her normal speaking voice. The stone underneath them bulged and rose up, taking the shape of crude chairs as it did. "Sit," she commanded, in a voice with no more authority than any mother, and yet they all did without further comment. "How about we start from the beginning?" she asked.
"I found - well, Jim and Mordred found - this book," Eli said, holding up The Summoning of Dragons.
"And Dictatious was helping you find a way to dispose of it safely?" Blinky asked. When Eli didn't answer immediately, he groaned. "That is one of the most dangerous tomes in the known world - dragons are wild, uncontrollable, a grim reflection of the darkest impulses of their summoner-"
"I'm right here," Eli snapped; a flick of a glance from Blinky made clear he'd forgotten that tidbit in his tirade against dangerous magic.
"I - of course," Blinky corrected. "The difficulty being dragons cannot be controlled, and so any magic to summon them results in the summoning of an immortal, intelligent being with magic to match all but the greatest sorcerers. There's no telling what their intentions are-"
"But that, dear brother, is where you are mistaken," Dictatious interrupted, teeth bared in a gleeful smile. "Tell me, Aster, do you know what drove the dragons from the physical realm?"
"Because when the Constellations fell and the Golden Age ended, there wasn't enough ambient magic to sustain a creature as inherently magical as a dragon," Aster said.
"And why," Dictatious pressed, "was there less ambient magic?"
Aster's right ear flicked - annoyed, Eli thought. He shrugged. "With the Constellations gone, they - kept balance, I think I heard."
"The medieval alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan believed magic was the aether set between the heavenly bodies," Dr. Lake said. "It infused every living thing, and on their death, the magic within them was released back into the environment. He believed the Philosopher's Stone was a - natural mechanism by which these energies were recycled, transforming death into life. Ibn Umayl expanded on his work - theorizing something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, expanding on a force he called Thanatos, capturing some portion of every cycle-" And she paused, narrowing her eyes as she looked to Dictatious. "Merlin?" she asked.
"Merlin," Dictatious agreed. He stood and began pacing along one end of the circle of chairs. "The practice of Blood Magic captures energy for the use of the caster. And whether because of Blood Sorcerers' predilection for hoarding energy, or because Blood Magic actually consumes that energy, that energy is denied to the rest of the universe. There are few causes that could unite dragonkind - the destruction of the man who has single-handedly denied them access to this universe is likely to be one of them."
"I'm sorry, what?" Blinky demanded. "Are you honestly suggesting we summon the entirety of dragonkind to destroy Merlin? How do you intend to lure him to Arcadia once you've done that?"
"Entirely unnecessary," Dictatious replied. "Merlin's last battle may be in Arcadia Oaks, but that does not mean he cannot suffer serious defeat before that. Can you imagine what would happen if they found and destroyed his grail before our final confrontation?"
Blinky scowled but didn't protest - it would be hard to. Merlin's grail was the best-kept secret in the universe - even Shadow Weaver, an alternate-universe Claire Nuñez who had visited countless universes to curtail the works of alternate Merlins, and thus had more expertise on his history and motivation than any other person, had no idea what his grail might be. They'd debated on it, whether he would keep it close, or hidden, if there was anyone he might trust to watch it, or if it would be guarded by traps. Mary refused to participate in the discussions, primarily because she was spending every waking moment reading everything she could get her hands on, routinely downing doctor-approved quantities of Elixlore to consolidate her research. The collective experience and magical power of every dragon in existence might actually be enough to find it, and deal with whatever protections it possessed.
"Summoning a horde-"
"A thunder," Eli corrected.
"A thunder of dragons," Blinky continued, "in the middle of our refuge still seems like a...bad plan."
"Of course it's a bad plan, little brother," Dictatious said. "Which is why I intended to bring the thunder to Merlin."
"I still think this is an insane gambit that is doomed to failure," Blinky muttered as Jamie (Bennett, who was somehow the only one among all of them off of Merlin's radar, and thus least likely to cause problems if they got pulled over, and whose mother was surprisingly understanding about the request to borrow her minivan on a mission that was probably technically terrorism) merged onto I-495.
"Would you like me to write your objection down somewhere?" Aster asked. "For posterity, so if we all die, future generations will know Blinky was right?"
"Not die," Aaarrrgghh muttered from behind them.
"You see?" Dictatious asked. "Your boyfriend's on board with this!"
"On board with what?" Blinky demanded. "I still don't know what you're counting as success with this plan, but if it's 'not all of us dying', spoiler alert, we could have done that back in New Jersey!"
"Can you maybe shut up back there for a second?" Jamie asked, swerving into the rightmost lane of the highway. "The traffic's a little worse than back home, which is an accomplishment, so I need to focus."
Steve bit back a sigh when the argument stopped; the discussion was stressful enough just because Blinky was still violently annoyed by his brother, and made worse by the fact Steve sort of agreed with him. Commanding an army of dragons may be unquestionably cool, but doing so without an immediate enemy to face was sort of dumb. Unleashing a horde of dragons with the directive of finding and destroying an artifact they couldn't describe seemed even dumber. But Eli and Dictatious were smart, and Dr. Lake hadn't objected, which meant either they understood more about this situation than Steve did, or they were so fucked even a stupid idea like this was an improvement over doing nothing.
And then there was a whole bunch of personal bullshit Steve did not have time to think about right now, much less talk about with Eli, who was still studying The Summoning of Dragons in the back seats. But because Jamie had commanded they all be quiet, Steve didn't have many outlets beyond watching traffic (and it was terrible).
...Well, that and worrying about what would happen when they got to Washington. Aside from being the seat of Merlin's power on Earth, where he could get them all arrested or shot without using any magic at all, Steve's father was here. They were probably past the point where Clyde Palchuk might try to win Steve over, for reasons starting with Steve being the 'pansy' his father had tried to prevent him from becoming, and ending with the fact that one of Steve's friends had broken his hand.
...Not that Steve would go along with his dad; if there was an upside to having worked with the Order of Dawn, it was that it had taught Steve nothing was worth teaming up with fascists over.
Still, it was a point of worry, that the guy in charge of the army Merlin could sic on them had a personal vendetta against Steve.
But then again, Merlin wanted them all dead, one way or another, so it probably wasn't worth worrying about.
Eli looked away as Aster drew a claw across his own forearm, leaving a thin red line as he raised his bloodied finger to Aaarrrgghh's forehead.
"I thought you didn't practice Blood Magic," Dictatious muttered. "Thought you could smell the stench of it."
"Martyrs are a bit of a different story," Aster retorted, frowning as he traced a rune along Aaarrrgghh's skin. "Sacrificing yourself - a willing sacrifice - has always been an option. And I'd rather not take any chances as long as we're this close to...him."
"Him who?" Steve demanded.
Aster wrinkled his nose. "I'm hoping that's a rhetorical question. No wizard worth his pointy hat isn't going to pepper the fifty-mile area around him with spies - magical and mundane."
"Wiz - you mean Mer-"
Dictatious slapped a hand over Steve's mouth. "Weren't you listening?" he hissed. "He has spies, and they are sure to react if they hear someone mention his real name."
"Thnotuuii ahhm?" Steve asked through Dictatious' mouth. Dictatious pulled his hand away, still glaring. "What are we supposed to call him?"
"You Know Who," Jamie replied.
"Hardly ideal," Aster replied, as he moved on to Blinky, drawing a duplicate of the curling rune he'd added to Aaarrrgghh's forehead. "But passable."
"What's that rune for, anyway?" Eli asked. Aster didn't look in his direction, focused on the rune, but an ear twitched.
"If you'd told us, I could have brought an invisibility sphere," Blinky said.
"I didn't say invisibility; I said concealment," Aster retorted. "Stay still." After a moment, he added, "Any wizard scanning an area for intruders is going to look for obvious tricks like invisibility or camouflage. Our best strategy is magic that makes us difficult to notice, instead." He glanced at Eli, frowning. "Needless to say, it won't work on you, so you might consider something for yourself."
So Eli held back, watching Aster sketch the same rune on each of their foreheads, trying to think of a phrase that wouldn't hide him so much as keep people from noticing him. They were parked in a garage about a half mile from the White House, waiting for the sun to set so their troll contingent wouldn't die instantly on stepping outside. Eli had read the book a dozen or so times on the ride down from New Jersey, and spent the rest of the time thinking.
About dragons - which the book, which everyone, knew to be immortal thaumovores who dwelled in a realm outside the multiverse. Who needed to consume magic to sustain their existence.
Which people treated with the same wariness as they did Blood Mages.
And while he had to agree on that point - being nearly immune to magic, and a massive, nearly indestructible lizard besides, made a dragon dangerous - he wondered if people understood dragons as well as they claimed. He'd never found himself hungering for magic, so while he knew magic tended to erode in his presence, he doubted he needed it to exist. Something else had kept the dragons away from this plane of existence, and he couldn't help but feel it was important.
"Alright, that should be good enough," Aster said. "You ready, Eli?"
Eli nodded. "Feim Nol Miin."
Aster blinked, scowled, ears swiveling. "I can still smell you, so I'm going to assume you're still here."
"Me, too," Aaarrrgghh rumbled.
"What are you talking about?" Steve demanded. "Where's Eli?"
A hand clamped down on Eli's shoulder. "Here."
He waved at everyone. "Hi?"
"Come on, let's get this over with," Dictatious grumbled.
Eli stepped outside first, into the half-lit streets of downtown Washington. His appearance drew no comment, but as he was now, it wouldn't. Blinky, who left next, drew no apparent attention, either. And then they were all out, walking among the crowds, no one giving them a second glance as they made their way to the Reflecting Pool. It was dark, and only late spring, so the area wasn't crowded, giving ample space for Eli to step up and begin his work.
There was magic gathered here, something stale, and choking. Aster was huddled at the edge of their group, ears down, and Eli knew he could feel it, too. How many Blood Mages were gathered here in support of Merlin, how many grails? Enough to open the gate Eli needed, he was sure (using his own magic didn't seem to drain him, the way other magic did, the way other sorcerers tired; why should other dragons be different?).
Holding the book up for reference, he recited the incantation - spoken not in Draconic, but Angelic, the tongue that could raise the dead, or set them to rest.
"I call to you, the ancient wyrm. I stand before a threshold, and my mind becomes a passage. My words are the invitation, so that you may cross over, so long as this world can sustain you."
His words echoed briefly around them, and for a moment, Eli saw a baleful yellow eye reflected within the pool before him. And he could feel it - a probing thought, a mind or a spirit looking for something. But then the voice died away, and the reflection faded. Eli swallowed, a fist around his chest, frustration that he couldn't even call one dragon.
"Hey! What are you doing here?"
Eli jerked around at the shout; a man in police blues was striding toward him. He felt a moment of panic - he should have been hidden from view! He twisted a little, finding his allies' forms blurred at the edges, the hint of power that Aster's rune gave to them.
And then something tugged at his hand, yanking The Summoning of Dragons from his grip.
"Hide," Steve hissed, "and figure out what went wrong." And then he stepped forward, waving the book high. "Doing magic," Steve said to the cop. "A spell to summon pigs - and look! It worked!"
The cop scowled, and Eli, who wasn't stupid, who got what Steve, brave, sweet, stupid Steve, was doing, muttered, "Feim Nol Miin," so even as the cop looked around, his gaze slipped off of Eli.
"You don't want to piss me off, kid," the cop said, "so how about you hand over that book and clear out?"
"Varsity quarterback," Steve replied, "so how about you try and catch me?"
And he tucked the book under his arm and bolted. The cop swore and took off after him, leaving Eli and the others standing at the edge of the pool.
"So," Dictatious said after a moment's silence, "how about we start from the beginning and figure out what you did wrong?"
When the door to the interrogation room opened, Steve said, "I'm not going to talk to anyone until I have a lawyer."
A high, tittering laugh was the only response as a woman settled on the seat across from Steve. She was, as seemed common among Merlin's ranks, white, blond, and blue-eyed, skin smooth, face symmetrical. She smiled, a perfect expression that left Steve uneasy. She sat, still, watching Steve with her bright eyes, for a long moment, before she spoke.
"You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that you are in the hands of an organization with any concern for your, shall we say, rights. By which I mean that while you are nominally in the hands of the Capitol Police, your ultimate fate rests with me, and I am an emissary of a...higher power."
Steve didn't shift his expression; Darci had made it clear any response could be used as justification to roll over his Fifth Amendment rights.
The woman sighed, reaching out one hand to grab Steve's wrist. Her smile faded, gaze sharpening. "So how about we abandon the pretense that keeping silent will offer you any protection whatsoever?"
"How about you fuck off?" Steve retorted.
"Your sophomoric taunts will not help your situation remotely," the woman offered with a smirk. "Not when you were found consorting with one of our Lord's mortal enemies, a mere stone's throw from the White House."
Steve opened his mouth to retort (because 'consorting' sounded like they'd been, like, making out or something) before the words processed. "Aren't I one of your Lord's mortal enemies?"
The woman laughed. "If you were one of Myrddin Wyllt's mortal enemies, you would be dead now. No, you, Steve Palchuk, are...an asset." She reached up and brushed a hand along Steve's cheek, a touch that sent a jolt along his spine, before she sat back, smiling (her lips were dark red, a shade like dried blood). "Or you could be."
