Month: July 2022

Four Deaths Four Killers 19-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before I could even think of a reaction, Marina had turned to focus on the trio we had come up here with. She lunged that way, her weapon snapping up to summon a couple full-scale ethereal bears. Not just the paws, the entire ghost-like (yet solid) animal. Both lunged from the nearby wall to grab onto the two living bodyguards. They were still attached to the wall by one leg, which was probably the limitation of her weapon. The bears she summoned had to be linked to the spot where she had anchored them.  

“Who else is in here?!” she blurted. Her voice had risen in anger and disbelief. I had never seen her like this before. “What are you guys keeping from us? What are you lying about?!” 

Archibold’s head shook rapidly, the cyclops-orc insisting, “I assure you, we have not lied about anything since we met you.” He kept his voice even, yet insistent and firm. “The two of us may disagree on certain specifics. But there should be no one else in this vault. Unless one or more of the people you have up in the auditorium managed to sneak out?” 

That made me grimace. We couldn’t be absolutely certain, of course. Even though Sesh hadn’t sounded the alarm, it was like Archibold said, someone could have snuck away without her noticing. She was only one person, after all. Would one of the others up there have spoken up if–I had no idea. All I knew was that those two girls were missing, and the only guy who could’ve told us anything about what happened was already–

God damn it, Flick. 

Blurting for Marina to hold on, I spun back toward the body and whispered a quick prayer before holding my hands out. I focused on that dead form, forcing myself not to look away. I couldn’t ignore his death, I had to use it. I stretched my Necromancy, hoping that the ghost-absorbing walls hadn’t already done their dirty work. Come on, I’d gotten up here soon enough, hadn’t I? Ausesh had survived in those other rooms as a ghost for longer than this. Sure, the walls in here were closer and all, but still. Give me a break, huh? 

And then, wonder of wonders, I actually did get a break. I felt a trace of a ghost. It wasn’t much, but still. As soon as I caught that barest hint, I grabbed onto it as tightly as I could. No way did I want to let it vanish. Getting answers from Perrsnile was basically the only hope we had right now. 

Thankfully, he wasn’t exactly fighting it. I felt what seemed like his reassuring touch as I fed a bit more power into him. It was like coaxing a fire out of embers. I had to be careful not to shove too much power into him too quickly. It had to be just the right amount to allow him to coalesce properly. 

And then, he was there. Well, his ghost was. Rather than the blue-gray/green I was most accustomed to, or even the purple he had been in life, his ghost appeared as a dark red color. I had no idea what that meant, if anything. But he was there, all three feet of him.

“Well,” the small man managed while staring down at his own body, “that was unpleasant.” 

“Perrsnile!” I blurted, before the words caught in my throat. I’d intended to immediately ask where the girls were, but that felt… wrong in that exact moment. Instead, I managed a weak, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we got you involved in this.”

The ghost paused briefly before turning to look at me with a soft expression. “No, dear, it is I who should apologize. I am so very sorry that I was unable to help those poor girls.” 

“What–what happened?” Marina quickly put in. “Did you see who attacked you? Sorry, I mean, did you see who murdered you? Or where they went with Dakota and Denny? Please, they have to be around here somewhere. It’s not like they could get out of the vault, and if they were going to…” She trailed off before making a fist. “If they were going to kill them, they would’ve already. The only reason to bother taking them out of this room is if they want them for some other reason. So where did they go?” 

“It must be about selling the children, just like the others,” Gliner piped up. “There must’ve been someone else on the inside who was part of it, someone we didn’t know about. They’re trying to make one last sale, maybe on their way out.” 

“They took Sitter too,” I quickly pointed out. “So maybe they need him, or it’s about–I don’t know. But either way, they have to get out first. And we’re not gonna let that happen. Perrsnile?” I grimaced while turning back to him. “Please, I know this isn’t fair after we couldn’t protect you from… from what happened. But we have to find Dakota and Denny. So if you can remember anything useful…” 

His hand reached out, going right through mine before he winced in realization. “Ah, yes, well I’m afraid I did not see precisely who attacked me. There wasn’t time to do much of anything. I was there on the far side of the room, attempting to understand what I should do next to bring Sitter back online. The girls were… there.” He pointed near the elevator. “They would have been taken first. I heard a sound, but as I began to turn, something caught hold of me from behind. There was… pain in my chest as I was lifted up, and I’m afraid I began to black out immediately. I remember hitting the floor there, where my body is, and then… nothing. Until I felt you call for me.” 

I started to sigh, before the man added, “Wait, there is one thing. As I was fading, I distinctly heard someone near the elevator there say, ‘Take them to the Beta Cargo.’” 

As soon as he said that, Ausesh blurted, “That’s impossible, no one knows about Beta Cargo.” 

“I ahh, I’m sorry, who are you?” Perrsnile sounded awkward while he looked that way. 

“Oh, right.” Gesturing back and forth between them, I absently informed him, “This is Ausesh, she helped build the vault. That’s Gliner and Archibold. They’re… it’s a long story.”

“Ah, good day to you, sirs and lady,” Perrsnile greeted the three of them before he hesitated while looking down at himself. “Though, not so good after all, I suppose.” 

“Flick,” Marina insisted while her hand grabbed my shoulder. “We have to find them, right now. We can’t let anything happen to those two. Not again.” 

“We will,” I promised, already turning back toward the others. “We’re going to Beta Cargo. And you are going to tell us what that is.” My gaze snapped toward the ghost woman. “Whoever took the girls went there. So what is it? And why shouldn’t anyone else know about it?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a visible and audible sigh. “Beta Cargo is the first room we built of this place. It had the initial connection to the outside world. A direct pipeline, before we put in the rest of the rooms and established the proper way in and out. And before you ask, no, it is not a way to escape. At least, it shouldn’t be.”

“They obviously think it is,” I managed while stepping onto the elevator. Marina was right behind me, with the others trailing behind. “Whoever they are. And why can’t it be used to get out?” 

“Because–” Ausesh started before moving to one side as Perrsnile waved her out of the way so Archibold could go to his preferred spot in the middle of the elevator. “Ahem, because we closed it off. We erased that pipeline. There shouldn’t be any way to open it again. And yet, I cannot think of any other reason to go there. Beyond that, the only things in that room are a few spare parts, emergency rations we won’t need, tools… the exit would be the only reason to go there. But as I said, we turned that off when we created the more stable methods of getting in and out. To put it in terms you can understand, it was a tunnel between universes and we collapsed it. We closed both ends of the tunnel, which should have made the tunnel itself collapse as well. Even if you turn it back on by opening this side, if that’s even possible, you wouldn’t know for certain whether you could open the door on the other side. And beyond all of that, it would take years for the tunnel itself to grow wide enough for people your size to use it. At best you would have something as small as a ballpoint pen.” 

She paused then. “I am likely doing a poor job of explaining this.” 

“Intentionally, no doubt,” Gliner snarled. “It’s not as though you actually want us to catch your associates.” 

“Don’t start with that again,” I found myself snapping before focusing on the woman. “What buttons am I pressing to get down there?” Even as I asked that, something was poking at the back of my brain. But I had no idea what it could be. I was anxious about the situation, terrified for Denny and Dakota, guilty about what had happened to Perrsnile when he’d only been trying to help, confused about why they had also taken Sitter and what they might need him for, and… and a lot of other things. There was so much bouncing around in my head that it was hard to focus. All I knew was that we had to get there and stop these people before they left with those girls. 

We couldn’t let Denny and Dakota down. No, we wouldn’t let them down. That much I silently promised myself. Whatever we had to do, whoever these people were and whatever they wanted, they were going to regret grabbing those two. 

If we let them live long enough to do any regretting. Personally, I wasn’t really feeling like that was likely. 

Clutching my staff tightly in one hand while tapping my foot anxiously as the elevator began its torturously slow movement, I glanced over to Marina first. She looked just as upset as I was, if not more so. Her gaze was fixed angrily on the elevator door, clearly silently willing it to move faster. She was even rocking back and forth a bit, as though that would push it onward. She had her spear in one hand, tapping it repeatedly against the other. If I was ready to stab whoever had taken Denny and Dakota, I was pretty sure she was ready to disembowel them. Which meant a lot, coming from someone like Marina. 

From there, I looked to the others. Two ghosts, a cyclops-orc, and a blue-scaled guy with six eyes. These were the people I was going with to confront whoever was behind all this. I barely knew anything about them, and still didn’t know if we could trust Ausesh. It was possible that Gliner was right about her. Maybe she was working with the people who had taken the girls after all. Or maybe–

Fuck. I had no idea. At least she was a ghost, so if she tried anything, I could stop her. Right now, I wanted her close so I knew exactly what she was doing. I just–fuck, none of this made sense. The bad guy was either Ausesh or Valdean, right? They built the vault together and then she hid out while he was the face of things. One of them started selling the children in the vault to bad people. Gliner thought it was Ausesh, while Archibold thought it was Valdean. Archibold asked Mophse about missing supplies, and then either Ausesh or Valdean killed Mophse for investigating. Which led to Archibold killing Valdean, because he believed that guy was the one who killed Mophse. Then the time-lock happened, and when it ended, Gliner killed Ausesh because he thought she was responsible for killing Mophse. 

All of that left questions, and we weren’t sure which of the two was the real bad guy. But it made sense. Whichever of those two was responsible for the whole situation, it still worked. I could follow the course of events logically, for the most part. So where the hell had this come from? Who were these new people who had just shown up, killed Perrsnile, and then took off with Sitter, Denny, and Dakota? It felt as though we had been starting to get a hold of what was going on around here, until this whole wrench got thrown into it. Come to think of it, I might’ve been almost as angry about that as I was about whoever this was taking the girls. 

No, no, I was still a hell of a lot angrier about that last part. 

And yet, my brain wouldn’t stop picking at the whole thing. I was turning it around and around in my head, struggling to make sense of it. These people had come off one of the other elevators and abducted the girls while grabbing and killing the man. Then they took Dakota and Denny, as well as Sitter, and went down to some closed off back door area that they couldn’t even get through? Did they have a way to get out that our new friends here didn’t know about? 

With that in mind, I looked at Ausesh. “Tell me the truth, is there any way that you know of for these guys to use that closed tunnel thing to get out of here? Any way at all?” Yeah, I couldn’t be absolutely sure that she was telling the truth, but it was all I had. I was wishing my dad was here right now. He would’ve been able to tell if she was lying, I was sure of it. 

Ausesh, for her part, met my gaze evenly. She didn’t answer right away, seeming to consider the question intently. Or maybe she was thinking up a convincing lie. I had no idea which. Either way, she finally replied, “It is not entirely impossible. But, any way I look at it, they would need much more time to do so. This is something that would take weeks for them to do safely. This area would have been monitored by Sitter before the time-lock, and he would have noticed, investigated, and undoubtedly brought it up to you. Which he clearly did not do. Obviously it could not have been done while the time-lock was in effect, and given it has only been a few hours since that was turned off, there is no reasonable way for them to have gotten very far. If this is their escape plan, they cannot be very far with it. I assure you, there is absolutely no way for any living creature to travel through that tunnel until much more preparation is done.” 

While I was taking that in and thinking about her words, the elevator came to a stop. We were here. Immediately, Marina and I glanced at one another before stepping to either side as the doors opened. We were both ready with our weapons up, just in time to see a wide open room. It looks like a warehouse floor with absolutely nothing in it. We could see all four walls and the ceiling from here, and there wasn’t a stitch of furniture or anyone in view. But that didn’t mean much. Not with all the invisibility powers and spells they could be using. 

I switched on my infrared vision and scanned the room intently while stepping off the elevator and quickly moving to one side. Marina was right behind me and moved to the other side. Behind us, the two bodyguards stepped off as well. They brought their weapons up, Archibold holding a heavy curved sword in one hand and what looked like a fancy sawed-off shotgun in the other, while Gliner had two laser pistols. With the two ghosts bringing up the rear, we all spread out and scanned the room, searching for any sign of these people. But there was nothing. I reached out with my item-sense, my Necromancy, everything I could think of. I just could not see any sign that they were down here. 

“It’s possible that they went somewhere else,” Gliner noted, his gaze shifting from one side of the room to the other while he kept moving his pistols, clearly hoping we were wrong and our enemies would reveal themselves in the next second. But they didn’t. Everything remained quiet and the place was still eerily empty. 

“Fuck,” I managed, “I should’ve had one of you teach me how to check the system to see where more people were when they shouldn’t be. I was just so intent on getting down here and–fuck.” 

“I can still show you how to do that,” Ausesh offered. I could tell that Gliner wanted to snap something at that, but he held his tongue, while she continued. “We would have to return to the server room once more.” 

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have a better idea either. We had to track down where these people were. So, I nodded slowly. But not all of us. Whoever these people are, they might come down here while we’re gone. I don’t want to keep chasing them back-and-forth.

“I am, ahh, apparently a ghost now,” Perrsnile noted. “Which you have some control over. I can stay here, if you like, and warn you directly if anyone returns to this place.” 

Archibold agreed to stay behind as well, as Marina and I went back to the elevator with Ausesh. Gliner came too, refusing to take his eyes off the ghost woman. Soon, the four of us were heading back to the place we had just left, as I sighed and shook my head while my eyes closed. “We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, while Denny and Dakota are out there being–god, who knows what? They’ve gotta be so freaked out right now. They set off that alert and we didn’t even…” 

As I trailed off, Marina looked at me. “We didn’t even get to them in time, yeah. We didn’t–” 

“No,” I interrupted. My eyes opened, and I reached out, hitting the button to stop the elevator in mid-transit. 

“Flick?” Marina quickly looked from my hand to my gaze. “What’re you doing? We need to get back to the server room to track these guys down.” 

“No, we don’t,” I replied. “Because I know what happened.” My eyes glanced from Marina, over to Gliner, then to Ausesh. “Not all of it, but I know who’s behind it. I know who the real killer is, the one who’s responsible for everything. I know what’s really going on.” My hand tightened on the staff.  

“It’s–” 

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Enkindle 23-17 (Summus Proelium)

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The nearest zombie, a heavyset woman with a big hole in her stomach, lunged at one of the baseball players who was struggling to reach the hole in the fence I’d made. Before she could reach him, I activated orange angelic wings on my back for protection while using a blue puddle to launch myself that way. Inverting in the air, I slammed both feet into her shoulders. The impact was barely enough to make her stagger slightly, and felt like I had crashed into a brick wall. Still, it made her stop chasing that guy so he could escape. Rebounding off her, I flipped in the air and landed in a crouch, shooting a bit of red paint at her knee. At the same time, I hit a nearby folding chair one of the security guards had been using with another shot. She came charging my way that time and grabbed for me with her arms, just as I let the chair fly into her legs. It crumpled under the impact, and immediately melted partway, but still managed to knock her off her feet. 

Now the panic was really setting in. There was screaming from all around me as people bolted for the exits and tried to climb over each other to reach them. I launched myself upward with blue paint once more while giving a sharp whistle. To my relief, Alloy was actually paying attention and one of her marbles came up under me, shifting into a platform for me to land on. My hands pointed straight down, hitting the bit under my feet with red paint before I glanced to where she was hovering and made a quick motion with one hand as I threw myself off it and pointed toward the female zombie. A new stream of red paint hit the woman in the head and shoulders. 

Once again, Peyton understood. The platform flipped over so the bit I had painted was faced down, just as I activated the paint. The woman was yanked upward, slamming full force into that platform. Which transformed into a hand to close around her before she could fall, quickly spinning around several times before opening to send the zombie woman flying off to crash into the outfield, as far from people as we could manage. 

Meanwhile, I had dropped back to the ground just in time for one of the other zombie creatures to throw itself off the stands to crash down toward me. Seeing it coming from the corner of my eye, I activated green, purple, and orange stars along my sides while throwing myself sideways, just as the thing landed right where I had been. Shoving myself up before it could recover, I caught its wrist and yanked hard, ignoring the heat that I could feel even through the orange protection. With the added strength and speed boost, I managed to spin with the zombie and hurl it headlong into the nearest wall before the thing could recover. It wouldn’t stop the monster, of course. But this wasn’t about stopping them, it was about slowing them down long enough for all their potential victims to get out of this place safely. 

Speaking of which, I saw a group of people running for one of the exits. They were about to trample right over a couple older women who were struggling to move that way on walkers. Before anything terrible could happen, I used a pair of purple thumbs up symbols on my chest for strength, while painting both of my arms (sleeves and actual body alike) pink. With a grunt, I heaved as hard as my enhanced strength could manage. Between that and the pink stretchy power, my arms extended a good fifteen feet (getting narrower along the way, like taffy being stretched out), just far enough for me to catch hold of the two elderly women. A quick shot of orange from both hands ensured I wouldn’t break anything in them as I yanked the pair away from the stampeding group just in time. 

The two women were still trying to figure out what had just happened, as they looked at my stretched-out arms and yelped in surprise. 

“Sorry!” I called out while using my hands to yank them up to their feet. “But you really need to go now!” With those words, I snapped my right, extended arm sideways like a whip, using a bit of orange on my own back for protection just as my fist collided with the jaw of a zombie who had been clambering that way. It barely made an impact on the thing, but it still looked surprised that I had punched it from a distance. 

“Yeah,” I called out while my arms shlurped back to their normal length, “I’ve got some tricks, you wanna see another one?” As the zombie howled and came charging at me, I shot a quick line of pink paint along the ground. It stomped right through that line, and thus through the painted ground itself as I activated it. Like stomping into wet cement. Soon, it was buried up to its waist in the ground, and let out a horrible scream before slamming its fists down. Just as the thing did that, I deactivated the pink paint. Since I stopped it early, the paint became incredibly bouncy at the exact moment that the monster’s fists slammed into it. The ground instantly indented a good three feet under the force of that blow, and the zombie had an almost cartoonish look of surprise and confusion just before the ground snapped back into place, launching that monster far into the sky. It was like he’d been shot out of a cannon. 

Knowing that still wouldn’t get rid of the damn thing permanently, I glanced around quickly. To one side, I saw a guy on the ground with his arms up, trying to shield himself from a zombie who was lunging at him. Meanwhile, to the other side, there was a small group of children who were being shielded by a different man as he faced down another charging zombie. Without taking the time to even think about it, I activated a couple spots of green to speed myself up, while snapping my arms out to either side. A shot of red paint went from one hand to the guy who was cowering on the ground before I just as quickly adjusted my aim to hit a spot at my feet and activated both. He was immediately yanked away from the lunging monster just before it would have grabbed him, and pulled over to crash into the grass next to me with a yelp. At the same time, I shot a blue square onto the ground directly in front of the man who was protecting those kids. As that zombie ran over the square, he was launched upwards. Before he could come down again, Alloy turned one of her marbles into a large baseball bat and slammed it into him to knock the zombie out of the way. 

Throughout that, I caught glimpses of the others. Poise and Style were getting people to the nearest exits, and stopping any fights before they really got started. They moved deftly through the crowd, ducking and weaving like it was all some perfectly choreographed dance as they made sure no one ran into any zombies. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, were still taking turns with the teleporter powers to get people closer to the exits. 

Then I saw something… weird that couldn’t be right. For just a second, up near the far back area behind the third base bleachers, I thought I saw a… bear. A large, heavy-set and furry bear. But that wasn’t all. This bear was wearing a suit. I could’ve sworn it was there, just in the corner of my eye as I was scanning. But as the sight registered in my brain and my eyes snapped back to that spot, there was nothing there. 

Oookay, this whole situation was making me a little nuts, that was for sure. 

Pushing that aside, I spun back toward the elderly women who were still trying to reach the exit. “Hi,” I greeted them quickly. “Sorry, I know this is probably gonna suck for any vertigo and nausea, but I promise I won’t let you get hurt.” With that said, I renewed the orange paint I’d given them before. Then I quickly caught hold of the first woman before using purple circles on my arms and blue stars on the bottom of my shoes so I could pick her up and launch myself all the way up and over the fence. She gave a loud cry of surprise, just as we came down on the other side. 

“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted before quickly launching myself back the other way. A moment later, I returned with her friend. They were both now out on the field. “The parking lot’s that way!” I called out, pointing them in the right direction. From there, I went right back into the stadium. There were still a lot more people to get out of there. 

As I landed back in the field, Alloy whistled for my attention and pointed toward a few people in the upper stands who were struggling to stay away from one of the zombies as it barged right through the bleachers toward them. She already had a couple of her marbles working together to lift another group over the fence, while two more appeared in front of me to create a narrow set of stairs with a platform at the top. Immediately, I ran up them and launched myself off with a bit of blue on my shoes to reach the upper deck just behind the rampaging zombie there. He was about three rows from the trapped group, who looked like they were seriously considering just jumping off the edge and taking their chances with the fall. 

