New Hebron, California
The woman sat at the corner table and peered out at the city through the large glass storefront and sighed. She collected a stray lock of hair and pushed it back, only to have it flop back in front of her eyes. She growled and entertained the idea of having it lobbed off, as so many males of this world did, but she rather liked the way her current hairstyle framed her face. Her hands slipped out, sliding over her legs to flatten the crease in her skirt, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when a voice spoke.
“Are you ready to order?”
Alexandra peered up, regarding the server, a rather attractive young woman with a wide-eyed, almost startled set to her features. Her skin was milky brown. The once-king regarded her and pressed her lips into a line. She had trouble distinguishing between human races, and Amelia hadn’t been helpful in that regard. The agent had advised her not to call attention to it, though. Which judging from the odd reactions the little blond had received seemed like sage advice.
Still, the girl’s features were appealing, even if her eyes were a bit sunken and she looked as if she could use a few solid meals. Alexandra found that she could not look away. She only regarded the other woman, mouth agape and heart pounding inside her chest. A shudder worked its way down her shoulders and through her entire body. She thought about doing rather pleasant things to the attractive woman, things which she’d long since learned were not acceptable to speak of in a public setting.
“Miss?” The girl asked, twirling the end of one of her dark locks with her index-finger.
Alexandra closed her mouth and snaked a hand over Waldere, her fingers tracing the lines of the armlet as she met the other woman’s gaze. After Leoffa’s death. The sword transformed her back into her human likeness, and she had not called up the weapon’s power since. She felt its energy pulsating whenever it touched her skin. She could not explain how the sword underwent its transformation or why it took its current form, but she knew that if she were to call upon its power, it was hers to use.
“Uh, I’ll just—” The server turned away, but Alexandra’s hand jerked out and grabbed her wrist.
The girl studied Alexandra, then peered down at her wrist, gritted her teeth, and jerked back, breaking her hold with a flick of her wrist. Alexandra blinked. The ease and strength with which the other woman had freed herself was startling. The once-king was not strong in her human form, but the girl was much more powerful than she looked.
A smile creased Alexandra’s face and her heart beat harder. God, that was such a turn on.
“I’ll have the egg-white fiesta omelet, and the house coffee,” the little blond said, a slight quiver to her voice.
The server studied Alexandra, her eyebrows furrowed, and moved away without taking another glance. The once-king watched her move away with a lump in her throat. She hadn’t dated since Leoffa’s death, and while she’d attempted to curry the favor of certain females, those attempts were only noteworthy in how unsuccessful they’d been. Human courting rituals were even stranger on this world than her own.
This woman was special, Alexandra knew it the moment she laid eyes on her. She would win this one over and they would make sweet, passionate love.
She studied her, as she fought to remember the dating advice given to her by Jen and Hailey, but such recollections escaped her. The only thing she could think of was bedding the pretty server.
Alexandra swallowed and watched the other woman move about the café. It seemed obvious that the server was aware of her attentions, and yet she refused to meet the once-king’s gaze. Among her own people, a potential mate would meet such obvious interest with an immediate reply. Either the woman she desired would match gazes and the courting would begin, or she would receive a more violent answer. Either way, things really became heated.
Oh, how she longed for the more simple courting rituals of her homeworld.
Crystalline clinks exploded from the storefront, crashing into the tiny little diner. A shower of glass reined onto Alexandra and a long dark cylinder clanked and skittered across the tiled floor before settling into place with a metallic thud. A dark cloud began oozing out of the tube like a snake slithering out of its burrow.
Though the former Assar warrior was new to this world, she recognized the weapon at once, even if she did not recall a name for it. She had seen it in use in a film of war. She sprang from her seat, hurtling herself at the cylinder, and snatched it from the ground. Without missing a beat, she spun around and tossed it back out through the shattered storefront.
Men in black tactical gear converged on the cafe, and the frontmost of them brought up his rifle to deflect the canister. It clattered back inside and landed at Alexandra’s feet.
She howled and slid her hand up the side of her arm, already invoking the power of Waldere as smoke billowed out from all around her. As a familiar bright luminescence surrounded her. She threw her head back and a booming feline growl erupted from her lips.
The dark-haired server pounced, rushing to intersect them and pushed Alexandra back several steps even as Waldere’s magic rushed through the once-king. Alexandra peered through the illumination as the girl sped forward, slamming into the foremost of the attackers with her shoulder, and he went careening to the ground.
The attackers stumbled back as the illumination around the once-king grew more intense. The girl seemed unaffected, and Alexandra gazed in delight and fascination as she knocked them around as if they were children. Clearly, there was a reason Alexandra had been drawn to her.
The last burst of illumination spun out in a circle dispelling into the air, and Kruhl son of Wurdan stood in Alexandra’s place, Waldere, now returned to its true form, clutched in his hand. His head barely cleared the ceiling, but he paid it no mind. More men spilled into the little café and he joined the fray.
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
A halo of light surrounded Kruhl, swirling out in all directions before settling on his massive frame. It shone so brightly that it forced even Ashley to look away. When the luminescence faded, the once-king, again wearing her human skin, was crouched over Leoffa’s corpse.
She held her former lover’s dismembered head against her forehead. Tears pattered down her cheeks and her entire body shook.
Amy turned, regarding Ashley with a frown, but the dark-haired turned most of her attention to the crystal still clenched in her companion’s armored hand. “Keep that thing hidden until I can figure out what we should do with it.”
Ashley nodded, and a series of mechanical whirs sounded from the suit. Plates retracted from her chest, abdomen, legs and arms, revealing the young woman within. She crawled out, and the armor, moving of its own accord, slipped the crystal inside the opening and closed back up.
Amy regarded Ashley for a moment, arched an eyebrow and moved toward Alexandra. The little woman set Leoffa’s head down, and rested one hand on the corpse’s shoulders, straightening the arms and positioning the body, which lay sprawled out on its side, so that its back was resting on the ground. The legs she pulled straight out and the arms she folded over the chest. She returned Leoffa’s head, positioning it over her shoulders and closed the eyes with her open palm, a sob escaping her lips.
“Go dígo mbealfymid le shéila arues. Bea’altene Dohan d’ynem a thraurú go sábhylt chaeig an soel aile.” Though Van den Broeke didn’t understand the words, she guessed from the reverence with which the other woman spoke, it was some sort of invocation for the dead.
Amy put a palm on Alexandra’s shoulder and the Assar warrior looked back at the agent through tear-soaked eyes. She buried her head in Amelia’s shoulder and her entire body wracked with sobs.
“You did the right thing,” Amy said, tears burning her eyes. “She would have never come around.”
The pair held one another for several moments and would have for longer had it not been for a flurry of movement nearby. Fredericks, Harris and the AEGIS task force, minus Grimes and a nameless agent, whose absence Amy only noted by counting heads.
It seemed the sorceress’s barrier had fallen with her death.
Amy put her hands on Alexandra’s shoulders, met the once-king’s gaze and nodded toward the newcomers. The former Assar seemed to understand. She nodded and pulled away, allowing the other to slip free.
Amy rose and turned to meet Fredericks, who approached, gun held ready. “Van den Broeke?”
“We have resolved the situation here,” she muttered with a long breath of air and glanced back over her shoulder. “Grimes?”
“He’s getting medical care now. He’ll live,” Fredericks replied peering around the clearing and settled his gaze on Leoffa’s staff.
Amy bent down to retrieve it and turned it around in her hands, regarding the gemstone which had turned black once again. “Fredericks, we need to focus on damage control. This town’s police force was decimated. I have reason to believe that the police forces, several local elected officials and who knows how many towns people may still be compromised.”
Van den Broeke flattened her lips, mind racing as she considered the possibility that someone within AEGIS had also had their minds twisted. Her gut sank at the prospect, but she knew she couldn’t just let her suspicions sit. Unfortunately, that meant that there were very few people within the agency she would be able to trust.
Fredericks nodded. “I’ll get a containment crew brought in.”
“You good to oversee things?” She asked Fredericks while peering back at Alexandra.
“Yeah, of course,” he replied, eyebrows shooting up.
“I… have some personal business to attend to.” She returned her gaze to him, jaw set as if expecting him to challenge her, but he just nodded again.
“You’ve had a rough time of it. I’m sure you’re tired.”
Amy did not respond, but gave him a brief smile and turned away. She gazed at Alexandra, realizing with a start that Waldere was missing.
With quick, yet furtive steps she moved back, crouching down beside the once-king and studied her features. The other woman did not take notice of her, and Amy did nothing to draw her attention. Then Amelia noted a glint of steel on the warrior’s arm and sucked breath in through her teeth.
An arm ring in the shape of a sword was coiled around Alexandra’s arm, it bore the same hilt design as Waldere. Amy understood the implications at once, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it. The former king had proven herself, and for the time being she deserved some time to rest and mourn.