"I...don't think I've heard that before," he said, slowly. He'd expected an interrogation, threats, but nothing like this - barely understood what was happening.
"You destroyed the Dawnbringer," the woman said. "Killed Grendel. Each acts worthy of a true hero."
"The Dawn-" Steve tried to jerk back, stopped when his wrists chafed against cuffs tying him to the table. His heart was racing, mind spinning, because no one had seen him at the Battle of Fading Dawn, no one (not even Eli) knew he'd shot Hans, and having seen at least one former member of the Order of Dawn in Merlin's crew, he couldn't know this woman wasn't one of them. "How - where did you hear that?"
"Why haven't you told them?" the woman asked. "I would have thought you'd appreciate being known as Steve Palchuk, Savior of Trollkind."
"What do you care?" Steve snapped. "And what does this have to do with me being an - asset?"
The woman leaned forward, leaning her forearms on the table. "You are a hero, Steven - a man with the strength to stand against any foe. Such men become kings, leaders, legends, and Myrddin Wyllt has long sought to add such legends to his employ."
"And where does my dad figure in all that?"
The woman's lips twitched. "A necessity, but hardly a replacement for Arthur. You, however…"
"Excuse me?" Steve asked, heart skipping. "When you say Arthur-"
"Do you think Merlin enjoys being served by dim-witted failures?" the woman retorted. "Spoiler alert - he does not. Merlin has supported great men like King Arthur, Themison of Atlantis, Alexander the Great!"
"And you think...I'm like them?" Steve asked, cautious.
"You could be," the woman replied. "If you accept his tutelage, his guidance. You can become Steven the Dragonslayer!"
"The fuck? I'm not gonna kill a dragon; I'm dating one!"
"A dragon lives forever," the woman replied, voice lilting, like a song Steve didn't recognize, "but not so little boys."
"W - what?"
Her lips quirked up again. "You've found your mind lingering on that thought, haven't you? Whether a dragon can care for you, knowing your lifetime is just seconds to them. Whether the trolls and Pooka and sorcerers that surround you will create a world in which you can thrive. Whether humans have a place there. Merlin, for his part, has a place for anyone who will submit to his leadership."
"-this world can sustain you," Eli finished. He held his breath, trying to ignore Dictatious counting in the background.
"Nine, ten. I don't think it's happening."
"Thank you," Eli ground out. "If you maybe have some helpful advice, feel free to share it." He took a deep breath. "I call to you, the ancient wyrm-"
"The Summoning of Dragons, hatchling?"
A dark shape, small, avian, hopped forward from the rim of the pool, form twisting and growing between one breath and the next, until there was a full-grown dragon standing between them and the pool. Kilgharrah, Merlin's familiar, smiled at them with teeth as long as Eli's forearm.
"What do you hope to accomplish with this?" Kilgharrah demanded. "Myrddin Wyllt drove my people from this plane of existence; no dragon can pose a threat to him."
"I'm not summoning a dragon," Eli replied. He closed his eyes. "I call to you-"
"Oh god, stop," Kilgharrah rumbled. "You're just embarrassing yourself."
"What? Am I mispronouncing it?"
Kilgharrah laughed. "Do you know what this spell is? It is a way for powerless monkeys to signal a world abundant in magic. To hear a dragon calling is a sign of weakness - a pathetic creature begging for another to come to him!" He wound his way forward; Eli stumbled back as Kilgharrah twisted his head around and spat, a wide spray of saliva that splashed over their entire group. Aaarrrgghh pulled Dictatious back as the others scattered, their outlines sharpening as his spit washed against the magic concealing them. "Did you think a dragon could fight this battle for you? Could defeat Merlin for you?"
There were shouts out of Eli's range of vision, a flurry of motion at the corner of his eyes.
"You have not earned the right to face him," Kilgharrah snarled.
"Hey, Archimedes." A familiar face, square, framed by blond hair, inset with eyes the color of dried blood, stepped around the hulking form of a full-grown dragon. There was a young man beside him, more familiar, and usually a more welcome sight than his father. A dozen men and women in military uniform stood with them. "See you've been holding down the fort. Good job."
"Clyde," Kilgharrah huffed. "I see you found your boy."
"Yes, I did." Clyde Palchuk patted his hand on Steve's shoulder. "We decided to give him another chance after he spoke to Sebile."
Kilgharrah twisted his head around, smile widening as his eyes glittered in the pre-dawn light. "You hear that, hatchling? All it took was a few words from Sebile to seduce your lover to our side."
"Seduce?" Eli said, voice sounding strangely distant to himself. "Pretty sure she's barking up the wrong tree there."
"Come on, Pepperbuddy," Steve drawled, "stop being so literal. They just thought it'd be a good idea to have a fucking dragonslayer on their side."
He was smirking - unrepentant, an easy smile on his face, and the shock, the moment of betrayal, frozen in place at the sight of it. Because…
A dragonslayer wasn't much use unless you had a dragon to fight. Wasn't much use unless you had a lot of dragons to fight.
You couldn't use magic to coerce dragons, and with Kilgharrah's claim that the spell was an inexcusable weakness to other dragons…
"This pool is a door!" Eli shouted; his throat burned with the power of the shout, his will pressed through English words instead of Draconic. "My mind is the path!"
Kilgharrah snorted. "What are you doing, hatchling? Using the monkeys' speech to call us?"
Eli looked up at Kilgharrah and continued. "I am Elijah, of Junmah'ferak's brood, and you will heed my call!"
Begging for aid, dragons would not respond, but Dragon Magic was about will, about force of mind (a dragon needed no magic beyond his own spirit, his own determination).
A massive scaled head breached the surface of the reflecting pool. Clyde Palchuk yelped as he stumbled toward the dragon, while Steve scrambled toward Kilgharrah. The soldiers opened fire at the dragon clambering out of the pool while another burst out of the pool at the far end, soaring up from the water to take a circuit around the Lincoln Memorial before landing on the roof. Bullets ricocheted off the first dragon's scales, who, apparently unconcerned by the fire, turned a blast of flame toward the soldiers. Another three dragons emerged from the pool, and Steve swiped at Kilgharrah with a dagger he hadn't brought with them to Washington (and beyond the shock of the moment, it seemed ludicrous that they would have seriously expected Steve to stab Eli with that). The dragon reared, snapping his tail at Steve; six more dragons soared through the portal that had once been the reflecting pool.
And Clyde, face a furious red, pulled out a gun, swinging it toward the dragon fighting with Steve before angling down toward the boy-
"Drop it!" The gun went flying at Eli's command, soaring into the pool (or the realm beyond it), while Steve slammed his dagger at Kilgharrah's thigh, which glanced off his scales. Steve fell back, scowling, and-
"Ah, thank you, Mr. Palchuk." The world around them paused as Merlin, dressed in a slick black suit, plucked the dagger from Steve's hand. He half-turned, winking at Eli with his one uncovered eye (Eli had seen President Walters' eyepatch, had wondered if it was for show, but Merlin wasn't vain enough to interfere with his vision unless he was getting something out of it), before tugging at Kilgharrah's arm. "The knife isn't strictly necessary, but appreciated nonetheless. It's time, Kilgharrah."
Kilgharrah rose his head, exposing his chest to Merlin.
"No!" A serpentine silver dragon launched themselves toward Merlin. "Kill him!" they screamed.
Eli froze, torn between Kilgharrah, who was probably nearly impossible to kill; and Merlin, who wouldn't die before a fated encounter in Arcadia.
Merlin cut Kilgharrah's chest open - and oh god Steve had said Merlin wanted a dragonslayer. Merlin shoved his arm into the cavity, pulling out Kilgharrah's heart just as the silver dragon reached him.
"Do you wonder," he asked, "what sort of magic you can do with a dragon who sacrifices himself for you?"
(A dragon's spirit was enough to sustain them. The only thing a dragon had to fear was another dragon.)
The silver dragon raised a claw, snarling deep in their chest.
"Sit," Merlin commanded, and the dragon fell back, settling on the pavement. "And the rest of you, knock it off." There was stillness behind them, and quiet. Merlin turned and carefully walked toward Eli, a gentle smile on his face. "Now, Elijah," he said, "I don't want you to beat yourself up about this. I have been planning this for milennia - ensuring someone would see the dragons as the solution to the problem of me. Would find a way to tempt them back to this realm, which they fled to keep their power out of my grasp." He clenched his fist, digging into the flesh of Kilgharrah's heart, and the organ melted around that, a bloody rain. After a moment, he released his grip to reveal a glittering golden jewel, which he lifted up to the patch covering his missing eye. "So you never really had any choice in this," he said. "I was always going to end up with the Orb of Dragonkind."
They'd separated Neasa from the aliens when she'd arrived. She couldn't say she cared about their fate. However they'd had to rely on each other between their escape from Area 49-B, and subsequently, when a doppelganger of Neasa had commanded a monstrous beast to pave the way for Myrddin Wyllt - Rowan's enigmatic master - to take the presidency, they were still invaders, monsters, and Neasa was tasked with protecting America from them.
(It ate at her, the guilt of what she'd done in the wake of Myrddin Wyllt's ascension, but it was necessary. If there was an alien in charge of the United States, the aliens could damn well come clean up their mess.)
But she worried. The alien (the one who could talk) had been the one who'd told her about Myrddin Wyllt, and without their support…
Well, she worried.
Until the door opened, days or weeks after she'd been picked up and thrown in what she guessed was the European equivalent of 49-B. The person there was rotund, dressed in a neat brown suit, watching Neasa with narrow brown eyes.
"Colonel," they said, "Sorry for the wait."
"What?" Neasa shifted in place. "I thought I was in - I don't know - prison."
"Well, we needed to keep you in one place, and we had all these perfectly good holding cells," they replied. "Come along. My name is Lucas, and I'm the - oh, I suppose you'd call it the office manager - around here." Lucas stepped back into the hallway, giving Neasa a pointed stare when she didn't move. "Come along, Colonel. There's something we need you to see."
There was no one around with guns pointed at Neasa, no obvious security systems. Just a squat little man asking Neasa to come with him. So she stood and followed Lucas as he ambled through the well-lit halls of the holding facility.
"I do apologize for the delay. Obviously, we would have liked to debrief you immediately, but circumstances have been hectic, lately. Not a lot of aliens, but a Slovakian military unit was ambushed by a house with legs on the vernal equinox. We found it, abandoned, outside Nice." He paused, looking at Neasa. "I don't suppose you have any thoughts?"
It sounded ridiculous, and Neasa would normally have said so, except.
Well, she wasn't in charge, here. "Isn't there a witch that lives in a house on stilts?" she asked.
"Yes," Lucas replied, "Baba Yaga. Any thoughts on who might have upset her?" He chuckled when Neasa shook her head. "And that's as difficult a question as any other we've come up against, these days. I'm sure you're aware our relative departments grew out of similar offices that dealt with powers largely classified as supernatural - trolls, and werewolves, and whatnot."
"I...suppose," Neasa agreed. She'd seen files suggesting trolls were a terrestrial species that largely ignored humanity, which she had dictated earned a reciprocal behavior.
"Well, all the people who really know about that stuff have been retiring, so when we got reports that the county of Somerset had vanished - and let me tell you, the British have not been cooperative talking about that - and rumors about vampires, and the increasingly plausible claim that Russia has been taken over by werewolves, we moved to track them down, bring them back into the fold. But most of them have - died off. So it's been a real scramble dealing with - well, everything. And then...well, you'll see."
Lucas stepped into a conference room, a neat, well-kept room with a long table and television set into one wall. There were scraps of paper and crumpled napkins on the table, signs of a previous meeting, and a news report was running in - French, Neasa thought. There was a picture of President Walters in the corner.
"Ah, hold on a moment," Lucas said. "We get CNN here, you know." He pressed a button on a remote, and-
"-affiliated with a terrorist organization known as the Eclipse Knights," President Walters was saying. He was outside somewhere, with a strange, rocky surface in the background.
"But I suppose you are hoping I will explain the, ah, elephant in the room," he continued. "The particular plot involved the cooperation of a number of dragons - I believe the appropriate collective is a 'thunder' - to assassinate me." The camera slowly zoomed out, so Neasa could see that behind President Walters was a massive serpent, tail curled in front of him as a boundary. "But as you can see, they miscalculated, and while the terrorists escaped custody, the dragons are fully under my control."
"Because you're, what, a wizard?" someone called out.
"The wizard," President Walters replied. "The name I have most commonly been known by is not Martin Walters, but Merlin." There was a bark of laughter from the assembled press. "Don't scoff," Walters admonished. "I came to this country centuries ago, before it was a proper nation, seeking asylum from those who would persecute me for my beliefs. I have watched this nation grow, and longed to become a part of it. I was honored to be chosen to serve it, and so, when the unthinkable happened, when the responsibility of governing it was given to me, I had no choice but to accept.
"But rest assured," he continued, expression hardening, "I will not tolerate those who would endanger the people of this nation for the sake of their feuds with me. They will face the full force of arms and magic that I can bring to bear against them."
