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Sesh wasn’t kidding about finding the vault door. Or about how hard it was to get to. The rocks and bushes we had to squeeze through looked impossible. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t surprised the place hadn’t been found before. We were almost a mile from the ghost town, and far from the mineshaft. There was no reason for anyone to be in this area, and certainly none for someone to actively push their way through the foliage and boulders. Even after you did that, it just opened into a small half-cave area with a partially-open ceiling. The place looked like it went nowhere, but if you pulled a bit more shrubbery out of the way, there was a low tunnel you could get down and crawl through for about thirty feet. Once you did that, it opened into a fully-enclosed space about fifteen feet wide, where there was this positively enormous steel (or maybe something more than steel) vault door built right into the side of the hill. The door itself was ten feet tall and about six feet wide. There was no handle to pull, as the door was flush with the rock around it. Instead of having a dial to turn or whatever, there was what looked like a black magnetic strip, four inches long by two inches wide, right in the center of the door.
Seeing us look that way as we spread out to give each other room, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, I can’t figure out what that’s for, or how to open it.”
With a small smile, Jeanne replied, “If it comes down to it, I am fairly certain my skeleton key will fit.” Saying that, they reached to their back, catching hold of something invisible there. A moment later, they pulled out a long metal spear. The tip glowed with the same sort of bright energy that came off of the archangel wings. “But,” they mused thoughtfully, “perhaps this should be a last resort. I’d hate to damage the door if we don’t have to. Is there a lever, or button?”
So, we looked around through the small, enclosed space. But there was nothing to find. The only thing that stood out aside from the gleaming metal door itself was that small black strip. But it didn’t seem like a button, given I tried pushing it to no avail.
“Hang on,” Marina put in, leaning closer to the thing. “Look, there’s a tiny circle right there in the middle. Maybe you have to push that bit in or something? Anyone have a paperclip?”
“Oh!” Baidy chirped, “I do… uhh, back in my other pants. I knew I should’ve worn the red ones today!”
Leaning closer myself, I tried to dig my fingernail into that little hole. But the moment I put my skin up against it, I felt a sharp poke. A needle had popped out of that little hole and into my finger, drawing a tiny dot of blood.
“Oh,” I managed, “fuck, that’s probably not–”
I was interrupted by a rumbling sound. The walls around us were shaking just a bit, loose bits of dirt cascading toward the ground. It was the door. The thing was opening inward as we all reflexively jumped back.
“Did that thing just take your blood before opening?” Avalon demanded.
My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, you think that’s weird?”
“It’s probably not good,” Miranda put in quietly, hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “But if the door was supposed to test blood before opening, why would it open for yours? Do you have another super special relative who built this place and we just happened to stumble across it?” From the sound of her voice, she was half-kidding about that. Which, given everything that had happened since I became a Heretic, was completely fair.
“Look.” That was Denny, as she poked her head around me to peer into the opening that the door had revealed. “It’s a hallway.”
She was right. Beyond the now-open door was a corridor or tunnel about twenty feet long, very slightly curved toward the right to lead deeper into the hillside. It had been dark at first, but a moment after the place opened up, a few panels in the ceiling began to glow to illuminate the hall. There was another door at the far end, but it looked like a normal one with an actual knob.
“Oh come on,” Sesh quickly blurted, “we’ve gotta check it out. Don’t you want to know why the door opened for you?” She asked that while looking at me, her gaze eager. “There’s gotta be a reason, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Baidy agreed while bobbing her head rapidly. “You gotta wanna know.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “I do want to know. But hang on.” Rather than walk straight in, I focused on my connection to Tabbris. It felt a bit wrong to interrupt her time with her bio-dad and the rest of her family (including our dad), but this was important.
Flick? I heard in my head as soon as she acknowledged the mental pull. Um, are you okay? Wait– She absorbed the current situation as I opened my mind to her, before blurting, You found a secret vault door by Wonderland?! Neat!
A smile found its way to my face as I silently replied, Yeah, it’s pretty cool. But we’re gonna step in here to look around for a minute so could you stay connected just until we know it’s safe?
She quickly agreed, and let both Dad and Sariel know what was going on. Apparently they were teaching Jegudiel how to go bowling. Which kind of made me sorry that I wasn’t there to see it, but at least I had my own neat thing to investigate.
