Archibold

Four Deaths Four Killers 19-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, I learned everything Perrsnile knew about the people he had sold those children to. It was going to take a lot of effort and time, but we would track them down and save all the ones we could, the ones who were still alive. I held no illusions that they would all be safe and sound after all these years, but I was going to do everything I could to put them back with their families. I had detailed notes written down, and promised the nasty little man that I would be keeping him with me while checking on the information he gave. Part of me thought I should just get rid of his ghost immediately, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t screwing with us one last time. He had no chance of hurting any of us anymore, but I really wouldn’t have put it past him to get sick amusement out of telling us a bunch of lies just before I erased his ghost, leaving us with no way of getting the actual information.

Besides, maybe someone like Brom Bones knew a spell that could make him tell the truth. Or maybe Denny would do it if she showed herself at some point. I wasn’t sure. But either way, getting rid of him right then, no matter how much I wanted to, felt like a bad idea. Still, I didn’t have to deal with him at the moment. So, I used my necromancy to take him down to a tiny speck of power so he wasn’t even visible. Then I basically shut him away for the moment so I could move on to the next thing. In this case, the next thing was going with Gliner and the other ghost, Ausesh, up to the auditorium so we could talk to Sesh– hold on, was this really the first time I was noticing the similarities between those two names? There was absolutely no relation between Sesh and Ausesh, as far as I knew, and yet… yeah that was weird. 

Shaking that off, I took the elevator that way, and soon found myself facing a bunch of curious and scared people all looking to me for answers. They were also staring in confusion at Gliner, Archibold, and the ghost of Ausesh, who hovered in the background trying to ignore all of them. Her whole problem with crowds might’ve been lessened by being dead, but it wasn’t gone entirely. When she saw me glancing her way, the woman whispered, “Don’t look at me, you talk to them.” 

“She’s right,” Gliner agreed while folding his arms as he stood next to his partner. His voice was a soft murmur. “They don’t really know us, for the most part.” 

Swallowing hard, I stepped to the middle of the stage and raised my voice. “First, I want all of you to know that the murderer has been caught and stopped. We know what happened here, and you’re all safe.” 

Yeah, that brought on a lot of questions. They were being shouted at me from every direction, until I whistled as loud as I could. That made them stop so I could push on. “I’m going to tell you all the truth, and it’s going to be hard to hear. But we have proof, and we’re going to restore your memories about all of it.” That started even more murmuring about what I meant by restoring memories, so I held up both hands and continued. “Like I said, this is all going to be pretty hard to hear, but I really need all of you to listen.” 

And with that, I gave them the whole explanation. I told them about Perrsnile selling their children and then erasing their memories using the vault’s built-in system for making sure no one could expose this place. Needless to say, hearing that they could have decades-old children running around in the outside world, or rather, enslaved in the outside world, caused even more of a fervor. But they all wanted to hear everything, so they settled down soon enough, now definitely latched onto my every word. 

I continued through the rest of it, telling them about the whole Ausesh, Gliner, and Archibold situation, and about Gliner and Archibold making their mistakes about who the guilty person was. I told them about Perrsnile killing Mophse, and why that happened. I told them all of it. Not really the Denny stuff. That felt personal and not exactly relevant to the situation. But I did tell them that Perrsnile was dead now, and would never threaten them again. I just left out who exactly killed him. 

Obviously, they had a lot of questions about their missing children and the memories related to them. So, I quickly assured the whole crowd that Ausesh knew how to undo the memory eraser system, and that we were going to work on that immediately. “I just wanted you guys to know it was coming so you wouldn’t be so… umm, shocked when you get your memories back,” I explained. “I promise, we’re about to go work on that. But since the bad guy is gone, I think you can all safely go back to your rooms and all that, if you want to. Or to the cafeteria, or whatever. We’ll send out an intercom message when we’re about to restore your memories, and I’ll talk to you again once we figure out what’s going to happen next. I just–yeah.”

Feeling a bit awkward and like I might have been rambling on too much, I stopped myself before taking a breath. “I promised you guys before that we weren’t going to make you leave this place if you don’t want to, and we’re still not. We’ll find someone to help take care of the vault’s system, someone who can learn from Ausesh over here. She might not have programmed the computers, but she did design and build the vault itself, so between that and Sitter, we can keep the place running.” 

For her part, the ghost woman hesitated before straightening a little with a nod. “I will… do everything I can,” she agreed quietly. “Valdean would have wanted that. I am… sorry he is not here to be the face of this any longer. And that I am… not physically equipped to do as good of a job as he would like.” She was mumbling those words by the end, and I could see people in the audience trying to lean forward to hear what she was saying. 

Rather than ask her to repeat herself (figuring that wouldn’t go well), I just spoke up myself. “She’s right, she’s gonna help any way she can. We all will. And that includes helping all of you find your lost family members. If any of you want to help with that when the time comes, you can. But either way, if you have kids out there, or other family, we’ll find out what happened to them, and if possible, bring them back to you. I know you guys don’t have a lot of reason to trust Heretics, but I promise, we’re going to take care of this.” 

All of that was obviously a lot for them to digest, to say the least. I answered a few more questions about what was going on and what we were going to do, then stepped out of the way while waving Sesh up to join us. Once we were closer to the back of the stage and had a little privacy, she stared at me wide-eyed. “Damn, Flick. When you get to the bottom of things, you really get to the bottom of them.” With a quick glance toward Gliner and Ausesh, she looked back to me and added, “What about the others?” 

After a momentary hesitation, I gestured. “They’re okay. There’s just uhh… well, there’s stuff with Denny, but they should tell you that part themselves. Sorry to ask this, but could you stay up here a bit longer while we get the memory thing working right? Just in case those guys need something. I know I said they could head out to their own rooms and stuff, but uhh… they don’t seem to be doing that.” 

Glancing over her shoulder to look that way before turning back to me, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, sure. We’ve uhh…” She reached into her San Jose Sharks jacket and withdrew a large hardcover Dungeons and Dragons handbook, waving it idly. “I’ve sorta got a game going with some of these guys right now, so take your time, you know?” A soft chuckle escaped her before she sobered. “Perrsnile was playing for awhile… fuck!” She punched her own hand. “I can’t believe I never even–”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “None of us realized until–well, yeah. He had everybody fooled, believe me. And there’s no point in playing the what if or should have game. He’s dead. Now we just have to pick up the pieces. 

Sesh nodded once. “Sure, I’m just saying, I never would’ve let him play a paladin if I had any idea. But uhh, just so you know, I’m gonna want to hear everything that happened, cuz I’m pretty sure you’re leaving some stuff out right now. For now though, yeah, I’ll stay in here with these guys some more. Just make sure you let us know before you shove everyone’s memories back in their heads? Most of these people are probably gonna want to be sitting down when that happens. It just, you know, feels like it’s gonna be a lot.” 

