MERcURY IS HoT
I sat on the edge of the exam bed, trying not to think about the gouges and scrapes marring the side of my car.
The throbbing ache of my stump made those concerns easier to ignore. That leg, though. I glared down at the space where the rest of the limb should have been. It would have been easier to blame my stumble at the farm stand on glitchy tech. But this? This time it was nothing but operator error. Just me and the simple prosthetic.
Loredana set a hand on my knee. Anybody else who’d tried that would have been in danger of getting amputated. Her touch seemed to sap away the pain. “It will take time.”
“You sure you can’t mind read?”
She smirked at our long-standing inside joke. “I don’t require telepathy to read your heart, Mercury. Recovering from the loss of a limb is never easy. You’ve only been traveling that road for a few months.”
“I get that. But I also take way less time to heal than the average bear, as Yogi would say. I assumed, I guess, that would translate to physical therapy.” I shook my head. “There’s darker moments when I wish I’d never made the decision that I did.”
“Impossible. Then you’d be dead.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” I smiled and tapped the side of my head.
“You gave up much. There isn’t a person here who doesn’t respect you for the risks taken and sacrifices made.” She leaned in, her hand shifting to my chest. “Because your heart is in the right place.”
“And Doc Arne would confirm it, too.”
She rolled her eyes, but her smile didn’t leave. “Give yourself credit, at least: You’re facing threats at near-peak performance far faster than Dr. Becker anticipated.”
“Yes, and Dr. Becker would keep his patient confined to civilian duty if he wasn’t constantly overruled by people with no regard for human decency.” Arne Becker had materialized at the end of the bed as if he’d teleported—which would totally fit into the realm of possibility given we had a guy who could do exactly that on Procyon’s payroll. Lithe like an athlete, Doc Arne sported a beard that would’ve better suited a Millennial barista or a Shattered Mug customer complaining about the lack of avocado toast. He had enough product slicking his hair down he could have incapacitated an astral fiend with the smell alone. He force-fed notes into his tablet with a stylus.
“One problem, Doc.” I pantomimed shooting. “I’m not human.”
He scowled. “You’re human enough. I don’t care which dimension you’re from. I’ve got an oath and you’ve got to be more careful.”
“You bet, Mom. Did you bring me anything besides your sunny disposition? Like, good news? And a spare leg?”
He gestured at a nearby table. Yep, there was the glitchy but souped-up version, the one that could siphon the pulsar stave’s energy and feel near as close to a real limb as the lost one. It looked like Liz had printed a new cover; the starry casing had cleaner, sharper edges. Here was hoping the interior was equally upgraded. “We’ll re-fit you in a moment. Ms. Lark wanted my report.”
“Sure. On my passengers.” I glanced over my shoulder. Bowen and Niall sat on adjacent beds. Doc Arne had gotten Bowen a black T-shirt with a red dragon emblem in the center of the chest. It was from the stash of donated clothing Procyon kept on hand for me in case a tussle with an astral fiend resulted in a wardrobe malfunction. This one was from some writing conference about realm-making, back East.
Bowen had his fingers interlaced and was staring at the ceiling. Niall, still clad in his grimy white tunic, tapped a boot on the bed’s wheels. He caught me looking, glowered, and increased both the tempo and volume of the tapping. His fingers dipped inside his shirt collar. There was a pendant hanging there, glass framed copper. Couldn’t figure out why he’s got a feather sandwiched between those tiny panes. A keepsake?
Doc Arne waved his tablet at the pair. “Those men are also human, and they’re also not from our dimension.”
“You want a prize for that deduction?”
“I want you to close your mouth before I suture it shut.”
I looked at Loredana, who seemed to be fighting off a full-fledged grin. She shrugged, her not-so-subtle version of, “I told you so.” I made a gesture like I was zipping my mouth shut and flicked away an imaginary key.
“Their bloodwork comes back as human,” Arne said. “But I found markers not dissimilar to yours.”
Loredana jumped in with, “Not dissimilar?”
“I’m sure Liz can get into the particulars of trans-dimensional components, or whatever it is she’s calling these bizarre genetic structures. Let’s leave it at this: Neither man is from this world, nor are they from Meda, but they’re from the same place as one another.”
“Presumably from which our modified astral fiend originated.”
“Bowen talked about fighting it near a village on an island.” The words burst forth from my lips like a flood from a broken dam. That was probably the longest I’d gone being mute. “Which makes no sense because I was fighting it in the middle of the forest. Or at least, a copy of it.”
“Again, that’s for Liz.” Doc Arne made a face at the readouts on his tablet that most men reserved for insults said about their moms. “But back to your other question—”
“He’s Skipper, right? Only younger.”
Arne nodded. No snotty rejoinder. Just a dumb bob of the head.
“Okay, that makes no sense, and understand that gets put on a list of a whole lot of stuff that makes no sense.” I glanced between Arne and Loredana, waiting for a brilliant explanation from either or both. Zilch. “Skipper was old—okay, not ancient, but no sword-swinging spring chicken. This guy, Bowen, he can’t be much older than me. Late 20s? Maybe 30? If you’re saying they’re the same person, then old Bowen came here without his memory months ago before young Bowen showed up—but young Bowen knows my name!”
