Micah was happy to put distance between himself and Peter. He couldn’t make sense of his emotions, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He had hardly mourned the passing of any of his friends so far, but for some reason his parting with Peter had stirred something within him which made him long to see the doctor again.
Perhaps it was the nature of the coming mission, Micah reasoned. They were going after a man who was practically at the status of a God, and he had both the powers of a phoenix and a djinn at his disposal. There was a chance Micah would die, and he’d never see Peter again, and that was . . .
Unacceptable, Micah realized. It was unacceptable that he would never be able to taunt Peter, or eat breakfast with him again. Peter was his brother and blood relation be damned, he was the only other one who understood what it had meant to be raised by the five leaders of the Icarus Confederacy. As much as they had fought over the years, Micah had lived for the sibling rivalry.
“Where do you want me to take you first?”
Jacob’s question brought Micah out of his introspection. They had rendezvoused with the rest of the group near the top of one of the green hills overlooking a large portion of the island. Jacob had already explained what he knew of Avalon’s layout to Micah as they were scouting. When the others had joined them, he had gone through the explanation again, and Micah hadn’t bothered to pay attention.
The view was stunning. A large city was spread out beneath them, towering structures of granite and marble were everywhere, with smaller dwellings interspaced between them. The city was laid out in a series of ever larger wedges, wide avenues separating each successive section from the grand palace, at the point of the wedge to the coast of the island in the far distance. The palace was nestled between two particularly large hills, each dominated with a tower which would likely offer a view of the entire island.
“We need to rescue Ivan,” Finn said, answering Jacob’s question. “He’ll be able to help us defeat Oberon, since all we know so far is that we can only kill Oberon with Excalibur.”
“We do know more than that, actually.” Everyone turned toward Tristan with curious expressions at his strange claim, Micah included. Tristan seemed embarrassed by the attention, but he took a deep breath and collected himself, meeting their stares with professionalism.
“What do you mean?” Nevala asked.
“I didn’t want to say anything until we were here in case Oberon could observe us and set up another ambush,” Tristan said cautiously, “but Scheherazade showed me something called the Spirit Pool. It’s the source of power for the Island, and Oberon.”
Finn turned his attention to Nevala. “Do you know what he’s referring to, Nevala?”
“Yes. It’s what Oberon sacrificed our people to; the device which controls Avalon,” Nevala replied, nodding slowly. “I don’t know how it can be used to destroy Oberon, however. What did Scheherazade tell you?”
“She explained the whole process to me,” Tristan said, avoiding Nevala’s gaze. Micah frowned at seeing his lover act so suspiciously, but he decided to trust him as Tristan continued, “It’s rather involved, and so it’s better if I just do it myself. I need help finding it, however.”
“If it’s something a phoenix must do, then I’ll accompany you while the others rescue Ivan,” Nevala said with a smile. “We’ll figure it out together.”
Tristan did not appear thrilled at the prospect of Nevala coming with him, but he nodded his acceptance and said, “I still need to know where it is.”
“That isn’t difficult,” Jacob interjected, pointing toward the point of the wedge-shaped city, directly behind the palace and between the two tower-topped hills. “It’s directly that way.”
“How do you know?” Tristan asked.
“I assume something called ‘The Spirit Pool’ would resonate as a strong spiritual signature,” Jacob said with a shrug. “It’s so strong over there I’m not even sure I could approach it. Head directly toward that pinnacle and you should be there in no time.”
“Let’s go,” Nevala said, giving Tristan’s shoulder a supportive squeeze. “The quicker we get there, the less chance Oberon has to stop us. And don’t worry about finding it, I know the way.”
Max stopped them both with a look and said, “I think I can speak for everyone when I say, good luck.”
Everyone nodded their assent as Tristan and Nevala looked around the group. Tristan saved his last look for Micah, and he smiled sadly before he turned away. Micah felt a sudden panic overcome him, and he couldn’t help but call out to his lover.
“Tris! You better come back to me.”
Tristan turned back and nodded, though his eyes showed Micah he was definitely holding something back as he said, “You know it.”
And then they were gone, and Micah was left with the panic in his heart. Something was definitely off about Tristan, but he had to trust that Tristan had their best interest in mind. Micah knew if their positions were reversed, he would likely act much the same way.