So, that was exactly what I told them to do. Spraying all six people there with the line of orange, I activated it while shouting, “Jump! I swear, you’ll be fine! Just jump right now, the paint will protect you!” 

In response to my voice, the zombie spun toward me and howled once more while lashing out with one hand. I managed to throw myself backward out of the way to avoid it, while the group I’d hit with that paint followed my instructions. Some were more eager than others, but all of them threw themselves over the side of the railing and dropped down to safety below. Relative safety, anyway. I had to hope that they would keep running once they were down there. But for now, I had my own problems. Namely, I was out of paint for the moment. I’d felt it coming, but had been too distracted to pay much attention. I’d used all my paint and what I already had on myself. Now I had to wait for it to recharge while this zombie was coming after me. Quickly, I shoved myself to my feet and popped the wheels out of my shoes so I could pivot away from him and skate out of the way. I heard him stumbling after me, burning his way through those metal bleachers. Apparently I had pissed him off. But hey, at least he wasn’t following those innocent people over the railing. I was pretty sure he could survive that fall too. 

Well, not survive, per se. Continue being animated? Whatever, I was glad he was chasing me instead of them. 

At least, that was what I told myself as I frantically hopped onto one of the bleachers and skated along it while glancing over my shoulder to see the zombie rapidly catching up. I still had to wait even longer to get my paint back, so I pushed myself to move faster, skating along those metal bleachers before one of Alloy’s marbles flew past me. It transformed into a short ramp leading up to the wall of one of the fancy luxury suites where people like my family would watch the game in the equivalent of a hotel room. Like the place where my dad had taken us to watch the races. 

Immediately, I skated up the ramp, before allowing the gravity-boots to keep me rooted to the wall so I could skate all the way up it to the roof. That didn’t require my paint, at least. And from the sound of things, it made the zombie chasing me pretty mad. 

Right, from here I had a decent view of what was going on. Most of the stadium had been emptied by now. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were still a dozen zombies, and our group was rapidly becoming their focus. Both because of the shrinking number of other targets, and because we had pissed them off. Or pissed off the guy who was controlling them. I still wasn’t sure exactly how that worked and how much autonomy they had. Either way, the point remained the same. Lots of dangerous monsters were focused on coming after us in particular now that we had spoiled their… fun. And there was still no sign that the others had managed to track Jason down yet. 

Just as I was taking all that in, a shout from below caught my attention. Calvin was there, looking right up at me while raising one of those high-tech Wren rifles that he’d had over his shoulder. In the next instant, I heard something behind me and spun just in time to see the zombie who had been chasing me coalescing out of a cloud of ashes. Right, they could teleport. Fortunately, even as that thought, accompanied by a jolt of shock, was filling my mind, a bolt of energy from Calvin’s rifle struck the zombie and sent him flying backward off the roof with a howl. 

“Thanks!” I called out while throwing myself off the roof. There was another zombie below me, but I managed to land several feet past it, coming down on the bleachers once more before letting my momentum carry me along on my wheels while the zombie swiped at me uselessly. Fuck, fuck, paint, please! I needed more paint right– From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the monsters down by the visiting team dugout. There was a ballboy there, huddled in the corner behind a rack of baseball bats, while the zombie stalked toward him. It seemed to be savoring the boy’s terror. 

No, no, no! A rush of panic filled me as I stuck my hand out that way, my mind a mix of silent cursing and prayer. Please, please have been long enough, please just–there! Red paint appeared and shot from my hand, hitting the space just above the dugout. With a thought, I put orange on myself while letting the red yank me that way. Just as the zombie was reaching out toward the last bit of equipment keeping him from the cowering ballboy, I slammed into him feet-first. The impact knocked the zombie back several steps with a confused grunt. Before it could recover, I reached out, caught hold of the boy’s wrist, and yanked him up with a little help from a purple fist on my shoulder. “Kudos on the loyalty,” I blurted, “but I don’t think anyone would blame you for leaving the game right now!” With that, I used blue paint on my shoes to launch both of us away from the dugout just as the zombie was recovering. In midair, another bit of red yanked us toward the exit that Calvin and Hobbes were trying to keep clear with multiple shots from their rifles to knock back any zombies who approached. Landing a bit awkwardly and almost falling over in the process with the boy (he was only a couple inches shorter than me), I gave him a little push toward the open gate. “Make like you’re trying to steal home for the World Series win!” 

He ran for it, and I spun back to put myself between Calvin and Hobbes while they continued aiming and shooting at any zombie who tried to approach. The problem was that the shots might have knocked the things back a few steps, or even a good ten feet on a solid hit, but they weren’t actually stopping them. They just kept coming. “What about the thing Trevithick did to lift that one guy up?!” I called out while activating a couple green handprints I still had on the back of their costumes so they could shoot faster. 

“We could do that!” Calvin agreed while taking aim to shoot at one of the zombies who was trying to run at us from up on the bleachers. 

“But we’d only be able to hold one of them at a time!” Hobbes added, taking a knee so she could shoot at another one coming up on the other side. “Two if we both did it! Then the rest could do whatever they wanted!” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Time it! One of you lift them up, then let them go just as the other shoots. If you hit them when they’re off the ground, they’ll probably fly further. They won’t be able to brace themselves or anything! And, wait, can you move them while they’re caught?!” 

Murphy realized what I was getting at immediately. I could hear the smile in her voice. “Damn straight! Ro–Calvin, get ready!” With that, she flicked a switch on the rifle she was using, before taking aim as one of the zombies came charging toward us once more. A blast of energy erupted from the gun, wrapping itself around the animated corpse before lifting the thing off the ground. From there, she gave a hard yank on the gun, hauling it around as the energy line dragged the zombie like a tether until it was right in front of another running zombie. “And… fire!” Even as she called that out, the girl took her finger off the trigger to release the energy tether. 

At the same time, Calvin pulled his own trigger. The blast of energy from his gun shot out, slamming into the dangling zombie before it could finish falling. It was sent soaring backward, slamming into the one coming up from behind it so both of them went crashing into the dirt a good twenty feet back. 

As those two set to work using their newfound joint tactic, my eyes were already snapping around the field, searching for any more problems. Okay, well, they didn’t have to look far to see problems. There were still a bunch of zombies running around. But I was looking for the worst, most immediate ones. Something that had to be taken care of right now. At the same time, I was inwardly cursing the fact that there was still no sign of Riddles. What was taking so long for them to find this guy?!

Even as that thought filled my head, I saw it. Or rather, her. Riddles flew up into view from one of the covered areas in the upper stands, where the concession stands were. As soon as she came into view, I blurted, “Fuck, finally!” To the others, I shouted, “Keep getting people out, I’ve gotta go help them!” 

With that, I launched myself up that way, using red paint to land in the stands. Riddles flew down and circled me with a shriek, and I gave a quick nod. “You got it, buddy! Let’s go!” 

Before moving, however, I turned back to check the others. Alloy was working with Poise and Style, the three of them keeping a ramp that Peyton had created clear so more people could run up and over it to cross the fence. Seeing me looking that way, Poise waved a hand wildly. “Go! Get that son of a bitch, we’ve got this!” 

Right, they had it. They could deal with this. I just… Shoving my insecurities down, I turned back to see Riddles passing through an open door leading into the staff area. I had to do this. The others could handle getting the rest of the people out. What mattered now was finding Pack, Broadway, and Grandstand… and helping them deal with this guy before his monsters killed anyone else. With that thought in mind, I painted green lightning stripes on my legs for speed, and ran straight for the open door. 

Whatever came next, it was time to end this. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, Marina and I were both reeling from that revelation. A thousand thoughts kept screaming through my head, all of them independently vying for attention. It was like a high-pitched whining in my ears, even as my head shook rapidly. “Wha-what? What are you talking about? What the fuck do you mean, breeding farm?” 

The blue-scaled, six-eyed man apparently known as Gliner gave a short nod, grunting. “Just what Archie said. This place, it poses as a nice, friendly, safe home for everyone. And it is, sorta. That’s what Valdean intended it to be. But Ausesh perverted that wish and has secretly been selling all the children of everyone in this vault and then erasing everyone’s memories.” 

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” the ghost-lady objected. “Of course I haven’t–” 

“Silence, creature!” Gliner snapped. “You should have already vanished. If you think–” 

Achibold interrupted. “My friend, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. You’ve made a mistake. As I said, Ausesh was innocent of this. It was Valdean himself who sold the children.” 

They both started to argue again, until I held up my hand. “Stop! Just–just stop. Wait. Ignoring who is ultimately responsible, are you both completely certain about that whole ‘selling children’ thing?” 

The two of them exchanged glances before meeting my gaze and nodding. Archibold spoke first. “Yes, though we may disagree on the responsible party, my partner and I are both in firm agreement on that point. We investigated for quite some time. We’ve found the programs in the computer system intended to erase memories, a few video fragments of children in the vault, records of the… buyers entering secret areas in order to pick up their new… property.” He grimaced, anger and hatred visible on his face as he said the last word. “And more. It is absolutely certain. There were children here, many over the years, and they were sold into slavery, as tools and worse, while everyone else’s memories of their existence were erased.” 

Marina closed her eyes briefly, murmuring several soft curses under her breath before looking over at me. “What’re we supposed to do? How do we tell their parents? Or any of them? What–” 

“First thing’s first,” I interrupted. “We find out who was really responsible for it. I uhh…” Frowning, I looked at the two ‘bodyguards’ first, then at the ghost lady. “I’m just not sure exactly how we do that.” 

“She’s a ghost,” Mariana pointed out. “Can’t you just force her to tell the truth?” 

“I am already telling the truth,” Ausesh insisted. “But to be clear, I do not believe it would be possible if I was not. She may force me to act, may summon and empower me, may… in various ways, punish me for not doing as requested. She could even force me, with very little effort, to claim that I was responsible. Which I was not. But it would take an incredible amount of fine skill and training to force me to tell the truth in a way that would convince either of you.” 

“She’s right,” I admitted with a wince. “I can make her say and do things, but I don’t know specific spells to ‘tell the truth.’ Mostly I possess people for that and… well. That won’t work with her.” After a moment, I sighed. “And it won’t work with Valdean either. He’s dead too, and we don’t even have his ghost to talk to.” 

“So what you’re saying is,” Marina started, “we have two guys here, one of whom says the bad guy was Valdean and the other says it was Ausesh. We can’t get the truth out of them because they both believe what they’re saying. And the only people in the vault who would know for certain are already dead, so we can’t possess them.” Belatedly, her eyes widened. “Wait, what about Denny?” 

“What–or who–is a Denny?” Ausesh demanded. 

“It’s a restaurant in the Bystander world,” Archibold began to sagely inform her. “Mostly known for cheap breakfast meals and extended hours. But I have no idea what it has to do with this particular situation. Unless they have dramatically altered their corporate direction in these past years.” 

I sighed. “Not Denny’s. Denny. She–she has the power to make people do what she says. That’s the short version. She doesn’t like to use it, but yeah. Maybe it could help here. Except it didn’t work on… on another ghost we talked to. But she was special. I’m pretty sure you’re not empowered by a mystical super-power granting universe, right?” She stared at me, and I coughed. “Right. So maybe we can get some real answers.”

Marina was looking around once more. “So you three just lived down here, out of the way?” 

Gliner nodded distractedly, his angry, hateful glare directed toward his former employer. “Archie and I were hired to protect this filth. I believed we were friends, almost family. I trusted her. We spent years together, and she…” He stopped himself, visibly shuddering at the thought of what he believed she was responsible for. “She wasn’t the person I thought she was.” 

“And here I thought that if you had some concerns as to my character,” Ausesh dryly (and somewhat bitterly) pointed out, “you would have talked them through with me. Or at least given me some opportunity to defend myself and prove my innocence.”

“You deserve no defense, child-enslaving filth!” Gliner snapped. He didn’t throw himself at her, but it seemed like a near thing. If she had still been alive, I don’t know that he would have stopped himself. “You lied to us for years, decades! You used us while you let dozens of innocent children suffer for your own gain. I hope your soul rots and suffers in whatever hell awaits you.” 

“Okay, just hold on, guys,” I quickly put in. “Stop. We’ll take this one step at a time. We’ll go back to where Denny is and see if she can use her power to get you to tell the truth. I’m sure there’s a couple ways we can check to make sure it’s working. Maybe it won’t be perfect, but it’s something. Can you three agree with that? I mean, we’re doing it anyway, but it’d be nice if you all cooperated.” 

Thankfully, they didn’t object. Well, Gliner had a few worries about Ausesh, but I assured him that I could keep her under control. So, with me keeping a tight mental grip on the ghost woman just in case she was the bad guy here, we started back toward the elevator. On the way, Marina asked Archibold, “So are you really trying to say that the drive you put in the server to block it from registering that you guys existed down here wasn’t supposed to make Sitter shut off?” 

“As I said,” the neon-orange Orc-Cyclops patiently replied, “our employer assured me that temporarily erasing us from his memory, while also blocking our area from being monitored, were the only things it would do.” 

“That is all it was supposed to do,” Ausesh insisted. “But like I told you, and them, before, I was given the drive by Valdean to use in any emergency where we needed to stay hidden. I care deeply about Sitter, I would never hurt him. The drive shouldn’t have done anything more than what I told you, and it certainly shouldn’t have shut him down when he investigated!” 

Either she was a very good actress (which was possible), or the woman really was distraught about Sitter. She seemed genuinely upset whenever his whole situation came up. Even more openly upset than she was about dying, to be honest. Which was a little weird. 

Opening the elevator doors, I gestured for the others to get on. “I hate to ask this, but are we sure that both Valdean and you, Ausesh, weren’t responsible for the whole selling children thing together? I mean, why are you guys so sure only one of them was behind it?” I addressed the last bit toward the two bodyguards. “If they both built the vault together, they could’ve come up with the bad part of it together too, right?” 

Archibold and Gliner exchanged looks once more, before the latter spoke carefully. “In one of the very few clips we were able to find–ahh, here.” Moving carefully so we wouldn’t think he was a threat, the man reached into his pocket and withdrew a small device. It looked sort of like a handheld gaming system with a slightly larger screen, or a phone if half its size was taken up by several physical buttons instead of a screen. Hitting a few of those buttons, the man held it up so we could see the video that appeared there. 

On the screen, several blurry, distorted figures were standing in what sort of looked like some sort of loading dock. To one side were a series of cages holding obvious children. I could barely make out any details of the figures standing there, other than to say that there were four of them, three of whom were adults and one was another child. The adults were standing just a bit away from the child (the one who wasn’t in a cage), and seemed to be having a conversation while he just… stood there and looked at the kids who were in cages. It seemed like they were using him as a prop or something. Maybe they made him demonstrate his powers for them. I wasn’t sure, it was obvious this footage started in the middle of whatever was going on. 

Another obvious thing was that the footage was badly degraded or whatever. It was in black and white, and there were fuzzy lines across it. Between that and the static and overall blurriness, it was impossible to make out any details about any of the people standing there. The voices, when they came, were distorted as well, but at least somewhat understandable. 

“We’ll give you three hundred thousand for the whole lot,” one of the people said. It was impossible to tell who was talking through the distortion and overall terrible quality. 

One of the other figures on the screen replied, “You’ll pay three hundred and fifty thousand and not a penny less. That’s what we agreed on, and I’m not about to let you weasel out of the deal.” 

Yet another voice asked, “What’s the matter, you think it won’t be enough to split with your old partner?” 

That sent a chuckle through the group before the second voice snapped, “I told you before, that’s over. I don’t have any partners. This is for me, nobody else. Now, are you going to pay what I’m asking for, or do I advertise my wares to someone who isn’t such a cheapskate?” 

“There’s no need to be insulting,” the first voice insisted. “If you say these kids are worth that much, I guess we’ll just have to take your word for it. Of course, we’re going to want to see a little demonstration just to make sure you’re not trying to rip us off.” With that, one of the figures, the one talking, apparently, raised a hand to point at the child who wasn’t in a cage. “And I know just how to start.” 

The footage cut to total static then, and Archibold grimaced before quietly saying, “That’s all we were able to salvage. Someone went in and deleted the footage, but this little clip was still there. Just took a little work to dig it out.”  

Marina shook her head. “You can’t tell who any of those people are, or even what they are. You can’t tell who’s talking, or anything about them. They’re just blobs on the screen.”

My head gave a short nod. “Yeah, and you can’t tell if the person they were talking to was a man or a woman. Between all the blurriness and static, and that weird distortion, you can’t see them or make out anything about their voices. Which is just… really inconvenient, to be honest.” Even as I said that, I was hitting the buttons that would take us back to the server room where the others were waiting. 

As the doors closed, Archibold cleared his throat. “Ah, I truly hate to be an imposition, but would you mind terribly if I stood in the middle of the elevator while it moves? I tend to… get a bit motion sick if not.”

“He’s right, it’s not pretty,” Gliner confirmed. 

Marina and I looked at one another briefly, but shrugged before stepping out of the way so he could move there. I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of long-game trick or whatever, but we’d just have to keep an eye on him. Something told me these guys weren’t a threat. Well, to us anyway. 

“In any case, the person in that video certainly wasn’t me,” Auseth insisted. “I told all of you before, I do not enjoy interacting with new people. It seems less terrible now that I am dead, but these two can both testify that I hated talking to people. Hated and… and feared. I am not ashamed to say that new interactions made me uncomfortable and… and sick. I have physically thrown up after only short interactions with strangers. Why would I have what appears to be many interactions with multiple people to sell these children? For money? I have everything–” She stopped, her form flickering a little. “I… I had everything I wanted in here. What on Earth would I need money for? I never go anywhere to spend it. When I was alive and talked to people I didn’t know, it made me ill. Literally.” 

“She is not exaggerating about that,” Archibold agreed while looking over at me. “We were hired to do more than protect her. It was also to interact with people so she wouldn’t have to. And we’ve seen when she tried. It, like my motion-sickness, was not a pretty sight.” 

Gliner made a slight growling sound while glaring that way. “Which was obviously a cunning deception. She set the whole thing up to make herself look innocent in a situation just like this. Because she thought no one would see through it.” 

Sighing to myself as the three of them begin to argue again, I turned away to look at Marina. The elevator was making its way steadily back to the server room, and with any luck we would soon have an answer so we could be done with this. I was really hoping that Denny would be able to settle whether Ausesh was responsible or not. I really hated to put the whole thing on her shoulders, but what else were we supposed to do? I could stop the woman from doing anything else, fairly easily, actually. She was a brand new ghost and I had perfect control over her, as far as physical actions went. I could even get rid of her if I wanted, or make her stronger. But I couldn’t be certain that she would be telling the truth if I asked for it. We needed Denny to use her power. There just wasn’t another way that I could see. 

From the look on Marina’s face, she felt the same way. We both knew Denny was the best way to settle this. If Ausesh could be proven to not be responsible, then it had to be Valdean. They were the two who had put the vault together. It was simple process of elimination. Well, sort of simple. The whole thing was somewhat complicated by the fact that both suspects were dead. And our way of getting out of this vault had been shut off. 

Yeah, that bit I was trying not to focus on too hard. I hoped Perrsnile had managed to get him rebooted or whatever by now. If we could prove either Ausesh or Valdean was the one responsible for Mophse’s death, and Archibold had already confessed to Valdean’s, that would solve the mystery and Sitter would be able to let us out of the vault, right? 

And yet, part of me was still pessimistic that it would actually be that easy, for some reason. 

While I was thinking about that, Marina turned to the two bodyguards and ghost woman. “Can I just ask, do any of you have any idea what we can do about–” 

Then it happened. Dakota’s face appeared in my mind, as I heard the words, “Killer’s bletherskate ahhh!” At the same time, the alarm spell I’d given them started to go off.

Oh no. Oh no, no no. I jerked upright, eyes widening with shock. What the hell? Dakota had obviously been about to say something else after bletherskate. My taboo power allowed me to hear one word before and one word after. But she had been interrupted. She was trying to tell us that the killer was there, or something. Then she… she cried out. Why? Why did she cry out? What was–

“Flick, what’s going on?!” Marina demanded, staring at me as the alarm spell kept blaring. 

“Something’s wrong with the kids,” I quickly replied, my gaze snapping to the buttons. “Fuck, fuck, how do we make this thing go faster?!” 

It was a rhetorical question, and yet Gliner stepped past me. As I snapped my staff up, he held one hand out placatingly, then hit three buttons. “Hold onto something.” 

And with that, the elevator suddenly doubled, maybe even tripled, in speed. We were rocketing along so fast Marina and I almost stumbled from the surprising force. I was pretty sure we would have if it wasn’t for our own enhancements. 

Of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. Holding my staff in one hand, glaring at the doors, I was cursing myself for leaving those three alone. Had I really been expecting two kids and Perrsnile to protect themselves from someone who attacked them? 