Promising that we would absolutely do that, I headed back for the elevator once more. On the way, I casually glanced toward the others., “Is there some sort of record for riding this thing around the vault the most times in a single day? Because I feel like I’m approaching the championship.” 

“You might be in the top ten,” Gliner informed me, “but you’ll never touch Valdean’s record. Not with as much as he went tearing around this place trying to solve everyone’s problems and…” Trailing off, he sighed before looking at the ghost woman nearby. “I am… the words I want to…” His face twisted a little, as all six of his eyes looked off in different directions before he clearly forced himself to focus on her, as the words came out. “I am sorry. I am so very sorry for my–for my assumptions, and my actions. My–I murdered you. You trusted us to protect you, and I not only failed to do that, I took your guilt for granted and didn’t give you any opportunity to defend yourself. I–I can’t–” 

“Stop,” Ausesh interrupted, her voice flat. “You’re right, you killed me, and you can’t undo that. Nothing you say will magically bring me back to life.” She paused, and I could feel the turmoil within her ghost energy before she sighed. “But, I understand why you did what you did. I was an old Heretic. Even if I was never exactly top of my class in combat, if I had been the monster you believed me to be, you never would have gotten a fair shot off.” Her hand rose to point at him. “That does not mean I have forgiven you. But I do understand your reasoning. Let us leave it at that for now. Anything else would be a waste of time and effort.” 

It looked like Gliner still wanted to say something about that, but he acquiesced and gave a short nod. I could tell that he didn’t want to push things too much. No matter how much he felt the need to apologize for, well, killing her, it was better if he let it go for the time being. Otherwise, he’d just be apologizing for his own feelings rather than hers. 

Instead, after letting out a long breath, he turned to me. “Are you really going to go out there and try to find all those missing children? Even though it’s been decades?” 

After grimacing slightly at the reminder of just how long those ‘kids’ (probably mostly adults by now depending on how fast each of their species matured) had been missing, I confirmed, “I mean, there’ll probably be several of us taking turns working on that. We’ll have to trade off whenever one of us has some free time, but yeah. It needs to be done, and something tells me there won’t be a shortage of volunteers to help with it.” 

“I’ll be one of them,” he informed me. 

“As will I,” Archibold noted. “We… have a lot to make up for.” 

A moment later, the elevator door opened, and we moved back into the server room. As soon as we got there, I saw Sitter standing up. He was lifting one foot off the floor, even as De–Letters stood in front of him and requested, “Okay, the other foot, please.” Immediately, the robot lowered that foot and lifted the other one. 

“Hey, Sits! You’re awake.” Waving that way as I approached, I added, “How’re you feeling?” 

“I believe the correct term is ‘annoyed,’” came the response. Sitter’s mouth lights shifted to an amber color before he added, “Mostly at my own failure to identify the trap before it was sprung. I apologize for being unable to assist your investigation.” 

“Oh, Sitter,” Ausesh murmured before hovering closer. “You have always been entirely too concerned with aiding others over your own personal well-being. You nearly died.” 

“And you…. did.” Sitter flatly pointed out, mouth-lights shifting to a soft green as his head tilted that way. “I am told that I should know you, that you aided in my creation, and that of this vault.” 

“Yes, we can restore those memories, I… believe.” Frowning a little, the ghost woman looked toward me. “As I said before, programming is not my strong suit, but I know a little.” 

“Right arm, please,” Letters put in, watching as Sitter lowered his leg and raised the arm. Then she addressed the rest of us. “I think I can help with the memory thing, I just want to make sure his physical responses are working right. Other arm, please.” 

Marina, approaching from the back area of the server room, spoke up. “You managed to get him working pretty quickly, Letters.” 

The blonde girl shifted a little, looking embarrassed by the compliment. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. I just reconnected a few–never mind. He should be okay now. Oh, uh, you can put your arm down. Do you want me to dig deeper and try to fix your memory?” She sounded a little hesitant and unsure of herself. 

Sitter, however, nodded once, mouth lights shifting to a dark blue. “I trust your ability, Lady Letters. And it would certainly be nice to know that my memories are correct. If nothing else, it would be a good idea to have all those memories checked before I trust myself to disengage the locks for this vault. If my memories are still wrong, I shudder to think of what could happen.” 

Taking that as a good shifting point, I looked over to Ausesh. “Speaking of having the correct memories, is there anything else we need to bring down here before we get started on fixing everyone else’s?”

“No,” she replied, “we can start that right now. I may not know a lot about programming but I know how this works. Valdean and I worked on it together. He was always…” She trailed off before giving a soft sigh. “We can do it now. Here, come this way.” 

So, while Letters worked on fixing Sitters’ memory, Archibold, Marina, Gliner, and I did all the physical work on the system itself as Ausesh called out instructions. Shifting the memory-eraser part of the system over to restoring the memories it had changed wasn’t exactly easy. It was possible, but required some rewiring and even physically moving components. Apparently she mainly knew how to do this because Valdean had talked her through it as a just in case sort of measure. Which, well, we had definitely hit ‘just in case’ quite awhile back. 

Either way, while it was time-consuming, and would’ve been impossible if she wasn’t telling us exactly what to do, the actual work itself wasn’t that hard. I was able to zone out just a little and simply focus on moving one piece of the machine somewhere else, or switching the positions of two wires, that sort of thing. Mostly I focused on what was going to happen once we got out of here. Avalon and Shiori were probably going to kill me. Then find a way to resurrect me so Tabbris and my dad could kill me. Then Abigail and Wyatt could take their turn, and– yeah. I probably had a lot of death in front of me. 

Though that sentence could be completely accurate in a few other ways too. 

In any case, after about an hour, we had the whole thing put together. Letters had finished with Sitter about twenty minutes earlier, and had been replaced by Peanut, the pixie Aspect. And yes, that meant that, thanks to Tailor, she shrank down to a positively tiny form. In that body, small as it was, she was able to get into the very tight spaces within the machine, which would’ve required the rest of us to take the thing apart to reach. And boy was Peanut excited to be in the outside world. She kept commenting about how big everything was, even though she’d been in a larger space inside the Carnival. But when I pointed that out, she said this place felt bigger. I could only imagine how she’d react to the actual outside world. 

Between her going into those tiny spaces we couldn’t fit in and (somewhat reluctantly) temporarily shifting into the skittish bunny-like Bijou so she could simply reach through solid material, the Aspects were already incredibly helpful. 

Not that they weren’t already helpful, considering Letters’ ability to fix Sitter. But still. They were definitely making very good first impressions. 

Finally, it was done. Before we activated it, of course, I told Sitter that we needed him to use the intercom to warn everyone it was coming. Which he did, politely reintroducing himself, assuring the guests he was fine, and that they should sit down while their memories were restored. 

