Month: December 2018

Interlude 41B – Margorie And Caela Tombs

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February 18th, 1951

The sound of a meaty fist striking flesh was accompanied by two separate cries. One was of physical pain, while the other was the emotional anguish of seeing a loved one hurt and being unable to stop it. The latter carried on into a desperate plea.

“She can tell you nothing! Leave her, she is only a child!”

The woman making the plea stood just over five and a half feet tall. She wore a light blue dress and had dark red hair that fell to the middle of her back. Her face was adorned with bruises of her own and the dress was torn. Her arms were being held by two large men in jeans and flannel shirts who looked as though they belonged as bouncers in a western country music themed bar.

They stood just inside the entrance of a mostly empty auto repair shop. A single, mostly disassembled sedan sat in the middle of the shop, while the subjects of the woman’s desperate plea were a couple feet away from it. A young girl, just over ten years old, and the large man who had struck her. The man stood over six feet in height and had a large, thick brown mustache that served as the only hair on his head. His knuckles were caked with both wet and dry blood as he cracked them while staring down at the child he had just hit.

“Maybe she can’t,” the man calmly agreed with the woman’s cry, “but you can.” Turning that way, he leveled a dead eyed-stare at her. “Can’t you, mommy?”

Still held by those thugs, The woman shook her head quickly. “I can’t! I can’t give you what you want! I can’t tell you how to get in. Please, please!”

“Oh, I think you can,” the man objected. “See, you’re the majority owner of the Auberge. Which means that if anyone can get us in there, it’s you. Which you’re going to do, unless you don’t care about your daughter’s life, that is.”

Once more, the woman shook her head. A soft whine of fear escaped her before she managed to put it into words. “You’ll kill them. You’ll kill all those people. You’ll kill our guests. I can’t do that. They have families too. They are safe there. I can’t take that away from them. I won’t take that away from them. Please, please I can’t. I can’t do that.” With every word, the terror in the woman’s voice grew more apparent.

Desperately, she looked to the men on either side of her. “Please, you’re Heretics. You call yourselves heroes, right? You’re supposed to be the good guys. Does this look like something good to you? Please, she’s just a child. Let her go. Please, please just let her go.”

If the men keeping her restrained cared about her words, they gave no indication of it. Meanwhile, the one standing by her daughter looked down at the trembling child. “You hear that, kid? I don’t think she cares if I step on your head and crush it like a grape.”

The woman cried out, a desperate, horrified wail as she strained at her captors iron grips to no avail. “Leave her alone! I won’t give you what you want! I’m not going to let you do to them what you’re doing to us! I won’t let you in! I won’t! I won’t!” With each word, the woman’s sobs grew more pronounced, more anguished and broken.

For a long moment, the man looked to her before slowly lowering his gaze to the quietly crying child lying on the floor at his feet. He seemed to regard her contemplatively, as though deciding how best to end her life. Finally, a slight smile cracked his face. “That’s okay,” he replied as though they were simply having a casual conversation. “I don’t really need you anyway, though it would’ve been better for you both if you cooperated.”  Turning his head slightly, the man raised his voice. “Bring in the kid!”

Daughter and mother alike turned then at the sound of one of the side doors opening to admit several more figures. With them was another child, a boy of about five years old with pale blonde hair, who walked between them in clothes that were a little too big for him. His shoes, too large for his feet, slapped noisily against the concrete floor with each step.

“Papa?” the boy hesitantly asked, looking to the man.

“C’mere, kid.” Their oppressor raised his hand, gesturing for the boy to approach. Once he did, the man lay a hand on his soft blonde head. “You see, this here is Francis. He’s real special, aren’t you, kid?”

Rather than answer, the young Francis raised his hand to point to the fallen girl. “Is she okay?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” the man firmly ordered before continuing his explanation for the prisoners. “You see, Francis here is real special. Just like his mom was special. But unlike her, he’s going to be a good boy and do what he’s told, isn’t that right?” When the boy nodded his head, he continued. “Damn right he is. His mama was what we call a Steward. You know what that means?”

In a shaky, broken voice, the woman answered. “They protect and take care of a home. What they see as their home. They get power from staying there and keeping it safe. And… and from killing things that invade their home or threaten the people who live there.”

