I was under absolutely no delusions. As much as I had improved over the past few months, there were plenty of people who were completely out of my league when it came to a straight fight. And from everything I had ever heard, the shark-toothed man in front of me was solidly in that camp. If we were to fight seriously, he’d probably kill me inside of a few seconds flat.
No, fighting Fahsteth was a bad, bad idea. And from the look on the man’s face, he was just as aware of it as I was. His humorless, toothy smile had grown as he sized me up for a moment.
Holding the staff out in front of me, I breathed out. The power that allowed me to sense objects near me was able to reach as far as the wall that I had come through, and through it I could tell just how much of the metal had been turned to wood. The answer was… not nearly enough. It was going to take Avalon longer to convert enough of it to break through than it would take this guy to take me apart and use a piece of one of my bones as a toothpick. I had to stall.
“Look,” I started, keeping my staff up between us just in case. “We’re not here to fight you. We want information, that’s all. Information you should be okay with giving us since the people we want you to tell us about are the reason you’re trying to get the hell off the planet right now.”
Annoyed as he obviously was, Fahsteth still gave a dark chuckle at that. “Ain’t here to fight, huh? Doubt your friend feels the same. Speaking of–” In mid-sentence, the man produced a knife from seemingly nowhere. I tensed, readying myself. But instead of attacking, he gave a casual swipe toward the wall where Avalon was working on coming through. I could see a line of wood starting to appear in the outline of a larger circle. Once it was done, she’d be able to just pop that bit of wood out and make the larger metal circle inside fall in to make a hole.
Or she would have. Except that with a wave of that knife, a brand new, slightly thicker metal wall appeared over top of the one that was already there. The knife was like Sands’s construction mace, summoning walls and other shapes out of nowhere. Now it was going to take Avalon even longer to get through. If he didn’t just keep summoning new walls every time she got close.
Yeah, having that used against us really sucked.
Fahsteth pointed that knife at me, smirking. “There we go. Now… you’re brave, kid. I’ll give you that much. But brave ain’t gonna stop me from making you wish you never stepped into this room. The big, bad necromancer might have staked his claim on you, but I ain’t gotta kill ya to teach you a lesson you ain’t never gonna forget. That healing you got–” He smiled once more, cracking his neck audibly. “That’ll get you up and moving again after a lot of damage.”
Fossor? Fossor had staked a claim on me? I bristled reflexively. It wasn’t really surprising, but still. The thought that he had put out the word not to kill me because he wanted me was… ugh.
On the plus side, if we did get this guy to talk, maybe he could tell me something about Fossor himself. Since they were apparently at least close enough to have conversations about how Fahsteth wasn’t allowed to kill me, there might be something else there. Long shot, but still.
And speaking of long shots, I had one chance to get what we needed out of this guy without letting him tear me into as many pieces as he thought could survive the experience. But I needed him to make the first move. I had to make him come after me, and then pray a bit.
To that end, I lowered the staff just a little bit. It was fractional, and I tried to make it look like an accidental opening, as if I was just a little more amateurish than he already thought I was.
If Fahsteth had been in slightly less of a hurry, or had just a little more time to think about it, I doubt it would have worked. But as it was, he had the Seosten to worry about, along with not just Avalon on the other side of the wall, but Seth and Gabriel as well. So he took the bait.
Without the inherited werewolf reflexes, I wouldn’t have had time to blink, let alone actually react as the shark-man crossed the distance between us. He was so fast, so unbelievably quick despite his large form. It was like he had been fired straight out of a cannon, going from standing still to nearly on top of me in the blink of an eye. Both of his hands lashed out, one clearly intent on snatching my staff out of my grasp while the other grabbed for my arm.
Yeah, fighting this guy was out of the question. Completely out of the question. If I’d had any doubt about that before, seeing how fast he was right then knocked the last of it away. I had to be smart, not strong. To that end, I threw myself into a desperate roll to the side and down while simultaneously releasing what small amount of charge my staff had managed to build up. The blast wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me just enough of a boost that I barely avoided Fahsteth’s grasping hands. I could literally feel his fingers brushing over my clothes as I dove.
Hitting the floor of the room, I rolled forward. Behind me, I could hear the shark-man recovering. He was twisting around, clearly about to be right on my heels (if he didn’t just go ahead and rip my heels right off), a grunt of annoyance filling the room. He was right there. I wouldn’t be able to dodge again. Going under his reach like that had been a one-time thing, almost a miracle.
