Effective as Mom might have been at scouting the building out with a simple once-over, we clearly weren’t just going to go barging in. First, even though we knew where the people with weapons were (at least on the first few floors), we had no idea what that meant about the people who didn’t have them. With the sort of magic and powers people could have, not having a weapon on your person didn’t really mean much at all. Second, there was, again, the top floor that she wasn’t able to see into. Anything could be up there. Third, speaking of magic, there could have been any number of trap spells set up that we would set off by charging in blind. And fourth, we didn’t know who all the bad guys were. For all we knew, there were plenty of innocents in there. Innocents who would see us attack other people in the building, have their ‘danger, Heretic’ alert go off, and join in not knowing any better. Then we’d be fighting even more people than we had to. Otherwise innocent people. It would haveb turned into one giant clusterfuck, to say the least.
So yeah, charging straight in was clearly a bad idea. We needed to be a little less gung-ho about it, no matter how desperately we wanted to get in there and see what was going on with Denise. Mom hadn’t been able to identify where she was with that scan, but that didn’t mean much. The way she explained it, even the lower floors of the place had magic shields defending against most of her vision powers, and the most she could get was the outlines of people, along with what they were holding. So yeah, not being able to perfectly pinpoint where Denise was didn’t mean she wasn’t in there. But that was another reason not to go charging in guns and everything else blazing. We had no idea where she was, so if we did that, they could simply make her disappear.
That brought us to our actual plan, which was one my mother didn’t like very much. But we all knew it was the best way to do this. And it started by me needing to get closer without being spotted. Which was where Sean came in. He’d done even more magical study than I had over his time being imprisoned, considering he’d had not only years to do so, but also had Apollo as a teacher. The Seosten man wasn’t Chayyiel, but was still pretty damn good at that stuff, and he’d taught Sean a lot to help make up for spending years unable to absorb any powers the old-fashioned… murdery way. Yeah, there were certainly upsides and downsides to not being able to go out and fight monsters all the time.
In any case, Sean had a spell prepared that could make himself and anyone he was touching invisible. So, he put his hand on my shoulder while the two of us moved up toward the front entrance of the hotel. The others stayed back, ready to jump in if they needed to. I could almost feel the anxiety coming off of my mother, and it wasn’t exactly going to get better any time soon.
Pushing that out of my mind for the moment so I could focus, I watched the partially-boarded up windows as Sean and I got closer. A thought switched my vision over to infrared (something Mom had mentioned did work), and I could see through into the lobby, where the two people Mom had mentioned were still sitting. They were facing the front doors, but it didn’t look like they were super-alert or anything from the heat-based view I was getting. They were just chilling out in a couple chairs. And from what I could see from a quick scan, they were the only ones there. Which hopefully meant it was a good time to actually do this, because we sure as hell weren’t going to get a better one.
First thing first, I crept closer to one of the windows, with Sean right behind me while keeping his hand on my shoulder. We moved as silently as possible, just in case one of the people inside had enhanced hearing. But I couldn’t see the heat-shapes move at all, or react to our approach, so we seemed to be doing pretty well on that front. I sort of had the impression that these guys weren’t exactly top-of-the-line security or anything. They were basically gang members just hanging out. Which worked for us, but we still weren’t going to take any chances. Professionals or not, this whole thing could go south really damn fast if we weren’t careful.
Finally, we made it up to the window. I leaned my head enough to peer through, and got my first glimpse of the two guys beyond their heat outlines. The first, sitting in a big, cushy chair nearest me (still about thirty feet away and slightly turned at an angle), was a Heaul, like that Sarez guy from the Vegas situation. He was a dark-blue humanoid with three eyes instead of two (evenly spaced along his face at the usual height), and little white spots across his exposed skin. Each of those spots could grow into a full suit of armor. The Heaul could either use multiple spots at once to make even stronger armor, capable of standing up to a lot of damage, or simply use them one at a time and replace the armor as it was broken. From what I’d read and heard, they usually did a combination of that, using several at a time for pretty strong protection that would stand up against a decent amount of attacks while keeping more in reserve just in case.
