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On The Edge 42-03

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Ares. Ares was there, just a few feet away from me. And he had killed Seth, killed Seth, after pretending to be an ordinary, rank and file Seosten long enough to take us by surprise. So I supposed that the ‘god of war’ knew a bit about tactics after all.

A blur of motion put Asenath between us, though I didn’t know who was actually in control there. How was the vampire girl reacting to the death of the man who had basically been a big brother to her throughout her life, even if they didn’t always get along? Which actually probably made them even more like siblings.

Later. There would be time to deal with that later. Assuming the rest of us survived this.

“Gabrielle,” Asenath’s voice spoke, using the fake name that I had given. “You need to run, right now.”

“Ohhhh.” Ares was smiling as he waved our finger knowingly. “Is that you in there, Auriel? It is, isn’t it? I was lucky enough to pull you, wasn’t I?” He was smiling as though he’d just won a great prize.

“But why are you telling your little friend there to run away? I thought you were all about being some great war general. Scream and run away doesn’t seem like much of a strategy to me.”

His eyes found me once more as the man’s smile grew. “And don’t you run away too fast there, sweetheart. Because the fun just started. Isn’t that right, boys?”

Turning slightly as both his words and my item sense warned me about new arrivals, I saw a small assortment of figures appear in the doorway. From their beautiful appearances and the fact that they wore the Seosten bodysuits, I was going to guess that Kushiel had gotten some reinforcements of her own people for this.

They’re not very old, Tabbris quickly put in. Those suits are the cadet ones. This must be their first real mission. They’re probably younger than the ones we fought back on the slave planet.

But still dangerous, I replied, feeling her agreement. I could also feel her horror at what had happened to Seth, but we were both kind of suppressing that as much as possible. Later, later. If we didn’t deal with it later instead of now, we’d have a lot more than just him to lose.

Athena’s glowing figure appeared beside Asenath. She held Excalibur in one hand. “Take Gabrielle,” she ordered her former host. “Get out of here. Complete the mission.”

With a tiny smirk, Ares offhandedly replied, “Even if they make it out of this room, they’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere else. Just like the rest of your friends. But hey,” he added with a languid shrug, “I’m looking forward to seeing them try. This should be fun.”

As if fun was some kind of trigger word, the Seosten cadets all launched themselves into an attack. In the background, I could see Ares and Athena close with one another. But I couldn’t pay any attention to it. I was already in a fight for my life.

Cadets or not, the Seosten were incredibly fast. They were clearly boosting, the first two racing to grab my arms while the third trailed right behind them with a laser dagger that he had produced. It was aimed for my shoulder, clearly to disable me once his two companions had me immobilized. Beyond those first three were another trio backing them up. Six cadets. I was in trouble.

But I also wasn’t alone, even without Athena. A blur of motion sent Asenath past me to engage the second trio, even as the first reached me.

At the last instant, Tabbris triggered her own boost. Between that and the werewolf reflexes, I could briefly move as fast as they were. My body twisted aside from their grasping hands, and I caught one of their wrists. There was a brief impulse to possess him, but I didn’t want to give away who I was just yet.

Instead, I gave his wrist a hard yank, twisting him into the path of the guy coming up with the dagger so that he would take the energy blade instead. At the same time, my foot lashed out to kick the other guy who had been coming for me right in the chest. That part was Tabbris, taking over briefly.

The man whose wrist I was gripping took the laser dagger in his opposite shoulder with a grunt. Before he or his companion could recover, I kicked the legs out from under the one I was holding, releasing his wrist as he fell. Before his body hit the floor, My rising foot collided with it, werewolf strength working to send the man flying into his dagger-wielding partner.

The man that Tabbris had kicked had recovered by then, suddenly producing a handgun, which he pointed at me before firing several quick shots. But it was a laser weapon, and Tabbris was on the case. My energy absorption power took the shots without issue, and I sent that energy right back out again in the form of a blast that took the gunman in the chest. Or it would have, if he hadn’t been fast enough to dive aside. As it was, he still lost part of his arm as the searing beam cut through it.