Thankfully, once was all I needed. Because fighting him was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I continued my roll until I had my feet under me again. As soon as they were down, I shoved myself up and forward into a second dive. That one carried me to the far wall, where I came up onto one knee while spinning around. Fahsteth had already crossed half the distance between us once more, a snarl on his lips that showed even more of those impressive teeth of his.
An instant before the merciless mercenary would have been on me, with no chance of me managing to escape again, I brought my staff down while blurting loudly, “Stop!”
Yeah, in almost any other case, my telling a guy like Fahsteth to stop would’ve accomplished about as much as standing in front of an oncoming train. But in this particular case, the man skidded to a halt. Not because of what I’d said, but because of where my staff was: directly against the throat of the unconscious, purple-skinned figure that my earlier blast had knocked against the wall. The blade of the transformed staff was barely a centimeter from his throat.
“Yeah,” I managed while holding the blade right where it was. “You move, you lose your ride off-planet. And call me crazy, but I get the impression you don’t wanna wait to find another one.”
“Kid,” the shark-man snarled, “if you don’t step away from him right this second, I’m gonna forget about what Fossor said. And trust me, just cuz I kill ya doesn’t mean I can’t make it hurt.”
My mouth opened to say something then, but in the background, there was a clang of metal. I had successfully distracted Fahsteth enough that he hadn’t noticed how close Avalon was to breaking through. Now, she kicked in the circle of metal that she had cut out, and it crashed to the floor loudly even as Avalon herself dove into the room. She came up, arms raised defensively only to stop short at the sight. “Chambers,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “Okay?”
“Oh yeah,” I replied a bit tersely, not letting the blade move a millimeter from where it was. “We’re fine. Fahsteth and me were just having a nice, polite conversation here, aren’t we?”
Inclining his head a little, the shark-mercenary made a noise that sounded like a growl deep in his throat. “You kill my ride, little girl, and I’ll make sure both of you kids die screaming.”
“Answer our questions and you can leave,” I retorted. “Just tell us what we wanna know and we’ll back out of here. You can take your lift off-world and everything’ll be hunky dory. I would suggest you hurry though, since your former employers seem pretty eager to shut you up.”
Keeping her guard up, Avalon glared at the shark-man. I could tell that she really wanted to go after him. Actually, I wondered briefly if the difference in how our Heretic senses worked would affect that. I’d heard from both her and Miranda that while the Crossroads sense was a warning of danger, for Eden’s Garden-created Heretics, the feeling was closer to a thrill of the hunt.
“Chambers is right,” she said through gritted teeth. “Seems like they want you really dead.”
Inclining his head a little, Fahsteth gave the other girl a look. “Not as dead as they want you, Princess. Maybe if you end up face down in the gutter, they’ll just let bygones be bygones.”
“You could try,” I quickly put in. “But I don’t think you will. One, like you said, they want her dead and I doubt you really want to make them happy right when they’re trying to kill you. And second, you’re trying to disappear right now. You know as well as we do that if you kill Avalon, you’re gonna trigger the spell that’ll mark you. Kinda hard to disappear if you’ve got a big, bright beacon that Gaia can follow straight to you. Cuz believe me, you kill Avalon and Gaia will never let you go. You say you’ll make us scream? I’m pretty sure she can do a hell of a lot worse.”
He knew I was telling the truth. That was the whole reason they hadn’t been able to just kill Avalon and be done with it, after all. Anyone that directly killed her would set off Wyatt’s spell. According to the man himself, it would even mark a Seosten possessing someone to do it. So they couldn’t just jump into a random person, kill her, then jump out again. The tracking spell would follow them no matter where they went, and no matter who they jumped in and out of.
Still, the question was whether he was stubborn enough to ignore that fact. His eyes darted back to Avalon, then to me. He was obviously frustrated at the position that we had put him in, and I had no doubt that given any excuse, he really would have killed us both without blinking.
But in the end, the man just let out a soft, annoyed sigh. “Right, fine. I’ll answer a couple of your questions. That’s it. And when it’s done, you let me get the hell off this planet, you got it?”
“That sounds agreeable to me, yes.”
The voice came not from Avalon or me, but from the corner of the room where Gabriel was abruptly standing. The head of his shovel was stained with blood, as were the front of his clothes. Other than that, he gave pretty much no sign that he had been in any kind of fight.
“How did you–” I started before my head shook. “I thought this place was warded.”