But who would have attacked them? This didn’t make any sense at all. The bad guy in this whole situation was either Valdean or Ausesh, and both of them were dead. And I had the ghost of one right here. Wait, hold on, what if it was the ghost of Valdean? What if he was responsible for this and his ghost hadn’t actually vanished? What if he was still around after all? What if his ghost was there and now he’d gone after Denny and Dakota? What–fuck, fuck, come on! Guilt rushed through me. If something happened to them, if–

Finally, the elevator doors whooshed open. Marina and I leapt out, with the other three right behind us. We were back in the server room, and I immediately spotted a figure lying on the floor nearby. It was Perrsnile. He had a great gaping wound in his chest, enough that I knew one thing for sure. It was too late to do anything for the man. He was dead. 

“Dakota! Denny!” Marina shouted their names as spun in a circle, eyes searching every corner of the small area. But there was nothing. The only other person in the room was the dead man, lying in a pool of his own blood. There was nothing we could do for him.

The girls were gone. 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, we were all a bit surprised to find Grandstand suddenly standing in front of us. Or, more to the point, crouched on top of the van. Giving a double-take while the others reacted around me, I found myself blurting, “You’re the reason the cops never tried to pull us over!” Wait, she had been crouched on the roof the entire time we had been driving up here, at those speeds? What the hell was this chick doing? Why would she have been following us like that? Why was she here at all? 

Under her Zorro-like bandana mask, the woman smiled faintly while hopping down to land on the pavement next to the van. “Worked that out quick, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Now, like I said, are we gonna go in there and be heroes, or what?”

Poise, stepping slightly in front of me, spoke up sharply. “What are you doing here? Last I checked, you and Cuélebre were on the outs, but I don’t think that means you suddenly decided to switch sides out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Better question,” Pack abruptly put in while holding that shotgun of hers. She hadn’t gone as far as to point it at her, but the point was made. “Why were you following us close enough to find out what we’re doing?” 

“My business is personal,” the woman shot back. “But, just to ease this along since I’m pretty sure we don’t have time for a lot of arguments, let’s just say I wasn’t following you. Or, well, I was only following you recently. I’ve been tracking down the guy you’re after right now. You know, the one responsible for those zombie attacks, like the one that’s about to happen right in there. I need to talk to him. He has information about the guy I’m really looking for. I’ll help you stop him, then I get to talk to him until he tells me what I need.” 

While the rest of us were absorbing that, Broadway stared at the woman, voice dark and clearly suspicious. “What exactly do you want to talk to him about?”

“Relax, it’s not about your secret identity,” Grandstand retorted while visibly rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna be really honest here and say I very seriously couldn’t care less about that. This is a hell of a lot more important. And yeah, I know, my old gang and your gang aren’t exactly friends right now. Big whoop. I’m here for bigger fish. Like the kid over there said, I’m not at the top of Cuélebre’s best friends list at the moment, so picking a fight with some kids over your secret identities or whatever isn’t even on the first ten pages of my to-do list. My real friend, a close friend, was murdered. And the guy in there knows something about who did it.” 

Broadway made a noise before starting with, “If you think–” 

“Relax, Soundwave,” Grandstand interrupted, “It wasn’t him, so I’m not out for revenge. If I was, none of you would’ve ever known I was here. He’s not the guy who killed my friend, but he’s got information I need about who it really was. Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I figured since I caught a ride with you guys, and I only know where he is thanks to you, I owe you some sort of explanation. But that’s enough. I’m going in there to find him before he takes off again. If you all want help making sure a bunch of innocent people don’t die, you’ll get over yourselves and come along.” With that, she started to move to the entrance.

Calvin’s head shook while our whole group looked at one another uncertainly, the boy hesitating before managing a confused, “What’re we supposed to do? She’s a bad guy, right?” 

I shrugged, with a glance toward Pack and Broadway. “Not like she’ll be the first villain we’re working with. And she’s right, people in there are going to get hurt or die the longer we stand out here and debate about it.” A funny feeling ran down my spine, but I shook it off and turned to run toward the stadium. On the way, I fumbled with my phone and used the redial to call Caishen yet again. I left another message to say that we were there and that we needed help. What else was I supposed to do? Yes, she had told us not to go after whoever was responsible for the zombies alone, but we couldn’t just let this happen without trying to stop it. We weren’t hiding the fact that we’d found him. We’d called everyone we possibly could. They were all busy. The only option besides going in there was to just let it happen. And I didn’t care if she got mad at us or not, I wasn’t going to do that. Dangerous or not, we weren’t just going to let a bunch of people die. If it turned out she thought we should… well, then the Michigan heroes were a lot worse than I thought. 

There was, of course, one more thing I could do. Slowing my run, I turned toward Paige and lowered my voice. “Call the Ministry as yourself real quick. Tell them Paintball called you and told you what was going on, and asked you to tell them they need to do something. They know that I know something about them anyway, and that you have their number. But can you do it without them tracking your phone as coming from right here?”

Paige, absorbing that, gave a short nod. “I’ll forward the call from another phone back in the city.” With that, she set to work doing just that, while I started running once more. Maybe it was dumb to call in the Ministry and ask them for help, but I was seriously desperate. They wanted to keep crime under control, and something told me Jason hadn’t received their permission to do this. 

“Glad to see it didn’t take long for you to come to your senses,” Grandstand informed me as we approached the gate. Unsurprisingly, the man who was standing there looked a little surprised at the sight of what was coming toward him. He was staring at all of us, but mostly at the woman beside me. I saw his hand move to the radio on his belt, only to stop short as his eyes abruptly shifted toward me, hand dropping away from the belt as though he’d never reached for it to begin with. “Hey, sorry, costume night’s not til next week. I don’t know who screwed that up, but hey, you all look pretty g–holy shit what the fuck?!” That last bit came as he caught sight of Holiday and Mars Bar, who were already partway shifted into their large forms. 

Oh, and he paid absolutely no attention to Grandstand as the woman simply walked right past him. Obviously, she had used her power. On the other hand, she did pause to wait for us, while making an impatient ‘hurry up’ gesture with her hand. Whether it was because she genuinely wanted to help, or because she thought she had a better chance of finding this Jason guy with Broadway and Pack, I wasn’t sure. A voice whispered in the back of my ear that it might be less about thinking Broadway could help find him, and more about thinking she could use Broadway as a hostage against him if he found out she was his sister. 

Then again, would he even care about that? Could someone who was trying to show off for the Scions give a shit about his sister being in danger? I had no idea. But then again, I couldn’t even fathom having a brother who would try to show off for the Scions in the first place. Yeah, my brother had clearly killed people, but there was a pretty vast gulf between that and auditioning to hang out with Pencil, Cup, and their gang.

Ignoring the gate guide for just a moment, I turned to the two La Casa Touched. “You guys go find him. Have Riddles let us know if you track him down. We’ll get everyone out of here. Just… be careful.” With that, I turned back to the guy, who looked even more confused. He’d grabbed his radio from his belt again and was fumbling with it. As it fell from his hand, I shot red paint at it and at that hand, making it jump back into his grip as he made a noise of surprise. 

“Dude,” I quickly put in, “the zombie-monsters over in Detroit, you heard about them? The guy who’s been controlling them is here. As in he’s in this stadium, not just the city. He’s gonna attack this place any minute. You need to start evacuating people right now.” As his eyes widened in shock about what I was saying, I grabbed his wrist and shoved the radio up to his ear. “Call it in! Open every gate, every door. Let everyone out, right now! Set off the fire alarms, whatever you need to do, just get everyone to move!”

That was all I could take the time to say. Leaving the man stammering in confusion, I ran past him and into the entrance area of the stadium. The others were right behind me. Grandstand gave me an evaluating look briefly before nodding as she pivoted to run toward an area labeled for employees. On the way, she called back, “Your pal‘s gonna want to have a good view of the stadium and privacy! Probably upstairs somewhere!” 

Broadway and Pack were right behind her, along with the assortment of lizards, who were growing by the moment. I barely paid any attention to that, however. My focus was on several guards who were jogging up from around the other corner. As they approached and tried to tell us we had to leave and that this whole thing wasn’t funny, I snapped a hand up to shoot green paint over the rest of our little group. Seeing me actually do that brought the guards up short as they realized this either wasn’t a costumed prank, or it was a really good one. 

“Zombie bad guy from Detroit’s attacking this place, you gotta get everyone out!” I blurted while already activating the green paint to run past them. “You guys get down to the field and help people get to the exits! Watch for zombies!” I called over my shoulder just as we reached the top row of bleachers. The people there, watching the game below, jerked in surprise at the sight of me. Though most, again, didn’t realize I was the real thing. Not yet, anyway. But they would pretty soon. 

Stopping short, my gaze scanned the field, then the bleachers, then up into the higher areas. Nothing untoward. The place seemed completely normal. If we were wrong about this, if he’d changed his mind and we were sounding the alarm for no reason–no. We definitely couldn’t take that risk. Even if we ended up looking paranoid and stupid, it didn’t matter. 

To the people around me, who were staring in even more confusion about whether this was some sort of presentation, I added, “Unless you guys wanna be trampled, you need to get out right now. Run! Get the hell out of the stadium! It’s not a game, it’s an attack, so go! Just spread the word and get the fuck out of here right now!” With that, I pointed my hand toward the announcers booth. It was above the bleachers by the first base line, while we were above home plate. A line of red paint went flying from my hand, making the nearby audience gasp as they realized I wasn’t a fake. That gasp became a cry of surprise that spread throughout the audience as I triggered the paint and launched myself over their heads, across all those bleachers, and all the way to the raised booth. 

“Korey Rikers, the second baseman, coming to–what the fuck?!” That was the announcer himself, his shock broadcast all over the stadium and over the radio as I hit the window next to him. I could see the skinny guy with his big droopy mustache holding a hotdog in one hand, which slowly fell to the desk, dripping ketchup and mustard over the keyboard sitting there as he stared at me wide eyed. The man turned to a guy next to him and half-covered the mic while hissing a question about whether this was some sort of promotional stunt. Despite the covered mic, his words were still picked up and broadcast, and I could see more people looking up to where I was and pointing. If I’d wanted everyone’s attention, I was sure getting it. Now I just had to do something useful with that.

To that end, before the stunned announcer could recover, I planted my knees against that window (staying in place thanks to the gravity defying boots), painted a bit of the glass pink, and punched through it. As the man gave another curse of surprise, I apologized before grabbing the mic from his hands. “Everyone get out of the stadium right now!” I blurted into it while squeezing the button so my voice was projected. “There’s a bad guy who wants to hurt everyone here, you need to get out of your seats and get to the parking lot! And then keep going! Just get out of here! Find an exit and get out!” Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There was a good chance we would cause a panic. But what choice did we have? We needed to get everyone out as fast as possible. The second Jason saw us or realized people were starting to leave, he would unleash his monsters. There was no time to be subtle about it. Besides, we could watch for anyone being trampled or suffocated. We–we had to do it this way. 

Okay, the truth was, maybe someone more experienced would’ve had a better idea of how to do this. Maybe there were twenty different better ways. But I had to do something right then. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. 

At least people were listening. The group who had been close enough to hear me tell them what was about to happen before I painted my way up here had already cleared out and were running out the same way we had come in. Which left an opening for others below them in the stands to pick themselves up and start running. Meanwhile, the guards had actually listened and spread the word. I could see other entrances being hauled open, the people there shouting for more of the audience to get out those ways. 

The rest of the team were busy getting everyone moving. Calvin and Hobbes were helping by using the teleportation power. Hobbes was all the way over on the far side of the field where there was a gate that was usually only opened to allow cars to drive onto the field. It was open now, thanks to one of the guards there. With Murphy by the gate, Calvin got everyone he could in the lower stands to grab onto him, and teleported them over there. Then Murphy started to run. They were splitting up how much work they each had to do by taking turns with which one of them ran to collect people and which one stood by the gate to catch their breath. 

Meanwhile, Poise and Style were in the middle of the stands, on opposite sides of the stadium, directing everyone about which way to go. The two of them were making sure no single exit was overwhelmed with people. And anyone who tried to shove their way through quickly found themselves grabbed and pulled out of the way so others could get past. Sierra and Paige seemed to be everywhere at once, slipping through the crowd easily to find the potential troublemakers before anything bad could happen. 

Then there was Alloy. She was above the crowd, hovering in her armor. Apparently she’d started to get the hang of using just that to keep herself in the air without a board under her feet. That or she felt like she needed every other marble she possibly had for other things. Either way, those other marbles were turned into various walls and ramps to lead the audience one way or another. Whenever one exit area started to get too full, she noticed from her elevated position and used one of her marbles to block that way off, directing people down a lesser-occupied route. 

Spotting a group of players mixed with employees and some of the audience being pushed to one side out onto the field, I used a mix of blue and red paint to throw myself that way. “Hey, coming through!” I called out to announce my arrival before landing near the group. Quickly, as they looked at me and started to blurt questions, I painted a pink door onto the nearby wall, before lashing out with a purple-powered foot to kick through it. I had to kick a couple times, but I finally knocked out enough of the pink door shape to reveal the open, weed-filled lot behind the field. “Go!” I blurted. “Run and keep running. Just trust me, go!” Even as I said that, my gaze snapped around the field and up into the stands. There were still a lot of people, but the place was getting emptier by the moment. We were actually doing this. We were going to get these people–

And then it happened. A loud, terrifying shriek filled the air, as a man appeared on top of the announcer’s booth where I had just been. And not just any man. A clearly dead one. The top third of his head was gone, leaving some of his brain visible. His arms were twisted around the wrong way, and he forced them back into position with a series of audible snaps, while all of us stood there and watched in horror. Then, he tilted his head back and gave a terrible howl that was half-banshee and half-wolf. It echoed around the field, before being answered by another howl. Then another one. And another. 

They were everywhere. Two of them burst out of the restroom up behind the third base stands. Another one came crawling out from under the outfield fence. The visiting team dugout had one that came through the locker room area, chasing two people who had been going out that way. More were in the stands. We’d gotten some of the people out before Jason reacted, but not nearly enough. And now these monsters were here. Not just one or two. There had to be a dozen of the things, at least. 

This sick piece of shit wanted to put on a show for the Scions, and he was going to do it by slaughtering as many innocent people in this place as he could. Unless we stopped him. But we had barely been able to handle one of these things before with all of us working together. What the hell were we supposed to do about twelve of them all spread out, and with a bunch of civilians in the way?

Whatever it was, we were going to have to figure it out soon. Because, with another chorus of horrifying howls, the zombies attacked.

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Four Deaths Four Killers – 19-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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After punching in the buttons that Perrsnile had written on his list of how to get to the area where we thought our missing trio were hiding out, we immediately heard the chime indicating that there was another elevator car in the way that would have to be moved. As soon as that happened, the two of us looked at each other knowingly. More evidence that someone was down there.

With a sigh, I slumped back against the wall before looking over at Marina. “Well, this whole thing isn’t exactly the nice, quiet break I was expecting it to be. How about you?”

She visibly and audibly snorted before looking over at me with a very slight smile. “Honestly, at this point, can you be that surprised? I’ve only been on the periphery of all of this, and even I know this seems to be par for the course when it comes to your life.” After saying that, she reached out to touch my shoulder. “But how are you doing with that? I mean… it has to be a lot to go through sometimes. This universe seems bound and determined to force you into having interesting and terrifying moments all the time. It just seems like it would be… overwhelming.” 

My hand found hers on my shoulder and I squeezed it before shrugging. “At least I don’t get bored? And I get to help people. I mean, yeah, this sort of thing can be scary, yet if we weren’t here, all these people would still be waiting for someone to let them out of stasis and find that killer. So, I’m kind of okay with it. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather be dealing with this than something like Kushiel, or the Whispers. We just take it a little bit at a time.” 

Shaking her head slowly, Marina offered me a quiet, “You are pretty unique, Felicity Chambers. That’s probably why the universe keeps putting you in these situations anyway, because you can handle it. Better than I could, anyway,” she muttered that while glancing away. 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t say that. You’re pretty amazing. Come on, the way you got those kids out of the daycare and made sure neither side could use them as hostages, that was incredible. You barely found out what was happening, and you still jumped to protect them. All of them. Hell, you knocked out one of the adults and took the kids before anyone could react, and then you made sure they went back to their parents safely. You protected them, and now you’re here protecting and watching over all these kids at Wonderland. Seriously, Marina, you’re doing great. I can’t even imagine being in your situation and keeping those kids safe the way you did. I’m sorry we didn’t trust you enough last year to tell you about what was really going on. If we had, maybe we’d be in even better shape.” 

Her gaze met mine, before she swallowed. “I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if you did. I want to think I would’ve done the right thing, I just…” A sigh escaped her. “Looking backwards probably doesn’t help. I’m here, and I want to help now.” Glancing forward to the doors as the elevator began to slow, she added quietly, “Before anyone else in here gets murdered.” 

Right, time to focus. With my staff held tightly in one hand, I gave the other girl a nudge toward the opposite side of the elevator while stepping the other way. When the doors opened, I didn’t want either of us standing in what could be the direct line of fire. Speaking of which, with a quick pair of words and a hand on both my own shoulder and the other on Marina’s, I activated the bullet-protection spell I’d learned last year. It would slow down any projectile coming at us and make them basically harmless. Not a perfect solution against things we might be facing, but every little bit helped. 

Meanwhile, as I was doing that, Marina wasn’t twiddling her thumbs. She brought two enchanted coins from her own pocket, using one on herself and one on me. Her spell was an upgraded version of that fresh air enchantment. It surrounded our heads with what felt like gentle air conditioning, pumping safe oxygen from somewhere else in the building while simultaneously keeping anything harmful away from us. If our secret, hidden adversaries thought they could poison us, they were in for a surprise on that front as well. 

And yet, as the doors opened, we didn’t face a hail of bullets or a cloud of poison. We didn’t face… anything, really. There was an empty room ahead of us with a couple doorways leading off in various directions. The floor, walls, and ceiling all seemed to be made of hard cement, like this place was an unfinished basement. I could hear what sounded like voices coming from a room to the right, but they didn’t sound anxious or angry. It sounded more like… romantic confessions. Huh. 

Marina had her three-pointed spear-like corseque out as well, and the two of us exchanged glances. Rather than going straight out there, the first thing I did was activate one of the privacy spell coins so nobody could eavesdrop on us. Then I pointed my staff and, with a whisper, made Jaq drop off the end. The little mouse cyberform went scurrying through the room in front of us, heading for the doorway. As he moved, I touched the bracelet on my arm and focused. Suddenly, I was able to see through his eyes. It was a little toy I’d first gotten from Broker, and then had replaced thanks to Columbus, Tabbris, and Nevada. Not only could I see what my mice saw, but even teleport to where they were. Or teleport them back to me. Again, very useful. 

At the moment, Jaq was approaching the doorway. As he peeked into the next room, I saw boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. Well, metal crates mostly. They were stacked clear to the very high ceiling, leading back in several rows to form aisles that stretched too far for to see all the way to the ends. But I could see who was talking. Or rather, what. There was a television in one corner of the room, where several empty armchairs sat facing it. On the TV was some sort of romantic comedy. Two of the chairs had been turned to face one another, in a way that looked like it had been done hastily and recently, as if someone had grabbed and shoved them around so they could face each other and talk.

This looked like people had been sitting there as recently as a few seconds earlier. Probably just before the elevator had arrived. Fuck. Yeah, they’d probably heard it, which meant they could have run away to hide, or have gotten ready to ambush us. So, we had to be even more careful about this. We had no idea who these people were, or even what species they were. We had no idea what they were capable of. This was not a fun situation to be walking into. 

So, we wouldn’t walk into it. Instead, I sent Jaq scurrying to the far opposite corner of that second room, looking around rapidly as he went just in case he might be able to spot someone hiding. But there was no sign of anyone. At the same time, I let Gus drop off my staff, crouching to attach a small bead to the back of his head before sending him off to one of the other doors in the first room. As soon as he was out of sight and Jaq was safely in a corner of the first room, I shifted my bracelet to let me look through Gus’s eyes as well. That bit led to a hall with three doorways in it, so he scurried along one edge of the wall, peering in the first door to find an empty bathroom, the second to find what looked like small kitchen (equally absent of any obvious people), and the third to find another enormous storage area full of crates. 

“Are we ready for this?” I whispered toward Marina. Not that whispering was strictly necessary, given the whole privacy spell thing. But still, it felt right. At the same time, I dropped a coin in the corner of the elevator. It was the same sort of alarm spell I’d left upstairs in the server room. So if anyone stepped in here and tried to leave, we’d know. 

Marina, for her part, exhaled before nodding. “Ready when you are. Remember, shout out if you see anything. You’ve got the layout memorized?” 

