Micah’s senses slowly began to return to him. The first sense to return was touch, as he felt the smooth walls of his confinement. The walls were tight around him all on sides but one, but it didn’t feel claustrophobic, it felt natural. He stretched himself out farther, forming a hand and arm which reached up and touched the smooth surface. It was glass, as if he were inside a giant test-tube.
He slowly formed the rest of his human body, carefully stretching arms and legs out and testing the boundaries of his confinement. He pulled away from the walls as his feet found the floor, and his hands braced him against the walls and helped him stand as he began to form his human head.
Smell and taste returned first but all the information he received from either sense was that his environment was sterile. His hearing returned next, offering him nothing but the distant buzz of electricity. None of this prepared him for the sight which awaited him.
He was still in the laboratory, but he was standing in a small glass alcove, looking out at the equipment and examination tables, one of which was occupied by Ethan, who was clearly unconscious and naked. He was restrained despite his unconscious state as Timothy stood above him, scribbling notes on a clipboard with his back turned to Micah.
“What did you do to me?” Micah demanded, pounding against the glass case in front of him with his fist. It didn’t give at all, and Micah was sure he’d find it very difficult to break.
Timothy turned around slowly, finishing what he was writing before bothering to regard Micah. He left Ethan’s side and walked toward Micah at a casual pace, sticking the clipboard under his arm and smiling at Micah with an arrogant smirk. “Do you know why Indrus was able to hunt down his own kind so easily?” He asked as he came to stand in front of the glass wall separating them. Micah heard the voice from a speaker somewhere above him, and only then did he notice a small earpiece in Timothy’s ear. “He knew something you didn’t,” Timothy continued. “None of us did. It’s amazing really. Working with Oberon has been one of the most enlightening opportunities of my life.”
“Shut up and tell me what you did!” Micah demanded as he pounded on the glass again, glaring at Timothy.
“I can only do one of those two things,” Timothy said, chuckling. “Take your pick.”
Micah growled at Timothy’s response and turned his focus on Ethan. “What did you do to Ethan? Did you kill him?”
“You need to be more patient if you want any of the answers to your questions,” Timothy replied, his grin infuriating Micah even further. But then Timothy glanced back at Ethan and answered Micah’s question. “Ethan is only sleeping, and he’ll continue to sleep for as long as he’s here, or until I decide to kill him. I’m not going to let him get another chance to lay a hand on me.”
Micah composed himself before asking in as calm a voice he could manage, “You’re studying him. Why?”
“A very curious thing, really,” Timothy replied with a thoughtful expression. “Did you know he’s on the path to becoming a shape shifter? I find that positively fascinating. He’s closer to us than any human has been in eons.”
“What are you talking about?” Micah asked, annoyed. “Ethan can’t shape shift.”
“No, of course not, and I doubt he’d ever be able to in this life, though perhaps in his next.” Timothy shrugged and returned his attention to Micah. “The real question isn’t why Ethan can’t, it’s why you and I still can. It’s as if we’ve never truly changed as a species, we simply improved at what we could always do.”
Micah gave Timothy an incredulous stare and Timothy continued in a condescending tone. “I’m sure, given your age and when the world fell apart, that you know little about the origin of life on this world.” He laughed, the sound grating on Micah’s nerves. “It’s okay, of course, the humans never really got it right either. They assumed the primordial soup simply disappeared, as if a pool of liquid life would for some reason cease to exist.”
“What are you going on about?”
“We were that primordial soup, Micah,” Timothy said, gesturing between them. “We gave birth to all life on this world, one genetic mutation after another. In our genes as shape shifters are the genes for all of life, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale in the ocean. Our genes created the phoenix, the djinn, the human, the lycanthrope. We created all of them simply by being ever shifting to adapt to our situations. Humans who know about monsters consider monsters to be a deviant form of human, but we are their ancestors walking among them.”
“That’s insane,” Micah said dismissively. “Who even cares?”
“You should care, Micah,” Timothy replied, his eyes growing hard. “It’s why you and I are better than them. It’s why you should stop fighting me and let me experiment on you openly. I can teach you to access your ultimate potential.”
Micah shook his head forcefully. “Why would you even bother? Last time you were speaking of getting revenge on me. I sincerely doubt you’ve changed your mind.”
