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House Tarron), sent shortly before the President had been assassinated by the director of - Area 51 or whatever - and been replaced by a man Mary had assured them, in her last message to the group chat, was actually the evil alien-wizard Merlin.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."