“Fredericks, I’m taking Alexandra with me. You can debrief her tomorrow.”
Again Fredericks eyebrows arched, but he only nodded. Amy took a moment to help the once-king to her feet, allowing the tiny blond to lean against her, then guided her back to the car.
They say time mends all wounds, but the agent knew better. The loss Alexandra was experiencing would stick with her for the rest of her life. In time, she would think of it less and less, but there would always be an empty place in her heart.
Amy stepped out of the car and peered down at the cheap burner phone she’d purchased at a local drugstore as a temporary replacement for the one she’d discarded while on the lam to find yet another text from Sapphira.
Amy smiled and slipped the phone back into her pocket without responding. She’d spent hours speaking to her lover over the phone that very morning. As near as the agent could determine, the other woman had come awake at almost the exact moment Leoffa had met her end, dispelling any doubts that the sorceress was behind the other exemplar’s mysterious ailment.
As much as she loved and adored Liv, she couldn’t put off the task ahead of her any longer. She stepped onto the curb and approached the storefront of Phil’s her lips pressed together in a frown. Although she’d never stepped inside, she was familiar enough with the establishment to hesitate before entering.
It wasn’t so much that the place had an unsavory reputation. As bars went, it was the sort of place frequented by middle-aged men just looking for a drink and catch a game or two after work. Nor was it particularly rowdy, but there was one defining feature that gave her pause.
It had been and apparently still was her father’s favorite watering hole. She’d heard all about the ‘boys at Phil’s’ from her own father’s mouth and though it had been years, she doubted the regulars had changed much since then. It was the kind of place that resisted change.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Sure enough, Lucas van den Broeke sat at the counter. He looked more or less like she expected, and the years had not been kind to him. Her father was fifty-six and looked more like he was approaching his seventies. The Van den Broeke patriarch slid his fingers through a shock of gray hair and rested his palm over his bulging belly.
Amy sat down next to him and stared straight forward, her lips trembling as her insides twisted into knots. She pressed her lips together and waved the bartender down. She ordered a Shirley Temple and shifted to regard her father as Phil prepared her drink.
Lucas glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, and at last, her elder blinked. He sipped his beer, which judging from the way the foam had settled had been sitting for some time and set it down with a careless clatter.
The bartender turned to give him a warning glance, and Amy cocked her head and returned her father’s gaze with as neutral of an expression as she could muster.
Lucas cracked a smile and slipped a hand on her knee. Amy nearly lurched out of her seat, but forced herself to remain in place. The taste of bile rose in her throat and she resisted the urge to swing at him.
“Honey, are you lost?” Lucas laughed, and cast a glance over his shoulder at the barkeep who was watching the encounter between pursed lips. “Maybe, I can help you find your way. Of course, there might be a detour along the way, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate the company.”
“No,” Amy said, a surge of anger in her voice, and she slapped his hand away. “I’m not here for that, Dad.”
The elder Van den Broeke jerked back, eyes growing wide as he peered at his eldest child, understanding beginning to dawn on his face.
“Oh, God… Andy?”
“Amelia,” the agent corrected, staring back at him, her face getting redder and her expression contorting into a glower.
“The fuck, you want?” He asked, any evidence of joviality gone from his face.
“Closure,” Amy answered.
Lucas balled a fist and pulled it back. Amy was ready for the attack. She reached out with her mind and with a flick of her wrist forced his hand into the countertop. She put barely any force into it, and at worst his hand might throb for a few moments. He deserved far worse, but she would not lower herself to his level.
“Assaulting a federal office, is a serious offense, Dad. I’d hate to arrest you.”
If her use of telekinesis surprised Lucas, he didn’t show it. He continued to scowl at her, face growing redder by the moment. Amy regarded him, her features calm and collected. She snaked a hand inside her jacket and showed him her badge.
“I just need to say something and then I’ll leave. You made my life hell and I’ve spent the last decade and a half trying to forget you even existed, but I didn’t realize I was still carrying around so much baggage.”
Lucas didn’t speak, but glanced down at his fist and attempted to leverage himself against the bar to gain his freedom. He cursed, regarding her between gritted teeth.
“You’re still a man, you know that? I don’t care how pretty of a package you wrap yourself in, your DNA doesn’t lie.”
Amy smirked, almost laughing at the pronouncement, but held back her mirth. She might have mentioned that the brain structure of a trans woman was identical to that of a cis woman, or a dozen other arguments that sprang to mind, but held her tongue. Lucas van den Broeke was a hardliner and staunch conservative. He would never be swayed, even if he knew she was pregnant.
“I’m through letting your shadow cast a pall over my life. You are nothing to me, nothing.” She regarded the bartender as he approached with her glass and produced a bill out of her breast pocket before turning back to look Lucas in the eyes.
She stood, took a sip from her drink and grimaced. The agent didn’t speak another word, but set the glass back down, turned away and strode out of the bar.
She stopped outside, her heart hammering in her chest, and swallowed… hard. To some that might have seemed like a vain ego stroke, but for the agent it was her way of, at last, letting go of all the pain that had plagued her for so many years.
With a smile, she strode back into the car, slipped her phone back out of her pocket and climbed inside.
Brian van den Broeke turned the crystal in his hands, transfixed. He couldn’t say why, but the bit of Amethyst called to him in a way he didn’t understand. He should do something with it, he sensed, it would let him unleash power…
There was a knock on the bedroom door and he blinked, shaking his head. He frowned at the stone, then slipped it into his pocket and called to whoever it was to come in.
The door creaked open and Amelia stood in the doorway, arms folded across her chest. He sat up, paying no mind to his surroundings, and regarded her thoughtfully.
Before they were separated, they’d both been teenagers, and Amy had been a gangly kid struggling with her gender identity. Now she looked every bit the woman he’d always known she was. He smiled, and ran a hand through his mop of dark hair, and looked his eldest sibling in the eyes.
Amy exuded an air of confidence that he found so at odds with the troubled youth he’d known. He was happy she’d found herself, but he knew it must have been one hell of a journey to get there.
“I guess you’ll be leaving soon,” he offered, a frown creasing his features.
“No, Amy replied, dropping both of her hands.
“In light of everything, my boss is letting me take some time off. I figured I’d spend some of it reconnecting with my family.” Amy stumbled over the last word, but Brian paid it no mind.
“I mean, if you don’t mind me sticking around for a wee—”
Brian lurched to his feet, threw his arms out and embraced his sister. “I’d love that,” he said after they pulled away.
“There is one thing… though,” Amy added. “I want you to consider coming back to California with me.”
Brian furrowed his brows, but his older sibling held her hands up before he could speak. “I just want to make sure there’s no lasting effect from what that woman did to you. AEGIS has state-of-the-art medical facilities, if anyone can find something it will be our doctors.”
Brian nodded and felt a lump form in his throat. Recollections of Leoffa’s intrusion played out in his mind. He remembered very little of it, but what he recalled produced a shiver that tickled its way down his spine. It hadn’t even occurred to him that she may have messed with something while rattling around in his brain. He cupped a hand over the stone in his front pocket, but didn’t say a word.
“Y-yeah,” he nodded, his voice quivering. “That’s… probably a good idea.”
“Great.” Amy cupped his face in her palms. “Now come on, Serena said dinner’s about ready.”
Brian followed his older sister out of the room, down the stairs and into the kitchen where their mother Serena, their younger siblings Erica and David, and that odd little blond woman with the cat’s eyes waited. The second eldest Van den Broeke sibling had his own issues with his mother, but he had to admit it was nice being a family again.
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Brilliant bright light enveloped the once-king, as power rippled out from the sword in all directions. Though her opponent shielded her face and looked away, Alexandra’s eyes pierced the brightness with no trouble. She was aware of it, but it neither obscured her vision nor caused her any discomfort.
She tilted her head up, and let loose a loud, ear-splitting roar, the like of which she would never have managed with a human throat.
“How is this possible?!” Leoffa demanded through the luminescence, her voice echoing as if in a cave.
Alexandra had only ever used Waldere as an instrument of war. It was a powerful weapon that could deflect or even negate almost any magical attack, and was also more than a match for even the finest of swords. Yet, she’d long suspected she’d never managed to unlock its full potential. As the power of the sword coursed through her body, she knew she’d been right.
At last the light faded, and she glanced down at herself, the hairs along her spine stand on end. She no longer bore the form of a tiny human woman, but the one which she had worn until coming to this world, that of Kruhl son of Wurdan, King of Eirdon, and Master of Waldere.
Again, he was whole. He stood fully seven feet tall, sword of magic clutched within his hands. Here was the king of old, the warrior who had united the scattered Assar tribes, and defeated the armies of the Sorcerer Odalrik. Here was the warrior with the strength to wield a weapon of such awesome power as Waldere.
He snarled and threw himself forward, moving at a speed that belied his massive stature. He was almost on top of his opponent when she vanished with a burst of violet flames.
