Denise Cartland

The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 14A – Denny Departs (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The sound of the loud, piercing siren filled the air as the police car went screaming past the bus station. Denny Cartland, half-hiding behind a pillar on the front walkway, peeked out to watch the car go by. The eleven-year-old girl wore a heavy sweatshirt with the hood up, along with an actual winter coat with that hood up, gloves, a scarf, dirty jeans that had seen better days, and beaten-up sneakers with a pair of thick socks. Not that she actually needed all that, even with the snow that covered the ground. Temperature didn’t seem to bother her at all, warm or cold. But if she had stood around in a t-shirt and shorts, people would have noticed. People already noticed her. She was a kid at the bus station. It was hard not to stand out. 

They especially would have paid attention if her picture had been plastered all over the news. A not-quite-twelve-year-old kid disappearing? Yeah, even she knew what that would be like, with national headlines. She wouldn’t be able to take a step without being recognized by someone. 

But she’d had to leave, had to get out of her house and away from her parents. The thoughts she kept having, the dreams that filled her head, they were so awful. She thought about killing everyone she knew as well as strangers. She thought of torturing them, making them cry and suffer. There were vivid memories of killing people. She… she was bad. She was wrong. 

She had to get out of there and find someone who could help, someone who could make the evil, bad thoughts go away. She wasn’t sure who or how yet, but the impulse to just get away from her family had been too strong to ignore. Once she was far enough away, once she could stop somewhere safe and clear her head, she might be able to think of how to find someone.

It wasn’t just her own problems she had to figure out, not just the… the impulses and memories. It was also the fact that that girl at the gas station had completely forgotten the monster that was in there. And she wasn’t the only one. In the few days that had followed, Denny had seen several more clearly…. not-human people hanging around different places, and nobody ever seemed to notice. They always acted like the… the non-humans were completely normal, and if she asked about them, they looked at her like she was crazy. She had not yet worked up the courage to approach one of the not-humans, since they seemed to think she would see them as totally normal too and she was petrified of what would happen if they found out otherwise. 

The point was, she had to get away from home, clear her head, and find someone she could get some answers from. 

And yet, there was that problem of being seen as a runaway. So, Denny… Denny had been evil. She had been bad. She told her parents–she used… she used her voice, the voice that made people do what she wanted. It had taken some time, but she figured out that she had to say her name to make it work. She had to introduce herself, even if they knew her. And after that, they would do what she said. Even to the point of remembering what she told them to remember. 

So, evil as it was, with a hard anvil of guilt sitting in her stomach, Denny had used her power to tell her parents to believe that they had sent her to stay with her aunt for a few weeks. She would call back every few days with fake updates about how much fun she was having. 

In the meantime, she had used almost all of her savings to take two different buses over the past day and a half. She was somewhere in southern Illinois right now, trying to figure out how she was going to take another bus anywhere useful with only twenty dollars left in her pocket while studiously ignoring everyone around her. She had to ignore them. The less attention she paid to the people she saw, the less vivid her thoughts about killing them would be. 

Twenty dollars. Her stomach growled a bit, reminding the girl that she had already eaten the last sandwich she’d packed before leaving the house. Crap. Why didn’t she pack more food? Why didn’t she think of more things? She had been in such a rush to get out of the house before something bad happened that she had barely prepared. The nightmares and horrific daydreams were too strong, she just had to get out of there. But now that she was so far away, the thoughts of everything she had forgotten to do or bring just kept filling her head with self-recrimination. 

Self-recrimination? How did she even know that word? She knew what it meant, but… like, how? How did she know it? She’d never read it before, had she? That was the other side of the whole thing. She had all these evil thoughts and impulses, sure, but she also knew things she shouldn’t know. Not just words, but math and history too. She kept thinking about trigonometry. How did she know anything about trigonometry?! Not just the word, she knew what it meant, how to use it. She knew… she knew more than she should, and had no idea how other than some fuzzy memories of sitting in a classroom. But she hadn’t. She had never learned this stuff in a classroom. She was in fifth grade, for crying out loud! How did she know any of this? 

“Yo, kid!” A gruff, heavy-set man in an orange parka stood in front of Denny, and had apparently been trying to get her attention for some time. He waved a gloved hand in front of her face. “You waiting for your parents or something? This ain’t the best place to hang around, ‘specially for a little girl.” He gestured to the nearby doors. “Why don’t you go in and sit where the guys in there can see you, just to make sure nothing bad happens. You need money to get a drink out of the vending machine?” He was fumbling in his pockets, and came out with a crumpled dollar.  

She wasn’t supposed to lie. She was not supposed to lie. Especially not to an adult who was simply trying to help her. But as with basically everything she had been doing lately, Denny didn’t have a choice.  It wasn’t like she could tell this guy the truth. Either he wouldn’t believe her and would decide she was crazy (maybe she really was), or he would completely forget what she had said. Either way, it was either pointless at best or actively a bad idea at worst.   

So, with a heavy sigh, Denny accepted the dollar bill and quietly thanked the man. With one last look out at the street, she mumbled something about waiting for her father. Maybe with that, the guy wouldn’t feel the need to stick around to check on her. It was a bus station, he probably had places to go. 

She really wished she had a place to go. Denny had been standing there hoping to get some idea of how she could take another bus to get even further away from home. Or rather, trying to get some other idea. Because she knew just how easy it would be to simply use her voice to force someone to give her a ticket, or the money for one. But that was wrong. It was stealing. And she was profoundly terrified that doing anything wrong would lead her down a slippery slope to the very, very bad things that kept popping up in her thoughts and dreams. Even now, seeing the man in front of her, she could imagine stabbing a pair of scissors up into his throat. She could perfectly picture the look of terror and shock on his face as his blood came spurting out while he collapsed. She could hear his panicked gurgling as his body fell, as he–

Physically jerking herself backward, Denny mumbled her thanks and quickly turned to walk back into the bus station. Drink. She could get a drink and think. Maybe that would help, somehow. Making a beeline for the vending machine while feeling the nice man’s eyes on her, she picked out a soda and took it to one of the chairs in the corner of the waiting room.  

It did not help. Not really. As she sat there nursing the bottle, all the girl could think about was how easily she could solve this problem. It felt like a voice in the back of her head constantly whispering that she could be on the next bus in two seconds. It would be so simple. All she had to do was use her own voice to get the clerk behind the counter to give her a ticket and forget what happened. It wouldn’t even hurt anybody. 

Except it would. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid. Denny knew that people counted money at the end of a shift like that. If the clerk gave her a printed ticket and didn’t have the corresponding money for it, they’d get in trouble. Tickets were like fifty to a hundred dollars, or more. They’d notice that much money missing from the register, and even if they couldn’t track it to a specific ticket, the clerk would get in trouble. She didn’t want to let that happen, and really did not want to do it by using her voice. She had to find another way, but how? Something, there had to be something she could do, someway she could… hold on. 

It was still bad. It was so bad. It was still lying and using her voice to trick people. But maybe she could do it without getting anyone in trouble. A rush of thoughts went through the girl’s mind. The guilt was still heavy even at the thought of what she was considering, but she had to move. She had to get out of here and go somewhere that she could get answers, even if she had no idea where that somewhere was just yet. If she found a big enough city, far enough away from home, she just… knew there would be answers there. How she was so certain of that, Denny had no idea. But she was. She just had to keep moving, had to let herself be pulled to the right place. 

Taking another long sip from the soda as she turned to scan the room once more, Denny saw no sign of the nice man in the orange coat. So, she picked herself up from the plastic chair and walked out of the waiting room to the depot where the buses were lined up. No one paid her much attention there. The regular people were rushing to get on the right bus, and the employees were making sure that everyone actually getting on the buses had their ticket. 

For a few moments, she stood there, letting her gaze pan over the assembled buses. She was looking for the right one at just the right time. Her eyes watched one driver start to close his doors, but a glance toward the windows showed too many faces and heads there. The bus looked full. That wasn’t right. She needed something with less passengers, where her presence wouldn’t bump anyone else off or raise questions. 

