SPOILER ALERT ahead,
for those who haven’t read
A Queen To Come or A World To Lose
It had been in the early hours, long before sunrise, that Axel Reed started his shift of monitoring the Asters during their mission in North America. By the light of a single lamp on the corner desk in the Board Room, Axel had taken Sylvia’s place and had settled into the desk chair.
The Asters had been in North America for a couple of days, but Axel hadn’t received any updates yet. That wasn’t unusual. They had their orders, and they were to follow them by any means necessary. They didn’t need to check in every few hours with whoever was on watch. Jackson Kelly had trained them well. Axel Reed trusted their judgment and knew they would call for help if they needed it.
Axel kept an eye on the screen hanging above the desk. The screen showed five separate portrait images of each of the Asters. The monitors were fed signals from the transmission chips that all the Asters wore in their upper right arm, that sent back information on their whereabouts and their physical health. As long as their images were all shining brightly, Axel knew all five of them were fine.
Hours went by without any of the images changing. Axel turned on both computers in front of him. On the right-hand screen he opened up a live map of Brazil, specifically, the area where Diallo, the Ceder of Strength, and his investigation team were. One blue dot represented Diallo. There were no black dots anywhere in his area, meaning that he and his team were at no risk from a Disciple attack.
On the left-hand screen he opened up the physical health images of the four remaining Ceders. Rose, Katherine and all the Affinites from the Bone Recovery mission had returned to Saluverus already. Only Diallo’s team was still in Brazil. Madeleine would shimmer them back in two days’ time.
And then everything from South America would be closed off. Axel thought it was time. The Queen’s Search teams hadn’t definitively found out how far Gayle had run before she was killed, but the risks of staying in the Amazon longer to find out highly outweighed the benefits at this point. With ten Affinites ambushed and killed, and Percy Kelly still in a critical condition, the investigation into Gayle’s death had been a complete disaster. Not to mention that the search for Cara and Tomas’ bones had turned out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase, set up by the new South American King, probably for his own amusement.
That no Affinite of the Bone Recovery team had gone missing or had been killed, was probably only due to the fact that there were two Ceders present. The same went for why Eva Kelly’s search team was attacked and not Diallo’s.
Even so, Axel wanted to keep an eye on Diallo’s surroundings just in case. He wanted no more casualties in South America. They needed to draw a line under this chapter, and look to the future.
Through the window, Axel saw the sun starting to rise over Saluverus. He glanced at the clock and realised Nicholas Nelson would soon come in for his shift.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Axel called.
The door opened and Sylvia Allen, the island’s Consul, stepped inside. She was carrying a large book under her arm. Her eyes immediately went to the screen above the corner desk. Axel would have done the same; first check if the Asters were still all right, then focus on the reason for coming.
“What is it?” Axel asked, expecting Nicholas, not Sylvia.
Sylvia tore her eyes away from the screen and looked at the Ambassador. “The speech therapist has arrived for Percy Kelly,” she said, speaking lightly, and taking no offense at Axel’s hard tone.
“And he is the best?” Axel asked.
Sylvia inclined her head. “He is exactly who Olga Masalis wanted. If anyone knows how to get Percy to speak normally and tell us what happened in the Amazon, it’s him.”
Axel thought of the gibberish that Percy Kelly spoke the last time the Ambassador visited him. The ex-soldier hadn’t formed a single, comprehensible sentence since his return from the Amazon Rainforest. Even though Axel was calling back all the investigative teams, he still wanted to know what had happened there, so the Asters might be more prepared if they were ever to face the South American King and his Disciples again.
“He’d better manage to,” Axel said. He glanced at the computer screens on the desk. “I’ve still got one team in the Amazon with no idea of what they could possibly face.”
“They have Diallo with them. No Disciples would be stupid enough to launch an attack with him there. Not even the more dangerous and rogue ones,” Sylvia said.
“If he says anything about what happened out there, you tell me immediately,” Axel ground out, ignoring Sylvia’s attempt to reassure him.
It was as good as a dismissal. Axel wasn’t in the right headspace to ask any further questions about the genius therapist, who was supposed to help Percy Kelly regain his speech. They already had Olga Masalis on the case. If she felt the need to get help from a speech therapist, Axel wasn’t going to question it. He needed Percy up and talking as soon as possible.
Though Axel thought their conversation had ended, Sylvia remained where she stood. Axel looked up at her. “What is it?” he asked her, not kindly.
Sylvia glanced at the book under her arm, which Axel now realised was not a book, but a large photo album. “You tasked us with finding out how the South American King discovered Gayle’s location,” she said.
Axel raised his eyebrows. “You found something?”
“Nothing concrete; it’s just a hunch, but…” Sylvia walked over to where Axel was sitting, placed the album on the desk and flicked through the pages until she found the one she was looking for. “Do you remember her?”
