Dakota Coalbright

Growth 18-15 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

“Okay, wait, wait,” Marina piped up with obvious confusion. “What exactly are we saying here? That three people are missing entirely? I mean, he did say two-hundred-and-eighty-seven before, then suddenly it was two-hundred-and-eighty-four. But… but how could three people just completely disappear from his memory like that? Wait, do you remember saying that?” Her focus turned to Sitter himself. “Do you know why you went from eighty-seven to eighty-four?” 

There was a brief pause as the robot seemed to consider the question before his head shook. “I do recall it, of course. Now that it has been pointed out, the discrepancy is readily apparent. But no, I cannot say why the difference exists. My memory right now says that there are two-hundred-and-eighty-four guests. Yet the idea that I could have, as biologicals might say, misspoken before, is quite impossible. I must have seen the guest population as being two-hundred-and-eighty-seven at that time. Which can only mean that my memory has been adjusted between the time that I first announced the number of guests, and the next time.”

“Which was after we let down the time-lock,” I pointed out. You told us one number, then turned off the lock so they could move again, and suddenly the number adjusted by three.” 

Dakota piped up quickly. “So those three must’ve done something to change his memories.” 

My head was slowly nodding. “Yeah, I mean they had to have. I dunno why, maybe all three of them were involved in the murders. Easiest way to hide would be to make you forget they exist. But you said they couldn’t possibly get out of this place, right, Sitter?” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Until the murders are solved, there is no way to escape this vault. Even if they could breach the walls, it would not lead them anywhere, as we are in a pocket reality. Only once the murderer is identified will the knowledge of how to turn off the lockdown enter my programming. And even if they were aware of how to do that themselves, which is quite impossible on its own, I would detect the moment the procedure began. It has not.” 

“Which probably means they don’t know how,” I agreed with a murmur. “But they did change your memory. And that–hang on. No one came around you. We know no one came up with a screwdriver and wrench or whatever to do some reprogramming while we were standing there.”

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Denny hesitantly spoke up. “Um, I… remember something from Ammon’s… uhh, memories. There was one time when he had to change some camera recordings so his dad wouldn’t find out what he was up to, but instead of going to each camera, he made a guy let him into the main server room to change just that.”

“Hey, yeah,” Dakota agreed, looking back to our robot guide. “Do you have a server somewhere that controls your programming and all that? It’s not all just inside this shell, right?” 

My head was already bobbing. “There has to be something like that. You keep saying that your programming will be updated with the knowledge of how to undo the lockdown once the murderer is caught. And since the man himself isn’t here anymore, that has to mean there’s another system somewhere waiting to update you with the new knowledge, right?” 

“Just like how whoever this was updated him with new memories of how many guests there are,” Sesh pointed out, giving a double-take that way as she showed her impressive rows of teeth. “Does that mean they’re in the special server room right now?” 

“There is another server room which runs every system in this vault,” Sitter confirmed. “It is also where my core programming is stored. I do not believe that anyone could access the important details, but… theoretically it is possible for someone to have infiltrated the room and make certain minor adjustments, such as the number of guests currently within the vault. That is something which changed semi-regularly, so it would not be particularly well-locked information.” 

“So let’s get down there,” Marina immediately put in. “Even if they’ve already left, there might be, you know, clues or something. Plus–wait, hang on.” She did a quick about-face to look back into the other room where the rest of the guests were all waiting. “No one in there brought up anyone being missing, right? Not in any interview or when you were looking through their memories.” 

“They didn’t,” I confirmed while shaking my head. “Which means whoever did this probably adjusted those memories when they made them each think they themselves were the murderer. We already knew they were pretty good at changing that sort of thing.” Belatedly, I added with a grimace. “Good enough to fool me, anyway. If Sariel was here, it’d be a different story.” 

Marina’s hand moved to my shoulder. “Hey, she’s also had, what, several thousand years worth of practice? Give you that much time and I’m pretty sure you could slam dunk your way through noticing and fixing those memory adjustments too. Err, wait, which is better, slam dunk or homerun? I’m not really that much of a sports person.” She paused briefly, then added, “Please tell me they’re not both from the same sport.” 

Smiling just a little, I gestured. “It’s the thought that counts. And yeah, you’re right, she has a bit of a head start. Rght now we’re what we’ve got to work with. So let’s go down to that server room and see if we can figure out who those three missing people are.” 

Sesh gestured over her shoulder back toward the auditorium. “Maybe someone should stay here and talk to these guys? I know their memories have been screwed up, but if we point out that there’s a few missing, maybe it’ll trigger something. Whoever did this couldn’t have had that much time to make their adjustments perfect, you know? Ask the right questions and we might be able to poke enough holes in adjusted memories to make something important fall out.” 

Considering that briefly, I nodded. “Uh, yeah just be careful about it. They’re pretty delicate right now, what with finding out their friend was murdered and one of them could’ve done it.” 

“I’ll stay with her,” Marina announced. “We can talk to them, find out if anything pops up when they start thinking about missing guests. And yeah, we’ll be careful.” She hesitated, then looked toward Denny and Dakota. “Do you guys want to stay here, or–” 

“We’ll go with Flick and Sitter,” Denny immediately replied, her gaze snapping to me. “I mean, if that’s okay?” 

“Hey, sure thing.” I wasn’t sure how much of her immediate answer had to do with wanting to help me in the server room and how much had to do with not wanting to potentially have to use her power to interrogate the other guests. But either way, I wasn’t going to argue. They could help wherever they wanted to help. 

Dakota was nodding. “Yeah, Flick shouldn’t go off all on her own. Err, I mean, not that you’d be completely alone.” She looked toward the robot standing nearby. “But, that is–” 

“It is quite alright, Lady Dakota,” Sitter assured her. “You have only barely met me, and it has already been proven that my memories can be tampered with. While I still believe such adjustments would not be possible when it comes to my actual important, core programming, you can hardly be faulted for wishing to be more careful. Looking after one’s friends is important.”

Focusing on Marina and Sesh, I spoke up. “You guys be careful in here too, okay?” With that, I dug into my pocket and came out with a small, already enchanted coin, passing it toward the older girl. “Here’s an emergency alert spell. Anything happens, trigger it. I uh, assume you know how.” 

“Yeah, I’ve used them before,” Marina confirmed while tucking it away. “So you’ve got one of the opposite coins?” 

Nodding, I gestured to my pocket. “You set that one off and mine’ll start raising hell. And vice versa. We might not be able to communicate with the outside world, but we can at least let each other know if something goes wrong. And speaking of which…” I focused for a moment. “Okay, I set my taboo word as bletherskate. If you say that word, I’ll see your face and hear one word before it and one word after that. You could say, ‘need bletherskate help’ and I’ll hear all three words. It’s not a lot, but between that and the alarm spell, we should be okay.” That all explained, I paused before adding,  “Be careful in there, guys.” 

“You too,” Marina insisted before looking at Dakota and Denny. “All of you be careful.” The girl reached out, tugging me by the arm to take a few steps away before lowering her voice. “Take care of them, okay? They both want to help, but just… just be careful.”

I nodded, meeting her gaze. “I will. Believe me, I’m not about to let anything happen to them.”  

With that, Sesh and Marina went back into the auditorium to talk to the rest of the guests, while the three of us followed Sitter to the elevator. On the way, Dakota spoke up. “Do you really think there could be three extra people hiding somewhere in this place?”

“The entire facility is quite large,” Sitter replied while stepping onto the elevator and gesturing for us to join him. “I find it plausible that a trio of unknown beings could remain out of sight. Particularly if they have some way of identifying our location, such as a gift allowing them to sense others from a distance.” 

“I’ve got a sense like that myself,” I agreed while stepping onto the elevator with the others. “It doesn’t stretch very far, but maybe theirs does. Or they have really good hearing, or x-ray vision, or–” I coughed before waving a hand. “Let’s just say it’s not exactly a short list. There are a lot of different ways they could keep track of where we are. Hell, they might even be listening to us right now. To which, I would say–” From my pocket, I produced a different enchanted coin. This was the same privacy spell used so often last year, but not as much now. Still, I had plenty already prepared. Activating the spell, I tucked the coin away while continuing, “There, it’s not perfect, but this should keep them from understanding what we’re saying from now on. That way, if we do find something important, they won’t know about it. Unless whatever power they’re using is stronger than this privacy spell. Or they’re using some sort of visual thing to see what we’re doing. Or–” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Dakota put in. “We just need to be careful, right? If they do know what we’re doing, we’ll uhh, have to make sure they can’t do anything about it. And keep our eyes open so we don’t get murdered too.” 

“Yeah, not getting murdered too is a good idea,” I agreed with a grimace. “So, you’re right, let’s keep our eyes open and make sure they don’t catch us with our pants down. We know there’s three of them out there, wherever and whoever they are. Sitter, I don’t suppose going back over all your memories shows any… conflicts that would explain three missing people? Or at least imply their existence?” 

There was a brief pause as his head slowly turned to me, those mouth lights shifting to a soft blue. “I have indeed been going over memories. I believe you are correct, there are several missing people who should have been there. Putting together the amount of food consumed, chairs and other furniture used, time taken to clean, chores assigned, and more all implies the presence of at least two to three more people. I cannot, however, narrow it to more detail than that. Not yet, in any case. Given more time, I may be able to determine more information through exact dietary and medical needs.” 

Reaching out to squeeze the robot’s shoulder in a gesture that was probably completely pointless given the whole ‘robot’ thing to begin with, I replied, “Well, good luck. And here’s hoping it’s that easy. I mean, not that that sounds easy, but… more information is good.” 

“Yeah,” Denny put in quickly. “If you can figure out what type of people we’re dealing with, maybe that’ll tell us how they’re hiding. And if we know how they’re hiding–” 

“Maybe we can find them!” Dakota finished. She and the other girl high-fived then, before both sobered as she turned back to me. “Do you think they’re all trying to get out of here? I mean, did they all kill Valdean Ecclestone together, or are they just friends, or…” 

“I dunno,” I replied with a helpless shrug. “All I know is three of them are missing and it can’t be a coincidence. It has to be connected to the murders. So we find them, and we’ll probably be able to find our answers.”  

“I’m glad,” Denny murmured while the elevator rose up one level before starting to slide backwards on its way to our destination. “I mean, I’m glad it wasn’t one of the people in there. I liked them.” 

“That’s a good point,” I agreed. “They were all nice. If we can find out and prove that the real murderer is one of… or all of these three, it–well, it won’t be good, but at least we can tell the others that they’re all innocent. But uh, that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on getting to this server room to see if they left any clues behind.”

Almost as soon as I said that, the elevator stopped and Sitter announced that we were there. As the doors opened, we found ourselves facing a fourteen by fourteen foot room with one large black computer server running down the middle, leaving only about a foot of space between it and either end wall. The server reached almost all the way up to the ten foot high ceiling, and stood two feet wide. Beyond that, there was a desk in one back corner of the room with an actual computer terminal on it. Probably connected to the main server.

Taking all that in, I made a face. “You know, it’s just now occurring to me to wish that we had someone with real technical expertise in here with us. I mean, my dad might think I’m a genius because I know how to set up an ad blocker on his browser, but somehow I don’t think that’s gonna help right here.”

Denny gave a slow nod. “Uh huh, and even if I wanted to use the you-know-what power, it doesn’t work on computers. See, I’m pretty useless.”

Dakota gestured. “Hey, my thing is all about using plants. This isn’t a plant. But I’m still gonna try to help. Besides, we’ve got Sitter.” Her hand reached out to pat the robot on the back. “He can probably take care of any technical stuff, right?”

Mouth lights shifting to green, Sitter confirmed, “Yes, Lady Dakota. I will begin searching the server for any record of tampering or access. This will take several minutes.” He immediately stepped over not to the actual computer terminal, but the server itself. His hand rose and some sort of plug in jack extended from his palm before finding its way into an outlet there. Then his mouth lights began to cycle through every color imaginable as he worked. 

”Okay,” I started while turning back to the other two, “why don’t we look around here? It doesn’t look like there’s much room for them to have left anything behind, but you never know. They might’ve dropped something, or touched something, or whatever.”

So, the three of us spread out to search every corner of this small room. Just as I had expected, however, there didn’t seem to be anything worth finding. The place was pretty pristine. There were no secret coded notes, or a hat with convenient hairs in it, or a glass we could get fingerprints off of, or anything like that. If I hadn’t heard all about actual investigations from my dad over the years, I would’ve been surprised that crime dramas had been lying to me. 

But that was the thing. If I knew one thing from all the talks I had with my dad about his own experiences, it was that no crime was perfect. The problem with trying to pull off the perfect crime was that you only had to make one mistake. Touch the wrong thing at the wrong time, forget one of the lies you told to someone, leave something sitting where you shouldn’t, or anything like that. There were too many ways for someone to screw up. And it only had to happen once for your entire intricate plan to come unraveled. 

That’s what we were looking for, the one mistake. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like they’d made an obvious one here in the server room. At least, not at first. The three of us had given the whole place a once-over with no luck, and I was just about to tell Dakota and Denny that it looked like we were going to have to hope that Sitter came up with something. Except, just as I was turning to do that, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. One of the glass doors for the various shelving units that made up the entire server was very slightly ajar. It was incredibly easy to miss, given you had to stand at the right spot and look at it from the right angle to even notice that the glass door wasn’t shut and locked like the rest of them. Squinting that way, I leaned closer and gave it a slight poke with my finger. The door slid open, revealing the assortment of networked machines humming away behind it. 

“Flick?” Dakota asked, stepping closer along with Denny. “What is it?” 

“Someone left this open,” I murmured, giving both of them a look before turning my attention that way. “Something tells me it wasn’t Sitter. Let’s see…” With that, I leaned in, gaze sliding over the equipment in front of me. Not that I would’ve known if anything was out of place, but still. Someone had clearly been messing with this area recently. 

Leaning in close to me while I was helplessly studying the complicated assortment of computer pieces, Denny pointed. “Hey, look. That’s probably not supposed to be there.” 

My eyes focused on what she was gesturing to. A USB drive, sort of. It looked like a somewhat thick pen with the connector sticking out of one end and into the back of one of the bits of machinery. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but she was right, it didn’t look like it belonged there. 

“Yeah, that’s probably something new,” I agreed, hesitating. “But what’s it for?” 

“Location tracking,” Dakota announced. When we both looked that way, she held up a thick binder with an assortment of notes in it. “It was under the computer over there. It’s like an instruction manual or something. There’s a diagram of the server for a repair person to use, and this spot says it’s for location tracking in the vault. There’s no cameras, but he still keeps track of what rooms have people in them and how many.” 

“That makes sense,” I murmured. “I mean, the system probably turns off lights, oxygen, temperature control, stuff like that in rooms where no one is. Even if he gave them privacy by not spying on what they’re saying or doing, he still has the system monitor which rooms are occupied in order to save power or whatever else.” 

“So these guys put something in that system?” Denny asked before her expression twisted a bit. “Probably so no one would know where they were.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s gotta be blocking the system from noticing that it’s giving power and light somewhere that’s supposed to be empty. So do we just yank it out?” 

“Wait,” Denny quickly put in. “If you do that, they might know we found it. Or maybe the system will shut off the air and stuff in that area. They might be bad, but–” 

I was already nodding. “But we don’t want to just kill them like that. Especially before we know the truth about what’s going on and why.” 

Dakota leaned in closer to stare at that little device for another moment before tentatively asking, “Do you think Sitter can do something with it? Maybe he can figure out what areas it’s blocking, so we can find them.” 

“Yeah, maybe,” I agreed before turning that way. “Hey, Sitter! We found something, do you have any idea how much longer your thing will take?” 

There was no response, so I walked that way, seeing the robot standing there, still plugged in. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but–” My hand reached out to touch his arm. But when I did so, he literally tipped over. His attachment came out of the computer, and his entire body collapsed to the floor with a startlingly loud clang right in front of me. 

Jumping back in surprise, I found myself standing next to Dakota and Denny, who had come running up to see what was going on. Together, the three of us stared. Sitter was just lying there on the ground, his body completely motionless. His mouth lights were completely off. It was like he had been shut down entirely. 

“Well,” I finally managed, “that can’t be good.” 

Previous Chapter

Growth 18-14 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Nothing. There was nothing useful in any of these peoples’ memories about the murders. Or, more to the point, there was too much. Every single one of them knew exactly how they had done it. They had detailed (relatively speaking) memories of the entire process, their plans, how they had carried them out, their guilt over the whole thing, and so forth. They confessed everything to the others and let me access their memories so I could see for myself. All of them were cooperative, and none of it helped. 

Despite the number of people involved, there were actually only about ten different overall stories. It was like whoever had done this spell or whatever it was had only been able to come up with so many different scenarios, and then pasted those into the minds of these people. One per person. Before long, I didn’t even need to watch the whole memory, I just saw which one it was, checked for anything extra, and moved on. 

None of these people knew who had done this to them. They had no memory of any spell like this, or of anyone else performing any suspicious magic at all. Which also blew my mind, because this couldn’t have been a small spell. This was replacing the memories of almost three hundred people. Okay, it was more about adding a memory and modifying a bit, but still, that made it even more complicated in some ways. The idea that no one had seen anything involving that, no one had come across a spell–okay maybe the person did it in one of their private rooms. That was very possible. But still, it didn’t really help us here at all. For all we knew, the killer really was someone inside this room and they had simply erased their memories of it. Maybe Sariel could have sniffed out the right one, but I wasn’t that skilled with this stuff. And we couldn’t get out of here to get help from her. According to Sitter, the system absolutely would not allow us to leave until the right murderer was found. I had no idea how that worked, or how this Valdean guy had managed to set up something like that. All I knew was that Sitter was apparently incapable of overriding his own programming and he had been given very strict instructions about how this had to go. It wasn’t even just instructions, apparently. The answer for how to unlock the facility and allow us to leave was buried in his system and he couldn’t even access it until he was convinced the murders had been properly solved and the killer caught. Even if he wanted to go against his programming, he couldn’t. He physically didn’t know how to tell the system to let us leave, and wouldn’t until after we found the murderer. He literally could not access that information within himself. 

So, we had to solve this whole thing in a way that satisfied him. Though right now, all we had was hundreds of people with a few different stories shared between them. Maybe one of those stories was correct. Maybe I had literally talked to, and possessed, the person responsible for all this, and had seen the actual reason this happened. Maybe one of those ten scenarios was the real one. It seemed like it would be a good way to hide. If we dismissed every version of these stories, we might be dismissing the real answer. But there was no real way to check. Other than running through more of their memories, and I felt like I’d done everything I could on that front. There were holes in the stories, but everyone had those sorts of holes, the details that didn’t match up entirely, the faces that were faded when I looked too closely, that sort of thing. I managed to get pretty quick at simply checking those spots of the memory to see if the person in question knew anything more than the others, but always came up empty. Which, to put it mildly, was unhelpful. 

