Okay. I had no idea why Brandon played librarian during the day instead of soaring as Air-foil all the time. I guess he needed a job like everyone else.


But if I were him, I’d fly off and never come down.


We hurtled across the sky. I really hoped nobody was paying attention. Because they would have seen a guy in a winter coat flying toward the coast with a metal monstrosity dragged beneath and a man suited all in black with glowing yellow lines crisscrossing his outfit. Sure, I could have gone invisible, but A.) that would not have helped the rest of our team, and B.) I wanted to conserve our energy.


San Camillo curved around a long, narrow bay where the California coastline took several sharp turns. Forests clung to ravines and rolling hills north of the sprawling city grid. Fields and orchards spread east along the 311 winding out through the Arbor Valley.


I pointed for Brandon, who banked us into a steep dive. I cheered, arms spread wide like I was Peter Pan. No reason I should have trusted Brandon to keep me airborne but the guy’s secrets weren’t gonna ruin the moment for me.


Shouts trickled through Bruno’s hatch. Couldn’t tell who was unhappy with our ride but I would have put money on Ramos.


Brandon descended in a tight spiral until we were a few miles north of Procyon’s hidden base, then skirted ten feet above treetop height the rest of the way in. A clearing suddenly spread before us, one I recognized as hidden in the woods from prying eyes. No aircraft present. I didn’t see a V-22 Osprey whirling overhead, either, which meant the pilot on loan from the Chicago office was either off on a mission or had gone back to his home city.


The only plane was a white model with black wings edged in red, absent identifying marks. Didn’t even carry registration numbers. What it did have were a set of turbofans inset in the wings to complement the jets at the tail. The concrete underneath was clean of dirt, indicating the plane had set down vertically.


Figured. Procyon’s secret location lacked a runway, mostly because no one wanted to dig up the old missile silo covers that littered the clearing. A stubby bunker of weathered, pitted concrete hunkered at the far end. Other than that, the base left zero imprint.


“Frank?” Brandon shouted the question, I assumed into a radio. “Ready to drop. You have a preference as to where?”


The answer left Brandon shaking his head. “Okay, hang on.”


He released the mech.


“Hey!” I yelped. “That thing doesn’t come with a parachute, does it?”


“Landing gear, or so he says!”


Bruno was forty feet up when Brandon dropped it. The mech hit the ground once, bounded, up over the airplane, then skidded through the dirt. Metal feet dragged trenches.


Right on cue, Syndax soldiers spewed from the airplane.


Brandon and I landed beside it. “Hold still,” he said.


Bullets exploded as fireworks around us. Hooray for invisible shields, I guess. “Those are awesome, but if you want me to take them out, I’ll have to stop hiding behind you.”


“You get the ones from the bunker.”


The what?


He wasn’t kidding. A half dozen more burst from the metal doors guarding the way into Procyon. Where did Serena hire all those henchmen? “Geez, guys, get real jobs,” I muttered as I sped into their midst. And no, the irony of me using my extradimensional weapon as I complained weren’t lost on me.


Brandon pummeled the soldiers who’d disembarked the airplane with ease. First, he tossed them like discarded toys. Then he used their guns as handcuffs or ankle binders. A couple guys hemmed him in close enough to land punches. Or try to. Brandon laid them out fast.


I’d wondered what Frank was waiting for when Bruno thundered past us, past the soldiers, and plowed through the airplane. Windows shattered. The fuselage ripped apart, shedding leather seats, their stuffing, and all kinds of wires. The back end of the plane tipped forward, sans landing gear—and sans everything from the cockpit to the wings.


Little old me? I managed pretty well. I mean, six guys were not a cakewalk, but they weren’t a single sleepy astral fiend, either. I tripped up two guys and somersaulted over another pair, blasting energy between them as I spun upside down. My landing knocked the other two over. I threw a pulsar stave at a soldier, cracking off the top of his helmet, and whipped by fast enough to retrieve the weapon as it rebounded, then slapped both at the sides of another soldier.


They’d sent twelve guys out after us. Twelve unconscious and/or groaning guys were left.