From where she was hovering next to one of the computer terminals, Ausesh nodded to me while indicating the enter button. “Press that, and the system will restore all altered memories.” 

My finger rose, then I stopped myself and looked over to Bijou. The pink bunny girl was half-hiding behind Marina, eyes and ears darting in every direction. She might’ve been less afraid of us now, but that didn’t mean she was completely calm. And she was making absolutely certain to keep either Marina or me between her and any of the others. So, I kept my voice low. “You guys wanna do the honors? Since you helped so much.” 

Her head tilted a bit at me, before she abruptly shifted down into the much smaller Peanut. “I’ll do it!” the pixie girl cheerfully called. Flying over, she landed next to the computer. “This is one small step for pixies–which is saying a lot, cuz we’re pretty small to begin with, and one giant leap for Aspect-kind!” With that, she stomped down hard with her foot on the enter button, while making a trumpet sound with her mouth. 

*****

After that, well, a lot of things happened very quickly. The people of the vault had all of their memories back. They knew who their children were, and that caused a lot of emotions. Marina and I did our best to help them through it, as did Sitter and Sesh. Ausesh wasn’t exactly suited for that sort of thing, and the two bodyguards were more about physical action than helping with emotions. 

Obviously, we promised again to help get their families back together. I reassured them once more that we would send more people into the vault to talk to all of them. I knew Abigail would want to come in here, and that she would know exactly who to bring with her. There was a lot that was going to have to be done in order to fix all of this. We were also going to set up a way to get in and out of it more easily, which Ausesh said she had a few ideas for. A way to link this vault both to Wonderland and to the Fusion school. 

There was a lot to be done. I would have to go in and out of this place for quite awhile before we were through fixing everything Perrsnile had done. And I couldn’t even get rid of that piece of shit’s ghost until we knew for certain he’d told us everything. 

But, in the meantime, I could at least get out of here for now. Ausesh was coming with, given the trouble she would have when it came to those orichalcum walls. I was going to set her up with a lab in the Haunted Mansion so she could work on those new vault entrance ideas. Besides, she wanted a bit of time away from Gliner for the time being, which I couldn’t blame her for. 

As for Gliner himself, and Archibold, they would be staying in the vault to help out, in between going out with us to find the missing family members. Sesh was staying there too. Apparently she’d taken a liking to all the vault people, and wanted to stick around for awhile. Besides, they were deep into that D&D game and she didn’t want to abandon her players. 

Which left Marina and me standing back in Valdean’s room, along with Dakota and Jordan, the Denny-Aspect who was blue, with the scales, red hair, and the trident and all that. Apparently she manipulated water and had something to do with marine animals. Even as we stood there, she bounced the trident against the floor, making it give off a steady ringing sound as she called, “I cannot wait to see the outside world! My first order of business shall be to investigate this ‘streaming video.’ I had no idea computers were so protected against being wet.” 

The words actually made Dakota snicker before she poked the blue-scaled figure. “Did Denny make you as the one who likes puns on porpoise?” 

“I do not know,” Jordan shot back, “I shall have to ponder that.” 

Groaning despite myself at their antics, I shook my head. “Well, I can already tell which of my girlfriends you’ll get along with.” Turning to the two bodyguards, who stood nearby, I added, “Take care of things in here until we bring some more people back to help, okay?” 

They promised they would, before I nodded to Sitter. “Okay, hit it.” 

“Very well,” he confirmed. “Be safe, and do not be strangers, Lady Flick, Lady Marina, Lady Dakota, and Lady… Jordan,” he confirmed. “And all the other Sir and Lady Aspects. We will look forward to your return visits. For more than one reason.” 

With that, he did… something, and the air shimmered around us. Suddenly, we were standing on the hillside right above the ghost town of Wonderland. I could see the place stretched out below us. 

“Ahh, that’s better,” I announced while stretching my arms. Then I reached out through my connection to my little sister. Tabs, you there? 

Flick! She sounded both shocked and delighted. You made it! 

Yup, I confirmed. It’s a really long story, but what did we miss? 

Uhhh… There was a pause, then, Hang on, I’ll come to you! Then we can share stories. Cuz this one’s pretty long too. 

That’s great, I sent back. I gotta tell you, what I definitely really need right now is a big surpr–

“Ms. Chambers,” a voice spoke up from behind me, even as my Necromancy started screaming at the power I was feeling. I spun so fast I almost fell over, even as Marina, Dakota, and Jordan did the same around me. We found ourselves facing a single semi-transparent figure. 

“I believe… I owe you… and a great many others… an apology,” Manakel’s ghost announced.

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Denny’s body didn’t literally physically change or anything like that when Marina and I appeared next to her back out in the regular world. It was still just Denny’s body, even if she wasn’t the one in control at the moment.   

Adjusting to the sudden information I was getting from my item-sense (and oh boy did it feel better to have my powers back), my mouth opened to ask if the girl was okay. But before I could say anything, a voice from behind us blurted, “What in the living hells was that?” 

It was Gliner. He was back by the doorway, staring at us. 

“Oh,” I started with a cough. “Right, sorry, you’re probably wondering where we’ve been this whole time.” 

“This whole time?” the man echoed. “You disappeared for about ten seconds. Then you reappeared and now you’re talking like it’s been awhile? Wait, was I frozen again?”

“Hold on, ten seconds?” The girl sitting at my feet sounded surprised. 

Then her head tilted, expression shifting. Somehow, it was like her entire demeanor changed. Walker tended to come off as a mixture of defensive and impatient. She just wanted to get on with whatever she was doing, while also assuming that most people were going to accuse her of things or make her justify everything she did. In that moment, however, her expression was more curious, eyes looking as though she was soaking in everything she saw and analyzing it. 

“Ah, yes,” Letters announced, “we can speed up the flow of time, relatively speaking, within our own mind so entire conversations, or arguments, can be had while mere seconds pass in the outside world. Walker and I just had a conversation about that which, to us, lasted about five minutes. But to you, it was almost instantaneous. That should be helpful in the future.” 

Blinking down at her, I tentatively murmured, “Wow. Okay, one, that’s pretty cool. And two, you guys really do shift back and forth completely seamlessly.” 

“Perhaps too seamlessly,” Letters noted thoughtfully. “If we can hold entire conversations within the Carnival while little time passes outside… Hold one moment, please.” 

Barely a few seconds passed before her expression changed again. This time, a wide, beaming and clearly mischievous smile appeared. Her eyes widened, though with clear excitement rather than surprise, even as an audible giggle escaped her. “Ohhh yeah. Sure, you got a deal.” 

“Err, a deal?” I managed, blinking at Marina next to me. She offered a confused shrug. 