At first, she was afraid nothing would look right. Then her gaze found a bus in the rear corner. The windows looked only about a quarter full, and the driver was looking at his watch before starting to step up so he could close the doors. That one. Deep inside, she knew that had to be the right one, and a better chance wouldn’t come along anytime soon. Besides, if she waited much longer, the bus depot wouldn’t be as crowded and people might pay more attention to her.

Glancing around just enough to make sure no one was watching or following her, Denny quickly jogged that way, holding up her hand. “Wait!” she called out to the driver. “Please wait, sir!” 

The man stopped, turned to look her way as he stood with one foot on the bottom step. “Hey, kid. Sorry, where’s your parents? They already up there?” He started to turn as though to call out to the other passengers to find out who she was with. Which would’ve complicated this. 

“Sir!” Denny quickly interrupted, grabbing his sleeve so he had to look at her. Her mouth opened to say what she needed to say, only for the words to catch in her throat. Evil. Bad. Horrible. She couldn’t–couldn’t do that. It was wrong. She was wrong. She was bad, and if she did bad things, she’d do even worse things. Lying and stealing could lead to… to the things in her dreams. No, no, please. She didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to be that. Please no, don’t be that. The thoughts swarmed through her head, the terror of what she might turn into if she indulged at all.

A confused, then worried look crossed the man’s face as he clearly started to picture having to deal with whatever her issue was. “Hang on, kid, I’ll flag someone down and you can get–” 

“No!” Denny quickly blurted. She shoved all her guilt down for the moment. It was now or never, she wouldn’t have a better chance. And now that she was right in front of this guy, he wasn’t just going to walk off again without paying attention and sending someone after her to find out what was wrong. He’d seen her face, he saw the look in her eyes, the guilt and fear. She had to do it.

“My name is Denise,” she announced, staring up at him as tears filled her eyes. “I already gave you my ticket.” She said the words softly, almost too quietly. But the man heard. He stared at her for a brief second before giving an obedient nod. “You already gave me your ticket.” 

“And my parents talked to you,” she added in another hoarse whisper, forcing herself to continue despite the violent guilty churning of her stomach. “They want you to make sure I behave and get to… to…” She leaned over, staring up at the sign on the front of the bus. “Milwaukee.” That’s where the bus was going. From Illinois to Wisconsin. That had to be far enough for something better to occur to her, right? It was far enough that she would have no chance of doing anything bad to her parents at least, and as soon as she was far enough away from them, she could focus on learning the truth about what was wrong with her, why she had all these evil thoughts and… and this power. Not to mention how strong she was. An image of denting the gas station pumps inward when she’d hit them the other day flashed through her mind, and Denny blanched, bile rising in her throat. 

Somehow, she pushed those thoughts down and climbed up into the bus. Or, at least she started to. But just as she was moving past the driver and looking to the back to find an empty seat, the sound of a yelp caught her attention. It was coming from far off on the opposite side of the depot, past so many noisy people and buses that the girl had no idea how she had heard it. But she did. Her head snapped that way instinctively, gaze searching until she caught sight of several figures at the corner of the building. There were three men and a woman. Two of the men were basically dragging the other man and the woman while they struggled to get free. Just before they went out of sight, one of the men raised some sort of hammer and hit the struggling man in the head, making him slump. Then they were out of sight. 

But there was something else about those people. The woman had bright orange skin with small yellow horns, and the man who had been hit looked like he had very light tan fur across his body. Meanwhile, both of the men who had been dragging them around the corner had very thick yellow-green skin and their faces were kind of… pig-like, with big snouts. They looked sorta like the pig-guard guys in those Star Wars movies. 

Eyes widening, Denny started to point. “Hey, did you see–” She cut herself off upon seeing the driver simply take his seat. No, he didn’t see anything. And if he had, he’d forget it. Just like Kalia had forgotten everything back at the gas station. He had no idea anything bad was happening right around the corner of that building. No one did. 

No one but her. She was there. She knew. 

For a moment, Denny stood frozen in the doorway. To one side a seat was waiting for her. A seat on the bus that would take her far away from this place, to where she could make sure her family was safe by staying far away from them. To the other side was a door leading back into the depot, to where those strange, alien-looking people were just around the corner. 

No one would help them. No one even remembered they existed. They didn’t know that Denny had seen them. No one would blame her for getting on the bus and letting it take her away from here. She was just a kid. People wouldn’t believe her if she pointed it out, it wasn’t her responsibility… and… and…

Denny stepped off the bus. As the driver called after her, she walked away without looking back. He gave one more half-hearted call, then shut the door with a very final-sounding hiss-clank. 

Trying not to think about how utterly stupid she was being, Denny hurried across the lot, weaving between buses and people while keeping her eye on the corner of the building. What was she doing? Why was she going closer? She could have been out of there. She had her seat on the bus, completely free and clear. Why was she doing this? Why was she trying to help people she didn’t even know, people who looked… who looked so different? 

Because she had been hoping someone would help her, Denny realized, even as she drew closer to the corner. She had started doing this whole thing, leaving home and going on this stupid trip in the first place because she was hoping that someone would find and help her. How could she possibly expect someone else to help her if she wasn’t willing to help other people?

Stopping at that corner, the girl carefully peeked around. The area here was shielded from the nearby street by a series of tall hedges and bushes. She saw the man with light fur and the orange-skinned woman on the ground, cowering at the feet of the two heavy-set pig guys who were standing over them with what looked like a couple batons raised. 

“Think you can run off without paying French what you owe him?” One of the pig guards flipped the weapon around in his hand threateningly while continuing, “That’s not good. Not good at all. And after all he did for you and yours.” 

“P-please,” pleaded the man, “we don’t have any more money. We barely have enough to feed ourselves. We just need to get a fresh start. We heard there was a place–” 

“French knows what you heard!” the second pig guard snapped, slamming the baton down into his hand with a meaty thunk that made both of the people on the ground cringe backward. “You think you can just run off to some magical fairy land and avoid paying what you owe? Nah, French says if you can’t pay, you can be an example.” 

“Stop!” Denny blurted, popping around the corner with her hands up. “Stop it!” 

Maybe jumping out right next to the bad guys wasn’t the best idea. The second she spoke, the nearest pig-guy spun, his baton lashing out. Before Denny could even think ‘uh oh,’ the weapon crashed into the side of her head and sent her to the ground with a scream of… of… pain? 

No pain. It didn’t hurt. Lying there in the grass while the two pig-guys blurted demands at their victims about who she was, Denny realized the blow hadn’t hurt at all. It knocked her down, but there was no pain. 

Feeling dazed from the realization rather than the blow, the girl pushed herself up and turned in time to see the pig-guys notice her. The one who had hit her reared back once more. But Denny lashed out. Her small fist collided with the big man’s stomach with enough force to send him flying backward, even as she herself felt the force reverberate back through her small form, making her stumble back a couple steps. As for the pig-guy, he hit the nearby wall hard enough to crack it, slumping to the ground in a daze. 

The other guy came after her with a cry, his foot lashing out to collide with the girl hard enough to send her flying. She felt her back hit the trunk of a thick tree, collapsing at the base of it. But again, it didn’t hurt. She was fine. Her body was so small she could be tossed around at will, but nothing was actually doing damage. Nothing that lasted, anyway. Her gaze rose in time to see the pig-guy spin to lash out with his baton toward the cowering couple, but Denny blurted out a quick, “My name is Denise, stop!” She managed the last word just as the baton was an inch from the back of the fur-covered man’s head. 

Slowly picking herself up, Denny moved that way. The voice. The voice in the back of her head was there, telling her to make them stab each other. It would be fun. No, no, make the two of them bite each other’s throats out. They tried to hurt her, tried to kill her. That was fair, right? Right? She could indulge, she could make them regret ever being born, let alone raising a hand against her. She could make them–

“Shut up!” Denny blurted at the silent voice, making everyone jerk in surprise. Forcing those feelings down, she carefully told the two men to drop their weapons where they were and walk away for an hour before they stopped. 

