The elevator doors opened once more, as I kept the blade of my staff raised and pointed toward Gliner’s throat. “Move,” I ordered. “And don’t try anything. I really wanna kill you right now, so you probably shouldn’t give me any excuse.”
The six-eyed man, for his part, slowly backed off the elevator with his hands raised. Marina had his pistols already, but that didn’t mean the man wouldn’t have other weapons hidden away in a pocket-dimension thing that I couldn’t sense through. I was watching him like a hawk as we moved together into the room. His voice was careful. “Look, I don’t know what you think is happening right now or what you’re trying to do, but–”
“What? What happened?” That was Archibold, straightening up from where he had been examining a nearby wall of the empty room where we had left him and Perrsnile a minute earlier. “Weren’t you going to the server room? I–” He stopped then, upon noticing the way I was keeping my staff pointed at his partner. “What?”
“Ahem,” Perrsnile’s ghost intoned with a clear note of surprise. “I believe we may have missed something.”
“Yeah, you did,” I agreed. “We all missed it, for way too long. But we were just on the elevator, and I figured it out. Just a few mistakes our friend here made. He would’ve gotten away with it otherwise.” With that note, I pressed the blade of my staff tight enough into his throat to draw a little bit of blood as the blue-scaled man grimaced. “Sit down,” I snarled, anger filling my voice. “I think it’s time we had a little talk about everything you’ve been up to. Then you can tell us where the girls are right now. And why you really did all this. I’m sure your partner would be very interested in finding out too, assuming he didn’t already know.”
“Already know what?” Archibold demanded. He hadn’t gone so far as to try to physically intervene, but I knew it was a near thing. Seeing a Heretic pointing a bladed staff at the man obviously made him a little jumpy. Fortunately, he was standing down, confused enough about why this was happening to keep watching. “You can’t honestly think that he was behind this.”
A soft chuckle escaped me as I gave a faux-casual shrug. “He did almost get away with it. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even have caught it at all if he hadn’t gotten cocky.” My gaze went back to the man in question then, as I snapped, “I said, ‘sit down!’”
He sat, most of his assortment of eyes darting around the room while the two in the center focused on me. “Look, you’ve lost your mind. Whatever you think you’ve figured out, you’re wrong. I didn’t have anything to do with this. I killed Ausesh, yes. Because she is the one who–”
“Yeah, nice try,” I interrupted. “You’ve been loudly blaming her this entire time, just to draw attention away from yourself. But here’s the thing, it’s not gonna work anymore. Now stay right there.” To Ausesh, I added, “Can you move up on this side?” My hand gestured toward a spot to the man’s right and slightly behind him. “If you see him start to try anything, let me know. And uhh, Perrsnile, you watch the other side.” My hand gestured to a spot behind the sitting man and to his left. “Both of you keep your eyes on him. Let me know if he moves at all, even an inch. If he doesn’t want to tell us the truth on his own, we’ll see how well a certain spell can pry it out of this son of a bitch.”
“Ahh, well, if you think that’s best.” Moving to the spot I had indicated, Perrsnile added, “Are you quite certain about this? I would not have seen Mr. Gliner as being capable of anything like this.”
“He’s a mercenary,” I pointed out while taking a step back. “He probably got paid for it.” Even as I said that, my hand was reaching down to touch the floor. An intricate runic symbol appeared there, before I moved my hand slightly to the left to create another. “Paid a lot, most likely. I just wonder if it was before you guys started here, or if someone got to him afterward.”
Archibold looked like he wanted to approach, but a look from Marina kept him rooted to the spot. “He is my partner, my– I would have known if he was corrupt, if he was doing something like this. You are not making any sense.”
As my gaze passed over him, I took a few steps to one side while leaning down to create another series of symbols around the seated man. “You’re saying you didn’t know anything about it?” With those words, I rose and put my back to him to look straight at Gliner. “Didn’t share your new fortune with your partner, huh? Why, did selling a bunch of children into slavery not pay enough for two?”
I could feel Archibold‘s eyes on my back, staring intently before he spoke carefully. “Maybe you could tell me why you’re so convinced that my partner was responsible for all this?” His voice was even and calm, but I could hear a bit of emotion behind it. As much as they had been at odds about whether Ausesh or Valdean had been responsible, the two men were still very close.