"Once again," the newscaster said, as the screen paused, "this is President Martin Walters, revealing, in the aftermath of an attack on Washington DC, that he is the wizard Merlin. This followed his taming of approximately fifty full-grown dragons allied with a previously-unknown terrorist organization gathered to assassinate him. While at the moment, the dragons are residing in the boundaries of our nation's capital, Merlin has indicated he will remove them to more remote locations to prevent panic-"
"So," Lucas said. "Merlin. Also known as Myrddin Wyllt. You told us this before, and now it has become relevant. Your alien friend was frightened of him-"
"One of his people slaughtered an entire military base with dark magic," Neasa replied, "so I'd say for good reason."
"So," Lucas concluded. "You came to us with this first. What are your thoughts?"
"We can't go the United Nations with this - the United States has a permanent position on the Security Council, and can veto any action we take. So the European Union is on their own with this. So." Lucas gestured to a chair - one at the head of the table. "We'd like to hear any ideas you have on how to deal with the matter."
"What is this about a broadcast?"
Morando scowled at the voice. The bridge had been quiet, relatively peaceful, for the last few days, and he'd hoped Naior had given up on micromanaging. But it seemed he'd simply been biding his time.
"You'll have to be more specific," Morando replied. "We receive a number of broadcasts - mostly reports that the Sleeping God's empire is falling apart. The people are in active rebellion."
"The transmission from Earth," Naior said, brushing aside Morando's comment. Morando bared his teeth, certain Naior couldn't see. If he'd built an empire, he wouldn't abandon the heart of it to chase some errant children. "I received a - snippet from one of the communications officers."
"It's an all-channels broadcast," Morando said. "It seems to be extensive details about the defenses Earth maintains to prevent alien invasion. The defenses of one country in particular - the United States. Consistent with the capabilities of a pre-extrasolar society."
"Discard it," Naior replied.
"Excuse me?" Morando demanded. "This is key intelligence-"
"We need no intelligence, no advantage. The Sleeping God stands on the cusp of conquering this world. We come to bolster his defenses as the time for his victory draws near." When Morando didn't reply, Naior continued. "Do you understand, General?"
"...Yes," Morando concluded.
"Excellent. I'll leave you to your command."
Morando kept scowling as Naior took his leave, fuming. If Naior were any other commander, weren't a nigh-immortal servant of the Sleeping God, Morando would have already dispatched him, would have taken control of this fleet and-
Naior talked endlessly about the glory of his Sleeping God, of the power of his deathless lord, and Morando was sick of it. Except for the certainty that the Sleeping God would visit any mutiny with swift retribution, he would be tempted…
The scions of House Tarron, mere children, had traveled across the galaxy to seek the Sleeping God's tomb, to fight the Blood Mage in a fortress likely built over the course of eons to defend him. To ignore their call to fight, to continue to labor under the Sleeping God's imperious devotees, chafed.
But Morando was alone in this, he was sure. All he would accomplish in turning against Naior would be his death. Swift, inglorious.
So, silent, he watched the stars pass by.
Chapter 5: The Sword in the Stone
There are a few too many questions about Barbara's past for comfort, so she goes to her guardian Umber for answers.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Barbara Lynn (now Lake, even after the divorce, because filing the paperwork had been enough of a hassle the first time around) knew very little about her heritage.
According to her birth certificate, she had been born on the 30th of September, 43 years prior, in the Yeovil District Hospital, in England. She had been naturalized young, when her uncle Umber had adopted her. He wasn’t her real uncle, but he had been close to Barbara's mother, enough that she'd declared him Barbara's guardian. He was a wealthy man, but almost all of the money was tied up in his charities and foundations. They’d had enough, growing up, and he’d spared enough for medical school that together with her scholarships, Barbara hadn’t taken on any debt to get her degree, after James had left.
Barbara knew things about Vivian Lynn - she loved flowers, was a skilled seamstress and artist, was a vegetarian, and wasn't much of a reader. But she didn't know her mother's family, or her history. She had none of the stories that told her what her mother valued, or what sort of life she'd lived.
Umber hadn't discouraged questions, but his answers were often vague, and Barbara had sometimes wondered if he hadn't known Vivian as well as her entrusting her daughter to Umber would have led Barbara to assume.
If Barbara knew little about her mother, she knew less about her father.
When Barbara had asked after her father as a child, Umber had told her he knew little about the man. When she was older, he had confirmed that Vivian had not shared Barbara's parentage with him, and when she had grown older still, he had carefully explained the one fact he did know.
Vivian had not wanted Barbara to know her father.
Umber was not a man of great social insight, so his take on the situation had left Barbara with few concrete details, but the facts, that Vivian Lynn had entrusted her child to a man who seemed to barely know her, rather than risk any contact between daughter and father, left Barbara with only the worst possible suspicions.
So Barbara had left it alone. She hadn't investigated to discover her father's identity, hadn't sought him out. She still wondered about her mother, still looked for hints that might give her answers beyond what Umber had been able to tell her.
But she didn't think about her father.
...Or she hadn't, until now.
There were too many mysteries for comfort in Barbara's heritage, nowadays. For all that James had lied with every breath, she now knew practically everything about his heritage - trolls were meticulous in the history of their families, and Draal was eager to provide that history to his sister-in-law.
But Barbara was an enigma.
There was no longer any denying that she was a prodigy when it came to magic. No one she'd met younger than two or three centuries had proficiency in more than one school of magic - they might know a spell or two from different disciplines, but wouldn't claim any expertise in a foreign school. And while no school of magic was easy to learn (save Blood Magic, which was brutal and simple), Barbara felt comfortable working in four of them - and her Draconic pronunciation was improving quickly, making it easier to shape the declarations of will that manifested that magic.
(Celestial Magic eluded her still. There were short phrases she'd learned from others, like the spell to negate a Blood Magic sacrifice that Aster had used to help defeat Grinhilda. But even with the aid of Galahad, who had an innate grasp of the Angelic language required to use Celestial Magic, she'd been unable to understand it well enough to do anything of substance. There was no consistent grammar or phonology, no easy lexicon. Legend said the Constellations had mastered fragments of Celestial Magic through their understanding of underlying principles of reality - belief, dreams, time, biology - but what that meant for Barbara, she couldn't say.)
And then there was Excalibur.
It was certainly useful that she, and Jim, could summon the legendary blade in times of great need, but the why, and the how, eluded her. Given that its only other wielder was Arthur Pendragon, there was at least one possibility - slightly worrying, now that Jim had finally confirmed what his friends had joked about for months, and begun a tentative relationship with Mordred, Arthur's son.
So maybe she wouldn't be doing this if she weren't trying to figure out how closely related they were to Arthur Pendragon, but she was doing it anyway.
On fleeing California to avoid retaliation from Merlin's lackeys, everyone in their little group had removed the SIM cards and batteries from their phones, locking them in three separate lead boxes kept in the library.
Today, a bright May morning, found Barbara in a cafe somewhere in Brooklyn, the three pieces of her phone laid out next to her coffee. She took a fortifying sip of coffee, a deep breath, and put her phone back together. Turning it back on, she ignored her notifications, missed calls, and voice mails, and called a familiar number.
Barbara closed her eyes, letting out a relieved sigh. "Umber," she said. "It's been a while."
"Yes, it has." Barbara braced herself for the questions, demands she would have to put off until they could be alone, no electronic device between them-
"I wish it hadn't come to this," Umber said. His voice was rough, from age or exhaustion Barbara couldn't say, but she couldn't take the time to wonder, because what. The. Hell.
"We should find somewhere to talk...privately," Umber continued, sweeping away Barbara's questions. "That charming little shop we had tea at some time ago - you remember it, correct?"
Barbara was familiar enough with her guardian to know exactly what he meant, but also intelligent enough that she didn't blurt out that the shop in question was in Arcadia Oaks, where Barbara was a persona non grata, not when anyone could be listening.
"Have you been...keeping up with the news?" she asked, instead.
"I feel that's a subject we might discuss in more detail once we get back together," Umber replied, which was answer enough. That he knew why Arcadia Oaks was dangerous for Barbara, and that it was important she meet him there anyway.
"You should not go on your own," Draal protested on Barbara's return. "Arcadia Oaks is-"
"Being watched by Shannon and her werewolf friends," Barbara replied as she collected the components of her two kits - magical and mundane medical - from her workshop. "And in any case, I don't recall you having any say in the matter."
The troll grumbled, a low sound that may have been intended to be threatening. "I am your-" He bit his words off, scowling. "You are my sister," he concluded, instead. "I am concerned for your well-being."
Barbara paused, looking over at Draal, who was uncharacteristically hunched forward, anxious. He had lost so much to the war Merlin had instigated; it wasn't surprising he might be protective over what he had found in its place.
"I think I might have more reason to be concerned, if you come along," she replied, a return of the concern he showed for her, a reminder that she wasn't the only person at risk. And with Merlin's revelation of his true identity, blaming the nightmares of the last few months on trolls and aliens, and the army of dragons at his disposal, the world's trolls were as hunted as those who'd tried to kill Merlin, once.
"Aster, then," Draal retorted. "Or Jack - he's human."
Barbara didn't want company - human or otherwise - but didn't know how to explain it. Trolls cared more about heritage than humans did, on average. They wouldn't understand that Barbara wanted nothing more than to seek, and process, her family history, by herself, that she wouldn't want to share her discovery. The argument, though, would waste time, and Jack was disinterested enough in her personal business that it would be almost like going herself.
"Jack, then," she agreed. "And I'll check in when I return."
"Good," Draal replied. After a moment's silence, he added, "Thank you."
And it wouldn't be fair to leave him reaching out alone. "It means a lot to Jim that you've - been there. I know caring for your brother's son when he - won't - is your 'duty', but it's still...admirable."
"Ah." Draal stepped back, hands twitching at his sides (she hadn't yet met a troll that knew what to do with their hands when embarrassed). "Your acclaim is appreciated, Barbara."
That stayed with her as she found Jack and prepared for the Gyre trip to Arcadia Oaks. How even Draal, her brother-in-law, held himself distant from Barbara, the same way he and the other trolls did Aster. That she was in the same class as the person they called 'The Lord of Flowers'. That they treated Jack with the same...wariness.
When they arrived at the Arcadia Oaks Gyre station, Jack's voice hoarse from his delighted screams during the run, Barbara turned to him.
But when he raised an eyebrow, inquisitive, she looked away and climbed out rather than asking, realizing she didn't know what she wanted to ask him ('how did you handle being a living legend?' sounded arrogant, and anything else failed to capture what she was worrying about). And he was mercifully silent on their trip through the streets of Arcadia, which were themselves strangely silent, all but deserted, until they reached it - a coffee shop she'd met Umber at once, when she'd just moved here, where he'd raved about the scones.
And she paused at the front window, looking around the cafe for the familiar face, bright eyes, impossibly long mustache, clothing a hundred years out of date-
Shocked when she saw the eyes set within a clean-shaven face, the body within a crisp black suit, expression set in a deep frown.
She approached hesitantly, uncertain, now, if she'd made the right choice, if maybe Merlin had gotten to Umber, if the silent town was a trap.
But then she saw Jack's reflection in the glass, and her own. She wasn't certain which of them was more dangerous - the spirit who'd absorbed the energy bleeding off of the Light of Creation for centuries, or the doctor who'd taken out a hardened troll warrior before she'd studied a word of magic.
Barbara squared her shoulders and pushed into the cafe. Umber didn't look up, not until she sat across from him at the table. And then his expression shifted to a smile - gentle, a little weary.
"Barbara," he said. "It's good to see you."
"It's-" Barbara cut herself off, looking down to the table. There was a cup there, with pitch-black coffee, and another with steaming milk sitting next to it - Barbara had always hated adding cold milk to hot drinks. Of course he'd been expecting her, but.
"You know...more about what's happening than I expected," she said.
"I'm afraid so," Umber replied. "And before you ask, I'd hoped it would never come to this. Merlin is...the most powerful creature alive."
And that was...news to Barbara. Merlin had chained other creatures to his service, but shied away from others - Emily Jane, Galahad, Jack. Something of her surprise must have been evident, because Umber reached out to pat her wrist.
"In the right circumstances, there are other creatures who are a danger to him, but his power is unmatched. One, two thousand years ago, there might have been - but Blood Magic accumulates in a way other magic does not."
"I'm well aware," Barbara replied, because she had checked the hospital before they'd left Arcadia Oaks, finding it held reserves of power, when she had designed spells that drew all of the power she'd expected her own Blood Magic to collect. And she knew now the cause of it. It captured every death within its radius - human and otherwise. And a hospital was a place dedicated to the destruction of organisms that threatened human life, a billion microscopic lives traded for every human one.
"But there's more than that. More than Merlin. Isn't there?" Barbara forced herself to look up at her guardian, to meet that gaze with a steady one. "For one...how do you know about all this?"
Umber reached into the lapels of his jacket, and set a fragment of stone on the table between them. A green gem, inset with gold, gleamed at its center. "There's a better place to get answers." He held his finger carefully over the stone. "One careful press, and you may act without any interference for 2,589 seconds."
"Inter - is this a Kairosect?"
"Ah. Yes." Umber's smile flashed briefly across his mouth. "I see you're familiar with the concept."
