Charlotte stands in the presence of crown prince Gunnhvatr Azurblárson, formerly the mystery hero Resister. The two have been granted privacy, although guards are only a shout away.
“To think the Hidden Family was beneath us all the time,” Gunnhvatr says in contemplation. “We should have realized they would be close to home. But your uprooting them has saved my land, and my people.”
“You can aid me in return,” Charlotte says.
“I will try if I can. But it pains me to say I may have something further still to ask you.”
Charlotte inclines her head politely. “However presumptuous it is, crown prince, I would like to think of us as friends. If I go too far, perhaps colleagues or coworkers? However you wish to define our relationship, I assure you that I will aid you however I can.”
“I as well, my friend,” Gunnhvatr agrees with a smile. “Speak, then.”
Charlotte begins recounting her adventures across the multiverse, and the attacks of the Eigendrakes. Servants bring refreshments around the time she reaches the story of the necropolis at the center of a broken Earth, and Charlotte is grateful for a reason to pause her recital of that dark chapter in the story.
She concludes by pitching her idea.
“The Eigendrakes are animated memories. They cannot bear to be forgotten. They’ll destroy anything in their way to find a place to live again. But what could avoid the notice of memory? Resister - the hero nobody knew existed. I wish to use your technology to infiltrate the Eigendrakes’ current nest, to learn more.”
“How strange,” muses the prince. “To grant your request would take you to the very place I wish to ask you about. You see, there’s a remote weapons research station - a trio of islands, high pillars rising out of treacherous waves - called Thridrangaviti. The original technology and research notes are maintained there.”
“Unfortunately it is now under assault. The Hidden Family accumulated great magical might in their time. The lingering levels of arcane power now spill over and awaken pockets of darkness. One such is assaulting the personnel at the research station.”
He gestures about him. “We know something of magic. But it is not our area of expertise. You - and hopefully any allies you’ve accumulated - should be much better equipped. Will you help us?”
Charlotte inclines her head. “It would be an honor and a pleasure to help you, Prince.”
Charlotte and Prince Gunnhvatr find themselves in a common area, outside the royal compound in the capital city.
“I must tell my friends I’ll be away for a time,” Charlotte is explaining. “I feel perhaps a subtle…”
She stops, and turns to look at something that caught her notice. First in her peripheral vision, and now directly in front of her, she sees–
“That’s my coffee shop!”
Sure enough, the exterior of Half and Half has nestled itself among other buildings, just as it did in its home city.
“You have a coffee shop here?” Gunnhvatr asks in surprise. “I would have thought you’d tell me about such a thing. I’d have certainly patronized it.”
“No, no…” Charlotte says uncertainly. She takes a step forward, and another half-step. “It’s… not supposed to be here. I thought it would stay within city limits…”
She approaches, opens the door, and is greeted cordially by Vermillion. Behind her, Gunnhvatr enters and takes in the place’s ambiance in a long look-around.
“This is Iceland,” Charlotte says carefully to the vampire at the counter.
“Perhaps I’ll give you a discount on iced coffee?” he replies with a smirk. “Or should that be espresso heated with the steam of the volcanoes?”
Charlotte is pleased to see a few familiar faces seated at the tables, reading or drinking coffee as customers. She returns her attention to Vermillion. “Business draws me away from the cafe for a time. Pardon me, introductions.”
She gestures between the individuals. “May I present Crown Prince Gunnhvatr Azurblárson. Prince Gunnhvatr, Stanislav Kosygin, though he names himself Vermillion.”
'You are undead," Gunnhvatr says immediately.
“Perceptive, sir,” Vermillion says with a smile. “You could call me a vampire if you wished.”
The prince nods, and turns to Charlotte. “How strange. We suspect that the Thridrangaviti incident involves the undead. I’ve been given a detection device to confirm the presence of such beings.”
He indicates a ring on his finger. Charlotte’s mystic senses discern its power immediately.
“Coincidence?” Charlotte wonders aloud. “Or is the cafe now in Iceland because…?”
She explains the mission to Vermillion. Midway through, one of the familiar faces at the tables - Maury Jones - wheels her way over to listen, and speaks up when Charlotte finishes.
“I don’t think it’s coincidence at all,” Maury says. “I think the cafe is telling you something.”
Charlotte winces at the violation of protocol. “May I present Crown Prince Gunnhvatr Azurblárson,” she repeats. “Princess Gunnhvatr, Miss Maury Jones, independent journalist.”
Gunnhvatr bows politely. Maury grins. “Sorry, I’m too American to wait for introductions.”
She looks between Charlotte and the prince. “Charlotte, it sounded like you wanted to go without us. But this Eigendrakes thing affects all of us. Plus you got three supernatural beings on tap for what sounds like a supernatural problem, not counting yourself. Plus, I’d love to have a chance to-- pardon me–”
She turns her attention fully to the prince. “Listen. Uh, your highness? Your nation attacked ours not too long ago. Well, you’re working on rectifying that, making peace, and I think that’s all commendable. But what would it mean to viewers in America and around the world if someone like me got a real inside look into your tech and your people? Something beyond the New University program, something anyone could tune into for themselves? Up close and personal, you know?”
“I suppose something could be arranged,” Gunnhvatr concedes uncertainly. “You have a point…”
He turns to Charlotte with a mirthful smile. “I suspect your cafe came here to let this young lady make her impassioned pitch to me.”