“Leoffa,” Kruhl said his voice low and rumbling. “Enough with these games. Cease these coward’s tactics. I know you are a warrior at heart. Face me as any warrior would.”
Leoffa answered with a shriek of rage, appearing behind him with a second fiery eruption and an accompanying blast of power directed at his back.
Kruhl jerked away, but the beam scorched his side and he growled, rounding on the sorceress, sword arching down. Leoffa rolled away and swept her staff out, slamming it into the back of the Assar warrior’s leg. Flames lanced out from the tip and he howled, again slicing his weapon down, but his former lover was already back on her feet.
She tossed the staff aside and slipped her hands inside her cloak, producing a short sword from within. The once-king snarled, already bringing his blade around to meet her, but she ducked out of the way and slipped around to his side, slashing at his exposed midriff.
Kruhl howled, clutching at the injury, and barred his teeth, letting loose an ear-piercing growl.
Kruhl was fast for his size, but Leoffa was faster. He might have had the advantage in sheer physical power and size, but it would do him little good if he couldn’t land a blow. Having trained with and fought beside him for many years, she was familiar with his technique. It gave her an edge that few would have over the once-king.
As Leoffa swirled away, the Assar warrior backhanded her, sending her reeling to the clearing floor.
Of course, Kruhl also had an edge. Not only was he familiar with her fighting style, he’d had more opportunity to practice. While Leoffa had been honing her skills with her magic, Kruhl had been training with the sword. He was an even more capable adversary than he had been when they’d last known one another, and that was saying something.
Kruhl rushed forward, blade sweeping toward the ground where his opponent lay, but again Leoffa was too fast. She twisted aside and the once-king’s blade sliced into the dirt.
Leoffa circled around him, blade slicing at his flanks, but the warrior king pulled the blade free in a shower of dirt and spun around to confront her, both of their blades clashing. Kruhl pressed forward, forcing her back and pinning her with his boot. He kicked her weapon from her grip and leaned in close.
“I’ve always loved you, Leoffa. My feelings have never changed. We can still be together,” Kruhl said, a slight quiver to his voice. He thought of their night together when he’d thought her Amelia’s sister and his heart raced. “It doesn’t have to end like this.”
The sorceress’s hand went for her neck and the amethyst crystal which the Assar warrior had all but forgotten about. A wave shot out, and Kruhl stepped back to avoid it. Although the shot landed home, nothing happened and the once-king realized his mistake at once. It had been another illusion.
Leoffa stood up, one arm stretched out. Her staff zoomed across the clearing and soared into her open palm. Power crackled from the stone and smashed into Kruhl before he had a chance to raise his sword.
The Assar warrior doubled over, Waldere dropping from his numb hands, his whole body convulsing in pain.
“You betrayed me and left me for dead! You really think I would forget that?” Leoffa shrieked between barred teeth. She stepped closer, and the glow intensified. Kruhl collapsed, unable to do anything but flail about on the ground. He wanted so desperately to tell her that he’d never meant to attack her, but even were he able to speak, he knew anything he said would fall on deaf ears.
“Now,” she said darkly, a second darker bolt of energy sizzling out and shot toward the Crystal of Ban-Sher’i. “It’s time for you to die.”
Just when all seemed lost, a dark form jerked forward, slammed into the sorceress and knocked the staff out of her palms. Amy locked her hands around the other’s wrists, planted her knees into her rib cage and glowered down at her while holding her in place with her telekinesis.
Amy clenched her jaw, glanced at the other woman who was crouched about a dozen feet away, and followed her gaze. The staff was still ablaze, sending dual beams out at Kruhl and the crystal.
Leoffa took advantage of the distraction and kneed Amy. The agent rolled over, clutching at her side and groaning in pain. The magic-wielder stumbled to her feet and started for her focus, but Amelia threw a hand out, catching her by the ankle. Her adversary toppled over, fists swinging.
“Ashley!” Amelia called between blows. “Do something!”
The second the words left her lips, Ashley’s armored form surged past, rocketing not toward the staff, but toward the crystal and the violet bonfire which contained it.
Leoffa’s attacks grew more frantic. Instead of fists, she mauled the agent with her clawed hands, tearing through skin and actually drawing blood with several swipes. She struck the agent across the face with her elbow. Amelia’s hand went limp, and the magic-wielder lurched back up, dashing toward her staff.
When she was less than four maybe five steps away, a loud cwrack sounded and she froze. She spun around on the balls of her feet to face Agent Van den Broeke, who’d drawn her gun.
The agent opened fire again, and her opponent dove for the staff, her hand outstretched. When her fingers touched the polished wood, a crackle of energy burst out and the beam which had encompassed the crystal, flickered and died.
She let out a shriek and twisted around, eyes scanning the clearing. Ashley hovered above the amethyst inferno, the Crystal of Ban-Sher’i clutched in a gauntleted hand. The fiery eyes of her grotesque faceplate seemed to burn with malevolent glee.
Leoffa lashed out, sending an amethyst beam of power surging toward the armored hero, but Ashley dove forward and the attack zoomed past, dispersing into the open sky.
A roar sounded from the opposite direction and again the sorceress swirled around, realizing too late, that by attacking Ashley she’d released the once-king from her spell. Kruhl sprang to his feet and charged. She brought up her shield, but Waldere sliced right through it. Violet fire spilled out from her staff, but the sword absorbed it.
There was a glint of steel and Leoffa’s fallen sword was back in her hands. She struck out, barely managing to deflect Kruhl’s attack. She dove forward, sweeping out with her blade, but the once-king deflected it with ease and parried with an attack of his own.
Leoffa dove down, and Kruhl’s blade sliced through the air mere inches from the top of her head. Leoffa growled and rolled away as the warrior’s weapon came slashing down. Though she was an adept fighter, she could not win in a direct sword fight, Kruhl was too strong and his reach too long.
The sorceress howled and sprung back up. She dropped her sword, and instead, snatched her staff up and threw it above her head. Fire lanced out in every direction around her, burning the ground in a wide swath which consumed the dry brush all around him. Kruhl slowed eying the flames, his lips curled back from his muzzle as he emitted a low warning growl.
Seizing the opportunity, Leoffa struck out, an amethyst burst cascading around a tree. She jerked her arm up and there came a rumbling sound from the earth and a series of loud cracks as the gnarled old tree, whose trunk was twice as wide around as Kruhl’s chest, rose from the ground. With a snarl and a vicious cackle, she flung her magical focus out, and the tree hurtled toward her enemy.
Leoffa had just exposed one of Waldere’s most glaring flaws. The tree was already moving, and the sword could no sooner halt its forward momentum than it could perform a song and dance routine. The tree slammed into Kruhl and sent him hurtling away and into a copse of trees.
“Now,” the magic-wielder said, spinning around to face Ashley, Leoffa’s staff pulsating and crackling with power. “I’ll take that crystal back.”
Ashley met the other woman’s gaze, tightened her grip around her prize and raised her arm canon. The sorceress gritted her teeth, and hurled a bolt of power at the armored form, but her target spun away and the blast struck an old fir tree, splintering it into oblivion.
Leoffa brought her staff forward to attack again, but her arm stopped short. It was as if some invisible force had grabbed on to her. She turned her head and watched as Amelia van den Broeke stepped into sight. The agent threw her hands out, and the sorceress’s stomach lurched as the ground fell away and she soared into the air.
Amy spun, raised her hands, fixed her gaze on the tree which had pinned Kruhl in place and with a simple flick of her wrists sent it zooming away. Kruhl slumped over, a groan escaping his muzzle.
Sizzling power crackled and hit the agent, sending her slamming into the ground. Leoffa hobbled forward, using the staff to prop herself up. A blast of energy swirled out from the gemstone, but Kruhl pulled himself up and raised Waldere, which was still clutched in his hands, and moved forward, gaining speed with each step.
Blasts of amethyst fire followed in his wake, but his blade absorbed the only ones that came close to striking. When he drew close, the sorceress raised her staff to block a blow that would have hit her chest and sent fire rippling out in a semicircle.
Waldere blocked most of it, but even the weapon’s magic could not contain all the fire. Flames dances all around them, and Kruhl howled in pain and fury as they licked his sides.
Kruhl pulled his arm back, and his weapon swept out, slicing through her neck. She threw out more fire, but though the attack burned the fallen king, it was too late.
The Assar warrior watched her head fall from her shoulders, and her body crumple to the ground. Then, he fell to his knees, huddled over her fallen form, threw his head back and roared, tears streaming down his muzzled face. Light flared from the sword and enc0mpassed his towering from, but he paid it no heed.
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Alexandra tilted the sword straight up, hilt pointing skyward, and hunkered down, brandishing her weapon as if it were a shield. Raw power flew out from Leoffa’s fingertips and struck with a brilliant eruption of light. The former warrior king gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, summoning Waldere’s power.
