The horrific scream that filled the air in the subsequent moment after Rudolph’s body hit the floor came from Doug. The boy was the first of us to move, hurling himself at Manakel with that terrible cry of rage and grief. A sword with an axe-like end had appeared in his hands, and he swung it at the Seosten as hard as he could, screaming the whole time.
Manakel caught it. Not only did he catch it, but he did so with two fingers. Almost idly pinching the blade between them, he plucked it out of Doug’s hand as simply as taking something away from a baby. Or even easier, to be honest.
With the blade in those two fingers, Manakel gave an utterly dismissive swat, smacking Doug across the face with the hilt of his own weapon. As idle as the move looked from the Seosten, the result was far more dramatic on Doug’s end. His nose and part of his cheek caved in, and the boy was sent hurtling into the wall. He didn’t move again.
It wasn’t even that the rest of us had remained frozen through all that. But we started moving a second after Doug had, and that was how quick that whole thing had been. To say that it had been easy for Manakel to knock Doug completely out of the fight would have been a drastic understatement. It had been about as hard as knocking out a kitten.
Things somehow managed to get worse then, as Choo went to shock the man from behind, only for Manakel to somehow anticipate the incoming electricity and sidestep before pivoting to kick the little electric-pig clear across the room. He would have hit the wall and… well, honestly, bad things probably would’ve happened then. But at the last second, Tabbris sent Marian leaping into Choo’s path. The force of the blow knocked the fox out of existence, but still managed to cushion the Jekern’s flight enough that he wasn’t killed in the process. He was, however, out of the fight.
What were we supposed to do? Sixty seconds, less now, before he would be able to openly kill Avalon. We could try to knock out the jammer like we had been planning all along, but that would mean killing at least one of his hostages. We couldn’t do that. We couldn’t. But what choice did we have? What were we supposed to do?
Flick! I heard Tabbris blurt, your item sense! Pay attention!
I did, focusing on what she was trying to point out to me. Then I had it. “Remote!” I blurted, having no time to be quiet about it. “He has a remote on him, it must be for the traps.”
It made sense. If the magic hiccup bomb wouldn’t take out the death traps he’d put the others in, they had to be tech-based rather than magic. The stasis fields were tech based, while the lines connecting them to the jammer were magic. If we used the spell-hiccup grenade near one of the stasis fields, it would take out that magic line that was holding the technology-based stasis field. And without that, the field would collapse, crushing the occupant.
But Manakel would have to have a quick way of turning them on and off. Thus, the remote. That was the gist that I was getting from my power, anyway.
Avalon‘s eyes narrowed. “Then we take it off of him.”
Manakel smiled. “By all means,” he replied with an open gesture. “Come and get it.”
Avalon, Shiori, Scout, Columbus, and me. That’s what this had come down to. I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance. But maybe, just maybe, we could get that remote out of him if he was arrogant enough to give us a shot at it. Charmeine had been that arrogant and sloppy, so there was always a chance. It was, to be honest, the only one that we had.
And we tried. Between the four of us, we threw everything we had at that piece of shit. My staff extended as I swiped it at his face right as Shiori’s disk was spinning through the air where he would have to move his head. At the same time, Avalon had used her speed to blur behind the man while her conjured energy blade went for his side. And Columbus teleported to the other side of him while turning his fist to metal, punching for his throat.
We were coordinated, we were skilled, and we used our powers and weapons as effectively as we could.
And it all meant nothing. Manakel barely moved. With a gesture, a spell on his sleeve activated and the deadly spinning disc was sent flying off to embed itself in the far wall, yanking Shiori after it as her tether line activated seemingly against her will.
At the same time, he moved his head that fraction of an inch while his other hand moved up, one finger brushing the side of my staff to shove it into Columbus’s fist. The impact tore the weapon from my hands, sending it clattering along the floor.
Then there was Avalon. As she stabbed for his back, the man easily turned just enough that her blade whiffed through the air. His hand went down, using just a couple fingers once more to catch her wrist. I heard it snap, followed by another harsh snap as he bent her arm the complete wrong way, tearing a reluctant cry of pain from the girl before tossing her casually out of his way.
