Flick

The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye, bitch.”

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

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

Previous Chapter

The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted earlier today focusing on Reapers. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks!

What?! I silently blurted as Tabbris’s words made me physically recoil. Or rather, made the guy I was possessing recoil. That doesn’t even make sense. Why would Crossroads have a student hunt right now? It’s only a few days before Christmas for God’s sake. Aren’t they on vacation? 

Tabbris’s voice was helpless, and clearly just as uncertain. We don’t know, maybe it’s extra credit or something? Or maybe they’re really short-handed and needed more help. But it doesn’t matter, they’re just here. And they’re about to make a move against the hotel, so we’ve gotta interrupt them before they blow this whole thing and make those guys retreat with Denise.

Immediately, I replied, Hold on, I’m coming out. I’ll be right there. I was already starting to focus on looking for the nearest exit. I could walk my host that way and be down there in seconds. 

No, my sister immediately insisted. You have to find out what happened to Denise, Flick. Don’t worry about the stuff down here. Your Mom and the others can handle it. Just hurry and find Denise, before the guys in there figure out something’s wrong and make her disappear again.

She was right, of course. I hated to admit it. Boy did I ever hate to admit it. But she was definitely right.  What mattered right now was finding Denise, and if Mercer saw a fight involving Heretics right outside his front door, he wouldn’t stick around. He would grab whatever he could and disappear. Which probably included Denise herself. I had to find her and get out of here before that happened. 

So, trying to shut aside thoughts and worries about what was going on out there for the moment, I focused on my own situation. The door ahead of me and down the hall a little bit. That was where I needed to go. But there were two guys standing on either side of it who probably wouldn’t be eager to let my host go through that easily. I could deal with them, but there was a camera above the door, pointed down at it. If I started something right there, the people inside would know. Which would give them time to escape. Fuck. I was going to be careful about this, no matter how rushed I felt. No matter what, I could not give Mercer time to retreat. I had to get to him and find out where the hell he had taken Denise. Which meant getting past the guards and through the door without raising any sort of alarm. And I had to do it before the situation outside grew obvious and loud enough for an alert to be sent upstairs. 

That was the real irony of this whole thing. I had the powers, skills, and weapons to deal with these guys fairly easily if it came down to it. Probably, at least. I could smash my way through them, and could probably get through the shielded door within a couple minutes. But a couple minutes wouldn’t be fast enough to stop Mercer from vanishing, along with the only real clue about Denise that we had. I had all this power and I still had to be careful. 

Oh well, what was life without problems to solve, huh? I could handle this. It just required a little creativity rather than a straight-forward slugging match. I still had my little ghost-boy pal, hovering curiously behind me while (maybe a little impatiently) clearly waiting to see what I was going to do. He had no idea anything about the situation had changed. He just wanted to watch me do something interesting to help with his boredom. 

Silently telling Tabbris to keep me updated if they needed help down there, I went to work on my own thing. First, I did a quick check to see if my guy knew anything about Denise. But just like the last one, he had nothing. It was like he’d never heard of or seen her before. What was going on? If Mercer had taken Denise, was he really keeping the fact that he had kidnapped a little kid secret from his men? Why? Was he afraid they weren’t loyal, that they would object to the whole situation? Or that they might sell him out? I didn’t want to think that we were barking up the wrong tree entirely. Mercer had to know something about what was going on. I just wasn’t sure what, or why he was keeping it secret. There was clearly something I was missing, and I was hoping that getting to the boss-man himself would help fill in those gaps. 

To that end, I made my guy push away from the wall where he had been leaning, and turned to walk toward the room I needed to get into. The moment he moved, both of the guys on either side of that door turned their attention that way, one of them calling out, “You gotta piss again, Dugal? Come on, man, stop guzzling so much at lunch all the time. Ain’t good for you.” 

While he was talking, I took in the appearance of the two guards. One of them, the one who wasn’t talking, was another of the almost-Orcs. He was just rolling his eyes as though annoyed that his daydreaming, or whatever he’d been doing, was interrupted by something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the guy who had spoken looked like a Nekomata, a feline humanoid like Triss back home. They were the ones who were able to make ghost-fire. So siccing my new, bored little buddy on him was probably a bad idea. Come to think of it, given the Nekomata clearly had a thing against ghosts, maybe this guy had something to do with why the forcefield around the penthouse was able to keep them out. 