Sylvia tapped her finger on a large picture showing three women. Axel recognised the middle woman immediately. “Aline Sosa,” he said. “She was the Affinite who took care of Gayle when her parents weren’t around.”
Sylvia nodded. “As an extra layer of protection. Only five people knew the precise location of Gayle’s hometown: you, Nicholas, Madeleine, Percy, and her. If the new King had tortured any of those first four to find out Gayle’s location, we would have known.”
Axel suddenly understood what Sylvia was getting at. “And we don’t know about her, because she died when Gayle was fifteen.”
“She was struck by lightning,” Sylvia added.
Axel looked up at that. Lightning was Astaroth’s power, and would be the new King’s, as well. “Why didn’t we take the necessary actions? Why didn’t they move after this incident?”
“Because it was a freak accident,” Sylvia said. “Or so it seemed at the time. Aline had come back from a four-day holiday. Cara and Tomas weren’t around when she came to spend the afternoon with Gayle. She and Gayle went to a lake to swim when the storm hit. Gayle witnessed the whole thing.”
Axel nodded slowly, the events of three years earlier coming back to him.
“We didn’t think anything of it, because the lightning came from the sky. And if the King had been there in person to strike Aline, Gayle would have seen it. Plus, he would’ve gone after Gayle straight after, which didn’t happen,” Sylvia continued.
“So why is it suspect now?” Axel asked.
“Because in a statement Percy got from Gayle, she said that Aline was anxious that day when she came back, and claimed she had something very important to tell her parents when they returned. And under no circumstances did she want Gayle to go anywhere alone. What if those four days weren’t a holiday? What if what she needed to tell Cara and Tomas was that she had been taken and forced or tricked into revealing her location? It could explain why the King only struck Aline, and didn’t go after Gayle there and then. If he never intended to get Gayle that day, he didn’t need to be present to strike with lightning. He could just control the storm from a distance and manipulate the lightning in a single strike.”
Axel tapped his fingers on the desk as he thought. In reality, what Sylvia was saying was nothing more than speculation. The Small Council didn’t think anything of Aline’s unfortunate death at the time. Even Cara, Tomas and Percy thought it was just an accident and nothing more. Though the way Sylvia talked about it now… it did seem possible. Axel looked down at the picture of the Brazilian Affinite. Was Aline Sosa the reason they’d lost their Queen?
“Did we ever have any doubts about her when we hired her to look after Gayle?” Axel asked.
Sylvia shook her head. “Not a single one. That’s why we hired her.”
Axel closed his eyes and nodded. “See what more you can find out. As likely as this seems now, we need to make sure we’re not spoiling an innocent woman’s memory.”
Sylvia bowed her head, took the album from the desk and left the room.
In the silence of the Board Room, Axel kept his eyes on the five images of the Asters. He tried to focus on them and not think about Aline Sosa and her possible betrayal. Axel tried not to think about how he remembered her post mortem showed only signs of electrocution, and nothing that hinted at abuse or torture.
The Ambassador closed his eyes and sighed. Nicholas Nelson should come in soon for his shift. Axel wasn’t expecting anything to happen to the Asters in the last ten minutes before the Emissary came to relieve him of his watch. But something did happen—and it wasn’t anything good.
Axel’s heart hammered in his chest as he stared at the television screen in the Board Room. One of the Asters’ images was flickering dangerously quickly.
It wasn’t the first time that Lian would suffer terrible injuries during a mission. As the Aster of Analgesia, he didn’t realise half the time how bad his injuries were. On top of that, because of his courage and loyalty, Lian was often the one to take the brunt of an attack to protect his siblings.
During debriefing sessions after missions, Axel had heard this about Lian time and time again. And until now, the Aster had always found a way to survive. That didn’t mean that the flickering image didn’t send a spike of panic through Axel. Especially since there was nothing the Ambassador could do but watch the image and pray. He couldn’t call upon the Ceders. He couldn’t send Madeleine in with a vial of Sophie or Katherine’s blood. Because the Asters were in the Underworld, the Dark energy of the place was interfering with the Affinite technology that had gone into making the Asters’ tracking chips. Axel didn’t know if the vital signs that he was seeing reflected how Lian was right now, or if there was a delay in the signal. He also didn’t know Lian’s exact location, which meant he had no way of telling Madeleine where to shimmer to.
There was nothing he could do. It was up to the Asters themselves now. They were on their own.
For some reason Axel could see the location of Matu and Nathan. Those two were back out on the Angel Trail, while Sophie, Sky and Lian seemed to still be in the Underworld. Why the Asters had split up was a question Axel could only ask when all this was over. He would’ve loved to be able to call them, but at the pace they had been running only moments ago, it didn’t seem like a good idea to distract them now.
Axel would have spent the next minutes with his eyes glued to the television screen if his phone hadn’t started ringing. The Ambassador reached over and was about to decline the call, when he saw who was phoning him.