My head bobbed. Sure, the floorplan we’d received obviously didn’t account for everything. It didn’t show us where the crates were and didn’t even let us know about those rooms on the side being a bathroom and kitchen (which itself seemed pretty odd to have down in a storage area), but still. We had a general idea of where all the rooms were and how to get from one to another. Which would have to be good enough. 

So, we both gave one final nod to one another. Then I activated the bracelet to send me over to where Jaq was, in that corner of the first big room. At the same time, Marina would be using one of her own powers. That bead I had put on Gus was one she had created. The beads allowed her to transport herself to wherever they were. In an instant, we would both vanish from the elevator and reappear right where the mice were. Anyone hoping to ambush us coming through the elevator doors would end up with a big surprise, hopefully. It was better than just stumbling right into a trap, anyway.

The second I appeared, I summoned Jaq back onto my staff and crouched, my gaze snapping around the room. Nothing. I saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary. Even when I shifted my vision over to infrared, there was no sign of anyone. I was starting to think whoever had been sitting in those chairs had gone for the ‘retreat and hide’ option rather than the ambush one. That or they were invisible, standing just out of range of my item sense, and waiting to–

Pushing that paranoia aside, I forced myself to focus. With my staff held at the ready, I sent a cloud of sand flying out. Not as an attack. Instead, I made the cloud spread out to fill as much of the space as possible, with only a little bit of it every few inches. With a thought, I sent the grains soaring through the room. If there was anyone hiding invisibly, my sand would (probably) bump into them and give their location away. And since I had control of it, I would detect that.

While my sand was searching the room, I turned to face the various rows of stacked crates. Ignoring the sound of the television still loudly blaring those ‘comedic and romantic’ misunderstandings, I swiftly but silently made my way along the front of those crate stacks. Still feeling the soft air conditioner-like effect of the oxygen spell, I looked down each aisle. I was splitting my attention between my item-sense, my own eyes, and the sand grains that had mostly covered the entire room by that point. Still, nothing stood out. The room seemed clear. 

Well, if nothing else, the people who had been sitting in here right before we arrived clearly weren’t incompetent when it came to hiding. Which was just fantastic, really. Hell, for all I knew, they were inside one of these crates. But, I was on top of that as well, at least to an extent. Quickly moving down the first aisle, I reached out to brush my hand along each of the lower crates. As soon as my fingers touched the metal, I focused on my ability to see through objects in order to peer inside. As promised, the crates were full of baby supplies and other random bits and pieces. Including toys for what seemed like kids all the way up to age ten or so. Which just reminded me that we hadn’t seen any children in this place so far. Was there a reason for that, or was it just a coincidence? Clearly Valdean had been prepared to have kids around the vault, or even hoped for it, given all these supplies. Either way, I kept moving, using everything I had to search the room as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was using my item-sense to make sure no one could sneak up on me, sending my sand into every corner of the room to check for invisible people, touching every crate I could reach in order to look inside them with that power. Not to mention just plain keeping my eyes and ears open. Nothing. There was nothing and no one in here as far as I could tell. 

It seemed to take forever for me to assure myself that there was no one hiding in this place. But, it was probably only a couple minutes once I got going. Still, it felt like too long. I kept half-expecting to hear the elevator alarm go off as someone snuck around us and tried to leave. But that was silent as well. Nor did I hear anything coming from Marina, so she apparently hadn’t found anything either. Whoever was down here, they were probably hiding further back in.

Part of me just wanted to get this whole thing over with. If the three people down here wanted to fight, let them jump out and try. At least that would lead to answers, one way or another. I really wanted to know the truth about what actually happened in this place, and this trio, whatever or whoever they might be, were obviously our best chance at getting those answers. But the longer this search went on, the more impatient I felt. Which was a feeling I had to rather intently push aside. Getting impatient would lead to mistakes, and mistakes would lead to… problems. The people in here were counting on us to find these murderers. And I was damn sure gonna do my best to make sure that happened. Both for them and for the victims. Valdean and Mophse deserved justice too. They deserved to be alive more, but at least I could make sure their killer, or killers, didn’t go free. 

All of that passed through my mind as I checked the table near the television. There were a couple coffee cups there, and sure enough, they were still warm enough to give off steam. Just as I’d thought, the people who had been sitting here ran away right when the elevator arrived. 

From there, I turned and started moving to a single door at the back corner of the room. From the floorplan I’d seen, this would lead to another large room, perpendicular to this one (wide where this one was long). There were two doors leading into that place. The first was the one I was going through, while the other was at the end of a short corridor which led out from one of the rooms on the opposite side, where Marina had gone. This whole assortment of rooms made one loop, and the two of us were going to meet in the middle right where this other large storage space was. 

If these people were hiding down here, it had to be in that room. One way or another, we were about to find them. 

Approaching the door into that last room, I scanned the area around it carefully. If there was any time for there to be some sort of trap, this was it. The walls were the same orichalcum as everywhere else in the vault, so they wouldn’t allow spells to be drawn on them, or for people to phase through them. But I had gotten around that by enchanting other things and leaving them near the doors, and I had no reason to believe I was the only one who could think of that. 

So, I carefully examined every inch of the entrance on this side, but found nothing. Next, I sent a small bit of sand through the crack under the door and used that to scout out the area on that side. Just like how I had searching the rest of the room behind me, if anything had been there, I would be able to feel it simply because my sand would have been stopped from moving. As best as I could tell with a quick bit of blind map-by-touch, there was nothing but the ordinary doorway there. 

Next, I took a coin and held it long enough to mark the thing so I could see and hear through it. Then I shrank it down so it was practically invisible and gave the thing a light toss through that crack as well. Instantly, I focused on where it was as the coin slid to a stop. The view wasn’t exactly great, as I mostly saw the ceiling in the other room. But there was enough peripheral vision for me to see that there was no one standing anywhere near this doorway, and there didn’t seem to be any weapons or enchantments that I had missed with my sand. 

Finally, as satisfied as I could be that the doorway into this last area was safe, I shifted my focus to see through Gus’s eyes once more to check on how Marina was doing. As soon as she teleported over there, she would have picked my little mouse buddy up to set on her shoulder so we could keep somewhat in contact. Apparently she was both done with the search, and had satisfied herself that her own doorway was clear, because she was standing near that last entrance leading into the big room, watching my mouse as she clearly waited for confirmation.

So, I gave it to her by activating the sound recording I had left on Gus, using the power I’d gotten way back from the guard in that prison camp when I’d been transported along with Roxa, Sands, and the others into Seosten space. As soon as I focused on that, Marina would hear my voice whisper, “Ready.”

She, in turn, met my gaze through Gus’s eyes and gave a short nod before holding up three fingers. Then two fingers. Then a single finger. 

When she lowered that last finger, both of us moved. I reared back and then kicked in the door that I had just spent all that time making sure was safe. It popped open under the force of my blow, as I lunged right through. The rest of my sand came with me, and instantly spread out through this even larger storage room. There were at least twice as many big metal crates in this one as there had been in the last. Which meant even more places to hide. But my sand was already shooting out in every direction as I used it to search for invisible figures while scanning the room intently. With a thought, I shifted my vision back to infrared so I could check for heat signatures as well. Nothing jumped out immediately, but my guard was up as I turned in a slow circle, scanning every which way. On the other side of the room, I could see and hear Marina doing her own search with her mix of mundane and enhanced senses and powers.

Then, I felt it. In one corner of the room, near one of the larger crates, someone was standing while invisible. A couple grains of my sand found their foot and leg. Before giving them a chance to realize they’d been found, I summoned Gus back to my staff, spinning that way while creating a portal behind the figure. A portal which I shoved my staff through and triggered a blast of concussive force. At the same time, I shouted, “Here!” Then I was lunging that way. 

In the background, I heard Marina shout as well. Before I could think too much about it, I was already catching hold of the invisible figure as they were knocked forward by the blast from my staff. They struggled, but I spun, using that momentum to throw them on the floor. My foot came down on their back before I put the blade of my staff right up to their neck. “Stop!” I blurted. “Turn visible. Do–” 

Then I blinked, because nearby, Marina was wrestling with her own figure. She got the person down, pointing that corseque at them before triggering a button on the shaft. As she did so, a pair of massive glowing hardlight… bear paws emerged from the floor on either side of where the other person apparently was, before closing around them. Another gesture from Marina’s weapon made a third bear paw join the first two, this one coming out of the nearby wall rather than the floor before joining its fellows in holding the invisible person down. 

Well, okay then. I’d been wondering what that corseque could do. 

The figure under me had relented, no longer struggling. A moment later, he turned visible, and I saw a dark blue, scaled figure wearing black leather pants and a loose-fitting gray shirt. He twisted his head around to look at me, and I saw a round face with a pronounced nose that had three nostrils, six eyes, each about half the size of a normal human eye and arranged in a line all across the front of that face, and a vertically-slit mouth that ran from the bottom of that three-nostriled nose all the way down over his chin. 

The figure Marina had captured, meanwhile, was something akin to an orc, but with bright, neon orange, gaudy-looking skin and only one eye. Which itself took up fully three-quarters of his slightly oversized head. 

“Okay,” I started, “we know there’s three of you down here. Where’s the other one?” Even as I said that, I kept my staff blade close to the blue guy’s neck while scanning the room, anticipating an attack. 

“Only these two now, I’m afraid,” another voice announced from nearby. My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see… a human ghost appear. An elderly-looking woman, figure tinted light grayish-blue. 

“I would shake your hand, Necromancer. But I’m afraid my supposed bodyguard you’re standing on there murdered me.” 

“Okay, wait, hold on.” I was holding up both hands while my brain struggled to comprehend what was happening. There were two living people down here, one of whom I had pinned while Marina was pinning the other one. And there was a ghost. A ghost who said that her bodyguard, the guy currently pinned under my staff, had killed her. Just what the hell was going on around here?

Marina, after casting a quick glance my way, turned back to the ghost woman. She didn’t move to release the guy she had trapped with those solid light bear paws just yet. “Your bodyguard killed you? Are these guys both your bodyguards? Oh, and who are you guys?”

“Yeah, some names and an explanation would be nice,” I agreed. “Cuz from where we’re standing, you three are the only suspects for two other murders in this place, and if this guy killed you…” I looked down at the blue-scaled, six-eyed figure still held at the tip of my staff blade. “Maybe he killed them too.” 

“No,” the Alter himself insisted without moving much. “The murderer was Ausesh.” His chin inclined very slightly toward the ghost woman. “She killed Mophse and Valdean.” The man’s voice had a Middle Eastern accent, which was kind of interesting. “She killed them to hide far more vile crimes.” 

“I’m afraid my companion is rather sorely mistaken, in more than one way.” That protest came from the other Alter, the neon-orange Orc-Cyclops guy still trapped by Marina. His own voice was more of an upscale British accent, which was even more interesting than the first guy. “The true criminal and monster within this vault has already been eliminated. I killed Valdean myself, before he could do any more harm than he already had.” 

Well that made me do a quick double-take, staring that way while tightening my grip on the staff. “Hold on, did you just confess to killing Valdean and Mophse?” 

“I did not murder poor Mophse,” came the crisp response. “Only Valdean. Mophse was murdered by that man himself, for the crime of investigating his dark secrets.” 

“That is wrong!” the guy I had captured snapped back. “Valdean was an innocent! The monster was our employer, that foul woman there. She is the one who killed Mophse. But now she has been eliminated and will cause no more harm!” 

“Uhh.” Marina opened and shut her mouth before looking at me a bit helplessly. “Flick?” 

My head shook a few times before I managed to find my voice. “Let me get this straight. Hold on, actually, why don’t all three of you introduce yourselves and then we’ll go from there.” Looking at the ghost woman, I squinted intently. I could feel the necromantic energy there. It would be easy for me to stop her from going anywhere, and to feel if she was about to move. For the moment, she just stayed where she was. “The guy here said your name is Ausesh?” 

“Yes,” she confirmed. “He is Gliner. That one over there is Archibold.” Her head nodded toward the Orc-Cyclops guy for the second one. “They were hired to be my protectors. More fool me.”

That made both of her ‘bodyguards’ start to object and talk over one another, but I quickly gave a sharp whistle to cut them off. “Okay! Ausesh, Gliner, and Archibold, got it. Now, let me see if I’ve got this straight. And no interruptions. Gliner, you say that Ausesh is the one who killed Mophse for some reason.” He started to say something and I shook my head, giving him a sharp look before continuing. “So you killed her. Which is why she’s a ghost right now. And Archibold…” My gaze turned to look at Marina’s guy. “You say Valdean is the one who killed Mophse. And you also say that you killed Valdean. Do I have that all right? Gliner killed Ausesh because he thinks she killed Mophse, and Archibold killed Valdean because he thinks he killed Mophse.”

“I am afraid there is a lot more to the situation than the murder of one man, though poor Mophse is very much a victim of our secret-holding host,” Archibold put in. “But ah, would you mind allowing us to sit up properly? Tis terribly difficult for one to hold a conversation in such a position. I assure you, neither of us mean you any harm, despite our disagreement over the ultimate villain of this situation.” 

“Yes,” Gliner put in, “because I have already stopped the one who would mean you harm.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I gestured toward Marina. “Weapons first. He has a collapsible sword on his left leg about midway up, a pistol on his back, a baton on his right leg, and a taser thing strapped to his back.” All of that was thanks to my item-sense, which also allowed me to relieve my own guy of his assortment of weapons. Once we had them all, I stepped back and gestured. “You can both sit up, but don’t stand. And don’t try anything. I’m sure you know we’re both Heretics, and while we do think of ourselves as more open-minded than the Loyalists back at Crossroads, we can still be a bit jumpy sometimes. We wouldn’t want to overreact.”

Marina removed the bear paws from her guy, and both of them slowly sat up, shifting a little to get comfortable. Once they were ready, I went on. “To continue the whole politeness thing, I’m Flick. This is Marina. Now, since you can’t both be right about who the bad guy around here is… or was, I think we need more information.” My gaze moved to the ghost woman. “Who are you? Why do you have bodyguards in this place? What–never mind, just focus on that. We know your name is Ausesh, but who are you beyond that?” 

Now that I was looking at her more directly, and wasn’t quite so distracted, I could see that the woman was dressed like a scientist. Her form was all gray-blue and partially transparent still, of course. But beyond that, her hair was wild and unkempt, sticking out in all directions. She wore a lab coat along with loose-fitting pants that had lots of pockets, all of which seemed to be full of various tools. Her shirt was long-sleeved, with only one side tucked in, and she wore several bracelets on both wrists. Finally, she had a pair of those half moon glasses, which she was looking at us over the top of. Obviously a ghost had no need for glasses, but they didn’t really need clothes either. It was more of a ‘how they pictured themselves’ sort of thing.  

“Who am I?” Ausesh echoed, straightening up a little with what I interpreted as a moment of pride. “That is both simple and rather complicated. You see, I designed this vault.” 

Marina and I both gave a double-take at that, looking at one another before turning back to her. The other girl found her voice first. “Hold on, what? I thought Valdean was the one who made the vault.” 

“Oh, he certainly helped,” Ausesh agreed with a dismissive tone before amending, “To be entirely fair, it would have been impossible without him. We both made it. But she is my baby. Her design and purpose was my idea. We were both Heretics, like you two. Teammates and partners. We grew… repulsed by the Crossroads way of thinking. Together, we dreamt of creating a safe location where those we had once hunted could live peacefully. I thought of a vault in a pocket dimension. He aided in making some of that come to fruition. The robot butler, the overall computer system, the electronics throughout the vault, all of that was designed by Valdean. I was responsible for the pocket universe itself, the design of the vault, its protection from outside intrusion, ensuring that everyone inside would be safe and have privacy, that sort of thing. I was more of an architect, I suppose you might say.” 

Taking all that in, I slowly shook my head. “But Sitter didn’t say anything about two people putting the vault together. Nobody did. Did you erase–no, you didn’t erase that from his memory when you changed how many people were supposed to be in the vault, because that happened after he’d already told us that Valdean did all this by himself. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve mentioned it if he knew anything about Valdean having a partner.”

“Yes, well,” the woman paused to consider her words before giving a soft sigh. “You might say I preferred to remain in the background. Far in the background. I didn’t… do that well around a lot of people. That’s why Valdean and I became partners to begin with. He was always better with crowds and… all of that.” She visibly shuddered. “Socializing, eugh. I had no desire to be known. All I wanted was to live quietly down here with only a scant few people knowing about me. Fixing the vault when it acted up, adding anything our guests needed, rising to those sorts of challenges… quietly. Without dealing with dozens of eyes staring at me every day.” She made a face before focusing on me, our gazes locking. “I want people to be happy, I just want them to do it somewhere out of earshot. And preferably every other sense.” There was another pause before she shook her head. “Though I am normally worse with new people than these past few minutes would imply. You aren’t making me nearly as uncomfortable as most. Perhaps being dead has removed that particular trait. It’s hard to be afraid of people when the worst has already happened.” Her gaze moved to stare at Gliner. “Particularly when that worst was being murdered by one I trusted to keep me safe.” 

“You earned your death, and more besides!” the six-eyed man snapped, though he was careful not to make a move or look like he was trying to get up. Apparently I had made enough of an impression that it overrode his obvious anger. “I know the truth behind this vault, your experiments, all of it! You are lucky I simply killed you. I would have done so for Mophse alone, to say nothing of everything else.” 

“My friend, you are still mistaken,” Archibold carefully, yet firmly, informed him. “The monster was clearly Valdean, and our employer an unwilling, unknowing patsy of sorts.”  

“Okay, hold on, hold on, we’ll get to that,” I promised. “But let’s clear up a couple things first. Like, which one of you went up into the server room and put that thing in it to block the computer from realizing it was giving this place power?”

Marina quickly added. “And put that virus in that made Sitter shut down.” 

For the first time, Ausesh actually looked startled. Her ghost form flared slightly, and I could feel more power coming off of it as she blurted, “What do you mean, made Sitter shut down? What happened to him?” The reaction seemed real, as did her sudden worry. 

So, I explained what had happened in the server room, how he had been plugged in to check on anyone who might have been accessing the system when he suddenly shut off and wouldn’t turn back on. And about how we had left Perrsnile to try to see what was wrong with him. 

Clearly hanging on my every word, as well as Marina’s when she chimed in, Ausesh kept shaking her head. “Oh dear, oh no. Not poor Sitter. He’s such a good bot. If anyone can find the problem, it’s Perrsnile. Well, Valdean, but failing that, Perrsnile isn’t a bad choice. But who–wait, you believe one of us put that virus in the system to attack him?” 

“I mean…” Exchanging a look with Marina, I offered, “It’d be kind of a weird coincidence if it wasn’t one of you three, wouldn’t it? You’re the ones who wanted the vault to not report on where you were, and when Sitter goes into the system to find out who did that, suddenly he’s broken?” 

“Yeah,” Marina confirmed, “so which one of you was responsible for going to the server room and putting that in? Actually, wait, how long ago were you… uhh, killed, Miss Ausesh?” 

“I was on my way to do the deed and end the monster when the facility was locked down,” Gliner informed us. “When it was unlocked, I continued. She was dead within five minutes of the lock being lifted.” 

Once his fellow bodyguard said that, Archibold cleared his throat. “And it was I who entered the server room to ensure we would not be detected. But, I assure you, it was not my intention to harm Sitter, or anyone else. I simply inserted the drive believing it would block these rooms from being monitored and erase the three of us from his memory. That was what I was told it did.”

“But why would you do that? And who gave you the drive? Who told you it would block the rooms from being monitored?” I quickly asked. 

“I did it to prevent you–or rather, any investigators, from locating us,” he answered easily. “Given Valdean had been the one to request outside assistance, I believed anyone who came would be… under his sway. I wished to ensure we were safe from your search so that I could find a way to help the victims of Valdean’s treachery. I was not aware that my partner had come to the incorrect conclusion of blaming Ausesh, and had already carried out his form of justice.”

“It was not incorrect!” Gliner insisted. “You were the one who made a mistake by killing Valdean. He was innocent. Our employer was the evil one.”

While I held up a hand to stop him from continuing, my gaze stayed on Archibold. “So, who gave you that drive and told you what it was supposed to do?” 

He paused, then turned to look toward the ghost woman. “That ahh, that would be our employer.” 

“You see?!” Gliner blurted, “She was the evil one!” 

Taking his reaction and accusations pretty well in stride considering she was already dead because of them, Ausesh straightened up a little and replied, “I was given that drive by Valdean, to use in case of emergency. He knew that I wished to remain out of sight, and gave me the means to do so. I was no more aware than Archibold was about any hostile effect it would have if Sitter investigated.” 

While I was processing that, Marina shook her head. “Okay, but what about everybody’s memories upstairs? They all think they were the murderer. Every single one of them has one of ten different memories of themselves killing those two. Sticking a drive in a server wouldn’t do that, especially not accidentally. So what happened? Who did that? And why?” 

