A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted earlier today focusing on Reapers. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks!
What?! I silently blurted as Tabbris’s words made me physically recoil. Or rather, made the guy I was possessing recoil. That doesn’t even make sense. Why would Crossroads have a student hunt right now? It’s only a few days before Christmas for God’s sake. Aren’t they on vacation?
Tabbris’s voice was helpless, and clearly just as uncertain. We don’t know, maybe it’s extra credit or something? Or maybe they’re really short-handed and needed more help. But it doesn’t matter, they’re just here. And they’re about to make a move against the hotel, so we’ve gotta interrupt them before they blow this whole thing and make those guys retreat with Denise.
Immediately, I replied, Hold on, I’m coming out. I’ll be right there. I was already starting to focus on looking for the nearest exit. I could walk my host that way and be down there in seconds.
No, my sister immediately insisted. You have to find out what happened to Denise, Flick. Don’t worry about the stuff down here. Your Mom and the others can handle it. Just hurry and find Denise, before the guys in there figure out something’s wrong and make her disappear again.
She was right, of course. I hated to admit it. Boy did I ever hate to admit it. But she was definitely right. What mattered right now was finding Denise, and if Mercer saw a fight involving Heretics right outside his front door, he wouldn’t stick around. He would grab whatever he could and disappear. Which probably included Denise herself. I had to find her and get out of here before that happened.
So, trying to shut aside thoughts and worries about what was going on out there for the moment, I focused on my own situation. The door ahead of me and down the hall a little bit. That was where I needed to go. But there were two guys standing on either side of it who probably wouldn’t be eager to let my host go through that easily. I could deal with them, but there was a camera above the door, pointed down at it. If I started something right there, the people inside would know. Which would give them time to escape. Fuck. I was going to be careful about this, no matter how rushed I felt. No matter what, I could not give Mercer time to retreat. I had to get to him and find out where the hell he had taken Denise. Which meant getting past the guards and through the door without raising any sort of alarm. And I had to do it before the situation outside grew obvious and loud enough for an alert to be sent upstairs.
That was the real irony of this whole thing. I had the powers, skills, and weapons to deal with these guys fairly easily if it came down to it. Probably, at least. I could smash my way through them, and could probably get through the shielded door within a couple minutes. But a couple minutes wouldn’t be fast enough to stop Mercer from vanishing, along with the only real clue about Denise that we had. I had all this power and I still had to be careful.
Oh well, what was life without problems to solve, huh? I could handle this. It just required a little creativity rather than a straight-forward slugging match. I still had my little ghost-boy pal, hovering curiously behind me while (maybe a little impatiently) clearly waiting to see what I was going to do. He had no idea anything about the situation had changed. He just wanted to watch me do something interesting to help with his boredom.
Silently telling Tabbris to keep me updated if they needed help down there, I went to work on my own thing. First, I did a quick check to see if my guy knew anything about Denise. But just like the last one, he had nothing. It was like he’d never heard of or seen her before. What was going on? If Mercer had taken Denise, was he really keeping the fact that he had kidnapped a little kid secret from his men? Why? Was he afraid they weren’t loyal, that they would object to the whole situation? Or that they might sell him out? I didn’t want to think that we were barking up the wrong tree entirely. Mercer had to know something about what was going on. I just wasn’t sure what, or why he was keeping it secret. There was clearly something I was missing, and I was hoping that getting to the boss-man himself would help fill in those gaps.
To that end, I made my guy push away from the wall where he had been leaning, and turned to walk toward the room I needed to get into. The moment he moved, both of the guys on either side of that door turned their attention that way, one of them calling out, “You gotta piss again, Dugal? Come on, man, stop guzzling so much at lunch all the time. Ain’t good for you.”
While he was talking, I took in the appearance of the two guards. One of them, the one who wasn’t talking, was another of the almost-Orcs. He was just rolling his eyes as though annoyed that his daydreaming, or whatever he’d been doing, was interrupted by something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the guy who had spoken looked like a Nekomata, a feline humanoid like Triss back home. They were the ones who were able to make ghost-fire. So siccing my new, bored little buddy on him was probably a bad idea. Come to think of it, given the Nekomata clearly had a thing against ghosts, maybe this guy had something to do with why the forcefield around the penthouse was able to keep them out.