Once we were all on the same page, I nodded to the others. “Okay, I guess we can check this place out now. And hey, at least we’ve got a pretty damn good escort.” That bit came with a gesture toward Jeanne. “Can’t imagine the new Wonderland Tiebreaker being a pushover. Let alone someone who put up with Seth for so long.”
Smirking just a bit, the person in question gave a slight bow. “I endeavor to do my very best.”
From there, I was about to walk-in when I abruptly stopped and turned a bit to look at Dakota and Denny. “Err, sorry, are you guys okay with this? If you don’t want to be involved, we can take a break with this and I’ll come back later without you. No big deal.”
The pair looked at one another, a moment of silent conversation passing between them before Denny turned back to me. She visibly gulped, but straightened pointedly. “I-it’s okay. You’re here, and Mx. Jeanne is here, and… and everyone.” Her eyes glanced toward Avalon and Miranda. “I mean, I kinda wanna see what’s in there too.”
“See?” Sesh grinned, showing those wide, multi-layered sharp teeth. “We all want to get in there. So let’s check it out.” With that, she stepped through the opening.
“Hang on,” I started, while stepping after her. Nothing happened, however. There was no sudden explosion, no magically-appearing enemies, nothing at all. The air inside this tunnel felt slightly cooler than the air outside, but that was about it.
Dakota and Denny were right behind me, with Marina staying close to them. Avalon and Miranda came next, followed by Baidy, and Jeanne brought up the rear. With Sesh leading the way, we walked through the narrow corridor to the door at the far end. On the way, I kept thinking about the whole bit with the door taking my blood, asking Tabbris, Does your mom have any idea why it would do that and open for me?
There was a brief pause before the other girl replied, Mama says it really could be an ancestor of yours, or maybe it was checking to see if you were one of the vault’s enemies, or that you were human, or a Heretic of some kind, or weren’t affected by the Bystander Effect, or–
As Tabbris was in the middle of continuing that line of thought, Sesh reached out to grab the knob on the new door. The moment she did, the lights in the tunnel abruptly went out. We were cast into darkness. Before I could even think anything, a sudden, abrupt twisting sensation of being transported filled my stomach, and I found myself dropping through open air a few feet before landing sprawled on a soft floor. Around me, I heard a few more arrivals, and heard their grunts of surprise.
Tabbris, it was a trap! I blurted inwardly, already yanking my staff out as I jumped back to my feet. It was dark in here, but I could fix–
The lights came on, and I blinked against the sudden brightness. I was standing in a much wider room than that tunnel had been. It was circular and about fifty feet in diameter. The floor under my feet was carpeted, though the walls themselves were still solid metal. Straight across from me, at about the twelve o’clock position, was a set of wooden double-doors. To the right, at the three o’clock spot, was a pair of plush armchairs to one side of a comfortable-looking couch, all around one of those big old-fashioned CRT television sets inside of a massive wooden cabinet. The couches and TV all looked like they came from the eighties. There was even an old Nintendo and controllers set in front of the television.
Turning to look behind me, I saw a kitchen area at the six o’clock spot. It was literally a couple kitchen counters (including a sink) with an old–looking microwave and blender, a big metal fridge, and a stove. Again, they all looked like they were decades old, but quite clean. Like they’d almost never been used, or were taken very good care of. They were in practically pristine condition.
Finally, to the left at around the seven o’clock position, we could see a bathroom area. There was a toilet against the wall with a privacy screen that wasn’t pulled, along with a sink and shower.
“It’s like an apartment,” Sesh announced while standing up beside me as she took the whole place in as well. “Like an apartment that was dropped inside a bigger room or something.”
Quickly, I took stock. She was here beside me, but not everyone else had made it. It was the two of us, plus Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny. As for what had happened to Avalon, Miranda, and Jeanne, I had no idea.
Tabs, we just got transported to this–Tabs? I focused on my connection to the other girl, but there was no response. Uh, Tabbris? Oh come on, that’s impossible.
And yet, as impossible as it might have been, there was no response from my little sister. It was like she wasn’t there at all.
“Uhh, umm, what’s going on?” That was Denny, as Dakota helped her up off the floor. “What just happened?”