Bruno’s hatch popped open. He and Edith disembarked. Frank handed Ramos the M4 rifle from inside. “I’ll take a stroll around the perimeter and see who else wants to play,” Frank said. “Radio if you guys get stuck and need backup.”


I glanced at Ramos, Edith, and Brandon, the last just now settling back to the ground. “Yeah, sure, if the four of us get in trouble, we might need the old guy and the robot.”


“Good thing you’re saying that now instead of when I had a medallion.”


The hatch slammed shut and Bruno trundled into the woods.


“Okay, kids.” I rolled a crick out of my neck. “Try not to break anything. It might come out of my paycheck.”



We worked our way through the curved corridors, me following the painted markers leading to places like Liz’s testing lab. I was buzzing with tension, because we didn’t encounter a single soul. Some of that was due to the pulsar stave humming in my hands. Either it was as wary as I was, or it was ready to knock back any symmachites that tried a second attempt at taking me over.


But the base was deserted. Security posts were unmanned. Labs were empty of personnel.


“If you can tap us into video surveillance, we can find where Xia and the others went,” Ramos said.


I shook my head. “Not my area of expertise. What about a little inside, Edie—Edith?”


“The tachyon sensations are intense here, even without being in proximity to you two.” Edie held up her hand. We were in the hall outside Tracking. I recognized the entrance but not the voices coming from inside. At least, until I heard a moderate-pitched voice crack, “Screw you!”


A slap resounded. Gravity flexed the air around me as Brandon made for the door, his face pinched with anger.


I caught him by the arm. “Easy. We can’t barge in there, not without knowing the layout—the players. Let me talk to them. Sort things out. Then you guys can slam in and lock the situation down.”


“Not with Sean involved,” Brandon hissed. “He’s gotten drawn into my battles one too many times.”


“But you charging through the door isn’t gonna make him any safer. Best case scenario, people will die.” I blew out a breath. “I’ll handle it.”


Brandon scowled and stormed away. A door bent on its hinges.


I opened my mouth, ready to gift him with my trademark snark, but Ramos stood in my way. “Let him cool down. Brandon? Come back here.”


Our superhero from the East Coast looked as baffled as I felt, but he obeyed.


“Mercury’s right.” Ramos jerked a thumb to the door. “If anyone can talk so much as to bluff his way through a standoff until we can get into place, it’s him.”


“Thanks. I think.” I stuffed the pulsar staves into a pocket, where it was concealed but could still provide energy through the suit. “Ramos, wait for my signal.”


“Keep it simple. I’m still rattled.”


“Right.” I glanced at Edie.


“I’ll come with you.” She holstered her bow. “And follow your lead.”


My feet wouldn’t move toward the door, no matter how much I tried talking myself into action. Sounded like a good plan. “You sure about that? I’m the new guy compared to you. No legacy to speak of—not on this world, anyway.”


“That isn’t true. Your family gave much to protect Earth and its people. I’m privy to many things, Mercury, some of which the upper echelons of Procyon doesn’t want to share. They think they can hide accumulated secrets from a Pathkiller, like my forefather hadn’t given his blood to turn back the tides of evil.”


“I’m just trying to clean up this mess. There’s nothing protective about it.”


“Say that, and you might convince yourself. I’ll have your back.” Edie indicated Ramos, who was speaking with Brandon in a hushed conversation further down the corridor. “You can do what I haven’t been able to—show yourself as the leader, rather than the shadow.”


Talk about pressure. Confidence was never my problem. Fear that the confidence would lead to disaster? Near to crippling.


Come on, Mercury. They’re counting on you. Everyone is.


I grit my teeth. Great. Move.


“Hey, Serena?” I hollered. “I’m home.”


No one shot me as I entered Tracking. Someone had found the switch for huge, blazing overhead lights. They threw into stark relief dozens of computer monitors and three huge screens at the front of the room. Several desks were arranged in semi-circles. Liz’s array of consoles was in the direct center.


The seats were empty. Eighteen Procyon staff were clustered at the front, under the giant monitors. Liz was the beacon in the middle, pink hair glowing. The rest were techs I vaguely recognized, plus a handful of guys from Security in their black polo shirts. A few sported fresh bruises. No one seemed badly injured.