All of that passed through my mind in a brief moment as I took in the scene, before making my host shrug. “What can I say,” I made his voice grunt, “I really like my–” I did a quick search of his memory for the appropriate drink. “–Coors.” 

“Gotta get that checked,” the Nekomata (his name was apparently Beied, pronounced bye-eed, while the other guy’s name was Istor, rhyming with mister) taunted with a smirk. “I read something about how having shit taste might be a sign of brain damage. Anyone who actually likes that piss water must be about three seconds from a fucking aneurysm or something. We shouldn’t even carry that shit in this place. Make Del Shannon roll over in his grave.”

I almost made my guy ask what some old rock musician had to do with anything, but caught myself. Instead, I checked my guy’s memory. Del Shannon. Right, the hotel had been renamed in honor of him back in the sixties. The Runaway. The name of the hotel was The Runaway. How… convenient. 

That sentiment about Shannon’s objection to Coors being in the hotel named after his most famous song was echoed by a couple of the other guards stationed further down the hall. All of which just reminded me that, outward appearances aside, this wasn’t a super-professional set-up. These guys were part of a gang, not world-class elite soldiers or anything. Another reason why I could have smashed my way through them pretty quickly if that was on the table. But I gave myself a firm reminder that I couldn’t be too cocky. I was on the clock, and these guys could still be a problem. After all, the Seosten had underestimated me plenty of times, and look how that had turned out for them. No matter how casual they seemed from the outside, I had to be careful. This whole situation could turn sideways really damn quick. So no dismissing them as a threat. I was not going to make the Seosten mistake of being too arrogant and then getting screwed over for it. Not when Denise’s life was on the line. 

With a quick search through my guy’s memory (hopefully without violating him too much), I shot back a retort about how Beied couldn’t talk about having shit taste as long as he kept eating something called liver sausage pineapple. Going by this guy, it was apparently a pound of liver sausage mixed with lemon juice, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce, all put together and shaped to look like a pineapple. I… I had no idea. But apparently Beied really liked it. 

There was a bit of back-and-forth teasing about who had the worst sense of taste. I was trying not to let my anxiety about what was going on outside show through the guy I was puppeting.  And yet, I could think of almost nothing except what was going to happen the moment these guys told Mercer that there were Heretics outside fighting. Trying to figure out an excuse to get in there was hard, when that was the only–wait. Hold on. Shit, I was being an idiot, wasn’t I? 

Making a show of heading down the hallway to use the restroom, I made my guy glance out the nearby window and paused. Turning him, I stepped closer and looked down for a few seconds.  I didn’t want to say anything too quickly. It had to look like he was uncertain, even though I could feel the seconds ticking away in the back of my head like a bomb waiting to go off. 

There wasn’t actually anything to see. Not yet, anyway. It looked like Mom and the others had been able to keep the attack away from the front of the hotel so far. But I didn’t really think that would last forever. Any minute now someone on the roof was going to notice what was happening and call it in. I had to get ahead of that. 

“Watcha looking for out there?” Beied finally spoke up. “Cuz if it’s a personality or a life, you might need to look a little harder. And you probably should’ve started earlier.” He chuckled at his own words, and I heard the sound of him exchanging a high five with Istor next to him. 

Pretending I wasn’t paying attention, I made my guy lean closer to the window as though staring at something intently down there. After about two seconds that felt like twenty, I made him physically recoil and pivot on his heel. “There’s something going on down there,” I informed the others in a quick voice, trying to inject it with the sort of surprise and worry that he should have given the situation. “Some sorta fight or something.” Belatedly, I added, “Ain’t no schoolyard brawl, they got weapons and shit. Could be–” I pulled the memory of a rival gang from the man’s mind. “–Darmon’s guys starting something.” 

Before I had even finished talking, several of the guys from down the hall came to look out the window or through one of the others. I pointed, telling them that I had seen the fight start to come around the corner of the building down there before they disappeared again. 