So, now I was taking a break. It had taken a couple hours to get through everyone, and now they were all having iced tea and sandwiches that Sitter had brought in. Not that many of them were eating that much. They all seemed subdued, talking very quietly amongst themselves about what was going to happen now, and who could have been responsible. I saw a few scared, anxious looks around, and a few people who clearly had their own suspects and kept staring back and forth at one another. There was actually less of that than I would have thought, a testament to how much work Valdean had put into creating a real community here. But still, there was some. 

Finishing my own sandwich while perched on the edge of one of the chairs that Sitter had provided up here on the stage, I glanced to where Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny were sitting with their own food. “I don’t know, guys. I think we need to search their rooms for the murder weapons. Even then, they could have used magic to disguise or destroy them. Though something tells me they probably wouldn’t get rid of a gun that could help them get out of trouble. If it could kill a Heretic, it could probably help them out against a lot of other people in here who might try to stop them.” 

“They might still have the weapons on them, in a hidden pocket or bag, or be able to summon them,” Sesh pointed out. “Magic complicates things that way, you know?” 

“Yeah, I’m not exactly shocked by that statement,” I muttered. “But, after going through all their heads, I think it’s safe to say that if they do have the gun or the ability to summon it, they don’t know about it right now. No one in this audience remembers anything about what they did with the weapons they supposedly used. Which just proves those are fake memories all over again, as if we needed another reminder.” 

“I’m really sorry I couldn’t help,” Denny put in after taking a deep gulp from her iced tea glass. “I mean, I’m sorry I couldn’t get the right answer that easily. But I can still help. We both can, right?” She looked to Dakota. 

Dakota’s head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. Maybe we can’t flick a magic button—” She stopped, glancing to me with a tiny smile. “Flick a magic button.” 

“Haha,” I retorted. “Not the worst use of my name I’ve heard.” 

The younger girl’s smile actually widened just a little. She seemed more comfortable here, shifting a bit in her seat before continuing. “We can’t–uhh, snap our fingers and get the answer, but we’ll help search. We talked to those guys, we–um, we didn’t really get anywhere, but we tried.” 

“And trying is all any of us can do,” Marina assured them. “You guys are doing just fine. Better than most. And I don’t just mean your age. A lot of people would have fallen apart by now. Or be making the situation harder.” 

“She’s right,” I agreed. “And hey, I couldn’t get the answer with either of my instant buttons either. I can possess everyone in this room to dig through their memories, and I can summon the ghosts of the dead. Neither of those helped. So don’t worry, we’re all batting zero right now. But that just means we have to get a little more creative instead of relying on cheating. We take this whole thing one step at a time. And right now, I think the next step is to search their rooms. Which…” I groaned a bit. “That’s gonna take awhile too. And we should figure out what’s going on with these guys first. Not to mention get their permission. Or at least tell them what we’re doing. I’m not… I mean we don’t exactly have legal procedures in this place, but still.”

“If we’re going to be better than the Crossroads system of just killing everyone, we have to really be better,” Marina put in quietly. “I know we can’t afford to like, say ‘okay then’ if they tell us they don’t want us to look through their things, but we should at least let them come with.”  

Sesh nodded, showing her impressive array of teeth. “I mean, that’s not a bad idea anyway. It gets them away from the rest of the crowd if we need to… you know, restrain them. Or worse.” 

“Well, so far, it seems like Denny’s power works on them,” I pointed out. “As soon as we find the person, she can just tell them to stand still and not hurt anyone, or whatever. Uh, right?” 

Denny gulped, but nodded. “I can use the power for that, yes. If it means telling a bad guy to stand still and not hurt anybody, I can definitely do that.”

Raising her hand, Dakota hesitated before asking, “But won’t it take a long time to keep going back and forth from here to all the rooms with one of those elevators?”    

“Right,” I agreed. “Maybe we should take groups at a time. Like ten or so. But who’s staying here with these guys? I mean, we shouldn’t leave them here alone and unsupervised. If the murderer is among them, bad things could happen.”

“Ahem.” That was Sitter, who had been standing on the far side of the stage. I wasn’t sure how good his hearing was, but apparently the answer was ‘pretty good’, because he turned to face us and came closer. “I am more than willing to watch over my residents, and capable of protecting them from any harm.” There was a brief pause before his mouth lights dimmed to a dull yellow. “Any harm I am aware of,” he added more quietly. 

“I’ll stay too,” Sesh informed us with a shrug. “You know, keep ‘em company, talk to people, whatever. You guys are probably better at the detective thing than me. I can at least keep everyone in here occupied. I’m sure they wanna hear stories about what’s been going on in the outside world, you know?” 

“Right,” I murmured, “that’s sort of the other big thing we need to tell people.” Grimacing briefly, I looked around at the others. Denny, Dakota, Sesh, and Marina all looked back at me. They knew what was coming, and we were all uncertain how it was going to play out. These people finding out that their leader and benefactor had been murdered was bad enough already, but talking to them about how they had been frozen for decades, that the world outside had kept going and… yeah. 

But, I wasn’t going to push that off on anyone else. Hard as it was, I had to be the one who broke the news to them. So, telling the others to hang on a minute, I stepped back to the front of the stage and cleared my throat. “Excuse me.” 

Now I had their attention again. Every single one of those nearly three hundred people were focused on me, clearly hoping I would have real answers for them. Too bad I was just about to make things even more confusing instead. That thought ran through my mind briefly before I shook it off, took a deep breath, and started. “There’s another thing we need to tell you. I’m sure you’re all aware that the original… murder scene was shut down and time-locked in order to preserve the evidence until people could get here to check it out.” 

Barely a couple seconds had passed after I said that before one of the crowd, a green-scaled reptilian humanoid with three eyes across his head and a crocodile-like snout raised a hand and asked, “How long?” His voice was loud enough to echo through the room, drawing everyone’s attention. “How long have we been time-locked?” His gaze was focused on me, even as a murmur started up. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? After Valdean was killed, they didn’t lock down a single room. They locked down the entire vault. So what Earth year is it now?” 

Oh boy. Seeing everyone staring my way as they whispered in confusion at one another, I grimaced inwardly before answering. “Okay, yes, the vault has been time-locked. It’s 2019 right now. January, 2019.” 

Well, that had the expected result. Everyone was suddenly talking at once. They wanted to know why it took so long, where the hell we had been, what happened to their families and people they knew outside, how various sports teams had done, whether the world actually survived past 2012 in a couple cases, if the Seosten had taken over and that was how I had these powers, and more that I couldn’t actually catch. It had instantly descended into total verbal chaos.  

Obviously, I couldn’t blame them. If I had to think about how I would feel to find out that I had been frozen for a couple decades while the whole world went on outside without me, I… I really had no idea how the hell I would react to that. Even if I had some of my family and friends with me, knowing that the others had gone on for that long, that the world itself had continued while I was… yeah. Yeah, I couldn’t blame them at all. It was a lot to take in, especially on top of what they had already been told. Even more so when you added in that we were also telling them there was a murderer among them. A murderer among their friends, the people they had spent so much time with in here and were obviously incredibly close to. 

Yeah, no wonder they were freaking out a bit. I was actually surprised they’d been holding it together this long, to be honest. We were dumping an awful lot on the group. So, I let them react for a minute, rather than immediately try to quiet them down. They deserved the chance to get some of that out, even if I really didn’t have the answers they wanted to hear. And, of course, this whole thing was made worse because now they weren’t nameless faces. I had been in their heads. I had seen some of their thoughts and experienced their memories. Sure, it was all jumbled for me and hadn’t had time to settle in my brain yet, but still. Every time I focused on one of them, I knew their name. They weren’t strangers, not really. I could still hear the pain and confusion that had been in each of their thoughts as they believed they could have been the murderer, that they could have been responsible for killing two close friends. Every single one of them was dealing with a lot right now. Too much, really. 

Finally, before things spiraled too far, I spoke up again. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry we don’t have all the answers for you. We’re working on it. I can tell you why it took so long for us to get here.” That started to quiet them as they focused on me, so I continued by giving them all a quick rundown of what had happened with the Rebellion itself being erased, and how that had clearly erased knowledge of what was going on here. Then the man who was actually told had died before the eraser was undone. Finally, I explained how us showing up had essentially been an accident. 

“So how long would we have just sat here if you didn’t show up?” one of the women demanded. 

I looked to Sitter, who promptly answered, “If not interrupted by the arrival of some Crossroads Heretic at some point, the time-lock could have continued for up to another one hundred and twelve years before our power supplies would have necessitated releasing it.”

If I’d thought things were loud before with a lot of questions and people talking over one another, it was nothing compared to what happened then. Everyone was talking at once. The mere thought that if we hadn’t happened to practically trip over them, they would’ve been stuck here for another hundred and twelve years, not getting out until close to the year 2150? Needless to say, it drew a reaction. Though through that, there were other people who were insisting that if one of them was a killer, it was the right move. Which just made them start talking about which of them it could be again, and things devolved into even more shouting. This obviously wasn’t getting anyone anywhere. And if I didn’t step up and stop it, the situation was going to get even worse. 

“We’re going to figure this out!” I called over the sound of their rising voices. “And as soon as we do, I promise, you’ll be free to leave the vault, or stay, or do whatever you wish. We just… we need to find answers, and once we do, we’ll give those answers to you. I just need you guys to wait here for awhile. We’re going to check out the rooms of this place, and we’d like to take a small group of you with us while we look into your apartments, so you can watch and talk to us about what you think is going on. You’ll all have a chance.” 

“And what if we don’t want you to look through our apartments and private things?” That was the purple slime-like figure from earlier. They had stretched themselves up to a full eight feet in height to draw attention to themselves. “We mean, you’re Heretics. Boschers. How do we know you won’t just plant something to make one of us look guilty and call it a day?” 

I hesitated, trying to find the right words. But even as my mouth opened to say something, Marina spoke up instead. “Because we’re not like them! If we were anything like the people you’re afraid of, you wouldn’t have to worry about us framing any of you. Because… because we’d just kill everyone in here. The loyalist Boschers, they wouldn’t care about making you look evil, because they already believe you are and they don’t need any proof one way or the other. If we were anything like them, we’d just come in here and kill all of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to be that blunt about it, but that’s the truth. We’re here and we want to help. We want to solve this, find the real killer, and help the rest of you do… whatever you choose to do after that.” 

“She’s right,” I confirmed, nodding that way. “We really do want to help. We want to find the real killer, and get answers about what really happened and why. I promise, we’re here to put things right, and that includes making sure you’re all safe. So please, can we get ten of you… let’s say you ten right there, to come with us? We’ll just go take a look at your rooms, talk to each of you in person again, and work our way through everyone. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find out the truth this way. Then we can all move on and talk about what’s next for all of you. What you all choose to do.” 

There was a bit more uncertain murmuring, but we had mostly gotten through to them. The ten people I had pointed out gathered up toward one side of the stage, and Marina, Dakota, Denny, and I joined them. Sesh and Sitter stayed behind to talk to the rest of the assembled group. Hopefully they would be able to find out something on their own by getting more of those people to talk. 

Meanwhile, Marina led the way out of the auditorium, while the ten people I had chosen trailed after her. Dakota, Denny, and I brought up the rear. It gave me a chance to look this group over. The slime figure was part of it, as was the Rakshasa male they had been shouting over before as both had tried to take the blame for being the murderer. The Rakshasa guy was called Padda. Meanwhile, the slime figure’s name, or as close as we could get to it in English, was Meshk. They went by they pronouns because they were actually a colony of beings, thousands of tiny slime-like figures barely a few inches across when stretched out, who joined together to form the larger collective body known as Meshk. Possessing them had been… a real experience, to say the least. I had actually only been possessing one part of the colony, but they were mentally connected to every other part, so it was basically the same thing. 

In any case, we headed out together and let our first group take us to each of their rooms in turn. Unfortunately, none of the ten had anything inside their rooms that screamed ‘murderer.’ As far as we could find, the weapons weren’t hidden anywhere, and talking to this smaller group didn’t reveal any extra grudges or clues or anything. They really had no idea who among them could be the killer. It seemed like basically everyone in this place, well, might not be best friends, but at least basically got along. 

We even, with their permission, had Denny use her power to have them show us any hidden or secret places inside their rooms. There were a few, even a couple with weapons hidden, but nothing like what we were looking for. And they all had valid reasons to keep stuff like that put away out of sight. They wanted to be able to protect themselves if the time came. 

So, those ten were a bust. As were the remainder. Over yet another next couple hours, we checked each and every guest’s room, taking the elevator (we had to use a larger one in a few cases) throughout the facility. I learned an awful lot about what comforts they all enjoyed, how they liked to sleep, and so on, but nothing about the murderer. There was just… nothing. I liked all these people just fine, and whoever the real killer was, I was going to be disappointed. 

Part of the problem was that there were just too many suspects. We couldn’t zero in on just a few that easily, because any of the nearly three hundred people could have been the killer. We just… had no direction. Right now, we were stuck just pulling in as much information as we could, and then we’d have to sort it out later. Thankfully, I had been taking notes on a notebook that Sitter had scrounged up for me. The notes were basically a mess, but at least I could sort of keep track of what I was finding out. I had the names of everyone in the place along with a few bits jotted beneath each one, and lines connecting them to others when there were (minor) grudges or friendships. 

Finally, after the last group had been brought back to the auditorium to rejoin their companions, I stood by the doorway with the others. “That’s it? That’s everyone?” 

Sitter, who had joined us, gave a short nod. His mouth lights turned faint blue. “Yes. You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.” 

“Yeah, well–wait, what did you say?” I turned that way, frowning. 

Sitter’s mouth lights turned a slightly brighter blue as his head tilted. “I said–” Then I heard what was clearly a recording of his voice from a few moments earlier, as it included the crowd noise from the room nearby. “You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.” 

“Dudes, what’s going on?” Sesh asked as she jogged up. “I’ve got everyone in here playing games, but they’re getting pretty antsy.” 

Holding up a hand, I thought quickly before asking, “Sitter, can you play back exactly what you said awhile ago, just when we were about to have me start possessing people? It was right after Jammi volunteered to be the first one. Marina said these people must really care about each other, and you said something about community spirit. What was that whole thing?” 

Again, Sitter played back an obvious recording from that moment. “Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit. We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”

Dakota hesitantly spoke up. “What’s wrong? Did something–did you notice something?” 

“Um, maybe.” Taking a breath, I focused on the robot. “One more. Can you play back the recording of exactly what you said while we were still in Valdean’s room, after you told us that the rest of the vault was on time-lock? You said you didn’t expect it to take this long for us to show up, then I asked how long everything had been like that. Can you play back your exact response?” 

Again, the robot obliged, and we heard his voice from earlier. “Every other room is, yes. Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the late-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a couple of years after the first death.” 

“I don’t–wait,” Sesh blurted. “Did he say–” 

“Two hundred and eighty-seven,” I confirmed while rocking back on my heels. “When we were in the room, before he turned off the time-lock, he said there were two hundred and eighty-seven guests. Now, ever since he unlocked things, he’s been saying two hundred and eighty-four. And that’s how many we’ve talked to, it’s how many are in this room, it’s how many people we checked out, how many I possessed, how many–trust me, that’s everyone in here. Two hundred and eighty-four.

“So where, exactly, are the other three?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Okay, did… did we just step into the largest murder conspiracy ever?” Marina managed to be the first one of us who found her voice after we were all struck dumb by the completely baffling array of hands raised before us. 

That was the thing. The fact that there were so many hands raised appeared to be baffling not only to us, but from the look of things, to the audience themselves as well. The assembled group were all standing there with their hands raised while looking around at one another and talking all at once. They were arguing with one another, demanding explanations, denying those explanations, crying in guilt, confusion, or disbelief, and just plain raising a commotion that was getting louder with every passing second. 

“Uh, Denny, I think you can tell them to put their hands down now,” I whispered, still reeling from this turn of events. They had all been part of these murders? That didn’t even make sense. The sheer–how? 

“Oh, r-right.” Clearly just as taken aback as the rest of us, Denny quickly told everyone they could put their hands down, but still not to hurt anyone. That didn’t stop the arguing spreading through the room, however. If anything, it just got louder as people turned to one another and started loudly demanding and/or desperately pleading that they stop lying and covering for them. 

I focused on one pair, a Rakshasa male and a purple slime-like creature, both shouting over one another to insist that they themselves were the killer, not the other person. A few feet past them, a Guhlben (one of the enormous, obese beings who stood ten feet tall and several feet wide) female in a very pretty dress was tightly gripping the shoulders of a pair of much smaller Satyrs while sobbing hysterically in between insisting that they shouldn’t take the fall for her. The Satyrs, meanwhile, were each shouting back at her that they were the one responsible, then looking at one another to blurt that no the other one wasn’t, they themselves were. 

And so on and so forth it went throughout the entire audience. Everyone was confessing to the murder and insisting that the other people weren’t responsible, it was only them. And the more they argued, the louder the arguing got. Not to mention the crying. A few of them shouted in our direction that the Heretics should take them, and leave the others alone. Which only made their friends loudly and frantically insist that they were the murderer. And it all just got louder from there. 

Finally, an earsplitting whistle filled the air, carrying on for a few seconds as it drowned out everyone and got their attention. It was Marina, standing up at the edge of the stage. She kept up the whistle until the whole audience finally turned to face us once more, quieting down for the moment. Which just left us standing there facing an audience of confessed murderers who were clearly just as confused about this entire situation as we were. 

“Okay,” Sesh announced dully while we stared around the room at all that. “I’m just gonna say it, this is pretty fucking weird.” 

“You’re right about that,” Marina agreed, her gaze shifting first toward Denny and Dakota, who were standing together looking baffled, then to Sesh and me. “What’re we gonna do now?” 

My mouth opened, then I stopped and glanced toward Sitter. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what’s going on here? I mean, without going into too much detail, these guys should’ve only been able to tell the truth when Denny asked if they were responsible for those deaths. They can’t all be responsible. Especially since they’re arguing with each other about it. That’s impossible.” 

“Maybe the power isn’t working anymore?” Denny offered hesitantly. She sounded rather conflicted about the possibility, glancing down at her own hands as though there would be answers in her palms. “Maybe it broke.” 

“I’m pretty sure if it broke, they wouldn’t have raised their hands at all,” Dakota pointed out. “Or only some of them would’ve. Not… not all of them.” Frowning in confusion, she glanced to the audience, who were starting to murmur amongst themselves once more, clearly desperate to go back to arguing about which of them would be taking the blame for these murders. 