“Sorry, wasn’t talking to you!” the Aspect who had taken over informed us cheerfully before using both index fingers to point at their head. “Gotta talk in the quiet indoor voice! Not used to having a mouth in the outside world! But it’s fun. Maybe I should have more, hmm?” Even as she said that, a second mouth appeared on her forehead, then a third and forth, these ones vertical, appeared on both cheeks. It was, in a word, horrifying. 

“Ah,” all four mouths announced in a perfect chorus, “this was a bad idea.” Then all three extra mouths vanished. “Sorry! Still learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m Tailor. That’s T-A-I-L-O-R, like the clothes person. And I’ve got a brand new job! I’ll talk to you later, but for now, back to your regularly scheduled Aspect!” 

With that, she scrunched up her nose and gave a firm nod. And with that, Denny’s skin turned gray, her eyes went pitch-black, and her clothes became the same hooded cloak I had seen inside the Carnival. Now she looked like Walker. 

“That’s better,” the girl announced, looking down at herself before rising. “Letters made a deal with Tailor. She’ll pop in and shift the body whenever one of us takes over. At least then you people don’t have to be confused all the time.” Stretching her arms and cracking her neck, she blinked. “Wait, hang on. Can I still…” 

Just like that, her body vanished with a slight popping sound, leaving behind a brief shadowy cloud, which dissipated quickly. She reappeared in a standing position a few feet away. Slowly, her head turned to look around the server room with obvious curiosity, including giving the man by the door a quick once-over. “I didn’t really get a chance to drive this thing before,” the girl noted, “I just took over long enough to pull you guys inside. This is neat.” 

“I, ahhh, what?” That was Gliner, of course, sounding understandably baffled about this whole situation. “Can I just… huh?” 

“Uh, right, long story.” Looking back and forth, I hesitated before simply shrugging. “Short version, there’s a lot of… people inside Denny right now and they’re taking turns piloting. This is Walker. The one who was talking just a second ago was Tailor, like she said. And before that was Letters. Walker, this is Gliner. They’re… uhh, I guess it’s a long story on both sides.”  

Marina, who was kneeling next to Dakota to check on her, raised a hand. “De–Walker, how do we wake her up? Is she okay?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “Hang on, she needs Tucker.”  

There was a brief pause, during which it was apparent that Tailor had briefly taken over, as their skin shifted once more. Instead of being white or gray, it became a sort of dark purple, with a few white (like paper white, not skin white) swirls along her arms. Her eyes were black with little flecks of white, like stars. And just like that, she abruptly jerked upright and smiled brightly. “Hey, hey, sorry I was busy in there before and didn’t get to meet you! The others made me clean out the ticket booths just because I spilled blueberry soda on one of the seats. Apparently they think I’m exhausting. Which, I kind of am, but it’s only literal when I want it to be.” Even as she was saying all that, the girl was literally bouncing up and down excitedly. “See, I drain energy from things and people and then convert it into my own energy so I can move faster, be stronger, all that stuff. And whatever gets drained gets sorta shut off.” Looking one way, then the other around the room, she added, “I guess I probably shouldn’t do it to the machines in here, right?”

We all exchanged books before I shook my head. “Yes, please don’t drain the computers in here. I feel like that’s probably a bad idea.” 

“Okay!” With that cheerful agreement, the girl, Tucker apparently, darted over to where Dakota was and dropped to her knees. “I’m sorry, we all sort of panicked when everything happened, and I was the part of Denny that sort of made her go to sleep. Here.” Putting both hands on the girl’s shoulders, she seemed to focus for a moment. 

Abruptly, Dakota‘s eyes opened and she jerked a bit. “Wh–Denny!” she blurted upon seeing the girl in front of her. An instant later, she was embracing her. Then she just as suddenly stopped, pulling back to blink at her altered appearance. “Uhh, Denny?” 

“Err, not exactly,” Tucker admitted once that was over. “I’m Tucker. It’s great to meet you, but I’m not even supposed to be out here right now. It’s Walker’s turn, I was just helping undo what we did. And now you’re awake, so uhh, catch you later!” 

With that, Walker resumed control, skin turning gray as she straightened up. “There. We think she’ll be okay. I mean, she should be. Like Tucker said, when that whole thing went down, we all panicked and just did whatever we could to protect Denny. We weren’t even fully formed yet, not really.” She turned to look down at the girl who was still on the floor and added, “Walker, nice to meet you, I guess.”

Yeah, needless to say, Dakota was a little confused. As was Gliner. So, we gave all them a quick crash course in what happened. Which took a little while, and involved a lot of questions. Especially when I had to take a quick detour and give Gliner a very abbreviated version of what happened with Ammon. Basically just that he was a sort-of pseudo Heretic with a Pooka power who had been killed and had that resurrection gift temporarily transferred to Denny, one of his victims. And now she had his power. Or rather, powers, apparently. It was a pretty huge box of worms to get into, but I felt like he (and his partner, once one of us told him what was going on) deserved to have some clue about what was going on with this whole situation.

Finally, once we were done with that, Dakota stared at the girl in front of her. At some point, she picked herself up so they were both standing facing one another. Her voice was slow and hesitant. “You’re… not Denny. But you sort of are? I mean, the actual Denny is herself, and you’re more of a little piece of her mixed with a piece of one of the… umm, dead people Ammon killed?” 

Letting out a breath, Walker held up a hand. “Hold on. Someone else should deal with this. I’m not in the mood.” 

“There, hi,” came the announcement a moment later as she turned back into a blonde-haired white girl. “I’m Letters. The short version is yes, you might say we’re a mix of a dead person, or several dead people in some cases, and various pieces of the actual Denny’s personality. Some parts are magnified, other parts are minimized. But what it comes down to is that we’re all our own people. We just happen to live mostly inside our own little world in Denny’s head, and now we’re going to take turns controlling her… our body.” 

“But… Denny’s still in there?” Dakota asked tentatively. 

After another brief pause, Letters offered, “Do you want to hop inside and visit her for a little while? She’s… she doesn’t feel comfortable coming out right now, but you can go in. If you want.” 

When the other girl looked at me, I nodded. “Go ahead, we’ve got stuff to do out here. I think she could use your company.”

Marina agreed immediately. “You guys should hang out in there while we’re dealing with the rest of this. It’s umm… you should meet everyone.” 

So, Walker took over once more and put a hand on Dakota’s shoulder. A second later, with a puff of black smoke, the girl was gone. Then Walker looked at the rest of us. “Are we gonna get on with this, or what? I didn’t agree to come out here just to stand around and explain everything. I wanna see the outside world. And I don’t just mean the inside of this vault. Dakota figured out Perrsnile was the bad guy and Denny… dealt with him when he hurt her before she could tell you. So it’s over, right?” 

I hesitated. “Mostly, I guess it is. At least that part of it. We know he was the one who–wait, what did Dakota figure out? What happened while we were gone, exactly?”