Power crackled along the length of the sword as her attack struck. Waldere burning a brilliant bright white and the once-king released a breath she wasn’t even aware she’d been holding. The weapon had responded to her will.
Leoffa howled, lurching forward, and lunged at the sword, grappling each hand around either side of the crossguard.
“How are you still alive?” She demanded between gritted teeth, forcing the weapon into Alexandra’s chest. The former warrior king pushed back. Her tiny arms burned from the effort, and inch by inch she lost space to the other woman. Before long, the sorceress had forced her to the ground.
“At the very least you should be flat down in a hospital bed,” the sorceress growled, her voice coming out in a shrieking howl so guttural it hardly sounded human.
Alexandra didn’t answer, instead she squirmed, attempting to worm her way out from beneath her former lover, but Leoffa planted her knee atop her chest and leaned in close.
“It’s just as well. The crystal requires a blood sacrifice to unleash it’s power. I had planned to kill my dear sister,” a vicious snarl stretched across her face as she craned her neck around to glance at Amy, who was still struggling to return to her feet. The sorceress’s staff glowed and a ripple of power streaked out, slammed into the agent and sent her tumbling into the air again. “But what better payment than the blood of a warrior king fallen from grace?”
The once-king’s blood ran cold. That was why the sorceress had allowed them in. Alexandra licked her lips and glanced at the crystal. Before she could speak Leoffa sucker punched her in the mouth and left her seeing stars.
“Don’t worry, you’ll live just long enough to see exactly what the crystal does, but by then it will be too late.”
A low rumbling growl sounded from the tree line and the sorceress’s head snapped around to face the newcomer, lips curling back to display her teeth.
“Ashley,” Alexandra mouthed the name, eyes widening. The young woman’s armor looked as if it had been through a long campaign across the fiercest most war-torn of regions. It was dung up and dented in more places than she could count, and it seemed a small miracle that the slender blond was even able to move.
How the armor had undergone such radical damage in so short of a time the once-king couldn’t say, but her heart leapt into her throat at the mere site of her. Ashley held one gauntleted arm up. A long cylinder had extended from her wrist.
“You move and I fuck you up, bitch.” The armored girl pronounced her augmented voice, all gravel and rage.
Leoffa froze, her face an empty mask as she regarded the newcomer for several long moments. No one spoke, and still she did not move. Then Amy rose. A soft groan escaped the agent’s mouth and the sorceress acted. She raised her staff, and a bright amethyst flash resonated from within the gem of her staff before she vanished.
“Dammit,” Amy cursed. Though she was on her feet, she was hunched over and one hand rested on the small of her back as a snap and a pop sounded from her spine. She stood bolt upright, eyes wide, and called out.
“Ashley, the crystal!”
Ashley’s armored frame lurched forward, but before she’d made it halfway, a shrouded form appeared to interdict her. Leoffa’s staff swung out in an arc, and a wave of violet power rose through the air, sending her opponent hurtling away.
“Is that all you got?” Leoffa asked, planting the staff in the ground, power crackling across the soil in a broad swath.
“We’re just getting warmed up,” Amy responded, stepping forward, knotted fists glowing with power.
A clank of steel followed her pronouncement, and Amy watched Ashley step forward out of the corner of her eyes as a slow smile crept onto her face.
Alexandra came next, sword held up with both arms, and planted the weapon blade-first into the soil, holding it upright before her. No one who beheld her would ever mistake her for imposing, but none would miss the glint of determination gleaming in her eyes. For the first time, Amelia caught a glimmer of the old Kruhl and felt a shiver work its way down her spine, realizing how fearsome he must have been on the battlefield.
Leoffa cast her arms out, staff rising into the air of its own accord. Fire lanced out from it in a broad sweeping arc and molten power blew out from her arms, burning through the air toward the trio. Amy brought her shield up, arms barred across her chest. When the attack struck, the barrier flashed with a burst of bright energy and the blasts bounced back straight toward the sorceress.
Leoffa threw her left hand out, only just bringing a barrier up in time to absorb the blasts. Amy dropped her own shield and rushed forward, hands alight and crackling with power.
Ashley seized the opportunity. Leaping up and rocketing across the clearing, she zoomed through the open sky toward the crystal. The armored hero extended an arm, hands mere inches from the stone, but Leoffa was too fast. The sorceress let out a shrieking growl and whipped a hand out.
A tendril of violet energy whipped out and curled around the other woman’s greave-encased ankle. The sorceress pulled her arm back and sent her opponent soaring in the opposite direction. Leoffa’s eyes did not linger, instead she returned her attention to the agent and once-king.
Amelia was pressing the attack, glowing fists pounding on the magic wielder’s shield. Alexandra remained frozen in place, Waldere now alight with swirling pink and blue tendrils which shifted and churned around the weapon at dizzying speeds, but never quite touched the blade. The tiny woman’s eyes had turned milky white and she stared off into the distance as if looking upon something no one else could see.
Leoffa clenched her teeth, grabbed her staff from the air, and sent a sizzling bolt of energy hurtling into Agent Van den Broeke. The dark haired woman careened away and slammed into a tree less than a dozen feet away. The sorceress slammed her focus into the ground, splitting it and sending sparks of electricity sizzling out in every direction.
A blast of power shot out from her staff toward Alexandra, but before it struck, the once-king threw her head back and a rumbling, ferocious lion’s growl escaped her lips. Pure iridescent light encased her, then swept out across the clearing in all directions.
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
Amelia crept forward, her bare feet sinking into the cold soil. She wriggled her toes and grimaced as several small clumps of dirt fell between her toes, but didn’t speak a word. One hand resting on her gun holster, she glanced back at Alexandra crouched just behind her.
Rather than take the trail, as Leoffa would expect, the once-king and the agent agreed that moving through the wilderness might at least give them a small measure of the element of surprise. To keep quiet, the pair had discarded their shoes and the tiny woman had shown Van den Broeke how to move through the brush heel to toe and to select her footing. Amelia’s mastery of the technique was far from perfect, but her companion had noted that it would suffice. Alexandra moved through the woods without even so much as a crinkle of a single leaf.
Amy swallowed, staring into the empty clearing before them. She could make out no movement save for the flicker of flame and billowing of smoke. A fire blazed in the center of the clearing, but one the like of which the agent had never seen. It burned with a brilliant violet iridescent intensity. A rod, ten feet tall, crowned with a gleaming crystalline gemstone was perched within its center.
Agent and former warrior-king met one another’s wide-eyed gazes, neither speaking but both certain they’d found that for which they were looking.
The crystal? Amy mouthed the words and arched an eyebrow.
The shorter woman pressed her lips into a thin line, regarded Amelia and shrugged. Amy stared into the other woman’s eyes for several protracted moments before shaking her head and inching forward. As she moved closer to the clearing, she put a hand up to shield her eyes against the glow of the strange fire.
She was less than four feet from the tree line when she spotted movement. A form, enshrouded in a dark robe, blond tresses billowing out from her hood, stood before the amethyst blaze, staff held before her, its gleaming gem shining with violet light, a mirror to that of the fire. Waldere dangled from her back, held there by an improvised scabbard of cloth and rope.
It seemed Leoffa had reverted to her prior form, the one which her shadow had worn during its assault of Brian’s mind.
Amy swallowed, peering back. Her eyes searching for Alexandra, but she caught no sight of the other woman. The agent cursed under her breath and scanned the immediate area. A slender figure, moved toward the unaware form of the sorceress.
Biting back a warning cry, Amelia tensed, squared her jaw and waited for the inevitable. Her eyes never left the once-king as the other woman inched forward. Mere seconds spanned an eternity, and the agent licked her lips, sweat beading down her forehead in rivulets.
Something was wrong… Amelia’s instincts were screaming at her she needed to take action. She opened her mouth to warn the smaller woman, but she was too slow. Alexandra threw out a hand, snatching at the sword, but her fingers passed into it as if moving through thin air and the sorceress’s dark form vanished.
“Shit,” Amelia cursed, lurching forward after the once-king, but it was too late.
Alexandra’s slender form rose, hovering in the open for several long seconds, before shooting across the clearing and slamming into an ancient oak with a flat thump.
The true Leoffa appeared stepping out from a cluster of trees, gem-topped staff glowing a vibrant amethyst, a perfect match for the violet blaze burning less than a dozen feet away. Her eyes were ablaze with the promise of violence as she rushed toward the agent.
A rush of energy shot out from the length of wood, but the agent was already moving. She threw out both of her hands, and luminescent power cascaded from her open palms. The two blasts met exploding out with a flurry of sparks so brilliant it forced both opponents to clench their eyes shut and avert their gazes.
A soft crunch of leaves and foliage sounded from nearby and Amelia lurched aside before her vision had even cleared. She coughed, a wave of heat washing over her, and she breathed in a shower of dirt.