Sitter, for his part, simply shook his head while those mouth lights shifted to a light amber. “I confess, Lady Flick, I am quite at a loss. It cannot possibly be all of them, and yet if, as you say, they would be incapable of lying in response to Lady Denny’s question, then the only answer is that–” 

“They all believe they were the ones responsible,” I finished for him, squinting a bit as I turned back to the audience. “Okay, umm… uh, don’t worry, people! We’re gonna get to the bottom of this, and uhh, and no one’s gonna go killing anybody else. We’ll figure this out.” 

God, this was weird. It felt weird. Why was I the one talking to these people? I was just a kid, there should be an adult here to talk to the audience, work all this out, and… and handle it. Yes, I’d been through a lot. I’d had to handle a lot. A hell of a lot, really. And yet somehow, being right here, talking to people and trying to calm them down like this felt like far more of an ‘adult thing’ than actually fighting in life and death battles did. Was it just because I was accustomed to the fighting part? Standing here, talking as though I had any sort of authority whatsoever, it just… it just felt awkward. It felt like they could all see through me, like everyone standing out there could see that I was just a confused little girl who had no idea what I was doing. 

“Flick.” Dakota’s voice was a whisper as she touched my arm. “It’s okay, you know? We can handle this.” 

It was like she knew me. She had known in a glance that I had been mentally spiraling right there. Managing a shaky smile, I nodded and straightened up a bit. I was acting like I had some level of authority because we were the ones who were here. So we had to handle it. There weren’t any adults here. 

No, that wasn’t right either. There were adults. I was one of them. So was Marina. Sesh too, I was pretty sure. We had to step up, take control of the situation, and figure this out. 

And then it struck me. As I stood in front of that audience of people staring at me for direction and answers, I realized why this, of all things, had made me instinctively look for an adult more than much more dangerous and life-threatening situations. Being on a spaceship flying into battle, facing down a horrifying Necromancer who had abducted my mother, dealing with a psychopathic Seosten cunt who wanted to rip my face off and kill my friends, none of that had any connection to my childhood self. It was all so utterly removed from anything the young me would have been involved with that it was like we were two entirely different people. 

But this? Yes, the details were completely absurd and removed from Bystander Flick’s reality, of course. But the more general part, that was a different story. Really, what was this? Remove the supernatural and alien aspects, remove all magic and extra-dimensional stuff, and it was a mystery. It was a mystery like the ones I had often gotten involved with back in Laramie Falls. Okay, not really like those, given my childhood mysteries didn’t tend to run all the way to one murder, let alone two. Still, though, that was what I did back then. I butt my nose into things, as more than one person from back then would’ve said. This situation right here wasn’t about fighting for my life, or about saving the world, or a desperate struggle for survival. It wasn’t about any of that. 

It was about a mystery. And in all of my old mysteries, I’d always had an adult to fall back on, an adult to point at the bad guy. I’d had a safety net, someone who could step in and take charge when the time came. But here, now, it was just us. We were the adults. I was eighteen years old. 

So how long would it be before I stopped feeling like I was faking the whole adult thing and started to actually believe I was one? When would the switch activate that made me feel like the adult I was supposed to be? 

Shaking that off as the thoughts rushed through my mind in a quick moment, I focused on the audience. “Right, so here’s the thing. You all think you were responsible for these murders, and obviously you can’t all be. Wait, hang on. I’m just gonna check something real quick.” Turning to Denny, I whispered what I wanted her to ask next. 

“Um, okay.” Looking hesitant, the younger girl cleared her throat before trying again. “My name is Denise, would everyone who believes they are solely responsible for the murder of Valdean Ecclestone or Mophse Kanter, without any help from anyone else, raise your hand? And if you do not believe you’re responsible, don’t raise your hand.” 

As expected (yet still baffling) by that point, every person in that audience promptly did so. Their hands shot up in the air like they were popping out of a jack-in-the-box. And of course, all of them immediately turned to argue with their neighbors, their friends. 

Before that could get out of control again, I loudly spoke up once more. “Okay! Okay, I think it’s obvious that this is impossible. You all believe you murdered these guys, and that you each did so alone. Clearly that’s not a thing. So it’s magic. It has to be magic. Someone… I think someone must’ve used a spell to make each of you think you were the killer. So just calm down, alright? At least ninety-nine percent of you are not the bad guy here, someone just used magic to make you think you were. And we’re gonna figure this out.” 

If I expected that to calm them down, I was sorely mistaken. Everyone started talking at once again. Some were arguing that I was wrong, they really were the killer and had to be stopped before they hurt someone else, while others were demanding to know who could’ve put that sort of spell on them, pointing fingers one way or another to others in the group. It remained one big chaotic mess. 

Hey!” Sesh shouted loud enough to be heard over all the arguing. As everyone turned that way, she added, “You all want to find out who really murdered those two, right? You wanna know who the bad guy is, who killed your friends and put a spell on the rest of you to blame yourselves for it?” When everyone out there gave murmurs and nods of agreement with that, she gestured. “Well, we’re trying to help with that. But you’ve gotta calm down for a minute. Stop shouting all at once, dudes. You’re not helping anything.” 

Coughing, I nodded along with that. “She’s right, we need to take this one bit at a time. If everyone would please sit down, we’ll try something else.” 

“Who are you?” one of the guests demanded. He, and everyone else, were already starting to resume their seats amidst more confused muttering. When he put voice to that particular question, all of them focused on me. “You’re a Heretic, right? One of the rebels? We heard something about rebels.” 

Oh boy, was that a complicated question. “That’s… a lot to get into,” I replied slowly. “My name is Flick Chambers. And yeah, I’m part of the Heretic rebellion. This is Sesh. These two are Denny and Dakota, as you heard. The girl over there with the great whistle is Marina. We’re here to help. There’s a lot more we need to get into, but first we need to find out exactly what happened here. So, for that, I’m gonna ask for a volunteer. Do all of you know who the Seosten are?” There was a general confirmation of that amongst the group, so I continued. “I have a Seosten’s power to possess people. Which means I can read your mind and see your memories. I want to do that, with each of you, one at a time. I want to see what you remember about what happened and compare all of your… versions.” I could see them getting nervous, shifting in their seats and looking at one another. “But I’ll only do it with your permission. And I’ll only be looking for stuff revolving around the murders, that’s all. Everything else is your business. This is just about finding out who… who killed Valdean and Mophse.” I felt a twinge of guilt about saying that so bluntly to people who had only just found out about the death of their benefactor, someone they clearly cared about a lot given their reactions throughout all this, but I really had no idea how else to phrase it. We had to find answers as quickly and efficiently as possible, before this situation spiraled out of control. If this whole group panicked, everything would get worse. I had to sound like I knew what I was doing. I had to be matter-of-fact and in control. That’s what these people needed right now. Even if I was faking it the entire time, they had to think I was calm and collected. They needed blunt, because they needed to believe this was something I could handle.

Pausing to let that settle in for a moment, I exchanged a glance with the others before speaking again. “Does anyone want to volunteer to be first? My friends here can walk through and talk to the rest of you about what you think happened in the meantime.” 

To my relief, after a few seconds of uncertainty, the Guhlben woman raised her hand while rising to her full height. “I ahh, I would like to submit myself for evaluation, madam,” she announced in a rather posh voice. “If as it turns out, the guilt I feel over those dreadful murders is mere sorcerous chicanary, I shall be greatly relieved.” 

She made her way around the assembled group, having been at the back of the room due to being one of the biggest people there. I heard and saw several of them murmur encouragement to her, belief that she wasn’t the killer, urging her to let them go first instead, and so on. 

“These people really care about each other, don’t they?” Denny murmured behind me. 

“Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit,” Sitter noted with pride in his voice, his mouth lights shifting to a bright green briefly before fading to a softer shade. “We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”

“Sir Sitter is absolutely correct right there,” the Guhlben woman announced, having approached the front of the stage by that point. She was still standing on the audience floor, yet she was so tall that she was still looking down toward me. “We are all family here. Granted, it’s a large family and we may not all be best friends. But we are family. Thinking about what I did to poor Mophse… and Valdean, I just–” She had started to tear up before catching herself. “But ah, if those… if those awful memories aren’t true, I would be very happy to hear it.” 

Offering her as reassuring of a smile as I could, I replied, “Well, that’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of right now, Miss umm…?” 

“Oh dear me,” she blurted, sounding positively scandalized. “I am so sorry. How awfully rude. I am Jamnikrah, but my friends here most often call me Jammi. Or Aunt Jammi. It’s… I can’t yet say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, given the terrible circumstances, but you all seem quite pleasant.” She added that with a little wave toward Dakota and Denny, both of whom waved back to her seemingly reflexively. 

“Okay, Miss Jammi,” I replied while continuing to offer that hopefully at least somewhat reassuring smile, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll just do that possession thing real quick. Be in and out, promise.” While saying that, I raised my hand that way. I didn’t reach out to touch her fully. Better that that be her decision, so it wouldn’t feel like I was taking her control away just as I was… sort of taking her control away.  

There was a moment of hesitation, understandable given what she was opening herself up to, before the large woman carefully raised her hand and touched it against mine. “If there’s something in my memories that can tell you who killed those two, please find it.” 

“I will.” Trying to sound confident when I said that, I glanced toward the others. “You guys talk to everyone here, try to get them organized into some sort of line or something, and see what they can tell you before I get to them. With so many people, this is gonna take awhile.” And with that, I focused on the possession power, disappearing into the Guhlben woman. 

Right, now I was inside her. I could feel her surface emotions and thoughts. She was terrified that she had been the one to kill the nice man who had been so kind and understanding to her, who had taught her so much of how she enjoyed presenting herself. He had seen past her species’ innate… size and helped her to feel proud of who she was and what she looked like. He gave her this pretty dress, and others like it. He taught her how to style her hair, and watched fashion shows with her. He didn’t judge and dismiss her. He took time with her, listened to her thoughts on the books they read, even offered feedback on her own short stories. She loved the man. Not in a romantic sense but more of a mix between a brother and a father. The news that he had been murdered had sent her reeling–no. She’d known he was dead, because she killed him. 

It was that confusing sudden turn that brought me up short. That wasn’t right. None of it was. One second she was reeling in horror from the revelation that this man who had been so important to her was dead, and the next, she was thinking about how she’d had no choice but to kill him. 

Needless to say, I dove a bit deeper into that and focused on her memories revolving first around Mophse’s murder. It was an accident. The man had found out that she had once unknowingly been part of the muscle for a group whose actions had led to the death of Valdean’s close friend. She’d only recently (at the time) realized who this friend was while talking to their host in his apartment area. Realizing that Mophse had overheard her talking to herself about it shortly afterward, she was terrified that he was going to tell Valdean and the man would kick her out of this place for the past transgression, that he would never forgive her. She found him in the sauna and tried to reason with him. He argued that Valdean would understand, that it was worse to keep things secret. She insisted the man could never know. The argument rose to the level of a fight before either of them knew it was happening. She kept telling him to just promise to be quiet about it. She was behind him, pulling the man back against her. He was yanking her hair, reaching up and back to shove his fingers in her eyes. She grabbed for a towel and wrapped it over his mouth while half-blinded by his grasping fingers. Bellowing and straining, she tried to yank the towel tightly in his mouth just so he would have to be quiet for a second and listen to her. 

But it wasn’t his mouth. She realized that too late. The towel was around his throat, and he… and he… died before she understood what she was doing. 

As for Valdean, that had been even more of an accident, a mistake. He’d unexpectedly called for her to see him in the kitchen, and she became paranoid that he knew what she’d done before. She took the pistol, long-squirreled away in her belongings, in the panicked hope that if he wanted her to die, she could protect herself. When she went into the kitchen, seeing Valdean with his back to her as he casually got food out of the fridge, she realized it had to be safe. But when she tried to put the gun away before he noticed, it accidentally went off. 

Yeah, there were holes in that whole thing. I noticed right away. For one, when I went digging deeper for this gang she had supposedly run with, leading to the death of Valdean’s friend, there were very few memories. They all turned blank and vague after that first quick glance. Not to mention the fact that she was too tall to have choked him from a downward position that way the body actually looked like. 

Oh, and there was the fact that she had no memory of changing everyone else’s memories. Which, yes, could have been because she had changed her own memories as well and erased those ones. For that matter, she could have specifically implanted easily disproven memories in her own head in order to look innocent, a sort of double-bluff. It would make sense for anyone who was trying to hide themselves. I really wished Sariel was here to do this stuff. Or even Tabbris. They would’ve been a hell of a lot better at sifting through these minds and finding buried or hidden memories than I was. 

But I was what we had. So, I gave another quick look through those relevant bits before thanking the woman. Then I emerged. 

“Are you okay?” Marina asked. She was standing nearby, with an assortment of people she had been talking to. The others were spread through the room. They were clearly still getting organized. 

I started to answer, then realized she wasn’t really asking me. Her focus was on Jammi. 

“Oh, I… I am ashamed, but well,” the woman assured her. 

“You shouldn’t be ashamed,” I informed her. “I’m pretty sure those memories are planted. There’s a lot of inconsistencies.” With a sigh, I looked out over the assembled group. If they all had altered memories like that, digging through and finding anything useful this way was going to be a nightmare. And yet, it was the quickest way I could think of. I just had to keep at it, going through memory after memory, thought after thought, until something big popped out. Or, more likely, until a bunch of small things popped out and we put them together like a giant puzzle. There were almost three hundred people here. This was going to take hours. 

“You know,” I murmured mostly to myself while looking out at the crowd and thinking about just how long this was going to take, “I think I know why detectives on TV are always drinking so much coffee.” 

“Is it so they have an excuse to run to the bathroom a lot and freak out in private about all the horrible stuff they’re hearing where nobody can see them?” Dakota piped up while she and Denny came closer. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I let my head tilt slightly. “Okay, two reasons. But come on, we’ve got a lot of people to talk to.

“And something tells me none of these memories are going to be pleasant to sit through.” 

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Growth 18-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a special commissioned interlude posted yesterday focusing on the 10 main prisoners of Gehenna. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can find it right here

The first murder, the one that wasn’t Valdean himself, had apparently taken place in one of the sauna rooms. As the elevator doors opened after another thirty-second trip, we found ourselves at one end of a hallway. The entire way down the corridor, on the right-hand side, were an assortment of doors, which apparently led to changing rooms for various sexes and species body types. Sitter led us through one of those locker rooms, which looked basically like any other though meant for only ten people at most, and with oversized benches and lockers that were clearly meant for beings averaging ten feet tall. 

“What about cameras in this place?” I asked as we were moving through the room. “I don’t suppose it’s as easy as checking those?” 

“Master Valdean did not put cameras in the vault,” came the answer. “He did not want his guests to feel as though they were being spied on.” 

The rest of us exchanged glances at that. It was understandable, of course. But boy would it have helped right now.

“This is the one that poor Sir Mophse used,” the robot informed us a moment later, gesturing to one of the large lockers. “That is where he left his clothes, wallet, and watch. Master Valdean took the items out and examined them, but found nothing of interest. He put the items back so any future investigator could see them as they were.” His mouth lights shifted from light green to blue as he regarded us. “I suppose that would be all of you. Would you like to see his belongings, or visit the body itself first?” 

Basically every single one of us blurted some equivalent of, “Let’s see his belongings.” Apparently despite our brave words about wanting to solve these murders, none of us were exactly eager to go and look at the body. Which might have seemed weird coming from some of us who had caused plenty of death already, but still. It just felt like there was a difference between killing someone in the heat of battle, mostly to protect ourselves or others, and seeing someone who had been coldly murdered. I especially didn’t like the idea of taking Dakota and Denny in a place like that. Not with their own histories. The second one of them said they didn’t want to be there anymore, I was planning on pulling them out. Hell, I felt guilty about even taking them this far. But they wanted to help, and it felt like telling them no would have made things worse. Besides, both of them had… well, some form of experience, even if it was second-hand in Denny’s case, with the whole murder thing. There might be something in one of the scenes that they noticed. 

So, we all stood there and watched as Sitter input the code for the locker and tugged it open. Then we looked through the contents. As promised, it was just a pair of pants, a shirt, shoes, and underwear, along with a watch. There was nothing especially unique about them, aside from the fact that they were all meant for a man several feet taller than a normal human. We searched through the pockets and checked the wallet and watch for anything, but it was all just normal stuff. Comically oversized stuff, but normal other than that. He had some sort of identification card that was basically the size of a full sheet of paper. Turning that over, I focused first on his face. He looked like a goofy, friendly guy with slightly too big ears and a narrow face. His skin was light pink, with bright yellow eyes. And he had this silly smile. It sort of reminded me of Wyatt for some reason, which just… made me feel even worse about the fact that he was dead and I’d never get the chance to know him. Which was probably silly, to ascribe that much emotion to a picture, but there it was. It also made me even less excited to go in and see his body. 

His name was listed as Mophse Kanter. He was apparently ninety-four Earth years old (it literally said Earth years), and next to that was a second number listed as seventy-five. 

“What’s this mean?” I asked curiously, holding that up and pointing to the second number. 

Sitter leaned in close to see what I meant, then his mouth lights turned bright purple. “Aha. Well, Lady Flick, the second number on those identification cards refers to what the age of majority for that species would be. The ahh, age of maturation. I believe in ordinary humans these days it is considered to be eighteen?” 

That made me do a double-take. “You mean this guy was seventy-five before he was considered an adult, and he died at ninety-four? That’s like a human dying when they’re twenty years old. How long does his species normally live? The ahh–” I checked the card for the species name. “Olleypha?” 

Holding those giant pants up in front of herself (covering her entire body in the process), Denny absently replied, “Average lifespan is four hundred and fifty years.” Then she stopped, lowering the pants so we could see her confused face as her head tilted. “Wait, how did I know that?” 

“Ahem, you are quite correct, Lady Denny,” Sitter assured her. He sounded curious too. “I do not know why you are able to answer the question, but yes, the average lifespan of an Olleypha is four hundred and fifty years here on Earth or on comparable worlds. They live slightly shorter lives on their own homeworld due to various environmental factors.” 

Dakota was staring at Denny, offering a hesitant, “Those have to be memories from you-know-who, right?” 

Denny, in turn, visibly flinched. “I–I didn’t learn it from anywhere else. I don’t even remember hearing the name of these guys, or seeing them before. But as soon as you asked how long they lived, I just… wait.” She reached out, taking the oversized ID before squinting at it intently. “Oh. Oh, I remember. There was an Olleypha who was in charge of this sporting goods store and I wan–I mean, I mean he wanted–Ammon wanted–” She stopped short, throwing the ID back to me before turning away with a visibly sick expression. Dakota moved to embrace her from the side and the two took a few steps to the side. Marina joined them, tugging the two further away to sit by one of the large benches to talk quietly. They were gonna need a minute. 

Okay, so she had clearly gotten a memory of Ammon doing something horrific to one of these Olleypha people. Something told me my little brother wasn’t exactly short on victims. That would probably happen more than once. Which was just… just another reason to hate Fossor. 

