Felicity Chambers

On The Edge 42-04

Previous Chapter

Quickly (and as concisely as possible) I explained the situation. I told the man about the Seosten, and about the vault they were trying to break into and why in as few words as I could manage without being too confusing. I told him about Athena fighting Ares, as well as the fact that Radueriel was controlling the security and other staff. I told him about how we’d come in to protect the vault, and why we couldn’t be up front about it, because we didn’t know who to trust.

He listened through all of it as I sped through the explanation, his expression pensive as he clearly stopped himself from speaking up a couple times so that he could hear the whole thing. Once I finished, he let out a long, low sigh before announcing, “This war shouldn’t have come here. The guests are supposed to be safe. We promised them that they were safe.”

Wincing, I nodded. “I’m sorry the Auberge was dragged into this. We had to come stop them. If we didn’t—”

He stopped me with a raised hand. “I know. You… you are your mother’s daughter. The Seosten need to be expelled from this place, now.”

My mouth open, before I caught myself. “Err, before I say anything else, can we get back to the girls I was with? They’re probably losing their minds right about now. I kind of have this habit of disappearing.”

The man looked at me for a moment, then gave a very tiny smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “mother’s daughter. And your friends are–”

That was as far as he got before the nearby door was kicked in. It came off its hinges, and both Larees and Asenath came through like they were bringing the fury of hell with them. Which, given the flames around Larees, might have been an apt comparison.

“Wait!” I blurted, jumping in the way before this could get any worse. “Wait! It’s okay! He’s–Uhh, he’s on our side. Or, you know, on the hotel’s side.”

They exchanged glances, then squinted at me. Asenath flicked her attention to the man in question and seemed… well, not very happy. Which I couldn’t blame her for. But at least they weren’t attacking. Taking advantage of that, I briefly introduced them before realizing I didn’t know the man’s name.

“Francis,” he announced, apparently immediately realizing the same thing. “Francis Gale. And I want these Seosten and their people out of this hotel.”

“Any more contact from anyone else?” I asked the other two, not really expecting any, but I had been surprised before.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times, both shook their heads. Asenath spoke quietly. “We don’t know where anyone is, just that they’re busy fighting. And we are pretty sure no one’s managed to find Kushiel yet. Or Radueriel himself. Just the people his devices are controlling.”

“Which is a distraction,” I put in. “We could fight those guys for hours while the real threats break right into the vault. We need to find the room they’re trying to break into. And get everyone together again.”

Francis shook his head. “No, you don’t. You just need to get to Caela Tombs’ office. She’s the owner. If you get to her and explain what’s going on, she can expel them. Privilege of the owner. They can expel any guest, which sends them out of the Auberge immediately.”

Asenath did a quick double take at that. “You mean we can cut this whole thing off at the pass by kicking them out of the building before they ever get to that vault.” She looked to me then, eyes solemn. “We have to get to the owner.”

Larees was nodding, but her eyes were on Francis. “Yeah, but I have a feeling if it was that simple, he’d be on his way to do it already.”

“Hey, yeah.” I want back to the man. “You should know where she is, right? Can you just grab her. Hell, you just made that portal, can’t you just portal us to where she is?”

He winced, looking apologetic. “There is a problem with that. They’ve done something with these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like a silver ball ornament with some kind of circuitry running over it. “They’ve got these all over the hotel. They’re blocking my power. I’m a hybrid Steward. Basically it means I draw my power from my home and the people in it. But these things cut me off from that power. They must have been planting them for days, at least. They just turned them on, and wherever they are, I can’t use my power until they’re broken. I can’t even leave the safe area or I’ll… well, it won’t be pretty. That’s why I had to wait for you to come into my range, and we only teleported over a couple hallways.”

I exhaled, trying not to make it sound like too much of a sigh. “Right, so if we break those things, you can come with us and help get to that owner lady so that she can expel the Seosten.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Caela and her son will be in the panic room by now. If I can get to it, I can open it. Then I can tell her who to expel. She won’t just kick every guest out without knowing what’s going on. And she doesn’t know that our security has been compromised. So I have to get to her.” He paused then, looking like it was hard for him to add the next part. “But I need your help to do that.”