The agent threw her arms out, swinging blindly, and grunted, sucking in air threw her teeth when her elbow connected with soft flesh. There was a yelp of pain and Amy spun toward its source, a shimmering wall of energy forming in front of her in time to deflect a third burst of energy that cascaded toward her in a bright shower of sparks.
Blinking dirt from her eyes, Amy pulled back one hand and reciprocated, waves of telekinetic force rippling through the clearing before her. Though her vision was still blurry, the agent glimpsed the sorceress soaring away. She did not let up. Tree branches snapped, and foliage tumbled away, scattering in every direction.
Leoffa dove forward, staff rearing back, and slammed it into the ground, using it to anchor herself against the agent’s attack. A soft amethyst glow swept across her body, and she stood upright, a smile creeping across her face as she regarded her opponent. Force rippled out from her in the form of a great violet bubble that swept everything aside in its wake. This new onslaught forced aside dirt, grass, rocks and even uprooted trees.
Amy braced herself, power rippling at her fingertips, but when the rippling torrent struck, it impacted her shield and sent her hurtling away. Her barrier scattered, dissolving into nothing and the agent twirled in the air before hitting chest-first with a dull thud. Amelia gasped between gritted teeth, fighting to bring air into her burning lungs and throbbing chest.
“Such power!” The sorceress’s voice rang out, and Amelia gritted her teeth and rolled onto her side.
Leoffa hurtled toward her, stopped just a few feet away, and slammed the end of her staff into the agent’s chest. Amelia’s form flew back through the air, violent throbbing pain rippling through her body. She rolled to the ground, branches jabbing into her sides with a series of sharp stabs and loud thwacks.
“Too bad, you have no idea how to use it.” Leoffa’s voice seethed with hatred as she raised her staff to strike again, but before she could attack there came a schwing of metal.
The sorceress spun around to face a slight figure. Alexandra, blood dripping down her scalp, had drawn Waldere from its sheath and was backing slowly away, eyes never once leaving her former lover. She had little in the way of upper body strength and she dipped the weapon down, dragging it as she inched away.
Leoffa’s lips twisted into a snarl and a pair of clawed hands came up, electrical energy sizzling out from her palms toward the once-king. Amy could do nothing to help her.
Cherry Springs Nature Trail
“Dammit, I didn’t mean now,” Amelia cursed, rushing after Alexandra as she moved through the opening.
Fredericks and Grimes came in on her heels and Harrison wasn’t far behind. Just before Van den Broeke made it through, the hole shimmered and retracted. Fredericks leapt through, barely clearing the much smaller opening.
Grimes wasn’t so lucky, the barrier closed around his leg, severing it just below the kneecap. The agent screamed, shrieking so loud that Amelia winced and grated her teeth. Blood splattered the ground on both sides and oozed down the wall which crackled and sizzled wherever the agent’s vital fluid touched.
He collapsed to the ground with a dull thud, moaning and clutching at his severed limb. Fredericks collapsed to his knees, hands grappling with his belt buckle.
“What are you doing?” Alexandra demanded, finger sliding under the nosepiece of her shades.
“I’m making a tourniquet. He’s going to bleed out and die if we don’t cut off the blood flow,” Fredericks answered between gritted teeth, sliding his belt from the loops with a single sweeping flourish of his arm.
Alexandra watched him work for several long minutes, her face an expressionless mask before she turned to Amy, a frown creasing her lips. “This is what Leoffa wanted, to isolate us and cut us off.”
“Why?” Amy asked, eyes never once leaving Fredericks and Grimes.
The tiny woman shook her head and frowned. “I don’t know, but if she’s confident enough to allow us in, it’s likely she doesn’t see us as a threat, or… she needs something from us.”
“I do not like the sound of that.” The agent winced and retrieved her gun from within her shoulder holster. She pulled the clip out, inspected it and slipped it back in place before peering back at the once-king.
To some carrying the weapon might seem pointless given the scope of her new abilities, but to the agent who was not yet confident with them, the familiarity of the weapon offered reassurance that she had yet to gain. At the very least, it could provide her with a backup should her powers fail her. She hadn’t toted it around all this time for nothing.
Fredericks glanced up at Amelia, Grime’s blood had stained his dress shirt and splattered his face, but with his suit coat acting as a bandage and his belt as a tourniquet the other agent stood a much better chance at surviving. “I can’t leave him like this. He’ll be an easy target to anyone who might come along.”
“Dammit,” Amelia cursed, slicking a hand through her mop of dark hair. “She wanted this and we walked right into her trap.”
“What’s our move?” Fredericks asked, craning his neck up to peer at her.
Amelia planted her hands on her hips and peered out through the barrier where the remaining AEGIS personnel and Ashley in her god-awful suit of armor had congregated.
“Ashley,” she spoke, but the suited figure remained motionless, peering into the glowing barrier.
“ASHLEY!” she repeated, cupping both hands around her mouth.
Ashley bit her lip and stepped forward, rapping her gauntleted fist against the sizzling wall. Nothing happened.
Amy clenched her jaw, threw her hands out, and extended her senses.
Before her the barrier was a shimmering luminescent wall of pulsating and thrumming power, but beyond it she sensed nothing. Brilliant explosions of energy exploded from her open palms, bursting with a brilliant flash of light each time one stuck the barrier, but her attacks only splashed against the surface.
Ashley opened fire from the other side, blasting the dome with a tiny canon that rose from the wrist of her gauntlet. A bright scarlet burst of light hit it, but that too proved futile. Several agents even pulled their weapons out and opened fire, but their bullets came ricocheting back toward them, forcing them to dive to the ground..
Amy ground her teeth and fell to her knees at Fredericks side, glancing down at Grimes huddled on the ground taking short jagged breaths.
“I could heal him,” Amy said, pressing her lips together in a thin line. “I doubt his leg would grow back, but at least the wound could heal over.”
“Didn’t you say the last time you tried something like that, you passed out?” Fredericks said.
“No!” Grimes cried, grabbing Amelia by the arm. “You get that bitch.”
Amy nodded and rose to her feet, balling both fists at her side. It looked like it was going to be up to her. She looked around for the once-king and found her a short distance away, staring at the barrier with wide-eyes. “You know any way of getting through that thing?”
Alexandra threw her head back and forth. “Perhaps, with Waldere I could do it, but…” she trailed off biting her lips.
“Then we find Leoffa, and we make that little bitch take it down.” Amelia regarded her, fire smoldering in her eyes.
Alexandra nodded. “It won’t be easy.”
“I wasn’t expecting it to be,” Amelia said, peering down the nature trail which sprawled through the trees behind them. “It doesn’t look like we have much choice though, does it?”
A low growl rumbled from Ashley’s throat and through the voice modulator in her helmet it came out sounding like the shriek of something straight out of every child’s nightmares. She clenched her fists and pounded them against the barrier, but other than a tingle which ran through the armor and across her arms, nothing happened.
“Fuck,” she cursed and spun away from the dome, staring back out toward the assembled AEGIS personnel. One man took a step back upon making eye contact with her, but she ignored him. As ineffective as her armor was against the shield, she doubted the others would be a lot of help.
She sighed, bowed her head and mumbled Nabu’s name. “Any ideas?”
“Indigo Knight once found success penetrating a force field by charging the exterior of his suit’s armor plating to match the energy signature of the shield. I can’t say whether it will work with a so-called magical barrier, but it might be worth a try.”
“What about bringing some of our friend’s through,” she asked, waving vaguely at the AEGIS strike team.
“That wouldn’t be advisable, unless you want to fry their flesh to a crisp,” the AI answered, his voice dull and dispassionate, but somehow was filled with sarcasm.
“All right,” Ashley replied, turned back to the shield and eyed it, both hands on either hip. “I don’t see that we have anything to lose. Let’s give it a shot.”
“Oh yes, very good,” Nabu replied. “Now you should feel a slight tingle…”
Ashley sucked air in, as stinging hot pin-pricks cascaded up and down her body. She gritted her teeth against the pain and shivered. The young woman reached a hand out and touched the shield, grunting as the sensation began rattling around inside her head. When she pushed, the barrier wouldn’t give. Forcing out short breaths, she tried to pull her hand back, but nothing happened.
“Fuck,” she repeated her earlier curse. “This is just great.”
An Empty Lot
Tondzaosha, Idaho Idaho
“Amelia?” Fredericks licked his lips, regarding the newcomer with narrowed eyes.
“Nathaniel.” Amelia lifted an open palm, fingers spread out in a warding gesture. “It’s been a while.”
Fredericks regarded the superior agent, training his weapon on her head as he spoke.
“The Amelia van den Broeke I knew couldn’t fly,” he said, pausing to take in her appearance and let loose a long breath of air. “Nor was she quite so… attractive.”
“Strange things sometimes happen in the field, you know that Fredericks. Put that thing away, that’s an order,” she countered, meeting his gaze with a scowl. She glanced at the other two agents, but didn’t speak another word.