Beyond that, the third-eye in the middle of his head could paralyze anyone he was staring at. As long as he kept looking, it was like playing red light, green light. The person he was focused on would be completely unable to move.
So yeah, we had him to deal with. And sitting beside that guy was what looked like one of the near-Orc species. I was pretty sure he wasn’t an actual Orc, but he was in the same ballpark. Some of those species actually got pretty sensitive about the fact that they were all lumped into the ‘Orc’ category, given that was only the name of a single species that many of them had literally no connection to. I’d found that out over the past few weeks of of classes with what I had thought was an Orc teenager (the one who fist-bumped Travis Colby during Calculus over the idea of squishing bad guys). It had turned out his name was Clock, and his species were known as Mukeda. He was a pretty good sport about the whole thing though.
This guy could’ve been either an Orc or a Mukeda, or any of the other similar species out there. I wasn’t actually an expert at picking out the differences yet. Which… was probably a bad thing, in several ways. I was going to have to work on that. Especially since it meant I didn’t actually know what this guy was capable of. Hopefully that wouldn’t end up biting us in the rears.
A quick glance around showed no other people in sight. So, I acted quickly by focusing on the area slightly behind the Heaul, and created a very small portal between that spot and the area right in front of me. Watching to make sure it hadn’t alerted them, I put my hand through. There, I hesitated. Possessing people like this always made me feel at least a little queasy inside. If not right at that moment, then shortly afterward. I just… after everything we’d been through and all the things we were fighting against as far as the Seosten went, enslaving someone to my will like that felt wrong. But on the other hand, it was probably better than stabbing him through the throat with a blade. And I wasn’t planning on rifling through his memories any more than I had to, or violating him any more than absolutely necessary. I was going to do the best I could not to act like a Seosten like Charmeine, even if she was the one I’d gotten the first possession power from.
Besides, this was about saving Denise, and that was too important not to do everything I could. So, after that momentary hesitation, I quickly placed my hand against his neck. I felt the man start to jump a bit, but I was already focused and an instant later, I was inside him. Immediately, I clamped down on his voice, just before he would have blurted out something about asking who was behind him. I could feel his sudden panic as his voice was silenced, and sent a quick (probably meaningless) mental apology before shoving down on his consciousness as hard as I could. I just wanted him to go to sleep. If this went well, he’d wake up later and could go back to his… uhh, life doing whatever. Hopefully not kidnapping more innocent little girls. Which–yeah, that thought could make things really complicated, really fast. I was just going to push on.
“The hell’s your problem?” That was the not-Orc, squinting at the man I had just possessed. “Got pants in your ants or something?” For some reason, the mixed-up question suddenly made him laugh loudly, pounding the arm of the chair as though he had just said the funniest thing in the world. I had the feeling it was some kind of inside joke between them.
Making my guy mumble something under his breath that could have been affirmation or just a request that he shut up, I pushed him to his feet and brushed his hands off. “Got the munchies,” I made him say while doing a quick search of his memories for the man’s favorite snack. “Left some Doritos in my room.”
“Yeah, well, don’t be long,” came the response. “And don’t go trying to get Sorevla to help you solve that last puzzle! You know she’ll tell me if you try to cheat again.” The not-Orc was pointing at us. “I want your next move as soon as you get back. No more stalling.”
Again, I made the guy mutter something noncommittal under his breath while walking away, toward stairs in the corner. They were playing mental puzzle games that involved multiple moves? Apparently we had accidentally chosen a couple of intellectual gang thugs to get past, which was just fantastic. I would have said that we should have tried one of the other entrances, but with our luck the guys over there would be even worse.
Oh well, this could’ve been worse. Making the man turn to look over his shoulder toward the spot where his partner was still sitting, I hesitated by the bottom of the stairs and took the opportunity to check this guy’s memory for anything that had to do with Denise.
I found… nothing. Yeah, zip, nilch, nada. As far as I could tell, this guy had never even heard of Denise. And it wasn’t like he just didn’t know her name. I searched for anyone who looked like her, and got a big fat zero. He’d never seen or heard of her, apparently. Which… was a bit odd, but didn’t completely rule out Mercer having something to do with her disappearance. It just meant that he’d been more subtle about it. Maybe his men would have something against kidnapping a little kid. Whatever the reasoning, we were probably going to have to get answers straight from the horse’s mouth. Which meant getting to Mercer himself.
