“I thought France would look different.” Laura frowned.
“How so?” Matthias glanced down at her.
“You know. Exotic. Far away.” She shaded her eyes. “That just looks like an ordinary city.” She wrinkled her nose. “I can even see a McDonalds.”
“Do you have any idea how much French culture influenced the United States?” Magda put her hand on Laura’s shoulder, then chuckled. “Welcome to the birthplace of civilization, my dear.”
“Yeah, I can list about eighty other countries that would take exception to that statement.” Michaels elbowed Matthias. “You want to grab some bags here?”
She watched her son go help with gathering people’s belongings, then headed over to where the professor was talking to some of the customs officers. His French was good, but clearly spoken with an American accent. The customs officers seemed to relax just a little at her own native accent. They were much more professional than they had been on her last visit, and she heard no hints that bribes were expected. Then again, it had been nearly sixty years since she’d last set foot in her homeland.
Tomer turned toward her after the customs officials had settled the paperwork and gone to observe matters. “We will have to do the tourist thing at least one day we are here.” He smiled. “I’d love to hear how the country has changed.”
“I never fail to be amazed at all the many ways countries never do.” She smiled back. Then she frowned. “Dammit, they are looking into our cargo…” She trailed off as she saw Khait walk up to the officers, accompanied by Bridget. Less than a minute later, the customs officers were walking away with dazed facial expressions, and Bridget was reaching up to smack Khait in the back of the head.
“I admit…” Tomer shrugged. “That young man has his uses.”
“…not to whammy law enforcement officers.” Bridget was glaring at Khait.
“Did you really want to take the chance that our newfound brethren did not pack anything in their cargo that may merit France’s disapproval?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Hey.” Stephan chuckled as he walked over. “Have some faith.” He shrugged. “We packed it well.”
“Stephan, right?” Khait held out a hand. Stephan shook it, and Khait gave him an odd look before grinning. “Oh, that is fascinating. It just slid right off.”
“Khait.” Bridget folded her arms. “Did you just whammy him?”
“Doesn’t work on her either.” Khait nodded. “But she just absorbs it, like a black hole does to light. You’re more like a magnet with reversed polarity.” He leaned forward to peer into Stephan’s eyes, making him blink. “Yet I can still get a read of…” He suddenly grinned. “You were checking out Abigail’s ass!”
“Khait!” Bridget gave him a horrified look.
Stephan felt his skin start to burn a little. Abigail was Khait’s girlfriend. “Look, I didn’t mean any —”
“Relax.” Khait shook his head. “It’s a truly spectacular ass. Bridget checks it out all the —” He made an oof sound as Bridget jabbed her fist into his stomach.
“Hi.” She offered him the hand she’d just punched Khait with. “I’m Bridget. You’re Stephan?”
“I am.” He shook her hand.
“Awesome.” She smiled. “You’re the computer guy, right? I need to hook you up with a login to our intranet and VPN and stuff.”
“Porn sites are all blocked.” Khait rolled his eyes. “Because she’s no fun.”
“Does that even stop you?” Stephan raised an eyebrow.
“Tunneling through the firewall to access porn is a 0.7 on the scale of bad because computers are highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.” Khait frowned at him.
“It’s a—” Bridget sighed, then shook her head before looking back at Stephan. “Maybe you can explain it to him.”
Ted sat down behind his desk and stared at the painting hanging on the wall. Then he smiled. “Doesn’t that mean Erilon is your sister?”
“She’s been family for a while now.” Gabriel’s voice responded on the other end of the line. “How are things on your end?”
“Your uncle and I are combining forces do to a litter clean up at the beach.” He straightened, then glanced down at the paperwork on his desk. “Other than that, things have been fairly quiet.” He exhaled. “Other than the family reunion, how are things on your end?”
“Good. Laura and Ash went out with the college students to do the bus tour of local highlights.”
“Ash went?” His smile widened. “With just Laura?”
“Bridget, Abigail, and Khait were along as well, and we assured him that if it got too much Khait could teleport him right back to Magda.” There was a slight rustling sound from Gabriel’s end of the line. “He’s doing better than expected on this trip.”
“I’m glad. I wanted to offer to let him stay with me, but…” Ted shifted in his chair. “He’s not going to get better if he never pushes.”
“We did some more sword lessons.” Gabriel’s voice sounded amused. “Professor Kravitz actually joined us. Turns out he’s a fencing champion.”
“That…” Ted blinked. “Doesn’t seem to fit what I’ve been told of the man.”
“Michaels no longer has any objections to Laura going to Berkeley with the professor as her academic adviser.” Gabriel paused a moment. “Other than, you know…”
“It’s six hours away and across state lines.” Ted nodded. He’d heard Michaels’ refrain a lot over the past couple months. “Though with Khait in the picture, distance isn’t quite the issue it used to be.”