Sighing heavily, I turned to the others just as Sesh quietly spoke up. “What’s this?” She had apparently found a folded up piece of paper in the man’s enormous shoe. Unfolding it to its full, nearly two-foot-wide size, she showed us what it said. First, there was a short sentence in some language I couldn’t understand. Largely because half the letters just looked like completely random shapes. And the ones that did resemble the alphabet I was accustomed to had unfamiliar additions, like a capital Q that had a tail on both sides and a smaller circle in the middle. I was pretty sure it wasn’t any Earth language. Below that sentence was a date and time that actually were written in English. March thirteenth, four-thirty pm.

Sitter regarded that before promptly replying, “Assuming this was meant to be the same year as Sir Mophse’s death, that date would have been two days afterward.” 

“Can you read the rest of it?” I asked, focusing on the unfamiliar language once more. “It’s probably Olleyphan language, or whatever they call it.” 

Sitter, however, shook his head. “I assure you, I am quite fluent with all forty-three still-living languages from the Olleyphan homeworld. This bears no resemblance to any of them. Nor am I capable of deciphering it using any of the remaining five thousand, four hundred, and eighty-two languages that were programmed into me. I have no idea what this could mean.” 

“I wish Avalon was here,” I muttered, “She’s got that language deciphering power from that guy on the prison world.”

Sesh was grimacing. “So hold on, he had a note in his shoe with a sentence in a language that even the super-translating robot dude can’t understand, and a listed date for two days after he was murdered. Wait, did Valdean find that note?” 

“He should’ve,” I murmured. “You said he took that stuff out and examined all of it, and that paper wasn’t exactly hard to find. Did he show it to you? You know, so you could try to decipher it then?” 

“No, Ladies Sesh and Flick,” came the simple response. “Master Valdean never requested that I attempt to decipher that note, nor did I witness him find it. But he did not search the belongings in my presence. He wished for me to attend to the still-living guests at the time, and assure them that everything would be fine. You are correct, however. I believe he would have had to locate the note with only a cursory examination. As I said, he put everything back the way he found it for any future investigation.”

Taking that in, I brought back a bit on my heels thoughtfully. “Doesn’t it seem like he’d want his robot assistant, who speaks over five thousand languages, to see if he could read what’s on that note? Unless–” 

“Unless he already knew what it said,” Sesh abruptly put in, showing her teeth. “But how would he know what it said if Sitter here doesn’t understand it? He’s the one who programmed you, right?” 

“Which would mean he speaks it but deliberately didn’t program you with the knowledge,” Marina added. She had come back with both other girls, who were standing slightly behind her. “Why would he do that unless it was something he didn’t want you to know?” 

“It does seem a little odd that he’d program that many languages into you without adding this one,” I tentatively agreed, looking at Sitter directly. “Either he didn’t understand it and chose not to–wait, we’re being dumb.” My head shook. “He programmed you, so he’d know exactly what languages you understand. If he could tell this was a language he didn’t program into you, of course he wouldn’t ask you to decipher it.” 

“That would follow logically,” Sitter confirmed, before adding, “Except I will say that he was not the only one to program languages into me. He did not speak all of them himself, and thus had much of that outsourced to others. My language database was transferred through three dozen experts in order to be prepared to assist with the needs of any guest who might have entered our facility.” 

Marina shook her head with a glance my way. “It was a good thought, anyway.” 

A heavy exhale escaped me. “Right, good thought. Except now we’re back to, ‘he could have asked Sitter to translate but didn’t, so he either knew what it said already, or he chose not to let his robot assistant see the note for some reason.’” 

We didn’t get anything else useful out of searching the locker or his belongings. So we took the note and identification card with us while reluctantly heading to see the actual crime scene. Sitter led us to a doorway at the back of the room, leading to a separate hall parallel opposite from the first one. On the far side of the hall was a large set of double doors leading into a pool area. Or rather, pools. The doors were opened, and I could see six different varying sized swimming pools. The smallest was only about ten feet long and a few feet deep, the next one up was slightly over Olympic-sized, and they got bigger from there. The largest one would have been the equivalent of that second size for someone as tall as Mophse himself. Needless to say, the room itself was gigantic, stretching off into the distance. If Valdean had gone to this much trouble to have different-sized swimming pools for his guests, wow. This place was clearly meant to be comfortable for a lot of varyingly-shaped people. It was impressive, to say the least. 

But that wasn’t our destination, so we just took a moment to look that way before continuing on down the hall. There were more doors further on, all of different sizes as well. These led to places like the saunas. Three of those had holographic symbols projected over the doors. Numbers, it looked like. 

Seeing my attention turn that way, Sitter explained, “These are the saunas which were occupied when I established the time-lock. The numbers are how many are inside.” 

“They’re not gonna be hurt, are they?” Sesh quickly asked. “I mean, that time-lock you’re talking about won’t let them be umm… you know, how you’re not supposed to spend too much time in the heat like that?” She flinched visibly with a quiet, “Dad killed someone like that before. He made me watch.” 

Well, that was nice and horrifying. I felt my stomach twist in disgust while Sitter shook his head. “I assure you, Lady Sesh, the timer-lock freezes everything within the room, including any physical effects. When it is released, it will be as if no time has passed. Aside from all the time that has passed.” His head cocked a bit, like he was considering the words he’d just said, before focusing once more. “This way. Sir Mophse was relaxing in the furthest sauna that would accommodate one of his size.” 

Yeah, I definitely wasn’t eager to see this. And from the look of the others, neither were they. Dakota and Denny were lagging behind a lot, while Marina kept pace with them. She had tried to tell both that they didn’t need to come along for this, but they insisted. There was clearly a lot of hesitation and fear, yet also firm insistence. They didn’t want to do this, but they were going to anyway. They both wanted to help figure this out. If anything, learning more about Mophse and seeing his face on that ID card had just made them even more determined. 

As for the murder scene itself, I had certainly seen far more graphic deaths. I’d caused far more graphic deaths. When Sitter shut off the time-lock using some sort of wi-fi-like connection he had to the main computer and opened the large door, I just saw the man’s body lying there on an oversized bench on the opposite side of the room. He was wearing bright orange swim trunks that clashed horribly with his pink skin. And yet, somehow that just made him seem even more innocent. For a moment, it looked like he was just sleeping. Then I saw the way his throat was partially collapsed. It looked like someone had wrapped something around it to choke the man, crushing his trachea in the process before leaving the body there. 

Swallowing hard, I stepped inside and moved to look down at his face. Even in death, he looked like a fun, goofy guy. It made me clench my hand tightly. Who could have done this? Valdean had taken these people in and cared for them. He protected them and gave them this whole place to live and relax in. Who would have murdered Mophse at all, let alone like this? This hadn’t been simple. He wasn’t poisoned and someone didn’t shoot him in the head or even stab him. This seemed personal. This meant that someone had come up behind, wrapped something around his throat, and held it until he died. He would have been thrashing, kicking, fighting to get free or to plead for his life. Whoever had done this had clearly been unaffected by all that. This person was a stone-cold murderer. 

With a soft sigh, I closed my eyes and reached out with my Necromancy. For over a minute, I tried to sense any ghost at all, but ended up with nothing. There was no sign of Mophse’s spirit, or anyone else’s.

Dakota silently stepped closer once I told the others I had nothing, staring down at the body from just beside me. I could see the emotions twisting their way through her expression. She was clearly lost in memories of her own family’s night of terror and violence. Finally, she spoke in a soft voice. “They were shorter than him. The… the way the throat’s collapsed, it’s pulled down. Whoever was behind him held the thing up around his throat and pulled back and down on it. It’s–” She blanched, folding her arms tightly across her stomach before quickly turning toward Marina as the older girl came up behind her to embrace the girl tightly. She couldn’t say anything else. 

Denny, meanwhile, stepped up on my other side, staring at the body as well. “I think he trusted the person. Look, there’s two towels on the rack over there.” She pointed that way. “One of them looks like it’s big enough for him, but the other one’s smaller, more human-sized. And they’re a little bit apart. Not like one guy taking two towels, more like two guys with separate towels.”

She was right, of course. Two towels, one clearly meant for Mophse himself and the other meant for a human-sized person. Taking that in, I murmured, “And if he was sitting in a sauna with a person like this, it was someone he knew.” My gaze turned to nod in agreement with Denny’s assessment. “It was someone he trusted.” 

Sesh, meanwhile, had stepped that way to run her finger close to the very edge of the smaller towel, without actually touching it. “Can we get like umm, DNA or whatever off this? Maybe whoever it was had it wrapped around themselves. It could tell us who they were. Or at the very least, which species they are.”

Unfortunately, Sitter scanned the towel before shaking his head. His mouth lights dimmed to a very soft orange. “I am sorry, the towel is clean aside from Mophse’s own fingerprints. It seems he was the only one who touched it since it was taken from the clean supplies at the far end of this corridor.” 

“Probably grabbed the towel for his friend,” I muttered. “The friend who killed him.”

Well, that certainly didn’t do a lot for the mood. We also didn’t find anything else of interest for the moment. And we all wanted to get out of that room. Not that our next destination was going to be that much better. Planning to come back and check the place out again later, we went to see the body of Valdean himself. 

As Sitter had told us before, that took us to one of the kitchens. Apparently there were three of them, and this was the smallest. It was the one the guests had used the most when they were just getting something for themselves. Even then, however, the room was about three times the size of the kitchen I’d had back at my family’s house in Laramie Falls. There were four different stoves and five microwaves. 

Oh, and the body, of course. Valdean was lying on the floor in front of the enormous silver refrigerator, on his side. Unlike the clear choking wounds of the other body, he had a single gunshot in the back of the head. From that sight of that, as well as the tray of food scattered along the floor, it looked like he had been getting a midnight snack or something when someone stepped up behind him and just… shot him. It was far less personal. Maybe they didn’t want to take the time it would require to actually choke him out? Or maybe they were afraid an old Heretic would be able to survive that and even beat them. Speaking of which–

“Did he have any powers that would’ve told him someone was behind him?” I piped up. “Or, uh, you know, should’ve let him survive being shot in the head by a normal gun?” 

“It’s not a normal gunshot,” Sesh informed me. She had already stepped over to kneel next to the body, staring at the wound intently. “This is from some sort of powerful laser. Probably bypassed any defenses he had.” Her voice softened. “Dad used those sometimes.” 

“Indeed,” Sitter confirmed. “Though Master Valdean would have been aware of someone behind him, he likely would not have seen them as a threat. Even after the murder of poor Mophse, Master Valdean remained quite fond of all his guests. It tore him up to think that one of them could have been Mophse’s killer. He spent a long time attempting to find out if anyone had somehow broken inside. Which, of course, should have been quite impossible. And yet… he wanted to believe that was the answer.” 

Right, some even after this poor guy had dealt with the murder of one of his guests by another guest, he still tried to believe in them. And what had been his reward for that? Being shot in the back of the head. 

Once again, I tried to reach out for any ghosts, especially Valdean’s. But just like the other room, there was nothing. If there had been any spirits here, they were gone by now.

Denny was staring down at the body, clenching her hands tightly. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Can we talk to the guests now? I want to find out which one of them did this.” 

She was angry, I realized. She had taken in everything we did, learned everything we did, and now she was mad. She wanted to find out who could have betrayed an obvious friend like Mophse, and a nice guy like Valdean, who had taken them all in and cared for them. 

So, Sitter turned off the time-lock in every room, and sent a message summoning everyone to the main meeting hall. He made sure to keep the doors leading other places locked and closed off, funneling the whole population of this private vault that way. As far as we knew, none of them would have any idea that this much time had passed. That was going to be a pretty big bomb that to drop. 

In any case, we took the elevator to the grand meeting room ourselves. It was a theater, basically, and our path took us to the stage itself. Which left our little group standing there next to Sitter, facing an audience of what had to be two or three hundred beings of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I saw some of the same sort of species I had previous experiences with, but also a lot but I didn’t. This was… this was a lot of very unique people, all sitting in chairs that had clearly been carefully designed for them. 

They were also all talking amongst themselves, very confused. Especially when they saw us. That prompted a few shouts about Heretics, and a couple of the larger people moved to cover the others, clearly protecting them. 

“It’s okay!” I called quickly. “It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt anyone! You’re okay, you’re–” Fuck, I couldn’t say they were safe. Not with an unknown murderer wandering around among them. We really should have planned for this. I’d forgotten what it was like for people who didn’t know the Rebellion was a thing. Or at least didn’t know much about it.

At least these people had spent time around another Boscher. They seemed to accept that easily enough. Which, to be fair, there probably weren’t many loyalist Boschers who would bother to reassure them before going straight to the attempted murder. 

Either way, a few shouted out questions about who we were and where Valdean was. Which made me grimace. 

Finally, Sitter made a microphone rise from the bottom of the stage, speaking up in front of it so his voice was projected throughout the room. I also heard it echoed moments later from speakers along the walls in various other languages so they would all understand. “Friends! I am… I have arrived with an assortment of terrible news. First and foremost, I am sorry to say that our founder and benefactor, Valdean Ecclestone, has… been murdered.” 

Okay, I would’ve chosen to be a bit less blunt about it, personally. Needless to say, that started a huge uproar with most people leaving their seats, shouting questions, and basically demanding to know what had happened. Looking to Denny, I whispered, “Now, before they have a chance to leave or do anything drastic.” 

She looked hesitant, of course, but quickly moved that way. Sitter promptly stepped out of the way, as everyone in the room stared at her. Several hundred sets of eyes all staring at her. It had to be a lot of pressure. 

And yet, Denny’s voice sounded remarkably clear as she spoke into the microphone. “H-Hello. My name is Denise. If you had anything to do with the murder of Valdean Ecclestone or Mophse Kanter, please do nothing to harm anyone or try to leave the room, and raise your hand.”

I was prepared to get no reaction, in case the person responsible wasn’t actually here. I was also prepared to see one person raise their hand against their will, giving away the truth. What I was not prepared for, however, was what actually happened. 

Every single person in the audience raised their hand. 

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Growth 18-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Leaving the room we’d started in, that Valdean Ecclestone guy’s quarters apparently, led to a large elevator. It was more like one of those freight versions used to transport cargo up and down somewhere than a normal office building type. Rather than having solid walls, there were bars all around us so we could see out. Ahead of us was the doorway into the room we had just come from. Behind us was a tunnel just wide enough for the elevator itself. To the left and right, as well as above, were the bronze-gold metal walls of the main vault structure. 

According to our new robot friend, Sitter, the elevator didn’t just go up and down. It also went forwards and backwards and sideways along an elaborate track system. Basically, the entire underground vault consisted of chambers that were separated by that thick metal. And the stuff wasn’t even normal metal. It was meant to ensure the privacy and safety of those within, so it was impossible to phase through, or even use vision powers to look through. Even ghosts couldn’t pass through it properly. Not that I had actually brought any ghosts along with me to check, which was another oversight that I should probably have been yelled at for. But in my defense, I hadn’t expected to be sent to a pocket dimension where I wouldn’t be able to contact the ghosts I left up on the Starstation. Even my increased necromancy power couldn’t reach them from here.

In any case, Sitter called the metal the walls were made out of orichalcum, apparently named by Valdean based on the old myths. Valdean had created the alloy himself, which made me even more curious about just how brilliant the old guy had been. Either way, this orichalcum was very strong in addition to preventing phasing and other powers from reaching through it.

“So what stops someone from using magic to go through it?” Marina asked as we stood in the large elevator. We hadn’t actually gone anywhere yet, as Sitter had been explaining what the bronze-gold metal on the walls beyond the elevator’s cage-like walls was. She was brushing her finger along one part of it while her mouth quirked a little at the sensation. Given I’d already done the same, I knew what she was feeling just then. There was a sort of low-level electric-like current constantly running through the metal. It was a little bit like very slight static electricity. 

“I am so glad you asked!” Sitter chirped. He really did seem to enjoy explaining things. “You see, this particular alloy naturally absorbs any magical power put into it, in order to strengthen and reinforce itself. Ah, in other words, you could draw the runes for your spells upon it. But the moment you attempted to empower those runes with actual magical energy, the metal would absorb that power so that the spell was never actually cast. The walls themselves devour that power quite voraciously, and become even more difficult to break through in the process. And I believe you already experienced the other side of this defense. The walls automatically erase anything written on them.” 

Marina and I exchanged a look, as the older girl quietly spoke up. “It um, it sounds like this whole place could be used as a prison as much as a vacation home. Every chamber is separated from the others, it’s in a pocket reality so even if they do get out they can’t go anywhere, and even the walls are made of stuff that traps them and blocks them from using magic to get through or even see into the rest of this place.” She sounded hesitant, like she felt a little bad about pointing out the obvious negative ways a vault like this could be used. 

“Oh, no, no, no.” Sitter started before pausing to reconsider. “Well, yes, I suppose you are quite correct. Master Valdean’s creations could be used to entrap people. But he truly desired to protect them, to keep them safe from the others of his–your–from others who would kill them. They were always, always to be free to leave if they desired. Unfortunately, the… murders have put certain protective protocols into place which supercede that. We must determine who the killer is before anyone may leave. But once that’s done, anyone inside may come and go as they please! That…” He paused, his mouth lights dimming to a very soft yellow. “That was Master Valdean’s intention. Only to help and protect the people he had done so much harm to in the past. He wished to use his gifts for good.” A note of sadness for his creator’s final fate had crossed into the robot’s voice, as he slumped just a little bit. 

“It’s okay,” Dakota quickly put in while standing next to Denny. “We believe you. I mean, we believe that Valdean wanted to use this place to help people. Right?” 

I nodded. “Right. We’re just saying, someone else could’ve used this place for… uh, worse purposes. I know he was the second one to die instead of the first, but he still could’ve been the main target. Like I said before, it could’ve been about someone finding out that he intended to help the Rebellion and they got nervous. Or it could’ve been about wanting to turn this place into a prison. We don’t know enough yet.” 

“Why…” Denny started to speak up, only to fall silent when everyone looked at her. Flushing slightly under the attention, she clearly forced herself to continue a bit hesitantly. “Why would they kill the other guy first, though? I mean, if it was about Valdean.” 

“We need to find out more about that first murder,” Sesh noted while folding her arms with a thoughtful look. “About who the victim was, where they were when it happened, what was going on, everything.” Seeing us stare at her, she shrugged. “What? I’ve read detective stories before. Even played this short campaign in a game called Bubblegumshoe, which–err, never mind, not the point. Anyway, we need to find out more, right?”  

“Of course, of course,” Sitter confirmed. “I will take you there and tell you everything I can about the crimes and those who live here. But first, as I recall, you wished to send a message to the outside world?” 

Marina gave me a quick glance while nodding. “Yeah, we need to let our people out there know that we’re okay. Well,” she paused before adding, “as okay as we can be while trapped in a pocket dimension with a murderer on the loose.” 