But if Tristan didn’t come back, Micah was going to be very upset with him, and he hoped that would be enough to guarantee Tristan’s return. It was as unacceptable as losing Peter, if not more so.
“Okay, now let’s free Ivan so we can end this thing,” Finn said, regrouping. Jacob was about to respond with the details of where Ivan was being held when Puck appeared in the middle of their circle.
“I can help you with that,” Puck said, bowing to Finn.
“Puck,” Micah growled, “we know who you really are now.”
“Of course you do,” Puck said, waving Micah away. “Jacob is here. I’m sure he told you everything.”
“And we know we can’t trust you,” Max said calmly. “What are you doing here? Are you going to lead us into another ambush?”
“No,” Puck replied, and although Micah’s gut told him not to trust Puck, Micah found Puck’s tone sincere. “Oberon does not consider me worthy of his attention while we’re here. It’s safe to talk without him observing us.”
“If we’re going to free Ivan, he’s located in the southwestern tower of the palace,” Jacob said, pointing toward the furthest tower from them. They would have to cross the entire palatial complex in order to get to the tower. “I can get you close without too much trouble, since I can scout ahead without the Elves noticing me, but I’m sure Puck is going to be much more useful to you afterward. I can’t sense Oberon, and so Puck would be the one to get you to him.”
Finn and Max shared a look before the former turned back to Puck and sighed. “Very well. If Jacob trusts you, I will too. Let’s get going.”
“Where did Nevala go?” Puck asked, surveying the nearby area. “I assumed he would be helping you.”
“He’s going straight for Oberon,” Micah said with a disarming grin. While he was willing to trust Puck as long as he remained in sight, he wasn’t about to reveal Tristan’s intentions. “He says he knows how to kill him. Hopefully he’ll keep Oberon busy while we rescue Ivan.”
“A solid plan,” Puck replied, accepting the explanation. “I’m going to go scout the tower and see what I can do about distracting Oberon’s forces.”
Before any of them could say anything, Puck was gone, and Finn turned toward Jacob, frowning. “Are you sure we can trust him? Didn’t you say Oberon could hear and see everything he can?”
“Yes, but he has ways of suppressing that temporarily,” Jacob replied, shrugging. “If he is leading us into a trap, then we’ll know soon enough. Either way, would you not tread just as carefully without his help?”
“I suppose you have a point,” Finn said, nodding slowly. “All right, lead the way, Jacob.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I hate you. I can’t wait until you’re dead.”
Puck spat at Oberon’s feet, glowering at him from the floor where he sat in anguish. Oberon was making sure Puck remained in pain every second he wasn’t with the invaders, and Puck was reaching his breaking point.
“You’ll have to wait a long time for that.” Oberon chuckled. “Your heroes don’t stand a chance. Whatever Nevala has planned, it’s not going to work, and the others . . . they will be dealt with.”
“You forced me to say those things . . .” Puck muttered, wiping sweat away from his brow. “They’re going to suspect you. They already know I work for you.”
“That doesn’t matter to me.” Oberon waved his hand dismissively. “I know where they’re headed, and this time you can’t prepare them for what awaits.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nevala and Tristan kept to the natural hillside rather than venture into the city. It was easier to keep track of the two towers and the space between them without the buildings in their way.
Avalon had hardly changed at all since Nevala had lived there, centuries before. He wasn’t surprised Oberon hadn’t felt the need to wall off his city, or reinforce any of the structures. Most of Avalon’s defenses were not of a physical nature, and the island bore little risk of being attacked by any conventional means.
But what Nevala didn’t know was whether the island’s other defenses were fully operational. He remembered well the sting of magic and elemental fury which he had met the first time he’d invaded it, in the days the kingdom was known as Atlantis. The sentries which had protected the island then were now gone, of course, sacrificed to the same Spirit Pool which he and Tristan were moving toward, but that didn’t mean Oberon hadn’t found another way to compensate for his lack of firepower. There were other, more ancient magics in this land.
He knew what awaited them between the hills, and he knew Tristan didn’t stand a chance without him. What he didn’t know was why Tristan was so insistent on going there. The Spirit Pool, although it supplied Oberon with power, was nearly indestructible, and there was surely no way to taint the pool itself. Had Scheherazade known something he didn’t? Nevala wondered as they skirted along the side of the palatial complex.