Between them and the door that was their escape route were the bad guys, for the moment: Serena Cyr, with Xia to her right. Teget was off to the left, Alvarez pinned in front of him by the ax. Dominic stood on the far right of the room, Echo Watches pulsing.


Sean knelt in front of Xia, red rising to his cheek where she must have smacked him.


“Hey, Mercury.” Serena perched on the edge of a console. She smoothed her khakis. Guess her dress code shifted quick from elegant evening gown to Homeland Security business casual when the tables turned in her favor. “Thanks for stopping by.”


“No problem, considering you broke into my place with my brainwashed buddies.” I shrugged. “I’d ask what you want, but I’m not much for speeches, by either side. So, give me the sword, and nobody has to die.”


“Sure. That’s funny. I’ll send your brother and your teammate to their demises first, then the rest of Procyon’s loyal staff, long before I give it up. But I didn’t want you to miss out on the show. See, the symmachites are another of those great presents the idiots of Meda provided. They were so obsessed with protecting everyone from the Interstice, they gave us the greatest tools to gain access to it.”


She turned to Xia. “Kill him.”


Xia raised the blade. Teget slashed with his ax at Alvarez.


Edie flung an arrow into its path, sending the ax off course enough that the weapon’s sharp edges cut a bloody streak down Alvarez’s chest. If she’d been a second slower, Teget would have slit the Procyon manager’s throat.


Dominic flashed away, which left me no way to stop an opponent who could reappear at will.


I sped to Xia, the pulsar stave flashing as I attacked with the same ferocity I’d seen her use—mindless rage, except this was a mimicry. Identical moves, zero emotion.


No way I was gonna slide down that dark tunnel.


Ramos and Brandon stormed the room.


“There!” Edie pointed to a spot midway between her and them.


Brandon held up a palm.


Wind swirled around a pinprick of light as Dominic appeared, energy flashing from an Echo Watch. Edie leapt over Liz’s desk, which absorbed the impact.


And Dominic toppled, Brandon’s medallion-based powers mashing him to the metal floor.


Ramos fired at Teget, who pushed Alvarez aside in order to avoid the incoming bullets. Alvarez clutched his chest where the ax had sliced into him. No one stopped Liz and Doctor Arne Becker from rushing to his side, which was good, because Doc Arne immediately did his best to staunch the flow of blood.


That gave the security guys a chance to rush Serena.


“Don’t!” She produced a pistol and aimed it at the back of Sean’s head. I didn’t know much about the kind of gun, except the magazine jutting well below told me it was probably automatic and contained enough bullets to shred the kid. “Don’t try it. I’m not here for anyone to interrupt. You’ll have a role soon enough, as dinner.”


A rumbling built in the room. Dust sifted from cracks in the concrete—dust that sifted sideways from the walls. Xia and I were locked together, stave pressed to blade, while Brandon kept Dominic pinned—no easy task, that, because Dominic blasted away at the invisible barrier, the Echo Watches letting streaks of light pierce it.


Ramos ducked behind a desk as Teget slashed through it, reducing it to metal fragments and glass shards. The computer sitting there blew apart. “A little help!”


“Here!” I threw half the pulsar stave.


Edie intercepted the stave, her jump carrying her across the room, and as she did, she fired an arrow. It hurtled toward Teget.

He bashed the gun from Ramos’ hand, severing the barrel clean off, and spun in time to snatch the arrow six inches from his face.


Except instead of miraculously seizing the arrowhead, he held the pulsar stave.


His cries echoed from the ceiling as a buzzing rose to meet the rumbling already in progress. Speaking of which, that rumble intensified so badly Xia and I broke apart, just so we could maintain our balance.


“Mercury!” Liz shouted. “Tachyon levels are spiking, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the sword!”


“Half wrong!” Serena snapped. “The sword alone, no. But the sword and tiny new friends, just dripping witn Interstice energies? Let’s say, my love is happy I’ve made it all come together.”


Edie swung around, her bow steady, and fired at nothing.