“Oh, for hell sa—” Ashley moved to put herself between them, but Amelia waved her off.
“I’m going to need some kind of verification.” Frederick’s eyes never left Amelia.
“You’re a single father of three, you were married for almost ten years when your wife passed away from breast cancer. You’re an avid birdwatcher, you collect stamps and your favorite television show is Wormhole Xtreme.”
“All information that can be found online. I need something a little more concrete.” Fredericks lowered his weapon, but didn’t holster it and snaked his fingers up to adjust his tie.
Amy arched an eyebrow and folded her arms across her chest, a mischievous glint lighting her eyes. “You once told me in confidence that you suspected that someone had broken a stick off in Deputy Assistant Director Steenburg’s a—”
Fredericks cleared his throat, held a hand out and slipped his weapon back into its holster. “All right, all right I believe you.”
“God, Amelia, look at you. Can you blame me for being suspicious? How the hell did it happen?”
“That would be need to know, Fredericks.” She regarded him, an apologetic frown creasing her lips. “Let’s just say I crossed paths with someone who’s not exactly from our neck of the woods.”
Fredericks eyebrows shot up, but he only nodded and glanced back over his shoulder and jerked his head at each of his companions. “This is Harrison and Grimes.”
“Harrison, Grimes, this is Special Agent in Charge Amelia van den Broeke, we served together in New Hebron.”
Amelia nodded, regarding both men before returning her attention to Fredericks. “Three agents? We have a foothold situation and AEGIS only sends three agents?”
“There are more, the strike team is securing the local police station.” Fredericks replied.
“Right.” Amelia nodded. “In that case we should get moving.”
“Why, what’s going on?” Fredericks asked, stepping toward the agent.
“There’s an energy field surrounding a pocket of trees near the Cherry Springs Nature Trail, and it’s expanding.”
“Energy field? What kind of energy field?” Ashley asked, lurching back into sight.
“No idea, but whatever it is, it can’t be good. Whatever Leoffa’s up to, I think it’s clear we need to put a stop to it.”
“Well.” Fredericks eyes flicked between the duo of agents at his side. “When do we get under way?”
Alexandra snatched her hand up, again adjusting the strange dark spectacles which Agent van den Broeke had instructed her to wear. She crinkled her nose and slipped a finger under the bridge, joining the two lenses together, rubbing the flesh on the crest of her nose and gritted her teeth. Curse be to whatever madman had created such a strange contrivance!
She growled and dropped her hands, sensing that the two men, seated on either of her sides, had tensed. She peered up and found herself gazingf into a set of eyes. Her cheeks burned hot, but the former king only met the stranger’s gaze and clenched her jaw in challenge.
“Van den Broeke.” Fredericks furrowed his brows and glared at her between pursed lips before turning back to eye Amelia seated in the passenger seat beside him. “Are you sure about this girl?”
“Fredericks,” Amelia said, glancing at Alexandra before meeting the man’s gaze. “I don’t think you understand just how dire this situation is, we need her.”
Fredericks eyed her, lips pressed together in a thin line before again peering back at Alexandra. “If you say so.”
The once-king curled her lips and emitted a low rumbling growl, but did not speak. Amy twisted her neck around and issued a warning glance. The tiny woman sank her teeth into her lower lip, drawing blood, and silenced herself. She did not like the way the tall man looked at her, eyes cool and disinterested, as if he were looking right through her.
The car came to a stop and the pair of agents beside her exited the vehicle. Alexandra set her jaw, peered through the open door and released a long sigh. Her hands went to the seat belt, another irritating contrivance, and released it by pushing down on the orange indent. Another time or place, she might have marveled at the ingenuity of the device, all the while grumbling at having her movement constricted, but she paid it almost no mind.
As she climbed out of the car three more vehicles came screeching to a halt a short distance away. She only paid them a cursory glance, even as men and women, resplendent in full AEGIS tactical gear came pouring out from within each of the vans. Instead, she kept her eyes peeled on the pulsating dome of amethyst energy which sizzled and cackled in the open air before her. Only when Ashley arrived, slamming into the ground and producing a slight tremor did she pause, but even then it only held her attention for the barest of seconds.
She swallowed hard, and craned her neck back, peering up at the wall of power which stretched into the sky for thousands of feet. It circled a section of wilderness twice again as wide.
If she had any doubts that Leoffa possessed the crystal, they evaporated as she gazed upon the monolithic shield. No sorcerer or sorceress could conjure such a thing without joining forces with other magic users… or by making use of a powerful relic.
“Well shit,” Fredericks voice wafted in from somewhere behind her, but she did not turn to meet his gaze.
There came a scuffle of movement just off to her side, and Alexandra watched Amelia approach out of the corner of her eye. The Special Agent in Charge didn’t speak, she merely peered up at the dome, both hands planted on her hips, lips creased in a thoughtful frown.
“Now,” she spoke after several long moments of silence. “How the hell do we get inside?”
“We don’t,” the once-king answered, sinking down to her knees, hot tears burning the corners of her eyes as they streaked down her cheeks.
“No, it wouldn’t be that—” Amelia stopped mid-sentence.
A portion of the barrier flickered and flashed, and Alexandra brought a hand up to shield her eyes. A segment of energy about six feet wide by eight feet tall, crackled and retracted into the surrounding portion of the energy field.
“Oh hell,” Amelia cursed. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Heart hammering in her ears, Alexandra rose to her feet. She glanced at Van den Broeke before striding toward the new opening.
“Wait!” Fredericks called after her. “You’re not going in there, are you?”
The little woman peered over her shoulder at him and shook her head. “What other choice do we have?”
“Van den Broeke?” Fredericks asked.
“It’s gotta be a trap, but Alex is right, we don’t have any other choice.”
Alexandra peered back at Amelia, frowned, and stepped into the opening.
An Empty Lot
Tondzaosha, Idaho Idaho
Amelia clenched her jaw, released a long breath through her teeth and forced her eyelids back open. She hovered amongst the clouds, dangling so far up in the open air that if she were to fall, she would die on impact. God, it was unsettling. How did Sapphira do it?
She peered around, taking in Tondzaosha arrayed below her in miniature. Tiny vehicles roved the streets and figures, each appearing no taller than a centimeter, moved about the sidewalk.
Amelia sank her teeth into her lower lip and felt her whole body tremble. A shiver that had nothing to do with the temperature wriggled down her spine and she pushed herself to continue her search. Instead of looking with her eyes, she clenched them shut and reached out with her mind. Dozens of sights, sounds, and impressions assaulted her senses.
‘God, why couldn’t I have a body like that?’ The thought came to her mind unbidden, and the agent furrowed her brows before realizing that it hadn’t come from her.
It had come from a girl, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, seething with envy and a raw burning hatred, her attention focused on another young woman, the same age, who was receiving a fair amount of attention from a rather rakish young man. Amy shook her head, forcing the girl’s tide of emotions out of her mind and swept her senses out.
A choir of voices rang through her consciousness and she gritted her teeth, forcing herself to wade through them rather than focus on any one of them. Despite her best efforts, she caught snippets of thoughts, here or there. Most were mundane, a file clerk reviewing her workload for the day, a delivery driver scanning his route for a place to stop and eat, and even a young boy struggling to decide which type of candy bar he would purchase at a local grocery store. All those voices swept through her and around her, and she continued her search.
Then one rang out louder than the rest. “Oh god!” It came out as a cry of pain so bright, so intense it was almost palatable. “How am I supposed to tell mom and dad I’m trans?”
Amy stopped, a sob escaping her lips as years of remembered dysphoria came rushing back upon her. An image of a teen’s face reflected in a mirror, hand sliding over stubble as a plaintive sign escaped the kid’s lips.
Hair, oh God, the hair.
Though the child’s face looked calm, the mass of disgust and revulsion mirrored in her eyes and boiling just under the surface told another story.
Amy’s hands cupped her own face as if to reassure herself that she was not looking upon her own reflection. She forced herself to concentrate. She couldn’t afford to get distracted, but she stopped long enough to reach out to the child.
“You’re not alone,” she whispered, watching the kid’s reflected eyes grow wide.
Amy’s lips trembled, and she let out sob before turning away and breaking her connection with the young trans girl. She swallowed hard and pressed her lips together before again extending her mind out. This time, she narrowed her focus and avoided touching any minds. Instead, she brushed passed them, only getting a cursory impression before moving on.
At last she found it, her face stretched out in a frown, released half a dozen of her most choice curses and burst forward, zooming through the air at breakneck speed.
Supervisory Special Agent Nathaniel Fredericks climbed out of the Durant Lucerna, only casting the vehicle a cursory glance before slamming the driver’s side door shut. Two more dull thuds sounded after, but he paid them no mind. Instead, his eyes surveilled his surroundings, scanning the buildings with a dull, dispassionate gaze.
Cheap, synthetic-leather shoes crunched on the gravel of the empty lot as his subordinates approached from either side.