“Uuuuggh,” came the annoyed response, “I just said I didn’t want to stand around explaining things. Whatever, call me when you’re doing something interesting.” 

And just like that, she was gone. Her skin went back to being white, even as her hair shortened all the way up into that near buzzcut. It wasn’t exactly easy to tell, given Denny herself was only like thirteen, but their body did seem a bit more ‘male-presenting.’ Hands locking behind his back, she announced, “Hey there, it’s Bang-bang. I guess I’m taking over for this part. Must be what I get for letting everyone think I enjoy briefings.” 

Bang-bang, for his part, explained things as succinctly as he could. Apparently, Dakota had been pacing around the server room while they waited for us to get back, when she found a small leaf on the floor. It was a leaf that Perrsnile had tracked in on his shoe. When she touched it, she got some sort of… memory flash or something (which she could get from plants sometimes, apparently) of him killing Mophse. Unfortunately, Perrsnile apparently recognized the look on her face when she looked at him reflexively, and immediately went after them. Dakota activated the alarm spell and tried to use my taboo power to warn me, while Denny attempted to use Ammon’s power to make the man sit down. But he was too fast, and managed to knock them both down before covering Denny’s mouth with one hand while he choked Dakota with the other. 

That was when Denny had killed him. She saw Dakota’s face turning red and was fighting to get out from under Perrsnile, or at least get her mouth free so she could talk. But she couldn’t. He was bound and determined to stop her from using Ammon’s power. So… so she did what she had to do. She punched through his chest. Which was… yeah. 

In any case, she killed him and then freaked out. The rush of new personalities who were trying to protect her ended up dragging Sitter and Dakota over to the corner of the room, before that Crystal personality made them, and Denny herself, invisible. Tucker also reflexively drained Dakota’s energy to make her fall asleep in the process, because Denny was terrified of letting the other girl see her as a murderer. 

We couldn’t really blame them too much for what happened. It was, from the way Bang-bang put it, a spur of the moment thing in the midst of what amounted to being born. They didn’t really have control over themselves at the time. They barely had any idea of who they even were. 

“And, well, that is basically the whole story,” Bang-bang informed us once he’d gotten through all that. “You know the rest. Though we would all like to hear the explanation from your end. What was happening inside this vault?” 

Which meant it was our turn to fill in the blanks. By the time we finished explaining the whole story, I felt parched. “So that’s the whole story. Perrsnile was working with slavers to sell the children in this vault and used the memory erasing system, which was supposed to be used to make sure no one could tell people on the outside anything about this place, to make everyone forget those kids ever existed. Archibold and Gliner over there found out and asked Mophse to help them look into it. But Perrsnile found out and killed him. Archibold thought it was Valdean and Gliner thought it was that woman, Ausesh. They both killed their respective suspects.”

“Three deaths,” Marina put in. “And we know who killed all three.” 

“Four, technically,” Bang-bang pointed out. “Mophse was killed by Perrsnile. Valdean was killed by Archibold. That Ausesh woman was killed by Gliner. And Perrsnile was killed by Denny. Four deaths, four killers.”

My mouth opened to say that Denny wasn’t a killer, but I stopped. It was more complicated than that. And from the look on Marina’s face, she was having the same thought. So, I simply replied, “She saved Dakota and quite possibly all of us. I had no idea Perrsnile was the bad guy at the time. None of us did. We probably would’ve left our guards down. Then he would’ve either gotten away with it, or actually killed one or more of us when we weren’t expecting it. Either way, it would’ve been bad. She and Dakota exposed him, even if it took awhile for us to work the whole thing out.” 

“For you to work it out, you mean,” Marina insisted. “I had no idea.” 

I shrugged at that. “Whatever, I couldn’t’ve done any of this without all you guys. And speaking of all you guys, we need to go find Sesh and tell her what’s going on. Not to mention everyone else. And then… what about Sitter? We need him to turn off the lockdown now that we can say we know who the killers were. Oh, and uhh, I should do something about Perrsnile’s ghost before that trap wears off.”

“Not to mention talk to Ausesh and Archie about all this,” Gliner noted. 

Marina shook her head. “But how are we supposed to wake Sitter up? Ausesh said that Valdean was the computer guy on their end, and we can’t exactly ask Perrsnile to do it.”  

Looking toward the bodyguard, I asked, “I don’t suppose you or the other two might know any good candidates for fixing a broken robot so he can let us out of this vault?” 

“Ah, pardon me,” Bang-bang put in with a raised hand. “Not to speak out of line, or toot the horn of my compatriot, but I do believe Letters might be just the person you’re looking for.” 

“Hey, right.” My fingers snapped. “She’s a technopath, isn’t she? Do you think she could help wake up Sitter?” 

Giving a short nod, Bang-bang half-drawled, “Well, as they say, there’s no time like the present to try. I’ve explained the situation, and I believe–” 

Abruptly, his head tilted a bit, as he blinked a few times while his hair extended out and lightened. Then… well, she focused on us. “Hello again. Dakota and Denny just started catching up in one of the diners. They’re having pancakes. Sorry, I would have brought some out, but… I don’t think we’re quite talented enough for that just yet. In the meantime,” she added while looking back to me. “There was something about fixing a robot? That’s Sitter, right?” Her hand rose to point to the motionless figure on the floor nearby. 

“Yeah, that’s him,” I confirmed. “Do you really think you can do something about that?” 

“I–” She paused, clearly hesitant. “I want to say yes, but I’m not positive. This… ahh, this is sort of my first time using these powers out in the real world. I have vague memories of accomplishing much more difficult tasks with my gift, but of course, that was not me. It was the person whose power was… given to me. For all intents and purposes, I am completely new to this.” Her face twisted a little with distaste about that whole situation. “I will try.” 

So, she sat down next to the robot and put her hands on him. While the girl was busy with that, I looked over at Marina. “Okay, I think we’re good now. Could you stay with her while I go down and deal with Perrsnile, Archibold, and Ausesh? Then I’ll go let Sesh and the others know what’s going on.” 

“Yeah, I’ll go with you,” Gliner agreed with a grimace before looking at me. “ I guess I owe Ausesh a few apologies. Not that–damn it. Not that it’ll be enough. But I owe her that much, at least.”

So, the two of us took the elevator back over to the room we had left the ghosts in, while Marina stayed with Letters and Sitter. On the way down, I glanced at the blue-scaled, six-eyed man next to me and hesitated slightly before speaking up. “You didn’t know. You were trying to stop her from having a chance to sell any more kids. Or… get away. With magic and the fact that this was her vault, anything could’ve happened if she found out what you thought you knew.” 

“That does not excuse my mistake,” the man insisted flatly. “If I had attempted to capture her, render her unconscious, find some way of…” He trailed off before sighing. “I was employed as her bodyguard, and I betrayed that.” 