The three of them laugh. But Charlotte reminds herself of the mission, and grows serious again.
“The matter the prince spoke of is important, and what we will gain is important too.”
Maury nods. “Well, think about this then. Maybe the cafe came here because it knew you’d try going off alone to fix this, and it didn’t want that to happen.”
Charlotte frowns. “You may have a point,” she admits. “Very well. Any comrades who wish to accompany me are welcome.”
The vehicle they ride in is not a helicopter, but serves the same purpose. The bladeless lift system is familiar to Charlotte and the others from the invasion of their city a few years back. The soldiers, likewise, are armed and dressed in a familiar fashion. What’s new is that they are now allies.
That’s part of what worries her.
They were so potent. What could be beyond their ability to cope with?
The flight allows them time for more questions, this time directed at Gunnhvatr’s deputized assistant, Kjárr Nóelsson. Even with the bladeless system and the quietly humming electrical engine, questions and answers must be shouted to be heard over the tumultuous rainstorm outside.
“There are people who cannot leave the research station,” Kjárr shouts, as an opening. “They will be greeting us when we land, and they will take care of you during your stay.”
“Why haven’t they evacuated?” Maury asks.
“There are certain long-lasting experiments being performed. They cannot easily be shut down without causing a calamity,” Kjárr explains. “Experiments in high energy, radioactivity, biosystems, things of that nature.”
“Suppose there is fighting,” Vermillion asks. “What is the risk?”
Kjárr shrugs helplessly. “Perhaps less than the risk of leaving things as they are? I cannot say. Use your best discretion, of course.”
“Is it just the research station under attack?” Charlotte asks.
Kjárr hands over a printed map of the area, laminated to protect it from the elements. “There is a village on the coast. The researchers will fly over for recreation from time to time. We have heard nothing amiss from them. But that may change.”
The craft approaches Thridrangaviti.
The research station is built at the center of three rocky pillars reaching out of the sea. Powerful cables wrap around the rock, and the station hangs between them. Gyroscopic governors at the top of the pillars control tension on the cables, maintaining the stability of the arrangement in the face of pounding waves and gale-force winds. Super-alloyed beams in turn brace the rocks.
The station itself is elevated quite high over the water. The visitors can see a tube leading down into the ocean - an elevator or lift system leading to an underwater complex.
“Why was it built out here?” Maury asks. “Safety?”
Kjárr nods. “Safety and security. Its remote location and inhospitable approach. In extremis, the cables can be cut and the station dropped into the ocean to contain an explosion or radiation spill.”
The craft sets down on a helipad atop one of the three rock pillars. People begin moving about in their seats to get out, but Kjárr holds up a hand to signal patience. “The safety cables first.”
Charlotte and the others watch through the window as safety cables are robotically drawn off their spindles at the edge of the helipad, and pulled toward the flying craft. They anchor to attachment points on the outside. Only after they’re hooked on does Kjárr hand over thick worker’s gloves, and make sure everyone is wearing them.
“The cables will take you to the top of the research station,” the factotum advises over the roar of the wind outside. “Do not let go. Once you are there, the elevator will take you inside automatically.”
The hatch opens. The sound of the wind rises dramatically.
Bodark is the first out. The stocky Russian grips the cables with an iron grip, and hauls himself out. Hand over hand, he begins the clearly laborious process of following the cable across the top of rock, and then across the narrowest of bridges connecting it to the research station.
“A system designed to weed out the cowardly,” Vermillion concludes with a smirk. He turns his attention to Maury. “Madam, do you wish for assistance in crossing?”
Maury grins. Her mecha-chair was too cumbersome to make it here, but she’s been promised a wheelchair inside the research station. “Nah, I’m good. Probably got more arm strength than you do.”
To demonstrate her point, she hauls herself out onto the cables. Sure enough, hand over hand, she’s easily the equal of Bodark’s rate of speed.
Daph follows. She’s carrying the bulk of the team’s stuff in a heavy backpack, and she too negotiates the cables with her super-strength.
Vermillion gestures to Charlotte, indicating he’ll take up the rear.
Charlotte checks her gloves, grasps the cables, and hauls herself out.
The wind is deafening. It tosses her hair every which way, giving the rain ample opportunity to dampen it - and the rest of her. Fortunately she and the others are dressed for the occasion, but it’s still disorienting.
She moves hand over hand, one foot at a time, never letting go of where she was until she’s firmly made forward progress. She can see the outlines of the others ahead of her, lit up by the station’s exterior lights.
Once, the cables twist and buckle as a brief but powerful surge of wind comes through. Everyone grabs hold, hunches down, and rides it out.
She can hear Manny’s voice from the cat carrier slung over her shoulder. “Ahh, a proper squall! 'Tis been a minute, as they say, since I experienced such a glory!”
“I’m relieved that you’re enjoying yourself!” Charlotte calls to the skull.
Charlotte reaches the other side with a short sigh of relief. She turns to see Vermillion not far behind. The group has stopped on a disc whose outer ring is glowing. Once everyone steps inside the glow, it begins descending - this is the elevator.
Only when it’s halfway down does the aircraft lift off the helipad, and disappear into the darkness of the storm.
Below them, the mystery of Thridrangaviti awaits.