“You fucking serious?” Beied was clearly pretty unhappy about this news. “God damn it, I was ten minutes from getting off shift and hitting this great–fuck.” He pivoted, hitting a three digit code on the pad beside the door to open it. Beside him, Istor the not-Orc started to step over to see what was going on outside for himself. 

Okay, I had three other guys in the hall. Two were right beside me, leaning up to see through the same window in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what I had supposedly seen. Another was further down looking out a different window to see from another angle. Istor was coming up behind me, and Beied the Nekomata was faced the other direction to open the door so he could warn their boss about what was going on. None of them besides Istor were focused directly on me at the moment, and he wasn’t suspicious yet, he was just walking up to look for himself. This was my best–only chance to deal with these guys and get inside that room before Mercer was put on high alert. Getting Beied to open the door by pretending I saw the fight going on out there before anyone else could sound the alert had been a risk, but now I had to follow through. It was only a brief advantage, and it could vanish in a few seconds. So, here went nothing.  

First, I glanced over my shoulder to get Istor in my line of sight before making a portal directly in front of my current host’s hand. It was hidden from the not-Orc himself by my guy’s body, and the two beside me were focused on the window so they didn’t see it yet. The other end of the portal appeared behind Istor, and I gave him a firm tap on the shoulder before dismissing the portal. He pivoted that way. So now, for just a second, I was out of everyone’s line of sight. The camera was focused on the door itself, so it couldn’t see what was going on now that Istor had stepped out of its line of sight. 

As soon as the not-Orc turned his back, I immediately shoved myself backwards out of my current host. He was still unconscious, so the body was already starting to collapse as I appeared behind him. I was still out of sight from the two intently peering through the window in front of me, as well as the one just down the hall. That first pair might have noticed the body falling instantly and reacted, but even as I landed in my own body behind the falling man, I was already focusing hard, using my five-second pause power to freeze his shirt in place. The body sort of went limp, caught in place. It wouldn’t look at all convincing to anyone looking directly at him. But they were still distracted by staring out the window, so all they registered was that his body was still (somewhat) upright. 

It would only buy me a couple seconds, at most. Between those two standing right by the limp form, and the other guy down the hall, one of them would notice that he wasn’t conscious. Not to mention Istor, who would only be distracted by checking to see who had tapped him on the shoulder for a moment. They were going to see that something was wrong any second. 

Thankfully, a second was all I needed. Pivoting on one heel, I slapped my hand out to grab Istor while his back was still to me. A second later, I was inside him. I could feel his sudden rage and sent a quick apology and promise that I would let him go in a moment before turning.  

By that point, the two by the window had noticed their unconscious companion and had turned that way. I immediately sent Istor into a charge, sprinting straight at the two, before once more launching myself backwards out of my host. His momentum kept him going forward, slamming into the other two as they collapsed in a heap. Which caught the attention of the guy down the hall, of course. But it was too late for him to do anything, even as he caught a glimpse of me while turning to see the commotion. 

Throughout all of that, having no idea that anything was wrong just yet, Beied was still in the middle of opening the door. He had barely gotten it half-open as he started to speak up, when the sound of Istor colliding with the other two filled the hall. His words turned to a confused curse as he started to turn. But I was already there. Using a mix of my own enhanced speed and my Seosten boost, I slammed into the feline man, catching him by the shoulders before he could react. Spinning to put my back to the half-open doorway so that he was facing the hall, I lashed out with one foot. The hard kick was enough to knock the man flying backward to land in the corridor with a bellow of surprise and anger. 

Quickly stepping backward through the open door, I slammed it shut once more before touching my hand to it. A thought made another quick-inscription spell appear, and I triggered it to seal the door. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would keep them out for the moment. Long enough for me to do what I needed to. 