“Ding, ding,” the man announced, grinning. “That’s right. Except here’s the thing. When they’re young, like this little guy, their power fluctuates a lot. It’s not as reliable, but they also pick new homes really quick. It takes years for them to settle down. When they’re tiny, it means they basically pick any place they happen to be standing in as their home, if you know what I mean. Francis here may be half-human, but that’s enough for him to get the job done. And keeps him from being a full fucking monster like you creatures.”

It took the woman a moment, but her eyes widened, and she shook her head quickly while blurting, “No!”

“See?” the man taunted a little. “Told you I didn’t really need you to cooperate. You just stand right there and my boy here will copy your power to open the way to your little hotel. That’s a gift they give all the owners, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Special little gift so you can open a door from anywhere. So you just stand there and look pretty. Frances here will open the door for you. You don’t have to do anything else. Except maybe ask yourself why you left the hotel today.”

He focused on the boy then. “Now Francis, you remember what I told you to do? You just focus on the lady over there, and think about opening doors. Feel that power? You focus on that. Focus on opening that door. That’s right.”

The woman cried and struggled uselessly, while her daughter simply sobbed on the floor. Meanwhile, the boy did as he was told, focusing on the image of a door. Gradually, that door began to appear in the middle of the room. The doorway that would lead to the Auberge, and to hundreds of unsuspecting guests.

“Cowards.”

The single, simple word broke through all other sound in the garage. The men all looked to one another with obvious confusion before turning to search for the source of the voice, which had seemed to come from everywhere at once. Their eyes scanned the room, as they produced weapons. Their leader’s voice was harsh. “Who’s there? Another one of the bitch’s security? You should’ve kept playing dead if you survived, you stupid fuck. Now we’re just gonna have to finish the job.”

Their search, regardless of all the extra powers they brought into play in addition to their natural senses, was fruitless. They could not find the voice. Their leader was about to tell his hybrid son to keep bringing the door into place and forget the distraction. But when he turned that way, he found himself facing a woman. She had appeared from absolutely nowhere, her slight blonde figure giving no indication as to the tremendous power, both literal and figurative, within her. Francis lay at her feet, sleeping peacefully so that he wouldn’t have to see what came next. The doorway he had been summoning had disappeared along with his consciousness.

“Wh-” that was as far as the man got before she struck him. Her fist slammed into his chest and the man was sent flying across the garage to crash into the far wall with enough force to leave a visible crater-like dent within it.

The remaining six men in the room snapped to the attack. One of them brought up what looked like a tommy gun, filling the air with hundreds of tiny flaming bullets, while another produced a cannon-like weapon, which he fired a long metallic harpoon from. Jagged arcs of electricity danced around the thing as it flew through the air.

But it was useless. The woman’s figure was a blur of motion as she moved to them. As fast as she was, the bullets might as well have been standing still. She stepped around each one, plucking it from the air and crushing it between her fingers like ash. When she reached the harpoon, her hand caught the end of it and she pushed the thing just enough to correct its course before letting go.

The harpoon continued on its new course, which put it straight through the knee of a man who had been racing up behind her with his sword held high. He collapsed to the ground with a scream just as the woman threw the handful of hot bullet ash into the face of the man who had been shooting at her.

He stumbled back, screaming out while grabbing for his burned eyes. But she put him out of his misery quickly by flicking a hand. The gesture simultaneously restored the bullets to their original size and made them explode, sending a hot, concussive shockwave straight into his head, killing him instantly.

Without looking (or paying much attention to the golden aura that sprang up around her), the woman made a twirling motion with her finger. At her silent command, the harpoon embedded in the one man’s leg proceeded to tear its way free and whipped around the room to cut through the throat of every other man save for the one she had originally struck, their leader. Every time the harpoon neared another victim, it glowed with blinding white power. The heat that it gave off melted part of the concrete and metal several feet away, and it cut through any defense the men had like a knife through butter. Each man was killed unceremoniously in those couple of seconds.

Then she let the harpoon drop, allowing it to clatter noisily to the floor. The only man left, the one who had been in charge, was picking himself off the floor while giving a horrified look around him. His face turned red, just before steel covered his skin. Bellowing an outraged curse, he flung himself at her.