“David, what’s the news?” Axel said by way of greeting. As the Affinite who had received the Asters and sent them down the Angel Trail, he might know more about the situation unfolding in the Grand Canyon.
“Your Asters managed to get seven of the fifteen missing hikers out. According to your oldest, Matu I believe, he and Nathan got them out while the other three created a diversion in the Underworld itself.”
Well, that explained why the Asters had split up, Axel thought.
‘The King was going to use the hikers for a re-opening of the fighting rings,” David continued.
“The King? Mitrik is there?” Axel asked unbelievably.
“In person—I know. I didn’t believe it either. He’s got nerve, I’ll say that much,” David said.
Never in all the years that Axel had been Ambassador, had one of the seven Higher Kings shown his face on the Surface of the earth so brazenly. Axel wondered what game Mitrik was playing. He had been known to be cocky and rash, so Axel hoped that it wasn’t a cover for tactical genius.
“What about the others? What do you know about Lian?” Axel asked.
“According to Matu, Lian showed up on the trail when Matu was about to be overwhelmed while holding back the Disciples so Nathan could work on their escape. Lian came just in time, and saved them, but got mortally wounded in the process. Matu and Nathan did have some vials of blood with them as they exited the Underworld, but lost them during combat with Disciples. Before Nathan and Matu got the hikers to me, Lian had already gone to find your girl to get healed. If Lian had waited a little while longer, he would’ve found out that I brought down one of their bags, which held the healer’s blood,” David explained. Axel swore to himself as David continued. “Your two boys are finding a way to get back down there to find Lian. My people are bringing the hikers back up to my office. I will take care of them and make sure they don’t remember any of this—I should still have enough of the potions your scientists made. I will call you for more if not.”
“Yes, that’s fine,” Axel said, trying to keep his voice under control. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the television screen hanging above the corner desk. Lian’s image was still flickering, but it was getting darker now. He was running out of time, and Axel had no way of knowing how near to Sophie he was. Lian had been so close to Sophie’s blood… Of course, he had no way of knowing, but it still felt like a blow.
“I have a few of my crew who can join your boys, if you like. I will return and see if I can do something about disrupting that camp down below,” David said.
The Disciple camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon hadn’t gone unnoticed. Mitrik had managed to get a small army together already. The Small Council had no way of knowing how many more Disciples there were just inside the Underworld, ready to spill out. It was impressive, what Mitrik had managed to do, though Axel still didn’t understand the addition of the fighting rings. It didn’t seem like something that would take priority in an attempt to reclaim the Surface. Capturing humans and re-opening the rings would only draw attention. Axel could only assume that Mitrik had done that on purpose. But to what end?
“Sir?” David sounded on the other end of the line.
The Ambassador shook himself, having been lost in thought. “Hm, yes, what?”
“Do you have any objections to me aiding your Asters?”
Axel shook his head, even though David couldn’t see him. “Don’t send anyone in with Nathan and Matu. Their priority is finding Lian, Sophie and Sky. Affinite help will most likely just slow them down. You can do what you can about the camp outside,” Axel said. He’d have whoever Felix Hauser had as Mergers already in the North American Underworld to come and help the Asters, if they could without blowing their cover.
“Aye, Sir. I’ll see what I can do,” David said.
“Good. Thank you, David.” Axel ended the call and looked at the screen again. Nothing had changed. Lian’s image was still flickering terribly fast, but not faster than before. Axel wondered how long it would keep doing that before it would stop flickering and remain dark altogether. Experience told him not much longer…
Axel shook his head and turned his attention back to his phone. He had no control over what was happening to Lian in the North American Underworld right now. But he could possibly get him help. He dialled Felix’s number. If there were any Mergers anywhere near the Grand Canyon, they might be in a position to help the Asters.
There was a knock on the door as Axel was about to make the call. He hesitated with his phone ready and called in whoever was on the other side of the door.
The door to the Board Room opened and Nicholas Nelson stepped inside. Axel had completely forgotten it was time for the Emissary to relieve Axel of his shift. The second Nicholas caught sight of the Ambassador, he could read everything on Axel’s face.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
Axel motioned to the television screen. “Lian’s dying.”
Nicholas studied the screen for a second. The image was getting dangerously dark now. Any minute now the image would be too dark to see and the flickering would stop. “How long has he been like that?” Nicholas asked.
“Longer than ever before,” Axel muttered. He hit his fist hard on the desk. He hated sitting in this chair in these moments. He had no idea how far behind the signal was. He had no idea if Lian was okay already, or if he was already dead.
Axel turned his attention back to his phone again and called the Spymaster. It was the only thing he could do to help the Asters at this point. And he’d be damned if he didn’t do everything he could to make sure that, of the five Asters he sent in, all five would also make it back out again.