The two who were behind me had recovered by then. One was diving for my leg with his hand outstretched, clearly intending to end the fight by possessing me.

I let him reach me. His hand grasped my leg, and I saw a brief flash of confusion cross his face just before I twisted to bring my opposite leg up. My hand caught his hair and I held him in position while driving my knee into his face hard.

My body turned of its own volition then, or rather, of Tabbris’s volition. She had been using the item sense to keep track of where the third guy was, and turned us just in time to avoid the energy sword he had produced as it swept through the air with a hum. Before he could recover, my hand snapped out, shoving into the blade even as Tabbris brought up the absorption power again. I could only absorb an instant of the blade’s power before it would overload me, at which point I would lose my hand. But that single instant was enough, thanks to an idea that Shiori had given me while the two of us were talking. The instant my hand caught the energy from that blade, I shove it right back out again, downward into the hilt of the weapon. I sent all that power it was shoving out into my palm back into the handle of the weapon itself.

It overloaded, exploding in the man’s hand and drawing a cry from him as his arm was flung backward. His fingers were mangled and burned from the exploding weapon. Then I added to his problems by planting my fist in the small of his throat, collapsing it inward from the concentrated force of the blow. His eyes widened and he doubled over, wheezing for breath through a collapsed windpipe.

Claws emerged from my hand then, as Tabbris focused on making a partial change into my lion shape, just enough to give me the barely formed paw with claws on the end. I used them, slashing across the throat of the doubled-over figure in the same spot that I had just punched him. Blood sprayed everywhere, and he gargled before collapsing. His body hit the floor with a final thud, even as my aura flared up.

My attention turned to the other two, while Tabbris muted the rush of pleasure. But before I could move to either of them, Asenath called my name. Or rather, my fake name.

“Gabrielle!” She was standing by the door, over the bodies of her own opponents. “Let’s go!”

“Larees!” I blurted back. In the back of my mind, I’d noticed enough of Athena and Ares’  fight to know that her unconscious form was being used against the woman. Athena kept having to protect it from one power or another that Ares would throw as he cycled through various bodies. We had to get her out of there so Athena could focus.

Asenath reacted instantly, her form turning into a barely visible blur as she raced across the room.

At that exact instant and just in time, Athena used Excalibur to reflect some kind of energy shot from Ares, who looked like a small furry creature at the moment. With her other hand, she reached down to catch hold of Larees’ arm and flung her right to the racing vampire.

Asenath caught Larees, hooking the woman’s arm around her shoulders before racing back. Ares tried to stop them, but Athena was there. The two went for each other even harder, and I had the distinct feeling that if the rest of us didn’t get out of this room immediately, we would be collateral damage very quickly.

My two surviving opponents were trying to block the doorway, rifles appearing in their hands. But the broken table lay nearby, and I stuck a foot out. As my toe brushed the wood, I sent myself through it to the other hand, popping out behind the men. My hands, each still in the shape of the lion’s paws with claws extended, grabbed onto both of their necks. It wasn’t enough to kill them, but I did slam both together so that their heads collided, then shoved them in the opposite direction to collide with either side of the doorway before releasing their limp forms.

Asenath reached me then, and I helped by taking one of Larees’ arms. Together, we retreated from the room, leaving Athena and Ares to fight. As much as I wanted to see her kick his ass, we were a distraction she didn’t need.

Unfortunately, things didn’t let up once we hit the hallway. There were three figures right there dressed in security uniforms. One was a big furry guy who towered over the other two lizard men.

I didn’t know if they were actually regular security for the hotel reacting to the noise or if they have been compromised by the Seosten. And it didn’t really matter in that instance, as the two reptilian figures brought their arms up, launching some kind of gas from their palms. It was dark sickly green, and I had a feeling that we really didn’t want to breathe it in. At the same time, the big guy came rushing for us, moving astonishingly quickly for his size. He was a furry freight train with rockets strapped to it.