“If they try to murder any of us,” I pointed out, “they’re in for a big surprise. We’re all pretty good at not being murdered.” 

“I bet Valdean was too,” Denny muttered under her breath, seeming to only belatedly realize she’d said that out loud. Her eyes widened as she glanced up at me, quickly starting to apologize. 

“No, it’s okay, you’ve got a point,” I agreed. “We need to keep our eyes open and be careful. But hey, with any luck, we can solve this mystery as soon as we get to the rooms where they were murdered. I might be able to just summon their ghosts and ask who killed them.” 

“You are a Necromancer?” Sitter focused his attention on me, sounding quite interested. “Yes, yes, excellent. Perhaps this long-festered crime may be brought to light after all. Are you–would you be prepared to attempt such a thing soon?” 

“Just point me at the rooms where the murders happened,” I confirmed. “If there’s anything left of their ghosts, I can summon them. But uhh, there’s a decent chance there isn’t anything. After all, it’s been decades. The um, energy might’ve dissipated by now. They might’ve moved on. But it’s possible.” My shoulders rose in a shrug. “Guess we’ll find out either way, huh?” 

“Could you find out who the killer is?” Dakota was asking Denny, gaze focused on her friend. “I mean, if you talk to each of them individually and… use your–” 

“I can’t,” she quickly put in, head shaking as her body seemed to physically recoil at the idea. “I can’t use that power to make them tell the truth. If I–if I do anything with it, if I use it, he’ll know. His memories will know. They’ll come back, they’ll try to–” 

“Easy, it’s okay,” I interrupted, reaching out to touch the girl’s shoulder while trying to keep my voice as calm and reassuring as possible. “No one’s gonna force you to use that power, Denny, I promise. If you don’t feel comfortable trying, it’s okay. We understand.”

Giving a visibly and audibly heavy sigh, Denny offered a weak, “I’m sorry. I– know it sounds dumb. I know he’s dead and gone and he can’t control me. But if I use his power, if I force people to do something they don’t want to do, if I take control of them, it feels like… it feels dangerous. It feels bad.” 

Dakota put an arm around the other girl, squeezing firmly. “It’s like Flick said, nobody’s gonna force you to use it. Maybe umm, maybe you could ask people if they agree to have it done, so they can clear their names? You know, then it’s more of a volunteer thing.” 

Marina nodded. “And the ones who don’t agree, maybe they have valid reasons for that. They don’t have to trust us. But they’re the ones we can focus on more. Anyone who agrees to have you use that power could clear their name.” 

“I can possess people too,” I noted. “Get into their memories that way. Anyone who agrees to that, we could clear them pretty quick and move on to people who won’t agree. Abigail would say they have the right to not have people combing through their memories if they don’t want it. Or to be mind-controlled into answering.” 

Denny still looked quite hesitant about the whole thing, but swallowed hard before agreeing. “Maybe if… if they agree to it.” 

“Really?” Sesh was blinking back and forth between us. “I mean, I get it, sure. Just seems like it’d be really easy to just get everyone in one room and say, ‘Hey, raise your hand if you killed these people.’ It could be done and over with in two seconds. Sure, they’ve got rights and manipulating people is bad. Trust me, I get that. My dad’s a giant piece of shit and I don’t wanna be anything like him. But don’t the dead people and the innocent ones in here have rights too? It’s not like ‘raise your hand if you murdered these people’ is gonna hurt them. I–” She stopped abruptly, blanching. “I–I’m sorry. I’m not trying to guilt trip you or anything, I swear. I understand why you’d be hesitant about it. I’m just…” 

“Put them in a room,” Denny very quietly murmured. When everyone turned to her, she closed her eyes briefly before straightening up. “She’s right. If I say… if I say ‘If you’re the person who killed these people, raise your hand,’ then the only person it’s affecting is that person. And that person deserves to be made to raise their hand, at least. Right? We could solve it really fast that way. If it turns out to be that easy. I mean, we might as well try.”

For a moment, I exchanged a look with Marina before turning back to the other girl. “If you’re sure you’re comfortable with that. No one wants to force you to use your power.” 

Sesh was nodding hurriedly. “Yeah, totally. I’m sorry I said anything. I mean, I still believe it, but–” 

“It’s okay,” Denny insisted, though she was trembling a little bit. “I can do it. Just–I just need a minute to um, to be ready.” 

“Sure,” Marina gently assured her, “take all the time you need. We can go send the message about being okay first. Then we can look at the crime scenes. If Flick can contact their ghosts, we might not need you to do anything at all.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed. “We’ll send the message, then check for the ghosts. If we can’t find any, then we’ll… talk to everyone else and you can test them.” 

“Please make it be everyone at once,” Denny quickly put in. “I don’t want to use the power over and over again. Just one time, all together in one room.” She still sounded hesitant about doing this whole thing at all, but determined to at least try, no matter how hard it was for her. Clearly the idea of intentionally using her inherited power at all, even for something like this, was hard for her. Which, given my own hesitation about the whole necromancy thing despite everything I already knew about it, I couldn’t really blame her too much for. We both really needed to accept that it wasn’t the power that was evil. 

Well, I mostly had. It just still wasn’t my first instinct to use it, even after all this time. I had to work on that. Having Fossor and Manakel’s necromancy was a strength that I really needed to exercise more. I had to get better at it. Not just in training, but in everyday life. I needed to make it second-nature. 

Meanwhile, Sitter seemed to consider Denny’s words for a moment before giving a short nod. “Of course. I will unlock the time stop and request that everyone proceed to the main theater for an important meeting. That should be a large enough space to greet and test everyone.” 

First, of course, we needed to let everyone outside know we weren’t being murdered or tortured or anything. And then see the murder scenes, so I could check them for ghosts. Which was really just such a wonderful thought. I definitely couldn’t wait. 

Soon, Sitter was manipulating the control panel that rose from the floor near the exit, and the elevator began sliding backwards away from the door into Valdean’s main chambers. I could hear the mechanical whirring as the thing moved almost like a subway car, over what seemed to be actual tracks. It continued on for about ten feet that way, before stopping. Through the bars to the left and right, I could see more tunnels, as well as closed doors set up against the walls on either side. The elevator could roll in either direction to slide into position in front of any of them.  

Or it could go up like a normal elevator, given the ceiling was open right here as well. And that was exactly what it did. The whole thing just rose past several other tunnels that forked off in various directions. We went up about four levels, then moved left past several more doors and tunnels before settling on one leading backwards once more. For the next couple of minutes, the elevator snaked its way through the maze of tunnels before finally stopping in front of a simple metal door with no apparent handle.

“The communications room,” Sitter informed us, just as the door slid open with an almost silent whoosh. It revealed not some high-tech command center or anything, but a cozy-looking den-like space. There was a fireplace with an actual fire in it, wood flooring, a series of shelves full of various books, a comfortable-looking armchair and couch set in front of the fireplace, and a simple wooden table with an old rotary phone sitting on it. 

As a group, we filed off the elevator, then stopped and stared at the phone, as well as everything around it. Marina was the first to find her voice. “So um, do we just pick up the phone and dial? Does this thing get an outside line?”

Offering a bright blue-glowy light smile, Sitter shook his head. “I’m afraid that with the lockdown in effect, it’s not quite that simple or efficient. Whichever of you would like to do the speaking should sit in the chair and pick up the phone. Think very intently about who you would like to contact, then hold the phone to your ear. You will see the person appear in the flames there, and be able to speak to them. But I can only give you about thirty seconds worth of communication, at most, before the system will adjust and block this avenue. Master Valdean was quite thorough and insistent when it came to locking out communications, though I do believe he always intended to unlock them much sooner than this. He was simply angry at perceived abandonment.” 

“Because he didn’t know everyone’s memories around the rebellion had been erased, and everything about this place got caught up in that,” Marina muttered before looking at me. “I think it should be you.” 

Denny, standing out of the way near Dakota, nodded quickly. “Y-yeah, you should be the one who… umm… calls?” Her voice near the end rose into an uncertain, questioning tone. “But if you can only talk to one person, who?” 

No one else seemed to be objecting to me being the one who did it, so I moved to sit in the chair while thinking about that question. My first instinct was to talk to Tabbris, or even Avalon, who had to be freaking out right now. But I had a feeling I should make it an adult, just to be on the safe side about people listening to them. “Uhh… I’m not exactly sure who they’ve talked to yet. But I know one guy who deserves to know we’re okay and who they’ll listen to.” 

Decided, I picked up the ancient-looking rotary phone, holding it up to my ear while thinking very hard about my father. I pictured his face, his voice, everything about him. Meanwhile, Sitter had moved to a corner of the room, opening up a hidden panel there to reveal a bunch of wires and switches. He was doing some sort of complicated work there, temporarily bypassing the block, apparently. I just hoped it would last long enough for me to explain what was going on. 

I felt a very slight electric jolt from the phone. It didn’t hurt at all, though I wasn’t sure how much of that was because it wouldn’t have hurt anyway and how much was the power that gave me protection against electricity. Either way, the fire ahead of me flickered briefly, before resolving into a hologram-like image of my father from the shoulders up. He looked stressed and was in the middle of a sentence. “– to both of their–” Abruptly, he jerked, eyes widening. “Felicity?!” 

“Hi, Dad,” I quickly started, “I don’t have time to explain, just thirty seconds, so listen.” In as fast of a rush as I could manage while still being comprehensible, I gave him the gist of the situation. I told him the names of Valdean Ecclestone and Ashby Banks. I told him about this whole pocket dimension vault system and why it was here, and about the murders. I also told him that we had to solve those murders before the system would unlock and let us out, but that we weren’t in immediate danger. 

Dad was silent through all of that, clearly taking my warning that I only had about thirty seconds seriously. He absorbed everything while apparently keeping a mental count, then simply said, “Be careful. I love–” 

Then he was gone, the flames returning to normal. Sitter’s mouth-lights shifted to dull orange as he turned away from the opening in the wall, his hands full of wires that he had apparently been working with. “I am very sorry. That is the best I could do.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “At least we’ve got the message out. Now let’s check these uhh, murder rooms.” I grimaced at how flippant that sounded. “I mean… yeah. Let’s go.” 

So, we piled back onto the elevator. As the doors closed, Dakota looked at me. “Do, um, do you think your dad can take care of things out there?” 

“Unfortunately, he has a fair bit of practice when it comes to dealing with me disappearing unexpectedly,” I replied before putting a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry about this, Dakota. You too, Denny. We were supposed to just give you guys a fun afternoon and then…” Grimacing, I glanced around the moving elevator. “Then we ended up here.” 

“It’s… it’s okay.” That was Denny, clearly hesitant to say anything. “I mean, if… if we can stop a murderer, that’s good, right? I think I’d rather stop a murderer than just hang out watching a movie or whatever. I can’t stop Ammon. I couldn’t save myself from him, or anyone else he killed. You guys did that. But maybe I can help stop a different murderer.” She stopped, considering that briefly before giving a firm nod. “I want to do that. I want to stop this person from hurting anyone else.” 

“Me too.” Dakota sounded just as certain, straightening up. “I can’t like… make the murderer reveal himself or anything, but I’m here. I want to help. Um, somehow.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I found myself smiling a little. “Well, in that case, maybe we can all be happy that we ended up here after all.” 

“Let’s just hope everyone involved can all say the same thing when this is over,” Sesh muttered quietly, turning to glance down the tunnel the elevator was taking us through. Then she amended, “Well, maybe not everyone.

“I’d be just fine with the murderer being very upset that we showed up.” 

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Growth 18-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Denny was the first to find her voice as we all let the realization of what we were going to have to do sink in. “Um, if your–I mean if this Mr. Ecclestone guy was murdered too, was it in this room?”  She slowly looked around, an apprehensive look on her face. “You said this was his, like, apartment, right?” Her gaze lingered a bit on the Nintendo system by the television before she turned back to the robot man. “O-or was he killed somewhere else?” 

I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside her head. The subject of murder coming up had to be making her think of all the people Ammon had killed. And not just think about. She had his memories. It wasn’t like reading a book about it. This wasn’t academic knowledge she picked up from studying horrible things. She essentially experienced the murders first hand, as though she had actually done them herself. Which, on the one hand, had to make this entire thing incredibly uncomfortable, to say the least. But on the other hand, it might also give her a unique perspective about the situation. Well, I supposed it was unique either way. But it might help, was the point. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I focused as Sitter replied, “Master Valdean Ecclestone was not killed in this room. His murder occured in the kitchen area. If you would like, I will escort you to investigate the scene.” 

“Wa-wait!” Marina blurted as she exchanged a quick, wide-eyed glance with me. “You mean the murder scene hasn’t been cleaned up yet? It happened years ago, right? What would–I mean that must…” She trailed off, turning a bit pale at the obvious thought of what a scene like that would look and smell like by this point. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her.

It was Dakota’s turn to speak up, her voice faltering a little, “Why would you just leave it like that? Wait, are people still using the kitchen? The ones who weren’t murdered, I mean.” Like the rest of us, she looked like she was going to be physically ill. 

Dakota had her own unique perspective on this whole thing, of course. She had been even more of a child than she still was when Kwur had forced her entire family to murder each other. She had… helped to kill several people she loved, and watched even more of them kill one another. When I thought about how I would have developed if instead of just having my mother disappear, I had been forced to participate in Mom, Dad, Grandpartie, and Grandmaria all killing each other and trying to kill me, I just… I couldn’t. And now she had developed powers connected to the monster who had done that.

Well, okay, that part we had in common. And she was putting her acquired gifts to the best possible use by helping to give the Eden’s Garden rebels working apples. But still, there had to be a lot going on in her head. Especially right now. 

Was that weird? Was it odd that I had ended up trapped in this place and needing to solve these murders alongside these two in particular? They did have an awful lot of personal and unique experience with homicide. To be fair, it wasn’t as though Heretics in general were exactly strangers to the concept of killing. But still, they were different. 

Sitter’s mouth-lights shifted to a bright blue glow. “Aha. I do see where some misunderstandings have occurred. The crime scenes, as you might put it, have been frozen in time. When the first murder occurred, Master Valdean wished to maintain the integrity of the scene. So he had the room time-locked, a stasis field positioned over it so that no one could enter and the… body itself would remain in the exact condition within which it was found.” He turned a bit to look at the door he had come through. “When the second murder occurred… when his murder occured, I chose to lock down the entire vault. This would preserve both crime scenes, as well as prevent any other murders from occurring until the investigators arrived.” His head tilted slightly. “I did not anticipate it taking quite this long. But you say there were outside influences preventing our message from being passed along?”

Absorbing that, I took a second before blinking. “Wait, you mean this whole bunker is–every spot except this room is frozen in time? How long have they been like that?” 

“Every other room is, yes,” Sitter confirmed. “Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the mid-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a few weeks after the first death.” 

“That’d probably put that first murder just before the Rebellion eraser,” I murmured with a nod. “We were right. So for all of these years they’ve just been frozen? They don’t have any idea that any time has passed?” 

“They were unaware that they would be locked down in their rooms,” Sitter informed me. “I chose not to inform them of my plans, or my reasoning.”

“So you just froze them in time for decades with no warning?” Sesh demanded. Her finally speaking up after the past several minutes of silence reminded me that she too would have her own unique perspective on murder. After all, being the daughter of Fahsteth would mean that she’d seen plenty of it. She’d grown up around it, even if she had ultimately rejected her dad’s ways. I had no idea how much time she’d actually spent around him, to be fair. But I was willing to bet that she had more than her fair share of horrible memories to deal with. Which made her yet another special person to happen to have with us on this little trip. We were just lucky, I supposed. For a certain definition of the word. 

Sitter was shaking his head, the mouth lights shifting to a very soft yellow. “Leaving them unaware of what was about to happen was the only choice I believed I had. It was the easiest way to go about things without giving undue warning to the murderer. I do regret such actions for most of them, yet it was necessary to preserve both their lives and the crime scenes as they were. The murderer, whoever they may be, has not had any opportunity to kill again.” 

Right, well, that was a fair point. Still, I wondered how the guests themselves would feel once they were unfrozen and found out how much time had passed. They had willingly, as far as I knew, come to live in this vault away from everyone. So maybe they didn’t have families out there waiting for them. Either way, however, I was pretty sure they would have some pretty strong opinions about blinking their eyes and suddenly finding out that decades had passed. 

“We can let them out, right?” Marina put in a bit hesitantly. “I mean, we can unfreeze them?” 

Sitter focused on her, mouth-lights shifting to greenish-blue. “It would be best for you to examine the crime scenes first, before speaking with our guests.” 

Sesh grimaced a little, her voice uncertain. “So–so wait, we’re actually gonna solve these murders? Do we even know how to solve murders? I mean, my dad taught me how to do plenty of murder, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same skill set.” 

“You were brought in as the promised investigators,” Sitter reminded us. “As far as the system that Master Valdean put in place is concerned, you are here to solve the murders. It will not release you from this place until that has been accomplished.” 

“Can you just let them go?” Marina asked quickly, nodding toward Dakota and Denny. “They’re just kids, and they don’t–they shouldn’t be here to see this. They’ve been through enough.” The last bit came in a muttered voice as she clenched her hands tightly, clearly thinking the same things I had been about Dakota and Denny’s pasts. 

Sitter, however, shook his head once more. “You have my every apology, but it is not a decision that is up to me. Master Valdean was quite concerned about the situation, particularly about bringing in outside aid, no matter how well-recommended it was. His programming was quite adamant. It will not even provide me with the necessary information to release the lockdown until these mysteries have been solved and the murderer identified. I cannot, as you might say, fake it.” 

“It’s okay.” That was Dakota, speaking quietly. “We don’t wanna leave. I mean, we didn’t really want to end up trapped in here to begin with, but… but now that we are…” She looked toward Denny. 

“Now that we are,” the other girl finished for her, “we want to help. I can’t help any of the people Ammon killed. And I definitely can’t stop him. He’s already… he’s already been stopped. But maybe we can find out who this killer is and make sure he never hurts anyone else.” 

Dakota’s head was bobbing quickly in agreement. “Uh huh, what she said. I can’t help my family anymore. But I can help these people. And maybe some of the stuff I umm…” Her face paled visibly, as her mouth opened and shut a couple times. She was fighting to find the right words and get them out. “Maybe some of the stuff I saw when my family attacked each other could help us figure out what happened here.” 

Marina put a hand out to the girl’s shoulder, then put the other on Denny’s. “If you guys are really sure about wanting to help, okay. But as soon as this whole thing gets to be too much, you come back here and sit down for a while, okay? You can play video games or something.” She was nodding toward the television with the attached Nintendo. “It might be out of date, but–” Shaking that off, she finished with, “It’s okay to need to take a break. These people have been time-locked for this long, a little more time isn’t going to matter that much.” 