“I cannot answer who or why,” Ausesh informed us. “But I do know that there is a defense mechanism within the vault which allows certain memories to be overwritten in case of emergency. The idea was that anyone who had to be expelled from the vault for any reason might need to have their memory of this place wiped so that they would not present a danger to everyone else. It is possible that someone took over that system and used it.” 

“Okay,” I started, “but who?” 

That time, an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming. They all looked at one another before Gliner focused on women intently. “It must have been her. She wanted to confuse the situation, so she used that to change everyone’s memory before I could kill her. You heard her yourself, she’s the one who knew about it.”

Marina quickly spoke up. “But why would she do that? Why would she want to make everyone out there think they were the ones who killed both those guys when one of the real killers was him?” She looked at Archibold pointedly. “And the other was, uhh…” 

Archibold immediately put in, “Valdean.” 

Gliner, on the other hand, simultaneously insisted, “Ausesh.” 

“Right, see that’s kind of our whole point,” I replied after grimacing a bit at how this was going. “Archibold thinks Valdean killed Mophse. And he killed Valdean. So him making everyone out there think they were responsible for killing Mophse doesn’t make sense. Maybe the Valdean part if he was throwing blame off himself. But why make everyone think that instead of just one person, especially when you could probably put a lot more detail into the adjusted memories if you focused like that? And why make them think they killed Mophse when you think Valdean did? Unless you just wanted to make the investigation quick and simple. But making everyone think they did it wasn’t quick and simple.” 

Marina cleared her throat. “Yeah, and Gliner thinks Ausesh killed Mophse, for… some reason. Why would either of them change peoples’ memories to make them think they were all responsible, unless it was just to stop the investigation. But like you said, making them all think it wouldn’t actually do that. It just made the investigation longer.” 

I tried to think about that for a second before shaking my head and looking at the two living men still sitting there in front of us. “Okay, you guys keep arguing about whether Ausesh or Valdean is the real monster here. But what are you talking about? What makes either of them a monster? What are you each blaming them for?” 

“Yes,” Ausesh put in, “I would be quite interested in finding out that much for myself.” 

“You know what you’ve done, monster,” Gliner snapped, before his gaze turned back to me. “As for what the evil I speak of is, you must have noticed what is missing in this vault. Or who.” 

Blinking a couple times while he stared at me, I thought back to my previous ponderings, head turning to look in the direction of the other room, where the crates full of juvenile supplies were. “Children?” 

“Precisely!” That was Archibold. “This storage room, where we have made our home for so long in the course of our service to Ausesh, is full of supplies for children. Children who never appeared. Or supposedly never appeared. Yet my partner and I found that supplies were continually used and restocked. We investigated, and I made the mistake of asking a friend, dear Mophse about the situation. I’m afraid he said something to Valdean about it, and the fiend killed him.”

“That is not true!” Gliner quickly insisted. “Ausesh was the real monster. She heard us discussing the situation and ambushed Mophse before he could find any information.” 

“Okay, wait.” Taking a deep breath, I let it out before pushing on. “You both found out something bad about missing children in this vault. Archibold asked Mophse some questions about that and then either Valdean or Ausesh killed him so he couldn’t look any deeper. Then Archibold killed Valdean, because he thought–sorry, thinks Valdean is the one who killed Mophse. Around the same time, Gliner was looking for Ausesh to kill her because he thinks she killed Mophse. But before he could, Sitter found Valdean’s body and triggered the lockdown. Fast forward a few decades, the timelock ended and Gliner recovered, then killed Ausesh. While he was doing that, Archibold took the drive that Ausesh gave him to keep this place from being monitored and erase you from Sitter’s memory up to the server room and plugged it in.” 

“Correct,” Archibold confirmed. “Then I returned here and found out what a mistake my partner had made. We had been discussing it, at length, for hours when you approached, at which point we tabled our discussion and… hid, hoping you would move on.” 

Letting those bits ping pong around in my head a bit, I asked, “But why would Mophse have wiring diagrams for the server and that note about something happening two days after his death?” As they stared at me, I explained what we’d found. 

“We planned to meet with Mophse on that day,” Gliner noted. “That is likely what the date was for. He was… a bit forgetful.” 

Ausesh nodded. “And that wiring you found sounds a bit like the memory adjustment system. He was likely attempting to investigate that himself.” 

“Okay, but what’s this about children?” Marina insisted, voice a bit anxious. “You keep bringing that up. I know, one of you blames Valdean and the other blames Ausesh, but what are you blaming them for? What does it have to do with children, and why aren’t there any around here?” 

“There have been children,” Archibold informed us. “Many of them, over the years. But everyone’s memories of them have been erased. And the children themselves were… sold, to various groups. Heretics, slavers, and more. That is the dark, true secret of this vault. It is not simply a safe home. 

“It is a breeding farm.” 

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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We had to get to that stadium before those zombies attacked all the innocent people there. But more importantly, we had to make sure other people got there. All that mattered was stopping what was about to happen. And we needed help to do that. Unfortunately, none of us were having much luck on that front. Pack had called Broadway to tell her what was going on, and though the other girl was, to put it mildly, reluctant to believe that her foster brother would be that deranged and psychotic, she did agree that something bad was going to happen. So they both tried contacting Blackjack or anyone else in La Casa. But there was some sort of attack happening right then and they couldn’t get through to anyone important. 

Meanwhile, Paige made an anonymous call to both the Seraphs and the Spartans. And I, of course, called Ten Towers the way I’d promised Caishen I would. I even called her personal number that she had given me. But again, it was hard to reach anyone who would listen. I even made a third call to leave a message with Lucent, only to be told that he was out in the field right then and would get back to me as soon as he could. I wasn’t sure people were actually taking us as seriously as we wanted them to. Probably unhelped by the fact that we were pretty frantic and not in the mood to patiently explain. 

For my part, I did manage to get hold of That-A-Way, but she and the other Minority members, including Raindrop, were in the middle of helping the Conservators with some sort of big shootout involving Cuélebre and other members of Oscuro. It seemed like the entire city had decided to blow up at this exact moment. Well, to be fair, it had been blowing up for a while. There was a reason for the curfew intended to curtail the gang war, after all. But still, it really didn’t help us right now.

“Hold on!” Pack shouted while sending the van she had borrowed skidding around the corner.  The rest of us would’ve been thrown around wildly if it wasn’t for the seatbelts we had hastily buckled. “How long do we have until the game starts?!” She asked that while bringing the van to a brakes-squealing halt next to an alley just long enough for Broadway to jump in the front passenger seat next to her. 

Hobbes was pressed up into a corner, quickly checking her phone. “Uh, right now. It’s starting right now. But he won’t necessarily unleash his monsters first thing, right?” She was clearly trying to inject a bit of hopefulness into her voice. 

Even as she said that, we nearly rear-ended a couple cars that were blocking the road ahead at a stoplight. With a blurted curse, Pack jerked the wheel to send the van up over the curb. We ran through a wooden display selling vegetables, and all of us winced at the sound of thumps along the roof as an assortment of cabbages and wood bounced along it, along with the sound of the man running the stand shouting in dismay. One particularly loud thump made me wince.

Then, with a new set of bumps as the van dropped off another curb, we were back on the street. As soon as we went around the next corner, heading for the freeway entrance, Alloy called out to me, “The stadium! We can call them, tell them to evacuate the place.” 

So, that was exactly what I tried next. While half-listening to Broadway and Pack having a whispered yet intense discussion, I looked up the number for the stadium and called them. Unfortunately, the person who answered didn’t take me seriously. He laughed off my attempt at a ‘prank’ and when I tried to explain a bit more, hung up on me. I tried that number again and got no answer before calling the other number attached to the stadium. That time a woman answered and instead of laughing when I tried to warn her, she cursed me out and threatened to call the police. I was in the midst of yelling at her that she had to call the police when she hung up as well. This was going swimmingly. Fuck, fuck! 

“Style?” I asked, looking toward Sierra in hope that she had had more luck. 

“Called local 911 over there and told them the situation,” she replied, voice sounding tense. “They took me about as seriously as you might expect. Told me they’d ‘send an officer over to check it out.’ We’ll be lucky if they do that much.” 

“Fuck!” I blurted out loud. “Okay, okay, we can still get there and slow this whole thing down. Way knows the gist about what’s going on and she’ll get people there as soon as they can get away from that whole Cuelebre thing. We’ve left messages with everyone. As soon as they get a free moment, they’ll check them, and send people. We’ll get there. We can get there.” I repeated that, trying to convince myself before looking toward the front. “ I know asking for your help is a lot, and–” 

“Oh shut up!” Pack snapped. “Like we’re not gonna stop a bunch of monsters from slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people. That’s not even a question, Paintball.” 

Broadway hesitated before shifting around in her seat to look at me. “Besides that, I have to find out if my brother is really responsible for this. He could’ve been manipulated, or that evidence could’ve been planted, or… I don’t know. If he’s not responsible for this, if it’s not really his choice, I want to prove that before it’s too late. But if he is…” She trailed off before squaring her shoulders. “If he is then I want to stop him too.” 

Paige was looking straight at her, voice flat. “So if it comes down to it, you’ll side against him.” 

Broadway shot her a clearly dark glare. “If it’s a question of siding against him or letting him kill a bunch of innocent people, yes, I’m siding against him. I’m not a fucking psychopath.” Again, she paused before turning back to face the front once more while slumping back in her seat with a muttered, “Then again, I didn’t think he was either.” 

Oh boy could I really not blame her for that sort of reaction. It made me think back to exactly how I had felt when I found out the truth about my own brother. I thought about how it felt to be hiding under that dumpster when I heard his voice that night. No wonder she was having a hard time with this. And I definitely couldn’t blame her for wanting to find out if the whole thing was a mistake or whatever. I definitely would’ve preferred to learn that my family was being framed, and they at least weren’t about to be responsible for intentionally slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people just to impress the fucking Scions. 

“Whoever is actually responsible, we’ll stop them. If it’s him… we’ll deal with that. If he’s being used somehow, we’ll… do something about that too,” I assured her as firmly as I could while looking out the window as Pack sent the van hurling as fast as possible through the streets. I didn’t even care if we ended up attracting the police at that point, because they could help. We needed someone to pay attention. 

Of course, because I actually wanted the cops to pay attention to us, there were none to be found anywhere. Apparently the entire fucking department was also busy with other things just like every Star-Touched we tried to call, because the streets were practically empty. Which did help us get to the freeway even faster, but still.

Alloy looked up from her (disposable pay-as-you go) phone then, muttering a curse. “I tried that number Glitch gave us, but they’re not answering either.” 

“They will, someone will,” I mumbled, bouncing a little in my seat anxiously. “Someone will check their messages, or Way will get out of that fight and send someone. We’ll have some help. They’ll be there. Someone’ll be there.” Yes, I was trying to convince myself, and no it wasn’t working very well. 

“Hey,” Calvin started, “Maybe you could try Tweeting about it? You know, use the hashtags for the team and the stadium and say there’s an emergency and everyone needs to get out of there right now.” 

“If the tweets even gain any traction, they could start a panic,” Paige pointed out carefully. “Everyone stampeding for the exit at the same time wouldn’t help, especially when no one’s there to help.” 

“If those zombies attack, there’ll be a panic anyway,” I replied. But she wasn’t wrong. Alerting people to get out of there wouldn’t help if they all freaked out and hurt each other in a desperate attempt to escape. It would be like hearing a gunshot or shouting bomb in a crowded theater. People would be trampled. But what were we supposed to do, in that case? Roald was right, it was a chance to maybe get the people in the stadium to see our warning. We couldn’t just ignore that. Yet I was frozen for a moment between the fear of what would happen if we sent a warning and people were killed in the ensuing panic, or if we didn’t send a warning and people died because we didn’t get to the stadium fast enough. 

“Paintball,” Paige spoke up, getting my attention. “If he’s monitoring social media around the stadium and the game–” 

“Right,” I realized, “if he’s paying attention, and he probably is, he’ll see any warning we send long before it spreads to the rest of the people. He’ll know we’re onto him and start the attack immediately.” Pausing, I amended, “Or whoever is behind this.” 

“He’s doing it,” Broadway muttered. “I just don’t know if he’s responsible for it. I don’t know if he’s really choosing this, or if they’re manipulating him.” Her voice made it clear which she was hoping for. “And you’re right. If you put out a general warning, he’ll see.” 

So, painful as it was, I couldn’t send that warning. It was one thing to contact the authorities, or try to tell the people in charge of the stadium to start an evacuation immediately, but hoping that a public message will get through to the crowd at all, let alone be listened to, before he noticed it and acted? No. No, we had to at least get there first. Please, damn it, let us get there before he started the attack. 

Instead, I swallowed hard before focusing on Calvin. “Watch Twitter stuff around the stadium, or any news, or anything. Just… just tell us if there’s an emergency, or if anyone starts talking about monsters. Or–you know.” 

For his part, the boy met my gaze before giving a short nod. “I’ll watch for it,” he murmured, voice catching slightly before he looked down at his phone once more. 

Right, so at least we had someone to tell us if we ended up being too late. Clenching my hand tightly, I looked back to the front, my voice tense. “Pack, I hate to be the little kid in the back of the car during a road trip, but are we there yet?” I was trying to simultaneously lighten the mood a little bit while also pressing the urgency. Not that she really needed to be reminded. I knew that. I just felt helpless, sitting here in the van hoping those things weren’t already attacking people. With every second that passed, I kept expecting Calvin to abruptly blurt out that it was too late. 

“Doing my best,” the girl informed me while her hands clutched the steering wheel tightly. She clearly had the pedal all the way to the floor as we were sent practically flying down the freeway while weaving in and out of traffic. There hadn’t been many other cars in the city itself, given the whole curfew situation. But there were people driving out of the city. So we kept running into pockets of traffic. Not that that stopped Pack. She just drove around them, even going up onto the shoulders without a second thought. Again, if our insane driving attracted cops, good. 

But it didn’t. We weren’t really attracting much attention at all, come to think of it. A few people honked, but not nearly as much as I might’ve thought. We were, for the most part, entirely ignored. Maybe with the gang war going on, everyone was afraid to pay too much attention to a van acting this erratic. But hey, with any luck, maybe they were calling the cops. I didn’t care if we had to lead a procession of a dozen police cars and a helicopter all the way there for refusing to pull over. Wait, scratch not caring, I hoped that happened. 

Unfortunately, we still seemed to be experiencing some sort of weird situation where nobody was paying attention to us. Aside from those relatively few honks as we cut around people, we didn’t have any problems. Including no cops showing up. Probably because they would’ve been helpful, and we couldn’t have that, could we? 

Rocking back-and-forth in my seat while silently urging the van to go faster didn’t help. Fortunately, putting my hands against the side and painting the thing green did actually contribute. And given we were being ignored by the other cars, it was even more helpful. Soon, the van was practically flying along the side of the freeway, zooming past everyone else as though they were standing still. 

“Once we get there, you guys get into the stadium and start evacuating people,” Pack was saying while keeping her hands tight on the wheel. “They won’t listen to Broadway and me, and seeing us with you will just complicate things. So we’ll go look for Jason.“

Broadway was nodding. “Whether it’s just him or somebody else has him, they’ll be somewhere that they can watch what happens. I just–” she stopped, clearly considering her next words before speaking a little more clearly. “I just hope we can find him before anything… before he does something we can’t stop.” 

Her words made me swallow hard. Yeah, I definitely knew how she was feeling. Well, at least to an extent. I really had no idea how I would feel if my brother was out there trying to impress the Scions. But still, the whole thing made me sympathize with her. She was a villain, sure, but just like so many other situations I had found myself in since getting my powers since that night, the whole thing wasn’t that cut and dry. She was worried about her brother, yet still willing to stop him if he really was this far gone. It just… maybe it made me think about what I would do if I was face to face with my own brother and he was about to do something like this. 

I would stop him, that was for sure. If he was trying to kill this many people–if he was trying to kill any innocent people, I would stop him. I just… had no idea where we would go from that point.  Which, I was pretty sure, was exactly what Broadway was thinking about. Would she reveal her identity to him in order to make him stop? Would that even work? I supposed it depended on how far gone he really was, and on whether this was all actually his choice or not. 

All I really knew in that moment was that I was glad I wasn’t her. I had enough family issues to deal with. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I spoke up. “The second we go in there and start to tell people to get the hell out, he’s going to unleash his monsters.”

Paige nodded once from where she was sitting. “But at least we’ll be in there to get their attention.” 

“And then what?” Murphy demanded. “What are we supposed to do? I dunno if you were paying attention before, but we could barely handle one of them, and this sounds like he’s planning to unleash more than that.”

“We focus on making exits and safe paths for people to get out,” I put in. “I know it’s not gonna be easy, and they’ll still panic. But at least when we’re right there, we can help. Alloy, I want you to use your marbles to make platforms and shields and stuff to get people out of the way. Maybe even just pick them up and carry them out of there whenever you can.”

She started to protest that she needed to help with the zombies, but I cut her off. “You’ve got the best chance of protecting and shielding people. Focus on that, okay? Once there’s enough people out that the rest of them can run without trampling each other, you can jump in and help us. But we really need to protect everyone in that stadium. We need you to do that.” 

She hesitated before giving a short nod. “Just be careful, okay?”

“We’re gonna do our best,” I replied with a somewhat shaky thumbs up. I was terrified about what was about to happen. Murphy was right, we had barely been able to do anything to one zombie at a time. How bad was this going to go when there was a whole group of them right in front of a bunch of panicking civilians? This could be horrific. But what else were we supposed to do? We didn’t have any better options. We’d already tried to contact everyone else who could help and they were either busy or weren’t listening. Just while we were sitting there discussing all this, I had left six messages on the emergency system of the Doephone app, and I still had no idea how long it would take someone with authority to pay attention. There was no one else. We had to get in there and do this ourselves. And hope that we could get lucky with Broadway talking her brother down.

With that in mind, I turned to Pack. “Maybe if he’s unconscious, it’ll stop the zombies. So if he doesn’t listen as soon as you guys get to him…” 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s going to turn them off, one way or another.” To Broadway, she started to add, “Sorry–” 

“No,” the other girl interrupted. “You’re right. If he doesn’t listen and call it off as soon as we get to him, just… knock him out. Yeah, he’s my brother, but I’m not letting him get away with this.”

Finally, even as she said that, we were pulling into the rather full parking lot of the stadium. Pack drove past all the other cars, straight up to the sidewalk ramp leading to the ticket stand and entrance before bringing the van to a screeching halt. The doors flew open and we all hopped out. I pivoted to tell everyone something about getting inside, when I simply stopped short. There was a figure crouched on the roof of the van, where she had clearly been through most of the ride. 

“Hey there,” Grandstand greeted me with a wave. “So, we gonna go be heroes or what?” 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so the good news here was that we actually knew what the note in Mophse’s shoe had been about. The bad news was that we still had no idea why he would have something like that, or exactly what the specs were supposed to be used for. It had something to do with the wiring inside the computer, but why? Why did he have it, what was the wiring supposed to do, and why did someone kill him for it? Assuming that was why he was killed. It was the best guess we had at the moment, and at least gave us somewhere to start. 

Taking all that in and thinking about it for a minute, I exhaled. “Okay, so we know all of this has something to do with the computer. Which makes sense, because we know they did something to it, or Sitter wouldn’t have been knocked out when he tried to access it. They left a trap, and they could only have done that extra knowledge about how to mess with it. So the wiring note had to be important. That’s why he had it and… maybe why they killed him?” My voice trailed off uncertainly as I tried to make sense of that.  

Dakota hesitated before raising a hand tentatively. “Do you think maybe he was working with them and figured out those wiring things, but then he changed his mind so they killed him to get it?” 

“Well hold on,” Marina put in quickly. “If they killed him to get the wiring notes, why were they still in his shoe? Obviously, they managed to do what they needed to do, because they got into the computer. But they didn’t get the notes from him.”

Sesh tapped the wall a few times thoughtfully before starting with, “Maybe he had another copy and they found that? Or maybe he already helped them get into the computer system, then he changed his mind after that and was going to confess what was going on, so they killed him but didn’t realize the note was still in his shoe.”

“Or,” Denny added quietly, “he never switched sides, but they didn’t want to pay him, or thought he was a loose end or something, so they killed him anyway. He’s not necessarily a completely innocent victim, you know?” She sounded and looked guilty for even pointing that out, squirming uncomfortably. “I–I’m just saying, I don’t mean he was definitely bad. I mean–” 

Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder before nodding. “Yeah, you’ve got a point. We’ve gotta keep an open mind. We don’t know exactly why he was killed, and definitely don’t know whose side he was on at the end. But we are at least pretty sure it has to do with those wiring notes. It’s just too bad we can’t wake Sitter up and ask exactly what these different bits are for. Cuz I don’t know about you guys, but it’s pretty Greek to me. Wait, I could probably understand Greek better than this.” 

