Jacob sensed another presence in the library with Oberon and approached slowly, hoping he’d be able to avoid drawing attention to himself long enough to get some additional information. Oberon rarely spoke to anyone other than to issue orders, and he had been meeting with this presence for longer than he had ever spent with one of his soldiers.
He had kept his distance from Oberon since learning of Ethan’s death. He had needed some time to himself to process the news, and certainly wanted nothing to do with the man who had caused it. Ethan had been one of his best friends, and the only one who understood the curse of immortality as he did. They had shared more moments than most, and he had loved Ethan as a brother.
But the promise of learning something new to help his friends was enough to draw him back to Oberon. His goal was now singular, to stop Oberon at all costs. That meant returning to what he did best, espionage and misdirection of his enemies.
He slipped into the wall, peering through and into the room. The second he passed close enough to see who was on the other side, it was as if the presence looked up and then disappeared. Jacob only had the passing glimpse of dark hair and piercing emerald eyes before the presence was gone altogether.
And then Oberon stood and turned to face him, smiling though his eyes were clouded with anger. Oberon’s fists were clenched in rage, but he slowly relaxed the tension in them as he asked Jacob, “What can I do for you? You’ve been scarce this past day.”
Jacob considered his next words carefully. He wanted to antagonize Oberon to keep him emotional, but not so greatly that it caused Oberon to withdraw completely. “Why are you so obsessed in this war, Oberon?” he asked at last, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at Oberon for added effect.
“I don’t consider it a war, Jacob,” Oberon replied. “It is nothing more than an insurgency against the true power, my own.”
“And when will you consider it over?” Jacob asked. “Once you’ve killed everyone who refuses to bow down to you?”
“Until the last phoenix and the last djinn are mine,” Oberon said, his smile thinning. “I won’t give them a chance to come back. They had their chance to rule the world and they squandered it by oppressing those they ruled over.”
“And so you’re going to kill all of my friends as well?” Jacob said, his anger rising as he thought about Ethan, Luke and Hayden, and Kurt. “And what about the oppression you’re causing?” He asked, his voice rising. “What about the death of humanity?”
“One must destroy the old before one can bring in the new,” Oberon said, shrugging. “If your friends would stop opposing change, I would let them live, but they stubbornly hold on to their world.”
“I’m amazed you’d think they’d do anything else,” Jacob scoffed.
“It would be better to accept that the world is shifting,” Oberon retorted, leaning toward Jacob menacingly. “The world must be united under a single ruler. I have the power to be their king, and so I will be.”
“There will always be those who oppose you,” Jacob said defiantly. “There will always be those ready to depose you.”
Oberon sneered. “Then I will kill them as well.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
No words were spoken. Ethan was a man known for his quiet demeanor, and as his friends gathered around the pyre which had been erected for him, it only seemed fitting to honor him in the same way. For most of them it would have been impossible to put their feelings into words even if they tried.
Fenrir’s soldiers had spent the day gathering dry wood for the pyre and finding the fuel necessary to make sure it would burn hot enough to turn Ethan to ash. It had been a day spent in solemn reflection as those close to Ethan tried to make sense of what had happened.
Peter stared at the pyre as Nevala and Tristan each lit a side of it with a small flame from their hands. The wood caught quickly and the two phoenixes stepped away. Not for fear of being burnt, but to give Ethan’s spirit room to soar away from the flames and into the night. Peter respected their reverence, though he wanted to dash forward and bury his face on Ethan’s chest and hold onto him a little longer.
Peter had always had a special connection with Ethan. When Peter had first joined the Icarus Confederacy, Luke and Hayden had viewed him with distrust because of his heritage. Peter’s parents were officials of Nightshade, working overseas in Noh-Kitsune’s territory. He had escaped, knowing he was going against everything his family believed in, and neither Luke nor Hayden had understood that. They had continued to treat him as an outsider no matter what he did.
Kurt and Jacob had treated him well, but they were never at headquarters. They were always out fighting or scouting, and Peter was a civilian, not a fighter. He was stuck at headquarters, waiting for injuries to come his way so he could try to prove his worth. It wasn’t enough for the others, and he failed time and time again to convince them he was on their side.