“Speaking of which,” I found myself asking, “how did you time-lock this place for so long? Wait, how did you time-lock it at all? I mean, no offense, but you’re a robot, right? So how could you use any spell, let alone one that powerful? And where is it drawing so much energy from?” 

Sitter’s mouth-lights brightened and shifted to green. I had the impression that he enjoyed answering these sorts of questions. It had obviously been a long time since he’d had the opportunity to answer anything. Or talk with anyone at all, come to think of it. “To answer the simplest query first, yes, I am what you would call a robot. I was created by Master Valdean. Which leads to the answer for the rest of your confusion. The time block on this vault, its ability to block out any ability to transport into or out of it, and its very existence within a pocket reality to begin with. All stem from the same source. My master created this place, and all of those effects. They are not magic, they are technological. He was a very brilliant man of his own right, and several of the… beings he killed in the course of his work as a Heretic were also focused on invention and modification of technology. His passing was truly a great loss for many reasons. He knew that the others of his kind would, at the very best, attempt to talk him out of his decided retirement. And if they knew he was allowing beings they considered monsters to stay in this place, it would…” His mouth lights dimmed to a low orange-amber color. “It would prompt them to take dangerous actions. He wanted this place to be safe from any invasion, and so he ensured that it was. That is another reason why the system will not allow you to leave until the murders are solved. He wished to be certain that the Heretics who were called in would not simply… massacre everyone inside and then leave. There was a certain amount of trust between Master Valdean and his friend, Detective Ashby Banks, but he was not a fool. He knew that mistakes could happen, that the wrong person might have been brought along on the trip. The system was originally programmed only to release any investigators once he gave the word. But with his death, it has defaulted to allowing it only with the identification and apprehension of the murderer himself.” 

Sesh was rubbing the side of her head, seeming to narrowly miss cutting her own palm on those sharp spikes of gray hair. “So let me get this straight. Your dude, the guy who created you and this place, was a techno-genius. He built all this and then got killed, but the system’s been running for decades to keep the place locked down. He’s got some sort of power source that maintains a time-stop spe–sorry, time-stop technological effect over almost the whole place for decades?” 

Sitter gave a short nod. “That is, as I believe they say, about the size of it. This vault was designed to operate independently, without any outside aid, for over two thousand years in normal conditions. The time-stop on each of the individual rooms has drained some of that power, but that is somewhat counteracted by the lack of need for other things which would have drained power. In the end, I believe we could have continued in this form for another eleven decades before the energy cost would have become too much.” 

“Then what would’ve happened?” I asked. “Would the time-stop just turn off and let them out?” 

Again, the robot nodded. “There are protective measures put in place against many eventualities. If this vault were to become dangerously low on power, it would release all residents. Both from the time-stop and from the vault itself. They would all be ejected to surface reality. Earth, that is. Master Valdean did not wish for this place to become their prison or tomb. He was attempting to help them, to… make up for past misdeeds.” 

Maybe I was imagining it, but I could swear I heard the pain in the robot’s voice. Really, I had no idea how sapient he was, or how–yeah. It was a lot to take in. This whole place was. Still, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to actually find out who the murderer in this place was. And more than that, after hearing the story so far, I actually wanted to find out. This Valdean guy had been trying to do good, and from Sitter’s account, he would have been a pretty brilliant man to have on our side. If he was willing to do all this to protect Alters, it seemed like he would’ve been willing to help the rebellion. Which–wait. 

“How come he didn’t help the Rebellion? The first one, I mean.” While asking that, I squinted thoughtfully. “He wanted to help Alters. He knew they weren’t all evil, and you said he had this whole place set up throughout basically the entire time the Rebellion existed. So why wasn’t he helping with that?” 

“Put simply,” Sitter informed us, “he was not aware of any rebellion throughout most of that time. As I said before, his knowledge that Ashby Banks was a member of a Heretic rebellion was recent then. When he cut himself and this place off from the outside world, Master Valdean did a thorough job of the cutting. He had no interaction with Heretics for decades, as those within this place simply carried on. We had connections with the Bystander world, and even brought in bits of their achievements, technologies, and media.” His head turned a bit to look at the television and game system. “Yet as far as Crossroads, and even Eden’s Garden were concerned, he paid absolutely no attention to them for a long time. He did not know that the Atherby rebellion existed.” 

After letting that settle for a moment, he continued, “It was not until only a year before his death that Master Valdean left this vault for a supply run for new treats that he wished to surprise our guests with, that he met Ashby Banks. As it happened, a group of Crossroads Heretics staged a raid against the warehouse near where Master Valdean planned to do his shopping. When he saw what was happening to the innocent Alters within, he intervened. The Heretics he fought believed he was part of the Rebellion, which he had no knowledge of. Despite his best intentions, he likely would have been overwhelmed were it not for the timely aid of Ashby Banks. The two of them dispatched the Crossroads-Loyal Heretics, and then Detective Banks explained the situation, as well as the fact that the once-very loud Rebellion had become a far quieter and more secret affair since the loss of their founder, Joselyn Atherby. Master Valdean expressed interest in aiding the rebellion, but wanted to take time to do it properly. Between that and the Rebellion itself being slower and quieter than it apparently once was, nothing of note happened before my master was murdered.” 

“That could be a clue,” I pointed out thoughtfully. “If Valdean let the people in here know that he was planning on doing something to help the Rebellion, maybe someone got scared that he’d accidentally let in the wrong people or something. You know, maybe they thought–wait, you said he was the second death, right?” I was starting to rethink my assumption. 

“Yes,” Sitter confirmed. “His death came three weeks after the first, and eighteen days after he had requested aid from Detective Banks. When no aid appeared to be coming, and no one answered his messages, Master Valdean believed we had been abandoned intentionally. Or that his friend was not taking the matter seriously. Whatever the reasoning, he grew angry and blocked outside communication before attempting to solve the murder himself. Thirty-six hours later, he himself was murdered. Perhaps the killer knew he was close and grew paranoid. But whatever the case, shortly after discovering his body, I chose to lock this facility down. I ensured that all of our guests were in their rooms, then locked them in and established the time-lock across the facility. It was… not something I wished to do, but I felt there was no choice when it came to both preserve the crime scene and to protect the guests themselves from the murderer amongst them.”

For a moment, I thought about just how much Tabbris and everyone else was freaking out right now. They had no idea what was going on. All Jeanne, Avalon, and Miranda would know was that we had vanished after Sesh had touched that doorknob. And my communication with Tabbris had been cut off entirely. How much were they tearing that entire mountain apart while we were standing here talking?  

With a grimace, I focused on Sitter. “Are you sure there’s no way we can even get a quick message out to let the people who care about us know that we are okay? I’m not saying we don’t want to help you, we do. But we’ve got some really… uhh, let’s call it bad history with being abducted by terrible people. So it might be a good idea if we could just tell them we are okay so they don’t rip the whole countryside apart looking for us.” 

There was a brief pause as the robot considered that before his mouth-lights turned cyan. “I believe there may be a way of passing a very short message to the outside world. It will require a short detour to the primary communications room, and you will not be able to speak for very long.” 

“Anything,” I quickly agreed with a glance to the others. “Just so we can let them know we’re not being held by some psycho monster. I’d name the suspects for that, but the list is longer than I’m comfortable with thinking about.” 

Marina swallowed visibly. “Yeah… yeah, we have to let them know we’re okay. Then we’ll try to help you solve these murders, we promise. Right, guys?” 

Sesh, Dakota, and Denny all bobbed their heads rapidly, the latter speaking up. “If um, if this Valdean guy wanted to help people, and then someone murdered him, I uh, I want to help. I wanna help stop the killer from hurting anyone else.” Her voice cracked slightly with those words, making it clear just how personal this whole situation felt for her.

“Me too,” Dakota put in. She was also clearly personally affected by the idea of being able to potentially stop a murderer. 

“Right then.” I exchanged a quick look with Marina before turning back to Sitter. “Lead the way. Communications room first. We’ll send a message to the others, then help you stop this killer.

“But for the record, I’m very disappointed that I didn’t think to wear my deerstalker cap today.” 

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Growth 18-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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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 oldlooking 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. 

“Zoinks.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Wonderland had moved again since the last time I had visited. Now, they were set up in a literal ghost town. Literal in two different ways, actually. In the sense that there were some ghosts (mostly of the cowboy variety) hanging around, and in the fact that it had once been an actual lived-in town on the frontier of the wild west. There had been a small mining rush in the hills slightly to the north for a little while, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for the town to transition into some other way of life once the silver dried up. Plus, the railway that they had expected to come near, or even through, the town had actually been positioned about thirty miles south. So, almost as quickly as it had been built up, the town had been abandoned as its citizens sought better places elsewhere. 

Decades later, the town had been used to film a few old movies. That hadn’t lasted very long either before they moved filming to other places closer to California, but it had been big enough to have a few new buildings built on the edge of town so the people filming around the place could have places to stay. Those new buildings included the garage where we had come through the portal. Being out a short distance away from the town proper (so they could film the westerns without getting something like that in the shot) made for a decent place to have people teleport in, so they could have the anti-transportation spells and other protections up around the main area.  

From here, the nearest (legally) inhabited town was called Geraldine, about twenty miles south-westish. Population: a whole two hundred or so. The Missouri River was a few miles to the east, through a more mountainous area. In this place, they had plenty of privacy, and advance warning if anyone happened to come near. 

Marina explained all of that to us as we walked out of the garage and found ourselves standing at the top of a low hill. This was the hill where people had been mining back in the day. In fact, if we looked a bit to the right, we could see the old mine entrance. To the left was a gas station and a motel, both looking like they had come out of the 1950’s. Because they had. Neither of them were technically in service, though the Wonderland people had taken them over as well. Straight ahead, meanwhile, the old town of what had been called Gust, Montana lay stretched out away from the base of the hill. It consisted of a main street with about ten buildings on each side, including the saloon, post office, jail with the sheriff’s office attached, a boot and shoe store, gun shop, and more. Behind the left-hand side of the main street was an assortment of small houses. Behind the right-hand side, meanwhile, were the stables and a long barn-like warehouse where food and other supplies had been stored. 

“See?!” Baidy flew up into the air over our heads hovering there as she pointed toward the town. “We used to stay in a museum, but it got dangerous there so we had to move, then we lived in a big warehouse and it was really crowded, but then we moved here and it’s got a lotta space!” 

“Lots of room to spread your wings, huh, Baidy?” Marina put in with a small smile. To us, she added, “We’ve got a few who like to run a lot too. They love it here. Miles and miles of open space.” Glancing toward Denny and Dakota, she added, “Most of the kids are up in the mountains right now, but they’ll be back later. They went for a hike with a couple of the scouts, and Buddy.” 

“Yeah, I was kinda surprised he wasn’t around to say hi already,” Miranda murmured while glancing around. “Hope we get to catch up with the big guy later.” 

“You will,” Quing announced as the avian-man stood behind us. He wasn’t quite glowering, but it wasn’t an open and friendly look either. “Buddy has made it clear that he wants to say hello before you leave again. And he wishes to meet these two.” 

“M-meet us?” Denny managed a bit uncertainly. “He’s the big troll, right?” Her eyes glanced back toward me with obvious nervousness. “He’s… he’s nice?” 

“Very nice,” I confirmed. “Right, Marina?” 

The other girl gave a quick nod. “He’s a giant sweetheart. Emphasis on giant and on sweetheart. Trust us, he’s one of the nicest people here as long as you don’t try to hurt anyone he’s supposed to be protecting.” 

Swallowing hard, Denny quietly murmured, “I’ll try not to.” 

Yeah, there was definitely a whole thing there that was going to take a lot of time and therapy to work through. I watched as she absently took Dakota’s hand, the two of them standing closer together while watching the town below as though expecting a giant angry troll to come charging out at them. They were clearly still nervous about how this was going to go, which I couldn’t really blame them for. The only way to show them that it was going to be fine was to get down there and let them see for themselves. 

From the look that Marina gave me, she had the same thought. So, we started down the dirt road leading to the main part of the town. Quint stayed behind, apparently to do a patrol around the perimeter. On the way, there was a shimmering effect in the air that lasted for about fifteen feet. It kind of tickled a little bit. According to Marina, if we hadn’t been allowed through, the alarms would have sounded and we would have found ourselves in a time distortion field that would’ve slowed our movement drastically, giving the Wonderland people time to respond. 

But, obviously we were expected and had been cleared. Something told me that Quing had done something back in the garage to allow us through the security field, but had kept it secret so we wouldn’t know exactly what was done. He wasn’t a very trusting sort, that Quing guy. Wyatt would probably love him.

Either way, we went on a tour through the town. We saw how the Wonderland people were living in this place. They’d worked some enchantments on the buildings to allow for extra rooms that shouldn’t have been there so everyone could fit. Apparently most of the regular civilians stayed in the various houses or in the motel above the saloon. The Septs lived and worked in the courthouse, children were educated both in the schoolhouse and in the church building, and most of the businesses were used for crafting things to be sold in online shops so the people could have regular Bystander money. They also raised cattle out on the fields and sold the meat to butchers. 

We also met a lot of people along the way, of both the human-looking and very not human-looking variety. Some I’d seen before, though most at a distance, while others seemed new. Either way, they were friendly and cheerful. It was a lot for Denny, and even Dakota, to take in. They both kept looking around at everyone while clearly doing their best not to stare too much for fear of being rude. Still, the two of them were gawking a fair bit at all the different sights, especially when it was something like an eight-foot-tall crocodilian man putting the finishing touches on a beautifully hand-crafted grandfather clock that he planned to sell, or a cat-like Rakshasa woman brushing the coat of a preening Pegasus.  

The point was, there was a lot to see around this place, and we’d barely scratched the surface even twenty minutes later. We kept stopping to look at things and talk to people. The younger girls didn’t do a lot of talking, especially Denny, who stayed almost entirely silent the whole time. But they paid attention, and were clearly enthralled with everything. 

“You guys really like it here, huh?” I eventually asked as we stood outside the jail. Dakota and Denny were standing a few feet away, having a conversation with Baidy. They were talking about something to do with fishing, and how they couldn’t do it back anywhere near the Garden rebels place because of the whole Lotan and its pet Nuckelavee situation. 

“It’s really nice,” Marina agreed quietly. “I think they like living in a real town, even if it’s a small one. They’ve got different houses, open space for everyone to stretch their legs and wings, even a school. Hell, they have businesses. Real businesses where they can make things and get money for it. It’s… it’s a real town here, you guys.”

Avalon, who had been pretty quiet through all of this, spoke up. “I should bring Salten here. I mean, he already gets plenty of space to run and fly around on the station. They have rooms for that. But I think he’d like to set foot on Earth too. He deserves that.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down, and Choo too,” I assured Valley while putting an arm around her and squeezing. “They can run around and play tag out there. Can you imagine it?” 

“Imagine?” Valley retorted, “I’ve seen them do it. And yeah, probably better for them to do it somewhere that Salten won’t break a window turning his head too fast.”

“So that’s what happened the other day,” I exaggeratedly gasped. “Eiji kept insisting that he looked at his reflection in the window and it blew apart.” 

“I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened too,” Valley mildly replied as a very small smile played at her face. “Salten’s only broken so many windows.” 

“Speaking of open fields and broken windows,” Miranda started while giving me a nudge from the other side, “Maybe we can get a baseball game going at some point. Didn’t you say Sarah’s a good pitcher?” 

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied with a nod. “And are you sure you want to do that? Remember what happened the last time you and I played baseball?” 

Miranda huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh please, what’re the odds that you’ll go sliding into home and accidentally find a skeleton finger twice?” 

Dakota, who had been saying something about some scary movie, abruptly pivoted to face us. “Wait, what? A skeleton finger?” 

“More than just the finger, really,” Randi noted thoughtfully. “It was actually the whole hand and part of an arm, but most of it was buried. Everyone running across the bases for all that time worked away the dirt until a bit of the finger was uncovered. Flick found it the hard way.” 

“And by hard way,” I put in with a grimace, “she means I was sliding into the plate and my leg got cut on the bone. So I brushed the dirt away from it until we figured out what it was.” 

“That was a fun weekend,” Miranda cheerfully added. “Especially since it’s Flick, so you all know what she had to do.” 

Every single one of them, Miranda, Avalon, Dakota, Denny, even Baidy, simultaneously agreed, “Investigate.” 

A blush crossed my face as I huffed a little bit. “Oh come on, it was a skeleton hand buried under the baseball diamond by home plate. You don’t have to be obsessed with investigating things to want to find out more about it. I bet every single one of you, aside from Randi cuz she was there, want to know what that was all about and whose hand it was.” 

To my satisfaction, they all exchanged brief looks before giving an assortment of nods. Before they could say anything, however, I felt someone else’s presence step into range of my item-sense from the direction of the jail while a voice spoke up. “If the stories I remember hearing while I was there are any indication, this should be good.” 

Turning that way, I found myself looking at a woman who looked a fair bit like the legendary movie actress Audrey Hepburn. Her dark brown hair was cut short in a pixie style that fell just above her ears, with bangs in the front. She wore an outfit that was straight out of the sort of Western that would have been filmed here back in the day, with somewhat tattered old jeans, cowboy boots, a leather duster, button-up Western shirt, belt with a silver buckle and a pair of revolvers on either hip, and a full-on cowboy hat. 

Without thinking at all, I quietly (but not quietly enough) murmured under my breath, “Oh my God, Tabbris was right, I really did have a crush on you.” 

As everyone turned it to stare at me and I realized that I said the quiet part out loud, my blush returned with a vengeance. “I mean–I ahh–I wasn’t–who said that?” Turning, I looked over my shoulder as though searching for the culprit. “I think it came from the uhhh–yeah.” Still flushing despite myself, I focused that way while trying to ignore the assorted snickers. “You… you’re… I mean back in the day you were…” 

“When you knew me, I was Trevor Rawlings,” the woman replied. “Your seventh grade math teacher. The news about your mother had gotten around, and I wanted to see what her daughter was like. I was going to go as a history teacher, but it felt a little on the nose.” 

“You were named Trevor Rawlings?” Denny blinked back and forth between us. “Wait, is this a disguise thing, or a ‘coming to accept your true self’ thing?” 

“A disguise thing,” came the response. “I accepted my true self a long time ago. And the fact that I consider myself… fluid in that regard. I have male moments and female moments. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called, given I’ve answered to everything under the sun. But a simple ‘they’ works quite well at all times. My birth name–” 

“Joan of Arc,” Dakota abruptly blurted, her own eyes widening. “Holy crap, you’re Joan of Arc.” 

An audible chuckle escaped the w–them as they focused on the girl. “That’s one of the things I’ve been called in my life, yes. Though it was actually more of Jeanne D’arc in the old days.” They pronounced the first name something like ‘Jahn’ with a bit of a rolling Juh sound. “I have gone by a lot of different names and titles over the years.” 