Denny held up the binder. “We could use this to try to figure it out. I mean, the diagrams match, so all we have to do is read the book and figure out what they’re for.”

Marina turned to look back through the doorway to the auditorium. “Yeah, we can do that. And maybe we could also find someone in there who knows about this stuff. I mean, it’s probably not one of them, right? We already know there’s three people missing, and probably somewhere else in this facility. So, you know, there’s no real reason for whoever was responsible for this to be one of the people who is still in this room.” She looked at me then. “Besides, you’ve already gone through their heads and they were all screwed up by the memory adjustment. Why would our bad guys do that to themselves if they had a plan beyond just ‘kill him and get away with it?’ Which, I guess that could be their plan, but the missing three people seem like… you know, they have to be related.” 

I hesitated briefly, thinking about that before giving a little nod. “I guess that does make sense. They probably wouldn’t leave themselves in this room with the main group when we already know they have a way to be somewhere else. Probably looking for a way out, or for a way to take over this place completely.”

Sesh showed her teeth. “I bet they weren’t ready for us to be here. Err, mainly you guys.” She looked back and forth between Marina and me. “Having a couple Bosch Heretics probably really screwed up their plans. Maybe they’re regrouping and trying to figure out what to do about you. Us. All of us.” 

She had a point, but I still grimaced a little at the thought that there were mysterious murderers somewhere else in this facility plotting out how to kill us. Plus, they had– “The computer room. Yeah, I put that alarm spell in there, but still. I don’t trust whoever’s responsible for this not to find a way around that. We need to get back there and–shit, we can’t leave the people in there either. If they’re all innocent and those guys show up…” 

“Find someone who can help you with the tech stuff,” Sesh put in. “Take ‘em down there with you. I can stay up here and watch over these guys. If anything happens, I’ll use that emergency alert thing to warn you about it. Or that convenient taboo spell. Besides,” she added while we were thinking about that, “the people in there might be nice, but they’re not totally helpless. I’m pretty sure whoever’s responsible for this doesn’t want to start a head-on fight with everyone. Or, you know, they wouldn’t’ve been such sneaky cowards about it so far.” 

Again, she was right. So, while I still felt the pressing urgency to get back to that computer room, Marina, Sesh, and I headed into the auditorium once more, while leaving Dakota and Denny in the elevator with Sitter’s body. Marina did the talking once we had their attention, asking if there were any computer and electronics experts in the group who would be willing to help us down in the server room.

It took a little discussion, and we ended up with our volunteer, a small, older looking man with a long white beard and dark purple skin. He couldn’t have been taller than about three feet, and his eyes were big enough to take up half his face. They were also bright neon green, and had almost no white to them. Just enormous emerald marbles in the middle of his head. Back when I had been possessing people to check them for being the killer, he had introduced himself as Perrsnile. And yeah, I did recall that he did a lot of work with electronic stuff.  In fact, before he was recruited to come into this place, he had been the primary electronics expert on board a small cargo vessel. His diminutive size meant he could get into a lot of very tight spaces easier than people who were bigger. And he had incredibly nimble fingers, which he absently showed off by flipping this tiny circuit board thing back and forth between them the way some people could do with a coin. His species, known as that Uusnar, largely made their living off being craftsmen, their dexterity and steady hands known throughout the universe. He would definitely be able to help with this. At least, I hoped he would. We could use the break.

Before we left Sesh there, I took a second to make sure she had the emergency alert coin, and knew how to use it, along with knowing my taboo word. The two of us had a quick conversation about what to do if something happened, and I did my best to answer a couple questions from the audience. Not that I actually had much in the way of answers for them just yet, but I did tell them that we had reason to believe the person or persons responsible for this whole thing were not in this room with them. Which seemed to help take a lot of the tension out, thankfully. I just hoped I wasn’t making a mistake by saying that much. Maybe I shouldn’t have. If there really was a bad guy in here and we had missed them, or if the bad guys were somehow monitoring this room, maybe it would’ve been better if they didn’t know how much we did? 

In the end, I shook those thoughts off. I’d made my decision and was sticking with it. Telling these people they probably didn’t have to be afraid of each other was the right way to go. So, I made Sesh promise one last time to sound the alert if there was any trouble, then left. 

On the way through the backstage area to the elevator, Marina and I warned our new recruit about what he was about to see. It felt like a bad idea to let this guy see the unconscious and dark Sitter without giving him any advance warning. He might justifiably freak out a bit, especially given what we’d already told these people about what was going on. And hey, maybe he could actually do something about the unconscious robot thing too.

The small man exclaimed in alarm when we told him about what happened to Sitter, vanishing that little circuit board into a pocket before twisting his hands around anxiously as he asked questions about exactly what the robot had been plugged into and what happened leading up to that. When he saw Sitter himself, Perrsnile went right past Denny and Dakota with barely more than a quick hello. In moments, he had pulled the robot down to a lying position on the floor and was looking him over intently. “Oh dear, oh no, oh dear, no no no. This is not good at all. No good whatsoever.” Clearly fretting as he twisted his fingers around together, he looked over to me. “I need to get inside our friend here and see what damage has been done, but I can’t do that without tools.” 

We all exchanged looks before Marina started with, “Let’s get down to the computer room so we can make sure our… not-friends aren’t in there causing trouble already. Then you can check on him. Here.” She reached into her pocket, arm going much deeper than it should have before she pulled out a small red folded packet and opened it to show him a variety of small tools inside. “Would this help?”

“Yes, yes!” The man blurted excitedly. He reached out to take the packet of tools and looked through it. “I thought you weren’t a handyman. Handywoman?” He paused to consider shaking his head. “I thought you didn’t work with these things, Miss Marina.” 

“I don’t,” she replied, “but I’ve been around people who do, and it pays to be prepared if they need to work.” 

“I take it those aren’t the only tools you’ve got,” I guessed. 

Sure enough, Marina blushed a little before confirming, “I have medical supplies, games, art stuff, basically everything I could think of that might be useful at any point.” She grimaced visibly. “So now that I say that, you know we’re about to run into a situation that I don’t have anything for just so I look dumb for saying that.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her while starting to reach out to hit the buttons to send us back to the computer room. It was just the opposite of the way I’d brought us up here to begin with. Still, I had to stop and think before each button press. “Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.” 

Once I was done and the elevator started moving, Perrsnile tilted his head as though listening before giving a bright smile. “Good, nothing is in the way.” 

“Wait, what do you mean?” I asked, blinking at him. 

“If there was another elevator car in the location you requested,” he explained, “the system would have alerted you with a short chime, like this.” He made a chirp-like sound. “That would mean the elevator would be slower because it had to move the other car out of the way. If it did this…” He made a buzzer sound. “… that would mean the elevator car that is in the way has been locked down and can’t be moved.” 

“Huh, good to know.” Taking that in, I turned my attention to Dakota and Denny and added, “When we get there, I want you guys to stay with Marina and Perrsnile while he works. If we can figure out which areas have the sensors blocked off, I’ll head down there and see what I can find.” 

“Not by yourself!” Dakota immediately blurted, eyes widening dramatically. 

Denny agreed with a violent shake of her head. “You can’t go by yourself, Flick. What if there are really bad people down there? There’s three of them, and they already killed two people.” 

“Yeah,” Dakota put in, “and one of them was an old retired Heretic. He had to have a lot of powers too, Flick. But they still took him by surprise. You can’t go down there alone.” 

Marina nodded. “They have a point. We shouldn’t let anyone go off by themselves.” For a moment, she looked conflicted, clearly not wanting to leave these two alone either. Powerful or not, they were still kids. But then, they would be with our new friend here, at least. Even if he definitely wasn’t the stand up and fight sort of person. He was even more of a civilian than Denny and Dakota. If something went wrong and a fight broke out, they would probably be the ones protecting him. 

The two of us exchanged silent looks while we tried to decide how to deal with that, before Marina gave a soft sigh and decisive nod. With that, she took an emergency alert coin of her own and put it in Dakota‘s hand. “I’ll go with Flick. If anyone comes to you guys, you set this off.“

Exhaling, I tried to offer them a reassuring smile. “Between that and the alarm spell I put up, that should be enough.” Plus, they knew the taboo word thing just like Sesh. Thinking about that as the elevator doors opened, I stopped the others from getting off. Then I carefully reached around and touched the enchanted stone I had left there, triggering the extra bit of magic I’d left on it to pause the alarm until I was ready for it to be active again. 

From there, Marina and I carefully entered the room first, with our weapons ready just in case we had unexpected visitors after all. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t, given the alarm had still been active, but still. It paid to be careful. Especially given what these guys had accomplished so far. 

A quick check-through confirmed that the computer room was as empty as we’d left it, and nothing seemed out of place. So, we went back to the elevator to tell the others to come on in. I carried Sitter and laid him down on the floor before looking at our new friend. “Would you mind looking in the system to try to figure out which parts of the vault are being blocked off before you do anything else? We uhh, we need some idea of where to search.” 

Dakota’s hand shot into the air. “Are you gonna be okay? I mean, um, when Sitter plugged into the system, it knocked him out.” She cast a worried glance to the silent, dark robot before looking back that way. “I really don’t want that to happen to you.” 

“Now don’t you worry, ahh, Miss,” Perrsnile assured her while giving what was probably a put-on smile meant to make her feel better. “I may not be all up there with the swords and the guns and the heeyawing, but I can fix a broken computer with the best of them, and I know how to watch for traps. Seems to me our friend Sitter here wasn’t aware that would even be an issue, so he probably wasn’t keeping his eyes open for it. And I dare bet anything they left behind was meant to stop a robot, not a determined little Uusnar. But I will need both your help, okay?” 

They both agreed, and I gave the man a grateful nod. He winked at me before turning to the nearby computer and cracking his knuckles. “Now then, let’s see what we can find here.”

With that, he went to work, typing rapidly. I watched as line after line of code sailed past on the screen too quickly for me to even hope to pay attention to what was happening. A part of me felt anxious about what this guy might be doing when none of us could follow his work, but then, I had been in his head. I’d seen his desire to help, his love for the others in there, his earnest hope that they would be allowed to stay in the vault. He had a lot of memories about spending time with Valdean, and from every memory I’d looked at while I was in his head, he really loved the man like a brother. He was devastated about his death, and wanted to find out who was responsible. Yes, all of that could’ve been faked, given we knew their memories had been tampered with. But I had to hope that it wasn’t. Otherwise I would fall into a deep pit of paranoia. It was like we said earlier, we had every reason to believe that the bad guys were not in that room. There were three missing, and they had to be the ones responsible for all this.

So, I pushed down that paranoia and let the man work. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before he pushed away from the screen and turned to look at me. “Okay then, Miss Flick, I know what areas are being blocked from the sensors. Here.” Even as he said that, one of the nearby parts of the server was spitting out a few sheets of paper. I hadn’t even been aware that there was a printer there. He took them, showing me what looked like a set of blueprints on the first page. It was a floor plan. “The rooms that are blocked off are all connected. This is the floorplan here. And this–” He went to the next page, showing a list of buttons to press in the elevator. “This is how you get there. The second set is how you get back here from there, and the third is how to get to the auditorium from there.” 

“Hey, thanks.” Taking the papers, I offered him a smile before swallowing. “Now umm, can you see what you can do for Sitter here? And, you know, maybe a bit of what they were doing with those wiring instructions? I know it’s asking a lot–” 

“It’s no trouble at all, Miss Flick,” he assured me. “I want to find the neuthfah responsible for–” He stopped abruptly, grimacing with a look at Dakota and Denny. “Pardon the language, please. I… I will help in any way I can.” 

I thanked him again profusely for that, and for everything else, before tugging Denny and Dakota away for a moment. “You guys gonna be okay here? You know what to do if anyone starts to come in, right?” 

Denny gave a quick nod. “Introduce myself and tell them to lay down and not move or do anything.” 

Dakota added, “And then set off the alarm spell and let you know what’s going on. You know, just to be sure.” 

Marina confirmed that before putting in, “Be careful, okay? We’ll lock the doors behind us.” 

They all agreed to be very careful, before Marina and I went over the papers once more. Apparently the areas that were blocked off were known as ‘Storage Wing Z61.’ From what Perrsnile could tell us, some of those rooms were meant to hold extra parts for the vault, some contained baby supplies for a dozen or more different species, and others had more general equipment. The point was, Valdean had been prepared for this place to last for centuries without having to go out to the regular world, and part of that included having a boatload of extra supplies. 

With that in mind, I straightened up, looking toward Marina. “Alright, babe. You ready? 

“Let’s go see if our missing killers are playing with the baby toys.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Of course, the first step toward stopping Broadway‘s foster brother from the whole zombie thing was to find out if he actually was the person behind all of it. Granted, from what she had told us, it seemed pretty obvious. But, to be fair, it wasn’t completely impossible that his power was limited to small animals or something and this was someone with a stronger version. Yeah, I knew how that sounded, but I didn’t want to completely dismiss anything just yet.

Besides, even if it was him, maybe someone else was forcing him into it or something. We really had no idea about all that beyond the fact that he apparently had this power that looked an awful lot like what we had been dealing with. I certainly wasn’t going to hand him over to the authorities, and therefore the Ministry, without at least finding out more for myself about how much he was responsible for. 

So, we had to investigate. Which meant going to that house to check things out. Of course, that did leave the question of whether we were butting up against Caishen’s rule about calling in help before confronting the person behind this. But we weren’t planning on even physically seeing him. We were going to check it out while he wasn’t there. I wanted to at least find out as much as we could before calling in the cavalry. Again, if this wasn’t his fault, I didn’t want to sic the Ministry on him. And we knew the moment we called in for help, the Ministry would know about it.

According to Broadway, despite the fact that he was older than she was, he still lived with their foster parents, technically. Though apparently he had moved out to the separate standing garage, treating it like an apartment. Which at least meant that we wouldn’t have to break into the house itself. Given what we had heard, that would have been fairly impossible to do without being seen by someone. There was no time when the entire place was empty, at least no time that could be counted on to be that way for longer than five minutes. 

For her part, Broadway said she would help us by inviting her brother to dinner at her cover apartment to get him out of that garage so we could get in there and look around without worrying about him finding us unexpectedly. We were just going to have to be both quick and quiet about it considering there would be people in the nearby house just a few feet away. A lot of people, given what we had heard. Apparently there were no less than nine foster kids in that place, ranging in age from about two all the way to twenty. Well, the twenty-year-old was Jason. The next eldest, still living in the house itself, was a sixteen-year-old girl named Molly. 

We also didn’t have a lot of time to waste, considering how much damage the zombies had already been doing around the city. They had stopped for now, but still. At this rate, I was afraid that things would escalate completely out of control if we let it go on much longer. We had to find out if Jason was responsible for this, and stop him if he was. 

So, we were going in there the very next day. Broadway convinced her brother to go with her, and we made our way to the lumberyard just down the street from the house in question. We wouldn’t all be going inside. Even with Wren being back at the shop doing her own work, having that many people trying to sneak through a garage would just be asking to end up getting caught. Instead, it would be Paige, Roald, Pack, and me. Pack was going in because Broadway was her friend and she insisted on being involved. Paige knew how to find hidden things and was pretty sneaky on her own. And as for Roald… well, he was going just in case someone started to come into the garage. Murphy would be waiting on the far side of the road, visible through a window in the garage. If someone started to come in, we would all grab onto Roald while he used the teleportation tech in the suit to get us all the way out to where Murphy was instantly. Hopefully without being seen by anyone. 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there?” Peyton asked a bit tentatively while she watched me. “If this is the right place and one of those things pops out at you guys, or breaks in while you’re there and you can’t get away…” 

“That’s why you guys are waiting right here,” I pointed out gently, nodding to her and Sierra. “You guys and Murphy too. She’ll be able to see what’s going on and we’ll be in contact over the phone. You’re backup. If we run into trouble, the three of you can come to the rescue.” 

She sighed a little before giving a short nod. “Yeah, I know. You’re right. If something goes wrong, we’ll be ready. But still, be careful, okay?” She had told me before that it was going to take awhile before she stopped thinking of me as a little brother or something, and I heard that same general idea in her words, and in the small smile as she made the helmet over her face shift apart so I could see it. “Don’t go getting yourself killed now.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured. “I’ll do my best. Besides, I don’t think the others are all that eager to be eaten by zombies either.” 

“Not particularly,” Pack agreed flatly. She stood there with her arms folded around Mars Bar, holding the iguana to her chest. Twinkletoes, in his ordinary chameleon form, perched on her shoulder. “So are we gonna get in there and find out what’s really going on, or just stand around out here talking about it?” 

“Yeah, yeah, we’re going,” I assured her before painting myself completely black. Then I pointed at Paige and did the same to her costume, followed by Roald and finally Pack herself. Once we were all thoroughly dark, Pack put her lizards back in her bag (or rather, the cage connected to the bag) and we set out. There was a narrow alley leading behind the houses from the lumberyard. On the way, I activated small bits of the black paint I’d put on everyone. That was a new thing I’d figured out I could do, activate just a portion of a much larger amount of paint. All I needed was to silence our footsteps on the gravel, which was pretty quiet already. Adding in just the small amount of black paint I was using and we were able to walk over all that loose gravel without making a single sound. 

That helped deal with being heard, and from there we just had to take it easy and watch for any lights on from people who might be standing on their back porches or in windows. But nothing jumped out as we carefully and quietly snuck through that alley and right up to the gate behind the house in question. It had a heavy-duty padlock on it, but a quick squirt of pink paint allowed me to pull the thing apart. Then I simply shot another bit of black paint at the hinges of the gate to make sure it wouldn’t squeak while it was pushed open so the others could head through. Once they were in, I pulled the gate shut and replaced the lock, using pink paint again to ensure it was back the way it should be. 

We watched the house carefully while going in. The gate was far enough away through a wide backyard that we wouldn’t easily be seen by people just passing by windows. The garage itself was straight ahead of us and slightly to the left, while the house was further away and to the right. There was a small sandbox full of toys to one side that we carefully stepped around while moving to the far side of the garage where we wouldn’t be seen. Aside from that, a tall wooden fence to our left blocked vision from the house next door, and the garage itself would stop anyone in this home from spotting us. So far so good, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. This whole thing could blow up in our faces pretty easily if we weren’t careful. 

With that in mind, I checked the small window on this side of the garage. It was just like Broadway had described. The window didn’t close completely, given how old and relatively ramshackle the place was. There was a tiny crack between the window itself and the structure of the building. Not large enough to use as a way of getting inside, but that was okay. Leaning down, I peered through the window. The garage was basically one open room with a bed and den area on one end, a sort-of pseudo-kitchen to the left near where this window was, a makeshift bathroom with a shower curtain-type pull around for some degree of privacy, and a small living ‘room’ right near the entrance. I could see all the way through it from this window, including both the big rolling door and the regular entrance. It was the latter I focused on, specifically the deadbolt. 

“Okay,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I painted my hand and part of my arm pink. Which, with effort, I managed to shove through that narrow crack. It was a pretty disconcerting process, particularly considering I knew I had to be quick. Forcing my hand through the crack was like pushing Play-Doh through one of those rolling mill machines. It came out almost flat on the other side. But I ignored the weirdness of it, twisting my hand up and around once it was on the other side of the window so I could point toward the deadbolt on the far side of the room. A moment later, a shot of red paint sailed across the open space and hit the tiny latch perfectly. One more shot put a bit of red just to the side of it. Quickly, I yanked my hand back out before the pink paint could run out while activating the red. In turn, the bolt was pulled down, unlocking the door. 

“Okay,” I announced while pushing myself back up, “we’re good.”

Yes, we could have just used pink paint to make a hole in the wall big enough to go through, but that would’ve been a lot to clean up without letting Jason know we’d been there. We were trying to be subtle. 

Roald leaned in to stare at that before giving me a look. “Seriously,” he asked in a whisper, “how do you do that? You hit that thing in one try, from across the whole length of the garage and with your hand literally flattened and pushed through that little crack.” 

“I know, right?” That was Murphy speaking through the bluetooth device in my ear. We all had them right now, and were in a conference call on our phones so we could stay in contact with the others. “He’s got insane fucking aim and just acts like it’s normal.” 

“He clearly has that as part of his power set,” Paige flatly replied. Not only were they both saying ‘he’ because Pack was here, but also because we had agreed that I would continue to be referred to as a boy while I was in costume. It would help stop anyone from screwing up and giving away my secret if they continued to be in that habit. It was probably a little confusing for them, but it was the best we could do. 

