“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”
Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…
They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…
Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.
“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”
That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”
“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”
“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.
“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”
“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”
They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.
They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.
I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.
In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.
Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.
Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.
But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.
It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.
I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.
Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.
Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.
Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.
Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.
“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”
“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.
“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”
His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.
“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”
But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.
“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”
“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.
Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”
In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.
“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”
Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.
The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.
“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a puppet out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”
“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”
Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”
Shit. He had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?
Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”
Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s a safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”
Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”
“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”
Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”
Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”
Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”
“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the Heretic sense. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”
Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”
Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”
Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”
I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”
She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”
Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”
“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”
“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”
Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”
“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”
“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”
Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”
“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”
“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”
Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”
It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”
That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”
Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”
I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”
Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”
“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”
“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”
Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”
“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”
Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”
Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”
Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”
I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.
The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even to really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.
It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?
Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.
Or we would lose.