“Michaels isn’t entirely sure how he feels about Khait.” Gabriel laughed softly. “Though Khait did confirm that Michaels is wholly heterosexual.”
He started laughing. “Well, I’m glad he got that settled.”
Wren couldn’t help but feel just a little giddy. She turned the small artifact over in her hands, then focused her power through it briefly. Energy seemed to swirl around her, taking her higher than she’d ever been before. She let out a small laugh.
“Well done.” Merlin smiled at her. Merlin. Actual Merlin. The Merlin. It was all she could do not to giggle at the praise. He sighed. “Pity the making of those is all but lost.”
She set the metal orb back on its pedestal. “I’d love to try my hand at some permanent enchantments.”
“And I’ve not doubt of your capabilities, my dear.” His smile was warm and friendly, like a proud grandfather. “It’s getting the base materials to work with that is an issue these days. Sadly, dwarves and elves have been extinct for centuries now. It’s extremely rare to find a human that can duplicate their work.” He gestured at the ring around her neck. “That was elven work. It is over a millenia old.”
Her hand went to the ring, then she glanced at where Adam was sitting, watching them quietly. “Then Renee didn’t make it.”
“No.” Merlin shook his head. “She wasn’t without power, though your own powers are superior. Crafting potions and silver bullets, she could handle. Something like that is…” He sighed. “Well, it would just about take one of my kind to make one without a dwarf or elf to assist.” He straightened. “Well, I’m satisfied.” He glanced at Giroux before turning back to her. “You will still be working with Giroux, but from now on you also report directly to me as my apprentice.”
“I…” Her eyes widened. “Yes, of course.” Her smile widened. “Thank you.”
“As for you…” He turned and gave Adam an appraising look. Adam didn’t seem at all thrilled about being here, though it seemed nothing pleased him these days. “Well, you warrant additional consideration.” He glanced at the talisman again before nodding. “In the meantime, I believe that will serve adequately.” He patted her shoulder. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Wren.”
“And you, Master Merlin.” She grinned.
Bridget fidgeted, fighting the urge to snatch the ring back out of Magda’s hand as the woman examined it more closely. She glanced to Magda’s left at where Gabriel was watching quietly. His presence was reassuring. People who traveled with an angel had to be good guys, right? Still, she took the ring and slid it back on her finger quickly when Magda returned it. “That’s far enough beyond my skills that I’m hesitant to even try poking at it.” Magda sat back down.
“Does it even work with Stephan in the room?” Daniel glanced at the man sitting next to him.
“Work how?” Bridget blinked.
“Yes and no.” Khait answered from where he was sitting on the floor next to Abigail. “Bridget isn’t a witch, so what she herself can do with the talisman is actually very limited.”
“Wait, what?” Bridget turned toward him.
“All she can really do with it is boss me around.” Khait grinned up at her.
“And admittedly, he can work around that when he puts his mind to it.” Abigail rested her head on his shoulder.
“Truth is…” Khait shrugged. “Bridget hasn’t invoked the power of the ring in a month or so.”
“But you still obey her.” Matthias raised an eyebrow.
“She’s my friend.” Khait waved a hand. “Plus, it’s easier to let her keep track of all those pesky little morality things. She’s much better at it.”
“Gee.” Bridget gave him a glare but couldn’t keep the fond smile off her face entirely. “Thanks.” Then she looked down at the ring. “Okay, so, what’s the difference between me invoking the power of the ring and me just asking you to do something?”
“Intent.” Khait leaned back. Then he frowned. “It’s slightly hard to explain. You used to invoke it offhand by the wishing thing…”
“And I eliminated those words from my vocabulary.” She folded her arms. That had been much harder than it sounded.
“Otherwise…” Khait put his arm around Abigail, holding her to him. “The only times you invoke the ring’s power is when you desire to override my consent and fully impose your will upon me regardless of how I may feel about the matter. And the last time that happened was a month ago.”
“Wait —” Bridget stared at him, feeling a little horrified. When he put it that way, she sounded like a horrible person. “What did I…” She trailed off. “Wait a minute, I invoked the ring when I yelled for you to duck?”
“Context?” Laura sat up.
“We were putting up scaffolding and one of the rails got loose.” She shrugged. “Not that getting smacked in the head actually does him any damage.”
“Adam isn’t so lucky.” Laura’s voice sounded a little small. “Wren uses her talisman all the time.” Bridget turned toward her and saw a slight sheen of tears in the girl’s eyes. “She made Adam kill his best friend.”
“Well.” Abigail’s own voice was hard. “She needs to die.”