“I’ll not pretend to understand any better than anyone in this room.” Loredana folded her arms. “However, there is evidence of various bridges through the Interstice that breach not only space but time. The parallel Earth, for example, is slightly off from ours.”
Don’t even ask about that one. I ran a hand through my hair quickly, because if I slowed down, I’d have pulled out enough to go bald. “Man. Okay, maybe we ought to let them out of quarantine.”
“Sticking them on beds in the corner of this bunker doesn’t come close to qualifying as quarantine,” Arne grumbled. “Though they should be. Who knows what microbes they brought from wherever their home is?”
“I’m joking, Arne.”
“I’m not.” He shrugged. “But what do I know? I’m only a doctor.”
He stormed deeper into the cramped confines of the makeshift infirmary. Really thought he was gonna tack on, “Not a Tracking specialist” or some other job title to his snide comment, but I had no clue whether or not he was a Trekkie. Couldn’t blame him for his increased irritation, though. The room was nowhere near as bright and sanitary as the cool, white room infirmary of Procyon’s Tower Three. This really was a bunker, all faded concrete and metal that was painted pasty green. Here was hoping none of said paint was lead-based.
Doc Arne snapped commands at a young man and woman in white lab coats, both scurrying like scolded puppies in his wake. Which left Loredana and me alone with our dimensionally displaced duo.
“So.” I pulled on the repaired prosthetic leg. It hummed for a moment as a sheen of golden light raced down its sides. “Let’s do this.”
She gestured for me to take the lead and smiled.
Still wasn’t used to that. In the aftermath of our showdown with Alexander Arkwright—and everyone’s acknowledgement that I had two other guys with immense, otherworldly powers on speed dial—I’d been getting a lot more leeway. Loredana was still technically my handler, but I hadn’t seen Manager Hector Alvarez for weeks. Which meant I was calling my own shots.
Don’t get me wrong. A little operational freedom? I was all over that. But it also meant greater responsibility. That? Not so hot.
I blew out a breath. Suck it up, Mercury. “Bowen? Niall? Let’s have words.”
“How is your friend?” Bowen asked. “Your elder.”
“Elder? You’d better not let Wilhelmina catch you calling her that. You saw her dagger. She’s napping. The absorption of the tachyon particles and then the exertion that followed—It takes a toll every time.”
“If there is anything I can answer to shed light in this darkness—” Bowen’s gaze settled on us. “I will be glad to offer my knowledge.”
“Awesome. Recap: You came here earlier this summer and helped me stop a rampaging horde of zombies.”
“Dead bodies brought back to life. Some were actually infected first before they died.”
His eyes widened. “The dead cannot be returned to us. It is the first rule of magic.”
“Hold up. This is more bodies reanimated.” He still looked puzzled. How would Ramos handle this? I thought about his devotion to his church life. “Just corpses, minus souls.”
“I see.” The confusion appeared to fade, though not the anger.
Niall snorted. “Of course it would be rotting bodies shambling about, spreading pestilence. Why would we ever want to be drawn into a world of endless beaches and bottomless tankards of ale when we could arrive here?”
“It is heartening to hear your priorities have remained steadfast,” Bowen said. “Mercury, I am as perplexed as you. This land—I have never been here, yet I have dreamed it, seen paintings in my mind as vivid as any reality. And I know who you are as surely as I know Niall. How can this be?”
“The prevailing theory is the breaches between our worlds affected your memories, implanting upon your mind knowledge of events that, from your perspective, have yet to take place. A reverse echo.” Loredana gestured toward the ceiling. “In our city, there is a cemetery which contains a nexus of dimensional instability. A man named Skipper—you, but approximately thirty years older—transited into and out of this world via that portal.”
Now it was Niall’s turn to look befuddled. Loredana’s info dump, or maybe the way she said it in soft, mesmerizing tones, stripped away his frustration. “It reeks of madness, yet there’s no denying we’ve encountered stranger things no man can explain. What of the beast, then? Has it somehow done the same thing?”
“You and Mercury were fighting the same creature in two dimensions at the same ‘time,’ if we use the term loosely.”
“Yeah, and trust me, an astral fiend is plenty of trouble when you’re tangling with it solo in one location.” The ache returned to my leg. I winced and shifted my weight.
“Astral fiend.” Bowen frowned. “You mean the arachnafury?”
I grinned at Loredana. “I don’t know what that is, but it’s a cooler name.”
“Indeed, but I find the arachna- prefix troubling.”
“Giant spider.” Niall waggled his fingers in a creepy-crawly fashion. “With a thick hide set aflame. Born of magma and corrupt magic.”
“That is definitely way cooler,” I said.
Loredana pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. “Focus, please, gentlemen.”
My phone rattled in my pocket. The earbud was tucked below it, so I answered the old-fashioned way. “Yello.”