“It is,” the man confirmed as he started across the room to me. To my amusement in spite of myself, Fahsteth took a step back as Gabriel simply walked past him. He reached out to me, fingers dipping deftly into my jacket pocket before he pulled out a small colored marble. “But you didn’t really think I’d send you in here without having a way to keep tabs on you, did you?”
Oh. Well, apparently he’d stuck something on me that let him keep track of what was going on around me despite the scrying wards and teleport straight to me. That seemed… well, useful. Still, I had to ask, “Are Seth and Shiori–”
“They’re all right,” the man confirmed. “Your little friend there,” he gestured to the unconscious teleporter at my feet, “was summoning an awful lot of power. When you knocked him out, it expended itself by summoning a few nasties out there. Nothing too terrible. They’re just wiping it up and then keeping an eye out for any more… interruptions.” He looked toward Fahsteth then. “Which will be coming, so we should finish up here. And it sounded to me like you were just agreeing to tell the girls what they want to know.”
“Yeah,” the shark-man grunted. “Long as they’re quick about it, and–” He paused, giving Gabriel a hard look. “If you think you can just kill me to take what I know, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Nodding affably, Gabriel replied, “Oh, I know. I already told the girls that the same thing you and, well, people like you use to block your thoughts from being read by someone with telepathic abilities also stops someone like me from absorbing your memories upon your death. Believe me, I appreciate the effort. The last thing I want are the thoughts and memories of someone like you swimming around in my head. Still,” he added, “we do need to be sure that you’re telling the truth. So…” Gabriel dipped his other hand into his pocket and came out with a small red-hued stone before holding it out to the other man. “Why don’t you hold onto this while we’re all talking here.” Glancing over his shoulder at Avalon and me, he explained, “Truth-stone. As long as the person holding it is telling the truth, it stays cool. But if he lies, it burns and glows. Not a very fun experience.” To Fahsteth, he added, “Just to keep you honest.”
If possible, the mercenary looked even more annoyed. His hand snatched the stone and he held it up while squinting at us. “Ask your damn questions, and be quick about it or the deal’s off.”
Before I could say anything, Avalon quickly put in, “My mother. Were you the one responsible for killing her?”
His smirk only grew. “Wasn’t my idea, but sure. I was the one that… let’s say I did the deed. Pretty nice work if I do say so myself. Always been good at poisoning people, but making it look like an accident in childbirth? That was something special.” He gave a lamenting sigh then. “Too bad you survived the experience, or it would’ve been the perfect job.”
Avalon started to take a step at him then, muscles tensed until I quickly put a hand out to catch her arm. The other hand I used to keep the blade close to the unconscious teleporter’s neck, just in case. “Fine,” I put in. “Let’s go with the big one then. Who killed Zedekiah Pericles?”
Fahsteth chuckled at the question. “Can tell you who was responsible for it, not who did it.” Before I could question that, he continued. “The one responsible for it was a Seosten called Manakel. But you know, all that possession shit, I dunno who he’s riding around in over there.”
Fuck. He couldn’t tell us who the Seosten was possessing. And we already knew the name Manakel from before. “There’s more than one Seosten behind this. How many are there and what are their names?”
The mercenary shook his head, eyes rolling. “Best I can tell you is that I know of four. Two of ‘em at your little school, two of ‘em at the other place. Names, already told you Manakel. The other one at your place is called Charmeine. Then there’s Paschar at Eden’s Garden, and Lies.”
“Lies?” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Wait, the Seosten are named Manakel, Charmeine, Paschar, and… Lies? That doesn’t really fit the theme.”
“Cuz it ain’t her name,” he retorted. “Just the closest thing to a name she’s got. She’s a crippled Seosten. Means once she possesses someone, she can’t get the fuck out of ‘em unless they die. Plus she gets a little too close, if you know what I mean. Most Seosten, they can shut out anything their host feels. Like playing one of those video games you kids like so much. You don’t actually feel what the guy you’re playing as does. But Lies, she does. She feels it. She’s locked in there.” Shrugging, he added, “Or so I hear. Never actually spoke to her myself.”
Four Seosten. Three normal ones, and one that couldn’t leave whoever her host was unless the host died. Thinking about that for a moment, I frowned before asking, “What does all this have to do with Professor Tangle and her mystery lover at Eden’s Garden?”