Nothing, that is, until purple sparks coalesced around a deepening black gash in space-time. The gash rippled with swarms of symmachites, spewing from the sword. Tentacles with violet-tinged black hide lashed from its center, eight of them slapping at the metal floor and concrete walls. A mouth bulging with jagged fangs emerged.


The astral fiend screamed until the blazing arrow exploded deep in its gullet.


Everyone scattered, their cries filling the room. The shock of a rip opening up in the middle of Procyon’s primary control room was enough to worry anyone, but none of them—with the exception of maybe a few security guys—had seen one in person.

Neither had Xia.


I slammed the stave across her face, enough of a blow to send her sprawling, and finally got my hands on that stupid sword.

Teget fell sideways. His face was slack, arms trembling. He dropped the stave, but Ramos was there to catch it, and cradle Teget, too.


“Behind you!” Edie fired two more arrows.


She’d overestimated. Those shots exploded against the wall, too soon to intercept the rip that split the air and disgorged another astral fiend. It lunged for Ramos and Teget, not caring who was on whose side but only searching for a new meal with writhing tentacles. Those tentacles hammered nothingness a foot from Ramos’ head.


“Get them back!” Sweat dripped down Brandon’s nose. “I can’t hold both!”


Both? I’d forgotten Dominic, who was still under the sway of the sword.


I aimed the weapon, swirling it in the same fashion as Xia, but Dominic still burst through the invisible barrier. The Echo Watches blazed at Brandon, who had to redirect his defenses. The sword wasn’t working on him. What was I doing wrong?


Oh. I wasn’t infected, that’s why.


Edie leapt over a third rip that formed, sliding between a new pair of astral fiend tentacles. She brought an arrow down on the hide of the fiend trying to devour Ramos and Teget. It shrieked, the sound battering my ears, but that didn’t stop her from ripping through the creature.


It screamed even more loudly, maw gaping, and she fired deep into its gullet. The fiend exploded in a misty spray of blue slime, the mess sublimating even as it spattered across the walls.


Among the chaos, I spotted Serena. She backed toward an empty rip, behind the third astral fiend that was menacing her set of hostages—while she dragged Sean with her. The kid kicked at her shins until she pressed that automatic pistol hard enough to his temple to draw blood. “Thanks for giving me another sneak peek of Procyon’s operations!”


“No! Sean!” Brandon was backed into a corner, fending off blinding light from Dominic’s assaults.


“He won’t be in any danger from me,” Serena said. “But where I’m going, I can’t guarantee his safety. Between the Whisperer and Marigold Yen and my beloved Alex, there are many minds hoping you’ll—”


The single gunshot sent her sprawling into the rip, her shout lost beneath the thunderous crack. Sean hit the metal, his sneakers scrabbling for purchase.


I vaulted the distance and grabbed his wrist.


The rips snapped and swirled until they sealed off in a reverberating boom. The third and final astral fiend lashed at everyone and everything in its grasp. Okay, Sean was safe, and Serena was gone. I could focus on—


Dominic screamed.

Edie had jabbed half the pulsar stave into his lower back. Telltale vibrations rid his body of the last of the symmachites, evaporating them with a golden glow.


His attention freed, Brandon whipped around, thrust out his fist, and reduced the final astral fiend into a pulpy, black and blue smear with a ripple of modified gravity.


Silence filled the room. A ragged set of cheers went up from the Procyon folks.


And as for the timely gunman—or I should say, gunwoman …

Loredana walked through the open door, smoke rising from her MP5. “Doctor Becker, Miss Stojan, if Manager Alvarez is no longer in lethal danger, please escort him to the infirmary.”


Everyone was in motion, not the least Brandon, who crushed his son in a tearful hug. I pushed past the security guys securing Xia and stood in front of Loredana. I lifted the mask. She swore blue jeans and a gaudy sweater, its design filled with imagery from the Doctor Who show done in red, white, and green, with snowflakes to boot.


“The ladies were understanding.” Loredana smiled. “Though I would care to know more about the mechanical beast that met me at the parking garage.”


“That was Bruno.” I handed Loredana the sword. She stared at the black sword.


“Anyway.” I kissed her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas.”