Larees was taking a long, steady pull from her flask. “Sounds like we need to get everyone focused on breaking those devices from here to the panic room.” She paused, taking another gulp before her eyes found the man once more. “I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough for it to be somewhat close to here.”

Sure enough, he shook his head. Raising a hand, he created an image of a map on the wall. It showed a side view of the hotel. “We’re standing here. The office with the safe room access is here.” The place he demonstrated was a full eight floors from where we were standing and on the opposite side of the building.

Makes sense, Tabbris silently put in. They’d want to trap him as far from being able to help as they could.

Agreeing with that, I passed the point on verbally before adding, “Everyone’s spread out right now, fighting security and the Seosten themselves while they look for that room.”

“Nine twelve.” That was Francis. “The room you’re looking for is nine twelve. And from what you said, it sounds like their leaders were staying in nine thirteen, next door. Here.” He showed us on the map.

I started to say something to that, but the man abruptly held up a hand. “Wait, something’s coming.” He put himself in front of me clearly protectively, which made me blink. My mother really must have made an impression on him. I’d have to ask him about that sometime. And also ask him how he remembered her after everything had been erased. Was it because the Auberge was in a pocket dimension, like how the Meregan has remembered her by being in another universe?

With one hand, Francis produced a long, wicked looking red-bladed sword. All of us watched that open doorway, before a wolf came trotting in. A familiar wolf.

“Wait!” I blurted once more, slipping out from behind the man. “It’s Roxa, she’s on our side.”

A moment later, Gidget entered as well, and Roxa transformed. Belatedly, I realized that she was wearing one of the Seosten bodysuits. Apparently spending some time at that camp had resulted in a little present.

Brief introductions and explanations were passed back and forth, and then the werewolf girl looked over to me. “It’s World War Three out there,” she blurted. “Everyone’s pretty much avoiding this area right here, but beyond that, it’s pure chaos.”

“They’re staying away from where Francis has power,” I realized. “Which means we need to make that area bigger. We need to break those blocker things, and get to the safe room. If we can get the owner to expel them before they get into the vault, we win.”

Roxa held up a prepared bit of wood. “I can use my fossa to get to everyone and pass the message about breaking those things. And about where the vault door is so they can head that way just in case. But I’ll need someone to watch my back.” Her eyes glanced toward her partner before she added, “Someone to help Gidget, that is.”

“I will make certain no one harms you,” Francis promised.

Larees nodded. “I’ll head for the vault access myself, try to stall them as much as possible. And collect people along the way.”

I looked to Asenath then. “I guess you and I are going to fight our way to the safe room and break all those ornament things we can find.“

Her smile was humorless, and I could see the pain of loss in her eyes. “Break things and fight people. You know, I think I’m ready to do that right now.”

Looking toward Roxa, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“As okay as anyone else in here,” she pointed out, “or anyone trying to get to the vault from the other end. It’s fine. I can use the spell, and I can communicate through it. My fossa’s quick and agile. I can make it to where everyone is and tell them about breaking the things trapping Francis here, and where the room is. I can do that. You guys go get the owner to kick these bastards out.”

Returning her nod, I looked back to Asenath. “Then I guess it’s you and me. Though I am kind of at a disadvantage. The second I pull out my staff, they’re gonna know who I am. Which means they’ll  know what I can do. They’ll know I can possess them. And that’s probably something we should hold back. Knowledge is power, you know.”

“Do you know how to use any other weapon?” Francis asked.

“I’ve got a knife I can use,” I replied. “Not to mention my werelion claws. And I’ve been training with the bow for awhile.” Even saying those words made me think of Rudolph and I flinched inwardly. Focus. Grieve later, for him, for Seth, for everyone we needed to grieve for.

Holding one hand out, Francis produced a silver bow with a golden string. “It’ll produced arrows when you draw it back,” he informed me. “But it’ll only last as long as you’re here in the hotel.” He paused then before adding, “And try not to kill anyone that you don’t have to, okay? The guests here are supposed to be safe.”