She didn’t move. She didn’t lift a finger or twitch a muscle. The man’s fist collided with her face, and the fist lost. The metal in it snapped, cracking in several places while his arm collapsed inward like a broken accordion. The man hit the floor on his knees, screaming incoherently.

The woman reached out, putting hand on top of his head and pushing back to make him look at her. “You would have slaughtered all those people,” she spoke quietly. “The girl here and her mother, you tortured them.” The fury in her voice was palpable, filling the room with near physical manifestations of her righteous outrage.

The man realized who she was. “You,” he blurted. “Atherby. You’re supposed to be one of us! You’re supposed to kill the monsters, not take their side, you fucking traitor!”

“Kill the monsters?” she echoed, lifting her chin before looking around the room at the downed men. Then she returned her gaze to him. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

With that, the woman sent the harpoon into the back of the man’s head, leaving his dead body to collapse onto the ground as she turned to survey the rest of the room. Only three living figures remained. The slumbering boy, Francis, and the mother and daughter pair.

For a moment, the terrified red-haired woman stood silently, staring at her. Then her eyes seemed to notice her cowering, trembling daughter, and she ran that way, falling to her knees to gather the girl into her arms. Both sobbed and held on to one another.

“Wh-what do you want?” the red-haired woman carefully and fearfully asked while clutching her child tightly once she had assured herself that the girl really was alive and in her arms.

“Nothing.” The answer came simply, before their rescue were added quietly, “My name is Joselyn. Joselyn Atherby. I know you have no reason to trust Heretics. But some of us are trying to change that. Some of us are trying to make things better.”

She took one step forward then before sinking down to one knee. Mother and daughter were both watching her intently, fear and distrust written across their faces. “I know you’re scared. I would be too. After what they did, after what they were trying to do… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. I’m sorry I couldn’t save the people who were protecting you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop your daughter from seeing all of that, or from being hurt.”

She paused another moment before quietly asking, “May I please know your names?”

“Tombs,” The red-haired woman answered while keeping on arm protectively around her daughter. “Margorie Tombs. This is Caela. I… I’ve heard your name. If you’re really her, I… I…” She swallowed, still a bit afraid. “Thank you. If you’re her, thank you. But please, if this is a trick-”

“It’s not a trick,” Joselyn assured them softly. “I promise. My friends and I, we just want to help. We just want to make things right.”

“Where’s Papa?”

The question came from the boy named Francis. He was sitting up, looking around with confusion. When Margorie followed his gaze, she found that all the bodies, including that of his father, had disappeared.

“He didn’t need to see that,” Joselyn replied to the unspoken question before looking over at the boy. “Francis, right? Can you come here for a second, please?”

When the five-year-old boy obediently came to her, Joselyn gently took his hand and squeezed it. “Hi, there. Do you know what happened to your mom?”

“Papa,” the boy answered solemnly. He said nothing else, but the single word and look in his eyes made the meaning obvious. The hybrid boy’s Heretic father had killed his Steward mother.

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn whispered before giving the boys a hug. “He’s gone now, okay? He’s gone and he won’t hurt you again. He won’t make you hurt anyone else again. You are a good boy, Francis.”

“Y-you made him go away?” Francis sounded a little doubtful. He’d seen how strong his father was, had experienced just how much power the man had.

The response came not from Joselyn herself, but from Margorie’s daughter, Caela. The girl, several years older than Francis, spoke up. “Uh huh. She made him leave, and he’s never coming back. Never ever.”

Francis stared at her for a moment before offering a tentative, “I’m sorry Papa made you cry. I didn’t want to make you cry.”

He looked down at his hand then, which began to glow white. Hesitantly, the boy reached over to touch Caela’s bruised cheek and blackened eye. She reflexively tried to sit back, but at that single touch, her face began to heal. The girl gasped softly, as did her mother, as the injuries faded.

“You.” Margorie was looking to Joselyn. “He’s using one of your powers. That’s what he does, what his mother’s people do. They borrow powers of people in the place they consider home. He’s young enough, he considers everything home.”

“Yes,” Joselyn confirmed, “but he needs a better one, a more permanent one.”

Eyes widening just a little, Margorie realized, “You want us to take the boy with us back to the Auberge. You don’t want to take him with you? He’d… he’d grow up to be very helpful for what you’re doing..”