Fahsteth openly laughed at that for a moment, his shoulders shaking. “Oh, right,” he muttered with amusement, “that.” Still smirking, he continued. “That was what you call a love potion. See, before Manakel and Charmeine showed up, Paschar was the one that was supposed to get into that blood vault.” He started to smile. “Yeah, there’s a blood vault, you know, one that can only be opened by the descendant of–”
“Hieronymus Bosch, we know.” Avalon cut in, frowning at the man. “What do you mean, love potion?”
He explained. “Fine. See, a little under twenty years ago, Paschar found two living relatives, blood connections to Bosch. One of ‘em was your mother.” He nodded toward Avalon. “That was the direct connection, the strong one. The other one was a lot weaker, more distant, but still. It was–”
“Tangle,” I put in quickly. “Tangle’s the one with the weaker relation, the other connection to Bosch.”
“Ding, ding.” The shark-man pointed at me, his humorless smile wide to show all those teeth. “Yeah, Tangle was the other one. So that’s two ways to get into the vault. But see, Tangle didn’t actually know about her connection to Bosch, or any of that.” He nodded to Avalon again. “Her Mommy did. She knew a lot of it. Stories passed down from her mother, you see. So she knew how to protect herself from anything the Seosten might try to get control of her. They already couldn’t possess the bitch–”
“Why?” Avalon cut in. “Why couldn’t they possess her?”
“Same reason they can’t possess you,” he retorted. “Bosch’s daughter, Liesje Aken, figured out her dear old Daddy was being manipulated to start all this shit, so she took precautions. By the time Hieronymus died, she found a way to make herself and anyone in her family, anyone with her blood, immune to Seosten possession.”
“How’d she do that?” I asked slowly. “I mean, I doubt there’s a book out there about how to make your entire bloodline immune to fake angel-possession.”
“No fucking clue,” the shark-man snapped. “If I knew, trust me, I’d never need to work a job again. I’d just make a billion lifetimes worth of fortunes by selling that shit. All I know is that she had some help from someone she called Grandfather.”
“Grandfather?” I blinked. “I take it that doesn’t mean her actual grandfather.”
“Genius detective, you are.” He smirked at me before waving the hand with the stone in it. “Point is, if you quit fucking interrupting, she made her bloodline immune to possession. So if Paschar wanted to use either of her descendants to get into that vault, he had to use other means. Tangle was easier, cuz like I said, she didn’t know anything about her connection to Bosch. So she wasn’t watching for the… you know, harp-players.”
“So he wanted to use Tangle, but he couldn’t,” I put in. “Because the vault would only take the closest blood relative. Which, at that point, was Avalon’s mother.”
He nodded. “Right. That’s when I got brought in. Kill the mother and her spawn while she’s pregnant. But make it look like she dies in childbirth. The last thing angel-fuck wanted was some Heretic to hear about the bitch being murdered by something suspicious. So I made it look like a childbirth thing. Unfortunately, her little brat survived.”
Avalon’s voice was hard then. “And you didn’t finish the job because…”
Fahsteth shrugged. “Couldn’t get close to you again. Somehow the Heretics found out you had potential to be one of their students, so they were watching you. Paschar didn’t want to run the risk of them finding out what was really going on. So he went for something more subtle, manipulating ol’ Reggie into hating his kid so much that he’d kill her. Domestic abuse and all that. But you know, turns out that took too long. That headmistress of yours found out enough to come find the brat. Paschar couldn’t let that happen, so he sent me in to make sure little Hannah died. Did my best to make it look like I just stumbled across her, victim of circumstance and all that. But you’re just too fucking stubborn to die like you’re supposed to.”
“And she went to Eden’s Garden,” I realized. “So it was even harder to get to her without making everyone realize what was going on. So they used Reggie instead.”
“Had an… ally of theirs turn him into a vampire and sent him after her,” the shark-man confirmed. “Seemed less likely to be suspicious, since he already hated her. But the son of a bitch kept failing. Then it was too late. They were about to start teaching the kid magic.”
“Which would’ve revealed her connection to Bosch,” I murmured. “Right, so… wait, what about Tangle?”
Smirking, Fahsteth explained. “Two birds with one stone. Paschar was already manipulating Tangle from his place at Eden’s Garden where he was keeping an eye on the situation. Like I said, love potion. Whoever he was possessing, he used what you’d call a love potion to make Tangle be obsessed with him. Had her wrapped around his little finger. She was right on board with killing not-so-little Hannah so she and her snuggle muffin could get into that vault. Still, he didn’t want to be… what you call obvious about it. So…”
“They made sure I was kicked out,” Avalon stated flatly. “You–” Her eyes widened then. “Love potion… wait, obsession. Obsession. They used–”
“Oh and we have a winner,” the man grinned darkly, his amusement obvious. “Yeah, they used the same kind of obsession magic they used on Tangle on that kid. Torv? Yeah, they had him drugged up for weeks. Just got him all sorts of obsessed with you until… well, you know what happened.”