“You didn’t kill my partner,” Timothy said, shrugging. “Sure, you helped betray him and tried to kill me, but Indrus was the one to blame. I’m prepared to let bygones be bygones.” He leaned forward as if his next words should be kept between them. “You and I, we could rule this world with this knowledge. Wouldn’t you rather rule the world than continue to be a pawn in it?”
Micah stared back at Timothy for several seconds. He wasn’t about to consider working with Timothy, but letting Timothy think he’d be willing was a different matter. He kept his tone neutral as he asked, “What did you do to me?”
Timothy grinned with self-satisfaction and explained, “I analyzed the poison Indrus concocted to kill us. Do you know what it does?” Micah shook his head and Timothy continued. “It returns us to our Primordial state. It destabilizes us, and that destabilization can do catastrophic harm to our bodies.”
“So you poisoned me and then expect me to help you?” Micah asked, giving Timothy an incredulous look.
“Did you not notice that you’re still alive?” Timothy laughed. “I gave you a much weaker dose. Instead of killing you, it put you into stasis. What I want to know is how you felt when you woke up in that state.”
“Why?” Micah asked. “How would that help you?”
“Did you feel as if you could become anything you wanted to be with but a thought?” Timothy asked, leaning forward slightly as he pulled his clipboard out from under his arm, his pen poised to write again. “Did you feel the intricate web of life available to you without any strain? Did you not feel infinite?”
“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Micah spat. “I don’t want anything to do with your experiments, and I will not cooperate. If you want to find out how it feels, do it to yourself.”
“So,” Timothy said with a disappointed look as he put the clipboard aside and started reaching for a control panel next to Micah’s prison. “You’re not going to make this easy, huh?”
“You can shut up now,” Micah growled. The hiss of air drew him to look up where a vapor was slowly being vented into the test-tube. He started to cough as his vision began to fade and the poison set in again. “You bastard,” Micah spat, looking back at Timothy before his sight was stolen from him. His other senses faded quickly and he was back to unconsciousness.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Finn and Max were hanging from the ceiling, their wrists bound above them and their ankles tightly bound below. Finn’s ankles were further restrained by being tied to the floor as well. Thor knew Finn’s martial prowess well, and didn’t want to give him any chance of proving it here by accomplishing a daring escape from his bindings.
“Tell us what Ivan was planning.”
Thor’s words were filled with deadly calm as he leaned into Max, cupping his chin as he forced Max to meet his eyes. Max had remained completely silent as Thor had beaten him, first with his fists and then with a club. Neither had elicited more than cries of pain from Max.
Finn watched it unfold with pride, glad Max had been able to hold his tongue, though it pained him greatly to see his lover tortured. Max was strong, and he would be able to survive long enough for Nevala to attempt a rescue.
“Max, you know I can get a great deal meaner if you refuse to answer my questions.” Thor’s threat was met with a defiant stare from Max, and Thor shook his head wordlessly before backhanding Max across the face.
Max spat out blood and then returned to his defiant posture, glaring at Thor. “I’m not going to tell you anything, so you might as well get on with it,” he said calmly. “If you think torture is something I can’t deal with, you don’t know me very well, Thor.”
“Very well.” Thor nodded slowly. He patted Max’s cheek which caused Max to wince in pain. “I’ll give you some time to think about that statement. Finn, it’s your turn.”
“You’re going to try to break him?” Max scoffed as Thor took a step away from him. “You’re insane. He’s not going to tell you anything, ever. He’s tougher than me and a hell of a lot tougher than you. You must not know us at all.”
“Oh?” Thor asked, raising an eyebrow as he turned from Max to Finn. “I’m not so sure about that. Finn, you do know I’m going to kill Max if you don’t cooperate.”
“I doubt that. You may be willing to kill, Thor, but you don’t kill unnecessarily,” Finn said calmly. “This is hardly a necessary reason. Oberon surely told you everything you wanted to know about us already.”
“Did he?” Thor asked in mock surprise. “So he already knows all of your plans and chose to share them with Nightshade? We’re allies, sure, but allies always hold back information. Ivan certainly held information from us, and you’re doing so now.”