All of that passed through my mind in a brief moment as I took in the scene, before making my host shrug. “What can I say,” I made his voice grunt, “I really like my–” I did a quick search of his memory for the appropriate drink. “–Coors.”
“Gotta get that checked,” the Nekomata (his name was apparently Beied, pronounced bye-eed, while the other guy’s name was Istor, rhyming with mister) taunted with a smirk. “I read something about how having shit taste might be a sign of brain damage. Anyone who actually likes that piss water must be about three seconds from a fucking aneurysm or something. We shouldn’t even carry that shit in this place. Make Del Shannon roll over in his grave.”
I almost made my guy ask what some old rock musician had to do with anything, but caught myself. Instead, I checked my guy’s memory. Del Shannon. Right, the hotel had been renamed in honor of him back in the sixties. The Runaway. The name of the hotel was The Runaway. How… convenient.
That sentiment about Shannon’s objection to Coors being in the hotel named after his most famous song was echoed by a couple of the other guards stationed further down the hall. All of which just reminded me that, outward appearances aside, this wasn’t a super-professional set-up. These guys were part of a gang, not world-class elite soldiers or anything. Another reason why I could have smashed my way through them pretty quickly if that was on the table. But I gave myself a firm reminder that I couldn’t be too cocky. I was on the clock, and these guys could still be a problem. After all, the Seosten had underestimated me plenty of times, and look how that had turned out for them. No matter how casual they seemed from the outside, I had to be careful. This whole situation could turn sideways really damn quick. So no dismissing them as a threat. I was not going to make the Seosten mistake of being too arrogant and then getting screwed over for it. Not when Denise’s life was on the line.
With a quick search through my guy’s memory (hopefully without violating him too much), I shot back a retort about how Beied couldn’t talk about having shit taste as long as he kept eating something called liver sausage pineapple. Going by this guy, it was apparently a pound of liver sausage mixed with lemon juice, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce, all put together and shaped to look like a pineapple. I… I had no idea. But apparently Beied really liked it.
There was a bit of back-and-forth teasing about who had the worst sense of taste. I was trying not to let my anxiety about what was going on outside show through the guy I was puppeting. And yet, I could think of almost nothing except what was going to happen the moment these guys told Mercer that there were Heretics outside fighting. Trying to figure out an excuse to get in there was hard, when that was the only–wait. Hold on. Shit, I was being an idiot, wasn’t I?
Making a show of heading down the hallway to use the restroom, I made my guy glance out the nearby window and paused. Turning him, I stepped closer and looked down for a few seconds. I didn’t want to say anything too quickly. It had to look like he was uncertain, even though I could feel the seconds ticking away in the back of my head like a bomb waiting to go off.
There wasn’t actually anything to see. Not yet, anyway. It looked like Mom and the others had been able to keep the attack away from the front of the hotel so far. But I didn’t really think that would last forever. Any minute now someone on the roof was going to notice what was happening and call it in. I had to get ahead of that.
“Watcha looking for out there?” Beied finally spoke up. “Cuz if it’s a personality or a life, you might need to look a little harder. And you probably should’ve started earlier.” He chuckled at his own words, and I heard the sound of him exchanging a high five with Istor next to him.
Pretending I wasn’t paying attention, I made my guy lean closer to the window as though staring at something intently down there. After about two seconds that felt like twenty, I made him physically recoil and pivot on his heel. “There’s something going on down there,” I informed the others in a quick voice, trying to inject it with the sort of surprise and worry that he should have given the situation. “Some sorta fight or something.” Belatedly, I added, “Ain’t no schoolyard brawl, they got weapons and shit. Could be–” I pulled the memory of a rival gang from the man’s mind. “–Darmon’s guys starting something.”
Before I had even finished talking, several of the guys from down the hall came to look out the window or through one of the others. I pointed, telling them that I had seen the fight start to come around the corner of the building down there before they disappeared again.
“You fucking serious?” Beied was clearly pretty unhappy about this news. “God damn it, I was ten minutes from getting off shift and hitting this great–fuck.” He pivoted, hitting a three digit code on the pad beside the door to open it. Beside him, Istor the not-Orc started to step over to see what was going on outside for himself.