Except for Ethan. Ethan was the other permanent fixture at headquarters, and his laboratory was set up just off of Peter’s operating room. Peter became the one who spoke to Ethan the most, and he wasn’t turned off by Ethan’s standoffish demeanor. He had smiled at Ethan every day and made pleasant conversation. Ethan had softened under Peter’s constant pleasantries, and they had become close friends.
Ethan was the first person Peter had felt he could truly call friend in the Icarus Confederacy, and he was also the one who vouched for him with the other leaders. He was the one who had kept Micah from getting to him.
Micah caught Peter’s glance out of the corner of his eye, and he smiled sadly back at Peter before returning his attention to the pyre and the hand he held. After adding his flame to the fire, Tristan had returned to Micah’s side and taken his hand, squeezing it for comfort. Micah knew it would be a long time before Tristan would be able to move past this, and if Micah was being honest with himself, it would take a long while for him as well.
He had spent half of his life with Ethan, and though they hadn’t been particularly close, he had always held a profound respect for Ethan. There hadn’t been many people Micah had encountered who could kill him with a touch, and Ethan was the only one who had been able to give him a sense of humility because of it.
The part which affected Micah the most, however, was that none of those he had looked up to for years were left. It was as if he had lost both his parents and all of his uncles in the space of a number of months, and now he had to figure out how to survive on his own. Although he still did not feel like crying, his emotions were a jumbled mess within his head. He knew he had to be strong for everyone else, but he wondered when he would hit his limit and crumble. What would it take if not the death of his family? Would he finally break when Peter, the one he considered like a brother, was killed? Would it take until Tristan died for Micah to fall apart? He squeezed Tristan’s hand for strength and hoped he’d never have to find out.
The squeeze couldn’t have come at a better time for Tristan. He was nearly overwhelmed by his emotions when he was given the sudden reminder Micah was there for him. His mind kept sifting through memories, some of which Ethan had helped him find when they’d first met, and some which had been forged in their time together since. Ethan had given Tristan the gift of knowing himself and his past, and had been instrumental in convincing him to stay with The Confederacy.
Which meant without Ethan, Tristan would have likely been captured and killed by Faust long before. He would have never met Micah and fallen in love. He would have never become friends with Peter, or learned from Kurt, Jacob, Luke, and Hayden.
But Ethan had been even more than a teacher. He was the reason The Confederacy had a home to return to after fighting against Skinwalker. He wondered if Ethan regretted how The Confederacy had come to an end and how they ended up working with their enemy. Ethan had made that decision because of Nevala, and Tristan was sure his question was answered. Ethan would make the same choice over and over again without hesitation if it was on behalf of Nevala. Tristan looked to Nevala, his teacher who had helped him become a phoenix. Without Ethan, Tristan would have never met Nevala either.
Nevala felt Tristan’s eyes on him, but he didn’t turn toward him. He kept his eyes on the flames which consumed Ethan’s body. He had always taken comfort in fire. Many people viewed fire as a destructive force, but Nevala had always seen it differently. It consumed, but it often left fertile soil in its path for new things to grow where the old had been.
It had been that philosophy which had attracted Nevala to Oberon many years before. Oberon had seemed to be a force of constructive deconstruction, like unto Shiva, the great phoenix of legend to which Nevala had always been drawn. But Oberon had not replaced the previous regime with anything new, he had merely perpetuated the same cycle. He had sought to control others to do his bidding.
Nevala had changed over the years since, but it seemed as if Oberon never had. As he stared at the flames, he wondered about the reason. Nevala had been killed numerous times and then reborn again. Each time he’d had a new life with new experiences, though his memories drew him back to Avalon at first and the service of his lover, Oberon. Oberon had always asked him to stay and enjoy immortality on the Summer Isle, but Nevala had believed the only way to go about changing the world was to go out into it.
Oberon had never died. He was still in his first life, and as long as he fed off the power within the Spirit Pool on Avalon, he’d continue to live on. He lived with a true perspective of Immortality beyond that of any other being in the world. He didn’t understand the significance of death, a necessary perspective, Nevala believed, for any ruler.