As they left, the orange woman stammered a confused, “Th-thank you? What… who… who are…” 

Tears in her eyes, Denny turned to face the couple. “Please. Please, I don’t know who to talk to. Something’s happening to me. Please… help. Help me, please. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. You look like monsters but I know you’re not because I’m a monster and I don’t want to be but please please help me.”

The fur-covered man and the orange woman looked at each other, clearly conferring silently. “We could take her with us,” the woman quietly suggested. 

“Yeah, we could,” the man confirmed before turning to Denny. “Okay, kid. Umm…

“We’ll take you to the Auberge, to see Mennin Tombs.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 12B – Denny Again (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The quiet, familiar scritching sound of a small knife blade steadily carving into wood filled the small space of the closet where Denny was crouched. She had closed the door and scrunched herself into the back behind the clothes and toys, invisible if someone simply glanced inside. Between that and the fact that it was the middle of the night with no lights on other than what came through the curtained window near her bed in the main room, the area around her was pitch-black. But that didn’t matter, not really. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn’t worried about monsters. 

Because she was a monster. And monsters belonged in the closet. 

She had told her mother that she didn’t want to see that therapist again. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, she didn’t say anything about the woman changing her name to that weird one, or any of that. Denny wasn’t sure why, she just knew it was a bad idea. First her mother had wanted her to give it another try, but then they had gotten word that ‘Megan’ was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be available. So she had agreed to let her daughter see a different therapist, though that hadn’t actually started yet. She was supposed to have her first visit next week. Which didn’t help the girl right now, as she crouched in the closet, carving into the wall. 

It was also too dark to see exactly what she was carving. But that didn’t matter either, because she didn’t need to see it. She knew, deep in her soul, what was carved throughout every wall of the closet. Two different words, repeated over and over again. One was two letters and the other three letters. Me Him Me Him Me Him. The two words were cut into the walls obsessively. From the look of it, if someone had examined the carvings closely, it would appear as though many instances had one word carved first, and then the other carved almost on top of that. It was an argument, played out through a steak knife that had been borrowed from the kitchen, digging into the wall. 

Him. He was there. She could feel him, could almost hear his voice. She caught glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and felt him standing behind her. But he was never there when she looked closer. He was always just out of sight, just out of reach. He was right there with her, yet not. 

Grasping the knife carefully in both hands, the eleven-year-old girl stared unseeingly through the darkness at where she knew the rear wall was. With a shaking grip, she reached up and began to carve a much larger word, which would take up the entire wall if she finished it. 

The first letter was A. That was followed by an M. By the time she began to carve the second M, the girl’s hands were shaking so much she actually dropped the knife when the letter was half-done. She reached down, fumbling a bit until she found it. Unfortunately, her hand found the blade first and grasped it, making the blade cut into her palm. Not too deep, barely enough to draw blood. But it made the girl yelp softly. Abruptly, she looked up at the wall again, still incapable of seeing it, yet knowing what was there. The expression on her face, had it been visible to anyone, would have shifted from one of resignation, to intense anger. With the knife held tightly in her slightly injured hand, she ignored the pain and lashed out to cut a deep gouge through the aborted name she had begun to carve into the wall. Once, twice, three times she cut deep lines through it, crossing the unfinished name out. She wouldn’t finish it. She refused. He couldn’t make her. He couldn’t change her. She wasn’t him. She wasn’t. She was Denny. He was–he was–he didn’t matter. He wasn’t here. She wouldn’t obey him again. She wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wouldn’t do anything he said. The whispers, the thoughts, the impressions he left at the back of her mind, they didn’t matter. None of that mattered. She was Denny. She mattered. She was going to do what she wanted to do. She was going to be what she wanted to be. She didn’t have to listen to him. She never had to listen to him. 

The sound of footsteps creaking on the stairs snapped the girl out of her intense fit of repeatedly gouging lines through the partially finished name. Someone was coming. Him? Was it him? Was he coming because she refused to carve his name? Was he coming for her now? No, no, he couldn’t come for her. He couldn’t come, because he was already here. And because he wasn’t. He was here, and he wasn’t, and he never could be. And yet, the rush of terror that filled the girl, the animalistic survival instinct as she heard those footsteps, couldn’t be ignored. 

Straightening, she stepped out of the closet, still holding the knife in her injured hand even as she heard those footsteps steadily approaching her room. Quickly and silently, she moved to stand behind the  bedroom door, safely out of sight as the footsteps stopped. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the knife again. If he was here, if he was real, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified, yet also furious. A righteous anger, a rage that the young girl could barely comprehend, had filled her at the thought that he was coming. She wouldn’t let him hurt her. She wouldn’t let him control her. No more. Not again. Never again. 

The footsteps stopped outside her door, and for a moment there was nothing but the silence. Then, the door slowly began to creak open. It came about halfway, and from her position behind it, Denny was able to peer through the small crack between the wall and the door itself just enough to see a figure standing there, mostly concealed in the shadows of the hallway. He was there, staring in at the lump of blankets on her bed that made it look as though Denny was sleeping in it. 

She would stab him. As soon as he came through the door and walked to the bed, she would stab him from behind. She wouldn’t let him touch her, wouldn’t let him talk to her, wouldn’t let him do anything. He would never hurt her again. She wouldn’t let him hurt her or control her.

“Is she okay?” Those words, spoken in a hushed tone, filled the air, startling the girl. They came from down the hall, not from the figure next to the door. And the voice was quite familiar. Her mother. Her mother was just down the hall, addressing… addressing the figure there. 

“She’s asleep,” came the whispered response. A whisper she also recognized. Her father. The figure standing just on the other side of the open door, looking at what he thought was Denny lying in bed, was her own father. She had almost stabbed her own father, out of the sheer terror that had been brought on by the thought that the figure from her dreams was standing there.

While the girl was reeling from what she had almost done, the door creaked closed once more and she heard her father walk away to join her mother. She was left standing there in the dark. The knife fell from her grip to the carpet, and she raised her hands to stare at her own palms. In the slight illumination that came through the window, she could see fairly clearly. There was no wound there. The spot of her hand that she had cut was already completely healed, save for the stain of blood that proved it had once been injured. In those brief moments, the wound had entirely vanished. 

Denny’s breathing grew heavy as she stared at her hand, where the cut should have been. Where she had felt it, where there was still blood showing that a cut had once existed. Her voice was a whisper that sounded entirely too loud within the confines of this dark bedroom. 

“What… what’s happening to me?” 

*******

Gas filling her mouth, pouring down her throat, choking her on the fumes. Tears filling her eyes, panic making her want to scream. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t stop the gasoline from killing her, from–

“Yo, kid!” A sudden shout startled her. “You camping out to save a pump for your dad, or what?” 

Yes, Denny had been standing at a gas station right where a car was supposed to park, staring at one of the pumps. No, not just a gas station. Not just ‘one of the pumps.’ The gas station. The pump. The one from her dream that wasn’t a dream. She knew that, she recognized it. It was the gas station her parents sometimes stopped at on the way home, only a few blocks from their house. Standing there, staring at the pump, she knew it was the same one from those dreams. Something deep in her soul told the girl this was the right place. 

No, the wrong place. This was the wrong place entirely. She shouldn’t be here. She really shouldn’t be here. A loud voice in the back of her mind was telling the girl to turn around and run away, to never set foot anywhere near here again. 

And yet, another voice was telling her that she had to be here, that she would never get any better until she faced this and could understand it. She was so confused, so lost, she had to know the truth, had to know what was wrong with her and fix it before she… before she did something bad. 

