Lucian felt like he was floating. His mother was gone, though he felt nothing in regards to that. Something told him that wasn’t right, but it was outside of his ability to care. Jack just said they weren’t family in any way and that felt like getting hit in the gut with a hammer. It left a weight in his stomach he couldn’t move. All these strange people were treating Jack with either disgust or deep respect. Jack was even acting strangely. Lucian had always felt like an outsider, but now he was alone.

“All the pieces are in place, Mary,” Allie said. She was small but seemed to carry the most authority among the strangers. “Since we are in over our heads with this mage, we need backup.”

“Can we call Jacob? If we could get a champion on site, it would be nice.” Don asked. “If this mage killed someone and Jack here couldn’t stop it from happening I want the biggest gun we can get.”

“Jacob is in Nova Scotia right now, mediating a conflict between three Dires,” Mary replied. “It’ll take a day for him to get there and it’ll likely start a territorial war.”

“Shit,” Don said, throwing up her hands.

“Calm down, Dear. I have the next best thing. Malcolm’s team should be in Portland by now. I dispatched them while we were talking. I’ll follow up with them when we are finished.”

“There wasn’t anyone closer?”

“Screw closer,” Allie said excitedly. “Malcolm means Monica Warwood! Who better to have in this situation? She’s one of the most powerful Celestial Mages in the world.”

“This Malcolm,” Jack cut in. “Is it Malcolm Freedman by chance?”

“It is,” Mary said.

“Ah, a brilliant mind. I’m surprised he still draws breath.”

“It’s why he was called. The brilliance, not the still being alive thing. They were in Mexico, but the Commander insisted. One moment,” Mary said.

“This is perfect. We just need to sit tight and let Malcolm’s purifier squad handle the situation when they show up.” Allie said, dropping heavily onto a nearby couch.

“Allie?” Mary’s voice returned.

“Yes?”

“Commander Nix would like to speak with everyone.”

Allie stood bolt upright. Don seemed to stiffen as well. Lucian didn’t know who this commander was, but he was serious business. Even Jack’s posture changed as little.

“Agent Piper. Agent Kyle,” A deep, imposing voice came from the phone now. It carried an authority that Lucian only heard before in his mother’s voice when she was upset with camp workers. “Have you positively ID’d the mage involved?”

Allie and Don both looked panicked. “No Sir,” Allie said.

There was a momentary silence from the phone.

“Sir, we have reason to-“

“You were not chosen for this task to make educated guesses,” The voice came back. “Evandrus.”

“I go by Jack now, Joshua,” Jack said, his tone polite, but hard.

“I have little concern for the false persona you choose to carry. Do you know who this mage is?”

“One of his pets looked like a local businessman by the name of Dell Wagner. I suspect from its behavior that he was its master. Either that or the man has been a homunculus for ages now. We can not know for sure.”

“You have stirred my agents into action with no concrete knowledge then? Is mere speculation all you have?” Commander Nix’s voice seemed flat and emotionless, yet even Lucian found himself shrinking under the weight of his words.

“I do not work for you, Joshua,” Jack said, an edge forming in his tone.

“Based on the success shown by my agents, you might as well. Agent Piper, Agent Kyle?”

“Sir,” Allie and Don said in unison.

“You will confirm this information and locate this Warlock before Malcolm arrives.”

“Sir,” Allie interjected. “We should wait for the purifiers. We have the boy already. The Mage would have to come to us, and we can prepare to hold him off if we dig in.”

“How long does it take to make a homunculus, Agent Piper?”

“Three to four hours, Sir, dependant on skill.”

“One hour, Agent. Master mages can build a core in one hour. The rest is for generation of the vessel. This Mage is above and beyond anything we have ever recorded. How long do you think it will take for him to create more of these abnormalities?”

“I don’t know, Sir, maybe-” Allie stammered.

“Maybe? Agent Piper, you are not a mayber, or a speculator, or a possibilitier. You are an investigator. You will know. I am not sending you the most powerful celestial mage in the Americas on a guess. Guesses get people killed. Do you have any idea how devastating it would be for Monica Warwood to die because you were too scared to do your job correctly? Or shall I give a full purge order and we can all hope for the best?”

“I understand, Sir. I will finish the job.”

“See that you do so. And do so before Malcolm arrives. He has been ordered to take no chances should you fail in this. It is in the best interest of all involved that he has a hard target when his unit arrives. I will be there myself by morning to oversee the results of this. Do not fail us. That is all.”