Nevala had opened Ethan up to that perspective. Once, many years before, he had been reborn into the Phillips family, and been given the name ‘Aiden’. He’d grown up as many American teenagers had in that decade, living a life of relative luxury to the rest of the world even though his parents were poor according to national standards. But he’d also had Ethan Holmes for a best friend, and that had been the most important thing of all.
They’d been inseparable, and even fallen in love. It had been tragic when Nevala’s parents died and he was forced to move in with his grandfather, who eventually killed him in a fit of rage. Nevala hadn’t been reborn until years later in California, a decade before the North Wer Alliance started their war. But he remembered Ethan and wondered what had become of him, knowing he was likely an elderly man if he was still alive at all.
His surprise when he first met Ethan and learned of his history had been kept silent. He hadn’t wanted Ethan to know his true identity, but it hadn’t seemed to matter. Ethan had fallen in love with him anyway, and Nevala had come close several times to returning that love.
And now it was too late. Now, they’d never have a chance at a life together. The flames were removing all trace of Ethan’s existence from the world, and they would leave only ashes behind. Ashes were the fate of all those who lived on the world, for all would eventually die. All would pass to make way for what came next.
He would make sure Oberon passed along as well. He would rescue Ivan, and together they would finish what they’d started centuries before. He had learned from death, he had changed and become better because of it, and it was time Oberon learned that same lesson, even if Nevala had to sacrifice everything else he had left to make it happen.
At last he looked away from Ethan’s body, scanning the group who watched the pyre. He was glad to have friends who had the same goals. They could do it if they worked together, he was sure of it. Ethan’s sacrifice would not be in vain.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Finn and Max watched from the side. They had known Ethan the least, but had considered him a good man. He had been one of the infamous leaders of a resistance cell which had opposed their government for over a decade, and they knew now that he had been one of the primary reasons behind the Icarus Confederacy’s elusiveness. He had been the one who kept things running from behind the scenes, and as such had once been considered an enemy to Skinwalker.
Max had to wonder what Ethan would think of things now, what with the alliance between Confederacy forces and Skinwalker. For Max, he was certain that after the war was over he would have embraced Ethan as a brother. Now he would never get that chance, and he would mourn the missed opportunity to become friends with a remarkable man. Now, they had to focus on the war which still raged on around them.
Max shuffled his position on the sturdy cane which had been provided for him. His leg still ached from the bullet wound, but it would heal up eventually. He turned to Fenrir, who was in even worse shape, but he had made it out to the memorial service anyway. Fenrir reminded Max of Finn in many ways, and he was glad the werewolf had survived the assault.
“Thank you for letting us burn his body here,” Max said with a bow of respect. He looked back at the pyre momentarily, seeing that Ethan’s body had almost turned to ash by the purifying flame. When he looked back, Fenrir was watching the crowd and not the pyre, his eyes distant.
“Your friends helped my people defeat our greatest enemy,” Fenrir said quietly. “We are indebted to you still. Call upon us should you ever need our help again.”
“We need to get home so we can plan our offensive on Avalon,” Max replied, glancing at Finn briefly to see him nodding in agreement. “If you could have someone lead us through the woods that would be great.”
“My people would be happy to be of service,” Fenrir replied, bowing his head in agreement.
Max turned his attention to Amaya and Sai, who were standing behind Fenrir. “Lady Amaya, what do you plan to tell your superiors now that Odin is dead?”
“There are others who will rise to lead Nightshade, although Thor was meant to be next in line,” Lady Amaya replied, pursing her lips thoughtfully as she turned toward Max. “Surely the Witches’ Council will have to appoint someone else. They will be fractured as different factions vie for power. This is the best time for Fenrir to strike if he wishes to end their influence for good.”
“We happen to agree, though I don’t believe you answered Master Derringer’s question,” Fenrir said with a smirk.
“I suppose I didn’t,” Amaya replied, suppressing a chuckle. “Sai and I feel our position will be best served by aiding the soon to be leader of Europe. Fenrir will soon assume that position for himself, the gods willing, and we will be at his side.” She shrugged as she turned to Fenrir. “An alliance, as it were.”
“When we rescue Ivan and return to North America, we would be happy to discuss the possibilities of expanding that alliance to include Skinwalker,” Max said with a bow, leaning into his cane. “If you are so inclined, Lady Amaya.”