“He’s a child,” Joselyn replied softly. She reached out to gently brush her hand through the boy’s soft hair. “He deserves a chance to keep being a child. But yes, he may grow up to be very strong. Which means he’ll be able to protect his home. That should be the Auberge. Or maybe he’ll leave. The point is that should be his choice when the time comes. Right now, he’s just a little boy. And I think that you can take care of him.”

She looked over to where Francis and Caela were quietly talking and smiled faintly. “Besides, they seem to be getting along. I wouldn’t want to break that up.” As she spoke, Joselyn brought the white healing glow to her own hand while reaching out. She gently touched the other woman’s face and healed her.

“My people are at war. Your Auberge is a safe place. He deserves that, if you’ll have him.”

Touching her own now-pristine cheek with a soft gasp of wonder, Margorie then gave a quick nod. “We… we’ll take him with us. We’ll keep him safe until he’s ready to decide for himself what to do.” She hesitated very slightly before adding, “You could come too. You saved our lives, the least we can do is allow you to stay.”

“Thank you,” Joselyn graciously answered, “but I can’t. There’s too much to do. Too many people like you being hurt by people like them. I’ll just be glad to know that you and the kids are safe. So you better go, just to make sure you all stay that way. I’ll handle the cleanup here. They’ll send people to check on what happened. You need to be gone before they arrive.”

Margorie raised a hand, hesitated only slightly, then summoned the doorway that would take them back to the hotel. She stood, beckoning the two children to join her. Together, they moved to the door before the woman looked back to Joselyn.

“I heard what you said, but you still saved our lives. So, Joselyn Atherby, I want you to know that you and your family will always have an open invitation to the Auberge, if you change your mind. You are welcome in our home.”

Joselyn met her gaze with a smile. “Thank you. And who knows?

“Maybe someday we’ll take you up on that.”

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Interlude 41A – Pace, Theia, Miranda, and Abigail

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“Oooh, can we get a Two-Face suit?”

The question from Theia came as she (with Pace, of course) stood in the middle of a clothing store holding a black leather jacket in one hand and a red leather jacket with the other. The store itself was a relatively small, corner-located business that specialized in second-hand clothing.

Abigail blinked once at the question, looking over to the girl(s) from where she stood at another of several nearby clothing racks. “A… two-face suit?” She had brought the girls here thanks to a conversation they’d been having earlier. Abigail had asked when Theia’s birthday was, which was something the girl herself didn’t know. Appalled by that, Abigail had said they would make today her birthday. So now they were out shopping for presents. Presents which, among other things, included getting Theia and Pace some actual personal clothes that they could enjoy.

The whole birthday thing was also helping to take Abigail’s mind off the memory of being abducted and nearly killed by her own much younger half-brother, who himself ended up dead in the process.

It had been a very long school year.

“She means like this.” Moving by Theia, Miranda reached out to take the jackets before arranging them next to each other so that the left half of one and the right half of the other were hidden, leaving the two jackets looking like one with different colors on each side. “Two-Face. You know, Batman.”

“We would make a very good Batman,” Theia noted. “Except for killing people. And being a girl. And not a detective. Or rich. Or broody. But we do enjoy beating people up. And scaring people by magically appearing behind them. Which is worth at least a passing grade at Batmanning.”

“So which is it?” Miranda asked, “Do you want to be Two-Face or Batman?”

Theia’s mouth opened, before the girl paused, a sudden gasp of realization escaping her. “We have a brilliant idea. Where is the nearest Batman writer? We can–”

“You can’t turn Two-Face into Batman,” Miranda interrupted, catching the other girl by the arm. “I’m pretty sure something like that already happened with Spider-Man anyway.”

“Besides,” Pace put in then as she briefly took over, “we’re here for new clothes. And if we went with a Two-Face suit, we’d probably stand out just a little bit. Or a batsuit,” she added belatedly before completely changing the subject, as she was wont to do. “You have a codename now too.”

“It’s not a codename,” the other girl corrected, “it’s a Garden name. It’s supposed to signify your rebirth or loyalty to the tribe, or to the Tree, or… whatever.”

Abigail sighed, looking to her. “The name is an insult. You know why they chose it, what they mean by it.”

