So, we had a pilot, albeit one who smiled way too much. The crew was still in recovery.


Have to say, I wasn’t a fan of the way Bowen limped as we headed for the infirmary. That didn’t keep him from his goal, even when he had to stop to take a breath.


“Using those powers—it drains you, huh?” I leaned against the wall.


“Yes. But here more so than home.” He wiped sweat from his brow. Some of the pink leeched back into his cheeks. Hand still shook, though. “I have fought other summoners of great power before. In the wake of those battles, there have been moments in which I felt I had perhaps taken one step too far. As if I were meant to finally plunge over the edge of an isle into the last drop to the sea.”


Pieces of what he’d been saying started to connect. “Your islands...They fly?”


“Not all. Many. Hence the need for cloudships with which to traverse the sky.”


“So, what, you have blimps?”


His turn to blink.


“Hot air balloons.”


“Ah. Nothing powered by fire, no. Aethershards buoy our vessels, the same crystals harvested from the floating isles themselves.”


Wow. Okay. “If and when we get you back, I want a tour.”


Bowen chuckled. “Your spirit impresses me, Mercury. I would be privileged to have you as one of my crew for a voyage, would but we could guarantee your safe return.”


“Don’t have to worry about that.” I rapped on the prosthetic leg. “If I were obsessed with safety, this wouldn’t have happened. Also, the world would have been destroyed two or three times, but hey, who’s counting?”


We found Niall sitting up in his bed—or trying to, because Doc Arne kept pushing him down by pressing on his shoulder. “Intolerable!” Niall howled. “Bowen! By the clouds, it’s about time you’ve come back. Tell this imbecile I’m fit to fight, not to be swaddled in blankets like a helpless babe.”


“I do not think it wise to argue with this man of medicine.” Bowen’s tone was serious as any preacher’s, but there was no disguising the smirk forming on his face. “Perhaps catching a metal cloudship injured you more than you care to admit.”


“What—? I’m—There’s nothing wrong with me!” You don’t get to see people splutter a lot, but man, Niall sure spluttered. He tried to sit up again, this time dodging around Doc Arne’s outstretched hand. “Of all the addle-brained—!”


“Stay. In. Bed.” Doc Arne slammed his palm flat against Niall’s chest. “If you so much as put a finger over the side, I’ll dose you with enough tranquilizers to put a herd of elephants to sleep, understand?”


Niall’s eyes formed emerald slits. His lip curled back. Really hoped he wasn’t planning a were-fox transformation in our cramped infirmary. “Captain...”


“At ease, Niall.” Bowen pulled Doc Arne aside. “Surely, Doctor, he’s not that bad off. I would venture that his attitude has suffered no undue harm.”


Niall rolled his eyes. Doc Arne squinted. “He’s stubborn, I’ll agree, and his head must be made of something thicker than bone because he’s managed not to crack his skull. Even with a helicopter landing on it.”


“So, he’s unhurt.” I craned my neck for a look at Doc Arne’s tablet.


“Un—No, he’s not unhurt, Mercury. The man suffered internal hemorrhaging that is, thankfully, on the mend. But I’m not about to let him walk out of here—”


“Look, Doc. These debates are always a blast. This time, we’re short of options. So, you’re gonna have to let Niall walk out of here or I’m going to have Bowen freeze you to the floor and I’ll carry him out myself.”


Doc Arne’s eyes went wide. Only the beeping of medical equipment interrupted the silence. Then Niall muttered, “As if the boy could lift me.”


“Is this what Ms. Lark has to say?” Arne’s monotone was kinda depressing, since I was used to high-powered rants.


“Didn’t ask her.” I folded my arms. “What’s your call?”


Arne scowled until I thought his handlebar moustache was gonna poke him in the eyes. “If anything happens to him, I’m holding you responsible. I mean that, Mercury. I’ve had my fill of you and your superiors interfering in my medical care.”


“I get that. If it were me, I’d be just as mad. But you know we’re dealing with bodies that aren’t all the way human, Doc. You’ve got to give us more leeway. The things we’re facing... They’re not going to hang around in the waiting room reading a magazine while your patients heal.”


“Believe it or not, I’ve thought of that.” He sighed and shook his head. Then he waved with his tablet. “Go on, get out. All of you.”


Niall bounded from the bed. He immediately winced and held his side.


“Stitch from running?” Doc Arne quipped.


“Minor twinge.” Niall grinned. “Far less painful than the wounds I’m yearning to inflict.”


“Fine. Don’t call me when your spleen falls out, because I don’t have extras.”



I sent Bowen and Niall off toward the armory, so they could retrieve their gear from Garvey. Me? I needed a quiet corner from which to make a phone call.