“While I have no particular instructions regarding dealings with Skinwalker at this time,” Amaya replied with a warm smile, “I look forward to our future dealings.”
“As do I.” Max nodded, returning his full attention to Ethan’s pyre. “Hopefully someday this nightmare will end for good and we can finally continue in peace.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They made slower progress than Micah would have liked, but they had injured among them. Not only was Max hobbling along as well as he could on one leg, but Zach was still favoring his shoulder and weak from blood loss.
There were wounded among the werewolves and humans who escorted them through the woods as well, and they had been gracious enough to help them despite their injuries. Micah knew his anxiety over their pace was not well founded, but he had other worries which magnified it. Tristan wasn’t doing well at all.
They walked side by side, but they hadn’t said a word to each other since they left Ethan’s pyre. At first Micah had simply assumed Tristan was remaining silent out of respect for Ethan, but the longer it went on, the more anxious Micah grew.
After watching Tristan take his thousandth numb step along the trail, Micah had had enough. “Tristan, are you going to be all right?” He asked with more of an edge than he intended.
Tristan gave him a hard look, but didn’t immediately answer. It took almost a minute before he growled in frustration and replied, “Of course not. We’ve lost so many good friends in the past few days.” He sighed and whispered, “I’m starting to become numb to it, and that scares me, Micah.”
“It’s not a great place to be, that’s for sure,” Micah replied, suddenly understanding where Tristan was coming from. He had been there himself after his parents’ deaths. “I’ve been there the entire time you’ve known me.”
“Is that why you didn’t shed a tear for Luke or Hayden?” Tristan asked. Micah looked up with concern, but he didn’t find any judgment in Tristan’s eyes, only a question.
Micah looked away, staring at the trail ahead of him as he analyzed the question. “I wanted to,” he said at last. “I desperately wanted to. But I couldn’t. Maybe I’ll be able to cry when this is all over, but I don’t know if I have it in me anymore.”
“I’ve seen you get emotional before,” Tristan said slowly.
“Usually out of anger,” Micah replied, smirking.
“But also out of love,” Tristan said. Micah glanced at him curiously but Tristan was staring forward as his expression grew thoughtful. “You can’t deny that you feel emotion, but you’re afraid to show it. You think it’s weakness. I’m beginning to question if you’re right or not.”
“I’m not,” Micah replied immediately, surprising himself and Tristan. “But that doesn’t mean I’m strong enough to show anyone how I’m really feeling. They’ll use it against me.”
Neither of them spoke again for several minutes as they let the thought settle between them. When Tristan broke the silence again, it was clear he was done with the subject for the time being. “I’m worried about Zach. He’s been muttering to himself since we were freed. I don’t know if it’s fever or what, but he must have hallucinated badly in that cell.”
“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” Micah said, glancing toward the back of the line where Zach and Max were both walking close by Peter, who kept a wary eye on both of them. “Peter is looking after him.”
“I don’t know how Peter does it,” Tristan replied, shaking his head in wonder. “He’s able to let his emotion out so quickly and then get right back to work.”
“It’s his crisis training from his years of medical study,” Micah surmised. “He knows how to compartmentalize everything. When he’s mourning he hides it behind work and cries on his own time.” Micah frowned as he continued, “I remember seeing him years ago when we lost some of our colleagues. He was always the first to get to work to get us out of the situation, but he’d break down as soon as it was over.”
Tristan nodded slowly and then surprised Micah with another question. “Do you still resent Peter?”
“No . . .” Micah said, shaking his head and glancing over his shoulder again at the young man in question. “I understand him now. I know why he felt the way he did. Trapped in his own body. It must have weighed heavily on him. I didn’t really know what it felt like before, but now I have an idea.”
“What happened to you in that village?” Tristan asked.
“As much as I hate the bastard who killed my parents, his work was legitimate. He was right about the potential hidden in who I am, and I’ve never experienced it before. I never thought I could break the limits of my ability, but now . . .” Micah trailed off as he pondered the right words to explain what he had experienced in the primordial state. “I wonder what my potential could be if he had continued his experiments,” He said after a moment. “I’m working it over in my mind and I’m not sure I can break those limits on my own, and I feel a loss at that.”