Whatever it was, Tristan didn’t seem to be readily forthcoming with the information, but it still wouldn’t hurt to ask. Nevala waited until they moved further away from the city again before he asked Tristan quietly, “What did Scheherazade tell you?”
“Why does it matter?” Tristan responded neutrally. “I can do what needs to be done.”
“Tristan, it’s better if we both know,” Nevala said, stopping Tristan with a hand on his shoulder. “You can give me the rundown as we head toward the pool. You don’t know what happened at that place, and it would serve us both if we had all the knowledge.”
“Why don’t you start then?” Tristan replied, wearing a blank expression as he turned away from Nevala and started forward again. “What happened there?”
“Oberon sacrificed the king of Atlantis, Ivan’s father, to that pool while Oberon’s sister and I watched,” Nevala began, catching up to Tristan so they were walking side by side again. “At the time, I thought it was a political maneuver as part of his claim to Atlantis, but . . .” He paused as an involuntary shudder struck him. It was as if they were being watched. He looked around, trying to find the source of his discomfort, but it faded as quickly as it had arrived.
Tristan’s question brought Nevala back to the past, and he continued with his story. “Political officials continued to go missing. I found them in the dungeons and I interrogated them, but then they disappeared from the prisons. I’d ask Oberon where they were being held and he’d tell me they’d been moved elsewhere.” He frowned and shook ahead, focusing his gaze forward though he was still seeing the dungeons of Atlantis in his mind.
“But you began to suspect something,” Tristan surmised.
“Yes. Titania did as well.” Nevala sighed. “While we had both supported the idea of a coup, there were things we could not allow. It didn’t make sense for him to move them, as the dungeons of Atlantis were the safest place to hold a Djinn or Phoenix. Their powers were suppressed there. It didn’t make sense for him to execute them, as they would have simply been reborn elsewhere in the world and eventually risen to stop him.” He stopped and was glad when Tristan stopped too. “I followed him one day and discovered him throwing another official into the pool. I knew he was using the pool to fuel his own life force, and I had to stop it somehow.”
“What did you do?”
“I convinced Titania to lure Oberon to the pool and confront him there. I laid in wait in case he tried to cause her harm. You have to understand,” Nevala said, raising his hands defensively, “we both loved him. She was his half-sister and I was his lover, and we were willing to forgive him and move past it if we could convince him to stop. Oberon and Titania argued, and then he turned on her and struck her across the face. I acted quickly and came at him from behind.” He shook his head helplessly as he looked up at Tristan. “He’s as immune to fire as any phoenix is, and so I attacked him with Excalibur. The sword pierced him through the heart, and he looked down at the point of the sword coming out the other side of his chest. He then looked up and began to laugh before reaching for Titania. She was so stunned that he was still alive, she hardly struggled at all as he lifted her up and dropped her into the pool.”
Nevala took a deep breath as he remembered the scene. Of all the memories he had, watching Titania die was the one he wished he could get rid of the most. “I withdrew Excalibur and stepped back, horrified as I watched the pool tear Titania apart. Oberon turned toward me, and I watched his wounds close before my eyes. He had just killed his sister, and he looked at me and smiled. His eyes had lost all sense of sanity, and I knew I was going to be next.”
“I ran. I left Avalon as quickly as I could, taking Excalibur with me. I made my way to where the resistance was headquartered in Camelot, led by none other than Ivan and Scheherazade, Oberon’s parents.” Nevala smiled weakly as he added, “I presented them with Excalibur and told them I would accept whatever punishment they deemed fitting, provided they helped me defeat Oberon first.”
“So your whole involvement in this is because you’re trying to make up for what you did?” Tristan asked, biting his lip thoughtfully. “You feel guilty,” he surmised, nodding slowly.
“Of course I do. I never intended for any of this,” Nevala replied, clenching his fist and shaking his head bitterly. “The purpose of our coup was to destroy the oppressive regime which had made outcasts of anyone who didn’t conform to their way of thinking, and instead we had ended up creating a new regime, with an even more oppressive leader. It’s the oldest story in the book, only this time it’s worse than any other.”
