MERcURY IS HoT
The thing I wanted most was a good night’s sleep.
Instead my restless brain treated me to a night filled with terrible dreams, hideous images brimming with death and destruction, featuring my incompetence. Bonus: Sweat-soaked T-shirt and a big old drool spot on the pillow when I woke up.
“Coffee,” I moaned.
My house guests didn’t take that as the cry for help it so obviously was. I mean, in all fairness, that was because they were both dead to the world. Bowen could have been ready to slide into a coffin, his cloak serving as a blanket, boots kicked off at the end of the couch. Niall was curled on his side, on the floor. I was pretty sure the neighbors were gonna start pounding on my door if his snoring kept up.
Thankfully, the phone buzzed. Bad news? Not Loredana offering a ride to a well-deserved latte.
“Mercury? I need you in Wells Heights.”
“Hey, Ramos.” I rubbed at my face, as if I could scrub intelligence and awareness into my near-comatose brain. “No perky greeting? You have to sleep on the couch last night? Because I got a guy who beat you to it.”
“I was up early when Stan Bradley called in the report of three burned bodies.”
The last word launched me out of bed. I marched into the living room and kicked the couch. “Hey. Hey! Get up.”
“Trouble?” Bowen’s eyes were bleary, but he sounded and looked way too awake when compared with yours truly.
“More than likely.” I swung a second kick at Niall’s shin, but he caught it. No kidding. One moment, passed out like a puppy after he’d gorged on his kibble. Then next, bolt upright, iron grip latched around my ankle. I tottered, arms flailing.
“Mercury?” Ramos’ voice did this neat trick where it could sound like he was ready to throttle me through a phone’s speaker.
Niall bared his teeth. What, did he forget the human versions weren’t supposed to be so sharp? “Try it again and I’ll use the katana’s blade.”
“Hey. Easy. Heel.” I got balanced well enough to break free. “Ramos, still there?”
“Am I interrupting a party? This isn’t a serious enough matter for you?”
“Relax, will you? These guys are—” I blew out a breath, watching as Bowen and Niall got their boots on. Unfamiliarity with twenty-first century San Camillo didn’t stop them from figuring out where I kept the food. Skipper’s memories probably informed Bowen what a fridge was. “New allies. I think. But never mind. I take it you’re calling because wildfires aren’t nibbling at San Camillo’s trendiest neighborhood?”
“Not unless they can hop eight miles from the nearest reported blaze and light three people plus the surrounding patch of ground without burning a path there.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Be there in a few.” I hung up.
“We are prepared to meet the fiend.” Bowen strapped on his sword belt.
“It’d be a better match if someone hadn’t destroyed our best gun.” He glared at me while positioning his scabbard.
“Hold up.” I interposed myself between my eager sword-wielding duo and the door. “Bowen’s got the right gear—T-shirt and all. But Niall, you’re still sporting the cosplay.”
“This?” He plucked at white fabric. “There’s nothing wrong with my tunic.”
“Not unless you’re blind and can’t smell,” I muttered. “Leave out the stench and you’ve still got astral fury... gunk on it.”
“There’s hardly time to clean it.” Bowen tried to squeeze around me for the door.
“Easy.” I drew the pulsar stave. “Let’s get him properly attired.”
They backed into the living room as I rummaged about for another shirt. Bowen seemed bemused, waiting there with his arms folded.
Niall growled, “I’d rather have a new gun.”
“One thing at a time!” I snapped.
Got Niall a gray T-shirt sporting the blue crest and Triforce from The Legend of Zelda games. It was two sizes too small. I mean, the guy could win the beach bod competition if he’d shown up three months ago. Pretty sure my shirt was never gonna fit me again. I made them both leave their cloaks behind, too, and carry their swords as unobtrusively as possible.
Not too bad when we had to climb into the Subaru. Only got a couple of odd looks from passers-by. Of course, one of said looks came from a teen whose ears were pierced in six places, had blue hair, and was carrying a fuzzy white Pomeranian that could’ve gotten beaten in a fight with a squirrel. Weird was relative.
What Ramos thought of my entourage was evident the moment my battered Subaru pulled up to the scene of the crime in Wells Heights.
San Camillo Police Department had the entire cul-de-sac blocked off. The fact that they waved me through without a second look was testament to how serious the situation was. Ramos must have radioed ahead and let the patrol officers know I was on my way—but seriously, what did that conversation sound like? Mercury’s gonna show up in a car that looks like it should be on a sleazy salesman’s back lot, with two strange guys riding passenger?
For one thing, the car didn’t belong in the neighborhood. McMansions abounded, so much so that I took two wrong turns before GPS guided me into the correct cul-de-sac. And seeing it perched between a pair of Lexuses—Lexi?—further reinforced that it had seen a rough night with the scrapes raked across the hood, roof, and especially the doors. Don’t forget about the melted rear-view mirror. I swore the Lexuses edged away from the Subaru the same way you ease aside from the crazy guy talking to himself at the bus stop.