“This is how you treat your allies?” Finn asked, nodding to Max. “We were friends once, Thor,”
“You’re human. As a witch, I can no longer be friends with your kind,” Thor replied with hard eyes. “I have orders to exterminate you. Those orders say nothing of how long I should take doing so. I can take as long,” he smiled as he raised the club and took a step toward Finn. Then he spun around and drew the handgun from its holster at his side and pointed it at Max. “Or as short as I want,” he added as he pulled the trigger, the shot ringing through the room as the bullet pierced Max’s leg and his scream echoed at a volume to rival the gunshot.
Finn gritted his teeth as he watched Max squirm in the ropes holding him bound. Blood trickled down Max’s leg and dripped to the floor in a steady stream. He continued to scream as his eyes clenched shut with tears sliding down his face in a torrent.
“You’re going to just let Max hang there like that?” Thor asked, keeping the gun trained on Max. “You tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let them save his leg. You keep silent, and I’ll take his other leg next. Your choice, Finn.”
Max struggled through the pain, to plead with Finn. “Finn. D-don’t.”
Thor ignored Max as he locked eyes with Finn, slowly moving his finger back to the trigger as he spoke with infuriating nonchalance. “Going once. Going twice . . .”
Finn gritted his teeth and hung his head in shame. “Fine. I’m sorry, Max,” He said, looking up to meet Max’s eyes. “The one thing I won’t give up for Ivan is you. I’ll tell you what you want to know, Thor,” He whispered in defeat. “Just help him.”
“Very well,” Thor said, opening the door behind him and letting another soldier into the room. Thor nodded to Max and ordered, “Cut him down and take him to Dr. Munther.” Max groaned in pain as the soldier roughly cut him down and he fell to the floor on his injured leg. The soldier picked Max up and dragged him from the room as Finn watched numbly.
Thor closed the door and turned to Finn expectantly. Finn sighed and began speaking, knowing if he went back on his agreement now then Thor would kill Max for sure. “Ivan was captured by Sparrow,” Finn said with reluctance. “We trespassed into your territory to rescue him. Otherwise, we would have never left North America.”
“Is that so?” Thor asked with an intrigued expression. “Oberon said in his communication with us that you came to assassinate him. As we’ve had no contact with Sparrow since you entered our airspace, only with other messengers, we assume that Sparrow atoned for his crime against your leader?”
“Not by my hand,” Finn replied, surprised by the news but unwilling to let it show in his face. “If Sparrow is dead, then I do not know how.”
“Interesting,” Thor whispered. “And Ivan, did he fall in the exchange?”
“No . . .” Finn said cautiously. He let his surprise show this time as he met Thor’s eyes. “Oberon hasn’t told you anything, has you?”
“Allies always hold back information,” Thor said neutrally.
“I see. You do realize an alliance with Oberon is guaranteed to end in his favor?” Finn asked with a frown. “He wishes to rule the world. Surely that cannot be something Nightshade would ever agree to.”
“What happened to Ivan, Finn?” Thor asked impatiently.
“Ivan was captured,” Finn replied. “Oberon intends to keep him prisoner on Avalon.”
“You’re lying,” Thor replied through a thin-lipped frown. “He promised he would give Ivan to us if Ivan were alive. What use would he have for Ivan? We know Oberon is hunting phoenixes, but that would have nothing to do with Ivan. Even if Ivan has any phoenix blood, he’s far too human now to be of any threat to Oberon.”
“Oh, how little you know, Thor,” Finn chuckled without mirth. “It’s sad, really. Oberon will catch you sleeping and steal the world right from under your nose.”
“Odin knows what he’s doing, Finn,” Thor said with conviction. “May you live to see the day when Nightshade rules everything. You’ll understand then.”
Finn shook his head in disdain. “At this rate, I doubt you’d outlive me for long, even if you kill me here.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Your friend is asleep?”
Zach looked up at Loki’s question, surprised to find himself back on the cot and resting. He remembered speaking to Loki earlier, but the conversation was now a blur. He didn’t remember how it had ended or when he had decided to lay down to sleep.
He rose to a sitting position and looked over at Tristan who was sleeping on the other cot, then he looked back to Loki and asked, “What do you want?”