Still, she didn’t want to get run over. So, she quickly stepped out of the way and let the man in the sedan pull up to the spot where she had been standing. He grumbled while getting out to pump his gas, and the sight of the man holding the nozzle made bile suddenly rise up in Denny’s throat. Pivoting, she rushed to the shop itself, pushing her way inside. As the polite ding filled the air, the girl took a moment to pant and catch her breath, almost doubling over as she tried to stop hyperventilating. No, no, she couldn’t be out there, couldn’t look at the pump. She couldn’t stand there and…

A sudden rush of images filled the girl’s mind. She was being hit, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly, a foot colliding with her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t beg. Her stomach hurt, there was something wrong with it, something that made it impossible to breathe properly. Her face was bleeding and broken, one eye swollen shut. The pain was awful, but it didn’t compare to the sheer terror. He was going to hit her again, he was going to hurt her, because he was told to. Because… because he told him to. Him, not the man hurting her, but the… the…

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” It was the clerk, a girl in her late teens who had come around the counter and moved to where Denny had crouched down and started crying. “Uhh, do you want me to call somebody? Are you lost or something?” 

Swallowing hard, Denny pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “N-no, it’s okay. I just…” She trailed off helplessly then. How exactly was she supposed to explain what had just happened? She didn’t understand it herself. The images in her mind had been so vivid, so real. She could feel the blows, could hear the–him ordering the other man to hit her again, and again, and again. 

Forcing those thoughts down, she clenched her fists while meeting the gaze of the older girl with dirty-blonde hair. “Can um, can I ask you something, please?” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. 

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Clearly uncertain about what this girl who had just walked into the gas station before falling to her knees and crying was going to ask, the teenaged clerk gestured. “Come on, you can have a soda on me. You look like you need it. What do you need to ask?” 

A rush of confusing and contradictory thoughts ran through Denny’s mind as she followed the clerk over to the counter and accepted the bottle of Sprite. For a moment, she was able to distract herself by focusing on opening it and taking a long sip. But she felt the clerk’s curious eyes on her the whole time, and finally couldn’t wait anymore. So, Denny took a breath before looking up. Her voice caught a little as she forced the words out. “Did somebody die here? I–I heard somebody died here. Um, I think it was… uhh, awhile ago with–what?” The way the clerk was staring at her made the girl a little nervous. Even more than she had already been. 

“Did someone put you up to this?” the clerk demanded, though her voice was more resigned than angry. “Just–just tell me if someone put you up to it. They think it’s real funny just to send–” 

Eyes widening, Denny shook her head rapidly. “No! Nobody put me up to anything, I swear. I just… I heard somebody died here and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s weird, but can you please tell me? I swear it’s not a joke or anything. Please.”

There was a momentary pause as the clerk considered, before sighing. “Yeah, somebody died here. But it wasn’t recently, and it wasn’t just one person. Two people died about fourteen months ago. There was a… a robber and the last girl who worked at this place. They said the guy tried to rob her and she… um, she got the gun away from him and shot him. Then she umm… killed herself.” Slowly, the clerk turned to look out toward the gas pumps. Her mouth opened, but Denny didn’t need to hear more. 

“She died from the gas,” the young girl murmured audibly, staring in the same direction. She could smell the fumes, could taste it pouring down her throat, could–could– Shaking herself violently, Denny forced herself to look back at the clerk. “They said she killed herself?” 

“That’s… what they said.” There was doubt in the clerk’s voice as she squinted that way. “It’s kinda weird though, isn’t it? I mean, they said she felt so guilty about killing my–the guy that she had to… to do that.” 

Catching what the older girl had almost said, Denny focused on her and frowned. “Did you know the guy who–” 

“You should leave.” With those words, the clerk pointed to the opposite door from the one Denny had come through. “Go out the back. Get out of here, hurry, go!” Her words were urgent, nearly frantic in a tone shift that startled the younger girl. She was already coming around the counter, taking hold of her shoulder to pull her away. 

Denny started to argue in confusion, when the ding of the bell above the door she had come through filled the air. Both girls turned that way to find an enormous figure crouched down a bit as he pushed his way through the door. Seeing that, the clerk suddenly gave Denny a shove that knocked her to her knees behind one of the display cases. “Hide,” she hissed. 

From her place behind the shelves, Denny lifted her head and peered through the crack in time to see the figure straighten up. Her first impression had been right. The man wasn’t just tall, he was a huge, broad-shouldered man with an assortment of bright red tattoos across his scaled body. 

Wait, scaled body? Denny gave a double-take, eyes widening. Yes, the man had scales. Like… like a really bad skin condition? Her mother had always said that she wasn’t supposed to stare at people who were different like that, but this guy was really different. He wasn’t just tall, he was… he was so tall he’d had to stoop to get through the door. Over seven feet. His body was dark blue-green, with a slightly lighter face. And, again, he had scales. Very thick, obvious scales. His eyes were vertical, like a snake or a lizard. 

“Kalia,” his voice rumbled while Denny shrank back in fear. “You shouldn’t have blown me off this morning. You know I don’t like that.” His vertical pupils narrowed at the older girl. “Your dad did that a lot.” 

“Mercer,” the clerk (Kalia) managed in a clearly weak voice. “I was gonna come find you after work. I’ve got fifty dollars for you.” 

“Fifty?” The enormous, scaled figure gave a heavy, humorless laugh. “Your dad owed ten thousand when he bit the dust. You think fifty’s even a drop in that bucket?” With that, the man paused, looking around. “Come to think of it, kid, you working in the place he died trying to get my down payment is pretty fucked up. And that’s coming from me.” 

Wait, wait, the girl was– Denny was left reeling from that revelation, even as the huge, alien figure stalked forward to close the distance between himself and Kalia. “Now,” he snarled, “Now, you gonna dig deep and find a way to get the money your family owes, or am I going to have to try to pry it out of grieving family member number three?” Before the girl could answer, he snapped a hand down to grab her by the throat. “Maybe what you need is some motivation. Cuz clearly, I ain’t done enough t–” 

“Stop it!” Without even knowing what she was doing, Denny had leapt to her feet and held both hands up. “Stop it, stop!” 

The giant figure did stop, his head slowly turning to look that way. Those vertical eyes focused on her. “Who the fuck are you?” 

“I…” Her throat was dry, a thick lump filling it. She could barely breathe, could barely think. “My… my name is Denise.” 

“Yeah? Good for you.” Mercer’s voice made it clear how little he cared. “Now, if you don’t mind, I–” His grip tightened on the other girl’s throat enough to make her yelp in pain. 

“Stop it!” Denny blurted as terror filled her. “Let her go!”  

Abruptly, the enormous figure did just that. He released Kalia, allowing the girl to suck in panicked gasps of air. Then just stared at Denny. His eyes narrowed. “What… the fuck did you just–” With an animalistic roar, he began to lunge that way. 

Denny, in turn, jerked backward with a panic. “Stop!” she desperately cried out. 

And, again, the figure stopped. He abruptly jerked to a halt, glowering at her. “Listen to me, you little shit. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but–” 

But something had a hold of the eleven-year-old by then, some subconscious realization that she didn’t fully understand. Her shaky voice came once more. “P-put… both hands… above your head.” 

He did, which almost scared the girl more than if he hadn’t. As the man raised both hands high over his head, palms flat against the ceiling, he began to snarl very intricate and detailed threats about what he was going to do to them. 

“St-stop talking!” Denny hurriedly stammered, terror filling her. “I–I–umm… ummm…” What was happening? Why was he obeying her? What was he? He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t normal. “P-please, just… just…” Her mouth opened and shut. Just what? What was he supposed to do? 

There was a… whisper at the back of her mind. A whisper she couldn’t quite hear, but her subconscious knew what the whisper was saying. Some small part of her understood the advice. “Forget you were here,” she finally managed. “Forget that girl there, and anything her family owed. Forget all of it, everything that happened here and everything about Kalia and her family. And… and go away. Walk away, and don’t stop walking until you… until you’re ten miles away.”  

And with that, the horrifying figure obeyed. He turned and left the store, walking away across the lot while leaving both girls standing there staring after him. 

“Wha… what j-just happened?” Kalia managed. “Who the hell–how did–” In mid-sentence, the girl abruptly stopped, shook her head, and then turned back to Denise with a smile, her voice utterly devoid of any fear or reaction to the events from a moment earlier. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?” 

“Th-that guy, who was he?” Denny asked, confused by the girl’s sudden chipper attitude. 

“Sorry, what guy?” Kalia looked politely curious, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t see any guy. Were you looking for someone?”