“So keep trying, and I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Tristan said with an emotionless shrug. No one has your tenacity, Micah. Maybe that’s what you do with your emotion. You channel it into becoming stronger.”
Micah appreciated the compliment, but he wasn’t so sure Tristan was correct this time. But it was a lovely thought, and so he wanted to hold onto hope that he wasn’t as heartless as he sometimes felt. “Maybe,” he said with a sigh. “I hope you’re right, Tris. I hope you’re right.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They arrived at the aircraft just before sunset, and Nevala was surprised they’d made such good time. With Max barely able to shuffle along, he’d expected they’d end up making camp long before they reached their destination.
But Max had proven to be stronger than he looked, and he had barely slowed them down considering he had been shot in the leg the day before. Nevala had to give credit to Ivan once again. He knew how to choose subordinates who could handle the pressure, and Max was no exception.
Most of the group was moving toward the aircraft but Max and Finn hung back with the escort Fenrir had sent. They were speaking to the appointed leader of the group, a woman, naked from the waist up and with hair every bit as wild as her commander. From her appearance, Nevala was sure she was a werewolf like her commander.
“Thank you for helping us get here,” Max said pleasantly as he extended his hand toward her. “We wouldn’t have been able to find our way back without your help.”
“The pleasure is ours,” the woman replied, taking Max’s hand and shaking it awkwardly. She was clearly unused to the gesture, but she smiled at Max warmly and said, “Until we meet again. I will tell Fenrir that you left safely.”
“Take care of yourselves,” Finn said, bowing to her. She bowed in response and then barked several orders to those under her command that it was time to move out. Nevala watched them go, disappearing into the shadows of the forest as if they had never been there.
Once they were out of sight, he turned to Finn and Max and looked across the meadow at the aircraft and the others who were climbing inside. “I suppose it’s time we got out of here,” he said with a sigh.
“And head back across the ocean?” Max asked uncertainly.
Nevala and Finn turned to look at Max together, sensing something was wrong. It was Finn who asked, “What other options do we have?”
“I don’t know, I just . . . I don’t know, Finn.” Max shrugged and started toward the aircraft. Nevala and Finn shared a look and then followed after him, catching up to him and then walking the rest of the distance together in silence.
They climbed into the aircraft where they found the others waiting for them. Nevala felt all eyes on him, and it quickly became unnerving. Tristan, Micah, Peter, and Zach all seemed to be waiting for his order, as if he should somehow have the answer to their dilemma. He was glad Max and Finn didn’t seem to be expecting him to perform any miracles.
Just as the pressure was about to become too much, Nevala sensed a presence enter the aircraft cabin. He spun around just as a melodic voice spoke. “I have an option for you, if you’d like to hear it.”
“What?” Nevala snapped, engulfing his hand in flame as he tried to zero in on the source of the voice. “Who’s there?”
“Greetings, friends,” the voice said as a man appeared on the far side of the room from Nevala. He had long, dark hair and sparkling green eyes which reminded him of Oberon, and made Nevala’s lids curl into a snarl. The man raised his hands in surrender and continued, “I regret I was unable to show myself to you before, but I had to remain hidden from Fenrir. I’m afraid he wouldn’t be pleased to see me alive.”
“Loki . . .” Zach said breathlessly, “So I wasn’t dreaming then.”
“Well, you were, but it was certainly real at the same time,” Loki replied with a wink and a grin. “It’s good to see you made the journey, Zach.”
“Loki,” Finn said calmly, putting a hand on Nevala’s shoulder as he stepped forward to address Loki. “Tell us why we should trust someone who shares a name with the God of Mischief?”
“Because I know things you need to know,” Loki said, looking at Zach, Tristan, and Micah for a moment before returning his attention to Nevala. “Some of you already know these things, but you’ve felt it necessary to conceal them from your comrades. Unfortunately, this is something I cannot abide.” He smirked as Nevala growled and raised his fiery fist, preparing to immolate Loki. Loki disappeared and Nevala spun around to face him where he reappeared directly behind him. “I want you to go after Oberon and free Ivan,” Loki said with a shrug. “And that you have a better knowledge of what you’re up against and how to achieve it.”
