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.
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.
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."