Speaking of which, maybe someday I would need to tell Pack the truth too. She was basically the only… sort-of member of our little group who didn’t know by now. But she also wasn’t a full part of Avant-Guard. She was still a Fell-Touched, albeit falling into a sort of gray area. I told myself I didn’t want to put her in the position of knowing that much about me and not telling her boss anything, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was simply justifying it. The truth was that I really didn’t want to think that there were even more people out there whom I couldn’t control who knew my secret. 

In any case, I shrugged at them. “I guess that makes sense, but I don’t know why super-aim would come along with paint powers. To say nothing about the whole navigating in darkness thing.” When the three of them all looked at me, I waved it off. “This is really not the time to get into it. I promise, we can do all the testing you want later. Come on, let’s see if we can find anything.” With that, I walked around to the edge of the garage, peeked to make sure we still looked clear, then quickly and silently made my way to the now-unlocked door and slipped inside. The others were right behind me before I tugged the door closed. 

Right, now we were in here, hopefully without having attracted any attention so we could search the place and not deal with some cops showing up. That would end up being a bit hard to explain. Especially with Pack here. It would be a whole thing. So, better to just avoid the whole situation. Thankfully, the only windows facing the house were covered in black-out curtains. Probably because Jason didn’t want snoopy foster parents or siblings to see what he was doing out here. Which worked in our favor, though we still weren’t going to turn a bunch of lamps on. Instead, we all took out our phones and dialed the flashlight apps down low. Just enough to see what we were doing as we spread out to search. 

I honestly wasn’t sure what we expected to find, but it could’ve been anything. Trophies from the zombies he’d made? Their wallets or whatever with photographs we could use to identify them? Maybe a manifesto about everything he was doing and why, or even an audio recording of him detailing his master plan? Okay, maybe those were asking for a bit much, but hey, you never knew. Maybe we would get extraordinarily lucky. It could happen. 

For my part, I went all the way to the back of the garage and started looking around the area where he slept. I carefully checked under his pillows, taking note of how they were positioned so I could put them back properly just in case, before ducking down to peer under the bed itself. The light from my phone panned over the floor down there, revealing a lot of empty fast food cartons and such, not to mention dirty magazines. Those I rather reluctantly picked up, turned over, and rifled through to see if anything fell out. Nothing, aside from a few cards to order more dirty magazines. 

“Who gets those things anymore?” Pack demanded as she looked over from looking through one of his dressers and saw what I was holding. “Hasn’t he ever heard of internet porn?” 

“The family monitors internet access,” Paige put in from the other side of the garage. “They have child locks on most adult websites. Those are probably his way of compensating for that when–” 

“Okay, can we please change the subject?” I hurriedly interrupted. “Something tells me none of this will ever be relevant for what we’re actually supposed to be doing here.” 

“Hold on, how do you know the thing about monitoring internet access?” That question came from Alloy, still waiting back at the lumberyard. “And the childlock.” 

“We have wireless internet access,” Sierra informed her, sounding amused. “She can see all the connections from there.” 

Pushing their conversation out of my mind, I shoved the magazines back under the bed where I had found them. In the process of arranging them where I was pretty sure they’d been, I noticed something else. A small box was shoved up into the space between the wooden board of the bedframe and the box springs. Squinting that way, I reached out to tug the thing out, then turned and put my back to the bed with the box in my lap so I could examine it. The box was about eight inches long and six inches wide, along with being several inches deep. There was a clasp on the front, which had a keyhole. I set the thing down, ignoring the lock. Instead, I painted the top pink and used my fingers to pry a hole into it that way. Inside the box was a small folded stack of papers, along with what looked like a debit card that had the name Jordan Johnson on it, and a driver’s license. The picture matched the one of Jason that we had been shown by Broadway before coming over here, but the name was also Jordan Johnson. Opening the folded papers, I found a birth certificate and other things identifying him as, yet again, Jordan Johnson. Frowning, I called the others over to show them what I was looking at. 

Roald shook his head. “So, ahh, he’s got fake identification and a debit card? Does that mean he’s gonna run away or something? Is he getting ready to disappear if he gets caught?” 

Paige examined the ID and paperwork. “This is all professional grade,” she remarked. “It’s not something he got off the street for a hundred bucks. This looks real. Someone with some actual skill, and probably access to the DMV system did this. So how does some nobody foster kid, no offense, get it? Does he just happen to know somebody that good or that well-connected? And why does he have it?” 

“It takes a while to get something like that anyway,” Pack put in. “Trust me, I’ve had a set done myself. And if it takes Blackjack a couple weeks to get that quality of work, then I’m pretty sure almost nobody else could do it faster. Maybe the Ministry themselves, just because of the connections they have, but I think we’re operating under the assumption that he’s not working for the Ministry?”

I paused to consider that. “I mean, it wouldn’t really make sense if he was. We’re pretty sure they’re the ones who had Luciano killed. And now he’s been brought back as a weird zombie thing attacking people. Plus, he was just sort of found in the alley. I don’t think they would’ve left him there if they did bring him back to life. What would be the point of having him kill those couple kids who happened to find him? It doesn’t make any sense coming from them. I don’t see any profit in it. And it sure as hell isn’t making the area more stable.” 

Paige agreed with a nod. “Right, it doesn’t make sense. So I’m pretty sure the fake ID had to be planned and set up awhile ago, before we started seeing these zombies. This isn’t a situation where things got out of control and he just went out to pick up a fake ID to run away with at the spur of the moment. He had a professional make these. A professional who either owed him a huge favor, or one he paid a lot of money to.” 

“She’s right,” Sierra’s voice put in, “If that fake ID stuff is really that good, it’s not something this guy could just go down to the street corner and pay some random guy for.”

 I looked down at the papers again and flipped through them. It wasn’t just a birth certificate and other identification stuff, I realized. At the end of the stack was a bit of lined paper that had been torn out of a notebook. The name ‘N Kent St’ was scrawled across the middle of the page in pen, along with a phone number. Under that, the number 9,412 was written and underlined with a smiley face next to it. 

“Is that the guy who made the fake ID and the amount he paid for it?” Roald guessed. “N Kent St. kinda sounds like a name. Or a street? It could be N Kent Saint or N Kent Street. Maybe it’s an address. Nine Four One Two North Kent Street?” 

Of course, I immediately thought of Kent Jackson, Tomas’s dad. He had memory powers. What did he have to do with this? Aloud, I murmured, “There’s a guy who works for the Ministry. He can… erase memories. His name’s Kent. But that’s his first name, not his last. And there’s no N involved in the name. I don’t know an N Kent. And certainly not a Saint. I guess it could be him, but I’ve never heard him called by that… I dunno. This still doesn’t sound like the Ministry. Unless Kent’s been freelancing?” Even that didn’t sound right. “It could be a coincidence on the name… Anyway, what would he be paying Kent for? Yeah, look up that address.”

“Already did,” Sierra informed us over the phone. “There is no 9412 North Kent Street anywhere in Michigan. It’s gotta be a price and name or something. The amount he paid for that new identity?”   

“Pretty high price for this sort of thing,” Paige murmured. “I mean, you can get a passable fake identity for about fifteen hundred bucks. If he paid over nine thousand… well, it’d explain the quality. And there’s probably more to it. Maybe it included transportation to a new place or something. Safe passage out of the city if things fall apart and probably some sort of established place somewhere else. Unless the Ministry Kent is involved and he’s being paid to adjust memories? But you’re right, I dunno what the N could stand for.” 

“Keep looking around,” I urged while spreading the papers, fake ID, and debit card out to take pictures of them with my phone. I wanted to keep a record of everything we found without letting Jason himself realize we knew anything about it. As soon as I had all of it in my phone, I folded the papers and stuff back up, put them in the box, then used my pink paint to fix the lid so it was basically as good as new. Finally, I put the thing back where I’d found it and went to lift the mattress so I could see if there was anything there. Sure enough, I certainly found something. And it wasn’t just more papers. Right there between the mattress and box springs was a nine millimeter pistol and a box of ammunition. Grimacing at the sight, I started to tell the others about it, when Roald called out for us to look at something else.

Setting the mattress down, I moved over to where he was in the ‘kitchen’ area. Roald was holding a piece of paper he’d dug out of the trash. Printed across it were the words, ‘One or two aren’t going to impress us. You want to join our club, make a real splash. I hear opening night could be a real homerun.’ It wasn’t signed, at least not with names. But there were two pictures where a signature would be. The picture of a number two pencil, and one of a mug. Or rather–

“Cup,” Pack snarled. “Pencil and Cup.” 

“Wait, wait!” I suddenly blurted, eyes widening behind my helmet. “N Kent St, it’s not North Kent Street, or anything to do with Kent. It’s New Kent Stadium. The minor league baseball place. It was named Old Kent Park back in the nineties, then LMCU Park in 2000, back when it was in Comstock like two hundred miles from here. But last year they moved the team closer and went back to calling it Kent. Only it’s New Kent Stadium instead of Old Kent Park. It’s just, like, twenty miles outside the city now. Pai–Poise, what’s the–” 

Paige was already ahead of me. “The seating capacity for New Kent Stadium is nine thousand, four hundred, and twelve. And opening night is today.”

“Pack!” I snapped, turning that way. “You’ve gotta call Broadway and tell her–” 

“Too late,” she informed me, holding a phone in her hand. “I just got a text from her. She says Jason was going to the restroom and disappeared. She has no idea where he is.” 

“I think we know where he’s going though,” I found myself muttering. “He wants to impress the Scions. 

“And he’s gonna do it by unleashing his zombies on that stadium.”  

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, now we really had trouble. Our robot guide, who had been helping us figure out how to deal with all this and was the one who knew all the people in here, let alone how to get around the vault, was… off. I was going to hope he wasn’t permanently dead and instead just shut down somehow, but either way this was pretty bad. If he was down forever, could we even get out of this place? And regardless, without Sitter’s help,  how were we supposed to do anything in here? Hell, he was the main reason any of the guests were even listening to us, and while I didn’t doubt that we could force the issue if we had to, I really didn’t want it to come to that. No, we had to be more diplomatic than that, or this whole situation would spiral completely out of control. Not to mention the fact that these people deserved better than that. 

The three of us were all crouched around his fallen form, Dakota’s hand on his head. She looked at me, grimacing. “What do you think happened to him?” 

“Maybe it was a trap inside the system,” I guessed, glancing to the spot where Sitter had been plugged in. “You know, like a virus or something. Whoever was responsible for this whole thing might’ve figured he would look through the system like that and left a little thing to shut him down. And uhh, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly a robotics expert.” Not for the first time, I muttered, “I wish Avalon was here. Or Columbus. Or–” Shaking off all the thoughts of people it would be nice to have with us, I sighed. “I dunno, I think we’re on our own here unless we can find someone else in the vault who can do something with him. And even then–” 

“Even then they might not be someone we can trust, or who will listen to us,” Dakota finished. “So what’re we supposed to do now? How do we um… do anything?” She glanced toward Denny. “If we talked to people and you used your power to find out if any of them could fix him, then–” 

“No.” Denny quickly shook her head, blanching visibly. “I–I can’t, I’m sorry. I can’t use that power again, not like that. I don’t… like taking their free will–I don’t want t–I’m sorry.” She was visibly cringing, looking like she might be sick. “I know it’s not a big deal. I know, I know. But even doing it a little bit makes me think of all the times he did it. The memories, they get stronger in my head whenever I use that power and I can’t just–I can see the people he… I–” She cut herself off, folding her arms against her stomach while looking like she was desperately fighting back the urge to either cry or throw up. Or both. 

Dakota shifted over, putting an arm around the other girl. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s okay,” she murmured. “We’ll find another way. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Don’t worry about it.” 

“She’s right,” I quickly agreed, taking Denny’s hand and squeezing it. “We’ll just have to talk to people and find someone who can help. Then watch them. Or just do this without Sitter until we catch the person responsible. Or maybe it was Sitter and this is a trick, you know? I can’t be the only person who remembers how often the butler is responsible for the murders.” I offered a weak, hesitant smile before it faded. “I just mean–yeah.” 

“Well, he was the one to freeze everyone else,” Denny hesitantly pointed out. “Plus, Valdean didn’t show him that note, remember? And if he disappears right now and leaves us like… without any help or whatever, he makes it harder for us to investigate. Maybe he has another body he jumped into, or maybe he’s just inside the computer system itself.” She shrugged uncertainly. “It uhh, it could just be paranoia, but we don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s a robot who went bad. That’s a thing that happens in movies and stuff..”

My mouth opened, then shut as I considered. In the end, Dakota spoke up before I could. “Sure, uhh, yeah, maybe. But umm, you know, how would he, umm… how did he adjust everyone’s memory if that’s what happened? Robots can’t use magic.” 

“But they can use technology,” Denny reminded her. “And a lot of Valdean’s tech stuff looks like magic or does magic-type stuff. Remember, like, this whole place, being in a pocket dimension, the time-freeze, it’s all technology-based, not magic. Maybe Valdean created a memory adjustment gizmo too? One that Sitter’s been using.” 

“Okay, you have a point there,” I admitted. “But still, I don’t think we should lean too hard on ‘Sitter’s the evil one’ just because we can make that fit. He could just as easily be a victim. I…” Grimacing, I looked down at his still, silent, dark form. “If he really is hurt, we’ll feel like shit if we make him our prime suspect. I–we’ll look into it, just in case. But let’s keep an open mind.” 

“What do we do next?” Dakota asked. “I mean, while we’re keeping open minds, how do we actually find any answers? So far we haven’t been doing a very bang-up job, and that was while we had help. Now that he’s… umm… not helping for whatever reason, what’re we supposed to do?”  

“We need to talk to Sesh and Marina,” I pointed out. “First to tell them what happened, and also to find out if they got anything out of talking to the guests.” My expression twisted into one of uncertainty, as I sighed. “Yeah, I know it’s not very likely, but we still need to get on the same page. I just–wish we had anything useful on any of these pages.” My last words came out as a grumble, while I squinted around the room at all the computer stuff. 

Denny raised a hand, tentatively pointing out, “We did find that USB thing in the location tracking computer. They’ve gotta be using that to hide where they are, right?” Her expression fell then. “Too bad we can’t ask Sitter to figure out what areas it’s being used to mask right now.” 

“Yeah, that would be useful,” I agreed, “but I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.” Then I looked at Dakota. “Hang on, you found that instruction manual for this thing. Maybe we could use that to figure out what rooms are being given air and light and all that.” 

The girl looked down at the thick binder she had set on the floor nearby. “Um, maybe. It kinda looks like he wanted people to be able to understand it if anything umm… went wrong. But it’s still pretty complicated. We need Sesh and Marina to look at it too.”

I nodded, looking back at the dark mouth-lights of Sitter before quietly murmuring, “Yeah, like I said, we need to exchange notes with them. But on the other hand, I’m a little afraid to leave this place. What if there’s information in here and one of the three missing people comes in while we’re gone and erases it? I–hang on.” For a brief moment, I considered the emergency alert spell, but I didn’t want Marina and Sesh to think that we were in immediate danger. Especially while they were talking to the other guests. Freaking those people out even more than they already were was probably a bad idea. We had to keep everyone as calm as possible if we were going to maintain any semblance of order and not let the vault devolve into total chaos.

So, instead of doing anything with that, I rose from the floor and moved over to the doorway leading into this place. Once there, I plucked a stone from my pocket. Holding the thing in the palm of my hand, I used my image inscription power to mark the thing with a spell that I’d learned from Shyel. “There,” I announced after triggering it and setting the stone down on the floor just out of sight from someone coming through. Then I waited for a second to see if the orichalcum walls would drain the thing. But apparently as long as I wasn’t putting the spell directly on the walls themselves, it was safe. Probably because Valdean hadn’t wanted to stop people from using magic entirely

Once I was assured that my spell looked as though it would stay, I nodded firmly. “Right then. Now, as soon as we leave, the next person to come in here will set off an alert on this coin that I’ll keep with me.” Holding that up as well as well so they could see it, I added, “There shouldn’t be anyone else coming into this place except for us. So if that alert goes off and we’re not the ones coming in here–” 

“It’s probably the bad guy,” Dakota finished. “Or bad guys. Why do you think there’s three missing people?” 

My head shook. “I’m not sure, but we’ll be sure to ask them as soon as we figure out where they are.” Walking over, I bent down and picked up Sitter’s body. No way was I going to leave him here. If he really was the murderer in all this, leaving his body lying around for him to use again was a bad idea anyway. And even if he wasn’t, letting one of the actual bad guys find it and do whatever with him was a bad idea too. So no, he was coming with us. Luckily, I had enough strength boosts that hoisting him into my arms and carrying the deadweight robot figure wasn’t that hard.

Once we were actually back on the elevator, Denny abruptly made a sound of confusion deep in her throat. “Um, how are we supposed to move this thing? Do uhh, do we have any idea which of these buttons takes us back to the auditorium?” As she asked that, the girl was studying the control panel in front of her with clear bewilderment. 

“I do,” I confirmed. As the other two looked at me, I propped Sitter’s body up in the corner before turning back that way. “I was watching the buttons he was pressing every time we got in this thing. Figured it might be a good idea just in case things went wrong or we had to do it ourselves. Uh, hang on, I think I’ve got the right idea, anyway.” Now that I’d claimed that, I really hoped I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself. So, I exhaled before closing my eyes briefly to focus on what I’d seen our robot companion do. First, I raised one finger to touch the button with what looked like two squiggly lines sort of pointing toward one another. The moment I hit it, the door of the elevator slid shut. Right, so far I was one for one. That was a good record. 

From the corner of my eye as I squinted at the buttons, I saw Denny and Dakota take each other’s hands. Even with the door properly shut as it was supposed to be, it seemed like they weren’t exactly one hundred percent confident in my ability to work this elevator for some reason. Which, well, that was fair. Considering this thing moved like the Willy Wonka elevator, moving forwards and backwards and sideways and–yeah. I could see why this situation might make them a little nervous. I was pretty nervous too, but I had to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing. 

Which once again led me back to that same question from before. Was that what my mom and the other adults were doing all the time? Were they just pretending to know what was going on or how to handle everything? Was all of adulthood just faking your way through things and hoping the entire situation didn’t blow up in a way you couldn’t deal with? Because I had really been looking forward to the moment in my life where I would officially feel like an adult who knew what was going on and could teach others. The idea that might not actually happen, that the entire world–no, the entire universe was just an assortment of people who had lived long enough to sufficiently pretend that they knew what was going on was just… terrifying, really. 

Realizing the other two were starting to get even more nervous as they watched me just stand there, I shook off those thoughts, gave them a smile that was as encouraging as I could manage, and focused on the buttons once more. After watching Sitter work this thing a few times, I had a general idea of how it worked. At least I hoped I did. First, there were four arrow-type buttons. The up arrow meant ‘go up one level’, the down meant to go down a level, the left button directed the elevator to go left one track, and the right button–well, obviously made it go right one track. You were supposed to hit those in the exact order to get to the track you wanted to go to from where you were. For example, if the specific track you wanted was three tracks right, one track up, then one track left, you hit right three times, then up once, then left once. From there, you were supposed to hit the number buttons to get to the exact right room that you wanted on that specific track. 

Thinking intently, I tried to remember the sequence that Sitter had hit on our way down here from the auditorium. All I had to do was reverse that. Hit right where he had hit left, up where he had hit down, and so on. 

I was also trying hard not to think about how screwed it seemed like we were if the simple act of using the elevator was such a big deal. Seriously, how were we supposed to handle this situation when I was considering simply closing the doors of this thing such a triumph? We were in trouble, there was no doubt about it. We didn’t have Sitter helping anymore, and we were completely cut off from any outside assistance. All we had was a bunch of freaked out guests who we couldn’t be absolutely sure were trustworthy, and each other. Marina, Dakota, Denny, Fathsteth’s daughter whom I had only barely met, and me. Yeah, this whole situation could spiral out of control very quickly. 

But hey, at least I remembered the right buttons. At least, I was pretty sure I did. Squaring my shoulders, I just reached out to hit them in what I believed was the right sequence. First each of the opposite arrow buttons from what Sitter had hit to bring us down here, then the same number that I remembered him hitting when he’d taken us to the auditorium to begin with. 

The doors shut, and we were on our way. I crossed my fingers, looking at the other two before coughing once as I saw that they were both doing the same. “I uhh, see, easy-peasy.” I hoped the juxtaposition of me saying that while openly holding up my hands so they could see my crossed fingers was more amusing than terrifying. 

Thankfully, in the end I turned out to be right. The elevator took us through several floors and different tracks, before the doors opened in front of the entrance to the auditorium. Seeing that in front of us, I let out a breath of relief and barely resisted the urge to sag sideways. “And that’s how we do it. We’re here. You uhh, yeah, you guys stay right here with him. Shout if anything happens, I’m gonna go get the others.” I definitely didn’t want to carry his limp and dark body into that room in front of all the guests. Something told me they probably wouldn’t react that well. 