The number went to voicemail after five rings. “Hi, you’ve reached Dominic Zein. I’m away from my phone or otherwise indisposed—”


I rolled my eyes and redialed. Voicemail. I hung up and dialed again. And again. And—


“There’s a reason I’m not answering your calls.” Dominic Zein’s voice had a smooth, mellow cadence to it, like he could have taken up a career as a Las Vegas lounge singer if the whole architect thing didn’t work out. “And her name is Jess.”


“When are you gonna introduce me to your wife, anyway, Gemini?” I raised my voice. “Sorry for the interruption!”


“Stop it.” Dominic’s voice lowered. “She’s sleeping.”


“Already?” I checked my watch. Late afternoon. “I though Colorado was an hour earlier than California.”




“Did you even get my messages? The giant monster that’s burning down the forest around San Camillo?”


“I did.”


I waited for the part where he’d ask me for a location to which he could teleport, or when he should arrive by, or... something besides exhaling carbon dioxide into the receiver of his cell phone. “And?”


“And what, Mercury? I’m not your rapid-transit system. I’m spending much-needed time with my wife. Ask Loredana. She’s aware of my schedule.”


“Your schedule? We’re not talking about whether or not you’ve got time to present floor plans for a swanky convenience store.”


“Don’t forget that I’m considered on call for Procyon, and that I have my own mission with our organization.”


“Sure. Evil twins.”


“The doppelgangers from the other Earth pose a clear and present danger to our way of life. I’ve brought two more into custody since we ended the threat to San Camillo.” Dominic blew out a breath. “If Loredana orders me, I’ll show up. But I can’t make any promises. Not when I’m monitoring the whereabouts of another infiltrator. What about Airfoil?”




“That’s troubling. Does anyone at Procyon know his whereabouts?”


“He’s not exactly on our payroll or showing up for company picnics.” I rubbed my forehead. “Okay, look—I’ll send you the coordinates Liz has. If there’s any way you can drop in, even just to pin this sucker down…”


“As I said, I’ll do my best. If Loredana has a new set of orders. Godspeed, Mercury.”


“Great. Thanks.”


So, that didn’t go so great. It wasn’t a “no,” but it wasn’t a “yes.” Somehow, I doubted Loredana would order Dominic to drop everything and join the fight. Besides, how could I justify dragging him away from his wife? He was right—this was local trouble. I had plenty of backup.


“Feeling down?”


Wilhelmina must have been standing around the bend from where I’d had my conversation with Dominic. Either that or she’d added teleportation to her skill set. “Like I could burrow another hundred feet below this place. Eavesdrop much?”


“Only enough to hear you did fine handling things.” She patted my cheek. “Been a pleasure watching you grow.”


“Maturity’s my new gig.”


“Oh, I didn’t say you’d made it all the way to adulthood, child. Headed in the right direction. And speaking of which—what’s our word on the upcoming scenic flight?”


“Me and Bowen and Niall.”


“Ain’t forgetting me, now are you?”


“I wasn’t about to speak for you.” I smirked. “You know, in case you needed a nap.”


She swatted at the top of my head with a knitting needle. “Mind your elders, Mercury, lest they have to whup you. Which you’re fully aware I could do.”


“Whatever you say.” To be fair, I’d seen her fight. She’d handled enemies that wore me down, and when I was gone from this dimension to find Loredana and Ramos, San Camillo had Wilhelmina as its protector. Not too shabby for someone three times my age and native to this dimension.


“So, what is it that ails you? Your frame’s healing well enough. The soul’s another matter.”


“More like the heart. When are we gonna get a break from this? I mean, I’ve got a wedding coming up. How am I supposed to pretend that life’s all normal—worrying about the caterer and the color of napkins—when there’s another creature trying to burn everything down? This time, literally.”


“Sounds like you’re whining.”


I chuckled. That was about the kind of pep talk I’d come to expect from her. “Maybe I am. I’ve saved the world a bunch. Aren’t I entitled to some whining?”


“You’re entitled to be human.”


“Which I’m not.”


She made with her hand like she was gonna smack me again, but I playfully blocked the incoming blow. “You got to stop thinking like that! The folks of Meda, those warriors like your parents who ventured over to our side centuries past, they were and are as human as the next man down the street. They’ve been granted a terrible responsibility—guardianship over weapons unmatched by anything we know of. Some of us are blessed enough to share in that heritage, to help lift the burden from time to time. But we’ve all got to lift, you know. Ain’t much time for the mundane.”


“I figured. Just needed to say it out loud.”


“And you wouldn’t be a normal man if you didn’t.” She smiled. “’Cause the end of that road’s a long ways off. Thankfully, there’s not a one of us who’s got to walk it alone.”


“Also figured. Which means, I take it, that you’re coming on this crazy plane ride.”