Spinning back even as the pounding and knocking at the door started, I took in the sight of where I had managed to get. It was a wide-open living room of some sort, full of plush couches, statues, paintings of old guys (many of them not-human) on the walls, and a gi-freaking-normous television that took up a huge portion of one wall. That was where most of the people in the room were. Ten guys of various species, all sitting around playing video games on that giant TV.  Two looked human, one Rakshasa (the other feline species I knew of that wasn’t Nekomata), a pair of what looked like goblins, three Satyrs (the goat-men weren’t as small and cute as they looked like in the cartoons and comics, but were more human in size), a silver-scaled reptilian figure who stood about seven feet tall, and… their boss. Yeah, I knew in an instant that the final guy had to be Mercer. He was even taller than the other guy, with thick, blue-green scales over his body and vertical-slit pupils. He gave off the air of being the person in charge, even as his gaze snapped from the television to me, dropping the controller in his hand. 

“Hey there,” I announced, summoning my staff to one hand while everyone in the room lunged to their feet, putting themselves in front of the boss. “Mercer, I presume.” Even as I said that, I focused on summoning a portal to get my hand near him. But it fizzled. The protections in this place extended to blocking that sort of thing, apparently. Which meant I was going to have to get close to him the old fashioned way, by going through everyone trying to stop me. 

“Heretic,” he snapped, the annoyance clear in his voice. “What exactly do I owe this interruption to?” 

Even as he said that, a voice from a nearby intercom frantically called out that there were Heretics attacking the hotel. Mercer gave the intercom a dark look, his voice flat. “No shit.” 

“Believe it or not,” I informed the man, “I’m not here to kill you, or any of your men. I’m here for one thing, answers.” My eyes narrowed as I stared at him. “I need you to tell me what happened to Denise Cartland.” 

Mercer showed no reaction at all to the name, his voice completely blank. “Who?” It was pretty convincing, actually. Sure, he almost certainly had to be a good liar to get into this sort of position. But still, it was hard to entirely dismiss the idea that he really had no idea who I was talking about. Not that I was going to take that for granted without checking for myself, of course. 

“Denise Cartland,” I repeated. “Tell me where she is, and I’ll go away.” 

“Kid,” he snapped back, “I got no idea who you mean. And you know what? I think you’re going away right now.” With that, he dropped his hand, and the rest of his friends in the room all launched themselves my way. 

I met their charge, but I wasn’t interested in actually fighting them. All I cared about was getting to Mercer, which meant lunging, twisting, ducking, spinning, leaping, and diving my way through every guy standing in my way. I used every ounce of my boost, pushing myself to be even faster. Those brief handful of seconds were a blur of flailing limbs, blades, claws, and more as I danced my way through everything in that room, before finally coming face to face with the man himself. 

He snarled and lashed out with a fist as soon as he saw me, but my hand snapped up to catch it. Yeah, between my boost and my general strength-enhancements I caught his fist with my own grip. It hurt, but I didn’t care at that moment. It was worth seeing the look on his face, especially knowing what I did about the shit he had pulled. 

An instant later, before he or anyone else could react, I was inside him. Once again, I used my possession power. Today was the day I had used it the most in recent history. Probably because I was so far past giving a shit when it came to anything that stopped us from finding Denise. 

I was possessing him, but it wasn’t exactly an immediate take-over. I could feel the man struggling. For a moment, I thought it might go as far as a full-on sustained battle for his body, but with a last burst of effort, I managed to shove his consciousness down. 

Then, with the people outside the room still struggling to break the sealed door down, and the ones who were already inside staring at their boss in confusion about what to do next, I focused. I searched his memory for anything about Denise, and found… nothing. No, no, no, this couldn’t be for nothing! He had to know her. I tried searching for anything about the gas station, or Kalia and her father. He had to know about them, he’d been bugging them for money to the point of driving Kalia’s father to rob that gas station and get killed by Ammon in the first place! 

But no. There was nothing. He had absolutely no memory of any of that. How the fuck was that possible? What–what had… what? 

By that point, the door had finally been broken through, as the guys outside came bursting in. Beied was at the front, demanding to know what was going on while holding some sort of falchion in one hand. 

“Some Heretic chick!” one of the Satyrs blurted a bit frantically, gesturing. “She–she fucking possessed the boss or something! Crazy bitch said something about, what, Denise Copeland? Who the fuck is that?!” 