Meeting her gaze, Miranda shrugged. “Stray? Yeah, I know why they offered the name Stray. Because I’m straying from the tribe, supposedly. Because I’m just a stray in general, just a nobody orphan that sniffs around until someone takes me in. And I know they expected me to object and drag it out. They expected me to make a big fuss about it, expected me to refuse and go with a different name. But I don’t need a different name. The name doesn’t make me, I make the name. And I’ll make this one what I want it to be.”

Theia, watching her carefully, offered an uncharacteristically somber, “Names are powerful. Like a wild bull. If you control it, you’re strong. But sometimes people throw you onto one, because they want it to throw you off and trample you. They throw you onto a bad name, because they want to hurt you.”

“I can ride this bull,” Miranda replied simply. “They don’t get to win.”

Running a hand over the girl’s hair, Abigail looked like she was going to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she settled on reaching out to pick a handful of clothes. “Here, why don’t you three go ahead and head into the back to try these on. See if you like any of them, then we can go from there.” The woman smiled a little. “And while you do that, I’ll see if there’s a Batman costume hiding somewhere in the corner over there.”

The girls headed into the changing rooms at the back. Theia and Pace stepped into the nearest booth, taking some of the clothes in with them. Unfortunately, they had only just positioned themselves in front of the mirror with a pair of pants held up in front of Pace’s body when both abruptly stopped their ongoing inner dialogue about what color was better. Pace’s head turned, but it was hard to say which of them turned it. Both were in sync, both with that and with the slow, careful sniff that came next.

“Heretics,” Theia muttered aloud.

“Strange Heretics,” Pace added.

“What?” That last one was Miranda, poking her head under the partition to stare up at them. “What do you mean strange Heretics?”

Theia opened the door, whispering, “We smell Garden things. Fresh Garden things. And it’s not the Selling man. Four…” She sniffed again. “Five of them. On Theia-My’s birthday too. Rude.”

She started for the front, but Miranda stopped her with a hand on Pace’s arm. “Wait. They can’t see you like this, remember? Let me go check what’s going on. Just… wait here.”  She gave them a brief look of warning before quietly moving that way to glance around the corner.

Unfortunately, she did so just in time to be grabbed by the arm and neck and yanked fully out into the front area. The large man gripping her was covered in some kind of red metal that coated his skin, and he was incredibly strong. In one motion, he hauled Miranda into sight and gave her a firm shove, tossing the girl into the middle of the room. She landed next to Abigail.

“Hey!” Abigail herself reached down to help Miranda up, glaring at the man. “Watch what you’re doing, she’s a student!”

“What are you doing?” Miranda put in then, even as she set herself in front of Abigail. The other woman may have been older, but she was far less experienced if this came down to a fight. And Miranda knew too much about Eden’s Garden to think that this guy and his friends were here just to talk. “You–” She started to look for the proprietor of the shop, only to see the man lying unconscious near the checkout counter. One of the other Heretics was standing nearby. Another was by the door, scribbling a spell onto it that would convince any Bystanders who approached to go somewhere else. That was three, while the other two remained out of sight.

“You attacked that poor man,” Abigail finished Miranda’s sentence, pointing that way. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Who are we?” the red-armored guy who had thrown Miranda to the ground echoed with a smirk. The armor went away, revealing a man who appeared to be a Pacific Islander, and a well-built one at that. “We’re the heroes, duh.”

Abigail’s voice was flat. “Yes, I’m sure the Greeks would have been proud to write stories about what heroes you are, pushing around little girls and attacking innocent old men.”

“He’ll be fine.” The words came from one of the larger coat racks, as a man stepped into view. He wasn’t that tall, standing a couple inches under six feet, with a thin goatee and slicked back dark hair. “He’s just sleeping. We spend enough time risking our lives to protect these Bystanders, the least they can do is take a nap when we want to have a private conversation.”

“I know you,” Miranda announced, staring at the man while still standing protectively in front of Abigail. “Lovac. Your name is Lovac. You’re Weston Marrero’s uncle.” The boy and his arm-candy girlfriends Josie and Kumiko (who were suspiciously similar in appearance with Flick and Shiori) had clearly been holding a grudge against Miranda ever since she and Koren had their confrontation with them much earlier. The confrontation which had led to finding the video of Pace first being possessed.