I smiled, taking it. “I will, thanks.” Looking to the others, I nodded. “Right, let’s do this then.”

*******

A tall, thin figure with purple skin and gray hair who wore a security uniform caught the arrow that had been shooting toward his leg. In a single motion, he flipped the arrow around and threw it back at me. I barely managed to snap my head out of the way.

Yeah, I was really missing my own weapon right about then. This one produced real arrows that didn’t even explode. I was back in the form of red-headed Gabrielle, hoping that Athena‘s suggestion that I keep my presence and identity secret for as long as possible would pay off.

Just as the arrow passed my head, Asenath was there to catch it. Then she was a practically invisible blur, suddenly arriving behind the security guy who had appeared in our path. The arrow lashed out to cut the man’s leg, and then she gave him a shot of against the wall as he fell. Looking to me, she beckoned. I gave the man one last look while he was trying to pick himself up before running past him. On the way, I reached out and brush the hand across his flailing arm, giving him a quick look to make sure there wasn’t a Seosten there.

Roxa had been right, The area beyond the place where Francis had his powers was total and complete chaos. There were bodies lying here and there, screams coming from every direction, and we kept being attacked from all sides. People were popping out of rooms to attack us. Some thought they were defending themselves, while others were being controlled. Even that latter wasn’t always the same. Some were controlled by actual Seosten, while others were simply taken over by Radueriel’s toys. It was a total madhouse. And I was pretty sure there was a bad fire somewhere nearby.

Complicating things even further was the fact that we were looking for those little blocker things that were keeping Francis trapped. Apparently the Seosten hadn’t been nice enough to have only one thing per area. There were dozens overlapping the same spot, and they weren’t exactly easy to find. We needed help.

Reaching the bank of elevators for that floor, we were just in time to see a large gorilla pick up one of the uniformed security and truck him against the nearest wall, where he slumped. A Seosten popped out of him with a laser sword, only to be met with a fist to the face from another Seosten who popped out of the gorilla before catching the falling energy blade by the handle and used it to backhand his surprised opponent.

A second later, a figure moving even faster than Asenath suddenly appeared. That Bobbi girl, in some kind of armored costume thing. She skidded to a halt, throwing out on arm before an arc of electricity shot from her fingers to connect with a man who had been moving behind what was obviously Twister and her Seosten partner.

Then there was Namythiet. And Clubber. The latter came racing down the hallway from the opposite direction we had approached from. Right behind the green sabertooth tiger cub came a huge troll of some kind. He was almost too big to fit in the hallway, his pounding footsteps thundering as he charged after the little animal with a roar.

I quickly moved to intervene, but it wasn’t necessary. Right before the tiger would have been covered, the even tinier figure of Namythiet shot down from the ceiling where she had been hiding. The pixie landed on the troll’s head and stuck something to his face. There was a flash of energy and then the troll suddenly collapsed, snoring heavily after his body hit the ground.

“Nighty night!” Namythiet crowed, waiting down at the unconscious figure as she hovered in the air before noticing us. “Hiya!”

Zipping closer, she hovered in front of our faces while Twister and Bobbi also approached. “Everyone went crazy, but we haven’t found the vault door thingy yet. Is Mr. Seth with Athena still?”

Oh God, what was I supposed to say to that? She looked so expectant, looking back and forth between us without the slightest clue of what we had to tell her. Seth was her teacher, her friend. He took her seriously when so many others dismissed her as a useless, tiny pest. This would hurt her so much.

“Who?” That was Twister, clearly instantly reading our silent expressions.

“Who what?” Bobbi asked, blinking between us. Then she got it too. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but her body language changed completely, slumping. “Oh no.”

“What?” Namythiet looked confused. Or maybe she just wanted to be confused, clinging to that uncertainty for the precious last second or two that she could before reality settled in fully.

It was Asenath who answered. “Ares. It was Ares. I’m sorry. None of us could do anything. It was over before—”

“Don’t.” Namythiet shook her head quickly. She was so small I couldn’t see her eyes very well. But I could hear the emotion in her voice, could tell that she was barely clinging on. “We don’t talk about it right now, okay? We don’t talk about it. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” Her voice kept rising with each word, becoming more desperate as she suddenly blurted out loud, “Don’t tell me!”