While that gas was still flooding toward us, my free hand moved to the collar of my shirt. Tabbris activated the fresh air breathing spell there while using my mouth to warn Asenath, “Paralytic, don’t breathe it!”

The big guy was right there. We had to drop Larees. Asenath and I each let go of the woman, lunging to either side just as the large furry figure grabbed for us. Quick as he was, he still managed to kick out with a foot, catching me in the side to send me flying into the nearest wall with a yelp of pain. Asenath made no sound, even as he caught her arm and flung her up into the ceiling, because she was busy holding her breath. From the quick bit of information that Tabbris dumped into my head, breathing in even a tiny bit of that gas would result in us not being able to move for hours. We couldn’t let that happen. Even if I had this spell to protect me, the vampire girl didn’t. Thankfully, I was pretty sure she could hold her breath for a pretty long time.

But we had to finish this. And I still wasn’t sure if I should use my weapon yet. I was pretty confident that they would know who I was the second I did, and Athena wanted me to keep that secret for as long as possible. If they knew who I was, they would know I could possess them. Which was a trick I didn’t want them to be ready for just yet.

Besides, whether these guys were possessed or not, what they were doing wasn’t their fault. Either they were just doing their job protecting the hotel, or they had been possessed and enslaved by the Seosten.

With a grunt, I rebounded off the wall, throwing myself into a roll that took me right next to the big guy before ending up on one knee. He brought a massive fist down toward my head, but I snapped both hands up to catch it. Sort of. Oof. Pain rocked through my arms from the force of the blow and I nearly collapsed. Still, I held his fist and looked.

Nothing. He wasn’t possessed. I didn’t know if he was compromised in some other way beyond simply doing his job, but there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.

He glared down at me,  yanking his fist free. Before he could to do anything else, I pointed to the floor near me. A portal appeared there and behind the man’s head, just before I slammed my foot down through it, colliding with the base of his skull with enough force to draw a grunt of pain from him. It also distracted him just enough that he didn’t notice Asenath, who had recovered and reached the spot behind him. Her hand snapped out to smack against the small of his back. She must have hit some kind of pressure point, because the huge guy collapsed to his knees just before she hit something on the side of his neck. At that point he hit the ground and lay still.

The lizard guys did not react well to that. Realizing their gas wasn’t working, they switched tactics to something more direct. Namely, solidifying that gas into random solid shapes and trying to literally beat us with them. A dark green rectangle the size of a microwave narrowly missed the side of my head, just before another one in the shape of a trapezoid took my legs out from under me. Where I was struck, I felt my legs go a bit numb. It wasn’t the immediate paralysis that breathing the gas was, but I could see how it worked. They turned their gas into solid shapes and bludgeoned people with them to gradually paralyze. I couldn’t let myself be hit any more.

Also, being stabbed with them was probably worse, so I threw myself into an awkward roll to avoid the pointy end of an arrow-shaped bit of converted gas. Unfortunately, it kept following me, and I had to continue evading.

Then it all stopped. The shapes collapsed back into gas and then dissipated. Larees was there, standing over the unconscious forms of the guards while looking to the two of us. “The fuck just happened?”

We told her on the way, racing from the hallway even as the sound of Athena and Ares tearing the place apart grew louder behind us.

Larees didn’t curse, surprisingly. She got really quiet for a moment, then what sidelong toward Asenath. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Seth.”

“Later,” the other woman replied simply. “Not the time.”

“We’ve got to meet up with everyone else,” I put in before realizing, “Wait.” I slowed a bit, my hand moving up to find the communication badge Gaia had provided before this all started. I tried to contact the others with it, to no avail. There was some kind of jamming going on. And if it was jamming that could stop something Gaia provided, it was pretty damn effective. No wonder the people outside hadn’t said anything yet. They couldn’t.