I had no idea how to respond to that. He was right, he had. And maybe there was a better thing he could’ve done. But on the other hand, given what he believed, if he had been right, how could he possibly have captured an old Heretic without giving her a chance to escape and do even more harm? It was–fuck. Yeah, it was an impossible situation. Especially considering what he had believed she was guilty of. 

And yet, in the end, he had killed an innocent woman, who probably could still have done a lot of good. No wonder he clearly felt like shit. That was going to take some time for him to get through. But hey, at least he could actually talk to the woman herself about it. 

Speaking of which, the elevator arrived back at that room, and we both stepped off. To my intense relief (I had been low-key terrified that something else would go wrong), Perrsnile’s ghost was still trapped right there in the spell I had made, with Ausesh floating nearby, next to Archibold. 

“Okay, well, first things first.” Focusing on the small, trapped ghost-man, I announced, “We found both girls, and they’re going to be fine.” 

“That’s good,” Perrsnile murmured before his eyes found mine. “You must understand, I never… wanted to hurt them. I never wanted to hurt any of the children. Things simply got… so far out of control. When it started, I thought I could save–” 

“Stop.” With that word, I focused my Necromancy that way. As I’d said before, I couldn’t compel a ghost to speak the truth. But I could force them to stop speaking entirely. “Anything you say could be true, or it could be a lie. But you know what it comes down to?” My shoulders rose in a shrug. “I just don’t give a shit about your tragic backstory.”  

Letting that hang for a moment while pointedly keeping him silent, I continued. “You hurt children for your own benefit, and then you killed to cover it up, and you were willing to do it again. I’m not sure when the best time for you to feel guilty would’ve been, but it was definitely at some point before you forced one child to kill you in order to save the life of another child you were choking to death. So I’ll tell you what. I’m going to let you talk now. And you’re going to tell me the names and locations of all the people you sold those children to, and how to restore everyone’s memories that you erased, the ones of their children.”  

“I can tell you how to do the second thing,” Ausesh put in. “You don’t need him for that.” 

“Good,” I replied without looking that way. My attention was centered on Perrsnile. “Names and locations. And before you decide whether or not to tell me the truth because you think I can’t do anything worse to you now that you’re a ghost, let me tell you exactly who I am. My name is Flick Chambers. My mother is Joselyn Atherby. Yes, that one. When I was a little girl, the necromancer named Fossor, yes, that one, abducted her. Last year, the Seosten named Manakel, better known around here as Hades, tried to kill my girlfriend. They were two of the strongest Necromancers who have ever set foot on this planet. Then they hurt the people I care about. Now they’re dead, and I have their powers. You think I can’t hurt you now just because you’re dead? Ask yourself what you really want me to do, send you on to whatever afterlife is waiting for you… 

“Or get creative.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Four Deaths Four Killers 19-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The elevator doors opened once more, as I kept the blade of my staff raised and pointed toward Gliner’s throat. “Move,” I ordered. “And don’t try anything. I really wanna kill you right now, so you probably shouldn’t give me any excuse.” 

The six-eyed man, for his part, slowly backed off the elevator with his hands raised. Marina had his pistols already, but that didn’t mean the man wouldn’t have other weapons hidden away in a pocket-dimension thing that I couldn’t sense through. I was watching him like a hawk as we moved together into the room. His voice was careful. “Look, I don’t know what you think is happening right now or what you’re trying to do, but–” 

“What? What happened?” That was Archibold, straightening up from where he had been examining a nearby wall of the empty room where we had left him and Perrsnile a minute earlier. “Weren’t you going to the server room? I–” He stopped then, upon noticing the way I was keeping my staff pointed at his partner. “What?” 

“Ahem,” Perrsnile’s ghost intoned with a clear note of surprise. “I believe we may have missed something.” 

“Yeah, you did,” I agreed. “We all missed it, for way too long. But we were just on the elevator, and I figured it out. Just a few mistakes our friend here made. He would’ve gotten away with it otherwise.” With that note, I pressed the blade of my staff tight enough into his throat to draw a little bit of blood as the blue-scaled man grimaced. “Sit down,” I snarled, anger filling my voice. “I think it’s time we had a little talk about everything you’ve been up to. Then you can tell us where the girls are right now. And why you really did all this. I’m sure your partner would be very interested in finding out too, assuming he didn’t already know.”

“Already know what?” Archibold demanded. He hadn’t gone so far as to try to physically intervene, but I knew it was a near thing. Seeing a Heretic pointing a bladed staff at the man obviously made him a little jumpy. Fortunately, he was standing down, confused enough about why this was happening to keep watching. “You can’t honestly think that he was behind this.” 

A soft chuckle escaped me as I gave a faux-casual shrug. “He did almost get away with it. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even have caught it at all if he hadn’t gotten cocky.” My gaze went back to the man in question then, as I snapped, “I said, ‘sit down!’” 

He sat, most of his assortment of eyes darting around the room while the two in the center focused on me. “Look, you’ve lost your mind. Whatever you think you’ve figured out, you’re wrong. I didn’t have anything to do with this. I killed Ausesh, yes. Because she is the one who–” 

“Yeah, nice try,” I interrupted. “You’ve been loudly blaming her this entire time, just to draw attention away from yourself. But here’s the thing, it’s not gonna work anymore. Now stay right there.” To Ausesh, I added, “Can you move up on this side?” My hand gestured toward a spot to the man’s right and slightly behind him. “If you see him start to try anything, let me know. And uhh, Perrsnile, you watch the other side.” My hand gestured to a spot behind the sitting man and to his left. “Both of you keep your eyes on him. Let me know if he moves at all, even an inch. If he doesn’t want to tell us the truth on his own, we’ll see how well a certain spell can pry it out of this son of a bitch.” 

“Ahh, well, if you think that’s best.” Moving to the spot I had indicated, Perrsnile added, “Are you quite certain about this? I would not have seen Mr. Gliner as being capable of anything like this.” 

“He’s a mercenary,” I pointed out while taking a step back. “He probably got paid for it.” Even as I said that, my hand was reaching down to touch the floor. An intricate runic symbol appeared there, before I moved my hand slightly to the left to create another. “Paid a lot, most likely. I just wonder if it was before you guys started here, or if someone got to him afterward.” 

Archibold looked like he wanted to approach, but a look from Marina kept him rooted to the spot. “He is my partner, my– I would have known if he was corrupt, if he was doing something like this. You are not making any sense.” 

As my gaze passed over him, I took a few steps to one side while leaning down to create another series of symbols around the seated man. “You’re saying you didn’t know anything about it?” With those words, I rose and put my back to him to look straight at Gliner. “Didn’t share your new fortune with your partner, huh? Why, did selling a bunch of children into slavery not pay enough for two?” 