Giving Gliner a long, hard look, I rose and moved to the next spot so I could make another set of runes and slowly empower them. “Fine, I’ll start, since you’re not in the mood to. I started to work it out when we got here and there was nobody. See, Perrsnile–” I nodded absently to the ghost man while moving to make another rune. “He told us that if there’s another elevator in the area where yours is going, it’ll alert you. It didn’t say anything, so there was no elevator here, even when we started on our way from the server room. They never came to this room.”
Archibold gave a slow, uncertain nod. “Yes, it seems to me like we covered that. They must have gone to another room first. Wasn’t that why you were going up to the server room again in the first place? You’re supposed to be checking to see where the bad guys are right now.”
“That’ll only work if they’re somewhere that isn’t supposed to have ongoing life support,” I pointed out idly. “And if they didn’t manage to get into the system to alter one of the other rooms not to give any reports. After all, we already know that’s possible.”
By that point, my slow movement around the seated man brought me directly behind him, as I carefully made another rune and added, “Besides, there’s no reason to go chasing those people when we have the real bad guy right here in front of me, is there?”
Marina, who had paced around to the other side of the room, abruptly blurted, “Can we just find out where the girls are, please? I really don’t feel like playing games with this right now.” Her voice cracked a little bit, another reminder of just how much this was affecting her. She was really upset about not being there when Dakota and Denny had been in trouble. It was obvious she was blaming herself. And if anything permanent happened to them, if we didn’t find them soon, I really didn’t want to think about how she would take that.
To be honest, I didn’t want to think about how I would take it either. We needed answers, and we needed them right now. Fortunately, that’s what this was all about. To that end, I rose a bit from my crouch while nodding. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna find the girls, I promise. Nothing else is going to happen to them.”
With that, I paced back around to the front, studying my spellwork on the way. It was as good as I could make it. Others would’ve done better, of course. But they weren’t here right now. This was the best we could do. So, I took a breath before letting it out. “It’s been real fun, running around this vault like clueless headless chickens. But right now, I’d say it’s time we get some real answers from the person responsible for all this. Wouldn’t you say… Perrsnile?”
As I said those words, the spell I had put together came to life. An assortment of blue, green, and purple energy rays sprang out from those runes. They wrapped not around the kneeling man in the center, but around the ghost of Perrsnile himself, who jerked in surprise before the powerful magic brought him up short and made him freeze. “Whaaaaat?!” His blurted word came as his eyes snapped toward me.
“You can move now, buddy,” I told Gliner casually. “Sorry about the cut. Had to sell it.” To Perrsnile, I added, “Yeah, see, when I said I figured it out, I really did figure it out.” Turning, I showed him my back, where I had used my inscription power to paint, ‘This is a trick, the real bad guy is Perrsnile’ when I had turned it toward Archibold a minute earlier. That was why he had stared so intently at my back before responding.
That done, I turned back to the small ghost man. “I could’ve held you with my power, but I wasn’t completely sure you wouldn’t be able to pull anything. Not considering how sneaky you’ve been so far. I figured it’d be better if I had this necromancy spell to keep you trapped. But I needed you to stand still while I put it together, without knowing anything was wrong. Hence that little production we just put on. You were so distracted trying to figure out why I was suddenly blaming Gliner here, and making a show of watching to make sure he didn’t try to escape, that you didn’t pay attention to the actual runes I was putting down.”
“And you sure as hell didn’t pay any attention to me,” Marina put in from where she had maneuvered herself, “while I was over here erasing the spell you started to put down while we were gone.”
“She means the spell you were doing to open that little gate to the outside. Which is why you had us come down here, isn’t it?” I prompted. “You know, because no living creature can get out that way. That’s what Ausesh kept saying. But a dead one, like you? Give you another few minutes and you could’ve been out of here, no problem. Which would’ve left us trapped in this place. You probably figured we’d assume you were absorbed by the orichalcum in the walls or whatever. Except the walls aren’t made of that stuff down here. Neither is the floor. Hence why I could put that spell down that’s keeping you trapped. You figured you could just waltz out of here and we’d never figure out who the real bad guy was. That or we would figure it out, but you’d be long gone by the time we escaped this place. It’s a big world out there.”
The small, in more than one way, man opened and shut his mouth a couple times before his head shook. “I don’t know what has gotten into you, dear girl, but I did not harm those children.”