With that in mind, I started up the stairs just as the familiar feeling of Tabbris doing a partial-recall came. Her voice was quiet in my mind. Is everything okay? She was staying out there in order to pass messages back and forth easily. If anything went wrong, the others would be ready to jump in. Yeah, this was a big part of why Mom didn’t like this plan. It involved me infiltrating the place by myself. But hey, it was better than us starting a full-scale war with these people right off the bat if we didn’t have to. Besides, this was hardly the most dangerous thing I’ve had to do solo. Which… apparently had not been the best argument to make at the time of our discussion. For some reason, me pointing that out didn’t seem to make her feel better.
I’m good, I replied, letting her take a quick mental scan of what was going on and how far I was in order to pass it on to the others. Including Mom, who was probably pretty antsy by now. Heading upstairs now. I’ll find out where Mercer stays and get close enough to get answers out of him. One way or another.
Tabbris gave me a mental squeeze of encouragement, then withdrew just enough to pass the message along to the others. I could still feel her there. If I reached out, I would be able to contact the girl and let her know something was wrong. Between her half-presence and the fact that my mother was right outside, I felt pretty safe, despite the situation.
So, after giving my temporary-host’s mind a very quick (and as unintrusive as possible) search to find out where Mercer would be right then, I started up the stairs. According to this guy’s memory, his boss would likely be in one of the main penthouse rooms at the top of the building. Which made sense, given the whole ‘totally shielded against outside viewing’ thing. So, that was where I went, hiking up the stairs to the sixth floor. A few times, I passed a couple other guys heading down the stairs, or just lounging out in the open doorways from the stairwell to the floor they were on. But other than a brief muttered greeting, nobody said anything or tried to stop me.
One other thing I did notice, which might’ve been a problem if we’d come in here the loud way, was various spell runes that glowed slightly at assorted spots on the stairs whenever my host passed them. A quick dip into his memories revealed that, just as we had suspected, the hotel was protected against intrusion. The spells were essentially alarms that scanned everyone going up the stairs to make sure they were allowed to be there. If not, a whole lot of things would happen that would have made getting Denise out of this place a lot more complicated.
Unfortunately, the spells were linked together, making erasing them a bit harder and more involved than I had time for. I could have done it, probably, but not with the time we had to work with. Eventually, the guy downstairs was going to start wondering what was taking his partner so long. And from there, things would just get harder. So, I left the spells intact for the moment and just continued walking. It wasn’t like they would bother me as long as I was still using this guy anyway.
Eventually, I made it to the entrance onto the sixth floor. That was the penthouse area, and there was a key card lock from the stairwell to the hallway itself. Making my host touch the doorknob without trying to open it, I focused on using my ability to see through objects in order to mark the door so I could see what was on the other side.
Nothing happened. Shit. Yeah, I’d been afraid of that. The defenses that were blocking certain vision-related spells and powers were clearly stopping me from checking the hallway the easy way.
But I had more tricks up my sleeve. To that end, I paused there and focused for a moment. This hotel was clearly over a century old, and had been a pretty big deal back in its day. To say nothing of the fact that it was clearly the base of operations for a pretty bad gang now. All of which meant that there was a very good chance that, if I tried hard enough, I could find…
There. My senses felt something brush up against them, and I extended an… invitation was the best way to put it. I invited the presence, then waited for a few seconds. It was like feeling a sharp tug at a fishing line and then letting the fish decide if it wanted to come to the boat.
Actually, considering I was planning on simply politely asking the presence for help rather than hurting and definitely without eating it, maybe fishing was the wrong analogy. It was just slightly possible that I had been spending too much time around my sharks ever since I was gifted with the ability to summon them to me.
Nah, that was crazy-talk. There was no such thing as spending too much time with my sharks.