“The guy who was just here!” Denny blurted. “The big–the monster with the scales and the tattoos!” 

Still, Kalia just stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Are you okay? You’re the only one who’s come inside in like half an hour. Hey, do you want me to call someone? Do–hey, wait!”

But Denny didn’t wait. As a tumultuous rush of confusion and fear filled her mind, the girl raced for the door. She slammed her way through it, ignoring the older girl calling after her. Instead, she ran across the lot and stopped in front of the gas pump. The gas pump. For a moment, she just stood there, staring down at the spot where… where…

Gasoline filled her throat. She saw the boy staring at her, watching, waiting. She felt the terror, the certainty that she was about to die. She felt it, she knew it was coming. Any second it would be too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t–

A scream tore its way out of the eleven-year-old girl’s throat, as her hands lashed out reflexively. They slammed into the gas pump with enough force to leave a pair of visible dents on either side.

Seeing that, Denny stumbled away a couple steps. Her hand covered her mouth, as she fell to her knees there on the asphalt. “No, no, no…” she mumbled behind her own palm as tears of confusion flooded her eyes. “Please… please…

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 12A – Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Her hands hurt from gripping something so tightly. She couldn’t let it go. Something–tape was wrapped around them. Not only around her hands, but her whole head. The tape was wrapped tightly around her head and hands. She couldn’t release the thing she was holding, couldn’t let go. 

Couldn’t take it out of her mouth. 

She tasted metal, a long, grooved shaft of steel choking her. And she tasted more than that. Gasoline. She tasted gasoline. Not a drop or a drizzle. The thing tied to her head, tied to her mouth, was pumping gasoline into her mouth. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t take it out. She couldn’t do anything but sit there, letting the gas keep pouring down her throat. He was there. He made sure. The smell of the fumes blinded her. The taste made her retch. But she couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t let her. She had to keep drinking. Had to keep choking. Had to keep going until…

With a strangled scream, eleven-year-old Denise Cartland hurled herself sideways off the desk in her sixth-grade classroom, where she had briefly drifted off. As she landed on the floor between her seat and her neighbor’s, the girl was already heaving. She threw up on the cheap linoleum. The gasoline, she could taste it. She could taste it. It was in her mouth, down her throat. She had to get it out. She had to get it all out. Her fingers clawed at the floor, tears blinding her as she heaved. Her lunch, eaten only an hour earlier, came rushing out and drenched the floor. Around her, she could hear students crying out and jerking away. A few chairs fell over in their rush to escape the sight of their classmate throwing up. 

“Back up, back up everyone!” Mr. Tuttle, their teacher, quickly instructed as he approached. Stepping around the mess, the middle-aged man took a knee next to the young girl, a hand on her back. “It’s okay, Denise. It’s alright, get it out. It’s okay.” He coaxed her while rubbing her back, his other hand moving to draw some of the girl’s dark hair away from her face. At the same time, he turned toward a student near the door. “Brad, go get the janitor, he should be mopping near the library right now. Wait, grab the hall pass there. Now go, tell him what happened. Yolanda, Frank, open those windows over there.” Even as he gave those instructions, Tuttle was still gently rubbing the girl’s back, trying to coax and comfort her. 

Denise barely heard any of that. Her tear-blinded gaze was on the floor, but she wasn’t actually seeing that either. Instead, all she saw was the cold asphalt of a gas station parking lot. All she felt was the tape tied so tightly around her hands, forcing her to grip that fuel pump handle. All she tasted was the gasoline, pouring relentlessly down her throat. She was choking, dying. She had to get it out. Her small body heaved once more, but there was nothing else in her stomach. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the taste out. She couldn’t get the gasoline out. 

It took another minute or so before the girl managed to calm down enough to recognize that she had been having a nightmare. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. Finally lifting her head to look around with wide eyes, she saw the rest of her classmates staring. Most looked sympathetic or worried, though a few were snickering behind their hands, as whispers passed through the crowd. Whispers that sent a flood of embarrassment through the girl to replace the terror.

“Denise?” Mr. Tuttle gently asked after giving a quick look to the rest of the students to quiet down and get themselves under control. “Are you okay?” 

“I… I…” Opening and shutting her mouth, the eleven-year-old looked around, before lowering her gaze to the floor. A horrible shudder ran through her, as she hugged her arms tightly around herself. 

“I don’t know.” 

********

The man couldn’t move. Oh, he wanted to. He desperately wanted to. But his feet remained firmly rooted to the floor. He could do nothing about the flames gradually filling the room. He couldn’t even turn his head away from the rising smoke, his coughing growing louder by the second. He couldn’t do anything to save himself while the room burned around him. He wasn’t tied down, or hindered in any physical way. He stood there with the open door leading to open, cool, clear air mere feet away. It would have taken almost nothing for the man to sprint to safety. Six steps. Six steps and he’d be free. But he couldn’t take those six steps. 

Because she wouldn’t let him. 

Denise stood in that open air, just a short distance from the doorway. She saw the flames rising around the man. She saw his terrified gaze as he stared pleadingly at her. He wasn’t begging anymore, because she had told him to stop. His whining had been entirely too annoying after the first few seconds. It distracted from the sound of the flames, and she wanted to hear when they reached his body. She wanted to hear what it sounded like when a person started to burn, without all the annoying, distracting screaming getting in the way. So she had told him to shut his mouth and not open it no matter what. Finally, she would be able to hear the fire properly. Finally, she would hear exactly what happened when the flames began to burn his flesh away. He’d probably fall down by then, as the smoke got to him. But there wasn’t much to be done about that. Maybe next time she’d find a way to string the person up so they’d stay standing the whole time. But either way, she’d still hear it. She’d hear and smell the flames burning his body. 

And maybe, just maybe, as she watched this man burn to death, Denise would finally feel something. 

“Denise! Denny, sweety, Denny, it’s okay. Please, baby, wake up.” 

The voice, accompanied by hands gently shaking her, snapped Denise awake. She jerked in her bed, crying out while her wide, terrified eyes darted around. She wasn’t standing in front of a burning building. She wasn’t watching a man about to die. She wasn’t anticipating it, looking forward to it, savoring it. She was in her bedroom, in her bed, with her mother sitting on the edge shaking her awake. Her voice was worried. “Denny, baby, it’s alright. You were having a nightmare… again. You’re safe, sweetie. I promise, baby, it’s okay. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream.”

A choked sob escaped Denise, as she sprang toward her mother and grabbed on tight. Burying her face against the comfort of her mom, the little girl clung to her and shook violently. “Mom, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t wanna–I–I didn’t–” She was trying to say that she didn’t want to kill that man, but couldn’t get the words out. And a part of her knew there was no way to explain it anyway. 

Her mother, clueless about what was really upsetting the girl, hugged her tight while shaking her head. Her voice was soft and soothing. “It’s okay, baby. It’s alright. It wasn’t real. You’re okay. Nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise. You’re safe now, my sweet little girl.”

For a couple minutes, they sat there like that, Denise clinging to her mom as the feelings and desires she had felt in the dream gradually faded. They’d been so real, so intense. It was like she was really there, really standing near that man who was about to die. But more than that, it was like she’d wanted to be there. She wanted to see him die, wanted to finally feel some guilt, some good emotion. Because there was nothing. She couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel the guilt or sadness she was supposed to feel. Something was wrong with her, and no matter how much she tried to fix it, nothing worked. She just couldn’t feel the right things. She–she was a…

“Monster,” the girl murmured under her breath, the words barely audible. 

They were, however, loud enough for her mother to hear, and the woman simply hugged her even tighter. “No baby, there’s no monster. It’s alright. Come on, it’s okay. Let’s go get a drink, you’ll feel better.” 

With that, she coaxed Denise to stand up and began to walk out of the room with her, their hands tightly clasped as she promised the girl a glass of milk to calm her down. They passed Denise’s father on his way back from the bathroom, the man pausing just long enough to ask if the girl was okay before heading back to bed. After all, he had to get up early for work in the morning. 