“One, don’t call me ‘dear girl,’” I retorted. “The guy who used to call me that… well, I’d say you don’t want to end up like him, but you’re already a piece of shit who’s dead, so…you’re basically twinsies, really. And two, I know you didn’t hurt them. But you did hurt the other kids. And Mophse.”
“Ahh, what exactly is happening?” Archibold asked with a raised hand. “I’m still confused. Are you saying that Perrsnile here was responsible for everything? How would that even be possible? You possessed him, didn’t you?”
A very small smirk found its way to my face. “Sure, and he had the same fake memories as everyone else. It’s where that little toy of his came in. Back when we first went up to find someone who could help with the server thing, he was playing with this little circuit board thing. My guess, that’s what he used to restore his memories after we were done. He tapped into that memory adjusting system somehow, the one Ausesh told us about. He changed everyone’s memories, including his own, just before the interrogations. Then he probably had that little device he was playing with automatically restore them later. On a timer, or maybe when it detected something else, or whatever. The point is, he changed his memories while we were interrogating them. I don’t think he knew exactly how we’d get the answers, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to look innocent, so he made himself innocent. That way, he would’ve passed any magic lie detector test, any ability, any… anything. He looked innocent because he erased all his memories of being guilty. Or, well, he gave himself the same fake memories of being ‘guilty’ that everyone else had. He blended in with the rest of the crowd. Then he got his memories back, and when we came looking for someone to help with the server, that was his best chance to both figure out how much we knew, and get a way out of here.”
The man started to say something, but I cut him off. “He’s a maintenance worker. I mean, he was, up on spaceships. He’s so small, he used to crawl around behind all the systems and get into areas no one else could. He did the same thing here. Maybe because Valdean asked him to help, maybe just on his own. Either way, he found out about the memory erasing program. Whatever drove him to it, I dunno. But he used that to sell the children in this place to those people from the outside, then erased everyone’s memory about them ever existing. It was the perfect crime and get-rich-easily scheme. Remember that really distorted video we watched? It looked like one of the kids wasn’t in a cage. He was just standing away from the adults. We thought it was just because they were using him as a prop, an example or whatever, but it wasn’t. The ‘kid’ was Perrsnile. The adult figures were his clients, the people paying him. They were standing apart because it was customers on one side, child-selling piece of shit on the other. That partner they were talking about, that was probably someone he knew from his time on one of those spaceships. My guess is they were smugglers or pirates. That’s probably how he had contacts for selling children into slavery in the first place. Things went bad, maybe because his buddies realized he was a piece of shit. Whatever it was, he ended up here somehow. Valdean probably didn’t know about his history. Or he just saw the best in him. Seems like the sort of guy he was.”
Marina took over while I silently fumed. “So, this is what really happened. This piece of shit here was making plenty of money off selling the children in this place. Then those two,” she nodded toward Archibold and Gliner, “found out that the stock of supplies for children kept being used. So they asked their friend, Mophse, about it. When Perrsnile found out, he ambushed Mophse in the sauna. Choked him from behind while he was sitting down. Probably came in through the vent there too. Got him off balance, just–” She stopped, folding her arms tightly while looking away, anger visible across her face.
“And from there, we already know what happened,” I noted.
“I assumed the villain was Valdean, and killed him,” Archibold quietly agreed, rocking backward on his heels at the realization of what he had done.
Gliner, meanwhile, opened and shut his mouth before grimacing as he slowly turned to look at Ausesh’s ghost. “And I assumed the villain was you… and killed you.”
“Yes, well, that was a mistake,” she retorted dryly, before looking at me. “What on Earth made you jump to these conclusions?”
“I would like to know that as well,” Perrsnile put in, “given how wildly incorrect they are.”
My eyes rolled a bit at the denial. “First of all, you were obviously lying about not remembering these guys.” I waved a hand toward the trio who should have been erased from his memory. “When we all got on the elevator to come down here a few minutes ago, you made a point of gesturing for Ausesh to move out of the middle so Archibold could stand there. Because you remembered that he gets sick if he doesn’t. You were trying so hard to come off as a gentle, nice old man that you forgot that wasn’t something you should’ve known about.”