I could feel Archibold‘s eyes on my back, staring intently before he spoke carefully. “Maybe you could tell me why you’re so convinced that my partner was responsible for all this?” His voice was even and calm, but I could hear a bit of emotion behind it. As much as they had been at odds about whether Ausesh or Valdean had been responsible, the two men were still very close.

Giving Gliner a long, hard look, I rose and moved to the next spot so I could make another set of runes and slowly empower them. “Fine, I’ll start, since you’re not in the mood to. I started to work it out when we got here and there was nobody. See, Perrsnile–” I nodded absently to the ghost man while moving to make another rune. “He told us that if there’s another elevator in the area where yours is going, it’ll alert you. It didn’t say anything, so there was no elevator here, even when we started on our way from the server room. They never came to this room.” 

Archibold gave a slow, uncertain nod. “Yes, it seems to me like we covered that. They must have gone to another room first. Wasn’t that why you were going up to the server room again in the first place? You’re supposed to be checking to see where the bad guys are right now.” 

“That’ll only work if they’re somewhere that isn’t supposed to have ongoing life support,” I pointed out idly. “And if they didn’t manage to get into the system to alter one of the other rooms not to give any reports. After all, we already know that’s possible.”  

By that point, my slow movement around the seated man brought me directly behind him, as I carefully made another rune and added, “Besides, there’s no reason to go chasing those people when we have the real bad guy right here in front of me, is there?” 

Marina, who had paced around to the other side of the room, abruptly blurted, “Can we just find out where the girls are, please? I really don’t feel like playing games with this right now.” Her voice cracked a little bit, another reminder of just how much this was affecting her. She was really upset about not being there when Dakota and Denny had been in trouble. It was obvious she was blaming herself. And if anything permanent happened to them, if we didn’t find them soon, I really didn’t want to think about how she would take that. 

To be honest, I didn’t want to think about how I would take it either. We needed answers, and we needed them right now. Fortunately, that’s what this was all about. To that end, I rose a bit from my crouch while nodding. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna find the girls, I promise. Nothing else is going to happen to them.” 

With that, I paced back around to the front, studying my spellwork on the way. It was as good as I could make it. Others would’ve done better, of course. But they weren’t here right now. This was the best we could do. So, I took a breath before letting it out. “It’s been real fun, running around this vault like clueless headless chickens. But right now, I’d say it’s time we get some real answers from the person responsible for all this. Wouldn’t you say… Perrsnile?” 

As I said those words, the spell I had put together came to life. An assortment of blue, green, and purple energy rays sprang out from those runes. They wrapped not around the kneeling man in the center, but around the ghost of Perrsnile himself, who jerked in surprise before the powerful magic brought him up short and made him freeze. “Whaaaaat?!” His blurted word came as his eyes snapped toward me. 

“You can move now, buddy,” I told Gliner casually. “Sorry about the cut. Had to sell it.” To Perrsnile, I added, “Yeah, see, when I said I figured it out, I really did figure it out.” Turning, I showed him my back, where I had used my inscription power to paint, ‘This is a trick, the real bad guy is Perrsnile’ when I had turned it toward Archibold a minute earlier. That was why he had stared so intently at my back before responding. 

That done, I turned back to the small ghost man. “I could’ve held you with my power, but I wasn’t completely sure you wouldn’t be able to pull anything. Not considering how sneaky you’ve been so far. I figured it’d be better if I had this necromancy spell to keep you trapped. But I needed you to stand still while I put it together, without knowing anything was wrong. Hence that little production we just put on. You were so distracted trying to figure out why I was suddenly blaming Gliner here, and making a show of watching to make sure he didn’t try to escape, that you didn’t pay attention to the actual runes I was putting down.” 

“And you sure as hell didn’t pay any attention to me,” Marina put in from where she had maneuvered herself, “while I was over here erasing the spell you started to put down while we were gone.” 

“She means the spell you were doing to open that little gate to the outside. Which is why you had us come down here, isn’t it?” I prompted. “You know, because no living creature can get out that way. That’s what Ausesh kept saying. But a dead one, like you? Give you another few minutes and you could’ve been out of here, no problem. Which would’ve left us trapped in this place. You probably figured we’d assume you were absorbed by the orichalcum in the walls or whatever. Except the walls aren’t made of that stuff down here. Neither is the floor. Hence why I could put that spell down that’s keeping you trapped. You figured you could just waltz out of here and we’d never figure out who the real bad guy was. That or we would figure it out, but you’d be long gone by the time we escaped this place. It’s a big world out there.” 

The small, in more than one way, man opened and shut his mouth a couple times before his head shook. “I don’t know what has gotten into you, dear girl, but I did not harm those children.” 

“One, don’t call me ‘dear girl,’” I retorted. “The guy who used to call me that… well, I’d say you don’t want to end up like him, but you’re already a piece of shit who’s dead, so…you’re basically twinsies, really. And two, I know you didn’t hurt them. But you did hurt the other kids. And Mophse.” 

“Ahh, what exactly is happening?” Archibold asked with a raised hand. “I’m still confused. Are you saying that Perrsnile here was responsible for everything? How would that even be possible? You possessed him, didn’t you?” 

A very small smirk found its way to my face. “Sure, and he had the same fake memories as everyone else. It’s where that little toy of his came in. Back when we first went up to find someone who could help with the server thing, he was playing with this little circuit board thing. My guess, that’s what he used to restore his memories after we were done. He tapped into that memory adjusting system somehow, the one Ausesh told us about. He changed everyone’s memories, including his own, just before the interrogations. Then he probably had that little device he was playing with automatically restore them later. On a timer, or maybe when it detected something else, or whatever. The point is, he changed his memories while we were interrogating them. I don’t think he knew exactly how we’d get the answers, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to look innocent, so he made himself innocent. That way, he would’ve passed any magic lie detector test, any ability, any… anything. He looked innocent because he erased all his memories of being guilty. Or, well, he gave himself the same fake memories of being ‘guilty’ that everyone else had. He blended in with the rest of the crowd. Then he got his memories back, and when we came looking for someone to help with the server, that was his best chance to both figure out how much we knew, and get a way out of here.” 

The man started to say something, but I cut him off. “He’s a maintenance worker. I mean, he was, up on spaceships. He’s so small, he used to crawl around behind all the systems and get into areas no one else could. He did the same thing here. Maybe because Valdean asked him to help, maybe just on his own. Either way, he found out about the memory erasing program. Whatever drove him to it, I dunno. But he used that to sell the children in this place to those people from the outside, then erased everyone’s memory about them ever existing. It was the perfect crime and get-rich-easily scheme. Remember that really distorted video we watched? It looked like one of the kids wasn’t in a cage. He was just standing away from the adults. We thought it was just because they were using him as a prop, an example or whatever, but it wasn’t. The ‘kid’ was Perrsnile. The adult figures were his clients, the people paying him. They were standing apart because it was customers on one side, child-selling piece of shit on the other. That partner they were talking about, that was probably someone he knew from his time on one of those spaceships. My guess is they were smugglers or pirates. That’s probably how he had contacts for selling children into slavery in the first place. Things went bad, maybe because his buddies realized he was a piece of shit. Whatever it was, he ended up here somehow. Valdean probably didn’t know about his history. Or he just saw the best in him. Seems like the sort of guy he was.”