“So like, you were a Heretic when you did all that stuff?” Denny hesitantly asked while biting her lip. “But why would they be able to imprison you, and then… I mean…” She trailed off awkwardly, clearly unsure how to continue that line of questioning. 

“It’s alright,” Jeanne assured her. “That wasn’t a great time in my life, but it was also very long ago. To answer your question, no, I was not a Heretic. I’m still not, actually.” 

That made most of the others do a double-take, while I snapped my fingers. “That’s right, you were empowered by Michael.” 

“Empowered in more than one way,” they confirmed. “But yes, in a literal sense, he shared a small portion of his Dyeusai power with me, after saving me from the flames that would have ended my life. The power keeps me young, heals my wounds, and allows me to channel it into a protective barrier, or into my weapon so that it may penetrate very nearly anything it comes up against.” 

“You were–umm, friends with Seth,” I put in. “He mentioned that. I mean, he mentioned a lot more than that, but I wasn’t sure how much to believe.” 

“Yes, that does sound like him.” There was clear fondness in their voice as they gazed off into the distance before focusing on us once more. “To answer your question, yes, we were involved. Well, off and on. We had our ups and downs, as any relationship spread over so many years. But whatever our complications, I was sad to hear about his death. That’s why I took up his old position as Tiebreaker for Wonderland.” 

“I can summon him down here,” I hesitantly offered. “I mean, his ghost. He’s sort of… up in the station right now. We found him–his ghost that is, in the Auberge. So, if you want, I can bring him down here. You know, so you guys can talk.” 

“I’d like that,” Jeanne quietly murmured, a thoughtful look crossing their face before they added, “But perhaps we should finish your tour first. Then I can meet his ghost, and apologize for not being there when he needed help.” It was a bit subtle, but I could hear the guilt and pain in their voice. They really had cared about Seth, that much was clear.

Before anyone else could say anything, the sound of running footsteps through the hard-packed dirt caught our attention, along with a voice calling, “Tiebreaker! Tiebreaker!” 

It was a pale girl, about my age (or at least that was how she looked, it was impossible to tell for sure in this world). Her hair was short like Jeanne’s, but rather than being pixie-cut, it was spiked up and gelled (or magicked) to stay in place. The spikes of hair looked sharp enough to cut my hand if I had entirely lost all sense and stupidly patted her on the head. It was also gray. Not old people gray. More of a shimmering sort of gray, darker at the roots and almost silver on the tips. She wore baggy cargo pants with a lot of pockets, black tennis shoes with purple laces, an Abe Sapien from Hellboy tee-shirt, and a black San Jose Sharks (the hockey team) varsity jacket. 

She came right up to us, skidding to a stop before offering a curious look. “Hiya.”  

“Hey Sesh,” Marina greeted the girl. “These guys are just visiting for awhile. This is Flick, Miranda, and Avalon. And these two are Dakota and Denny. Guys, this is Sesh.” 

Sesh had been smiling through all that, and with that smile, I noticed something else. She had multiple rows of very sharp teeth, like a shark. I knew what that meant. Or at least I was pretty sure. She was an Akheilosan. Like–

“Fahsteth,” Sesh immediately spoke up, as if she’d read my mind. Her attention wasn’t on me, however. It was on Avalon. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. He’s my dad. But believe me, nobody wants him dead more than I do.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Even if the list of people who would tap dance on his grave is pretty long.” 

“Um, who’s Fahsteth?” That was Denny, hesitantly asking the question as she looked back and forth between all of us. “I mean, besides a pretty bad guy, I guess?” 

Avalon and Sesh both answered at the same time, “A piece of shit.” 

“Jinx, you owe me a coke,” Sesh instantly announced before blanching slightly as she realized who she had said it to. “But, uh, I guess we’ll call it even on account of all of the times my Dad tried to kill you. Or helped someone else try.” 

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed Denny. “The short version is that he was working for the Seosten who were trying to kill me through most of my life so I wouldn’t open the vault that my ancestor sealed with a blood-relation lock and take the spell that would stop the Seosten from possessing people here on Earth.” 

“The end of that story is we got in the vault anyway and that spell is what was used just a little while ago to make all our people Seosten-immune,” I added. “We can’t make it work for everyone in the world yet, but you know. One step at a time.” 

“Anyway, the point is, I heard you cut my dad in half once,” Sesh informed Valley. “And even though that still wasn’t enough to kill him, that was still the best news I got in a long time.” 

Dakota and Denny both sputtered audibly, the former blurting, “Being cut in half wasn’t enough to kill him?!” 

“He’s enhanced himself a lot,” Sesh replied with a shrug. “Or had other people do it. Actually killing him requires rolling a nat 20 like five times in a row.” 

Avalon stared at her blankly, along with the rest of us. “It requires rolling a what now?” 

Before Sesh could answer, however, Jeanne spoke up. “You were trying to get my attention? Is there a problem?”

Sesh shook her head. “Not a problem, something awesome. You’ve gotta check it out. I was hiking through the hills over there and I found a door. Like, a vault door straight out of Fallout. It’s built right into the hill, but it’s really hidden. You have to squeeze through these rocks and bushes and stuff, then crawl through a tunnel, but then it opens up and there’s this circular area with some water coming out of an underground stream, and the vault door is right there and it’s fucking cool.” 

Arching an eybrow, Jeanne replied, “Well then, why don’t we suspend the tour for a moment and go see this ‘fucking cool’ vault door?” 

Looking to the others, I shrugged. “Sure, why not? 

“But I swear, if we see the name ‘Vault-Tec’ written anywhere around there, we are walking away and never looking back.” 

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Growth 18-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Going to visit Wonderland was a big deal for Denny. And a big deal for Dakota too, come to think of it. Neither of them had had that sort of opportunity before. The opportunity to see so many Alters in a peaceful setting, that was. Dakota spent most of her time at the Eden’s Garden Rebels place, and while they were definitely on the side of Alters not all being evil, there weren’t exactly that many around the motel. And Denny had spent time up on the station, but still didn’t trust herself around people that much so she tended to stay in either Asenath or Abigail’s apartments. Abigail had decided not to push her about going to classes for awhile, and instead let her do homeschooling stuff. Eventually she would probably need to physically attend, but there was time for that. After everything she had been through, nobody thought pushing her was the right idea. 

So, this would be a pretty new experience for both of them. I just hoped it went better than my own first visit to that place. But then again, Theia was on our side now, so we could hardly–nope. I refused to finish that thought. Not in this reality, and certainly not with the things I’d already experienced. I may have had a tendency to push my luck with fate, but that was too far. 

“You’re tempting fate again, aren’t you?” 

The demand came from Avalon, who was squinting at me as she, Miranda, and I stood at the back of the small, fenced in area behind the motel where Iskolar the old Garden lady with the giant sword had just created a new portal leading up to the Station. One we weren’t going through. 

“Who, what, me?” I blinked several times at the accusation, while Valley continued to squint. 

“She’s right,” Randi put in idly, standing a bit back with her thumbs in her pockets as she regarded me with a very small smile. “You have that ‘I just thought something dumb and now reality is gonna make me pay for it’ face. You probably just thought something about how at least we won’t get attacked at Wonderland like you did the first time you went there, huh?” 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I felt the slightest pink flush cross my face. “I need to get friends who don’t know me as well,” I muttered under my breath. 

Before either of the other two could respond to that, the portal was finished and a small figure slowly came through. It was Denny, looking quite unsure of herself. She kept glancing around, hunching her shoulders in what seemed like an attempt to make herself smaller. Or possibly she thought she was a turtle and was trying to retract her head into a shell that wasn’t there. Either way, she basically shuffled her way through and looked very much like she might just decide that jumping back the way she’d come before the portal closed would be the best idea. 

Quickly, I spoke up. “Denny, hey. I uhh, hi.” Trying not to sound (or look) awkward, I offered her a smile and gestured. “We better let Iskolar shut down the portal now, or we’ll all have to listen to her and Llars flirting for the next hour.” 

Iskolar, for her part, scoffed at me. “You make your jokes, but I’ll have you know I could teach every one of you a thing or two about good flirting,” she retorted primly. “And good dating.” 

There was a brief pause before Denny nodded and took a few more steps toward us and away from the portal. She seemed like… well, she sort of seemed like someone who was just learning how to swim and had just moved barely far enough out into the water that their feet didn’t quite touch the floor of the pool anymore. Once she heard the portal itself turn off at a gesture from the woman who had created it, Denny gave a very soft gasp. She was clenching one hand tightly.

“Oh well, hello young lady,” Iskolar greeted her. “As I’m sure you heard just now, I’m Iskolar. And you–” 

“Denny,” the girl quickly put in. “I’m Denny. Hi. Um, thanks. I mean, for the…” She gestured behind herself at the spot where the portal had been a moment earlier. “The lift?” 

“Oh, any time, dear,” Iskolar assured her with a smile. “Any time at all. I hear you’re quite the crossword champion.” 

Denny blinked at that, seeming taken aback. “How did you… Dakota?” 

“She might’ve bragged once or twice about how quick her new friend was at solving those things,” Iskolar confirmed with a wink. “Faster than me, and I’ve been doing it a wee bit longer.” 

Now Denny was blushing, squirming a little under the attention. So I spoke up. “Dakota’s just grabbing a couple things from her room. You guys, uh, you’ve been talking a lot, huh?” 

Focusing on me, the girl gave a quick, somewhat jerky nod. “Oh–uh, yeah. Um, sort of. Abigail and Mr. Tougan–he’s my therapist– thought it would help if I talked to her. Because she um, because she had some bad experiences too.” 

That was putting it lightly, considering Dakota’s entire family had been forced to kill each other by a megalomaniac super plant, which only she had survived. She ‘won’ the massacre, and now she had Kwur’s own powers. Well, his plant control powers anyway. Whether she’d inherited anything else of his was yet to be determined. So yeah, she’d definitely had some bad experiences. I could see why Abigail and this Mr. Tougan guy had thought it might help the two of them to talk to each other. 

Denny was still explaining. “Mostly we talk over the computer. We do that a lot. Really a lot.” She admitted that with a slight blush, squirming on her feet. “Maybe a little too much. But she’s… she’s good to talk to. She understands a lot of–um, she understands a lot. And we don’t just talk about bad stuff. Or even mostly about bad stuff. Usually we talk about these shows we’ve been watching on Netflix or whatever. I mean, we put the show on at the same time and talk about it while we’re watching it. Mostly about the show, but sometimes we just start talking about other things and forget what’s going on so we have to rewind and–” All at once, she seemed to realize just how much she had been saying, and how quickly she’d been saying it, and clammed up. Her blush was deeper. “And it’s not a big deal.” 

Randi grinned while speaking up. “I mean, if you’re a crossword champion, I might need to get your help with my English homework.”

“Sorry,” Denny replied with a helpless shrug, “knowing a lot of words doesn’t really make me that good at knowing the rules of grammar or whatever. And I don’t even know that many words. It’s just that I see the clues and the number of letters and then I just… know what the right word is.” 

She hesitated before starting to say something else. But before she could, I sensed Dakota approaching. Sure enough, just as I turned to glance that way, the girl in question came around the corner. She was carrying a heavy backpack over one shoulder. Seeing Denny, she darted that way to embrace her. “Hey, Kitchen!” 

Denny, after the slightest hesitation, returned the hug. “Hey, Kentucky.” 

Weirdly, it was only while seeing the two of them together right then that I realized how relatively similar they looked. At least on paper. They both had dark hair and pale skin, and they were both close to the same age. Well, Dakota was thirteen while Denny was eleven. But even that wasn’t quite right, because Denny still had some memories (and was getting more as the days went on, apparently) of being her older self before she’d died, so–yeah. It was complicated. But they did look similar, enough that they could have been sisters. I wondered, inwardly, if that helped at all. Did they get along so well because both of them really needed some form of family? Not that I thought they were pretending or anything like that, just… subconsciously, maybe it helped them talk about the things they needed to talk about with each other. 

“Kitchen?” Randi echoed Dakota’s words, then Denny’s, “Kentucky?” Then she realized. “Your names.” 

“She was Den,” Dakota confirmed. “Then it turned into Closet, or Living, or Study, or any other room.” 

Denny nodded, looking a bit more at ease than she had before Dakota showed up. “And she’s any state. Except Nevada. I um, I met Nevada. But that still leaves a lot of others, doesn’t it, Utah?” 

Dakota promptly leaned over to whisper something quietly in the other girl’s ear that I couldn’t hear. Then the two of them snickered before Denny whispered something back. 

Yeah, I was going to have to make sure Abigail was aware of what a good choice having the two of them talk had been. But then, I was pretty confident she already knew that. My older sister was pretty good at this sort of thing, apparently. 

Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Right, so we’re going over to Wonderland. But there’s a couple of things we should probably warn you guys about so they don’t take you by surprise.” 

Looking a little hesitant once more, though bolstered by the presence of Dakota, Denny quietly asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? If there are a lot of people there, and if I hurt anyone–” 

Stepping that way, I took her hand and squeezed it, meeting her gaze. “Listen, okay? That’s not going to happen. You’re not gonna hurt anyone. There’s a lot of protection over there, people who know how to keep everyone safe. And you’ll have us with you every step of the way. We’re all just gonna go hang out, see some cool stuff, talk to cool people, and do cool things. But no one is going to force you into it. If you really, genuinely don’t want to do this, say the word and we’ll do something else. We can all hang out in one of the rooms around here and watch a movie, or play a game, or whatever. It’s no big deal. But if you’re just afraid that you’ll hurt someone, or that someone will hurt you, I promise we won’t let that happen. 

“Those memories in your head, his voice, they don’t control you. They don’t control anything. You have his power, and you can do whatever you decide to do with it, not the other way around. And when I say his memories don’t get to control you, I don’t mean by telling you what to do. I don’t mean by puppeting you. I mean they don’t get to stop you from living your life. He’s gone. You’re not. You’re here. You won. We will do whatever you are comfortable with. Just know that we’re going to be there, and make sure it’s what you want to do. Not what his memories want to force you into.” 

Denny was quiet for a moment, staring at me as she considered all that. Then she gave a single, barely perceptible nod. “I… I kinda want to see Wonderland. It sounds fun.” She actually sounded almost guilty in admitting that she thought it would be fun. Which made me want to take Fossor’s thus-far nonexistent ghost (please God no) and Kushiel’s entirely too-extant ghost, and punt both of them into the sun for what they had helped do to this girl. Yes, Fossor hadn’t been directly involved, but it was his fault. He was responsible. And besides, it wasn’t like I needed that much of an excuse to want to kill Fossor again. He had it coming a million times over. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be an issue. Not after everything that had been done to ensure he didn’t have some sort of loophole to come back through. He was dead and gone, period. 

I should know, people kept borrowing the memory of the event that Sariel had copied out of my brain so we’d have proof of what happened. And not just my brain, Mom’s too. Both of us had seen him die, so Sariel copied our memories and allowed people to see them. Apparently Fossor didn’t exactly lack people who wanted to see exactly how he died. Let alone experience doing it themselves. 

Shoving those thoughts away, I made myself smile at the girl in front of me. “Yeah? Cool, because trust me, it’s gonna be fun. Especially when you meet Buddy System. And Namythiet. And–well, a lot of people.” 

Avalon spoke up, voice curious. “What about you, Dakota? Are you okay with going over there?” 

There was the slightest hesitation as the other girl thought that through before nodding. “Now that the vine’s working, I want to… I want to celebrate. I wanna do something new, something really different. I wanna…. I wanna be happy.” She gave a small smile toward Denny, taking the girl’s hand. “I–we didn’t make it through everything those people put us through just to act like we died when we didn’t. We’re gonna go have fun, right, Library?” 

Straightening up a little bit, though she was still smaller than the girl next to her, Denny gave a firm nod of agreement. “Right, yeah, fun. Let’s do that fun thing. You said we’d meet someone named Buddy System?” 

“Yeah, he’s one of the people we need to warn you about,” Miranda murmured. 

“He’s a troll,” I confirmed. “I mean, not a stupid internet jerk, a real live troll. But he’s really nice. He just looks scary, and we didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Trust me, once you meet him, you’re gonna love the big guy.” Saying that, I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Actually, come to think of it, we haven’t actually seen Joan of Arc yet.” 

“I–what?” That was Denny, giving a double-take. “Haven’t seen who?” 

Grinning, I gestured toward Iskolar. “You hear that? Now she’s interested. Guess we better start up that portal and head over there. 

“Time for Denny to see just how crazy this world can get.” 

******

Marina Dupont was there to meet us when we came through the portal and into what looked like a moderately-sized garage, just big enough for two cars. The tall, pale brunette was accompanied by Quing, the avian-like Lavinisi who worked as one of Wonderland’s main security guards alongside Buddy. He was watching us intently from his spot in front of the main rolling door, his sharp eyes gazing at and through all of us as we appeared. The portal. He was watching the portal. I could see his right wing-hand touching the handle of one of his many knives, his entire body visibly tense. 

Right, of course he was a little worked up. He was responsible for the security of this place, and we had just come through a portal that led back to an encampment of a whole bunch of people who had been responsible for slaughtering a lot of Alters. Yes, the Garden people were rebelling against that and we were all trying to change things, but still. 

A moment later, the portal faded behind us, and Marina quickly stepped over, extending her hand to catch mine. But not to shake it. Instead, she pulled me into an embrace. “Hey, Flick!” Avalon got the same treatment and greeting, as did Miranda. “You guys really need to visit more. Do you have any idea how much the kids ask about all of you?” 

Even after she had sent the Crossroads children back to their parents (on either side), Marina wasn’t totally done with taking care of children. First, there were the ones over twelve who had chosen to stay at Wonderland rather than go back to their parents. That was a choice Marina and the people here had allowed them to make. With the option to go back whenever they decided to. Thus far, none had. 

But even more than that, when the Wonderland Septs had learned how good Marina was with children, they had basically assigned her as a permanent… nanny, of sorts. And from what I had heard and seen, she had never been happier. This was where she belonged, teaching and taking care of younger kids. It suited her much more than Crossroads had. 

Once she had embraced and greeted us, she turned her attention to the other two. But Marina didn’t immediately reach out to them. She didn’t try to grab and hug them. Instead, she offered both of them a smile. “Hey. I’m Marina, what’re your names?” 

The two girls exchanged glances before Denny stood up straight. “Denny,” she answered quietly. “I’m Denny.” 

“And I’m Dakota,” the slightly older girl put in. “You… you went to Crossroads?” She had heard a lot about that place over the past few months, most of it from Sands and Sarah. 

Nodding, Marina replied, “That’s right, I went there for two years. Well, basically two years. Flick and Avalon were one year under me. But you know what?” she continued with a conspiratorial tone, “With all the stuff that kept interrupting them last year, I think they attended like… three months of classes. Maybe.” 