Wait, did that mean they didn’t know what it happened? I had no doubt that they would send in reinforcements as soon as they lost contact with us, but if they didn’t know what they were walking into…

“Well this just keeps getting better,” Larees muttered. “Now we’ve completely lost contact with everyone outside, who might or might not know something’s wrong. And we have no idea where anyone else in this place is. Oh, and everyone wants to kill us.”

I started to say something, but then heard a voice in my head that wasn’t my partner. It was Deveron.

Pinned down in one of the basketball courts. It’s Radueriel. He’s controlling all of the security and most of the staff with some kind of implant device. If anyone finds that bastard, break his toy.

Right, this did just keep getting better. Now we had at least three Olympians in the building. And we were all cut off from each other. What else could go wr—

I didn’t have time to even finish that very stupid thought. Even as my brain was frantically trying to backspace over it, the sudden appearance of a new figure to my right where there hadn’t been one before penetrated my mind. But it didn’t set off my item sense. My gaze snapped around that way quickly just in time to catch a brief glimpse of a figure in a white suit.

Asenath and Larees were both reacting, even as the figure caught hold of my arm. Then we were elsewhere. I had time to register what looked like a grand dining room of some kind before my back hit the wall hard.

Finally, I had a chance to see the person who had grabbed me. He looked like a guy in his mid-twenties, with very light blond hair. What I had briefly thought was a suit was actually a pristine white trench coat worn over a dark red silk button-up shirt and white slacks. His amber eyes were fierce as he held me up against the wall with one hand.

“I have questions,” he announced. “You’re going to answer them, quickly and honestly. What do your people want here? How are they controlling the others?”

Oh, he’s not with Kushiel at all, Tabbris realized right with me.

It was true, I’d already seen that he wasn’t possessed, but now it was clear that the guy didn’t know anything about what was actually going on. And he wasn’t being controlled. So he could have been an ally. If I could explain things.

“Okay,” I started, trying not to think about what was going on with the others. I had to get this guy to understand and get back to Asenath and Larees.

“Wait.” The man spoke that single word, then looked me up and down. His lip curled a little. “Shapeshifter.” With that, he brought his free hand up. It was glowing blue. As he waved it at me, I felt my form shifting without my input, going back to normal.

Once it was done, the man started to speak again. “Right, now explain what y—” Abruptly, he stopped short. His mouth opened and then shut, and he stared at me intently for a few seconds.

“Should… uh, should I talk?” I asked, confused.

“Atherby.” His voice was as certain as it was confused. “You are related to Joselyn Atherby.”

It was my turn to look flabbergasted, blurting, “You remember my mother?”

Slowly, he lowered me to the floor, taking his hand away. “Joselyn Atherby saved my soul,” he murmured. “And the life of the Auberge’s current owner. She and her family have always been welcome here.”

Well. Call back the umpires, dust off the bases, and tell the players to limber up.

Because this was a whole new ballgame.

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Interlude 41B – Margorie And Caela Tombs

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February 18th, 1951

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cowards.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Papa?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Oooh, can we get a Two-Face suit?”

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

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

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

It had been a very long school year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heretics,” Theia muttered aloud.

“Strange Heretics,” Pace added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before The Vault 41-07

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“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”

Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…

They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…

Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.

“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”

That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”

“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”

“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.

“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”

“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”

They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.

They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.

I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.

In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.

Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.

Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.

But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.

It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.

I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.

Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.

Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.

Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.

Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.

“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”

“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.

“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”

His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.

“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”

But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.

“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”

“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.

Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”

In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.

“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”

Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.

The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.

“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a pop it out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”

“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”

Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”

Shit. We had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?

Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”

Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”

Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”

“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”

Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”

Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”

Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”

“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the Heretic sense. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”

Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”

Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”

Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”

I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”

She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”

Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”

“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”

“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”

Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”

“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”

“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”

Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”

“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”

“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”

Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”

It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”

That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”

Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”

I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”

Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”

“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”

Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”

“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”

Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”

Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.

The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even two really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.

It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?

Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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