“Yeah,” Lovac agreed, “so maybe I’m enjoying this a little more than I would.”

“Enjoying what?” Abigail demanded, setting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “What is it you want? You have to have a point to all this. A point other than posturing, I mean.”

The large man who had been armored a moment earlier started to speak, but Lovac interrupted him. “A point? Yeah, there’s a point. But for the record, if you’re waiting for Seller to show up, you’re going to be waiting for awhile. Let’s just say the Victors have a job for him that should keep him out of the way long enough to do what we need to do.”

Squeezing Miranda’s shoulder before the girl could retort, Abigail spoke first, keeping her voice as calm and level as possible to avoid setting off this powder keg. “And what is it you think you need to do?”

A slight smirk touched the man’s face as he casually replied, “You think you’re hot shit. Old Bystander lawyer, stomping in and waving the rule book around. You think most of us care what some dusty old paper says? We’re the ones doing the work. We’re the ones protecting humans, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty. You think you can just come in here, wag your finger, and change everything? You’ve got another thing coming. Mostly pain. Now, we’re not gonna kill you. After all, you’re one of us. But when we’re done, both of you are going to think twice before you try to throw your weight around again. You’ll shut up and do what you’re told.” He smiled thinly then. “Or we’ll just come back and give you the lesson until it sticks.”

The man who had put the spell on the door spoke up. “Stray there needs to be reminded that her loyalty is to Garden, not to some stupid little friend from Bystander school. And you need to figure out that you ain’t a lawyer here. You’re a bitch who can’t even fight. Maybe taking a little beating will make that sink i–”

That was as far as he got, before there was an abrupt and terrifying crash as something… or someone was hurled through the front window of the store. All eyes jerked that way in time to see another Garden Heretic, bound, gagged, and unconscious, crash to the floor amidst the shattered glass.

An instant later, the door was kicked open, as Theia appeared. She caught hold of the man there by the head, slamming him sideways with enough force to put a hole in the nearby wall from the impact. At the same time, she kicked his feet out from under him. Then she snapped his dazed form back the other way to drive his head into the counter before letting his unconscious form drop to the floor.

“You will not touch Miss Abigail or Miranda-Stray,” she informed the men. There was no humor in her voice, no mockery or sense of mischievous fun. She was bristling with anger.

Weapons were yanked free as the men all focused on the intruder, before Lovac put a hand up to stop them. He was staring, a bit wide-eyed at the figure. “… Pace? That… you’re… you’re a…” Slowly, he looked her up and down, a gradual smile touching his face. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is even better than I could’ve imagined. They’ve been harboring you? And you’re a monster. Werewolf, right? That’s my guess. Werewolf. Were something anyway. They’ve been hiding a fucking werewolf and lying about it? Oh, that is… thank you. Thank you all so much. Now we don’t have to stop at just beating the shit out of them. We can have them imprisoned. Probably even wiped and banished. This is just like… I’m so happy right now.” Belatedly, he added toward Theia, “And you can be dealt with properly of course. Locked up until you’re useful, or put down to make room for something that is. Like any other abomination.” Even as he spoke, the man was gently rubbing his thumb along the shaft of the long, metallic spear he had produced.  

Righteous fury filled Abigail’s voice then, as she snapped, “She’s not an abomination! Listen to yourself, what makes you think she’s any different than she was before? She has different powers now because she’s a werewolf? That doesn’t make her a monster! You have to judge people by their actions! She even knocked out your friends there instead of killing them! Would a mindless monster do that? Think for yourselves! Think! What has she actually done to make you call her a monster?!”

“Well,” Lovac replied casually while shifting his spear from one hand to the other. “She killed the poor, innocent Bystander that owns this store, for one.”

“What?” Miranda blurted, head shaking. “No, she didn’t! He’s fine! He’s right there!”

“Huh.” Lovac shrugged. Then, without any further preamble, unceremoniously drove his spear down through the unconscious shop owner’s chest. “That’s funny, he looks pretty dead to me.”