Lucian knew a threat when he heard it. Everything else might be confusing, but that was not. Something terrible would happen in the next few hours. It was mostly a matter of who it happened too.

Allie slid the phone back into her pocket. The call was clearly over. Allie pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes, a low growl escaping her.

“Allie, we didn’t-” Don started as she reached for the smaller woman.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Allie snapped. “Does anyone know where that piece of shit lives?”

“The east side of town,” Amber said. “He has a large lot that attracts a lot of strays, so I’ve been there a few times. I can show you the way.”

“No. We can’t go there as a big group. Just Don and I will go. The rest of you need to protect Lucian.”

“You can’t walk in there with him knowing someone might come tonight,” Jack shook his head. “It’s suicide. Ignore that man’s orders, and I will go myself. I owe him for his attack on my family. I would personally repay the insult.”

“You said that boy wasn’t your family,” Amber said.

“He is not related to me by the unique bonds of my tribe, but he is family in a more important way than that.”

Lucian looked up at Jack. His jaw was tight and his posture defensive. At that moment, Lucian felt much less alone than he had before.

Allie shook her head. “I can’t. If Don or I am still alive and don’t give the information to Malcolm ourselves…” She trailed off. She began to pace. “No. I’m not going to be responsible for a purge of this caliber because I’m scared or lazy. Don and I will handle it.”

“And should you die? What then? I can not interfere with one of your purification squads and these Mothers will most certainly be culled along with the rest of this town!” Jack all but shouted. “You are an Esper. You believe yourself capable of fighting his servants when just one almost killed your partner?”

“This is our job!” Allie shouted back.

“Stop!” Don said, wrapping Allie up in a tight hug. “We’ll figure this out, but as a team.”

“Why don’t I watch the boy?” Amber said.

Everyone turned to the tall, golden hair woman.

“I am almost a hundred and thirty years old. I have killed mages of all stripes in my life. Between my daughter and I, we can hold off the mage if something happens. If this boy is truly a shadow, then wherever we stash him, the mage can not find him,” Amber looked at Jack, her beautiful features resolute. “You all go. No one will harm that child or any others if I can prevent it.”

Jack looked shocked. “You would help me?” He said, incredulously.

“I would help them,” Amber pointed at Allie and Don. “and I would not doom a child for the actions of others, regardless of his potential. You can die in a hole.”

Jack bowed his head. “Thank you, Mother Amber.”

“I need to change. We will take him to the animal control center. It is an easier place to defend in case of an attack. Come, Goldie,” Amber said as she left the room, Goldie trailing behind her.

Fifteen minutes later, Lucian found himself in the middle seat of a beat-up pickup truck, squished between Amber and Goldie. Amber had put on a strange leather jumpsuit that was straight out of a comic book. It was all black, with noticeable padding on the chest, back, legs, and arms, but very little on the joints. She also seemed thinner, as if the suit was squeezing down on her. She looked pretty inspiring, even if Lucian didn’t like her much at the moment.

Goldie, whom Lucian had heard of, but never before met, very much lacked the calm confidence that Amber was warming the air with. Goldie was fidgeting nervously and had claimed one of Lucian’s hands. She was playing with his fingernails when it hit him how soft her hands were.

“Goldie,” Amber said firmly.

“Sorry,” Goldie said, quickly pushing Lucian’s hand back into his lap and shifted a little in her seat. Lucian’s interest in her hands faded a little.

“Why are we going to the animal control center? Why aren’t we going to the police?” Lucian asked.

“Because I can defend it better than I can defend my home and the police would be a liability,” Amber replied.

When Jack and Lucian were on their way to Amber’s, Jack had told Lucian the basics. He’d said that it wasn’t superhero stuff Lucille had been doing, but magic. Everything Lucian was seeing was supernatural stuff that wasn’t known to the general public. It was confusing, but Jack promised to explain in more detail when Lucian was safe and he could focus better. Amber seemed to know a lot, so Lucian hoped she’d tell him more.

“The police have guns and stuff, right? Do they know about this supernatural stuff?” Lucian asked.

“They do not,” Amber said with a slow shake of her head. “Not in this town, anyway. They would not believe us, and we would get them killed if they did.”

“Oh,” Lucian said sullenly. He’d hoped if the police could help, he wouldn’t have to be watched by someone who said such ugly things to his uncle. He considered that for a moment. Jack wasn’t related to Lucian but still loved him like family. He was going to risk his life to stop the man that had killed Lucille and in doing so protect the town from the hit squad that phone call summoned. Jack was a good man, and Lucian felt dirty not saying something to the woman who’d told him he could die in a hole.