“Fucking nowheresville. What the hell do you think we’re doing here, Grimes?”
Fredericks turned to eye the speaker, Special Agent Frank Harrelson, a young man with a name that evoked images of a hardened veteran on the cusp of retirement, but who was a rookie in every sense of the word. Frederick’s hand snaked up to adjust his tie, but he remained silent, cool gaze regarding the second man, Robert Grimes, a seasoned agent, with a thoughtful expression marking his face.
“Hell if I know Harrison. We’ll get our orders soon enough.” Grimes muttered, eyes darting toward Fredericks with an inquisitive expression.
Fredericks at last opened his mouth to speak, but you uttered even one syllable. A bright scarlet blur slammed into the Earth less than four feet away. He brought one arm up to shield his face and slipped the other inside his suit jacket to retrieve his firearm, but the cloud of dirt that arose burned his eyes. He peered out through the haze of dust, tears slipping down his cheeks.
Gunfire rang out, but it had not been Fredericks who’d opened fire.
“Oh hell,” a gravelly baritone voice said. “Would you cut that out?”
A clank of steel sounded from nearby and a single gunshot rang out, followed by a shriek of pain from Harrison. Nate blinked and swirled around, at last getting a clear picture of their assailant. He took a step as the armored figure’s head swiveled around to match his gaze.
“Easy there.” The figure let out a low growl, its eye sockets blazing scarlet-red as its gaze tilted down to peer at the gun in his hands. “I’m not your enemy. I’m your contact, dude.”
Fredericks raised an eyebrow, sinking his teeth into his lower lip. Dude?
“Ashley Harris?” He asked, lowering his gun. He knew of her armor, but hadn’t expected something that looked like it had crawled its way out of the deepest infernos of hell.
A series of mechanical whirs and snap hisses sounded from the suit as the face plate, chest and groin areas all retracted. A girl, shorter than the towering form of the suit which she wore, emerged climbing out from within the contraption and landed with a soft grunt and a crunch of gravel. Though the Agent had read her file, the photo hadn’t done her justice. When Fredericks laid eyes on her, he sucked his breath in and swallowed hard. She pursed a set of pouty lips and ran a hand through her shock of blond hair.
He cleared his throat, reminding himself he was a married man, and regarded the girl with what he hoped was a close approximation of cool disinterest.
“Sorry, if I startled you.” She sucked air in threw a thumb over her shoulder. “Still getting used to that thing.”
“Nabu,” she craned her head over her should. “Why don’t you—”
She never finished her sentence, instead her eyes fixed on a black and gray streak that came tearing down from the sky above. It impacted the ground, about ten feet away. Fredericks and his companions had their weapons out and trained on the spot, but when the dust cleared, Amelia stood eyes wild, and jaw set in a scowl. The agents exchanged glances, but didn’t lower their weapons.
“We have a problem.” Amy stood, both fists at her side, panting for breath.
Tondzaosha Police Station
Kruhl glanced down at herself and swallowed. For the first time since her transformation, she wore clothes that fit, but she wouldn’t say she liked them. They displayed her body in ways that made her cheeks feel as if they were aflame.
She tugged at the thick fabric which hugged her breasts and sank her teeth into her lower lip. The short sleeveless tunic, Serena had called a vest, was a soft shade of pink, and made of a material that might have been some kind of leather.
Six metal-lined holes, called grommets, adorned the front, and a string made of the same fabric as the tunic was woven through them. It ended about two-thirds of the way down the front of the garment, leaving a fair bit of her abdomen exposed. The bottom of the vest ended just above her navel.
Her black belt, thicker but of the same material as the vest, sported an over-sized metal buckle, fastened through a double set of metal eyelets. Though the former warrior king could not fathom why, the grommets ringed the entire length of the belt.
The tight-fitting ‘jeans’ were almost as bad as the vest. Overall, Kruhl did not find them too cumbersome for day to day use, but they would limit her range of motion in combat. Gaping tears exposed the flesh around both of her knees and portions of her upper legs. She had supposed the garment was damaged when Serena had first handed it over to her, but much to her consternation, the Van den Broeke matriarch revealed that it was, in fact, intended to be that way.
She wore black boots which came up to her mid-calf. They sported several buckles with no discernible purpose. She scowled and peered down her shirt, though her chest was now enshrouded in what she now knew was called a brassiere, the undergarment was visible even from her vantage point and she could see the crack between her breasts protruding beneath the vest.
She felt ridiculous, but as she peered down at her form, she realized that there was a certain visual appeal to her ensemble. She swallowed and turned away, shaking her head and growling under her breath. You are Kruhl, Son of Wurdan, she reminded herself, you will not succumb to the allure of this flesh. You are not some simpering doe-eyed human girl, you are a warrior of great renown.
Though she moved towards the door with quick steps, both fists clenched at her side, she experienced an unexpected pang of regret just before slipping out of the room.
Agent van den Broeke found her in the hallway just a moment later. The taller woman flattened her lips and folded her arms over her breasts. “We need to talk.”
Kruhl nodded, regarding Amy with gleaming cat’s eyes. “Yes, we do.”
Amelia held her hand out, directing the shorter woman toward the room she’d just vacated. Kruhl released a weary sigh and spun around on the balls of her feet, before popping the door back open and stepping inside. The agent followed her in and closed it behind her.
Kruhl studied the eldest Van den Broeke sibling for several long moments, before slipping atop a bed. When she was seated, she turned her eyes on Amelia once more. The agent did not take a seat, instead she kept her arms tucked over her chest and regarded the once-king between narrowed eyes.
“Listen Kruhl, I don’t know exactly how to say this, but while I realize you have a bigger stake than any of us in this, I think maybe it would be best if you sat this one out.”
Kruhl blinked, but did not speak. Instead, she rocked her head back and forth, a scowl creasing her delicate features. When at last she spoke, it was in a quiet, halting tone. “That would seem the wisest course of action.”
Her stomach lurched and the tiny woman cupped her face with both hands, tears streaking her face. She was pathetic, a sad shell of her former self. She was weak and entirely useless on the battlefield. Her father would weep to see his son in such a state. Still, despite everything, she had assumed she would fight alongside the agent when they at last faced off against Leoffa. It seemed… wrong.
She glanced up at the agent, eyes burning with fire even as tears soaked her cheeks. “No! I must be there, I must see this through to the end. I would never be able to live with myself, if I did not.”
“Look, I understand, but—”
“But Nothing!” Kruhl howled, leaping to her feet. “You do not understand! With Leoffa at her full might, she may very well be as powerful as Odalrik and even were she not, she has both the power of the crystal and Waldere at her disposal. With them she is far more dangerous.”
Amy regarded the other woman, hands on her hips in a severe, almost chastising posture. “I don’t really understand what you think you can—”
“There is still a chance that I can win back the loyalty of the sword.” Kruhl locked gazes with her. “It has the power to dispel most forms of magic, it may mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
“Okay,” Amelia said, leaning back against the wall. “There’s nothing to stop anyone else from trying, is there?”
“No,” Kruhl admitted. “But the sword knows me, I may still hold some sway over it. It gives me a better chance than most.”
“You speak about that thing as if it were a conscious, reasoning being,” Amy said, her voice taking on a musing, almost sing-song quality.
“It does not think.” Kruhl shook her head. “Not in any way I have ever been able to determine. It’s magic resonates with those who wield it. It’s capable of distinguishing the traits for which its creator’s sought for those who would come to wield it, nothing more.”
“You realize what you’re asking me, right? If you fail, you will become a liability. We can’t afford for Leoffa to take advantage of that.”
“I know,” Kruhl spoke, her words intersected by a sob. “But you cannot ask me to sit idly by. Leoffa, is a monster, at least, partially of my making, I cannot allow her to wreak havoc upon this world without at least trying to stop her.”
Amy nodded and released a long sigh. “Okay, good enough. Be ready, the team from Salt Lake will be here soon.”
The agent turned to leave and Kruhl threw a hand out, rushing after her. “Wait!”
Amy spun back around and pressed her lips together, but Kruhl spoke before she could say anything.
“I asked you a few days ago, if you would give me a new name. Have you pondered upon it?”
Amy sighed and licked her lips. “With everything that has happened, I haven’t really given it a lot of thought, but one stuck out. Alexandra, it’s the feminine form of Alexander, one of our history’s greatest conquerors.”
“Alexandra,” the tiny blond repeated the moniker. “It sounds like the name of a warrior. Thank you, it will suffice.”
Amy placed a hand on either of the second woman’s slender shoulders. “If we come out of this alive, we’ll see about assigning you a transition specialist. I won’t lie to you, adapting to life here, will not be a walk in the park, but AEGIS has some experience helping people adapt to transformed bodies. We’ll help you in whatever way we can.”