“I do not think anyone in this room will argue with that assessment.” Professor Kravitz took a deep breath. “But I believe the priority is rescuing Adam.” He glanced at Khait before looking back at Bridget. “Putting Adam in a position where he must defend Wren against us would not be in that young man’s best interest.” He glanced back at Khait. “If we wanted to free you from Bridget, what would be the best way to do so?”
“Actually, that brings to mind a question.” Abigail sat up, then turned toward Khait. “If we got you back by cutting what’s his face’s finger off, how come they had to cut the ring off Bridget’s finger?”
“I’m guessing because they wanted to make a point to me.” Khait frowned. “Damage to the talisman affects me, as you noted.”
“Explain that.” Stephan sat up. “I mean, I was sort of operating on this idea that we could free Adam by smashing the —”
“Destroying the talisman would kill whoever is bound to it.” Khait cut him off.
“You mean if we broke that ring, you’d die?” Professor Kravitz’s eyes widened as he paled just a little.
“Unless you had another vessel already prepared and someone capable of performing the transfer…” Khait nodded. “Yes.”
“That’s horrible.” Professor Kravitz shook his head. “Who would do something like…” He trailed off.
“If I’d known that’s what Isis had planned for him…” Erilon’s voice was quieter than usual.
“Go back to this prepare another vessel idea.” Michaels spoke up. “If we prepared another vessel, we could transfer Adam to it and get him away from Wren that way? Steal him out from under her nose?”
“It would be tricky.” Khait frowned. “And need to be perfectly timed. You’d have to have a prepared talisman handy, and they aren’t easy to craft.”
“Okay, throwing this an idea out…” Michaels took a deep breath. “Could you two share that one?” He gestured at Bridget’s ring.
“No.” Khait shook his head. “You could transfer a soul to a talisman that has already been used. Given the difficulty in making a talisman, I’m guessing the one used on Adam has been used before. But the soul previously in the talisman would be cast out and dissipated in the process.” He shrugged. “Though you might be on to something. The trauma of the transfer has already occurred. His soul could be moved to another vessel without risking breaking his mind, and if you can solve the problem of timing it right the spell itself is manageable.”
“How manageable?” Daniel immediately sat up.
“With suitable preparation and the right ritual tools…” Khait waved a hand. “Theoretically anyone in this room could do it.” He exhaled. “But, since we likely won’t have suitable preparation and even I can’t get my hands on the right ritual tools…” He looked around the room. “I think we’d be limited to you, me, and Bridget.”
“Wait, me?” She gave him a startled look.
“You’ve got my talisman.” Khait grinned at her. “I can show you how to draw on my power to do something like that.”
She swallowed her protest as Daniel began nodding. “Okay.” Daniel looked over at her and gave her a reassuring smile. “Then you better show us how, and we need to figure out how to get another talisman.”
“Alright.” Matthias nodded. “We’ve got a plan B. Plan A, I think, is still to just shoot the bitch in the face, grab the talisman, and blow up the building behind us.”
“Simple. Direct.” Michaels nodded. “I like it.”
“Can we free Adam from the talisman?” Bridget felt herself jump just a little as she heard Ash’s voice behind her. He was so quiet she’d forgotten he was there. “Adam should be free.”
“Can we?” Gabriel raised an eyebrow at Khait. “Free both of you?”
“Maybe.” Khait nodded.
“Hang on.” Bridget narrowed her eyes. “Time out.” She glared at him. “There’s a way to free you from this thing and you haven’t told us about it before?” She folded her arms.
“You asshole.” Abigail drew away from him a bit and joined her in glaring. “We could have been working on that already and maybe even managed it by now.”
“The talisman provides me with additional strength I can use on your behalves…” Khait narrowed his own eyes. “And Bridget, it ensures I can find you and you can call on me whenever you are in danger. You’ve drawn the attention of the Cabal once. I am not going to sacrifice a tool I can use to keep you safe.”
“You…” Bridget swallowed past the lump that rose in her throat. “Are such an asshole.”
“I love you, too.” He grinned at her. Then he turned back to look at the others. “You’ve got a healer, and a couple other witches to work with. Freeing Adam from the talisman might be possible, though it would be tricky and could take a while.” He blinked. “Though, to go back to the original question…” He glanced at Stephan, then turned back to Bridget. “I’m not sure.” Then he stood and walked over to stand next to Stephan. “Wish for something.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then she took a deep breath. “I wish for a gallon of vanilla ice cream.”
Khait gave her a playful glare. “Mind trying an order I’m inclined to resist?”
“Fine.” She returned the glare. “I wish for a nice, healthy, wheat grass smoothie and for you to drink it.”
“Ha.” He pointed at her. “Didn’t work.” He bent down and planted a loud kiss on Stephan’s cheek. “You’re my new best friend.”