Marina, shooting a quick glance toward me, replied, “Something teleported us. It’s okay, just… just stay close.” She had her corseque (sort of like a spear with two sideways blades at the end in addition to the pointed tip) in one hand while scanning the room. “Flick, can you–”
“No good,” I replied. “Tabbris isn’t in my head anymore. Or something’s blocking her. Which, you know, is pretty damn impressive. Hang on.” With that, I tried a much more mundane solution. Namely, I took the phone from my pocket and looked at it. Unfortunately, there was no signal. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised by, given everything. But still, a sigh escaped me.
“Nothing?” Marina was checking her own phone, glancing toward me. When I shook my head, she grimaced. “Me neither. So we’re definitely being blocked somehow. But by who? And why?”
Thinking about how much Miranda and Avalon had to be freaking out right now, out there with Jeanne and Baidy, I tried using one of our emergency communication coins. It was supposed to allow us to send an SOS to anyone else with the coins. But again, there was no response. So this place wasn’t just cut off from normal phone signals and my connection with Tabbris, it was even blocking magic. I was starting to get a pretty bad feeling.
Still, there was something else I could try. I’d learned how to make a transportation spell while trapped in Fossor’s place. So, striding quickly to the nearby kitchen counter, I shoved the blender out of the way. My hand hit the surface and I activated my instant-inscription power to begin making the elaborate runes appear. Yet no sooner had they appeared, than they vanished, leaving the counter spotless once more. With a grimace, I tried once more with the same effect. Nor was trying it on the wall any better. It vanished there too. Okay, well I couldn’t exactly draw a spell if the drawing itself kept disappearing. And this sort of thing needed more space than I could get on a coin or stone. What was I supposed to do?
Turning to face the others, I shook my head. “Okay, I can’t use magic to transport us out of here if this place won’t let me draw on anything. Maybe we should look around a little more.”
“Why was it only us?” Dakota asked. She was holding Denny’s hand tightly, her voice making it clear that she was trying to keep it together and not freak out mostly for the other girl’s sake. “The others were in the tunnel too, so why’d it take us and not them?”
I started to say that I had no idea, but before any words could come out, those double doors in front of us suddenly opened. We all went on guard, as a figure stepped through. It–it was a robot. Yeah, a literal robot. The thing was clearly made of metal, though shaped like a human with legs, arms, and head in all the normal places and numbers. He was even wearing clothes. A suit, in this case. He looked sort of like a butler. The eyes on his metal head looked like glowing rubies, and he had no nose. His mouth was an array of smile-shaped lights that glowed bright blue as he called, “Hello, hello, hello! It’s so nice that you’ve finally come!”
Marina and I immediately moved in front of the two kids with our own weapons raised, while Sesh jumped to one side, with a pair of daggers held backwards in her hands. I was the first to find my voice. “Hey, stop. Who are you? Where are we?”
The robot butler promptly came to a halt, his ruby eyes glowing a bit more. “Oh, my greatest apologies. You’re absolutely correct, introductions are in order.” The lights that made up his curved mouth-shape shifted from blue to a light green. “I am called Sitter. My master chose the name because he thought it amusing. As though I was his babysitter. Which was odd, as he was very much not a baby. Or even a child. And most children do not create their own babysitters. But I suppose it was his sense of humor. And it was my duty to ensure he ate and slept properly while lost in his work.”
I was even more confused now. His master? Why–what? Before I could say anything, Marina spoke up. “Where’s your master now? And where are we? Why can’t we contact anyone else?”
“My master?” Sitter echoed, head tilting very slightly in a human-like display of curiosity or confusion. “But that’s why you are here, of course. As for where here is, you should know that already. We are within my master’s private vault. It is contained within a pocket universe, locked outside of normal space and time. That is why you cannot contact anyone from the outside. My master was quite insistent that there be no way for any undesirables to enter his sanctuary without permission. He was quite wary of being attacked. Which…” His mouth-lights shifted from green to a yellowish color. “I suppose was a well-founded fear after all.”
“We’re in a pocket dimension?” That was Denny, abruptly speaking up as her voice caught a bit, turning into a squeak toward the end. “Does that mean we’re stuck here?”