“What is it, Child?” Amber said.

“What is what?” Lucian asked, confused by the question.

“You are staring, and you look to have something to say.”

Lucian hadn’t realized either of those things, but since she asked, he would answer. “You called my uncle filth. You said he could die in a hole. What’s he ever done to you for you to be so mean?”

“He exists,” Amber replied.

“He can’t help that, no one can choose to exist,” Lucian said.

Amber barked a mirthless laugh. “He did. His father did. His siblings and their horrid offspring did. His whole tribe chooses to be what they are.”

“You keep saying ‘his tribe.'”

“The vampire tribe. They were born from my tribe, the empusa, but were so abhorrent that the world itself turned on us. We have never been forgiven because thousands of years ago, one of us made a son that turned into a monster.”

Even with everything that had happened, the idea that Jack was a vampire was staggering. He’d never seen Jack drink blood, and he was out in the sun all the time. How was he a vampire? He’d have to ask Jack later. The fact that the vampires were born from whatever an empusa is wasn’t what the stories said. “Is that why he called you mothers?”

“The least they can do is acknowledge us and bow their heads for how they burden us.”

“That’s still not his fault though,” Lucian insisted. “You don’t think it’s fair you get punished for something you didn’t do. Why are you blaming him for something he didn’t do?”

“You do not know enough to understand,” Amber said, her tone irritable. “When he was made, there were eight of his kind. Just eight. There were no hunters yet. In time, the actions of those eight led to the birth of the hunters and our linked eternal punishments. So his existence led to a world where my daughter will never be safe. Now hush.”

They pulled into a small parking lot in front of a squat brick building. They exited the truck and hurried Lucian inside. After locking the door behind them, Amber hustled them through the lobby and into a room of cages and pens in the back. Most were empty, but there were a handful of cats and only a single dog. The cats regarded the group with passing interest until it was clear they weren’t visiting them. The dog pen where they stopped had a small, wizened, black and gray dog whose beard and eyebrows made him look like a kung fu master.

“Hi, Old Dog!” Goldie said as she opened the pen door.

Old Dog danced excitedly on his back legs. Despite his name, he seemed pretty spry. Goldie picked the little dog up and offered him to Lucian.

“He just looks old. He isn’t really,” Goldie said. “You can keep him in the safe room with you.”

“You will go as well,” Amber said.

“I thought you wanted my help.”

“You are too young and weak for whatever this mage is. You can watch from the monitors. If it shows up, stay hidden no matter what happens, understood?”

“What about you?”

“Thanks to Don, I have just enough energy for a shed. Do not be afraid.”

Goldie nodded and closed the door to the pen with just her and Lucian inside. Amber turned and left, urgency quickening her stride.

Goldie turned and fiddled with some unseen thing on the back wall. After a moment there was a soft click, and a hatch opened on the rear wall. It was no more than two feet high, so they both crawled through, followed by Old Dog.

The hatch led to a downward angled tunnel about a meter in length and let out into a small concrete room. The safe room had a single metal folding chair and a table with nine small monitors and a control panel. The monitors were a live feed of the rooms upstairs from different angles and one of the outside. Lucian could see Amber sitting on the counter in the lobby. She slid to the floor, shut off the light and left the room. She walked through the hallway and entered another room, but never turn on the lights. The lobby and one other place, which Lucian assumed Amber had gone into were pitch black. The hallway, however, was brightly lit.

“If she is gonna hide, why not hide in here?” Lucian asked.

“She’s lying in wait,” Goldie said, matter-of-factly. “Succubi can see in the dark perfectly. Human’s can’t though, so she has the advantage.”

“What’s gonna happen if this guy shows up?”

“Mom holds him off, and I call Don and Allie. Then they can come here, and everyone can, like, beat his ass. Unless Mom takes him out first.”

“You think she can win?”

“Yeah. Mom said that she isn’t scared of his pet monsters since she can eat them. She’s super resistant to most magic and physical stuff, like punches and guns. She can mess with the mages head with her glamour and then eat his spirit.” Goldie said proudly.

“I hope she gets him,” Lucian said. This guy killed Rowan and needed to pay for what he did.

“He’s gotta show up, but I honestly hope he doesn’t.”

“Why? If she can beat him, then everything will be okay.”

“Because it hurts my mom’s heart to have to kill, and if this mage shows up somebody’s gonna have to die.”

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