“Why?” Tristan asked nervously. “We can make this right.”
“You say Scheherazade told you how to defeat him?” Nevala asked, meeting Tristan’s eyes. As soon as Tristan looked away again he knew exactly what was going on. He was still considered the enemy, no matter what he did to prove otherwise, but there was hope Tristan’s mind could be changed. “She never told me because she never trusted me, and I understand why,” Nevala continued slowly. “She has always thought I would tell Oberon if I learned of his weakness, and stop them from having a chance. You can trust me, Tristan. I want to end this as much as anyone else.”
“I’m not sure I can trust you, Nevala,” Tristan said, shaking his head. “You’ve concealed things from us for as long as I’ve known you. If you can’t trust us . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly.
Nevala sighed and nodded. “Okay, but just so you know how serious this is, you need to understand what you’re up against. Oberon has the abilities of a phoenix, a djinn, and the regenerative capabilities of a shape shifter. Excalibur can’t kill him on its own, so whatever Scheherazade told you had better be correct, or our friends are doomed. Now come on, we need to get you to that Spirit Pool.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jacob was careful as he led them into the palace. When there was only one or two elves in sight he’d dispatch them personally, or send Micah after one while he dealt with the other. They were a practiced team, and Zach was almost envious of their abilities. He had felt like such a minor contributor to their efforts ever since he found Tristan again and joined The Confederacy.
But at the same time, he wasn’t sure if it was really their skill which was allowing them such easy access to the city, or if they were being led toward the trap. As much as he wanted to trust Puck, he couldn’t shake the feeling everything was going much too smoothly. It was as if Oberon wanted them to find and rescue Ivan.
Which made Zach wonder if everything else Puck had told him was a lie as well. They had shared a great deal of secrets while he was a prisoner of Nightshade, and while Zach had told the truth as he’d seen it, he couldn’t be sure any more of what Puck had said.
Puck had mentioned once that the only way to kill Oberon was for one of his own blood to kill him. He had also made it clear that Zach, being an elf, had a small trace of Oberon’s blood. What he didn’t know was whether that meant he was the one who had to kill Oberon. It was good enough reason for him to hold onto Excalibur, but he doubted he’d have any chance of wielding the sword against a being as powerful as Oberon.
Which put him right back at square one. He felt helpless and useless, and the only thing he could do was blindly follow and do what he was told, hoping he’d find somewhere to fit in. Hoping he’d get a chance to help his new friends as they’d helped him.
Puck rejoined them as they neared the tower, and saw a contingent of Elven guards waiting for them at the base of the tower. The group held back as Finn and the werewolf commander shared a brief, unspoken thought of needing a plan before they continued any further.
Micah was obviously itching to move forward, and Jacob seemed just as eager. Zach again felt a pang of jealousy as he watched them, and wondered if he’d always be jealous of Micah. It seemed to Zach that Micah was always where Zach wanted to be. Jacob had been Zach’s closest friend since he joined the group, and they had hardly spoken at all since Jacob had rejoined them.
“Maybe we could try a variation on the same tactic we used at the portal,” Finn suggested, glancing around the wall he was crouched behind to get another view of the soldiers. “They’ve got a keg of oil with them now, though, and several of them are holding torches. Their arrows will be able to do a number on you, Micah. I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
“I can still do it,” Micah said, growling eagerly. “I can go in as a snake or something else hard to hit. By the time I get up to them they won’t have seen it coming.”
“No, it’s too risky. We’re going to have to plan an assault this time, go in fast and hard,” Finn replied, nodding at the werewolf beside him. “Do you think you can—”
“I can get your entire army in without incident,” Puck interrupted, drawing a concerned frown from Finn.
“How?” Finn asked.
“I’ve got a plan,” Puck said with a mischievous grin.
“Then explain it, trickster,” Finn replied, glaring at Puck.
“All right,” Puck said, raising his arms defensively. “I’m going to draw the guards off of you. They know you’re in Avalon, but they won’t know where you are just yet. I’m going to make them think you’re on the other side of the palace. Wait for the guards to start moving west and then get through the doorway. Think you can handle that, soldier?”
Before Finn could answer Puck was gone, but Finn turned to Jacob and asked, “Do you think we can trust him, Jacob?”