Miranda and Abigail both shouted in horror and disbelief, the latter throwing herself that way. She went to her knees by the impaled man. “What–what are you doing?! He–he was an innocent old man! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Wrong?” Lovac echoed. “Wrong with me? Nothing. What’s wrong is you not understanding something important. That guy was weak. We’re strong. The Strangers we kill or put to work, they’re weak. We’re strong. You are weak. We are strong. You think we don’t know that there’s Strangers out there just… living their dull lives, playing house, not attacking anyone? Of course we know. But we don’t care. We kill them, we get power. Because we’re stronger. We’re better. We are the superior breed. How are you not doing the math on this? Do I have to simplify it down to the point that your pathetic Bystander-bred mind can comprehend the–”

In mid-sentence, the man was cut off, his voice turning to the squeal of air escaping a balloon while he doubled over. Abigail’s foot was planted firmly between his legs.

“Funny,” the woman snapped, “the superior breed still has an off-switch.”

Chaos erupted then. The man who had been standing by Miranda armored up once more, spinning to grab the girl only to miss as she dove out of the way. Across the room, the other man brought his shotgun up, firing a shot at the front area where Pace and Theia stood.

With a roar of anger the man lashed out with his spear, only to have it caught by a suddenly-moving Theia, who had blurred forward away from the other man’s shotgun blast. She snatched hold of the spear to stop it, glowering. “I told you, you’re not touching Miss Abigail.”

Lovac’s response was a bellow, as a ball of concussive force erupted from his hand, slamming into the girl to send her flying backwards. She crashed through into the back area where the changing rooms were.

“Deal with them!” he snapped to his companions, already sprinting that way. “I’ll handle this one.” With those words, his body blurred as he too activated his own enhanced speed, reaching the back in an instant.

A broken off chunk of concrete from the back wall flew like a bullet at the man’s head as he stepped into the back room. But he twisted aside at the last instant, letting the projectile pass by, missing him by centimeters. In the process, he dropped his spear, leaving it to clatter along the floor.

Then a red blast of energy took the man in the face, burning his skin and singing that thin goatee even as his head jerked back with a gasp. Theia was there, her kusarigamas raised in their gun forms. Her finger pulled the trigger of the second weapon, sending a white freezing blast his way.

He recovered fast, conjuring a forcefield in front of himself that caught both incoming beams. A quick gesture with one hand collapsed part of the ceiling above the girl, forcing her to dive out of the way. With that opening, the man kicked his speed in once more, rushing that way. Before the girl could recover, he caught her by the throat while using his other hand to knock both weapons from her grasp. With a shout of fury, Lovac slammed her into the wall. Then he did it again, harder.

“Think I’ll get all your Heretic powers and there werewolf ones when I kill you, cunt?” he demanded while making a fist with the hand that wasn’t closed tightly around her throat. “Let’s find out.”

His fist slammed forward, only to collide with the bone-armor that had suddenly appeared around Pace’s body, including her face. Before he could recover from that, the girl shot a collection of bone darts into his foot, making him stumble just a little. That was enough for Theia to jerk free of his grip on her throat, catching his shoulders to hold herself up long enough to slam her armored head into his face.

Landing on her feet, Theia made a blade of bone pop from her armored wrist, snapping, “We are killing him.” With those words, she lashed out.

“We?” the man echoed, catching the blade before snapping it off. He kicked the girl back against the wall before driving the broken bone-blade for the slots in her bone-helmet. “It’s just you and me back here, bitch.”

Pace jerked their head out of the way an instant before the blade would have struck home. I’ll keep us alive, she privately informed her Seosten partner. You focus on putting him down.

Lovac was already following up his first bone-blade swipe with another, but Pace instantly ducked down and under his extended arm, Theia taking the opportunity to drive their fist into his gut. She extended another bone-blade in the process, but it snapped off against his skin.

What followed was a tornado of madness and violence that utterly demolished the back rooms. Acid, bone-darts, fire, and more were thrown in every direction. The two figures slammed each other through the walls of the changing areas, kicked benches into one another, used the shattered mirrors to fling glass into each other’s eyes, and thoroughly destroyed every scrap of furniture in the process. And considering their enhanced speed, all of it took less than a minute.