Trying to push those horrific memories and thoughts out of her mind, Denise walked with her mother to the kitchen, then sat at the table, sipping milk and nibbling at a single cookie. Her mom sat next to her, looking worried and clearly trying to hide it. Her voice was gentle. “How do you feel, Denny?” 

Denise didn’t answer at first. Thoughts of those dreams filled her head, and she had to set the milk down before it spilled from her shaking hand. The nightmares didn’t come every time she slept, but they were often enough that her mother was talking about taking her to see a doctor, a therapist who could help. Her mother was already afraid of the nightmares Denise was having, and the girl hadn’t even told her any details. She couldn’t. She just… couldn’t tell her mother about those dreams. Not the monster ones. Not the ones where she was the monster. 

So, pushing that terror and confusion away, the girl met her mother’s gaze. She managed, through some effort, to smile. “I’m okay,” she claimed, her voice a little hollow. “Can I go back to bed now? I’m pretty tired.” 

Her mother nodded, getting up and moving to turn out the kitchen light. As she did so, Denise spoke up again. “Mom?” 

“Yes, sweetie?” Turning toward her, the woman was startled to see her daughter standing directly behind her, having moved silently from the table while her back was turned. 

But not nearly as surprised as she was when the girl’s hand rose with the knife to plunge into her chest.

And just like that, Denise snapped awake. She jerked upright so fast, crying out as she did so, that she nearly fell backward off the chair where she and her mother had been sitting around the kitchen table. Her mother’s head was on the table, the woman snoring quietly. The two of them had both fallen asleep while sitting there, and somehow Denise jerking upright hadn’t woken her mother. The half-finished glass of milk was nearby, next to a mostly-finished cookie. They had been asleep for about twenty minutes, according to the cat clock on the wall. 

Breathing hard, the young girl looked away from her mother, gaze focusing off toward her own distorted reflection in the gleaming metal toaster nearby. Her voice cracked as she whispered very quietly, “What’s wrong with me?” 

As if in response, the reflection in the toaster twisted even more. It could’ve been a trick of the light, or… or something else. But she saw her hair lighten. She saw her eyes change, her face shift. She saw… she saw…

Him. 

********

Things continued that way for another week. Denise–or Denny as she was increasingly insisting she wanted to go by permanently, had more nightmares, though she managed to stop screaming out quite as much. She hid as many of them as she could, afraid that her family and others would see her as even more of a freak than they probably already did. If they only knew the half of it. They thought she was only seeing monsters coming after her. But it was so much more, so much worse. She dreamed about dying, yes. She had that same dream of choking on gasoline. That dream that was so real it was practically a memory. But she had more dreams than that, horrific dreams where she was the monster. Half were just as realistic as the gasoline dream, so vivid they were as real to her, even after she woke up, as a real memory would have been. And the other half were… were fantasies. That was the only way she had to describe them. They were fantasies about killing people she knew. Her friends, her teachers, her family. People she passed on the street. Anyone and everyone. She would have long, intricate hallucinations about killing them. And after every single one, she would see… him. 

Who was he? She had no idea. And yet, she did. He was her. She was him. But she wasn’t, not really. He wasn’t real. But he was. He was the boy who spoke. But the boy who spoke never spoke. Not to her. Not in the glimpses she caught of him. Because he was her. But he wasn’t. 

This was all wrong. It was all confusing and wrong. She saw the boy here and there, always in distorted reflections or in the corner of her eye. She never saw him directly. He was at the edge of her mind, behind her and yet never there when she turned. She had no idea who he was, and yet she knew him. What? That didn’t make any sense. None of it made sense. She knew him but she didn’t? That was wrong. It was all wrong. All of it was… was… wrong. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew it. She knew his name. His name, it… it was…

Dangerous. His name was dangerous. Every time she thought she had his name right on the tip of her tongue, Denny would collapse in a ball of fear. An unrelenting, terrible tidal wave of terror completely overwhelmed her whenever she got close to remembering, close to… thinking of it. 

Her family didn’t know about most of that, of course. But they knew enough that her mother insisted she see a therapist. So, that was where Denny was now, sitting in the woman’s office, mumbling a bit about one of the nightmares she’d had. One of the safe nightmares. No way was she going to tell this stranger about the other nightmares, the ones where she was a killer. Or her… her fantasies. She wasn’t going to tell anyone about those. 

The therapist, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short hair who had introduced herself as Megan, smiled gently from where she was sitting in an armchair. There was an actual couch in the room, but she’d told Denny that she didn’t have to lay on it, or even sit on it if she didn’t want to. She’d joked that she would lie to the grand order of therapists if they asked about Denny sitting on the magic couch. 

So, Denny did not sit on the couch. She sat on the floor, as far from the couch as possible. She didn’t want to be near it. She wanted to be– well, she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, really. She wanted to be anywhere aside from the place that would prove she really was… broken. Instead, she sat there on the floor next to a small table where some kids had left crayon drawings. But she didn’t touch the crayons either. She just sat there and talked about some of the nightmares she’d had. The safe ones. Herself choking on gasoline, and a few others that… that were more vague. Dreams about running away from someone, dreams about being thrown out a window and falling all the way to the cement, and dreams about being buried alive. That last one, that one was… that one was the worst. Because in that one, she was afraid. She was always afraid after, of course. When she woke up. But in most of the dreams, aside from the gasoline one, she was never afraid during them. It was only in the dream where she was lying in the grave, pleading and begging for her… for her… for a man to stop, when she actually felt fear during the dream. But the man never stopped. He just kept putting more dirt on top of her. Burying her in… a grave with other dead things. He ignored her pleading, ignored her crying out for her mother, and kept burying her in the dirt until everything except her face was covered. Then he took a vial of… of blood, poured it into her mouth, made her swallow it, and then… then he kept burying her. Shovelful after shovelful of dirt kept coming, all while she cried, and pleaded, and… and…

“Denny?” Megan quietly spoke up from her chair. She wasn’t holding a notebook or doing anything that looked like taking notes. “Are you okay? It looked like you… had something on your mind.” 

Realizing that she’d lost herself in the memory of that horrible dream, Denny gave a quick headshake. “Sorry. I was just… thinking.” Blinking up that way as a thought occurred to her, she hesitated before asking, “Are you going to tell my mom if I don’t tell you more things?” 

With a small smile, Megan shook her head. “No, Denny. I’m not going to tell your mom about anything we say during these sessions. You can say as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk about your dreams, maybe you’d like to draw a picture?” With that offer, the woman indicated the stack of papers, pencils, and crayons. “Would that help?” 

Looking over at the paper for a brief moment, Denny shook her head. “No,” she answered quietly, clenching her hands a little. She was too afraid of what sort of thoughts would run through her head if she picked up the pencil. The last time she’d picked up scissors at school, the images that had filled her mind when she’d looked at one of the boys… it almost made her throw up again. 

So, she left the pencils alone, turning away from them while fidgeting with her hands. “Can you give me medicine?” the girl finally asked after another extended moment of silence while she worked up a bit of courage. “You know, the kind that makes me not dream anymore. I’m tired, but I don’t want to go to sleep. That’s when I dream.”

Picking herself up from the chair and moving over to sit on the floor near the young girl, Megan quietly asked, “Those dreams are pretty bad, huh?” When Denny nodded, the therapist seemed to consider briefly before continuing. “I’m sorry you’re having these dreams, Denny. You don’t deserve that. I want you to know that you’re not a monster. These things you’re feeling, they’re not your fault. They’re not your thoughts, or your memories. Well, most of them. They’re not about you. None of this is. You’re just… an innocent bystander.” 

Shifting a little, Denny stared at the woman. Her suspicions had suddenly been raised. “What– what do you know about it?” 

Megan, in turn, smiled very faintly. It looked like a sad, old smile. “A lot more than I should, probably. But that’s not the point. And you won’t remember any of this later anyway. Denny, I’m very sorry about this. I know most others would doubt that, but I truly am sorry that you were affected this way. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live your life and–” She sighed heavily. “But I can’t let this go. I need to know about your dreams. I need you to tell me everything you’ve experienced, all of it. I have to get every detail, just in case. There might be something important somewhere in there. Something I’ve needed to know for a long time.” 