Scout had already opened up with her gun, sending a dozen bullets through several different portals that surrounded the man from different sides. But he seemed to know they were coming, and another spell on his clothes activated, putting up a brief blue forcefield that caught every incoming bullet.
Then he must have used his boost, because the man was suddenly a blur. He vanished from where he was standing, reappearing next to Scout before hitting her in the chest. I heard another hard crack, and she hit the wall not that far from where Doug was. Like him, she didn’t move again.
She’d dropped her gun in the process, and Manakel easily caught it before giving the weapon a toss. It flew like a shot right at Shiori, just as she had recovered from being yanked by her own weapon. The butt of the gun slammed into the back of the girl’s head, and she went down as well.
Columbus was there, teleporting in front of the man while an enormous concussive blast of energy erupted from his goggles.
Once again, Manakel activated another spell. The blast was caught in some kind of weird tornado thing that appeared in front of him, before being redirected to hit Columbus himself. Manakel must have enhanced it too, because the beam got even bigger right at the last second and turned black.
Whatever he’d done to it, the redirected blast put Columbus on the ground.
That left Avalon and me. And Manakel hadn’t even drawn a weapon yet. Which he corrected right then, producing a very thin, rapier/like blade, regarding it briefly before looking to the two of us.
“Time’s up,” he announced quietly. And almost as an afterthought, the man twitched his fingers. Instantly, the spell-hiccup grenade in my pocket, as well as those that the others had all flew to the man before disintegrating right before our eyes. “You should have taken your chance,” the man informed us idly.
Producing the silver knife that Athena had given me, I went for him. It was all I could do. The remote, if we could just get the remote. I knew where it was, I just had to get to it. Avalon was right with me, and we fought him together, each moving in concert as if we somehow instinctively knew what the other was going to do.
Yet again, it didn’t matter. Manakel took us apart like we were toddlers. He broke more of Avalon’s bones, like he was toying with her and enjoying it. Hell, he was toying with both of us. He clearly had utterly and completely won.
He didn’t even toy with us for that long, barely a few seconds. Then he activated that telekinetic spell on his sleeve again, and I felt myself torn off my feet.
The force of the magical shove made my back hit the wall so hard I felt a rib crack, sending a shooting pain through my body that would have been a hell of a lot worse without the pain tolerance power that I’d picked up awhile back. For a second, I couldn’t think, let alone breathe.
Avalon hit the same wall an instant later, almost directly beside me. Before she could push herself off it, Manakel’s thin blade was suddenly and harshly shoved into her stomach, drawing a cry of pain from the girl who had already been through so much.
“Avalon!” I blurted, only to have my words cut off as Manakel’s other hand found my chest, shoving me hard once more. He was holding me so firmly that I thought the rest of my ribcage might collapse. It was like an elephant was sitting on my chest. “Easy,” he snapped while keeping Avalon essentially pinned to the wall with his sword. “That’s not lethal. I’m not quite ready to kill her yet. Close, but not yet. She deserves far more than a quick death.”
Avalon was in pain. So much pain. Her leg had been broken, both of her arms were… well, basically shattered, broken in several places. She could barely keep herself upright, with that blade shoved through her. We were both caught there, against the wall.
“I suppose it really is poetic, in a way,” the Seosten man mused thoughtfully, “that it would end with the two of you. You really have been quite annoying this year, do you know that? Take that as a compliment if you wish, but between all the duplicates my host had to make just to keep up with the trouble you were causing…” He shook his head, tutting a little. “Irritating. That’s what it is. Just plain irritating.”
The others were down. Columbus, Shiori, Doug, Scout, even Choo, they were all unconscious. Sean and Vulcan were trapped in that stasis field along with Nevada, Dare, Deveron, Kohaku, and Koren. They were sealed away. And Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was dead because this arrogant piece of shit murdered him. He would never get to find out the truth about whether his grandfather was possessed. He would never get to graduate from Crossroads–fuck, he hadn’t even made it through his first year. And why? Because this fucking bastard killed him. He killed him for no reason. None. God damn it, Rudolph wasn’t even supposed to be involved in any of this! He shouldn’t be dead! He shouldn’t–fucking shouldn’t be dead, God damn it! It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. It just… wasn’t…
And then I stopped thinking about how it wasn’t fair. I stopped thinking about the way I wished things would have been, and thought about how they actually were. I thought about everything that happened so far since I had joined Crossroads. Flashes of the past eight months filled my head so quickly I could barely keep up with them. I thought about all the attempts on Avalon’s life, about the hunts we had been on, about the zombies that attacked the school. I thought about when I had cleared people of being possessed, about Theia’s inability to tell us about who Manakel was possessing, and about the message that Koren sent. I thought about all of it.