As she winked at the two of us, Dakota and Denny snickered a little. Then Marina added, “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they’ve been through more training and live combat than fourth-year students who are about to graduate.” She glanced up toward me, offering a little smile. “They’re bonafide badasses, and you couldn’t ask for better friends.” 

“Yeah, they’re alright.” The grunt came from Quing, whose voice continued to surprise me for how deep and gravelly it was, coming from a relatively thin bird-man. “They’ve done some good work out there.” Those laser-focused eyes settled on me, our gazes locking. “Getting rid of Fossor, that was a big deal. Thanks. I mean, I ahh, know you had your own reasons for doing it, but still. Thanks.”

Before I could say anything, Miranda piped up, “Yeah, a lot of people are glad he’s dead. I don’t think that man had any friends.”

My mouth opened, but a young voice abruptly called, “Can I come out now?” It was coming from a corner of the ceiling in this garage, where a small face with feathers and an orange-yellow beak was poking out through an opening. “Nothing blew up and the portal’s gone!” 

Quing exhaled, giving all of us another quick once-over before waving one of his wing-arms. “Yeah, come down.” 

The face at the hole disappeared, before the girl it belonged to promptly dropped through. She glided down, her own wing-arms extended until she was hovering directly in front of us. It was a Lavinisi, like Quing. Only this one was a young girl, basically a little kid. Her feathers were dark red as opposed to Quing’s blue. She also wore tan cargo pants and a gray tee-shirt with an image of the actual Falco from Star Fox on it. Underneath that, she had clearly used red fabric marker to write (in somewhat shaky lettering), ‘Uncle Quing!’ 

After taking all that in, I noticed that she clearly wasn’t actually using her wings to keep herself up off the ground. They were just sort of extended out to either side as she hovered a couple feet off the floor. The Lavinsi flight seemed to be more of the Superman-like variety, with their wings acting as rudders in the air to guide them, or whatever. 

“Hi!” the young Lavinsi chirped, her attention focused on the two girls close to her own apparent age. “I’m Baidy! You’re Dakota and Denny. I heard you. Wait, was that rude? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or spy, but Uncle Quing said I had to hide until we knew it was safe.”  

“It’s okay, Baidy,” Marina assured her. “But you should greet everyone, remember?” 

“Oh!” Turning her attention to the three of us, Baidy quickly introduced herself once more, and made it clear that she had heard our names too. But she was clearly more interested in Denny and Dakota, which was fair. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured, “Well, it seems to me that we were promised a tour of the newest Wonderland. Pretty sure there’s no one better for that than someone who gets a birds-eye view of the place.” 

Grinning, Marina turned a bit to where Baidy was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s right, maybe you should help lead this tour. You know where everything fun and interesting is.” 

“Really?!” Baidy brightened, literally hovering higher in the air in her excitement. “Okay! Uh, come on!” She flew straight up toward the hole in the ceiling, only to stop when she was almost there. There was a momentary pause before she slowly sank back to the ground, looking somewhat sheepish. “I uhh, um, maybe we should use the door.” Her embarrassment at forgetting that we couldn’t fly wore off instantly as she flew that way, hitting the button to make the big rolling door start to rumble its way up. “You’re gonna love it here!” She was already giggling so much she almost couldn’t get her next words out. 

“It’s wonderful!” 

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Growth 18-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Obviously, finding out that the Garden Rebels could now make their own new Heretics was a big deal, a really big deal. Seriously, if this war ended up dragging on longer than the truce with the Seosten, we would need the ability to make more Heretics. Otherwise, the Loyalists would win simply through attrition. And while I wanted to think that we would be done with this much sooner, it wasn’t a good idea to plan on that. We had to be ready for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. Being able to create more Boscher Heretics was the only way we would survive. 

All of that and more was running through my mind as Miranda and I joined Avalon at the entrance to the portal room that would lead us down to the beachfront area where the Garden people had set up. 

As soon as she saw us, Valley pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and approached to embrace me tightly. “You know what this means,” she murmured. 

My head bobbed. “Of course I know what it means. The Rebellion isn’t completely screwed if this goes on much longer. It’s a big deal. Especially since–” I cut myself off, feeling the pain of Tribald Kine’s death wash over me once more before swallowing hard. “Especially since we’re already losing experienced Heretics. We need to be able to create more.” 

Miranda spoke up quietly while standing a couple feet back. “They have a lot of experienced Natural Heretics to choose from, people who would definitely agree to take the power boost. They don’t have to start with children or people who don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Especially considering they don’t have to brainwash or lie to them to get them to fight,” I muttered under my breath. “They don’t have to get them when they’re too young to know any better.” That applied to both groups, really. Crossroads recruited Bystander-Kin when they were teenagers at most, and Garden tended to recruit even younger than that. They pulled in children and taught them to hunt down and kill other sapient creatures. When you thought about it for a minute, it was really fucked up. 

The three of us exchanged looks for a moment, obviously thinking about that. Finally, Miranda gave a firm nod. “Come on then, let’s get down there and see what’s up. If they’re right, if Dakota really managed to get those vines and the fruit working, we… we need to thank her.” 

“Everyone needs to thank her,” Avalon agreed. “And I feel like they already are. We might need to save Dakota from being…” She considered her words. “… overwhelmed. People can be a lot, even when they’re grateful.”  A brief pause, then, “Sometimes especially when they’re grateful.”

She knew what she was talking about, that was for sure. I knew she had been dealing with people being all over her for her own contributions toward the Seosten permission-possession spell. Obviously, she was glad that people weren’t trying to kill her anymore–okay there were still plenty of people who wanted to kill her, but not like that at least. She was glad the Seosten had no reason to actively try to kill her in order to stop a spell that had already been performed. And she knew why all those people were grateful for that spell. But having so many coming up and thanking her for something she didn’t feel like she’d actually contributed much toward as herself made Valley feel weird. She had told me that much over the course of the trip to that prison planet. She had been enjoying having some time away from the station so she could relax without feeling like she would be disappointing people who wanted to talk to her. She didn’t blame them for being happy and wanting to talk about the whole situation, but it was still a lot. 

Miranda and I nodded to one another before I spoke up. “You’re right, she might need a break right now. How about, after we check on the whole vine situation, we find out if she wants to take off for a bit? I was texting with Marina earlier and she said something about us coming to see Wonderland’s newest set-up.” 

The other two agreed with that, and we went through the door to the portal room. The man there knew us by name, and immediately asked if we were going because we’d heard the news. So it had gotten all the way up here already. That made sense, but also made me even more certain that Dakota would probably need a break from people. 

We exchanged a few words with the man, an elderly Yedveleran who had white-gray skin, was only about five feet tall, and had six arms as well as eyes that were attached to the end of antennae-like stalks atop his head rather than on the front of his head. His English name was Llars, which was about as close as we could get to pronouncing his actual name. Eventually, after a brief discussion about the whole situation, he sent a message to his counterpart down in the rebel Garden area. Once he got the go-ahead, Llars opened the portal and gestured for us to go ahead. “Make sure you let the kid know she did good, you hear?” 

We promised we would, before stepping through the portal. It carried us to the small, fenced-in field behind the main motel where the Garden had set up (though they had spread out throughout this entire neighborhood, taking up in a few different motels and apartment buildings). Llars’s counterpart on this side of the portal, an actual Garden Heretic woman named Iskolar, was right there to greet us. She was elderly, like Llars himself, and from what I’d heard other people say, I was pretty sure the two of them were actually courting one another. Which was pretty great. I hoped the two of them would make it work.  

In any case, Iskolar was a fairly short woman herself, standing around the same height as me at five foot four inches. She had graying blonde hair that was very big and poofy, and a broad smile to go with her broadsword. Yeah, the weapon was practically bigger than she was, strapped to her back. I’d seen her wield it though, and she was incredibly deadly despite outwardly looking and acting like a goofy grandmother. Honestly, she made me think of Betty White cosplaying as a barbarian. I felt like she could offer us cookies with one hand while fending off a horde of snarling wolf-monsters with her sword in the other. It was a really fun image in my head. 

Before we left that fenced-in area, Iskolar insisted that we take a bag of chocolate candies that she wanted Dakota to have. She also made us promise that we weren’t going to overwhelm the poor girl and would help her get a break from everyone who was demanding more and more of her time. When we told her our plan to take the girl to see Wonderland, Iskolar was delighted. On the other hand, she also suggested that Dakota might like to see a movie as well, and that we should take her to ‘that new Humphrey Bogart film.’ So it was possible that she was somewhat behind the times. I supposed once you had been a Heretic for so long, it became harder to keep track of how lives went in the Bystander world. Still, it was the thought that counted.

Once we made our way out of there, it wasn’t hard to find where practically everyone else was. The beach across the street from the motel was packed full of people. Mostly Heretics, but also some Alters mixed in there. Standing on the sidewalk, the three of us could see the crowd over there, all packed in around something we couldn’t make out. But I had a guess. 

Sure enough, as we headed across the beach, the three of us could see through the crowd enough to catch a glimpse of the long, thick vine leading out into the ocean. They were all gathered around that single vine, though it looked like most of the people were being kept several feet back by the Rebel Victors, who were examining several golden apple-like fruits attached to the vine. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, even as they intently watched what the Victors were doing.  

No, not just Victors, I realized. Seller was there too, as was a slender woman with dyed green hair and a leather jacket who was holding what looked like a stethoscope up to one of the golden fruits. It was like she was listening to them, while Seller himself was examining a different one with a jeweler’s magnifying glass. Obviously, Seller was there because of his expertise in biological manipulation, which told me that the other woman was probably along the same lines. I didn’t recognize her, but that hardly meant anything. 

“You know that woman?” I asked the other two quietly, while scanning the area for Dakota herself. Finally, I spotted her standing a bit behind Jack Childs, the cowboy Victor. Which reminded me that we needed to talk to him and Fu Hao about that whole ‘the prison camp was actually run by Zoya Dalal and possibly my ancestor Remember Bennett’ thing. 

Miranda and Avalon both nodded, the latter replying, “Her name’s Nostrum. I don’t know the name of what she was a natural Heretic of, but it gives her the power to make real medicine out of random ingredients. Medicine that actually does what she wants it to, as long as you take it soon enough. But if anyone else put the exact same ingredients together in the exact same way, it wouldn’t work. It needs her power to actually function properly.” 

“She was almost burned at the stake for being a snake oil salesman back in the old west,” Miranda added. “She didn’t understand that leaving her medicine for too long would make it not work. Jack Childs saved her from that, and brought her into Garden. She’s really good with this sort of thing now.” 

By that point, Childs himself had caught sight of us. He said a word to someone next to him, and that man (a tall, pale figure with an old faded Levi jacket and long dark beard), straightened up before walking our way. The large crowd parted for him, as he made his way through I thought he was right in front of us. Extending a hand, he announced, “Name’s Beetle. You three should come this way, Victor Childs would like to have a chat.” He spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that made it clear the matter wasn’t up for discussion. Which was fine, considering we wanted to go over there anyway. But I still didn’t really like the feeling that I was being summoned like a servant. It irked me, though I told myself I was overreacting and pushed it aside. The guy was just a little blunt and accustomed to being quickly obeyed, given he obviously worked as some sort of assistant for the Victors.  

So, I pushed aside my initial reaction and the three of us followed him back through the crowd. Childs thanked Beetle before sending him off on some other errand. Then he focused on us. “Guess you heard the news already.” 

Looking over my shoulder at the assortment of people all eagerly waiting for the announcement of whether this was real or not, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, we heard. That’s why we’re here.”  That said, I leaned over to look at Dakota, who was standing there with her arms folded around herself, looking pretty overwhelmed. “Hey, how’s it going? You busy?” 

Visibly blushing, the younger girl looked up and met my gaze. I saw the faintest smile cross her face as she offered a shrug. “Oh, um, you know. Just doing this and that. Nothing big.” Her voice squeaked a little as she made the joke, but the important part was that she made it. She really was getting better than she had been months earlier. Being out of that hospital, and far away from Kwur’s influence, seemed to be doing wonders for her. 

Before any of us could say anything else, Seller exchanged a whispered conversation with Nostrum that was obviously magically protected. Then he turned and stepped closer, waving a hand. As he did so, some sort of small, flying insect emerged from his sleeve and spread what looked like dust through the air. Only then did he speak. “Now none of the lookie-loos can hear us, or read our lips.” He focused on me, adding, “Long time no see, kid.” His gaze took in Miranda and Avalon as well, as he added, “Kids. Wow, all three of you, huh?” 

“What’s the diagnosis?” That was one of the other Victors, a man who looked like he was in his early forties with a wide, round face that held a perpetually surprised expression, and short dark hair. Lamorak, one of Arthur’s old knights. “Is this real?” As he asked that, Lamorak glanced toward Dakota, adding, “I still think we should have done our tests first before everyone else heard about it. If this is a false positive, people are going to be upset about getting their hopes up. And it’s not us who will have to deal with the worst of it.” 

Flinching a little, Dakota straightened up, glancing at me before turning back that way. Her voice caught slightly, but she pressed on. “I–it’s real. I promise.” 

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed, offering a faint smile of his own. “Don’t get me wrong,” he informed Lamorak, “you are too. This whole thing would have been easier if we didn’t have the crowd.” 

“They are eager to know that our people can continue on,” Fu Fao noted as she stepped closer, the elderly Asian woman glancing straight at Avalon briefly before she continued. “While I agree that tests should have been completed, it was very difficult to keep the situation secret when we brought Seller and Nostrum in to do those tests. Word travels quickly. Particularly when we are so very thorough.” 

Seller shrugged. “Well, in any case, it’s like I said. The kid’s right. The vine’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The fruit we see now, that’s about all you’re gonna get for the year, but it should bloom normally next time.” 

“How many is that?” Childs asked. “What’s the crop this time around?” 

“Twenty-four,” came the answer from Nostrum, as the woman joined us. “That’s twenty-four people we can turn into Bosch Heretics, which means–” 

“Six,” Seller interrupted, sounding curious and thoughtful. “Six fruits per tribe. Four rebelled. Well, three and a half. But Aniyah and her half of the Reapers won’t see it that way.” 

“You’re right.” That, of course, was Aniyah Keita herself. The red-haired (with one spot of black in the front) Victor stepped up beside Lamorak, the man she was apparently very involved with. “Even if only half our tribe came with, we have every right to our six fruits to make our choices.” 

By that point, the final three Victors had joined the group. There was Fu Hao’s partner, the small, thin (though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle) man with dyed blue hair known as Carseus, as well as the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (Cleo) Selene. It was the woman who spoke up. “Having six new recruits to our tribes will be very welcome.” Her dark eyes found Dakota, and the beautiful woman offered the girl a tender smile, that of a regal-yet-understanding queen. “Thank you so much for your work. We could not have done any of this without you. We would still have nothing for the future of our people.” 

Blushing so much I was afraid she might actually catch fire, Dakota stammered, “I–it’s no big deal. I mean–it is, I’m glad I could help. I just–umm–” She was scrambling a bit. 

“She’s just happy it worked,” I quickly spoke up for her, stepping that way to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just six per tribe this time, but next year it’ll have more.” Behind me, Miranda and Avalon stepped over as well, all three of us standing with Dakota. 

Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Miss Chambers is correct. Though it will be five per, not six. The remaining four fruit will be put away for an emergency, just as we kept a few back before.” Her gaze found me and then Avalon in quick succession, and I knew what she was thinking about. The only reason both Avalon and Abigail had survived their own near-death situations while they were Bystanders had been because Garden had a few of those fruits stored away for such occasions. Granted, four weren’t very many, but still. I understood why she wanted to keep a few hidden away.

For a brief moment, I was afraid there might have been an argument. The Victors all exchanged long looks, before Carseus spoke up. “Ahem, I suppose that’s a good point. We do want to stick a few in a vault for a rainy day. We’ve all seen how important that can be. I suppose that means all of us need to agree together on what happens with each of those four?” 

That prompted a round of nods. They had settled that much at least. All seven Victors would vote on any use of the extra fruit, while being given five each to be used by their own tribes. I wasn’t sure how the five would be split amongst the three tribes who each had two Victors (maybe each of them would pick two and decide together for the fifth), but that wasn’t my business. 

Something else was though. Giving a quick glance toward Dakota, I spoke up. “Hey uhh, before you make the official announcement that the fruit is good and the vines are healthy, do you think you could let Dakota here slip away for awhile? That is, if she wants to.” I looked to the girl in question once more. “Sorry, do you wanna get out of here for awhile or stick around for your big–” 

“I want to get out of here,” she immediately piped up, before flushing a bit guiltily in the direction of the Victors. “I mean, sorry. I’m really glad I could help, and happy that you guys will have the fruit you need, and all that. But your people are kind of overwhelming already, and I–” 

“There is no need to apologize,” Alexander Helios, who looked as much like an old, noble emperor as his twin sister looked like a queen, announced. His dark hair was worn long, falling just past his shoulders as it gently swayed in the ocean breeze. “You have done everything we asked of you, and more than we could have truly hoped. Thank you, Dakota Coalbright. While I hope that you return for the feast in your honor later, it may be for the best for your own sense of peace if you take this portal.” He created the portal in question at that very moment, raising one hand to do so. “And I hope your friends here will escort you?” His eyes glanced back to the three of us behind her. 

That was a big deal. I knew that immediately. This girl had just fixed their special vines and given them back the ability to create new Heretics. She was indescribably important to them, and he was trusting Avalon, Miranda, and me to keep her safe. That meant a lot. 

I still wanted to talk to Fu Hao and Childs about the prison thing, but now was not the right time. They were really busy. Besides, Dakota needed to get out of here for her own sanity. So, I simply told them that we needed to talk later, then went with the others through that portal. It carried us to a spot further down the beach, out of sight from where the crowd was all gathered. A moment after we appeared and the portal had closed, we all heard a loud cheer erupt from that direction.  

“I think they told them the apples are working,” Miranda noted dryly, before glancing at Dakota with a smile. “See, you did pretty amazing stuff back there.” 

Dakota was blushing again, shaking her head. “It wasn’t just me. The others helped too. And… and those monsters are still trying to get at the fruit. They’ll be trying even harder now that the vines work.” 

“The Victors will deal with that,” I reminded her. “It’s not your job. You did your part. Now just let them handle the rest, right?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a short nod, her voice quiet. “Right.” 

“Great.” Giving the younger girl a quick, reassuring smile, I added, “Now, Marina over at Wonderland was talking about us paying a visit, and I thought you might like to come with. What do you think? You’ve heard of that place, right?” 

Her response was a hesitant, “Umm… Yeah, I’ve heard of it. If… if you think it’s okay, then sure. Err, can we invite Denny? We’ve been talking a lot and I think… I think she needs a break too.”

“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get Denny down here so we can all check out the new Wonderland together.

“Something tells me we should take this chance while we’ve got it.” 

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