“Hey, Mercury do you have a sec? I’ve got an update on Roasty—or the fire fiend. Whatever it is. I think maybe I need to program Cyril with a fancier designation, so we don’t get confused.”
“We’ll be right up. And I think I can help with that last part.” I winked at Loredana. “Call it an astral fury.”
“Oooh, I like it! See ya!”
I started for the door, basking in the minor win.
Liz must’ve thought I had only Loredana in tow—though to be fair, Loredana’s long-legged stride put her through the door to Tracking six steps before me. Anyway, she stopped in mid-guzzle of her giant plastic cup of iced tea.
Bowen and Niall entered as part of our entourage.
“Remarkable.” Bowen peered at the bevy of screens. If the tech geeks minded a swashbuckling monster fighter looming over their shoulders as they worked, they showed no outward signs. “These words move upon stained glass. This manner of magic—it is the same as the relic you carry?”
I spun the compact form of the pulsar stave end over end and caught it. “You mean this?”
“No, the smaller one.”
“Oh. My phone?” I waggled it. “Yeah, I can call pretty much anyone in the continental US. Or farther. Probably costs more… Well, and with the Internet I can find any information about anything, you know?”
Bowen moved his mouth but had no audible words for me.
“Parlor tricks are nice,” Niall said. “But if you’ve never seen a dragon tear a flying warship in half as easily as a child plucking a blade of grass, I’m not to be easily impressed.”
I shrugged. “Does Smaug count? I think he just went after a village, though.”
“Let’s have your status report, Elizabeth.” Loredana’s flat tone was a warning bell—time to get back to business.
I had to nudge Liz, though, because she sat at her desk with her chin propped against her fist as she leaned forward in her chair. Iced tea dripped from around the straw of her tilted cup.
“Hey,” I hissed. “Liz.” No good. I waved my hand in front of her face.
She sighed, unblinking. What was so impressive about the map?
Oh. Right. It was the musclebound guy standing in front of the map.
Loredana snapped out the word. Liz reacted like it was a cattle prod. “Yes. Yes! I can zoom in to show the whole United States or down to one lady picking her nose on a San Camillo sidewalk.”
“All well and good, but perhaps a fix on the location of the astral fury—if I must use the name—will suffice.”
“Oh. Um, about that…” Liz swiped through menus on her giant tablet of a screen. The map of America blurred, resolving only when the familiar tilted grid of San Camillo’s streets took its place. A pair of red dots appeared. “Here’s where Mercury fought the astral fury, first at the farm stand, then deeper in the forest.”
“Where is it now?” Niall lifted his chin as he inspected the map. “Can your window-map show us?”
“That’s the problem. It isn’t staying still.” Liz tapped her screen.
More than twenty dots speckled San Camillo and the surrounding countryside.
“This complicates matters,” Loredana muttered.
“Shark’s blood.” Niall put his hands on his hips. “Are we to journey to each one? That could take days!”
“Nah. A really long day, maybe…” I rubbed my face. “Are these where it’s showed up?”
“They’re tachyon spikes, yeah, but I can’t tell if the astral fury has actually stayed in our dimension or hopped into the next. Each happened with fifteen minutes of you guys’ last fight with it.” Liz chewed her straw. “I mean, I thought it was going to reappear, so I tried repositioning the drones to get clean tracking data. Nothing ever happened.”
“It lurks out there, waiting for us.” Bowen joined Niall at the map. “What say you? If I get you down wind, can you track it?”
Niall sneered. Those teeth shouldn’t have been that sharp. “Near enough to carve myself a keepsake before I gut it.”
“Good man.” Bowen slapped his shoulder. “If this young lady can aid us with her wizardry, we may yet destroy the beast.”
“Hey, guys?” I tapped the pulsar stave on Liz’s desk. “Here’s the deal—we can’t do anything until Liz can pinpoint when and where it’s going to next show up. I’m not traipsing around my city with an ice-mage and his shapeshifting buddy, sword and all, until we have a plan of attack. Got it?”
“Mind your tongue, whelp.” The top of my head was just below Niall’s nose, which meant he could glower down at me. “I’ll remind you there’s but one captain I follow.”
“Steady on.” Bowen put a hand to his friend’s shoulder. “The lad’s correct. Perhaps our best option is rest. It’s been a long night—or day, now, I suppose. Would you have anything akin to a tavern at which we could rest?”
“My place.” Yeah, okay, I said no taking them into the city, but that was on a monster hunt. This was door-to-door. “We could all use a recharge.”
“We’ll keep you apprised.” Loredana kissed me full on the lips. “Text if you need anything.”
I headed for the door, stopping only when Liz said, “Um… Ice-mage?”
Bowen said something that sounded like “Glassy,” and pointed two fingers at Liz’s iced tea. Frost turned the cup white, freezing it to the desk.
Liz yelped. She broke it free, the ice cracking.
“Heaven help us all,” Loredana murmured.
“That is the idea.” Niall gave her a cheery salute as we left.