So, leaving the other two there to watch over him, I stepped out. The small hallway was shaped like a U, with the elevator at the bottom of that letter. Moving to the left side led to the audience entrances, while moving to the right led to the backstage area. I moved right, heading through those back rooms and over the stage itself until I could see the main auditorium. The guests were all out there, whispering together in small groups throughout the room about what was going on, what was going to happen to them now that Valdean was gone, and so on. 

Everyone noticed me, of course. All the conversations stopped quickly when they saw that I was there, and I winced a little before focusing on where I could see Sesh and Marina. “Uh, sorry for the interruption, guys. We’ll have some more food brought in as soon as we can, I promise. And like I said before, you don’t have to worry about us. We’ll figure this out and those of you who want to stay, I’m sure Valdean would’ve wanted you to. Sitter can definitely help with that. But uhh, that’s all detail stuff. We’ll get to it. In the meantime, I need to borrow my friends there for just a minute, if you don’t mind.” I tried to keep my voice as calm and casual as possible. From some of the looks I was getting, it wasn’t a complete success. Still, at least no one was openly panicking just yet. 

The other two excused themselves from the conversations they had been having, and came up to join me on the stage. Keeping my voice low, I asked if they had any idea, after spending more time with these people, who we should put in charge for the moment. 

Exchanging a look with Sesh, Marina offered, “I think Jammi could probably do it. She volunteered to be possessed first, after all. And she’s sort of… mothering in a way?” 

Sesh nodded. “Yeah, maybe her and that guy over there.” She nodded toward a short, gray-skinned figure with large red eyes and no visible mouth. “His name’s–” 

“Isolin, I remember,” I confirmed. “He’s a Peusen.” It sounded a bit like ‘poison’ but more like ‘pwahson.’ “Yeah, I think you’re right, he was pretty level-headed when I was… possessing him. Okay, let’s leave them in charge.” 

So, I called those two up and asked them to look after the others and keep everyone calm, promising that we would explain what was going on as soon as we could. The Guhlben woman seemed nervous about the whole situation, but readily agreed to help take care of her fellow guests. And Isolin, ‘speaking’ by making words appear holographically in the air, agreed as well. He could also make solid holographic shapes appear with that same power. 

Hoping everyone would be okay in here for a few minutes, I took Sesh and Marina out to the elevator. On the way, I finally explained what we found, and what happened to Sitter.  

“Wait, hold on, he just shut off after plugging into that system?” Sesh demanded. “That’s not–” She stopped as we reached the elevator itself so she could see the robot in question. “Uhh, that’s not good.” 

“Tell us about it,” Dakota promptly piped up, her face flushing a little immediately afterward. “I mean, uhh, yeah. He still won’t wake up. And I’ve been looking through this manual for the computer system, but it’s really confusing.” She waved the binder helplessly. 

“May I see that?” Marina asked curiously. When the other girl handed it to her, she flipped through it a bit, starting to shake her head. “You’re right, this is pretty–hang on.” 

“What’d you find?” Sesh asked, turning away from where she had been squinting intently at Sitter’s face. “Please say it’s something useful.” 

“The note,” Marina quickly replied, looking back to me. “Can I see the note that was in Mophse’s shoe?” 

Unsure of where she was going with that, I obliged by taking out the folded paper and handing it over to her. “Sure, you think that can help translate whatever language this is?” 

She was quiet for a moment, simply holding the note in one hand while ripping through the binder with the other. Then she shook her head, voice quiet. “It’s not a language.” Clearing her throat, she looked up at the rest of us and repeated, “It’s not a language. Look. The letters–I mean what we thought were letters. It’s actually wiring inside the computer system. See? Like this bit right here, it looks like that letter Q with the tail on both sides and the circle in the middle. It wasn’t a letter at all. None of them are. They’re all different shapes of the wiring inside that system. This note isn’t a sentence, it’s like… a series of diagrams of the computer interior.”

She was right, I realized after making a few other comparisons. “Wait, so Mophse was walking around with a piece of paper that had a bunch of different images of the wiring inside the computer system in his pocket, along with a date for two days after he was killed? I mean, no wonder Valdean didn’t need to ask Sitter what language it was. There was no language at all, just wiring specs. But why? Why would he have that at all?

“And more importantly, are those specs the reason someone killed him?” 

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Enkindle 23-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, needless to say, that caused a bit of an uproar through the group. Everyone else was blurting questions at the two La Casa Touched in what turned into a confused mess that was completely impossible to decipher. Meanwhile, my eyes kept flicking between Broadway and Pack as my mouth opened and shut several times in a helpless attempt to somehow telepathically understand what the hell the girl was talking about. Neither method, shouting questions over one another or silently standing there attempting a mind probe, actually accomplished anything, of course. I was pretty sure the only thing we managed to do was slow down getting an actual explanation.

Finally, I whistled to make everyone stop talking over one another. They all turned to look at me while I held my hands up and let the silence hold for a moment. Once I was certain that I had everyone’s attention and no one was going to start blurting questions over each other again, I lowered my hands and focused on the two La Casa Touched. “Okay, would you mind explaining exactly what you’re talking about? What do you mean, you think your brother is responsible for these zombie… things?”

It still felt weird to say ‘zombie’ out loud and be entirely serious, but there wasn’t a better word for them. And considering everything else about the world, maybe it was dumb for me to feel weird about that. Honestly, what was so utterly inconceivable about a power that could puppet dead bodies, or whatever was actually going on? Was it just the concept of a… a dead body being used like that? Was that what my brain refused to accept? 

Before Broadway could respond, Pack spoke up first. “We should probably start from the beginning. I mean, she should. But I get the feeling this place isn’t the best for a good, probably long, private conversation. You know, right out here in the open.” She turned, pointing. “There’s a rooftop greenhouse over there, three buildings east. We can be out of sight, and really talk.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Paige stepped closer and focused on the girl, her eyes clearly narrowing behind that red visor. “Is that really why you want to go over there? You just want to have a private conversation without anyone waiting for us?” The suspicion in her voice was palpable. 

“Dude, I have no idea who you even are.” That was Broadway, gesturing. “We came to talk to Paintball. So if you don’t want to go have that talk, feel free to stay here.” She looked back to me then, waving both arms. “Since when is your group so big anyway? I thought you were a solo act. Well, you know, solo plus your partner. Dynamic Duo. Point is, I thought you were more of a Batman and Robin thing, not a whole team situation. Though, come to think of it, he’s always had a lot bigger group than he pretended to have anyway. For a loner, his assortment of partners and sidekicks is basically a small army. I am vengeance, I am the night, I fight my eternal war against crime alone. Aside from Alfred, Robin, Red Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Oracle, Spoiler, Red Hood, Blue Bird, Signal, Huntress sometimes, Catwoman, Batwing, Batwoman, Commissioner Gordon…” 

I could tell that both Paige and Sierra were about to respond to that, and would probably end up making this whole situation spiral quickly out of control. I couldn’t blame them for being suspicious, of course. Not with everything that was going on, and their entire… everything. Still, I quickly stepped in, clearing my throat. “Ahem, Broadway, Pack, this is Poise and that’s Style. You should know Alloy, of course. Over there we have Calvin and Hobbes. And, of course–” 

“Hi! I’m Wr–Trevithick!” Wren chirped, flying in closer so she could study them more intently. “That’s cool armor, Miss Broadway. Do you know who made it? Can I talk to them? Is–” 

“I ahh, I’ll see if Blackjack wants to share that info,” Broadway put in, a little awkwardly. “Look, it’s great to meet you and all, really. Can’t wait for us to have a real ‘get to know you’ fight scene. But this whole brother making zombies thing really is important. If you don’t want to help, or if you think we’re just screwing with you, we can just go–”

“No, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. Without looking at the others, I gestured towards the roof Pack had indicated. “Go ahead, we’ll be right over. Just give us a second to talk, alright? I promise, we’ll be there in a minute.” I was focusing on Pack rather than Broadway, silently urging her to give us time to talk the whole thing through instead of pushing this confrontation. 

Thankfully, she gave me a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. Given her entire face was obscured by that featureless black mask, it was even harder to read that sort of motion, but I got the gist of it. Her head seemed to shift toward Sierra briefly, but I couldn’t tell why. She sure didn’t say anything to the other girl. Instead, she pivoted and gave a low whistle. From behind the same brick structure sticking out of the roof that Broadway had been standing behind before making her appearance, Scatters emerged in full reindeer form. She came closer, glowing proudly neon as Pack swung a leg up over her. Once the girl had mounted her pet, she focused on us. “Yeah, we’ll be over there, so don’t keep us waiting too long, huh?” 

With that, Scatters literally leapt right from where she was standing. She didn’t even take a running start, instead just jumping from right there. She landed on the next roof over, before another jump put her on the second roof, then the third. Just like that, she was by the greenhouse. 

“Yeah, dudes, it’s kind of important,” Broadway informed us, before pointing that way without actually looking. Her gaze stayed on us as I heard a low boom, before the girl vanished and reappeared over there. Right, soundwave teleportation. That was probably pretty useful. 

Turning away from that, I focused on the others before letting out a long, low breath. “Well,” I offered while painting a smiley face across my helmet, “at least it sounds like we’re about to get some answers?” After getting that out, I shrugged. “Look, I know it might seem a little suspicious and convenient, but I really don’t think Pack is the sort of person to lead us into a trap like that. If this was something to do with the Ministry or anything like that, she would’ve given us a signal. Besides, if the Ministry knew enough to set up a trap for us, they’d know enough not to use Pack to do it.” 

“Or maybe Pack is exactly who they’d use,” Paige pointed out flatly. “Because she’s sort of part of the group, and someone you’d trust. Especially if they turned her and made threats to make her lead us right where they want us.” She let that hang in the air for a moment before shaking her head. “But no, I think you’re right. It’s not a trap. I just had to test her. Besides, if nothing else, if she does turn later we now have a baseline for how she reacts to being questioned.” 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “if I haven’t said it before, I’m really glad you’re on our side. You’re kinda scary.” 

Snorting despite myself, I pushed back the multitude of things I could’ve said to that. Instead, I gave a short nod. “Right, well, if nothing else, at least we’re on the same page about Pack being on the level. Which means they really do think that Broadway’s brother is behind this…” 

“Can we go over there now?” Peyton put in, literally squirming on her feet. “Cuz I really wanna know more about that, and we’re only gonna find out by actually talking to her, you know?” 

“Right, yeah, you’ve got a point,” I agreed. “We can stand here and speculate all day, or we can just go talk to her and get answers that way. So, everyone okay with going over there?” 

There was a general murmur of agreement, so we all headed over to the other roof. A minute later, we were all gathered in front of the greenhouse. I could see the other two waiting inside, and gave the rest of the group a quick look, whispering for everyone to be nice. Then I opened the door and stepped inside. It was obvious that this greenhouse wasn’t exactly in regular use at the moment, given the lack of actual living plants, but it would give us a little bit of privacy so random onlookers wouldn’t necessarily see a group of Star-Touched talking to Fell-Touched as though we were all friends. I had a feeling that wasn’t really something I wanted to explain to the general public. The whole situation was complicated, to say the least. 

Pack, who was scratching Scatters under the chin, looked over as we came inside. “You made it, are you sure you don’t want to frisk us for weapons?” 

“You have a knife right there, a sawed-off shotgun under your jacket, and some sort of taser thing in the sleeve of the jacket,” Sierra pointed out casually. “It wouldn’t take much frisking.” 

“Yeah,” the other girl shot right back while pointedly stretching, “but maybe I’d enjoy it.” 

Okay yeah, it turned out there actually were still brand-new ways for me to be weirded out by the whole Sierra looking like me thing. Somehow, I resisted most of the reaction, fighting back the blush that crossed my face while thanking the fact that I had a mask and helmet covering it. Instead, I waved a hand. “Before you jump too far into your weird flirting thing with someone new, can we hear the story about what’s going on?” My gaze focused on Broadway, who was standing silently by one of the empty tables that should’ve had plants on it. “You were saying something about your brother. Is he part of La Casa too?” 

Her gaze turned to me, staring through that high-tech helmet. The multi-colored lines bounced across the V-shaped visor over her face with each word. “By which, you mean is this whole zombie thing one of Blackjack’s plots, maybe something to do with fighting this war that got out of control?” She let that hang briefly before shaking her head. “Blackjack doesn’t know about it.” 

“That’s why we came to you guys,” Pack put in. “We need help dealing with this, and we’re pretty sure Blackjack’s first idea would be to kill him. Especially after all the trouble he’s caused.” 

“Ehh, just hold on and let me start from the beginning,” Broadway quickly insisted.  She focused on us then, shifting a bit indecisively before sighing. “Okay, first of all, the guy we’re talking about isn’t actually my biological brother. But he is. I mean, he’s my foster brother. We grew up in the same family, since I was four and he was seven. Trust me, I’ve known him basically my whole life. He’s my brother in every way that matters, and I’m not gonna let–” She stopped herself from whatever she had been about to say, making a noise deep in her throat before pushing on. “He’s never been the sort of person to really think things through that well.” 

It looked like Paige was going to say something, before Sierra nudged her and whispered something. While they were busy with that, I asked, “Are you still close with him? I mean, do you still live at that house in between being a supervillain for Blackjack?” 

Giving me a brief look, Broadway shook her head. The lights danced across the visor once more as she replied, “No. I mean I still visit, but as far as any of them know, I just emancipated myself from Carl and Lanie, our foster parents, and I’ve got a minimum wage job and a shitty apartment.” She paused then before muttering, “I hope you people realize the risk I’m telling you about–” Even before she’d finished that sentence, however, she was correcting herself. “No, shit, sorry. I’m asking for your help, it’s not–fuck. Look, I’m not good at this sort of thing, okay? I’m pretty sure there’s no way for me to tell you what you need to know to deal with this without exposing enough for you to figure out who I am. I’m sort of–you know, I’m trusting you with this. And yeah, I know I’m also asking for a huge favor. I’m asking you to do something about my brother without killing him like Blackjack would. I get that. I just-” She sighed. “Please keep everything you learn about me to yourselves, okay? Pack said we could trust you and I just–really don’t have any other choice. You’re the best shot I’ve got at making sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else and doesn’t get… fuck. God damn it.” She sighed, putting both hands against her visor. “I’m sorry. I know stopping him is more important.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I shook my head before starting, “We’re here. We’re listening. We’re not about to go running to the authorities with your name and address. Look, if your brother is the one responsible for this, he’s been killing people. He needs to be in prison. Prison, not dead. That’s not–I mean… we’ll help. He’s a lot more dangerous than you are. It’s like Pack keeps saying, you guys steal stuff. We’ll try to stop you from doing that in the middle of the act, but it’s nothing compared to these zombies or whatever they are. So, you have my word. We will not give your information to anyone else and we won’t use it to try to catch or expose you. If your brother is the one responsible for this, we need to stop him. Like you said, that’s a hell of a lot more important than anything you’ve been stealing for Blackjack. We’re not gonna take what you say now and use it against you later. We just want to stop the zombies.  Please, tell us what you know.” 

Pack put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder, leaning over to whisper something softly to her. There was a brief pause then, before Broadway murmured something back and then focused on the rest of us. “Okay. You’re right. I mean, of course you’re right. I just freaked out for a second there. I–right, starting from the beginning.” She took another breath and then did just that. 

“My brother’s name is Jason. He’s always had a bit of a temper, and he’s always been angry about being a foster kid. Not angry at Carl and Lanie, that is. Mad at his birth parents. And mad at society. He got in fights at school a lot, but he also stuck up for people, you know? He didn’t bully people or whatever, he’d get in trouble for beating up the kids that were bullying others. And sometimes he’d take it too far. It was hard for him to control his temper. He didn’t really have a filter either. He’d say stuff you shouldn’t say to a teacher. If he thought the teacher was being a jackass, he’d come right out and say that. Like I said, it got him in trouble a lot, and he got expelled from a couple schools before getting sent to this private academy. I mean, they called it a private academy but it was more like a military school. Except one that you’d go home at night from. They were just really strict about wearing a uniform and discipline and whatever. Anyway, it seemed like Jason did okay there. Maybe because of the discipline thing, or maybe because they didn’t tolerate other kids picking on each other. Whatever, he didn’t have a lot of… opportunities to get in fights. Or maybe he just got better at hiding them, I dunno.” 

She audibly exhaled then before pushing on. “About three months ago, I was visiting for dinner. I stayed until like eight o’clock, then I left. But a few hours later, I realized I left my keys to my apartment. The real apartment, not the shitty one they think I have. So I went back to get them. It was late and I didn’t want to explain what I was doing, so I was just gonna sneak inside the same way I used to sneak in and out when I lived there. Not like Molly and Jennica, err, my foster sisters, would’ve said anything about it. They’re cool. All I had to do was climb this tree outside and go across the branch.” 

“You didn’t just telepo–” Roald started before catching himself. “Oh, right, sisters.” 

“Exactly,” she confirmed with a look that way. “If they were awake, I couldn’t risk them seeing me just appear out of nowhere. So I had to do it the old-fashioned way. Which was kinda fun. At least, that part of it was.”

Again, she went quiet for a few seconds before making herself continue. “I got up the tree pretty easily. But when I was going across the branch, I heard… something. It was coming from the garden area, which–okay so the tree I was climbing up was in the backyard. The garden is along the right-hand wall of the house from there, just out of sight from where I was. But the sounds were like… weird. So I wanted to check it out. You know, just in case it was someone trying to break in or whatever. Stupid choice on their part, right? Instead of climbing in my old window, I went across the roof and stayed low. I just sort of poked my head over the edge to look down at the garden.” 

Her hand opened and shut, gaze looking off into the distance while she was clearly remembering what she had seen. “Jason was down there. He was digging up these little boxes. They were like eight inches long and six inches wide. There were six of them. He took them up out of the ground and he was taking these bodies out. Rat bodies, mouse bodies, squirrel bodies, that sort of thing. I couldn’t really see perfectly from where I was, but they were definitely rodents. He had their bodies, their dead bodies, all laid out in the dirt in front of him. Then he touched them, and they started to move around. I mean, there was this… okay so when he touched them, their bodies glowed like, red-orange for a couple seconds. Then they started to move around. They followed his fingers like he was puppeting them, and they also followed his orders. Like, he said go to the tree, and they went to the tree. He was laughing about it, like he was having fun.” 

“Okay,” Murphy put in, “no offense, but that sounds really motherfucking creepy.” 

There was a very brief pause as Broadway seemed to be considering how to respond before she gave a short nod. “No, yeah, totally. It was creepy as hell, believe me. You think it’s bad right now, try being there in the moment. Anyway, I watched him for a while, but he wasn’t really doing anything too bad with it. I mean, yeah, he was puppeting rotting corpses, and that’s pretty screwed up. But that’s it, he was just sort of playing with them right there. It was like he was testing his power. And yeah, it was obviously a power. The point is, he controlled them and he made them do stuff. Including burning sticks. He put sticks in front of them and they put their paws up against them and just melted right through. Then he like, made them disintegrate and reappear on the other side of the garden. Their bodies turned into ashes, then just came back together.” 

My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “Just like the zombies back there. Heat, disintegrating and–I mean we didn’t see them reforming but that makes sense. It all sounds just like what we saw.” 

“I know, right?” Broadway replied while focusing on me. “It sounds just like what’s happening all over the city. Anyway, I just left him alone after that. I mean, I sort of tried to bring up the idea about how it would be to have powers a few times when we were visiting, but he never took the bait. And as far as I could tell he wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t know how to actually ask him about it, because I was pretty sure that would bring up me having powers, which I haven’t exactly told any of my family about. The whole thing is just awkward. So I told myself I’d just keep an eye out and see what happened. I figured he’d either pick a gang or a… hero team to join at some point, or maybe he’d just be a mercenary. Whatever, I wasn’t gonna force him into anything. And I never saw him playing with his… rat corpses again. But then this started happening.” 

“Which you didn’t expect,” Paige put in. 

Broadway gave her a brief look. “Yeah, I definitely didn’t expect any of this. That’s for sure. Anyway, the point is, I need you guys to look into this and stop him without… you know, letting him know who tipped you off. Stealing shit is one thing, but if he’s killing people, he–I want to know what’s really going on. If someone’s holding something over him to make him do this shit or–or whatever. 

“So please, figure out what my brother’s gotten himself into and stop him. If he’s being manipulated or controlled or whatever, get him out of it. If he’s responsible for all this, put him in prison. You do that, and I’ll owe you.” 

“If he’s really the one behind the zombies, whatever the reason, we want to stop him anyway,” I pointed out. 

“So let’s talk about how exactly we’re supposed to do that.” 

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