“Oh no, not all,” Sitter assured us, the lights turning back to their original blue. “Well, not for long, hopefully. I assure you, the very moment that you complete the job you were hired for, you will be able to leave.”
“Job we were–what are you talking about?” I demanded, tightening my grip on the staff. “We weren’t hired for any job. And where’s this master of yours?”
“But of course you were,” Sitter insisted. “You are Crossroads Heretics, are you not? The vault would not have allowed you entry if you were not Crossroads Heretics. And my master is the whole reason you are here.”
“The blood test thing,” I realized. “It was checking to see if I was–wait, Crossroads? Your master was hiring people from Crossroads for something? Who is he?”
Sitter’s glowing ruby eyes met my gaze. “My master’s name is Valdean Kalama Ecclestone. He was a well-known and respected member of your Crossroads community for many years, before choosing to retire in the very late eighteen hundreds, when he became dissatisfied with life as a Crossroads Heretic. Master Valdean became convinced that the beings he was assigned to hunt and kill were not deserving of such a fate. He designed this place to be his new home as well as theirs, and housed many non-humans within various apartments throughout this pocket dimension. They are all linked to this, Master Valdean’s chambers.” He waved his hand around to indicate the room we were in.
Taking in a breath before letting it out, I started slowly. “Let me get this straight, your master was a Crossroads Heretic. Then he decided that Alters–or nonhumans– weren’t all evil after all. So he built this vault with a pocket dimension where he brought people to live so they could be completely safe from any other Heretics who wanted to kill them. But where is he now? Where’s everybody?”
“Unfortunately,” came the response, “after many decades spent safe in here as a small, yet devoted community, there was a murder within these halls. One of our guests was killed by another. Precisely who was responsible, we did not know. Master Valdean became convinced that we required outside assistance. So, he contacted a friend in Crossroads, one whom he had recently come to know was part of a rebellion against their usual method of operation. He was a detective, one of their Bow Street Runners, named Ashby Banks. Sir Banks agreed to take the matter to his superior within the Bow Street Runners, another member of the rebellion, named Tribald Kine. He promised discretion and aid.”
“Tribald,” I muttered, wincing inwardly as the words came softly. “He’s gone now. He died.”
“I am very sorry to hear that,” Sitter gently replied. “It has been some time since Sir Banks agreed to take the request for aid to Sir Kine. We never heard back.”
Thinking about that for a moment, I realized, “The Rebellion eraser. It must’ve come after Ashby Banks agreed to talk to Tribald about this place, but before he actually could. The eraser must’ve considered this information to be part of what it had to get rid of.”
“I know that name,” Marina put in. “I’ve heard of Ashby Banks. He died a few years ago.”
“Which explains why he never told Tribald once the eraser was undone,” I muttered. “He was already dead, so he never had the chance.”
“This is all very distressing news,” Sitter announced. “Though it does answer our questions about the apparent abandonment. My master grew angry with getting no response, so he shut down all communication with the outside world, determined to solve this murder himself. Unfortunately, the killer struck again, and Master Valdean was their newest victim.”
“Wait, he was killed too?” Sesh gave a double-take. “And this place has just been sitting like this for decades?”
“We are quite able to sustain ourselves without outside interference,” Sitter informed us. “As you will see for yourselves in the course of your investigation.”
“Investigation?” I shook my head. “What do you mean? We’re not here for that.”
His gaze met mine. “Oh, but you must be. Don’t you understand? Before my master’s death, he ensured that only the ones from Crossroads would be able to enter this place. He agreed to the entry of only five investigators. Sir Banks, his superior, Sir Kine, and three subordinates. This is a large vault, with much space to search.”
“That’s why the others weren’t transported in with us,” Marina realized aloud. “We were the first five in line.”
“Quite so,” came the confirmation as Sitter’s robot head bobbed. “And I am quite afraid that my master was insistent that the killer be brought to justice. So insistent that he ensured the lockdown of this facility would not be ended until it is determined that the killer has been identified. Between that and his fear that the Crossroads Heretics would attempt to abandon their agreement, there is no way to enter or leave this place until that time.”
“What… is–is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Denny asked me, her eyes widening.
Slowly, I nodded. “I think so. We can’t get out of here until we solve this mystery, guys.