Denny began to push herself up from the floor. “I don’t wanna talk to you anymore, Megan,” the eleven-year-old informed her. “I don’t–” 

The older woman interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m not really a Megan. It is a pretty name though. My name is Denuvus. Tell me about your dreams.” 

For a brief moment, Denny was silent, staring at the woman. Then her mouth opened, and the words came.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk to you anymore. And why’d you say your name was Megan if it’s Denuvus? What kind of name is Denuvus? I–I have to talk to my mom.” She pivoted to walk toward the door. 

Megan–or Denuvus, had risen to her feet. “My name is Denuvus. I want you to come back and sit down.” 

“Yeah? Well my name’s Denise,” Denny sarcastically retorted, grabbing the door to pull it open. “And what I want is for you to leave me alone and go jump in a lake.” In another second, she was out and stalking through the hall. 

She didn’t look back as the door closed behind her, which was almost a shame as it meant that she didn’t see the surprised look on her supposed therapist’s face as the woman vanished from the couch. 

A few seconds later and several miles away, the woman appeared above the surface of a small, local lake. She dropped into the water with a splash before rising to stand atop the water as though it was a physical floor. As she did so, her physical form shifted and transformed back to that of the small Caucasian woman with black hair, the appearance she used most often when talking to Trice. “Hmmm,” Denuvus murmured.

“Well, this was unexpected.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 1 – Ammon

Previous Chapter             Next Part

The boy in the dark blue ski cap that failed to entirely contain the nest of wild blond hair stood in the candy aisle of the convenience store. Nail-chewed fingers ran carefully along the brightly colored wrappings as he hemmed and hawed over his choices. Occasionally, the boy consulted the crumpled dollar bills clutched tightly in his other hand as though checking to ensure that more had not spontaneously appeared to spare him from being forced to choose between his treasured treats.

Faced with the reality that magic money wasn’t about to manifest itself, the boy finally chose a single candy bar. Turning on his heel, he walked to the cooler section where the sodas were kept. A man in a hooded raincoat turned away from his own intense perusal of beverages long enough to give the boy a long, penetrating stare. He said nothing, content to simply glower menacingly.

Paying him no attention, the boy took the time to collect a bottle of orange soda from the cooler in the back before proceeding to the counter where a girl barely out of her teens watched him curiously.

“Hey, it’s kind of late. Do your parents know you’re out here?” The girl, whose nametag read Denise, asked in the uncertain tone of those who aren’t entirely sure that they’re properly treading the line between paying just enough attention to something wrong and actively being busybodies.

“Yes, ma’am,” the fresh-faced boy, who couldn’t have looked older than eleven, answered promptly and politely. After setting his chosen purchases on the counter, he lifted a hand to point out into the parking lot, where an old sedan sat bathed in shadows. “They didn’t want to come in. It’s been a long drive.”

Glancing toward the car, Denise paused before shrugging as she picked up the candy and soda. Running them past the scanner, she asked, “Family moving or something? That’ll be two ninety-three.”

Brightening at the question, the boy piped enthusiastically, “Gonna visit my sister!” Face shining with excitement at his own words, he laid the three dollar bills from his hand to the counter.

“She in college or something?” The girl asked him while casually slipping the three bills into the register. The machine spat out a receipt as she added, “You need a bag for these?”

Before the boy could answer either question, he was interrupted by a shout from behind him. “Hey, bitch!” The man in the raincoat stood there, hand clutching a small revolver. “How about you pay attention to a real customer, huh? Let’s start with emptying that register into a bag and go from there.”

Eyes wide with sudden terror, Denise immediately began to comply. “Okay, okay. Look, see? Money in the bag, no one’s touching anything wrong, just hold on. We’ve got money right here, you can have it. Just don’t hurt anyone? It’s just you, me, and the kid here. No one’s gonna stop you. Take the money and go.” Voice shaking, the girl dropped all of the register’s cash into the small sack and held it out.

“You get it, kid.” The raincoat-man demanded, jerking the gun toward the boy briefly. “Bring it here.”

Obediently, the boy accepted the bag of money from the petrified clerk and carried it over to where the man was waiting. It was snatched from his hand quickly, and perused briefly before the man smiled in satisfaction. “Pleasure doing business with you, bitch.” He turned then and started for the door at a run.

Denise had just breathed out a sigh of relief as the man reached the exit. However, just before he would have passed out of their lives forever, the boy spoke up. “Hey, wait a second, Mister.”

Spinning on his heel, the man with the gun stared back at the boy. “What the hell do you want?”

Smiling pleasantly, the boy replied simply, “My name is Ammon.”

Both thief and clerk stared at the boy in joint disbelief. The man with the gun worked his mouth a couple times, taken so far aback that he forgot to be angry for a few seconds. “Good… for you?” Finally, his emotions caught up. “What the fuck, you wanna get shot, you stupid little shit?!”

“No,” Ammon answered honestly. Then he turned to point. “You didn’t take her money though. What if she has a lot of it? It’s better if you take that money too.”

“Wha—hey!” Denise blurted, her eyes wide. “What the hell—I don’t have that much money.”

“No… no, the kid’s right.” The man nodded slowly, abandoning the door to return to where the counter was. “Come on, empty your pockets. Empty ’em now, you little bitch. You holding out on me, huh?!”

“Here, here!” The girl scrambled to pull a wallet form her front pocket. “See? Two dollars and some change. That’s it, that’s all I’ve got, okay?” She quickly tossed the bills down. “Take it, just go, please.”

Snatching the bills off the counter, the man shoved them into a pocket while sneering angrily. “Watch your mouth, bitch. I’ll go when I’m good and ready, not when you fucking tell me to.”

“Cunt,” the boy piped up from where he was standing with a voice that would almost have sounded helpful if it wasn’t for the actual words that he was speaking. “You should call her cunt, not bitch. Bitch isn’t that bad. Cunt probably makes her feel worse. It’s better if you use that one instead. That sounds more like what a real bad guy should say.”

Eyes bulging a bit, the girl blurted, “What the hell do you think–”

“Shut it, cunt!” the man bellowed. “Shut your fucking face before I put a couple new holes in it.”

Looking from the man to the confused and frightened clerk, Ammon spoke again. “You should hit her. It’s more interesting if you hit her.” After pausing briefly, he added, “With your fist, not the gun.”

Denise tried to jerk away, but the man’s fist caught her across the face. With a cry, she fell backwards into the wall behind her where the cigarette packs were stacked. Several fell as she jostled the shelves, bouncing off the counter and to the floor while the girl cried out. “Stop it, what’re you doing?!”

“Maybe… maybe that’s enough.” The man decided, breathing out. “Just stay there, I’ll leave and–”

“No,” Ammon interrupted. “You should hit her again. No, kick her. Kick her in the stomach. Hard.”

The poor girl barely had time to protest that time before the man had crossed behind the counter. Winding up his foot, he lashed out hard enough to knock the air from her lungs, the scream that tried to come fading into a sharp, pathetic little wheeze under the force of the harsh kick.

Smiling, the boy walked around the counter. He stood there, motionless for a second before squatting down onto one knee. Slowly, he reached out to brush a finger against the girl’s cheek, catching a tear of confusion, pain, and fear that had fallen there. Gazing at the damp spot on his finger with a look of open wonder and curiosity, he nodded before straightening. “You should do it again.”

“No, stop it, just sto–” The girl had gained enough air to protest weakly.

Whumph! The man’s foot hit her hard once more, turning her words into a squeal once more.

“Again.”

“N-no, plea–”

Whumph!

“Again.”

“Plea–”

Whumph!

******

A short time later, the girl had been beaten so thoroughly that it would have been difficult for even close friends to recognize her. Her consciousness faded in and out, and she had long since stopped protesting. She simply laid there and cried, each harsh blow reminding her of her helplessness.