Okay, I had three other guys in the hall. Two were right beside me, leaning up to see through the same window in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what I had supposedly seen. Another was further down looking out a different window to see from another angle. Istor was coming up behind me, and Beied the Nekomata was faced the other direction to open the door so he could warn their boss about what was going on. None of them besides Istor were focused directly on me at the moment, and he wasn’t suspicious yet, he was just walking up to look for himself. This was my best–only chance to deal with these guys and get inside that room before Mercer was put on high alert. Getting Beied to open the door by pretending I saw the fight going on out there before anyone else could sound the alert had been a risk, but now I had to follow through. It was only a brief advantage, and it could vanish in a few seconds. So, here went nothing.
First, I glanced over my shoulder to get Istor in my line of sight before making a portal directly in front of my current host’s hand. It was hidden from the not-Orc himself by my guy’s body, and the two beside me were focused on the window so they didn’t see it yet. The other end of the portal appeared behind Istor, and I gave him a firm tap on the shoulder before dismissing the portal. He pivoted that way. So now, for just a second, I was out of everyone’s line of sight. The camera was focused on the door itself, so it couldn’t see what was going on now that Istor had stepped out of its line of sight.
As soon as the not-Orc turned his back, I immediately shoved myself backwards out of my current host. He was still unconscious, so the body was already starting to collapse as I appeared behind him. I was still out of sight from the two intently peering through the window in front of me, as well as the one just down the hall. That first pair might have noticed the body falling instantly and reacted, but even as I landed in my own body behind the falling man, I was already focusing hard, using my five-second pause power to freeze his shirt in place. The body sort of went limp, caught in place. It wouldn’t look at all convincing to anyone looking directly at him. But they were still distracted by staring out the window, so all they registered was that his body was still (somewhat) upright.
It would only buy me a couple seconds, at most. Between those two standing right by the limp form, and the other guy down the hall, one of them would notice that he wasn’t conscious. Not to mention Istor, who would only be distracted by checking to see who had tapped him on the shoulder for a moment. They were going to see that something was wrong any second.
Thankfully, a second was all I needed. Pivoting on one heel, I slapped my hand out to grab Istor while his back was still to me. A second later, I was inside him. I could feel his sudden rage and sent a quick apology and promise that I would let him go in a moment before turning.
By that point, the two by the window had noticed their unconscious companion and had turned that way. I immediately sent Istor into a charge, sprinting straight at the two, before once more launching myself backwards out of my host. His momentum kept him going forward, slamming into the other two as they collapsed in a heap. Which caught the attention of the guy down the hall, of course. But it was too late for him to do anything, even as he caught a glimpse of me while turning to see the commotion.
Throughout all of that, having no idea that anything was wrong just yet, Beied was still in the middle of opening the door. He had barely gotten it half-open as he started to speak up, when the sound of Istor colliding with the other two filled the hall. His words turned to a confused curse as he started to turn. But I was already there. Using a mix of my own enhanced speed and my Seosten boost, I slammed into the feline man, catching him by the shoulders before he could react. Spinning to put my back to the half-open doorway so that he was facing the hall, I lashed out with one foot. The hard kick was enough to knock the man flying backward to land in the corridor with a bellow of surprise and anger.
Quickly stepping backward through the open door, I slammed it shut once more before touching my hand to it. A thought made another quick-inscription spell appear, and I triggered it to seal the door. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would keep them out for the moment. Long enough for me to do what I needed to.
Spinning back even as the pounding and knocking at the door started, I took in the sight of where I had managed to get. It was a wide-open living room of some sort, full of plush couches, statues, paintings of old guys (many of them not-human) on the walls, and a gi-freaking-normous television that took up a huge portion of one wall. That was where most of the people in the room were. Ten guys of various species, all sitting around playing video games on that giant TV. Two looked human, one Rakshasa (the other feline species I knew of that wasn’t Nekomata), a pair of what looked like goblins, three Satyrs (the goat-men weren’t as small and cute as they looked like in the cartoons and comics, but were more human in size), a silver-scaled reptilian figure who stood about seven feet tall, and… their boss. Yeah, I knew in an instant that the final guy had to be Mercer. He was even taller than the other guy, with thick, blue-green scales over his body and vertical-slit pupils. He gave off the air of being the person in charge, even as his gaze snapped from the television to me, dropping the controller in his hand.
“Hey there,” I announced, summoning my staff to one hand while everyone in the room lunged to their feet, putting themselves in front of the boss. “Mercer, I presume.” Even as I said that, I focused on summoning a portal to get my hand near him. But it fizzled. The protections in this place extended to blocking that sort of thing, apparently. Which meant I was going to have to get close to him the old fashioned way, by going through everyone trying to stop me.