So we changed the subject. Quickly, I explained what we were doing, giving a very brief summary. When I got to the part about the spell ball things that were blocking Francis’s power, Bobbi abruptly held one up.

“You mean these things? I drained a couple of them for power back there. I didn’t know what they were, but they tasted good.”

My eyes widened at that. “Can you do that with more of them? Say, all the ones you can find?”

She nodded easily. “Sure. But the  finding them part might be a little tricky.”

“I can do that.” Namythiet’s voice was firm, determined. “I can program one of them to find the others. Then you can drain them. At least, I think I can…” Despite her determination, she suddenly sounded a little doubtful. Losing Seth had rocked her that badly.

“You can.” The voice came from Clubber. Or from the Seosten who stepped up from him, carefully holding the emerald kitten in both arms. She was shorter than my natural body was, with red hair that was almost pink and worn long. “I know what these are. I can help you make something to locate them. With a Hephaesetical pixie, it shouldn’t be hard.”

The Seosten who had been in Twister cleared his throat. “The rest of us–Seosten that is, can head for the vault. We’ll do what we can to help the others stop the malefica from getting into that room.”

“And I’ll play muscle down here with these guys,” Twister announced. “We’ll get it done.”

“You’ll have help,” I put in then. “Roxa’s getting the word out to the others. But if you can get a jump on things while we get to that office…”

“Go,” Twister urged. “We’ve got this.”

I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to the pixie some more and make sure she would be okay. I wanted to do a lot of things, but there wasn’t time. There was never time. So, with one last look back, Asenath and I rushed on. The elevators were completely locked down, so we had to use the stairs, and there were plenty more problems in our way. We fought our way through said problems, trying to do as little damage as possible while still getting past the people trying to kill us.

It was slow going, but eventually, we reached the area right before the office where the panic room was. There was only one real problem still in our way. Or rather, a lot of problems.

“That is many, many guards,” Asenath noted in a whisper. The two of us were peeking through a side door in at a large foyer which was full of about a dozen Seosten soldiers. They wore the same cadet bodysuit that had been pointed out to me before. So they weren’t that old, but still. A dozen was too many. Especially given that they were ready and waiting, clearly guarding the office.

“We could try it,” Senny whispered, “but I don’t like our odds. That’s a lot of bad guys, and we don’t happen to have an Olympian with us to help right now.”

My mouth open to respond, then I stopped. My head tilted.

Yes, my little partner put in. Yes, we can do it.

“I have an idea,” I announced aloud. “But I need to know how much you trust me.”

Asenath blinked. “Of course I trust you. But is this a good idea, or a completely fucking insane idea?”

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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On The Edge 42-03

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because this was a whole new ballgame.

On The Edge 42-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first we had to get through this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On The Edge 42-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then hop in,” I replied.

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

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Before The Vault 41-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

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

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

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

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

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

I bet it’s–behind you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Chambers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before The Vault 41-05

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Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.

Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.

The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.

Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.

Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.

“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.

“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”

He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?

Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.

I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.

So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”

“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.

Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”

That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.

The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.

Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.

“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”

“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”

“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”

I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.

“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”

Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”

My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.

“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”

Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.

“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.

“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.

“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”

With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxxer?”

“Doxxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”

By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.

“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.

“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”

“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”

Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”

“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”

My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”

Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”

Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”

But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.

Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”

“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”

Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”

Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”

“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”

Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.

While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.

And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.

No, it didn’t break, see?

Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.

The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–

“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”

As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.

“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.

“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”

“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.

I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”

“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.

Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”

She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.

“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.

“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”

“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”

Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”

My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”

“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”

“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”

Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”

“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”

“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”

“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”

I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.

“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”

“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”

“And Columbus,” the other added.  

“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”

Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.

“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”

“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”

“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”

“Don’t say it,” she warned.

“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.

“I’m warning you.”

“Because I’ll say–”

“One more word–”

“Ahhh-choo!”

“…. God damn it, Chambers.”

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