And then I knew the truth. It came as simply as a light being flicked on by a switch, illuminating the darkness and confusion of my mind so that I understood. Really… truly… understood.
Manakel was still talking like that was his superpower. With his sword hand casually keeping Avalon pinned right there, the man smiled at me. “I really couldn’t make up my mind, you know? After the annoyance that you’ve been, would it be better to kill you and make her watch?” His head gestured toward Avalon. “Or would it be better to kill her and make you watch. It’s really just so… hard to decide. But you know what? I think I’ve got the answer. I can kill you, reanimate you, and make you kill her. Isn’t that just the best of every possibility?” Shaking his head in amusement at his own cleverness, the man added offhandedly, “So, any last words?”
“Yeah,” I replied flatly, meeting his gaze. “I’ve got a last word. Decorating.”
I saw confusion very briefly flash through his eyes before the man gave a little shake of his head. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a bit more specific, my dear. Decorating what?”
“Decorating,” I repeated just as simply. “That’s what Koren sent. She told us you were decorating, that Manakel was decorating, right before… well, I guess it would’ve been right before you or your goons grabbed her, wouldn’t it? Manakel’s decorating.”
“I suppose it’s too bad that she didn’t tell you anything that was useful then,” the man remarked with a wink. “But I’m afraid that if your last request is that I let her out so she can tell you what she meant by that, I’m going to have to deny it.”
“Chambers, just–” Avalon started before grunting as Manakel gave a very slight twitch of his blade that took her breath away, turning her words to a pained groan.
Quickly, I spoke up. “I don’t need you to let her out. I know what she meant.”
The man’s head tilted slightly at that, his curiosity obvious. “Do you now?”
My head gave a tiny nod, as much as I could manage while pinned to that wall by that unrelenting force against my chest. “Actually, it’s more about a bunch of other things. Like what Columbus said when we came in here. Five spells. He said there were five spells leading out of the jammer there. Six of them leading in, which makes sense now that you revealed Sean. Six hostages, six spells. But only five leading out. Six leading in, but only five leading out. It doesn’t make sense. The spells leading out are obviously the ones that connect to the hostages, so you should want one for each of them. Six leading in, six leading out. One for each hostage, both ways.”
My voice softened as I continued pointedly. “Unless one of them isn’t a hostage. But has to look like one when all this goes down, just to save face. Unless they need to look like they were helpless when Crossroads investigates this, just so you can keep using them as a host.”
“Well,” Manakel replied with a slight chuckle of amusement. “You sound like you really have a whole web of theories in that head of yours. This is quite interesting.”
“You convinced the Seraphim to give you the resources to put a spell on Theia so she couldn’t tell us who you were possessing,” I noted in that same quiet voice.
“I’m sorry,” the man interrupted, holding up one hand. “Who?” Then his fingers snapped. “Ah, the Lie, yes. You gave it a name? That is truly adorable.”
Ignoring that, I pushed on. I had to push on. “You convinced them to put a spell that strong on her, even without her present. Which had to make it even harder. But you still convinced them to do it. Why? Why would they agree to that, just to save you from having one host exposed? It doesn’t make sense. Hosts are disposable to most of you guys.
“Unless… unless that particular host is too important to lose. Unless that particular host is so important because of how close they are to someone you guys can’t possess. Someone so strong and so important to everything that keeping someone near her, someone in her inner circle, is worth spending all those extra resources on.”
My eyes stayed locked on his, our gazes boring deep into one another. “Decorating,” I reminded him softly. “Koren said decorating. But she didn’t mean that. She was texting too fast to notice the mistake. Probably because your goons were right there. Decorating. You know what’s right next to the D on a keyboard? S. You know what’s pretty close to the O? U. She types a couple letters wrong, fucks up the end of it because that is right when your guys attacked them, and… what do you know, what turned into decorating… was supposed to be security. That’s what the pixie told them. That’s what Koren was trying to say. Manakel… is… security.”