“I was hoping you might be interested in making good on your . . .” Loki trailed off as he searched for the right word, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively, “wayward thoughts from earlier. Do you want to fuck?”
Zach was caught completely off guard by Loki’s audacity. “I d-don’t . . .”
“Shush, I was only teasing,” Loki said, grinning as he waved the thought away. “Well, at least partially. If you really want to, I’d be happy to make good on that question . . .”
“No, that’s all right,” Zach said, raising his hand to stop Loki and then asked, “What did you really want?”
“You have elf blood,” Loki said quietly, looking Zach up and down. “I didn’t sense it earlier. I find that fascinating. The only people who have elf blood are elves, but yet you don’t have the stench of Avalon about you.”
“What are you?” Zach asked, shaking his head in wonder.
“I told you. I’m a goblin. What else do you need to know?” Loki asked, bowing his head and extending his arms out wide. “I may know a thing or two about Avalon, as well. Why do you think I rebelled against Odin as soon as I learned that Avalon was involved? We have history.”
“So what? I have history with them too,” Zach replied bitterly. “My father was from Avalon.”
“Interesting . . .” Loki replied, staring off into space.
“What do you know?” Zach asked.
“A great deal,” Loki said, nodding sagely. “Do you know why Avalon is the way it is?” He asked. Zach shook his head and Loki asked another question. “Have you ever heard of Atlantis? I don’t know how widespread your education was, growing up as you did in the times since the war.”
“I can’t recall hearing about it,” Zach replied with a slight shrug. He glanced over at Tristan and added, “Sounds like something Tristan would know about, though.”
“Oh, I’m sure he feels it in his bones, actually,” Loki said, letting out a little laugh. “Atlantis was one of the great cities of the past, almost completely lost to human history. It was a city where Djinn and Phoenix lived in harmony, working together to create great feats of magic and science alike.”
“Why is this relevant?” Zach asked.
“Well, you see, Atlantis was an island capable of crossing great distances in the blink of an eye,” Loki continued. “It travels on elemental mist, from one body of water to another. The leaders of both the Phoenixes and the Djinn used this method to travel wherever they were needed, now Oberon uses it to keep his realm hidden from others.”
“So you’re saying that this ‘Atlantis’ and Avalon are the same place?” Zach asked.
“Precisely,” Loki replied, smiling encouragingly. “You’re not as slow as you look.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Zach replied, rolling his eyes.
“Hey, don’t worry, you got looks where it counts,” Loki said, winking at Zach. “Let me know when you’re ready to reconsider that ‘fucking’ I was talking about earlier and—”
“All right, enough,” Zach said, cutting Loki off. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’ll get to that,” Loki replied with a wide grin. Oberon orchestrated a coup, with the help of his sister, Titania, and his lover, a young phoenix savant with powers beyond compare named Avalon. Oberon renamed Atlantis in honor of that phoenix. They captured the leaders of their people and then sacrificed them to the well which fueled Atlantis. The Spirit Well.” Loki paused for a moment to make sure Zach was keeping up with the information before continuing. “The spirits of the Phoenixes and Djinn became trapped inside the well, and Oberon slowly siphoned their life force to fuel his plans. The reason the Elves have the gift of immortality as long as they live on Avalon’s shores is because they also benefit from that life force.”
“And I’m sure my father knew all about this,” Zach said dismissively. “It’s okay, I already knew he was a bastard. You really don’t have to spend all this time proving it to me.”
“That wasn’t the point,” Loki replied, and for the first time his smile faltered. “Bear with me, Zach.”
“All right,” Zach said impatiently. “What’s the point then?”
“A normal human would not be able to connect to the life force of the Spirit Pool,” Loki continued. “They’ve been changed; they’ve been altered to be more like the phoenix and more like the djinn. Every human who originally joined Oberon on Avalon consumed a drop of Oberon’s blood by ritual. Oberon is one of a kind, half djinn and half phoenix, and his blood allowed each of the elves to take on a small portion of that mixed heritage.”
“Fascinating,” Zach said in exasperation. “What does that have to do with me?”
“Hm,” Loki said, biting his bottom lip thoughtfully “Maybe you are just looks after all.”
Zach sighed and asked, “Are you inferring I have the same heritage?”