While the little man absorbed that mistake, I went on. “Anyway, when all that was going down, Denny and Dakota set off the alarm spell and my taboo power to try to warn us. According to Perrsnile, the girls were standing by the elevator when someone came in, grabbed them, then killed him on the other side of the room while his back was turned. He literally said he heard a sound, then something grabbed him before he could even turn around. They stabbed him, dropped him, and he heard them say the thing about taking them to Beta Cargo while he was in the middle of dying. Except we already know that’s not how it went. The girls had time to set off the alarm spell and start to use my taboo power to warn me. Dakota said, ‘killer’s bletherskate ahhh.’ Bletherskate was my taboo word, and I get one more on either side of that. She was trying to tell me something about the killer. Probably that they figured out it was him somehow.
“Either way, they had time to do all that, even though he said all he heard was ‘a sound’ before he was grabbed and stabbed. And the whole time he was dying, he conveniently heard them talk about where they were going, but still claimed he didn’t hear Dakota give the taboo warning. Probably because he didn’t know what it meant, so he had no idea I could actually hear those words.”
Letting the others absorb all that, since I hadn’t had time to explain my reasoning before, I took a couple breaths to calm myself. Swallowing hard, I pushed on. “Beyond that, when we were on the elevator going from the rooms where Ausesh and these guys were living, the elevator didn’t warn us about there being another car in the way then either. So, according to Perrsnile’s story, these bad guys came in out of nowhere, captured the girls, stabbed him and left him to die, then took Sitter with them too on their way out and just left.”
My voice turned firm. This was the most important part, the bit that had given it away for me. “There is no physical way that happened. We were literally already on the elevator and moving toward the server room when that alarm spell went off and I heard Dakota. If there was another elevator in the way at any point in that time, our elevator would have told us. It didn’t, so there wasn’t. When we got in the elevator and started toward the server room, everything in there was fine. We know exactly when things went wrong in there, because Dakota set off my taboo power when it happened. We know the second there was a problem, and we were on the elevator going to that room. It never warned us about another elevator in the way, so there never was one, period. There was never another elevator in the way from the time we started, all the way to when we actually arrived. Never. It wasn’t there. There was no elevator, no other group.”
Archibold shook his head. “Then who were the other villains? Who killed him?”
“There were no other villains,” I replied flatly. “Just him. My guess, the girls figured out he was the bad guy, somehow. They set off the alarm and Dakota started to say that thing to me, but he did something. Probably hit her. That’s why she cried out.”
“But who… ah,” Ausesh started. “The other girl.”
“Denny,” I finished for her, nodding while looking straight at Perrsnile. “She’s the one who killed you, wasn’t she? You hurt her friend, and she lashed out. She punched right through your chest. You were the bad guy all along, and she ended you. She’s the one who killed you, to save her friend, and herself.”
“So that’s what happened this whole time,” Marina murmured. “Perrsnile killed Mophse because he was looking into the missing kids, Archibold killed Valdean because he thought Valdean killed Mophse, Gliner killed Ausesh because he thought she killed Mophse… and… and Denny killed Perrsnile.”
“But where are the girls now?” Gliner quickly put in. “And Sitter? If there were no other villains, then–”
“There’s only one option,” I replied. “It’s weird, but… well, they clearly didn’t go anywhere. You know what they say about eliminating the impossible. If they didn’t leave that room, they must still be in there. Come on.” Giving Perrsnile a dark look, I added, “He’s not going anywhere for awhile. Not with that spell holding him. This is more important.” With that, I turned to go back onto the elevator. Despite my words, Ausesh and Archibold volunteered to stay behind and watch him while keeping in contact with me through the whole Necromancy thing, just in case. Meanwhile, Marina and Gliner accompanied me as we took the elevator back to the server room. As soon as we arrived, I took several long steps in, passing the area I’d stood in before. Marina was right behind me. Within another couple steps, I felt it. My item sense kicked in, and I quickly turned to run to the far corner before kneeling down. My hands moved, finding three invisible forms lying there. Sitter was the easiest to identify, with his hard metal body. When I touched him, the invisibility faded away. The same thing happened as I touched the other two forms to reveal Dakota and then Denny there. Sitter and Dakota remained unconscious. When I touched the last girl, however, her eyes opened to meet mine.
“H-help,” she managed in a voice that cracked a bit from terror and desperation. “Please help.”
Marina dropped down on the other side of the girl, catching her hand. “Denny, it’s okay. We’re right here. What happened?”
“Inside,” came the response. “Need help… inside.”
“Inside where?” I asked, confused. “Who needs help?”
Denny’s eyes met mine, as she whispered. “Inside. Please… help.”
Before either of us could respond, there was a flash of energy that enveloped Marina and me. And then we were gone.