"And where...exactly should I go?" Barbara asked.
"There is a reason I gave you a means of operating unobserved," Umber replied. "Suffice to say, it is a place that can only be accessed when you are suspended in time."
With that, he stood, stepping away from the table. "I wish you the best of luck," he said. "I...will do my best to help you otherwise."
He was gone before Barbara could react or ask another question, leaving her with the Kairosect and a cryptic directive. And then Jack dropped down into the seat across from her, reaching for the Kairosect.
"What's with the weird rock?"
"Gron Hin Kopraan," Barbara snapped, and Jack froze in place, one hand just over the stone.
"You could have just said 'don't touch that'," he complained.
"Kairosects are notoriously fragile," Barbara replied, "and generally retain only a few charges - I doubt this has more than one in it." Once, they had been integral parts of great devices created by the Kairos - one of the Constellations of the Golden Age. Now, the fragments of those devices were priceless relics, despite their waning power. She lifted the Kairosect, careful not to touch the gem set in it. "And according to Umber, there's somewhere I need to go that requires me to be outside of time."
So she touched the stone, and at first it seemed nothing had happened. But as she stood, she saw the barista paused mid-pour, another patron mid-sip, and a car outside frozen halfway through an intersection.
Forty-three minutes and nine seconds. She hoped that was long enough for...whatever she needed to do.
As Barbara stepped outside, she paused. Something...was odd. And as she scanned the street, she saw it. Across the street was a store - painted pale blue and yellow, with vibrant accents and the letters "ZIMUE" painted across the entire storefront. The word "RECORDS" was printed neatly just to the right of the letters, almost an afterthought.
There was a neon "OPEN" sign blinking in the window to the right of the door.
Barbara was halfway across the street before she realized she'd started moving again. She stopped mid-step, frowning at the blinking sign. The world was stopped for everyone except her, so…
"Only accessed when I am suspended in time," Barbara murmured to herself. She approached the store, consciously this time, still examining the front. Something else about the storefront bothered her. She couldn't remember seeing this particular store, but it could very well be a store whose appearance had faded from conscious awareness (but was there another record store in town? She couldn't remember). Tilting her head for a better angle, she had an odd thought - the 'Z' looked a little like a sideways 'N'-
Hip-deep in Arthurian lore, Barbara couldn't ignore an allusion like that, even - especially - relating to a player she'd heard little about (and wasn't Nimue the Lady in the Lake? The guardian of Excalibur?).
So Barbara crossed the remaining few steps and pushed the door open. The room was cool, dry, and dim, racks of records and CDs set against the sides, and toward the back, a counter with a woman lounging on a high-backed stool behind it.
"Hello, Barbara," the woman said. Her hair was pale, white-blond, eyes dull silver, and face pale, so pale. Her ears were slightly pointed, as Barbara had seen on Morgana, and Mordred. But in the shape of her face was something familiar, the nose, curve of the face, the half-smile.
"Nimue?" Barbara asked, finding herself hesitant, again.
"Yes," the woman replied. "Vivian, would do as well, but you can just call me-"
"Mother," Barbara concluded.
Nimue's lips quirked. "It would be silly to think you wouldn't piece it together once you got this far," she said. "Yes. It was, gosh, 1,500 years ago or so that I came to Ombric the Undying with a request - to use his mastery of time magic to send my daughter to a place her father could not follow."
"Look, I'd just like to know if my father is King Arthur, because Jim's dating Mordred Pendragon, and it's probably too late to keep things from being weird if Mordred's his uncle, but - wait, what?" Barbara paused, mouthing the words to see if they made any more sense the second time around; they did not. Because the implications of what Nimue was saying were - well, there were a lot of them.
For one, it suggested 'Umber' wasn't her guardian's real name.
"Of course not," Nimue replied. "Whyever would you think so?"
"Excalibur," Barbara said. "It's Arthur's sword-"
"It's my sword," Nimue corrected. "Ours. Those who commission orichalcum blades often bind them to their intended wielder - in this case, me and my progeny. I gave it to Arthur in the hope he'd eventually realize Merlin was no one's ally and kill him, but. Well, if your son is dating Mordred, you know how well that went." She sighed, leaning against one arm resting on the counter. "Do you want a drink? We've got ambrosia, which is not nearly as delicious as it sounds, but is the most alcoholic drink in existence, which is a point in its favor."
"I...sure." Barbara stepped up to the counter and accepted a cup from Nimue (from her mother). It was so thin Barbara feared crushing it in her grip, but held steady as she sipped at the drink - something floral which tasted nothing like alcohol. "I presume you use this when you want people too drunk to think clearly about what they agree to," she said.
"I didn't date-rape your father, if that's what you're implying," Nimue retorted. "Accepting a drink in the first place is how mortals end up trapped here." She sighed again. "Your father and I used each other, I suppose - we both had certain expectations of what a half-fey child might mean for us. I wanted a - fail-safe, in case my plan for Arthur fell through, and he wanted - a Trojan Horse, I think. Lord knows he couldn't get into Avalon on his own, no matter how much power he had."
"Wait." The cup proved even more durable than it seemed, as Barbara's hand clenched around it without it even straining. Because she knew what Nimue meant, even as the words tumbled from her lips, demanding an explanation. Needing to hear the truth, which explained why Blood Magic came more easily to her than any other creature (Aster had confided that it felt unnatural, the few times he had to rely on it, when it was clear to Barbara Blood Magic was as natural as dying).
Why her mother would rather Barbara grow up a thousand years away from her, raised by a near-stranger, than ever know her father.
(And it should have been clear, the moment she had realized Nimue was her mother - Nimue wasn't just the Lady of the Lake. Legend said she'd seduced one of Arthur's court.)
"You said you wanted Arthur to-"
"Kill Merlin, yes," Nimue said, downing her cup in one gulp. "But I wasn't going to put all my eggs - ha - in that basket. I told him I miscarried, of course. I doubt he believed me, but it earned you enough time to grow up without his interference."
"My father," Barbara said evenly. "Merlin."
Nimue gave Barbara a shrug, a helpless gesture. She didn't say anything, because what could she say? What could anyone?
How was she going to explain this to Jim?
"I can see you're shocked-"
"I'm not shocked; I'm - aghast. What makes you think it's okay to spring this on someone? A little build-up would have been nice!"
"Surely Ombric told you your father wasn't a pleasant man-"
"Do you know what? I'm going to give you two a pass on the 'Umber' thing - but 'unpleasant' is a far cry from a genocidal monster!" Barbara took a deep breath, building up a really righteous rant, when-
"His legacy alone can bring an end to him," Nimue replied. "If not Camelot, I thought - his own progeny. He armed his grandson with the sword Daylight, made him a weapon of war." And when she looked up, her eyes glowed, blue-edged silver. "Perhaps you and James have suffered for my choice, but - each of you have chosen to serve others. Independent of your heritage, you have chosen to fight him. You should see this as a sign for hope - that you have a chance, a better chance than anyone else - to defeat him."
And of course Nimue was right - it was good that the Lakes (and what a strange coincidence, that Nimue's daughter became Barbara Lake) had a unique advantage over Merlin (except prophecy could be read so liberally - if Camelot could be Merlin's legacy, so too could the Eclipse Knights, built to destroy Morgana's servants, or Blood Magic, or some work of Light Magic).
But Barbara would never have taken her son's childhood from him.
"Is that all?" she asked, aware her voice held none of the awe or love she'd felt in the shocked moment after which Nimue had introduced herself as Barbara's mother.
"Of course not," Nimue replied. "Do you think I would risk exposing myself just to tell you who your father is? Merlin is a demon, and a Blood Mage. Only an orichalcum weapon can destroy his grail, and Excalibur was forged for this express purpose. Merlin knows this. Even if every other orichalcum weapon were shattered, Excalibur could destroy him." She stepped to the side, swinging up a piece of the counter to open a path to a door labeled 'Elves Only'. "You're here to claim your inheritance, Barbara."
And maybe it was an elf (faerie, whatever) thing, but even as angry as Barbara was, Nimue made the prospect of stepping through that door sound magical (and maybe Barbara remembered feeling powerful when she'd wielded Excalibur, and wanted that power, that comfort, for when she faced Merlin knowing what she knew now). So Barbara was at the door, hand on its handle, before pausing, looking back at Nimue, who watched her with an even gaze.
"Will - I ever see you again?"
"We have our own kingdom, which we guard from Merlin," Nimue replied. "No," she added, after a moment. "Not until Merlin dies."
Barbara nodded. "Well. See you later." She pushed the door open and stepped into another world.
She'd been in the faerie realm this entire time, but only now did she feel it. Barbara had had a Nintendo when she was younger, and the dais on which Arthur slept looked like something out of Zelda. Draperies hung around the bed, the shifting patterns within them almost forming pictures. The floor and walls bore carvings of fantastical beasts, and the man was dressed in silver armor covered in runes (to sleep, to hold, to pause, to bind). He did not look like a man dying of poison, but one merely sleeping. His coloring, a pale brown, was not a surprise to one who had met his son, but his delicate features mirroring Mordred's didn't bring to mind the warrior king Barbara had heard stories of.
Even with the magic holding him, Barbara approached cautiously, unable to shake the feeling if she stepped too loudly, or spoke, or touched him, Arthur would wake (and how could she explain that Merlin was his enemy, when there was so much of the story Arthur didn't know?). And as she moved, she felt other magics in the air. Magic to bind, to weaken, to harm, magic seeking a spirit tainted by blood, one inhuman, not of the mortal realm or this one. If Merlin had come himself, they would have been ready for him.
But for all the magic in the air, Arthur didn't move as she approached, didn't shift when she laid her hand on the hilt of the familiar, star-speckled blade resting atop his form.
There should have been light, or music, or some sense of destiny when Barbara lifted Excalibur from atop the sleeping king. But there was only the heft of the blade, hilt cool from the chill of the room.
Barbara paused before she turned away, wishing she knew something more than the runes set upon Arthur, wishing she understood Celestial Magic well enough to bind Arthur to sleep until this was all over. Because she didn't doubt Merlin would set Arthur against Mordred if he could, cause turmoil among his enemies.
But that power, the ultimate magic, was still beyond her, so she turned to leave Avalon, return to her home, her people.
Katherine had been watching the door of the Hill Memorial Library for close to two hours, waiting for the perfect opportunity to enter. It had been closed for an hour, but she'd watched stragglers leave for twenty minutes after that. She had almost decided it was clear when someone slipped out of the library.
They were moving carefully, low to the ground, nothing like a student who'd accidentally stayed past closing trying to finish a paper. The shape was tall, wide, and Katherine moved after it without a second thought.
(Ombric had promised this sort of curiosity would get her killed some day, but she'd faced down - well, escaped - a full-grown dragon, looked at the Ark of the Covenant without her face melting off, so was pretty certain it would be worth it, if it did.)
She trailed them for about five minutes, carefully, slowly forming the gestures needed for a spell, until at last they stepped into Baton Rouge proper and she caught their legs, and they twisted in place, snarling, as she approached. Their skin, pale, darkened to a midnight shade, eyes glowing in the darkness, dark hair melding into stony flesh.
So a troll (a changeling). She tensed, readying another spell, because the shapechangers had ended up on Merlin's side.
But the troll didn't attack (how could they, with their legs rooted in place), just bared their teeth at Katherine, snarling. "I don't know where he is! So it doesn't matter what you do to me, you won't find him."
"What are you talking about?" Katherine asked, letting her right hand drop (still in position to cast, because this could be a trick - anything could). The troll crouched, low, leaning away from her as they struggled to free their legs from Katherine's magic. The eyes, bright, wide, remained on Katherine except for brief moments as their gaze darted away, as if looking for an escape (or their friends).
"Jim," the troll snapped. "I haven't seen my son since Morgana; he doesn't want to see me. So whatever the fuck you think you'd get out of torturing me or whatever, it won't help. You could kill me and it probably wouldn't even phase him, so just. Leave me alone."
Katherine stepped closer - just a step, hesitant. But the troll was cowering, worried Katherine was here to hurt them. Which meant...the two of them might be able to get out of this without anyone being hurt.
...Following the answer to one important question.
"You...aren't with Merlin?"
"Fuck Merlin!" the troll spat.
Katherine relaxed a little further, and finally dispelled her magic. The troll took a step away from her, pausing before they could flee. They tilted their head at Katherine, considering.
"What...were you chasing me for?" they asked.
"I saw you in the library and thought you might be up to something - maybe something like what I was."
The troll snorted. "I doubt it. You're scrambling around trying to get rid of Merlin, right? Or you wouldn't have assaulted me on the suspicion I might work for him."
"...Yes," Katherine agreed. "You're not?"
"With me and what army?" the troll demanded. "I was an outcast from the Janus Order before they went and joined that genocidal maniac."
"And your son isn't talking to you, I heard," Katherine said. She settled against a mailbox, watching the troll as they began to pace, tight, anxious circles on the pavement. Their assessment of the circumstances sounded lonely; if Katherine were on her own, she might be running around snapping at strangers, herself. "So, if you're not looking for secret weapons, what are you doing? Looking for Merlin's grail?"