Marina took over while I silently fumed. “So, this is what really happened. This piece of shit here was making plenty of money off selling the children in this place. Then those two,” she nodded toward Archibold and Gliner, “found out that the stock of supplies for children kept being used. So they asked their friend, Mophse, about it. When Perrsnile found out, he ambushed Mophse in the sauna. Choked him from behind while he was sitting down. Probably came in through the vent there too. Got him off balance, just–” She stopped, folding her arms tightly while looking away, anger visible across her face. 

“And from there, we already know what happened,” I noted. 

“I assumed the villain was Valdean, and killed him,” Archibold quietly agreed, rocking backward on his heels at the realization of what he had done. 

Gliner, meanwhile, opened and shut his mouth before grimacing as he slowly turned to look at Ausesh’s ghost. “And I assumed the villain was you… and killed you.” 

“Yes, well, that was a mistake,” she retorted dryly, before looking at me. “What on Earth made you jump to these conclusions?” 

“I would like to know that as well,” Perrsnile put in, “given how wildly incorrect they are.” 

My eyes rolled a bit at the denial. “First of all, you were obviously lying about not remembering these guys.” I waved a hand toward the trio who should have been erased from his memory. “When we all got on the elevator to come down here a few minutes ago, you made a point of gesturing for Ausesh to move out of the middle so Archibold could stand there. Because you remembered that he gets sick if he doesn’t. You were trying so hard to come off as a gentle, nice old man that you forgot that wasn’t something you should’ve known about.” 

While the little man absorbed that mistake, I went on. “Anyway, when all that was going down, Denny and Dakota set off the alarm spell and my taboo power to try to warn us. According to Perrsnile, the girls were standing by the elevator when someone came in, grabbed them, then killed him on the other side of the room while his back was turned. He literally said he heard a sound, then something grabbed him before he could even turn around. They stabbed him, dropped him, and he heard them say the thing about taking them to Beta Cargo while he was in the middle of dying. Except we already know that’s not how it went. The girls had time to set off the alarm spell and start to use my taboo power to warn me. Dakota said, ‘killer’s bletherskate ahhh.’ Bletherskate was my taboo word, and I get one more on either side of that. She was trying to tell me something about the killer. Probably that they figured out it was him somehow. 

“Either way, they had time to do all that, even though he said all he heard was ‘a sound’ before he was grabbed and stabbed. And the whole time he was dying, he conveniently heard them talk about where they were going, but still claimed he didn’t hear Dakota give the taboo warning. Probably because he didn’t know what it meant, so he had no idea I could actually hear those words.”

Letting the others absorb all that, since I hadn’t had time to explain my reasoning before, I took a couple breaths to calm myself. Swallowing hard, I pushed on. “Beyond that, when we were on the elevator going from the rooms where Ausesh and these guys were living, the elevator didn’t warn us about there being another car in the way then either. So, according to Perrsnile’s story, these bad guys came in out of nowhere, captured the girls, stabbed him and left him to die, then took Sitter with them too on their way out and just left.” 

My voice turned firm. This was the most important part, the bit that had given it away for me. “There is no physical way that happened. We were literally already on the elevator and moving toward the server room when that alarm spell went off and I heard Dakota. If there was another elevator in the way at any point in that time, our elevator would have told us. It didn’t, so there wasn’t. When we got in the elevator and started toward the server room, everything in there was fine. We know exactly when things went wrong in there, because Dakota set off my taboo power when it happened. We know the second there was a problem, and we were on the elevator going to that room. It never warned us about another elevator in the way, so there never was one, period. There was never another elevator in the way from the time we started, all the way to when we actually arrived. Never. It wasn’t there. There was no elevator, no other group.”

Archibold shook his head. “Then who were the other villains? Who killed him?” 

“There were no other villains,” I replied flatly. “Just him. My guess, the girls figured out he was the bad guy, somehow. They set off the alarm and Dakota started to say that thing to me, but he did something. Probably hit her. That’s why she cried out.” 

“But who… ah,” Ausesh started. “The other girl.” 

“Denny,” I finished for her, nodding while looking straight at Perrsnile. “She’s the one who killed you, wasn’t she? You hurt her friend, and she lashed out. She punched right through your chest. You were the bad guy all along, and she ended you. She’s the one who killed you, to save her friend, and herself.”

“So that’s what happened this whole time,” Marina murmured. “Perrsnile killed Mophse because he was looking into the missing kids, Archibold killed Valdean because he thought Valdean killed Mophse, Gliner killed Ausesh because he thought she killed Mophse… and… and Denny killed Perrsnile.” 

“But where are the girls now?” Gliner quickly put in. “And Sitter? If there were no other villains, then–” 

“There’s only one option,” I replied. “It’s weird, but… well, they clearly didn’t go anywhere. You know what they say about eliminating the impossible. If they didn’t leave that room, they must still be in there. Come on.” Giving Perrsnile a dark look, I added, “He’s not going anywhere for awhile. Not with that spell holding him. This is more important.” With that, I turned to go back onto the elevator. Despite my words, Ausesh and Archibold volunteered to stay behind and watch him while keeping in contact with me through the whole Necromancy thing, just in case. Meanwhile, Marina and Gliner accompanied me as we took the elevator back to the server room. As soon as we arrived, I took several long steps in, passing the area I’d stood in before. Marina was right behind me. Within another couple steps, I felt it. My item sense kicked in, and I quickly turned to run to the far corner before kneeling down. My hands moved, finding three invisible forms lying there. Sitter was the easiest to identify, with his hard metal body. When I touched him, the invisibility faded away. The same thing happened as I touched the other two forms to reveal Dakota and then Denny there. Sitter and Dakota remained unconscious. When I touched the last girl, however, her eyes opened to meet mine. 

“H-help,” she managed in a voice that cracked a bit from terror and desperation. “Please help.” 

Marina dropped down on the other side of the girl, catching her hand. “Denny, it’s okay. We’re right here. What happened?” 

“Inside,” came the response. “Need help… inside.” 

“Inside where?” I asked, confused. “Who needs help?” 

Denny’s eyes met mine, as she whispered. “Inside. Please… help.” 

Before either of us could respond, there was a flash of energy that enveloped Marina and me. And then we were gone. 

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

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

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

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

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

God damn it, Flick. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girls were gone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I started, “but who?” 

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

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

Archibold immediately put in, “Valdean.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is a breeding farm.” 

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