In any case, there was only a momentary delay before I felt the presence grow stronger. I stepped back from the door, just as a glowing figure stepped through. It was–he was a little boy, maybe ten years old or so, wearing a ratty, patch-work suit that was too small for him in some places and too big in others, along with a newsboy cap. He had a pair of curly horns sticking out of his forehead just under the cap, and scales were visible along what I could see of his arms and wrists. Oh yeah, and he was glowing a yellowish-orange rather than the colors I tended to associate with most ghosts.
“Who’re you?” the little Alter boy ghost demanded curiously, floating up a bit to look me in the eyes (or rather, my host in the eyes). “I seen you before. But it ain’t you, is it? The real lug there, he ain’t got this sort of power. Yeah, you ain’t him. You someone else. Someone new. You here to raise trouble? Maybe stab a few folk? Been awhile since I got to see a stabbing.”
Right, he was tingling my memories of Ammon just a bit, though I didn’t think there were any real similarities. He had obviously been a ghost here in the hotel for a long time, which had to mess with you a bit. So, I pushed aside my reflexive revulsion and simply told the ghost why I was there and what I needed. He, in turn, offered a shrug before agreeing fairly readily, with a warning that there were places he couldn’t go. Still, he seemed pretty eager to go for it. I was pretty sure he was still hoping some stabbing would be involved before this whole thing was over. He was clearly pretty bored.
I hesitantly asked what had happened to him, on the basis of wanting to offer some help. But he simply dismissed that with a hand wave, saying it had been a long time ago and there was no point in dwelling on it. Then he agreed to help, but said I should get on with it before he got too bored and wandered off to find something more interesting.
“Go for it,” I agreed, telling him once more what I wanted and what he should be looking for.
He, in turn, gave me a salute. With that, he floated through the doorway and turned invisible once more. I closed my host’s eyes and focused on seeing through the ghost himself, watching and directing him as he floated past multiple guards on the floor. He was invisible and intangible, so none of them saw him. They had no idea he was there, as he went right by them. A few seemed to have felt something and glanced around, but that was as far as it went.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t send my ghost boy all the way. He’d told me before agreeing to this that there was some sort of shield around the main penthouse where ‘the boss guy’ lived. Which meant he couldn’t go inside.
Still, I managed to find a guard up here on the sixth floor who was a bit isolated from the others, at the far end of the hallway. As soon as I did, I positioned the ghost boy behind him. A thought made the guy I was currently possessing slump to the floor, where he would stay nice and unconscious. Hopefully, by the time anyone found him, this whole thing would be over.
Leaving that guy where he had fallen, I stepped out of him before reaching out to put my hand on the door. It was still electronically locked, but that didn’t mean anything given my security-breaking ‘open locked things’ power. Sure, there were a good number of magic locks that could keep me out still, but this wasn’t one of them. The knob immediately turned. But I didn’t open it yet. Instead, I checked through my ghost-friend’s eyes once more while he hovered just behind my new target. A silent request made the boy turn so I could see all the way down the hall. The coast was clear. No one was looking this way, the several guards who were there all focused on other things. So, I opened the door just a tiny bit and leaned out, just enough to get a direct line of sight onto the guy in question.
Yeah, I’d tried creating portals by seeing through ghost eyes. It didn’t work. This was the next best thing, using those ghost eyes to ensure the coast was clear so I could poke my head out, look straight toward the man I needed, and create a portal between me and the space directly behind him.
Once more, I reached through the portal. And once more, my fingers grasped the back of his head (he looked like a human to me), before I possessed him. Which led to a repeat of the whole ‘making his consciousness go to sleep before asserting control.’
But then it was done. I was on the penthouse floor, inside the body of a guard who was supposed to be there. The room itself where Mercer waited was right down the hall. And no one in here knew anything was wrong. No alerts had been sounded. Just a little further, and I would have the answers we needed about Denise.
Umm, Flick? Tabbris abruptly spoke up in my head. You might want to hurry a little.
What? I sent back. Why, what happened?
There was a brief pause before she replied, Uh, you remember Zeke? I guess Crossroads must know about this place, because he just showed up with some others and they’re about to make their move.
I think we just stumbled into one of the school hunts.
Some of what happens between the Crossroads school hunt and the group outside will be covered in one of the upcoming Patreon Snippets, which will be the next Heretical Edge chapter.