"Now that's hopeless," the troll replied. "His enemies have been searching for the heart of his power for eons with no success. So...I'm looking for hope."
It seemed an unusually optimistic quest for the lonely, depressed troll Katherine had been conversing with. But Katherine had been hunting obscure Arthurian apocrypha for a hint of what artifact Merlin might have infused with the power he'd collected over millions of years of bloodshed, so she didn't have a lot of grounds to judge. Katherine pursed her lips. "What sort of hope?"
"Prophecies," the troll replied. "The people of Atlantis inherited the legacy of the Kairos - the Constellation that commanded Time. They came to know the history that brought him to Earth, and sought a way to destroy him. It was them who learned he would chain the bear, the eagle, and the dragon, and could only be defeated in Arcadia. Knowing he had enemies, Merlin sought out the Delphic Oracle, who warned him that the elves would be his undoing. And discovering his enmity, the fae sought their own key. And they learned his legacy alone could defeat him, that the Pendragon would herald the age of his victory - or his defeat. But I found a thread on reddit, discussing Merlin, and found it - mention of a fourth prophecy, one dating back to the Golden Age."
"But not from the Kairos," Katherine theorized. "They could see through time, so could only see - possibilities."
The troll snorted. "Of course not. Merlin is a - legend. A fairy tale spanning the entirety of human history. And of the Constellations, one knew how stories went, how they ended."
"The Lunar," Katherine whispered.
"Merlin and his servants chased Tsar Lunar XII across the known universe, and when they could not wrench the secret of his prophecy from him, blinded him so he could no longer see the difference between good and evil," the troll said. "And found, to their dismay, that with his eyes went his memory of the things that mattered to him. And so when Tsar Lunar XII died, the secret died with him."
"So what's with the late-night library hunting?" Katherine asked. "If he's dead-"
"I've been finding them, talking to them," the troll replied. "Prophets. Seers. None of them saw what Lunar saw - that there's any hope left. But...there's a woman in El Paso. She was in the news a few years ago, when the Texas Supreme Court vacated a law against necromancy she'd been prosecuted under."
"When you say necromancy…"
"I mean old-school necromancy," the troll said. "Speaking to the dead - to the world beyond."
"So, you're going to talk to the Tsar Lunar, get him to tell you how Merlin's story ends," Katherine said. "And then what? Arcadia?"
"I'm not going anywhere near Arcadia," the troll grumbled, folding their arms. "I'm not a fighter - I've never been a fighter. It's why when Merlin - why I ran. I was only good to anyone because of the Kairoscope I stole from the Krubera - and that's either somewhere in my ex-wife's attic or sold off in a yard sale who knows how many years ago."
"A Kairoscope?" Katherine asked. "If you had one of those, and got your hands on a phylactery - you'd be as good as a Blind Monk, seeing attacks before they happened."
The troll scoffed. "I'm getting that prophecy, finding someone to pass it on to, and then I'm done with this."
"Well." Katherine stepped up to the troll and patted their shoulder. "Then it's lucky that you met me."
"How?" the troll demanded, eyes narrow.
"Because I'm coming with you. When you get your answer, I can pass it on to Ombric the Undying, and you can be done with us."
And she wasn't certain what the troll's expression meant, if they were angry or grateful, or just tired. But they didn't try to leave her behind again, even offering their name (James), so the trip to Texas was almost friendly, a road trip with a new friend, instead of the Earth's last hope.
As Clyde climbed out of the car, a sharp croak made him freeze, one hand still resting on the door. He turned his head slowly, examining the White House's driveway, narrowing his eyes when his examination turned up nothing.
The croak - the caw - came again, higher up; Clyde snapped his head up, squinting to sharpen his vision until he saw it - a crow perched on the highest point of the White House, wings spread to catch the sun. Clyde snapped his fingers at the nearest Secret Service agent until they approached.
"Sir?" they asked.
"Get rid of that thing," he said.
"The, uh…" The agent looked up, frowning.
"The crow hanging up on top of the White House," Clyde said.
"The crow," the agent said, slowly.
"Yes, the crow!" Clyde snapped. "A fucking dragon tried to kill the President, so I think you can be a little open-minded about what I consider a threat, and that crow is a threat!"
The agent took a hurried step back, but nodded, and began speaking into their microphone. Clyde snorted and stalked past him, moving quickly because he'd been in a hurry before he saw a crow hanging around Merlin's headquarters (obviously he had no idea if it was Raum - all crows looked the same to him. But he wouldn't put it past the feathered asshole to have enlisted his brethren to watch them).
But Clyde had somewhere to be, so he flashed his badge at the entrance, and again to pass into the West Wing itself, and eventually to Vice President White's office. She was standing with her back to the door, staring out the window. One of the chairs was overturned, and about half the papers on her desk scattered on the floor, a clear sign she'd been having some sort of tantrum.
Or was bored.
God, he hated trolls.
"Why are you here?" Ruth asked.
"We have a problem." Clyde stepped up, opening the folder he'd stuck the printouts in as he approached. Ruth reached back and snatched the papers from him, turning as she scanned them, reading with more interest than Clyde had expected. The few times he'd spoken to Ruth, she'd demanded he explain himself rather than read briefings.
"So, what's the problem?" Ruth asked.
Clyde resisted the urge to sigh in irritation, even if her demand was closer to the behavior he'd expected from her. "An NOAA satellite recorded an alien craft touching down in New Jersey."
"So?" Ruth asked. "We have dragons patrolling the Mexican border, vampires keeping the Canadians out - aliens showing up to offer backup seems - par."
"Of course we're expecting backup, but this isn't one of ours!" Clyde snapped. "And even if it were, we should have gotten advance notice! The U.S. government spent a lot of money developing early warning system, tracking software, alarms. We should have gotten a red flag a week and a half ago about this invasion!"
Ruth was flipping through the paper. "And? This ship isn't large enough to qualify as an 'invasion'. If I had to guess, I'd say they got lost trying to find a planet not under the control of an alien wizard."
"You don't get it," Clyde growled. "Kubritz did this! Disabled our early warning systems, or warned potential invaders about our defenses! You say Merlin has backup - he also has extraterrestrial enemies!"
He scowled when he realized Ruth had taken a seat behind her desk while he was yelling, and was typing on her phone.
"Are you even paying attention?"
"Yes, Merlin's many enemies gathered all of their resources to send one ship - and maybe six people - to kill him," she replied. "And you do realize New Jersey is three thousand miles away from Arcadia, yes? So they obviously aren't here to join the final battle, or are so off-base they won't find it. So calm down, please."
"I feel you aren't taking this as seriously as you should," Clyde said, trying to keep his voice even.
"You aren't going to drop this unless I do something, are you?" Ruth asked.
"If you don't, Merlin will!"
Ruth rocked back in her chair, groaning. "We don't need to pester him with every little thing; that's no way to run a government. But if you won't shut up about it, we can send like a platoon or whatever to check it out." She picked up a phone.
"Yes, thank you," Clyde growled.
The conversation took a minute, and when Ruth hung up, she was smiling at Clyde. Patronizing, Clyde knew, but at least she'd responded.
Well, it was a response.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" she asked, smile flicking wider.
"No," Clyde said. "Thank you."
"Bitte!" she called. "And close the door on your way out!"
I would be remiss in not mentioning that this post from trombonesonmars helped inspire the scene inside the music store.
Chapter 6: That Darn Cat
Darwin Franklin is a genius and an alchemist. His attempts to defeat Fin the "Alchemist" would be going a little better if he weren't also a cat. Luckily, he finds help from an unexpected source.
Darwin's luck finally ran out in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a terrible irony - he'd crossed two-thirds of the country along its southern edges, relying on long days to protect him from the predations of alchemists, only to be caught here, in the heart of America's deserts, in the dead of night.
(And by 'alchemist', Darwin meant 'vampire', because all it took was ten years of failing to turn lead to gold for people to give up entirely or vault down the slippery slope into vampirism.)
Darwin had sought shelter in an abandoned (save for a pair of toms who watched Darwin warily when he arrived) motel, yanking a musty towel off a rack in the bathroom so he could settle on the other side of the room, falling asleep before he could see if the other cats decided to abandon the room to the interloper. He awoke to the crash of the half-rotted door being kicked in by an iron-soled boot. The other cats yowled and darted under their bed as two men, tall, muscular, pale (even for the undead), stepped into the room. They scanned the room with eyes glowing gold, before one smirked, revealing the hint of his fangs, as his gaze passed over Darwin.
"Doctor Franklin," he purred.
Darwin spat at the vampires and stripped the electrons from the air between them, the crackle of sparks giving way to the scent of ozone. The cats bolted past Darwin into the bathroom, where he heard them claw their way out the window. The vampires were unfazed - their cut-rate alchemy wasn't good at ionizing, but they didn't breathe, so they didn't worry about free radicals or carcinogens.
But now that the other cats were clear of the vampires (who, as a species, had a nasty habit of killing pretty much anything they thought wouldn't attract too much attention) and the fallout of any alchemical radiation, Darwin had free reign to transmute the linoleum under the vampires' feet to a fast-acting glue that held them in place long enough for him to get away. Three blocks away, Darwin paused in an alley, listening to the city around him. He smiled at the muffled sounds of traffic, because it meant it would take him only a few blocks more to reach somewhere crowded enough he could lose the vampires permanently.
But maybe it was some sort of tracking magic (April struggled to accept there could be magic in the world, when she'd gotten to where she was by never losing faith in science, but Darwin was more pragmatic than that), or maybe the vampires had experience chasing down cats in an urban environment, but when he looked up, one of the vampires was standing at the edge of the alley. It didn't take a genius to guess his partner was behind Darwin, so Darwin spared a moment to take in his surroundings, to try to find some purchase to climb the walls, or some height on the ground so he could get to the fire escape (of course they could follow, but Darwin had the unique advantage that if he threw himself off the roof, he'd be back to his old self by the time he got to the animal hospital, if he did it in a place crowded enough someone would think to take him), while the vampires closed in from either end.
"Ah! There you are!" A human stepped around the edge of the street to the far side of the alley. The first impression Darwin had of them was-
Gold. Bracelets, rings, piercings, studs and thread woven into their clothing - a long, white coat, and two-thirds of a dark suit. Only their mouth, opened into a sharp smile, was free of gold.
Fuck, Darwin thought. Another alchemist (being still alive didn't make things better - it meant they might boil Darwin down in the hopes that 'essence of cat' was the missing ingredient to the Philosopher's Stone).
"Hey, get out of here!" the vampire nearest the alchemist snapped.
The alchemist shrugged and slouched forward, waving at Darwin. "I would absolutely love to," he drawled, "but I've been looking everywhere for my cat, and that little fella looks just like him."
"This cat?" The voice of the second vampire was much too close; Darwin tried to scramble away, but there was a hand around his throat, and another on his waist, both grips tight, bruising (not that it'd matter, once he had a moment to rest), keeping him from twisting to swipe at his captor. "What's his name, then?"
Darwin looked at the alchemist, whose slouch, hands pushed deep into their pockets, belied any concern, any threat, and decided to take a risk. They would put him down, anyway, if they agreed to hand him over to the other alchemist. The first vampire was watching the alchemist, so there was a chance…
Darwin waved one paw frantically at the alchemist; when they tilted their head, curious, Darwin pointed at their other paw, separating out one toe from it.
"It's...one word," the alchemist said. Darwin held up a second toe. "Two syllables." Darwin waved the paw with two toes extended again. "And the second syllable is…"
Darwin raised his paw again, paws split to make a 'V'. "Vul...can?" Darwin shook his head, and the alchemist shook his own. "Jeez, I don't know where my head is right now; that's not it."
Darwin bit back a growl and raised up both his paws, pumping them up and down a little, a victory sign. The alchemist narrowed their gaze. Come on, Darwin pleaded silently. Just figure it out. It's not that hard.
"Seriously?" The hand on Darwin's neck twitched, albeit not enough to let him escape (still, the vampires could be startled, confused). "All the names in the world to pick from, and you guess Edwin?"
"Have you considered you aren't very good at Charades?" the alchemist retorted, unruffled, unconcerned.
"Not good at - I am a cat of advanced intelligence!"
"Excuse me," the vampire nearest the alchemist said, "if you don't mind me interrupting. But from this little exchange, I'm going to guess that the two of you don't actually know each other." They took a step toward the alchemist, and Darwin trembled.
"Get out of here!" he snapped.
And the alchemist's smile widened. "That's excellent advice," they said, straightening up from their slouch. "I'd suggest you take it - but leave the cat."
"He was talking to you, buddy," the vampire nearest the alchemist snarled, lunging at them. A flash of gold intercepted the strike, sending the alchemist back from the force of the blow.
"I'm quite aware," the alchemist said. "I was just trying to give you two a fighting chance." When they punched the vampire, their gold rings flowed together, extending to sharp points that easily punctured the vampire's shoulder. The vampire hissed, grabbing at the alchemist's arm, and flipping them into a wall. When the alchemist fell, they landed easily on their feet, poised as they pulled their coat off and threw it at the vampire holding Darwin.