“I’m not completely sure,” Jacob replied, shrugging. “But can we really be much worse off?”
Finn nodded and pursed his lips. “I guess not.” Then his eyes widened with excitement along with his smile as they heard shouting from the Elven contingent. Then the forces started moving, abandoning their post as they started running away. “Anyway, it looks like they’re looking to the west. Yes! Well, whether we can trust him or not, he’s obviously helped us out this time.”
“Okay,” Jacob said, gesturing toward the tower. “Let’s move then.”
They hurried forward as a group, though they kept an eye out for the return of the elves. They were pleasantly surprised to find that the elves continued to move off as they came to the small plaza at the base of the tower.
The werewolves and human soldiers took up positions near the door to the tower as Finn attempted to open it. When he found the door locked he lined up for a solid kick to the ancient wood and the door splintered under the force of his first blow. Several kicks later and the door was battered down, hanging crookedly on its hinges as they moved inside.
Jacob led them down into the basement of the tower, with Finn following immediately after and Max hobbling along next on his cane. Zach brought up the rear behind Micah, while the rest of their army waited outside. They descended nearly three stories until they arrived at a level floor again, a single wooden door set in the wall of the small chamber, a barred window and ornate handle the door’s only defining features.
Finn thundered against the door as he attempted to turn the handle. It didn’t turn at all as Finn shouted into the window. “Ivan!”
A weathered face appeared at the bars to the door. Ivan’s piercing blue eyes, as cool and collected as always, looked through the bars at Finn and then Max. “Finn. Max! What are you doing here? You can’t have figured out a way to defeat Oberon so quickly. You shouldn’t have come.”
“We spoke to Scheherazade,” Max said excitedly, talking quickly as he smiled at Ivan. “She told us how to get here. We know we have to kill him with Excalibur.”
“That’s . . .” Ivan shook his head and met Max’s gaze with a determined nod. “Okay, let’s go. Get me out of here.”
“I’m not sure I can get through this door,” Finn said reluctantly, throwing his weight against the door again. “It’s a lot heavier than the one above, and we don’t have keys.”
“Who needs keys?” Micah asked as he approached the door. He shifted back into a human form but his hand remained amorphous as he reached toward the door handle. Finn stepped aside and let Micah have his way. “I should have tried this above, but lock picking shouldn’t be too hard when you can shift into any shape you want.”
Micah shifted his hand to form a long spike of bone which he extended into the keyhole on the handle, and his face became a mask of concentrated effort. He turned his hand subtly, shifting the bone into different shapes as he explored the lock until he finally found the shape which matched the pins and the lock clicked open. Micah turned the handle and pulled the door open triumphantly.
“Excellent,” Ivan said as he stepped out of the cell. His clothes were disheveled and his white hair hung in wild disarray, but he walked forward with determination in his stride. “Next we have to get to Oberon and—”
Jacob’s insistence gave Ivan pause, and he turned toward Jacob with a patient expression. “What is it, Jacob?”
“There’s a significant chance we’re still going to lose, isn’t there?” Jacob asked. Zach swore he heard desperation in Jacob’s voice, but he couldn’t determine why.
“Yes,” Ivan replied solemnly. “There always is.”
“Don’t leave me behind again, please?” Jacob pleaded.
“Of course we won’t,” Zach began, thinking he knew what was going on. “You’re coming with us to the end—”
“No,” Jacob said firmly, shaking his head emphatically. He turned to Finn with pleading eyes, “Please, Finn. I need you to send me on. I cannot go any further. You’ve got to release me.”
Zach’s eyes widened with shock and he nearly lost his grip on Excalibur. “Jacob, do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Zach, he wouldn’t be asking if he didn’t realize it,” Micah said sadly, watching Jacob with his head cocked to the side. He nodded grimly as Jacob turned and met his eyes. “He wants to rejoin Kurt. We can’t fault him for that. Finn, can you do as he asks?”
“I can,” Finn said slowly. “Are you sure you want this, Jacob?”
“Yes. I can’t take the risk of ending up in Oberon’s hands again.” He looked to Zach briefly and mouthed an apology before turning back to Finn and saying, “Please.”
“Okay. Hand me the knife and it will be over quickly,” Finn said as he reached his hand out toward Jacob. “I’m going to miss having someone with your abilities fighting alongside us.”