“Heretic,” he snapped, the annoyance clear in his voice. “What exactly do I owe this interruption to?”
Even as he said that, a voice from a nearby intercom frantically called out that there were Heretics attacking the hotel. Mercer gave the intercom a dark look, his voice flat. “No shit.”
“Believe it or not,” I informed the man, “I’m not here to kill you, or any of your men. I’m here for one thing, answers.” My eyes narrowed as I stared at him. “I need you to tell me what happened to Denise Cartland.”
Mercer showed no reaction at all to the name, his voice completely blank. “Who?” It was pretty convincing, actually. Sure, he almost certainly had to be a good liar to get into this sort of position. But still, it was hard to entirely dismiss the idea that he really had no idea who I was talking about. Not that I was going to take that for granted without checking for myself, of course.
“Denise Cartland,” I repeated. “Tell me where she is, and I’ll go away.”
“Kid,” he snapped back, “I got no idea who you mean. And you know what? I think you’re going away right now.” With that, he dropped his hand, and the rest of his friends in the room all launched themselves my way.
I met their charge, but I wasn’t interested in actually fighting them. All I cared about was getting to Mercer, which meant lunging, twisting, ducking, spinning, leaping, and diving my way through every guy standing in my way. I used every ounce of my boost, pushing myself to be even faster. Those brief handful of seconds were a blur of flailing limbs, blades, claws, and more as I danced my way through everything in that room, before finally coming face to face with the man himself.
He snarled and lashed out with a fist as soon as he saw me, but my hand snapped up to catch it. Yeah, between my boost and my general strength-enhancements I caught his fist with my own grip. It hurt, but I didn’t care at that moment. It was worth seeing the look on his face, especially knowing what I did about the shit he had pulled.
An instant later, before he or anyone else could react, I was inside him. Once again, I used my possession power. Today was the day I had used it the most in recent history. Probably because I was so far past giving a shit when it came to anything that stopped us from finding Denise.
I was possessing him, but it wasn’t exactly an immediate take-over. I could feel the man struggling. For a moment, I thought it might go as far as a full-on sustained battle for his body, but with a last burst of effort, I managed to shove his consciousness down.
Then, with the people outside the room still struggling to break the sealed door down, and the ones who were already inside staring at their boss in confusion about what to do next, I focused. I searched his memory for anything about Denise, and found… nothing. No, no, no, this couldn’t be for nothing! He had to know her. I tried searching for anything about the gas station, or Kalia and her father. He had to know about them, he’d been bugging them for money to the point of driving Kalia’s father to rob that gas station and get killed by Ammon in the first place!
But no. There was nothing. He had absolutely no memory of any of that. How the fuck was that possible? What–what had… what?
By that point, the door had finally been broken through, as the guys outside came bursting in. Beied was at the front, demanding to know what was going on while holding some sort of falchion in one hand.
“Some Heretic chick!” one of the Satyrs blurted a bit frantically, gesturing. “She–she fucking possessed the boss or something! Crazy bitch said something about, what, Denise Copeland? Who the fuck is that?!”
“Cartland,” Beied corrected, his eyes not on the Satyr, but on his boss. On me, possessing his boss. “Heretic! You’re looking for Denise Cartland?”
Narrowing Mercer’s eyes, I made him growl out, “Where is she?”
The Nekomata, in turn, held up both hands, the falchion gripped tightly in one. “Look, the boss there forgot all about some money a chick that works at some gas station owes him. I figured she did something to him, so I looked into it, checked out who was there the last time he stopped by just to see if she hired some sort of outside mind-fucker. Found out the only other person in the place was some kid named Denise Cartland. Looked into her, but it was a dead end. Except I found out she left town. She took a bus. You let my boss go, I’ll tell you where the bus was headed. Fair?”
Making Mercer glance around at the roomful of eager guys waiting to stab or shoot me, I grunted. “Yeah, sure. But you and me, we’ll take a walk together, just the two of us. You tell me everything you know about where Denise went, then I’ll let your boss go. And for the record, you might want to hurry, so you guys and your boss can get the hell out of this hotel.
“Cuz there really is a fight going on downstairs, and only a few of them are with me.”