The gold thread and actual gold in the coat twisted and stretched, so when the coat struck the vampire's arm, it moved like a living thing, binding, constricting. The vampire holding Darwin let out a pained cry, releasing his hold on Darwin's back. Darwin spun and swiped, earning another pained cry as the vampire dropped him. Darwin turned to bolt past the struggling vampire, but something made him pause and look back at the (possible) alchemist.
April's generous nature had probably rubbed off on him.
The vampire threw a handful of salt in the air and raised a hand on which they'd likely tattooed a runic array. Darwin had only a moment to consider it (sodium, chlorine, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen) before a clear liquid splashed down on the alchemist. It must have been some acid, because their clothing smoked, and their jewelry began to darken, oxidizing rapidly (probably aqua regia, Darwin thought distantly - it was hard to damage gold otherwise). The alchemist kicked at the vampire, the gold rings around their legs cracking as they closed in, and the vampire laughed, catching their leg and throwing them aside.
(Not an alchemist, Darwin concluded. A person with some magical connection to elemental gold, who'd seen Darwin in trouble and stopped to help. Leaving them behind seemed less defensible, knowing they were a bystander, like the cats in the motel.)
"I'll get the cat while you finish this asshole off," the vampire nearest Darwin growled.
And Darwin hissed, swiping at the vampire, who was still struggling against the coat. Darwin still had a few tricks up his sleeve, but most were incredibly destructive, and might catch Darwin's savior in the blast.
His savior, however, could manipulate pure gold with enough precision to take out their assailants with very little collateral damage.
Once you understood it, alchemy was simple. Everything was just protons, neutrons, and electrons...and the world was surprisingly responsive to emotion, intention.
Darwin closed his eyes, and sparks danced along the asphalt beneath his feet. 'Gold' was just 79 protons stuck together. 'Carbon' was just 8 protons stuck together. All you needed to get from one to another was juggle them around (it was more complicated than that - much more complicated. The sparks happened because electrons were zipping all over the place. The end result was likely to be radioactive, or everyone in the vicinity got a blast of neutron radiation, if you weren't exact about proportions. But once you understood how to do it, it was that simple). Four inches of asphalt contracted to half an inch of pure, solid gold with an explosion of sparks.
Darwin landed on his feet, because he'd expected the shift in altitude, and was a cat. The vampires didn't, because false alchemists were lazy and stupid. The telekinetic changed as the ground vanished beneath them, skin paling to white with bands of pink, wings stretching from their back, blue and purple. And with a flap of those wings, the creature (a changeling, a troll) landed on light feet on the edge of the gold-lined pit.
And they grinned, a vicious, toothy smile.
"Bad luck, boys," they said, and dozens of spikes arced up from the golden surface, spearing through undead flesh, cracking and winding their way through bones, pinning the two vampires in place, where they would likely stay until dawn.
And then they swooped at Darwin, landing in front of him on claws that put Darwin's to shame. "Now," they said, leaning down, "what do we do with you?"
"If you lay one claw on me I'll turn you into a cloud of free-floating hydrogen atoms," Darwin snapped.
"Whoa!" The troll stepped back, hands up in what Darwin was a little over half-certain was a placating gesture in troll society as well as human. "I don't even eat cat! Much less talking cats, which, I bet there's a story there."
"Oh, there is absolutely a story there; a fantastic one, starring a dashing, brilliant protagonist," Darwin replied, stretching carefully to make sure he hadn't broken anything (not that it would matter in a couple minutes, but it was good to take inventory). "But I have places to be." He jumped out of the gold spike pit back onto pavement, and padded around the troll's legs.
"A remarkable coincidence," the troll replied, body shifting back into human form as they followed Darwin out into the (still mostly-deserted) street. "So do I."
Darwin did not become one of the universe's two true alchemists by being stupid, so bit back a sigh. "Is 'wherever I happen to be going' the place you need to be?"
"I'm going to guess the brilliant protagonist in your story is you," the troll said, walking just behind Darwin (and a little to the right, as if they were shielding Darwin from the rest of the street), "given that amazing deduction."
Darwin rolled his eyes, because it was a hard expression to recognize on a cat, and so his savior would be unlikely to be offended by it.
"So, Edwin's out," the troll said, probing.
"My name's Darwin," Darwin replied.
"Funny name to give a sorcerer," the troll mused.
"I'm not a - what's your name, anyway?"
"Ah!" The troll stepped around Darwin, walking backward as they gave a neat bow. "I have the immense fortune of being Frederick."
And he didn't eat cat, suggesting he wasn't quite Fin's sort of troll.
"And you don't have anything better to do than follow around stray cats?"
"Well, one," Frederick said, raising one finger as he continued to walk backward, just in front of Darwin (Darwin sort of wanted to see if he could steer Frederick into a light pole). "I don't know if you've heard of this thing called the internet, but it's general consensus on there that following around stray cats is an excellent use of one's time. Two," he continued ticking off a second finger, stepping around a trashcan with an easy two steps, "You aren't just any cat - you can talk, do magic-"
"It's not magic!" Darwin snapped, back arching because he wasn't good at concealing his emotions. "It's alchemy - the result of a total understanding of the principles of chemistry."
And Frederick tripped over the curb, sprawling back onto the street. His dark eyes were comically wide, mouth hanging open - basically exactly what Darwin had hoped for in trying to steer Frederick into an obstacle.
Darwin stepped to the edge of the curb, sitting down on it so he could look Frederick in the eye more or less at the same level. He smiled. "Didn't expect that, did you?"
"That's not just magic - it's Celestial magic," Frederick retorted.
Darwin let his tail swing lazily behind him as he considered that. It sounded impressive enough he wasn't tempted to argue the distinction. "Maybe," he allowed. "April and I have been studying it our whole lives."
Frederick's expression shifted, a sly glint as he smiled at Darwin. "A lady cat?" he asked.
"Of course not - where would a couple of cats learn enough about chemistry to master it? She's my-" Darwin blinked back tears as he stumbled on the words, the thoughts he'd successfully banished with his focus on his mission. She'd been certain they'd keep her alive, wherever she was, but Darwin was less certain. False alchemists - Blood Mages - were short-sighted, impatient, and violent. And if Darwin were out there somewhere, to test or taste or take apart with their magic, they might not bother trying to get the formula out of April.
"Damn it," Frederick muttered. He shifted in place, holding a hand out, just next to Darwin's head.
And Darwin was feeling just low enough that he took the proffered comfort, leaning his head against the hand, letting Frederick scratch under his chin. A quiet rumble vibrated through Darwin as Frederick...pet him.
"If you're being chased by vampires, I'm guessing Blood Mages got her," Frederick said.
"The salauds in 'Customs and Border Protection'," Darwin hissed, "but yes, I presumed she was handed over to Fin's putain des alchemists."
"Ah." Frederick's hand stilled, until Darwin butted it, and the petting resumed. Darwin felt a flare of annoyance that he was dealing with someone without decades of experience learning exactly how much petting Darwin required (it was easier than worrying about what was happening to April, if there was anything left for something to happen to). "Now, I'm not exactly an expert on, you know, magical typology, but aren't you an alchemist?"
"A real alchemist. Fin and her cut-rate stage magicians can't even shuffle molecular bonds without an external energy source. They couldn't have turned an entire block of asphalt into gold."
Frederick nodded, but the motion of his hand on Darwin's head slowed, stopped; he didn't even seem to be looking at Darwin (Darwin allowed himself a moment of indignation. It wasn't often he met someone who had concerns more pressing than a talking cat).
"You mentioned Fin," Frederick said. "The...so-called alchemist. What business does she have with you?"
"What does any alchemist want?" Darwin retorted. "The Philosopher's Stone."
"I-" Frederick shook his head and stood, taking a moment to brush, wholly ineffectively, at his coat, which was now stained with dirt and drainwater. "Look, Fin and I are...not on good terms. And as I said earlier, I don't eat cat. So if I suggested moving this somewhere a little more comfortable-"
"Sure, yes," Darwin replied.
But because he had never pretended to be anything other than an opportunist, he looked up at the troll, widened his eyes as much as he could, flattened his ears back, and said, "If this slightly more comfortable venue had a morsel - just a little bit of food - nothing much, of course, that you might be willing to share with a poor, starving creature…"
"Salmon?" Frederick asked.
"Cooked in olive oil and salt, no garlic or onions, garnished with parsley, thank you."
Later, after Darwin had demolished a cat-sized serving of salmon, cleaned himself with the aid of the towels in Frederick's hotel room (several steps up from the motel Darwin had been sleeping in before it had been abandoned), and taken a half-hour catnap while Frederick showered and changed into a dark coat that made him look like a refugee from a Matrix fan convention, Frederick settled cross-legged on the bed next to Darwin and dangled his hand along Darwin's ears.
"So," Frederick said. "Fin. I was under the impression she was in possession of the Philosopher's Stone already."
"Are you talking about that stupid rock?" Darwin demanded. At Frederick's nod, he scoffed, whipping his tail around at Fin's self-importance, the need to convince people she'd accomplished what it took the world's greatest genius decades to discover, and the world's second-greatest genius years to grasp. "It's got nothing to do with alchemy. The Philosopher's Stone doesn't even really exist-"
"Because any sufficiently-talented alchemist can turn lead to gold, I'm guessing," Frederick said.
Darwin's ear flicked in annoyance at the interruption, but it was probably a hazard of dealing with people who didn't know him as well as April did. "Yes."
"So, if the Philosopher's Stone isn't a thing, what exactly did those vampires want with you?"
Darwin sighed. "The Elixir of Life."
Frederick was quiet a few moments. "Which I'm guessing is not a metaphor."
"No, it's a chemical compound that can grant a biological entity...I really don't want to say complete immortality, because our testing has been cautious for a number of reasons - but."
"It's an elixir that makes the drinker immortal," Frederick said.
"And you know because-"
"I was born in 1923," Darwin replied, "a remarkable cat, but not one of notable intelligence, or, for that matter, the power of speech. That came from the work of April's great-grandfather, seeking to perfect the formula his father developed in trying to create an immortal legion for Napoleon III. But Prosper never succeeded beyond making me one of the most brilliant creatures alive, and his grandchildren failed to make any notable progress. Only April, extraordinary April, succeeded, and in doing so, came to understand her science more completely than any other person has done since."
He stopped, then, finding the topic of April's brilliance, and his own magnificence, lost some of their appeal with April's continued absence, and his escalating feud with Fin and her pursuit of perfect immortality (and the hints they'd gathered that she desired immortality not for her own sake, but for another, a master or mentor who had delved more deeply into the Blood Magic that pretended at alchemy than Fin ever had).
Frederick seemed to understand, quiet in sympathy as he continued to scratch Darwin's ear. But the silence lasted only a few minutes before Frederick spoke up again.
"So I find myself wondering if you have a - plan of action, rather than just escaping a bunch of Blood Mages."
"Of course I've got a plan of action," Darwin retorted. "We - April and I - were trying to find a person called the Trollhunter - a sort of warrior-mage who combats threats to humanity - to request they help us take out Fin and her cohorts."
Frederick laughed, nothing happy, but a sharp, tired sound. "Oh, kitten, you are so out of the loop. For one, there isn't a Trollhunter anymore - Merlin determined he had served his function and dissolved the position."
Darwin felt a wave of tension, confusion, frustration, anger that he'd come so far, risked so much, for the help of someone who didn't exist. "And where's...Merlin? It shouldn't be hard to talk him into - reinstating the Trollhunter to deal with all these vampires running around."
"Ah. That's...another problem," Frederick allowed. "Merlin - the wizard, you know-"
"I guessed," Darwin growled.
"Well, this is his fault."
"Well, what do you expect when you get rid of the guy in charge of preventing merde like vampires running around like they own the place?"
And Frederick put a hand on Darwin's back. Steadying, firm, but not restraining. And when he spoke, his voice was soft. Serious. "When I said this is his fault, I mean this - the current state of the world - is his doing. He sent a clan of werewolves to topple the Russian government so one of his patsies could take over. He got a nyalagroth to assassinate the President of the United States and the next three people in line so he could take their place. He created the Trollhunter in the first place to kill Morgana, the only person who posed a threat to him. Fin is one of his lieutenants."
"So...the Trollhunter might not have been as much of a help as we would have hoped," Darwin concluded faintly, because that was a lot to dump on someone.
"I mean, the actual kid who Merlin conned into being the last Trollhunter is leading the ragtag group of outcasts trying to kill the bastard," Frederick replied, "so the spirit's there, if lacking a magical amulet that might make the process easier."
The information was welcome, that someone was doing something about Fin and her master, but stretched on Frederick's hotel bed in Phoenix, Darwin couldn't see a way to help.
"So Merlin's some sort of magician, right?" Darwin asked.
"Do they not have books in France?" Frederick asked. "In fact, didn't the French reinvent the entire Arthurian mythos?"
"I wasn't certain you meant, like Merlin, when you said Merlin," Darwin retorted, shrugging the hand away from him. "So…"
"Yes, he's some sort of a magician."
"A Blood Mage?" Darwin asked. "Like Fin?"
"Then I know what I can do," Darwin said. When Frederick didn't reply, he flicked an annoyed ear at him. "Well? Don't you want to hear it?"
"You look like you're going to pounce on something," Frederick replied.