Alexandra quivered, craning her neck down to peer at one of the agent’s hands, before peering back up to meet the agent’s gaze. “Is it not your people’s custom to have multiple names?”
Amy nodded. “There’s an entire process involved in creating a new identity. There are a whole slew of records that AEGIS will have to fabricate across a number of government agencies. Not to mention all the paperwork involved. It’s a complicated process. Let’s just focus on what’s ahead of us and we’ll figure everything out later.”
“Very well,” Alexandra nodded and bit her lip.
The once-king believed her when she claimed it was complicated, if for no other reason than she’d understood almost nothing of what she said. The agent smiled, released the other woman’s shoulders and shuffled toward the door. “I know it’s been difficult, but I understand what it’s like living life in the wrong body, I’m always happy to talk if you want a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.”
She exited the room and Alexandra cocked her head and wondered, how could a shoulder be sympathetic?
“God, just look at you, Andy!” Brian stared at his elder sibling, eyes wide with apparent shock, his cheeks still glistening with tears and a slight quiver in his voice. “You’re so…. feminine.”
Amy batted a stray bit of hair away from her face, regarded her brother between pursed lips. “Please don’t call me that, it’s Amelia now.”
“Right,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, I always figured you must have transitioned, but I mean seeing you like this is another thing entirely.”
Amelia bit her lip and forced a smile on her face. “Just stick with the right name and pronouns and we’ll be fine.”
“Of course.” Brian nodded, and pulled away, eyes taking in his surroundings for the first time, eyes somehow growing wider when he took in Serena still standing nearby. “Wh-where are we?”
“Somewhere safe,” Amy answered, rising to her feet.
Serena rushed forward, enfolding her eldest son in her arms. Brian stiffened, but soon returned the gesture. When mother and son broke away, Brian slipped from the side of the bed. He wobbled on his feet, but braced himself on the nightstand to the right of the bedside.
Serena wrapped her hands around his shoulder to provide support. “Your muscles may have atrophied, maybe you should lay back down.”
Brian clenched his jaw and shook his head. His eyelids slid closed and he took a deep breath. It was almost as if someone flicked a switch. His back straightened and he stood, frame rigid. When his eyes opened again, he released the air from his lungs and stepped forward. He moved with no sign of frailty or the least bit of trouble.
“What? You don’t think Amelia’s the only exemplar in the family, do you?” He asked, gazing about the room, taking in the shocked expressions of his sibling and mother. His eyes briefly scanned over the sleeping form of Kruhl, but he only pressed his lips together and sighed.
Amelia furrowed her brows and folded her arms over her chest. “Ashley, the person who found you, said she tracked you down through the AEGIS database. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s Psionic Strength?”
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “That’s what the representative from AEGIS figured too.”
“Psionic strength?” Serena arched an eyebrow. “That’s not an ability I’ve ever heard of.”
“You’ve heard of telekinesis, right?” Amelia asked. “That’s more or less what it is, Brian’s just using it to strengthen himself.”
“Except, that seems to be all I can do,” he pursed his lips and frowned. “I mean I tried the other stuff, but it just doesn’t come.”
“What about you? Last time I checked your retrocognizance doesn’t let you enter people’s minds.” His gaze fixed on the agent, a frown creasing his mouth.
“I was exposed to something,” she said, meeting her brother’s gaze. “It happens sometimes to AEGIS personnel.”
“So you’ve got freaky mind powers now and you work for AEGIS?” He asked eyebrows disappearing into his bangs.
“Yes, to both, but it’s not just mind reading. I’m faster, stronger, I can levitate things, and before Ashley found me I’d just gotten done healing a gaping stab wound in our friend’s abdomen.” She nodded toward Kruhl without actually looking at her.
“Holy shit,” Brian blinked. “Sounds like you—”
Brian jumped, craning his neck around to glance across the room. Amelia followed his gaze and locked gazes with Kruhl. The once-king was sitting up and had slipped her feet over the bedside. Her sleepy gaze took in her surroundings with a dull, dispassionate stare. She glanced down at her abdomen, then back up at the agent and pressed her lips together in a tight frown.
“How?” She asked, peering back down at her uninjured belly, fingers tracing over the fabric of her oversized nightgown.
“It’s a long story,“ Amy glanced around and shook her head. “I think it’s time we all sat down and had a long chat.”
“Well,” Ashley said, slipping into the living room with a lengthy sigh. “I have contacted AEGIS, they’re mobilizing a unit out of Salt Lake and they should be here within five hours.”
Amy nodded, but didn’t say a word. Instead, she clasped both hands and closed her eyes. Salt Lake was a good two and half hour drive from Tondzaosha, five hours was more than reasonable considering the preparations they would need to make. In fact, it was much sooner than she’d expected.
“Thank God,” Amy said and leaned back into the sofa before glancing back at her younger sibling. Brian, though he pretended otherwise, was still very weak, he’d scarfed down the turkey sandwich and tater bites their mother had prepared for them and kept sneaking cursory glances at Amy’s half-finished sandwich.
Both Amelia and Serena attempted to usher him back to bed, but he’d outright refused. With his abilities, there wasn’t much they could do to keep him in bed without calling upon her own considerable powers.
Amelia sighed and grabbed the plate and set it down on the coffee table between them. “Here, have at it.”
Brian barely blinked before snatching up the sandwich and crammed half of it into his mouth.
“I would have made you another sandwich, Brian.” Serena swooped in to retrieve the now empty plate.
Brian shrugged, a sheepish grin spreading across his features. “Eh, why waste good food?”
Serena rolled her eyes and slipped out of the room, only to return a moment later standing in the doorway.
“Ugh, so,” Brian asked. “AEGIS, huh? I guess they pay pretty good money.”
Amy smiled and nodded. “I do all right for myself. It helps to be the youngest Special Agent in Charge in AEGIS history.”
He met her gaze, but didn’t answer. His mouth parted as if to speak, but he soon clenched his mouth shut again.
Amy pursed her lips, but didn’t press him. She knew her brother was having a hard time knowing what to say. Hell, she was pretty much in the same boat. After they’d had their little powwow about Leoffa things had gotten a fair bit more awkward.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last.
“For what?” He blinked.
“Leoffa went after you because of me, if I hadn’t—”
“Hey, no, no, no,” he rose to his feet, nearly tipping over before he lurched forward and slipped onto the couch beside her. “People do nasty shit all the time, what Leoffa did to me is on her and only her. Don’t go blaming yourself.”
Amy ground her teeth. “I should have been there, Brian. I always assumed it was better if I put my past behind me, but if I’d kept in contact, she wouldn’t have been able to pull one over on me or at the very least I would have gotten to you sooner.”
“It’s possible,” he agreed. “But you had no way of knowing what would happen.”
“Don’t you think you’re being hard on yourself, Amy?” Ashley asked, seating herself on the opposite her friend. “What that woman did to your brother was terrible, but you can’t blame yourself.
“We need to figure out our next move. She gave you twenty-four hours to get out of town. She must have something big planned.”
Amy glanced at her brother, brows furrowed in concentration. She worried for him. She wasn’t sure they had expelled the shadow of Leoffa from his mind, and he had no recollection of ever being captured by the sorceress. Even his memories of what she did to him, while within his mind, were fuzzy.
“I have a theory,” the agent said after several long moments of reflection. “I think Odalrik wanted me for a reason. It’s possible she was after my retrocognizance. I had the sense that she was looking for something and if Leoffa has it…”
“Okay, say you’re right. What would she have been looking for that would be so important?” Ashley asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I could think of one thing,” Kruhl said from the corner, her yellow cat’s eyes gleaming in the darkness. “It would explain almost everything.”
“Before Reesha banished Odalrik, he was rumored to possess a gemstone imbued with incredible power, called the Crystal of Ban-Sher’i. I ordered his keep searched after we defeated him, but none of my people could ever find it. If he had it on his person when he came to this world, it’s possible Leoffa stole it from him. Only a magic-wielder with a powerful foci like a staff could make use of it. If Leoffa possessed it, and she had no staff with which to wield it…”
“Perhaps she could not use it,” Amelia nodded, a few more puzzle pieces clicking into place. The staff Leoffa had wielded within Brian’s mind had been no more real than the sorceress herself. The only time Amelia had seen her with an actual staff was after she had defeated Odalrik. It was very possible she had not possessed one until then.
“Is there any reason you didn’t mention this until now?”
Kruhl shrugged. “I never believed it existed.”
“And if it exists?” Serena asked from the doorway. “How dangerous is it?”
Kruhl’s lips curled into a sneer. “All I know is that Odalrik was said to fear its power.”
“Oh, hell, I do not like the sound of that at all,” Ashley said with a drawn-out groan. “So Leoffa may or may not have this magical crystal, and nobody knows what the goddamned thing can do. How does this help us?” Ashley eyed the siblings and then Kruhl.
Amelia leaned back in her seat, hands running through her long locks. “It doesn’t… at least not yet.”