Lovac should have won handily, given his age, experience, and greater powers. But the man was too angry to take a step back and use his better abilities. And beyond that, he also wasn’t fighting only one person. Pace being able to focus solely on keeping them alive while Theia took any possible opening for attack was an advantage that allowed them to mostly keep up with him. Even then, he was still vastly superior, but their werewolf regeneration helped pick up some of the slack.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough. In the end, Theia and Pace ended up on the ground. They were just starting to roll over, as Lovac drove his spear that he had managed to collect at some point through their left leg. The pain drew a howl from them. Which was worse as the sharp point at the end of the spear extended outward like a grappling hook, individual blades snapping into place to hold the spear in position so that it would be almost impossible to yank back out again.

“You like that?!” The man’s voice was high from the rush of violence, his breathing haggard. “Huh, you little bitch?! Tell me! You like it? You like losing?! You like knowing you’re about to die? You like knowing that?! You lose! All that, all that was worthless! You’re gonna die! What do you think of that?! What the fuck do you think of that?” He was so angry in that moment that it had taken him so much to actually put the girl on the ground that he wasn’t thinking clearly. His eyes were wild and crazed.

Lying there, Theia and Pace both looked up at the man. They stared for a moment. Then, together and yet with the same voice, they chuckled softly until it became a full on laugh.

Lovac, looking worn and bruised, stood there, spear impaled through Pace’s leg as he glared down at her. Spitting blood, the man demanded, “The hell do you think is so funny?”

From her position on the floor, Theia gave him a simple smile that was barely visible through the intense bruising already adorning Pace’s face. “We… are just… wondering how you are going to like being killed by a werewolf who is also a Heretic.”

With a sneer, Lovac twisted the spear in her leg to drive even more pain through Pace’s body. “Kill me? You’re as delusional as you are stupid. You aren’t killing anyone. You can’t even stand up. You’re just as pathetic as–”

In mid-sentence, a hand covered the man’s mouth. An instant later, the hand and the arm it was attached to turned into a tree branch. Part of that tree branch extended into the man’s open mouth, driving its way down his throat while he gave a muffled scream.

“She meant the other one, jackass,” Roxa Pittman informed him, before extending the branch that had been sent down through the man’s throat out in every direction. Sharp wood was driven through his heart, stomach, lungs, and more. Every internal organ in the man’s torso was torn apart in an instant.

Shifting her arm back to normal, Roxa let the body fall then, while her glowing bronze aura filled the demolished room. The pleasure made her stagger, almost falling as a loud gasp escaped the girl.

“Either the Heretic killgasm has become contagious,” Theia noted thoughtfully, “or we are just very glad that man is dead.” Pace took over then, expression clearing despite the pain as she quickly asked, “Miranda and Abigail?”

Roxa took a knee, nodding. “They’re fine. Mateo and the rest already helped Miranda finish dealing with the guys out there. Here.” Getting the girls to lift their leg a bit, she checked the spear before hitting the button that made the blades close back up into the shaft. Then she took hold of it and gave them a three count before tearing the weapon out. “Seller sent a message, said they were keeping him busy and that you might need help. You okay?”

It was Pace who replied. “Werewolf healing, can’t beat it.”

“You can if you use Heretic powers to stack a lot more healing on top of it,” Roxa pointed out with a wry smirk. With the bloodied spear in one hand, she extended the other to help them up. “Come on. We may have dealt with the initial problem, but there’ll be more. One of those guys got some kind of message out. Besides, I’m pretty sure Mateo wants to make you, Abigail, and Miranda an offer.”

Theia’s head tilted as she moved their hand to take Roxa’s, painfully straightening up even as their leg began to heal with the spear no longer embedded in it. “An offer?”

“Well,” Roxa pointed out, “you guys can’t exactly go back to Eden’s Garden like that. Not after what happened here. You’re kind of off on your own, and you’re gonna have a lot of pissed off Heretics who want to kill you. So it kind of sounds to us like what you guys need is a pack.”

It was Pace’s turn to blink at that, taking over the body to speak. “Miranda and Abigail aren’t wolves,” she pointed out. “Is that even allowed? I mean, traditionally a werewolf pack is for… you know, werewolves.”

“Sure, usually,” Roxa admitted with a shrug. “But what can I say?

“I’ve never really been much for tradition.”

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Before The Vault 41-07

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“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 pop it 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. We 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 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 two 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.

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