"Well." Darwin stood, stretching, until he could settle more neutrally. "Come on - aren't you going to ask?"
"Fine." Frederick sighed, pulling himself straight up so he could look down at Darwin. "Tell me."
Darwin took a breath, and then paused. He thought a moment before peering up at Frederick. "What is your level of education in chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics?"
"Okay. Then I'm going to lie to you," Darwin said. "Extensively, but only because you lack the theoretical basis to understand this except as a cludgy metaphor."
Frederick raised his hand, putting up two fingers in a way that was probably meaningful to an American. "And I promise I won't ask stupid questions that force you to overextend the metaphor."
Darwin jolted, peering more carefully at Frederick. Of course the troll wasn't stupid, but from his posture, his voice, a careless sort of tone, Darwin had expected...less from him (but changelings were spies; it wouldn't be surprising he cultivated the persona to make people underestimate him).
"Well, I appreciate it," Darwin said. "So. We studied Fin's alchemy - Blood Magic - to see how it related to real alchemy. And, magic or no, it relies on some principles quite similar to those from quantum physics. Any effect - persistent or instantaneous - created by Blood Magic - is created and sustained through an entanglement between the caster and an energy source-"
"A grail," Frederick interrupted.
Darwin paused, staring at Frederick again - feeling a little put out, now, that he seemed aware of things it had taken April and Darwin months to figure out, after several years of trying to observe Fin and her people's magic in action.
"Which we'll call a grail," he agreed. "What Fin calls the Philosopher's Stone is this principle extended to its maximum potential - a grail entangled somehow with every...living organism, or every point of space, at once. The entanglement between caster and grail is several orders of magnitude more stable than classical entanglement, meaning that destroying the grail is the only way to divorce the caster from their power source. However, radiation from a rare alloy can disrupt those bonds at either end. Given its rarity, we despaired of being able to locate any samples, so we...conned the European Organization for Nuclear Research into building a tool we could use to fabricate it."
And he felt a thrill of pride seeing Frederick staring at him, jaw slack, clearly impressed by Darwin's and April's accomplishment.
"So fast-forward a couple of decades, and we finally get a sample of this alloy-"
"Orichalcum!" Frederick blurted out, and Darwin paused to glare at him.
"It's adamant, actually," Darwin replied. "Generally, the people who discover it get to name it."
"Well, if you're talking about a metal that can be used to combat Blood Magic, it's commonly known as orichalcum," Frederick replied. "But it's not - something you can make. No one knows what it's really made of-"
"I do," Darwin snapped. "That's the whole point of the exercise. That's the whole point of my running cross-country to California, trying to find the Trollhunter. To get them to fight Fin. To give them something they can use to fight her."
"Wait." Frederick's lips were pursed, as he mouthed something to himself. "You were talking about radiation-"
"Orichalcum isn't radioactive," Darwin replied. "Not in the way you imagine it, anyway."
"Yes, but. It's got me thinking - can you use orichalcum to make a laser?"
Darwin snorted. "Sure, if I had enough of it to make into a lens with exact dimensions. Which I do not. Because while it's possible to fabricate orichalcum, it's practically impossible to do with normal alchemy."
A knock at the door sent them both into shocked silence. After a moment, another knock, sharper, more insistent, came. Frederick jerked his head toward the window, and Darwin, used to this sort of flight, nodded.
Thirty seconds later, Darwin decided he regretted that nod, because he had forgotten what 'flight' effected by Frederick, winged troll, might entail. It wasn’t long, though, travel across a few blocks, before Frederick landed, dropping Darwin to his feet and shifting back to human form.
“Warn a cat before doing that!” Darwin snarled, as he licked at his paw to try and smooth his fur back into an unruffled state. The troll just grinned at him, unrepentant, as he waved to the top of the fire escape at the edge of their rooftop refuge.
“No time, kitten,” he said. “And speaking of time-“
Darwin grumbled, but hurried toward the descending ladder, taking the bars carefully as Frederick clambered down, pausing to catch Darwin at each landing, until they were safely at ground level. A few moments later, a pair of helicopters buzzed overhead, answering Darwin’s question of why they’d landed so close to their takeoff point.
“So now what?” Darwin asked, as he considered climbing up to take a perch on Frederick’s shoulder. “I don’t have a ride out of town.”
“I did,” Frederick replied, “but if they found my hotel room they probably found my car.”
"So, what, the bus? We originally had train tickets, but April was carrying them, and they wouldn't let a cat ride alone anyway-"
"Train?" Frederick asked. "Why?"
"Because we're used to that being a fast way to travel between two points," Darwin retorted, curling up at Frederick's feet and glaring at his ankles. "So, bus?"
"We'd have a better chance at an Uber letting me take a cat on a six-hour drive to California," Frederick said. "Sadly, my phone is back in the room."
There was a hiss from the roof above them, the familiar sound of a vampire on the hunt; Darwin hunched carefully in Frederick's shadow, resigning himself to the fact that his brief interlude with Frederick had been more of a lateral move than a step forward.
"Don't look now, but we've got company," Frederick muttered. "A...lot of company." A chorus of hisses rose from either side of them, much too close for comfort, and Darwin's fur rose on end. "So if you felt like reducing anyone to a cloud of unattached protons-"
"I may have been exaggerating when I made that threat," Darwin said. "I don't know trolls' chemical makeup. And the problem with disassembling a pack of vampires is that when you're taking one apart, six others are tearing your throat out."
"For the record, we're silicon-based," Frederick replied as he turned toward one end of the alley in which they'd taken refuge.
"I'll remember that in the next life."
A sound sliced through the night, a scream that tried to build to a wide, full-throated noise, only to die in a wet gurgle before it could reach its apex. The alley dimmed, shadows lengthening, and something descended on Darwin. The feeling wasn't a chill, but the weight of attention, a cold, vicious hunger. He had felt something like this once, when he'd first met Fin the Alchemist, the troll trying to use some psychic pressure to influence them when they wouldn't hand over the secrets of their alchemy. But that had been directed, and this was - indiscriminate. Darwin twitched back toward Frederick's shins when something landed on the concrete near him. Darkness pooled around pale ankles as the figure sprinted away from them. One vampire exploded in a spray of blood, and another had time for a strangled cry before they were thrown sideways into brick and glass.
Roughly human shaped, the creature was clad in rags, dark matte black hair drifting slowly around their waist. Their eyes burned, emerald and sapphire, above a mouth dripping with blood. And Frederick, rather than doing the sensible thing and trying to find a way out, stepped toward the creature who, whether or not they'd just dispatched two vampires, Darwin wouldn't trust not to turn on them for dessert. Frederick raised his right hand toward the creature, shaking; Darwin was certain he could knock the troll over with a nudge to his ankle.
The eyes narrowed, hands twitched, and Darwin readied to bolt. And then the bloodstained mouth shifted, until it was almost a smile, toothy and still smeared with blood, but a smile.
"I...know you," they whispered.
"Yeah, you do," Frederick replied. "I'm Frederick!"
"You're a...changeling," Morgana said, haltingly. "I made you." She stood a little straighter, her hunched, feral posture giving way to something erect, regal. "You're one of the experiments - the aurukinetic." Her eyes flicked past Frederick a moment before rushing forward, using Frederick's shoulders as a vault to cross the alley in a second. One of the vampires had a hand up, likely attempting some form of transmutation, when Morgana ripped their arm off. The carnage was brief, four Blood Mages reduced to an assorted pile of bodies in a few heartbeats. Morgana turned back to Frederick, her eyes a little wild - unfocused.
"Frederick," Darwin murmured warningly.
"I have found some of your people, Frederick," Morgana said, taking a step forward (and Darwin finally recognized what she reminded him of - one of those girls from Japanese films, the angry spirits who killed everyone they came across). "Many - too many - of them, have sided with him. I tolerated a little rebellion, when all you wanted was freedom. But to side with Merlin?" Her voice shook the world around them, making Darwin's bones shudder. Her expression didn't change.
"Oh, yes, unforgivable, Lady," Frederick replied. "I was just arguing with Otto about that-" His voice choked off as a clawed hand closed around his throat. Morgana's eyes dimmed as she glowered at Frederick, and Darwin wondered if her flesh was like a human's, anymore, if he could even hurt her.
"Is it worth the risk?" Morgana hissed, "that you are just another traitor?"
"Whoa, hey!" Darwin snapped. Morgana's head turned, slow, before she looked down at him, brow furrowed because her world had not expected a talking cat. "I don't know what your problem with Merlin is, but we all think he's a power-hungry dick who needs to die. Your boy Frederick here already saved me from - well, not these vampires, you did a real number on them, but some vampires."
Morgana didn't visibly react - didn't put Frederick down, didn't move (but didn't tighten her grip, didn't tear him apart like she had the vampires). So Darwin took a step forward.
"He's helping me get to the people fighting Merlin; I know things about Blood Magic we can use to defeat him-"
"Ha!" Morgana scoffed. "A cat won't do it!" Her stance eased, though, her hand still on Frederick's throat, but loose enough he didn't look quite so worried. "I know the prophecies, each a piece of the puzzle. A child of air and darkness, echoes of his legacy, and the rousing of Pendragon. His death will be in Arcadia, three hundred miles from here." Her grip tightened suddenly on Frederick's throat as she turned back to him. "There is no mention of cats, at his end. No treacherous changelings."
"Orichalcum!" Frederick gasped, and the grip loosened; he wheezed out a breath.
"What?" Morgana asked.
"The cat has orichalcum. Pure. Unworked. He's trying to bring it to the Troll - to the boy. Jim Lake. To the people bringing the fight to Merlin." Frederick took a deep breath. "To your son."
"A fruitless endeavor."
Startled, Darwin yowled, while Morgana accidentally slammed Frederick into the wall behind him. A tall, slender troll, skin bright red, bringing to mind fresh blood, rose above them at the nearest edge to the alley. She was grinning toothily.
"You're a hard man to find, Darwin Franklin," Fin said. "So imagine my delight when I got a call that we'd finally caught up with you. I did wonder, when we found the agents who caught up with you - you don't like flashy. But this...makes sense." Her gaze passed to Morgana, and her grin widened. "As does this. What, I asked the Vice President, could rip through dozens of vampires across five countries and twelve states? An onryo, the vengeful spirit of a woman wronged by a man. Morgana le Fay, driven by her rage at Merlin, sustained by the Blood Mages she kills along the way, I would presume." She clicked her tongue. "Sloppy. I mean, we've been tracking you by the trail of bodies you've left for weeks."
"I wanted him to find me!" Morgana howled, lashing out at Fin. The shadows around her fingers seemed to deepen, lengthen, reaching out toward Fin. Fin tossed out a handful of salt, which burst into blinding sparks as Fin split the sodium and chlorine; Darwin fell back to avoid inhaling the errant gas. The light cut through Morgana's attack, giving Fin the time to make a quick gesture, red light flaring as the concrete groaned and exploded upward into massive stalagmites. Frederick took to the air as Darwin darted between the rising pillars, while Morgana herself rose into the air on wings of night, green eye blazing with copper flames. The air grew thick with the promise of storms, a choking tension that left Darwin breathless. Lightning danced along the sorceress' hands, jumping from her fingertips to illuminate Fin's side of the alley, a curtain of high-amperage death.
At a gesture from Fin, the fire escape bent to spear across the alley, metal catching the lightning and grounding it harmlessly while the troll slammed a hand against the pavement. Concrete cracked at her touch, the agonizing scream of twisting metal as pipes beneath the surface ruptured, spraying water in a wide arc. Fin struck a match against her skin, grinning as Morgana swooped down at her.
Darwin scowled and reached out. It was almost disappointing how predictable Blood Mage-alchemists were, when he felt the water splitting into hydrogen and oxygen. It was almost funny, how easy it was to foil Fin's plan, bonding every two hydrogen atoms into one of helium.
When the match only flared slightly in the presence of the excess oxygen, Fin's eyes widened, just a moment of confusion before they cleared with comprehension.
And in that moment of confusion, Morgana fell upon the troll, fingers closing around her throat. "I have been hunting your kind for weeks, Fin. I have dreamed of nothing but revenge against your master for fifteen hundred years! And you think your parlor tricks would hold me back?"
And Fin's grin widened as one hand snapped up to close around Morgana's right wrist, and the other rose, a red stone gleaming in her grasp. "And what did you think would happen, Morgana, sending one of the undead against a master Blood Mage?"
It wasn't transmutation, or at least not the transmutation of base matter. Failed alchemists became Blood Mages because they could capture the energy of death and use it to accomplish something almost like alchemy. But at their heart, Blood Mages trafficked in the power of life and death.
And Morgana was something like a vampire, sustained by death; the power burned in her chest, keeping her heart beating.
So at the touch of a Blood Mage, who knew how to rip the echoes of a creature's life from their dying body, Morgana's blue eye blazed, a brilliant point of ice, as she fought against a lifetime of experience with the most vicious and hideous of the magical arts with her will, her stubbornness, and her nigh-infinite desire for vengeance.
It might have been a close match, if the circumstances were different.
But the stone in Fin's hand burned with equal power, a red sun blinding to look at, the Philosopher's Stone. It might take a few moments, a minute, or longer, but Darwin knew Morgana was going to lose.