“Oh, you’ve got it!” Loki said, clapping his hands excitedly.
“So, I’m part phoenix,” Zach mused, “like Tristan?”
“And part djinn, like me,” Loki confirmed, nodding. “Goblins are the offspring of djinn and witches.”
“Does that mean I can learn to do the same things you both can do?” Zach asked excitedly. “I can learn to control fire or read minds?”
“Oh? So you finally admit that I can read minds?” Loki asked with a wide grin. “So you are into me.”
“Shut up and answer the question,” Zach growled.
“Yes, assuming you were to go to Avalon, you could unlock those abilities,” Loki said, nodding.
“Are you trying to convince me to go there?” Zach asked cautiously.
“You don’t want to?” Loki replied, surprised.
Zach shook his head. “I have no interest in becoming like my father.”
“That’s too bad,” Loki replied, sighing. “Faustair was better than most of the elves.”
“We are not going to talk about my father,” Zach warned.
“Very well,” Loki said with a shrug. “What else are we going to do to pass the time then? Wanna fuck?”
“Go fuck yourself,” Zach replied, annoyed as thoughts of his father started to enter his mind.
“Will do,” Loki said with a snicker. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nevala, Peter, and the tigress crouched on a ridge overlooking the small village. It had taken them the better part of the day to circle around to the other side of the village while avoiding detection, but it had been worth it. They now had a greater vantage point than Nevala could have hoped for, and they could get an idea of the size of the force protecting the village.
Unfortunately, that force was much larger than Nevala wanted to see. There were well over a hundred soldiers in the village, and their friends had been separated to different sections of the settlement. Rescuing all of them in one go would be nearly impossible, and leaving any of them behind would likely guarantee their deaths.
“There has to be a way to rescue them,” Peter said from Nevala’s side. He was watching the village as intently as Nevala, while the tigress lounged in the grass behind them.
“Of course there is,” Nevala replied, trying to keep his voice positive even though the situation seemed grim. “What we have to figure out is a way to rescue them without dying in the attempt. We can’t go in there without a plan.”
“Being more cautious than normal, it seems,” Peter mused.
“There’s only two of us, Peter,” Nevala said pointedly. “We don’t have the same amount of options we normally do.”
“There’s three of us, Nevala,” Peter said, nodding behind him to the tigress. “And one of them is you. You’re unstoppable.”
“I didn’t achieve this level of power by disregarding caution, Peter,” Nevala chided. “We need more of a plan than ‘rush in and save our friends’. But maybe . . .” he trailed off as the tigress let out a low growl behind him. He turned slowly, only to find a young man of Asian descent dressed in form-fitting black clothes with an unsheathed katana in his hands, slowly approaching them from the edge of the woods. Nevala recognized him instantly. Daisuke was a former member of the Nine Dragons, and had served in Japan for years while Nevala was working in India. They had fought alongside each other time and time again, but his appearance here was completely unexpected.
“Your new form must be throwing you off, Nevala,” Daisuke said with a wide grin. “I’ve never been able to sneak up on you before.”
“Daisuke!” Nevala said, rising to his feet as he approached his old friend. “You rascal, what the devil are you doing here?”
“I’m here in the company of the Lady Amaya,” Daisuke explained, letting his sword drop as Nevala moved in and embraced him. “On behalf of the Noh-Kitsune.”
“You’re working with the Noh-Kitsune?” Nevala asked when they pulled away from their embrace. “Why?”
“They approached me once they learned of Nightshade’s attempt to assassinate Ivan from Lady Amaya,” Daisuke explained as he sheathed his sword in the scabbard at his side. He rested a hand on Nevala’s shoulder as he continued, “The Noh-Kitsune stand with Skinwalker, and have sent Lady Amaya and her consort, Sai, as an emissary representing the Noh-Kitsune’s call for peace. They should be right behind me.”
“Or in front of you, ronin,” Said a voice from the side and slightly behind Nevala. Amaya, the shape shifter spy who had been present at the attempt on Ivan’s life, walked out of the woods with an older man at her shoulder. Nevala had crossed paths with Sai before, a vicious wererat fighter from India who served the Noh-Kitsune diligently, and was surprised to see him working so closely with Daisuke. “Nevala the Mongoose,” Amaya continued, “I’d not thought to cross paths with you again so soon. You were much younger last time I saw you.”