“But now Tangle’s in the hospital with–” I paused, frowning. “Probably your poison in her. So what the hell?”
The shark-man coughed, raising his shoulders in a shrug. “What happened? Well, turns out ol’ Tangle’s got a soft spot for students. Finding out that Torv kid died, it uhh, started taking its toll. Took awhile, but she started snapping out of the love spell. Not a lot at first, but… enough to cause problems. She was starting to figure out something was wrong with her. So she was about to go to that damn headmistress.”
“So you poisoned her,” I realized. “But they didn’t want to kill her, because they still needed her to get in the vault. That’s why you just put her in a coma.”
“Pretty much,” he confirmed. “And sometime in there, those new Seosten showed up and started taking over. Apparently they didn’t like how long it was taking Paschar to get the job done. But like I said, no idea who any of them are possessing–wait, no. One idea. That Manakel guy, he’s possessing some adult out at that school. That’s all I know, an adult. So, we done here?”
My mouth opened, but then I paused, shaking my head. “What about Professor Katarin? Where is he, and why did he disappear? You guys had to have something to do with that.”
“Sure did,” he confirmed without any shame. “I mean, I didn’t. But they did. Apparently the big guy stumbled across Manakel’s host while he was out of it. The host was unconscious, one of those Seosten-enforced comas. Manakel got back, Katarin spotted him and figured out what was going on. So they had a little fight. Best Manakel could do was banish the guy with one of those–”
It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “The Seosten banishment orbs. They sent him into Seosten space?”
“Kept him away from Earth and out of their hair, that’s for sure.” Fahsteth chuckled once more. “So, that it? Cuz I really need to be going.”
“Not yet.” I shook my head while staring at him. “What the hell is in that vault that they want to get so badly?”
Fahsteth’s smirk grew. “Oh, that you don’t know? Heh, figures. Yeah, they were cagey about it, but I worked it out over the years. You know how Bosch’s daughter made her bloodline immune to possession? Turns out she was working on a way of spreading that immunity to every Heretic. Died before she could put it into play, but all her notes and everything about what she did it is in that vault.”
“That’s why they want it so bad,” I murmured. “Because if someone else gets it and manages to make every Heretic immune to–oh. Oh. That really fucks them over.”
“Yup,” Fahsteth confirmed. “So I told you what I know. Now, your turn to repay the favor. Lemme get the hell off this planet.”
“Yeah, we will.” I nodded. “But first, tell us how to cure Tangle.”
“Cure? Right.” Giving me a look, he slowly reached into his jacket before coming out with a vial of blue liquid. “See this? You let me go, and it’s yours. It’ll cure Tangle, put her right as rain. But that’s it. You gotta swear to let me go after I give this to you. Got it?”
Biting my lip, I glanced to Gabriel before nodding. “I swear, I won’t do anything to stop you from leaving after you give us that cure.”
Beside me, Avalon nodded. “I won’t lay a hand on you.”
Gabriel nodded as well. “Neither will I. Just hand over the cure and you can leave.”
The shark-man held it out, along with the stone while nodding toward my staff. “You mind?”
Slowly, I took the blade away from the teleporter’s throat. The man himself had woken up at some point, and was giving me a fearful look as he scrambled to his feet.
Avalon stepped around me then, palm up as she held it out for the cure. “You helped make my life miserable,” she informed him, her lips tight. “You killed my mother and helped turn my father against me. You were part of manipulating my friend into attacking me so that I had to kill him. You helped make sure his brother kept coming after me too.”
Fahsteth shrugged, dropping the cure and the truth stone in her hand. “Yeah, sorry, kid. No hard feelings though. It was just business, you understand? Besides, not like we can do anything about it right now. You all swore to let me leave. Remember? Can’t lay a hand on me.”
Avalon lifted her chin then, catching the items in her palm before closing her hand. “It’s funny,” she replied flatly… just as a glowing blue energy blade erupted from the gauntlet of her extended hand, cutting straight through the shark-man’s chest, neatly bisecting him even as his eyes went wide with shock.
“… how much you can do without laying a hand on someone.”