She was going to die.
And then Fin would turn on Darwin and Frederick and kill them, too.
But as Darwin clambered up a stalagmite, he found the night empty of the vibrantly-colored troll, Frederick clearly having taken Fin's distraction as an opportunity to get out of here. It was...disappointing, if expected, that the troll was looking out for himself; Darwin could have, too, if his intelligence weren't circumscribed by April's damnable charitable nature.
The light in Morgana's eyes went out, and Darwin pulled himself up, deciding if he was going to die, it wouldn't be cowering, or running.
"Hey, Fin!" A shout from behind the false alchemist drew Darwin's gaze even as Fin half-turned toward the source - Frederick, in all his multi-colored glory, only a few gold trinkets retrieved from his hotel room to offer a defense against Fin's power. Darwin scowled; for all he'd found it disappointing, he'd thought Frederick was smarter than this, provoking the troll who'd proven herself the match of an undead sorceress, Frederick's creator, if Darwin had heard correctly.
Fin chuckled, a rough sound, low in her throat. "What is your hope here, little changeling? That your friend can make gold for you, that you can fight me? That the pathetic sparks of power granted to you can match me? The first, and greatest alchemist?"
Frederick snorted, a huff of laughter. "You can't even shuffle molecular bonds without an external energy source. And you aren't immortal, just a block of silicon that can think."
Darwin's ears perked up before his mind got up to speed - remembered when the subject of silicon-based lifeforms had come up between him and Frederick.
Fin wasn't paying attention to Darwin - whether because she needed Darwin alive, for a little while at least; or because Darwin was a cat, and she still thought of him as a dumb animal, for all she'd chased him across the country.
Or maybe because she'd taken Darwin's and April's pacifism as a sign they weren't dangerous.
So Darwin had free reign to find his perch (one of the stalagmites Fin herself had summoned), crouch, leap onto her back, high enough he could nearly reach her shoulders, and dig his claws into the living stone.
"Was that supposed to hurt, Mr. Franklin?"
"No," Darwin retorted. "It's just easier to work on something when I've got my paws on it."
Silicon atoms were made up of fourteen protons and fourteen to sixteen neutrons. Nitrogen atoms had seven protons each, with seven or eight neutrons apiece. So when Darwin applied his will to the flesh under his paws, there was no radiation, no errant neutrons, just sparks as electrons reshuffled themselves to match the nitrogen atoms that replaced the silicon in Fin's body.
So as the sparks died, a huff of air came from Fin, like a heavy breath. Her eyes dimmed as something essential to making them glow transmuted into bubbles of nitrogen, and her body shifted, tilted, until it collapsed, still, on the pavement.
The Philosopher's Stone rolled from her softening hand, clinking as it stopped against one of the stalagmites. And for a moment, it was quiet.
And then Frederick whooped. "Fucking amazing, you wild little cat!" he cheered, swooping in to pick Darwin up as he spun in a quick circle. "I was terrified, you know that? And then you - what the hell did you do?" He paused, squinting down at Fin's body. "You threatened to turn me into a cloud of hydrogen-"
"The neutron radiation from doing that to Fin would have killed you," Darwin said. "And there are easier ways to kill people with alchemy, anyway."
Frederick took a step back from Fin, tugging Darwin up against his chest. "I don't know how many trolls you've killed, Dar, but when trolls die, they turn to stone. So maybe we should beat it before she wakes up."
"She isn't waking up," Darwin replied. "And she isn't turning to stone because the silicon in her body got turned into nitrogen, which doesn't make a lot of stable mineral compounds." Frederick's grip loosened, enough that Darwin jumped to the ground and turned for fear of being dropped. Frederick's gaze was fixed on Fin's corpse, and he was still, quiet.
And it occurred to Darwin he'd done something terrifying, the sort of thing evil wizards did, and he felt a thrill of anxiety. "Look, Frederick-"
Frederick looked to Darwin, grinning, wild. "No one's coming back from that! Fuck, you're brutal, Dar. Lucky we need brutal. So let's grab that rock and get out of here."
Akiridions were weird, Toby decided. When Mary had located chatter between NOAA and NASA about a UFO that had crash-landed half a day's drive from New Trollmarket, Aja had spearheaded the expedition to check it out. When they arrived, they found a spaceship, the dream spirit Jim had released from the Deep, a quarter-ton of orichalcum ore, Aja and Krel's childhood bodyguard and instructor, and the remains of a platoon of Marines - close to forty people torn to pieces by a single Akiridion warrior ("a poor welcome for a warrior of Varvatos Vex's caliber," the man had complained).
The point was, though, the reunion between Aja, Krel, and someone who'd had part of the responsibility of raising them, was short, involved no hugging, and had quickly devolved into a debate about what to do with the orichalcum ferried from the other side of the galaxy from the Tarrons' personal mines.
The debate had been going on for three days when it was interrupted by a call from Shannon, a report that the werewolves had picked up a changeling at the border of Arcadia Oaks, a changeling who sounded familiar. Jim had volunteered to go meet Frederick before Blinky had overruled him and demanded Frederick come to them.
(Jim was acting weird, too. His mother had come back from a trip to Arcadia with freaking Excalibur, and Jim had been squirrelly after that - difficult to pin down, at least by Toby, his best friend. He'd caught Jim and Mordred a few times in quiet corners, apparently talking, which left a burning ache in his chest he was certain he wouldn't have if they'd spent their free time making out, because Toby was not equipped to help Jim ignore his problems with sexy times, but was supposed to talk to his best bro about shit.)
So they'd gathered in the Gyre station to meet Frederick, the weird, flamboyant troll who'd been more or less on their side since the beginning. When he arrived, he'd hopped off the Gyre before pausing to allow a black cat to jump onto his shoulder. He grinned at the assembled group, everyone except Mary, Dictatious, Dr. Lake, and Aster, before spreading his arms.
"Why all the long faces?" Frederick asked. "Your fucking salvation is here!"
"You?" Steve demanded. "I don't remember you being much of a fighter."
"Shut up, I'm plenty good at fighting when I need to," Frederick snapped. "But yes, I'm a spy, specializing in asset retrieval, and what we've got here is a fucking asset. Gang, meet Darwin Franklin, alchemist."
"...Do you mean the cat?" Claire asked. "Because Darwin Franklin's a biochemist."
"You're both right," the cat said, "but at the moment, the alchemy is the most relevant of my numerous talents."
"Yeah, Dar here's the owner of the only sample of unworked orichalcum on the planet," Frederick said, reaching up to scratch the the cat's ears; Darwin preened at the touch.
"That's not quite true," Toby said. "We just got a delivery of like, 500 pounds of the stuff. Express. From space."
And the cat bolted up, his tail sweeping back and forth as he quivered. "I hope to God you haven't done anything with it yet," he said.
"What? Why?" Blinky asked.
"You remember when you asked me if you could make a laser powered by orichalcum?" Darwin asked Frederick, who grinned.
Krel whooped and shoved forward through the crowd. "I've got a better idea. Vex wanted to make a weapon for Aja - my sister - and if you have enough orichalcum to make a laser, you have enough orichalcum to make a serrator."
And that brought in Aja, who knew what a serrator was, and the Toymaker, who'd need to make the damn thing, a chatter of technobabble between them until Frederick gave a sharp whistle.
"Hey, whoa!" Frederick shouted. "I get that this is exciting and all, but I've got more news." He reached into his jacket, pulling out a sivery disc, red light spilling out around delicate clockwork mechanisms. "See, I ran into Otto a while ago, talked him out of a very special piece of artificing."
And standing next to him, Toby could see Jim's eyes widen at the sight of the Amulet of Midnight, the Janus Order's attempt at duplicating the powers of the Trollhunter. And Toby knew Jim well enough that he was already saying, "No," when Jim said, "I'll take it."
"No!" Toby snapped, stepping between Jim and Frederick. "You are not sticking your soul inside another magical amulet!"
"No, hey, this is an improved design!" Frederick said, waving the Amulet at Toby. "No unnecessary ripping people's souls out of their body - just the necessary sacrifice of the Archmage of the Order of Dawn, which I don't think any of us feel too broken up about." His grin widened. "And since you've got a new influx of orichalcum to play with, it gives me an idea." He held up his free hand to Darwin. "Give me the orichalcum, I want to try something."
As the cat pulled a bead of glittering midnight metal from their collar, Frederick flipped the amulet over and opened the back. He pressed the bead into the receptacle and closed it back up before stepping up to Toby, tilting his head.
"Are you going to let me go?" he asked.
"It's...not going to hurt Jim?" Toby asked.
"Not a bit," Frederick replied. So Toby let him go by, handing the amulet to Jim, who stared at it for a long minute, brow furrowed. Toby felt an odd moment of hope, that maybe Jim would leave this to the rest of them.
And then Jim held the amulet up. "For the doom of Merlin," he said, "Twilight is mine to command!"
Mary's friends were building weapons. Aja and the Toymaker had been consulting with an alchemist for several days, trying to create an alien weapon powered by orichalcum. Jim had claimed the Janus Order's twin to the Amulet of Daylight and infused it with the power of orichalcum to create a weapon that was death to Blood Magic. And Dr. Lake had laid claim to Excalibur (given that she hadn't told Jim to break things off with Mordred, it suggested her lineage wasn't royal, but fae - descended from Nimue, making it entirely possible that lineage also included Merlin, giving their crusade against him a sort of poetic justice).
But none of that mattered.
Not so long as Merlin had a grail. Not so long as he had a source of magic to keep himself alive, no matter what wounds he received. Not so long as he had the accumulated power of millions of years of sacrifice and bloodshed.
Which was why Mary had spent months scouring the internet, not for her usual goal of keeping a finger on the pulse of the world, but to understand their enemy. She was certain she was now among the world's greatest experts on Arthurian lore.
But she'd also spent hundreds of hours studying photos, interviews, of Martin Walters.
Because the key to finding Merlin's grail wasn't in the artifacts mentioned in any particular retelling of the legend of Camelot. It was understanding the man who created it. Who'd raised up the Pendragon knowing they could someday herald his defeat. Who'd taken into his confidence the man chosen to wield a blade forged to kill him.
There was a story of an immortal wizard who'd hid his weakness in a needle inside of an egg inside of a hare inside of a duck inside of a box buried under a tree. Mary was certain Merlin wasn't that sort of man. There were stories of wizards who had hidden their weaknesses within fortresses filled with cunning traps. Mary was certain Merlin wasn't that sort of man (he had hidden himself away, but a place like the Tomb of Merlin was too obvious a place to hide his grail). There were stories of wizards who carried their greatest tools openly, so confident in their power they didn't fear losing them. Mary was certain Merlin wasn't that sort of man.
Merlin...was the sort of man who empowered people who would become his enemies, who created tools that became the cornerstone of his foes' strategies. He had taught the world Blood Magic so his influence would spread, confident he could use it more cunningly than anyone who would use it against him.
Her mind kept drifting back to the Staff of Avalon (something of value, that no one would think to destroy), even as she was certain it wasn't the key (far too obvious, too easily connected to Merlin).
Ideally, he would want the grail close, something he could draw upon whenever he decided he needed it (and so she kept wondering about the Amulet of Daylight, and the Void that Merlin had created, or accessed, through it).
But the answer wouldn't come, no matter how long Mary prodded at it.
She kept quiet about it, how they were all doomed, no matter what, because they needed hope.
(And she wouldn't admit it was a lost cause, not when she got six hours of sleep every night in the hope that each night's sleep would bring that final connection, that she would wake with the answer.)
"You'd think a guy who called himself the Moon King would have kept this place in better shape," Darci said, picking her way through the junk littering the floor of the throne room of what she'd been calling in her head the Moon Palace.
"He wasn't exactly interested in infrastructure," Kubo snapped from the massive throne set in the room's center. He pressed a paw against one of the arms, sighing when nothing happened. "Or governance, for that matter."
"I don't even get why we're here." Darci paused when her foot kicked against more litter and her examination proved it to be a hollow face forged of some dark metal - like orichalcum, except without the glittering starlight that made it look like magic.
"This isn't just a palace - it's a spaceship," Kubo replied. He flicked a switch back and forth several times, throwing himself off the throne when it failed to produce results. "And given that my grandfather fled to Earth on it, it's bound to have - weapons, defenses, in it."
"But none of them work, so it might be time to give up."
"We can't," Kubo muttered.
Darci pinched the bridge of her nose, taking a deep breath to calm herself, because getting mad at Kubo for being an enigmatic little shit wasn't going to help. "Why?"
"Because I know how this story goes," Kubo said. "Merlin has allies stretched across the universe, and they will not stand idly by while we destroy him. An army - well, an armada - will come to help him, and without some sort of space power of our own, we'll be helpless before them."
"Hence, our trying to reactivate a space fortress on the moon," Darci concluded.
"Hence, our trying to reactivate a space fortress on the moon," Kubo agreed.
Darci picked Kubo up and stepped away from the throne. "Then let's go see if we can find a goddamned engine room or something. I'm not going to let some stupid-ass alien invaders interrupt Merlin's well-earned ass-kicking."