Advising the man who had been a simple robber to stand aside, Ammon knelt there and touched the girl’s face. She flinched from the contact, a whine filling her ruined throat.

“Shhh,” the boy consoled her. “See, we’re done. That was interesting. I had fun, but I’m bored of that game now. So it’s over.” He brushed his fingers over the girl’s bloodied and bruised cheeks, moving up to her swollen eyes. Under his touch, the flesh mended, the swelling went down, and the girl’s face rapidly returned to normal. “It’s time to play a new game. You get to win this one.”

“Wha… what…” Recognizing that the pain was fading, Denise opened her eyes. Seeing the boy there, she flinched backward. A whine of fear, of terror at the very sight of the boy, rose from her.

Smiling pleasantly, the boy spoke as politely as ever. “My name is Ammon. You should stand up.”

Truthfully, the boy had no idea what kind of thoughts went through the minds of his toys the moment he spoke those four words of introduction. In this case, as in all others, the outward effects were obvious. Upon hearing the statement of his name, the girl’s whine halted instantly. She fell silent, then obeyed the rest of his words, slowly rising to her feet as though it had been her own idea. Her fear most likely remained, buried deep in the girl’s mind. Yet the words Ammon spoke after deliberately introducing himself to her were as impossible for Denise to deny or resist as the physical laws of the universe.

He wondered if she was one of the ones who still held onto her own thoughts, her own personality. Some were like that. Their opinions, fears, thoughts, everything simply locked away inside their own mind, incapable of resisting or even affecting their own body, prisoners to his whim. Others were more like empty vessels once his power took hold of them. They gave no resistance, and seemed not to react at all to the things he made them do. It was a discrepancy that aroused his curiosity, and he would figure out what caused the difference someday. It would just take more experimenting.

After standing, the slightly glazed look left the clerk’s eyes and she tried to throw herself at the door, scrambling in open desperation to escape the hell that the store had rapidly become.

“You should stop,” Ammon spoke quickly, before the girl could get further than a few steps. Instantly, she halted, though a whine of confusion at her own actions crept out of her.

Turning to the man, Ammon held his hand out. “You should give me your gun.” Without complaint, as though it had been his own idea, the man passed the weapon over. He was one of the empty ones, one who barely reacted to anything the boy told him to do.

Taking it, the boy walked over and extended the gun to her. “You should take this and shoot him in the back.” he informed her while settling the weapon into her palm. “Use every bullet. See? I told you you get to win.” To the man, who was already reacting, he said, “You should stop and turn around.”

Both moved as though the boy’s words had been their own choices, their own thoughts. The man turned to face the coolers, standing passively while the clerk raised the revolver. The gun shook slightly in her hand, but she took very careful aim. While the boy watched eagerly, curiosity painted on his face, the girl pulled the trigger. The gun bucked in her hand, and the man screamed as the first bullet hit him. The deafening sound returned as the second shot was fired, then another, and another. By the end, the man’s ruined body lay in a pool of his own blood mixed with the various liquids pouring from the shattered drink coolers, and Denise held an empty revolver.

“There’s no more bullets, you should drop the gun.” The boy’s calm voice instructed, and the weapon bounced off the floor a second later. Smiling, Ammon walked to where the dead man had fallen and reached down. His hands patted a bit until he found a wallet, from which the boy produced a credit card. With that in hand, he started for the exit while addressing Denise. “You should come with me. This part’s gonna be really interesting.” On his way out, the boy’s hand snagged a package of duct tape.

Without looking back, he walked through the door. The girl trailed after him, mumbling to herself about how right he was and how very interesting all of this happened to be. Rather than sounding confident about that, however, the girl’s voice was confused. She was clearly trying to convince herself, and remained uncertain about why she was following his instructions. Uncertain, yet incapable of true resistance. Her mind was clouded, overwhelmed by the power that broke down her own thoughts and opinion, supplanting them with his words of instruction.

Bypassing the waiting car, Ammon walked to the gas pumps in the middle of the lot. The girl followed after him, still trying to explain to herself why she was doing what he said. The logic went around in circles, and she hardly seemed to notice. Her mind fought and struggled against his control, that inner personality trying so hard to break free. Yet she continued, trailing after the boy right to the pumps themselves. “What… why am I… why are we…” She tried to get answers from him, but the words wouldn’t come. She couldn’t force a full question, let alone anything resembling a denial, past his control.

Humming to himself, the young, innocent-looking boy pushed the borrowed credit card into the slot. After taking the nozzle from its stand, he pressed the button to select the fuel grade, then turned to face the girl. “Okay, you should sit down right there. You like sitting right now.” He pointed to the ground in front of the pump.

Slowly, the girl sat, eyes glazed over. “I like sitting right now,” she echoed a bit mindlessly.

Humming to himself, the boy carefully pushed the gasoline nozzle close to the girl’s face. “Now you should open,” he instructed. Once her mouth was open, he inserted the gas nozzle. “Right, now hold it with both hands, okay?” He waited until she put both hands on the nozzle to hold it in place.

While Denise sat holding the gas nozzle, Ammon took a moment to extract the duct tape from the package. Whistling an off-key tune, the little boy proceeded to carefully and deliberately use the entire roll, duct taping the nozzle first to the girl’s hands, then around the back of her head to keep it in place. Finally, he put even more tape around the nozzle itself, securing it carefully to the girl’s mouth so that it couldn’t be spat out. By the time he was done, the tape covered every part of her mouth that the nozzle itself didn’t touch. She couldn’t have escaped even without the strength of his ‘suggestions.’ She was trapped there, incapable of avoiding what was coming.

“Okay,” Ammon announced. “You should sit right there and not try to go anywhere, but I’m done with you now.”

Those words, the statement that he was done with her, made the girl blink twice. Her head rolled back, and then she straightened with a sudden look of terror. She screamed a denial, a plea, but the words didn’t escape the tape that covered her mouth. She struggled, trying in vain to yank the nozzle free, but it wouldn’t budge. The tape held fast against her efforts.

“Watch this,” Ammon waited until the girl’s frantic, horrified eyes were on him, then reached down to the nozzle. Grasping the handle, he found the trigger and pressed it. A muffled scream from the girl was interrupted by a violent choking sound as gasoline was pumped straight through the nozzle and down her throat.

Stepping back, the boy watched for a moment. The girl struggled, twisting and screaming in muffled, trapped terror while she continued to choke on the gasoline being pumped into her. Tears of shock and denial flooded her face as she sobbed brokenly, desperate for help that would never come.

He watched until she stopped struggling, until the still-pumping gasoline had done its job, drowning the girl. Then the boy turned on his heel and walked away. His dirty sneakers crossed the parking lot until he reached the station once more. Humming, he went inside long enough to retrieve his candy bar and the bottle of orange soda before returning to the lot. Barely sparing a glance toward the crumpled form in the middle of the gas pumps, he walked to the waiting car and opened the back door.

“Okay, I’m back!” The boy announced while hopping in.

In the front seat, the elderly woman, the latest in a long line of oh-so-helpful people who had agreed to give the boy a lift, shook as though forcing herself out of a horrible dream. “Y-you killed… they’re dead…. they’re dead…”

Sighing, the boy leaned forward and repeated his mantra. “My name is Ammon.  We should go now. It’s pretty late.”

The woman’s shaking stopped as the power of his introduction reaffirmed its hold. “We should go now,” she repeated. “It’s pretty late.”

As the car pulled out of the lot, leaving both bodies behind, Ammon took a long swig of his orange soda. Then he relaxed, sagging back in the seat with a contented smile. “Coming to see you, sis,” he said to himself. “We’re gonna have so much fun.”

He meant what he said. It would be fun. After all, it was a special occasion. It wasn’t every day that someone found out that their mother had had another child with a different man. Meeting a long-lost sibling was clearly the kind of situation that called for a cross-country road trip. Even if that trip was to a place as boring as Wyoming. And even if it meant ignoring the specific orders of his father, a man he generally obeyed.

He just hoped that Felicity Chambers turned out to be as interesting as he hoped she was.

Previous Chapter            Next Part