“Cartland,” Beied corrected, his eyes not on the Satyr, but on his boss. On me, possessing his boss. “Heretic! You’re looking for Denise Cartland?” 

Narrowing Mercer’s eyes, I made him growl out, “Where is she?” 

The Nekomata, in turn, held up both hands, the falchion gripped tightly in one. “Look, the boss there forgot all about some money a chick that works at some gas station owes him. I figured she did something to him, so I looked into it, checked out who was there the last time he stopped by just to see if she hired some sort of outside mind-fucker. Found out the only other person in the place was some kid named Denise Cartland. Looked into her, but it was a dead end. Except I found out she left town. She took a bus. You let my boss go, I’ll tell you where the bus was headed. Fair?” 

Making Mercer glance around at the roomful of eager guys waiting to stab or shoot me, I grunted. “Yeah, sure. But you and me, we’ll take a walk together, just the two of us. You tell me everything you know about where Denise went, then I’ll let your boss go. And for the record, you might want to hurry, so you guys and your boss can get the hell out of this hotel. 

“Cuz there really is a fight going on downstairs, and only a few of them are with me.”

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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The Runaway 15-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Effective as Mom might have been at scouting the building out with a simple once-over, we clearly weren’t just going to go barging in. First, even though we knew where the people with weapons were (at least on the first few floors), we had no idea what that meant about the people who didn’t have them. With the sort of magic and powers people could have, not having a weapon on your person didn’t really mean much at all. Second, there was, again, the top floor that she wasn’t able to see into. Anything could be up there. Third, speaking of magic, there could have been any number of trap spells set up that we would set off by charging in blind. And fourth, we didn’t know who all the bad guys were. For all we knew, there were plenty of innocents in there. Innocents who would see us attack other people in the building, have their ‘danger, Heretic’ alert go off, and join in not knowing any better. Then we’d be fighting even more people than we had to. Otherwise innocent people. It would haveb turned into one giant clusterfuck, to say the least.

So yeah, charging straight in was clearly a bad idea. We needed to be a little less gung-ho about it, no matter how desperately we wanted to get in there and see what was going on with Denise. Mom hadn’t been able to identify where she was with that scan, but that didn’t mean much. The way she explained it, even the lower floors of the place had magic shields defending against most of her vision powers, and the most she could get was the outlines of people, along with what they were holding. So yeah, not being able to perfectly pinpoint where Denise was didn’t mean she wasn’t in there. But that was another reason not to go charging in guns and everything else blazing. We had no idea where she was, so if we did that, they could simply make her disappear. 

That brought us to our actual plan, which was one my mother didn’t like very much. But we all knew it was the best way to do this. And it started by me needing to get closer without being spotted. Which was where Sean came in. He’d done even more magical study than I had over his time being imprisoned, considering he’d had not only years to do so, but also had Apollo as a teacher. The Seosten man wasn’t Chayyiel, but was still pretty damn good at that stuff, and he’d taught Sean a lot to help make up for spending years unable to absorb any powers the old-fashioned… murdery way. Yeah, there were certainly upsides and downsides to not being able to go out and fight monsters all the time. 

In any case, Sean had a spell prepared that could make himself and anyone he was touching invisible. So, he put his hand on my shoulder while the two of us moved up toward the front entrance of the hotel. The others stayed back, ready to jump in if they needed to. I could almost feel the anxiety coming off of my mother, and it wasn’t exactly going to get better any time soon. 

Pushing that out of my mind for the moment so I could focus, I watched the partially-boarded up windows as Sean and I got closer. A thought switched my vision over to infrared (something Mom had mentioned did work), and I could see through into the lobby, where the two people Mom had mentioned were still sitting. They were facing the front doors, but it didn’t look like they were super-alert or anything from the heat-based view I was getting. They were just chilling out in a couple chairs. And from what I could see from a quick scan, they were the only ones there. Which hopefully meant it was a good time to actually do this, because we sure as hell weren’t going to get a better one. 