But I guess after monsters and zombies and an evil artifact hellbent on drowning an entire city, the three of us weren’t that big of a deal to the cops.
Bowen, Niall, and I headed for the yellow police line tape. They brought their swords, because, of course they did.
“I suppose this is better than having it cut in half.” A smirk teased the corners of Ramos’ lips.
“Stick to the policing and leave the quips to the veteran.” I tipped up my sunglasses. Ramos did so simultaneously, and I won’t lie, I felt pretty cool in that moment.
At least I did until we took in the scene. The astral fury had brought death into a broad swath of emerald green lawn that was immaculate except for the huge burnt patch big enough to park two cars end to end inside. Three bodies were in the middle. Bodies? More like crispy mummies. Yeah, even though they were charred clear to the bone, I could tell they’d been desiccated—as in, drained of life, an astral fiend’s preferred method of feeding.
Ramos leaned in. “Are these two Procyon’s newest recruits? Because if they are, I’m going to introduce them to city statutes regarding the carrying of weapons.”
“Little late to worry about permits, Ramos. Besides they’re not in your jurisdiction.” I texted Liz, <At the scene. Drones coming?>
“So... recruits from far afield.” Ramos peered at them.
“Yeah. The bearded guy? Skipper.”
Ramos frowned. “That can’t be.”
“Can and is. Doc Arne confirms it.”
Niall’s head cocked. He glanced at the sky. “A cloudship approaches. And yet—too small. Only the fae could ride it.”
Took me a minute to understand what he was muttering about, but sure enough, one of Procyon’s drones hopped over the trees.
“Hey, L.T.” That would be Detective Stan Bradley, my biggest critic both literally and figuratively. I’d put even odds on him tackling werefox-form Niall in a fight—except, of course, Niall’s got those fangs. He caught sight of me and lifted his chin, in a subtle salute I assumed was all the “Hello” I was gonna get. “Unies canvassed the neighborhood. A couple down the block heard the screaming, either from these poor saps or the monster. No one home to either side. A lot of these homes are part-time residences. No security cameras aimed this way.”
“All right. What about its trajectory? Whichever way it went, it had to leave a track.”
“What about your consultants?” Bradley pointed at me. “Isn’t that their job?”
“I thought it was on your resume now, Bradley.” I grinned, which only made his scowl deepen, so, win for me. “SCPD’s Extraordinary Crimes Task Force? That’s a heck of a thing to stitch onto a logo patch. SCPDECTF. Man. I’d still take one, though, if you’re offering.”
“I got a good place for you to put it.” Bradley shook his head. “I’ll broaden the search radius, L.T. Someone has to have seen something.”
“Sounds good, Stan.” Ramos indicated the hovering drone. “I suspect we’ll have some more answers to help us out.”
“Yeah, right.” Bradley took a step away but stopped. “Hale?”
“We nicknamed it the goon squad.”
I stared as Bradley headed for the patrol officers hanging around the squad cars. Whatever he said to them wasn’t a friendly greeting, because they got super formal with their “sirs” and scattered. “Was he making nice by letting me in on the nickname?”
“He’s trying. But this task force has him torn. Stan’s a good cop. One of the best in the department. Monsters? Other dimensions? Dark powers? He’s having a harder time than I did adjusting.”
“I guess I’ll take what I can get.”
My phone buzzed. Liz. <There’s residual tachyons as expected but it’ll take me a while to pinpoint a direction of travel and if it’s been jumping dimensions in addition to points in this world that’ll make extrapolation trickier.>
<Get us as close as you can.>
<Okay yeah sure.>
“What’s going on, then? This person is a younger Skipper?” Ramos nudged me.
I’d almost forgotten about my new crew. They weren’t gawking. Nope, Bowen was prowling the edges of the scorched earth, hand on his sword’s hilt. Niall was crouched opposite us, nose testing the air. He brushed his hand across the grass. “He’s from before Skipper visited us, but he absorbed his older self’s memories across space and time. How’s that for brain-melting?”
“Ah.” If it bothered Ramos, he didn’t offer any other questions, though I could tell his brain was churning. “Listen. The captain’s understandably upset about this, if for no other reason we’ve gone a decent stretch without these kinds of deaths.”
“What, she’d rather we stick to regular murders?”
“She’d rather the task force be gone.” Ramos smirked. “Unfortunately for her, the mayor’s the one keeping the goon squad afloat. Everyone’s seen the videos, Mercury. Astral fiends aren’t a secret anymore. I’ve heard rumors of congressional hearings and feds sniffing around—though after one of Homeland Security’s agents turned out to be aiding the enemy, I suspect their investigations are turned more inward that outward.”
That struck me like a blade through flesh—and trust me, I knew what that felt like. Serena Cyr. She was Homeland, and yeah, she’d been Alexander Arkwright’s lover. Who knew where she was? I could pick out periodic posts off the Internet where she’d been spreading tales about Procyon, but it read like fantasy. “Loredana’s still inventorying what all went missing from our Historic Vault.”