“Wait . . .” Zach pleaded, stepping between Jacob and Finn as he met Jacob’s eyes. His heart was beating quickly and his eyes were moist with tears. “Please, I need you, Jacob. Please don’t leave me.”
“Oh, Zach,” Jacob said, reaching out as if to stroke Zach’s cheek. “We’ll meet again. It’s taken me a very long time to learn this, but I’ve realized there comes a time when you have to let go. This is it, okay?” He smiled and kept his eyes on Zach as he added, “Micah will take care of you, won’t you, Micah?”
“Of course. Tristan wouldn’t have it any other way,” Micah said, laying his hand on Zach’s shoulder. It didn’t take much for Zach to realize Micah’s touch was tangible whereas Jacob’s was not, but that didn’t make his longing for Jacob’s presence any weaker.
“See?” Jacob said, withdrawing his hand. “You’ve got people to look out for you on all sides. You’ll be all right.”
“But . . .” Zach protested, but his emotions got the better of him and any further words were interrupted by a loud sob which started the tears rolling down his cheeks.
“No need to cry for me, Zach,” Jacob said consolingly. “Tears are for death. I died long ago. We will meet again, someday in the Great Beyond.”
Zach shook his head, knowing he was defeated. He struggled through the sobs to look up and meet Jacob’s eyes one final time and whisper, “Thank you. For being my friend.”
“Jacob,” Micah said, nodding respectfully. “Say hi to the rest of the gang, will you?”
“You know it, Micah,” Jacob said with a laugh. “Please give Peter and Tristan my best?”
“Of course,” Micah said, matching Jacob’s laugh with his signature grin. “May Zach and I see them long before any of us sees you.”
“Brat,” Jacob replied, sticking out his tongue at Micah, but afterward there was genuine emotion in both of their eyes. But they had said enough, and it was time for Jacob to move on.
“Are you ready, Jacob?” Finn asked as he reached for the stiletto again.
“Yes,” Jacob replied, handing the knife to Finn. “Please.”
Zach tried to watch as Finn took the knife in his gloved hand and began to chant, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. He hung his head as Jacob stood stoically, waiting for the exorcism to overwhelm him. Everyone else was silent in respect as Finn continued, rising in pitch and intensity until Jacob’s form began to distort.
In the final moments of the exorcism, Zach finally found the will to look up and found Jacob staring at him. He was smiling sadly, but there was something missing from his expression which Zach had always found there. Jacob was no longer haunted; he was free.
And then he was gone. His presence had disappeared from the room altogether, and the world felt just a bit emptier than it had a moment before. Zach nearly lost it completely as he realized he may never see Jacob again, but then he remembered that final look in Jacob’s eyes. His friend was at peace, and there was nothing more he could ask for him.
And then he found Micah standing in front of him, the stiletto in his hand and extended toward him. “I think you should hold onto this, Zach. Jacob would want you to have it.”
Zach took the offered knife and rolled it through his fingers gently. “He was the one who reached out to me . . . the one who understood what it meant to be an outsider.”
“He was like that for everyone,” Micah said gently. “Let’s finish this and then we’ll take some time to honor him properly. Him and everyone else.”
Zach nodded and slid the knife into his belt. Micah was right; they would have time to mourn later, but now was the time to fight, and to fight with renewed vigor in memory of their fallen friends.
Micah led the way up the stairs, with Zach immediately behind him and then Ivan, Finn, and finally Max in the rear. Despite their marching order, they waited patiently for Max, letting him set the pace. As soon as they reached the ground level, Micah started out into the plaza, nodding to the werewolves and soldiers that he passed with Zach in tow.
“Come on,” Finn said from behind Zach. “Let’s try and find Puck so he can lead us to Oberon.”
“Puck?” Ivan asked. The panic in his voice caused Zach to look back in surprise. “Puck led you in here?”
“Yes, Ivan. He’s been going behind Oberon’s back to help us,” Max explained as he stepped out of the doorway and walked forward to join Ivan and Finn. “Why is that—?” His body shuddered as he gasped, and then Max collapsed forward onto the cobblestones, an arrow protruding from his back. A low whistle in the silence which followed was all the warning they had that more were coming.
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