Security. That was how the Seosten had jumped Koren and Deveron so effectively and quickly. And they had to have been physically jumped right then, because even if communications in here had been blocked after that last message, Koren still would have told Gaia about it. And Wyatt would have made sure that Tabbris knew before she jumped back to me. If they knew that much, Tabbris would have been told about it. Wyatt wouldn’t have left her without that information. Which meant that he didn’t know. Which meant that Koren had been jumped right after that message. And that only made sense if security saw the first message, realized what was happening, and went after her.
Security… or one member of security in particular.
“Kohaku,” I finished, pushing the word out past the lump in my throat. “You’ve been possessing Professor Kohaku this whole time. Back when I cleared her with the choker, she went out of sight for just a second, pretending to grab Paul. Or, you know, the shapeshifter posing as Paul. Fetch. That’s when you guys switched. He took your place, and you had Kohaku shapeshift into him. Fetch touched me, and I thought that meant Kohaku was clear. You played me.”
“That is some very well done deductive reasoning,” Manakel informed me. “Unfortunately, you are just a little too late.”
Ignoring that, I forced more words out, keeping my gaze locked onto his still. “You didn’t hook your own host up to the whole ‘dies when the jammer is shorted out’ thing because she’s too valuable to lose if we actually went that far to stop you. A host that close to Gaia that’s already possessed? Who is also the head of security for all of Crossroads? No. You wouldn’t risk it. Six spells going in, so she’s still powering it. But only five coming out. She’s not hooked into the death part.”
“Again,” Manakel repeated, “excellent detective work. Gold stars all around. But as I said, you’re just a little too late. The spells you made to break the jammer are gone. Your allies are in no position to help you. And now the very last spell that was protecting Miss Sinclaire here… is gone. So I’m afraid it’s time to kill you, so that you can kill her. Your time is up, Miss Chambers.”
“Manakel.” Avalon’s voice came then, interrupting the man right before he could have killed me. Her head was raised, her eyes open as she glared at him, every word that emerged from her mouth coming through sheer force of utterly indomitable will against waves of crippling agony. “If you’re going to stab someone….” Both of her hands snapped up then, catching hold of his extended arm with an iron grip.
“Do it like you mean it.”
With that, Avalon yanked hard on the man’s arm, pulling herself further onto his blade. She literally impaled herself on the sword all the way up to the hilt, which put her closer to the man. Close enough to slam her forehead into his face. Cartilage cracked, even more blood sprayed, and Manakel’s head jerked back reflexively.
It was enough. There was a tiny opening there, as the man’s head recoiled from the blow. And in that tiny opening, a light appeared. That light resolved itself into a girl. My partner. Tabbris. She appeared, using the opening that had been created between us to throw herself past Manakel. The space was small. But so was she, and the young girl went right through it.
Manakel felt her pass him, jerking his head that way just in time to see the blonde girl dive. His mouth opened to blurt something. Curse? Question? I didn’t know. But it was too late, either way. Tabbris was right there, her outstretched fingers reaching for a small, deceptively innocent-looking… incredibly handsome, brave, and charming rock.
Herbie. The whole time that I had been talking, distracting Manakel, I had also been using my newfound rock-animation power to slowly, slowly move the rock away from where I had dropped him during all that fighting. Through my explanation/distraction, I had gradually moved the rock right up next to Professor Kohaku’s stasis tube.
Because while Manakel had been wrong about a lot of things, there was one thing in particular that he was even more wrong than usual about. Those spell-hiccup grenades that he had destroyed… they weren’t all of the ones I had made. Right before we left that room after making them, I had said that there was one more thing I wanted to do, just in case.
Herbie. I put the spell on Herbie.
Manakel started to shout, turning even as Tabbris dove through the air. But my hands grabbed one arm, and the critically injured Avalon held tight to his other one. We were ragdolls to him, jerked easily around as the man spun.
But it was too late. We slowed him just enough, and Tabbris was there. Landing hard on her stomach, my partner’s hand grabbed the stone next to Kohaku.
And then she spoke the trigger word that set off the spell… and let Gaia into the facility.