“What do you mean, ‘some of us already know’?” Tristan asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as he looked between Finn and Nevala. “What else have you been keeping from us? Are you going to tell us you trapped Ethan’s soul, too?”
“I’m referring to Excalibur,” Loki said, disappearing again and reappearing next to Tristan, smiling at him disarmingly. Tristan was not amused, and Loki shrugged as he turned to Finn. “You need to get into Avalon, and for that you need a key. Finn, Nevala, you both already know about this, and there’s no use in denying it.”
“Even if we found such a key,” Nevala said, after a brief glance at Finn, “I do not know how to open the portal to Avalon with it.”
“Even after all the time you spent there?” Loki asked.
Nevala’s eyes narrowed dangerously. He didn’t like the level of knowledge Loki was displaying, and those green eyes taunted him. But Loki’s question had drawn suspicious eyes from the rest of Nevala’s friends to him, and he felt he owed it to them to answer the implied accusation. “After I stole Excalibur and gave it to Ivan, Oberon changed the password of the spell,” Nevala said, sighing. “Without the password the key is useless.”
“What if I told you there was one who could grant you the password?” Loki asked, grinning at Nevala.
“Who would possibly have that knowledge?” Nevala asked, though he feared he already knew the answer.
“The Lady of the Lake, of course,” Loki replied, and Nevala couldn’t help but wince. “All one need do is make a wish, and The Queen of the Phoenixes will make your dream come true.”
“The Lady of the Lake . . .” Nevala said, shaking his head helplessly. Hoping to throw some doubt on how much he knew, Nevala asked, “You know where she is?”
“You know very well where she is, Nevala,” Loki replied, smugly. “You just don’t want to see her.”
“She can help us get Ivan back?” Finn said, turning toward Nevala with a hint of anger. “Why didn’t you say something, Nevala?”
“You don’t know what you’re asking, Finn,” Nevala replied, shaking his head ruefully. “If we speak with her, there will be more questions than answers. There’s no guarantee she’ll even help us, especially me. We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. She didn’t part on great terms with Ivan, either.”
“We have to try it,” Tristan said, pleading with Nevala and Finn. “If we can open our own portal to Avalon, then we can catch Oberon by surprise and get our revenge, and free Ivan at the same time.”
“I agree with Tristan,” Max said, shuffling forward to stand next to Nevala and Finn. “We need to do this.”
Nevala sighed and said, “Very well, though I’m not sure we can trust the source of this insight.” He stared hard at Loki and asked, “Why do you want to see Oberon fall, Loki?”
“We have history,” Loki said with a shrug. His eyes were hard but he smiled as if the question didn’t bother him. “He took something very important from me long ago, and I desire to regain it. There’s not much I wouldn’t do to see him pay for his betrayal.”
“That’s not good enough,” Nevala said, meeting those emerald orbs with eyes of fire. “You’ll have to do much better than that, goblin.”
“I’m afraid it will have to do,” Loki said, bowing as he disappeared from sight again and reappeared near the cockpit door, opening it wide. “Before I leave you, I’ll add that Excalibur is more than a key, it is also one of few things which can kill Oberon. Only that which was forged of the blood of Avalon can be used to destroy her king. The magic which supplies her king with life will accept no other end to the spell.”
Finn stepped forward as he slipped his exorcism glove onto his hand, glaring at Loki menacingly. “You can’t leave without answering the question.”
“You really think you can trap me here, exorcist?” Loki asked as Finn advanced. He touched the doorframe of the cockpit and the doorway shimmered for a moment, and the view into the cockpit became blurry. “I was a goblin long before Sparrow was ever born. Seek the Lady of the Lake if you wish your answers.”
And then he stepped through the doorway. The doorway shimmered again and then the blurriness was gone, and so too was Loki. Nevala shook his head and growled in frustration. This was a development he had not foreseen, and one he didn’t want.
“What are we waiting for?” Tristan asked, and Nevala turned to face his hard stare. “You know where the Lady of the Lake is, so lead us there, Nevala.”
“This will not end well,” Nevala said with a sigh. “But I suppose it must be done.”
“Why are you afraid of her?” Peter asked, the only one who wasn’t looking at him with suspicion.“All should fear Scheherazade,” Nevala muttered. “She’s the most dangerous woman in the world.”
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