“It’ll be a walk in the park, child. ’Sides—you’re not the one driving.”



The sky was bleeding into dusk by the time Liz got a good fix on the astral fury. Its track on the main monitor had curved away from San Camillo, but it reappeared in a streak of burning forest arcing back toward the city.


“If I didn’t know any better,” I said, “It’s trying to surround us.”


“A disturbing thought.” Loredana had changed into her other set of work clothes—gray T-shirt, slate colored military-style pants, boots, and a ballcap. She fitted a Kevlar vest across her chest. “Do we have assurance that fire crews are clear of the area?”


“They’re too busy keeping the flames from advancing on populated areas,” Ramos said. “You won’t have anyone stumbling into the crossfire—and all the smoke ought to conceal your activities.”


“A pity.” Niall slung the SCAR over his shoulder. He rested a hand on the pommel of his sword. “It will be a grand fight for your magic glass to show the masses.”


“And a fair sight more entertaining than you wrestling with an Ursanite,” Bowen said.


“I won that match, I’ll remind you. Gave the silver to the orphans…”


“Sakes, boys.” Wilhelmina whacked Bowen in the ribs with her knitting bag. “If I’d known y’all yap as much as Mercury, I’d have gone to the Y for the cribbage tournament. Now, we going to vanquish this critter or stand around chatting all night?”


Bowen and Niall stared at her. They looked like guys trying to find just the right verbal comeback but unsure how to wield it against an old lady. I saved them further embarrassment. “Let’s load up, boys and girls. Our winged steed awaits.”


The Osprey’s rotors were churning the air, kicking dust and pine needles into a frenzy. Tiny green lights on the end of each one turned the spinning blades into phosphorescent rings. Red and white lights blinked on the wingtips and fuselage.


“How’s she fare, Cope?” Loredana shouted over the prop wash as we strode up the ramp at the back of the aircraft.


“Right and rarin’ to fly, Miss Lark!” Cope had on his own baseball cap, bearing the Chicago Cubs logo. He took a bag from her and stowed it inside netting. I kept the huge ice gun nearby, lodged between the bench and the wall behind me. There was plenty of netting to anchor it. “Mind your heads and find a chair!”


We strapped into the jump seats as he closed the hatch. I gave Loredana’s hand a quick squeeze. “I thought about arguing for you to stay behind, but I figured that was a lost cause.”


“That’s correct.” She kissed me on the cheek. “I can think of no better way for us to keep each other safe than to watch each other’s backs.”


“Well, that, or stay home altogether.” I grinned.


“And we both know that’s not an option.”


“Ladies and gentlemen!” Cope’s voice filtered back from the cockpit. “Welcome aboard the non-stop flight from your favorite hidden bunker into the burning depths of Avernus itself! I’d advise hangin’ on to something, as I’ll do my blamed best to find us turbulence. Enjoy!”


The Osprey lurched skyward and before I knew it, I could see the darkened airfield with the small bunker entrance outside the portholes. We must have been flying nearly perpendicular.


“Mercury!” Bowen held onto his straps, but there was a looseness to his grip. He was alert, but if he was scared, he wasn’t showing it. Wilhelmina was nestled between him and Niall. “This land is full of noise!”


“You just now noticed?” I shouted back. “We’re not big on tranquil settings at Procyon!”


“It is your world itself! The machines are wondrous and terrifying, but they clamor with constant need for attention. A cloudship whispers to its captain, sometimes in soft reminder, other times in urgent rejoinder. We rise to the winds and they take us where they will. Here, you go where you want with incredible speed, yet the journey is lost.”


I could see his point, but I wasn’t in the mood to get philosophical. “Tell you what—hold on to your buckles and leave the flying for the guy who knows his noise.”


“Noise? Branterspit!” Cope whooped from the cockpit. “This here’s the contented purr of a sabertooth full up from her favorite meal! I wouldn’t trade the racket for an empty tomb!”


I leaned in closer to Loredana. “Where in Chicago did you say you dug him up?”


“I did not dig him up anywhere, nor did he originate from Chicago.”


“Not Meda or the alternate Earth, either, I’m guessing.”


“None of those or this world, and none to which you’ve yet visited.” Loredana kept her gaze firmly on the opposite bulkhead. “Let us say, he fell into our laps. Ask him about biplanes, when you have a chance.”


Right. We bounced through turbulent air so hard my feet came up off the deck. Wilhelmina yelped and made the sign of the cross. Bowen touched her shoulder, but he was smiling. Niall flat out beamed.


Just me and my fiancée, on our flight courtesy of a crazy pilot to go fight an interdimensionally-combined flame monster, dragging a senior citizen and two Final Fantasy extras into battle.