“More of it gets out, the more there’s going to be questions.” Ramos rubbed his face. “And when bodies start appearing, panic follows. These three—college students. No bottles, no paraphernalia or residue that’s evident, so I’m assuming they weren’t here for drugs.”
“The flesh is the flesh.” Ramos shrugged. “Forensics has their cell phones, what was left of them. If we can pull something from the SIM cards, we might have answers. Our only option for positive ID otherwise is dental records.”
My stomach tightened. I went clammy with sweat. Something was wrong with me, that the terribleness of what lay before me didn’t strike until now. Meant I was getting use to the horrors. I didn’t want that. Not when Loredana and I were planning a life together.
How would that even work? What kind of husband could I be, if I got numb to these deaths?
And what kind of father could I be?
The thought ran me over. Since when had I even considered kids? There were more complex things to deal with before I was ready for anyone to call me, “Dad.”
Niall whistled. He was fifty feet from the scorch mark, still crouched, waving at Bowen.
“What’s that?” Ramos asked.
“Progress, I hope. Come on.”
Bowen reached Niall at the same time. He knelt beside him. “You’ve found it?”
“The track is faint. Here.” Niall encompassed an area of mashed grass inside his hands. Huh. If you squinted, you could see the shape.
“Footprints?” Ramos took a photo with his phone.
“Astral fiend’s imprint,” I said. “Probably an impact point from one of its tentacles. What’d he do, sniff it out?”
“Niall could track a goblin through the foulest tavern with his eyes closed.” Bowen’s smile was grim, his expression determined.
The guy was ready to hunt. “Show us the way.”
Niall nodded. He drew his sword and Bowen did likewise. Before Ramos could issue a warning about bladed weapons, they loped into the woods.
“Uh, L.T.?” That was Bradley. He stood at the sidewalk, his gun drawn.
“Stand down.” Ramos sighed, but had his pistol ready. “We’ll check it out.”
“You want backup?”
I powered up the stave and propped it over my shoulder, yellow-white sparks trailing its wake. Intense cold washed down my arm. “Nah, he’s good. Mind the store, Bradley.”
Dappled light illuminated the ground inside the tightly packed forest, where the edges of Wells Heights’ immaculately trimmed foliage met regular-old nature. Birds chirped high among the leaves, out of sight but flitting from tree to tree. If I blocked out the distant rush of traffic and ignored the lingering odor of burnt grass and flesh, I could have been strolling through the forest outside the city of Meda in my home dimension.
Home. I should contact Teget. If we were going up against a mutated version of an astral fiend, he’d be a prime ally. Who better to help me take down the fire beast than my brother?
But he had his hands full overseeing a fortified temple full of dangerous relics and making sure the Whisperer and his minions didn’t launch any more offensives against any dimension.
Ramos and I walked a couple dozen yard behind Bowen and Niall as the two tracked—whatever it was Niall was tracking. The two made the barest noises. I’m sure Ramos and I were more distracting than helpful. Liz’s drone was six feet overhead, buzzing like the world’s largest but least blood-sucking mosquito.
I stepped on a branch. It snapped.
Bowen whirled. His mouth moved and his palm glowed blazing blue.
“Down!” I slammed into Ramos. We toppled into a patch of pine cones and leaves.
Twin spears of ice, each as big as Ramos’ automatic pistol, embedded themselves in a tree. Thunk, thunk. They quivered from the impact.
Niall barked a laugh. “And this is why we don’t allow stragglers on the hunt.”
“My apologies.” Bowen offered me a hand.
“Nope. I got it.” Didn’t want a case of frostbite. I helped Ramos up.
“What did I just see?” Ramos shivered. His breath feathered. It was suddenly cold, like we’d stepped out of a house into a brisk, fall morning.
“It will fade in a moment.” Just like the blue glow faded from Bowen’s eyes. Creepy.
“He’s, um...” I scratched the back of my neck. “Ice magic.”
“Summoning,” Bowen clarified.
Ramos stared. “But... how?”
“By the power of the gift of the Most High.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.” Ramos brushed dirt off his tie. “You and I should have a conversation.”
“Guys, if we could postpone the theological debates of sorcery and ...” I waved my hand. “Whatever. Any luck, Niall? Or did we come all this way so your captain could freeze dry my lieutenant?”
Niall snorted. “Luck, my tail. Scent and skill, whelp.”
He held up a stick that was as long as my forearm. Badly twisted, black and purple, but still a—
Wait a second. It dripped thick, blue ooze that was nearly black. Violet sparks trickled from knobby bark.
Not bark. Hide.
“It’s a piece of the astral fury,” I murmured.
“I thought they sublimated when they were cut off,” Ramos said.
I took the ruined tentacle from Niall and held it up so Liz’s drone could get a good look. “They do. But whatever this thing is, we better make sure it’s not dropping more pieces of itself, because the last time that happened, we had a zombie plague on our hands.”