“Indeed, Lady Amaya,” Nevala said with a nod of respect. “And this time we appear to be meeting on better terms.”
“The first time we met, you assassinated the Governor of India,” Lady Amaya replied with a sly grin. “Without you, my father would not be the new Governor. I’d say our meetings have not all been so unpleasant.”
“I suppose that’s so,” Nevala chuckled.
“Anyone going to take the time to introduce me?” Peter asked from behind Nevala. He walked up to the group and looked at the three, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Peter, this is former member of the Nine Dragons, Daisuke Tanaka, a good friend of mine,” Nevala said, pointing first at Daisuke and then indicating lady Amaya next. “Lady Amaya was the shape shifter who infiltrated Skinwalker the night of the coup. You were bleeding on the floor that night I believe. Sai . . .” he paused as he turned to Sai, a question in his eyes. “Do you still want to kill me, Sai?”
“Not if the lady Amaya does not wish it,” Sai replied neutrally.
“Good to hear,” Nevala said with a laugh. “What other surprises do you have in store for me?”
“Well, while approaching Nightshade we learned Thor was here whereas Odin was nowhere to be found. We chose to come here and encountered some new friends in the process,” Lady Amaya replied as a form started to move out of the woods behind her. “Have you by chance heard of Fenrir?”
A young man, naked from the waist up with a large tattoo of a wolf dominating his right breast walked out of the woods, his dark hair hanging wild behind him, though his eyes bore a significant level of intelligence. Those eyes locked on Nevala as he approached, his voice smooth and almost intoxicating as he spoke. “The infamous Nevala. I’d not thought to see you in my territory.”
“Fenrir. You lead the resistance against Nightshade,” Nevala said as he extended his hand in greeting. I must say I’m glad to see you here. You’re the one I’ve sensed shadowing us all day. It’s good to know the presence at my back wasn’t an enemy.”
“I’m not?” Fenrir asked, looking down at the hand and then back up at Nevala as he stopped a couple of feet away.
“We both want the same thing,” Nevala said calmly, keeping his hand extended. “I can get you into that facility, I assure you. And if you have forces here to back us up, we can hit them hard and fast, well enough for you to take out Thor.”
“If that’s true, I’d owe a great debt to you,” Fenrir said, finally taking Nevala’s offered hand. “If that is your intention, then you’re absolutely correct. We come as friends. What is your plan?”
“Now that there is more to work with than the three of us,” Nevala said, looking around the group, “I think we can pull off whatever you want. But it’s not time to go in yet. We need to strike at precisely the right moment if we want to make them pay.”
“Perfect,” Lady Amaya replied, clapping her hands together in anticipation. “Let’s get planning.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jacob found Oberon in the manor study, hunched over a chessboard and playing against himself. Jacob observed him for a couple of turns before Oberon broke the silence by asking, “Are you much of a player, Jacob?”
“I’ve never really learned the game,” Jacob replied, seeing no reason to lie about such a mundane question. “It was one of Kurt’s favorites, however.”
“You should have invested the time,” Oberon said as he took a black bishop with a white knight. “It’s useful to train your mind to be properly calculating.”
“Is that how you became the mass murderer you are?” Jacob asked as Oberon moved a black pawn forward, threatening the white knight.
“I have a yard full of fresh graves which proves I’m not the only murderer in this room,” Oberon replied, moving the white queen and ignoring the knight.
“They’re going to beat you,” Jacob said, as Oberon took the white knight with the black pawn. “Life isn’t chess, and my friends are among the best as what they do.”“They’ve already lost, Jacob,” Oberon said quietly as he moved the white queen all the way across the board, taking a black bishop in the process and putting the king in check. The black king only had one option to move, and it would open the white queen up to taking the black queen, and then the black king would face checkmate in only a handful of moves. Even as inexperienced as Jacob was, it was easy to see the end result of the game. “Your side is about to lose its queen,” Oberon continued, and seeing that the game was lost for the black pieces, he tipped the black king to the board and looked up to Jacob, a wicked sneer on his face. “And then it will only be a matter of time before they’ll be forced to admit their defeat.”
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