First thing first, I crept closer to one of the windows, with Sean right behind me while keeping his hand on my shoulder. We moved as silently as possible, just in case one of the people inside had enhanced hearing. But I couldn’t see the heat-shapes move at all, or react to our approach, so we seemed to be doing pretty well on that front. I sort of had the impression that these guys weren’t exactly top-of-the-line security or anything. They were basically gang members just hanging out. Which worked for us, but we still weren’t going to take any chances. Professionals or not, this whole thing could go south really damn fast if we weren’t careful. 

Finally, we made it up to the window. I leaned my head enough to peer through, and got my first glimpse of the two guys beyond their heat outlines. The first, sitting in a big, cushy chair nearest me (still about thirty feet away and slightly turned at an angle), was a Heaul, like that Sarez guy from the Vegas situation. He was a dark-blue humanoid with three eyes instead of two (evenly spaced along his face at the usual height), and little white spots across his exposed skin. Each of those spots could grow into a full suit of armor. The Heaul could either use multiple spots at once to make even stronger armor, capable of standing up to a lot of damage, or simply use them one at a time and replace the armor as it was broken. From what I’d read and heard, they usually did a combination of that, using several at a time for pretty strong protection that would stand up against a decent amount of attacks while keeping more in reserve just in case. 

Beyond that, the third-eye in the middle of his head could paralyze anyone he was staring at. As long as he kept looking, it was like playing red light, green light. The person he was focused on would be completely unable to move. 

So yeah, we had him to deal with. And sitting beside that guy was what looked like one of the near-Orc species. I was pretty sure he wasn’t an actual Orc, but he was in the same ballpark. Some of those species actually got pretty sensitive about the fact that they were all lumped into the ‘Orc’ category, given that was only the name of a single species that many of them had literally no connection to. I’d found that out over the past few weeks of of classes with what I had thought was an Orc teenager (the one who fist-bumped Travis Colby during Calculus over the idea of squishing bad guys). It had turned out his name was Clock, and his species were known as Mukeda. He was a pretty good sport about the whole thing though. 

This guy could’ve been either an Orc or a Mukeda, or any of the other similar species out there. I wasn’t actually an expert at picking out the differences yet. Which… was probably a bad thing, in several ways. I was going to have to work on that. Especially since it meant I didn’t actually know what this guy was capable of. Hopefully that wouldn’t end up biting us in the rears. 

A quick glance around showed no other people in sight. So, I acted quickly by focusing on the area slightly behind the Heaul, and created a very small portal between that spot and the area right in front of me. Watching to make sure it hadn’t alerted them, I put my hand through. There, I hesitated. Possessing people like this always made me feel at least a little queasy inside. If not right at that moment, then shortly afterward. I just… after everything we’d been through and all the things we were fighting against as far as the Seosten went, enslaving someone to my will like that felt wrong. But on the other hand, it was probably better than stabbing him through the throat with a blade. And I wasn’t planning on rifling through his memories any more than I had to, or violating him any more than absolutely necessary. I was going to do the best I could not to act like a Seosten like Charmeine, even if she was the one I’d gotten the first possession power from.

Besides, this was about saving Denise, and that was too important not to do everything I could. So, after that momentary hesitation, I quickly placed my hand against his neck. I felt the man start to jump a bit, but I was already focused and an instant later, I was inside him. Immediately, I clamped down on his voice, just before he would have blurted out something about asking who was behind him. I could feel his sudden panic as his voice was silenced, and sent a quick (probably meaningless) mental apology before shoving down on his consciousness as hard as I could. I just wanted him to go to sleep. If this went well, he’d wake up later and could go back to his… uhh, life doing whatever. Hopefully not kidnapping more innocent little girls. Which–yeah, that thought could make things really complicated, really fast. I was just going to push on. 

“The hell’s your problem?” That was the not-Orc, squinting at the man I had just possessed. “Got pants in your ants or something?” For some reason, the mixed-up question suddenly made him laugh loudly, pounding the arm of the chair as though he had just said the funniest thing in the world. I had the feeling it was some kind of inside joke between them. 

Making my guy mumble something under his breath that could have been affirmation or just a request that he shut up, I pushed him to his feet and brushed his hands off. “Got the munchies,” I made him say while doing a quick search of his memories for the man’s favorite snack. “Left some Doritos in my room.” 

“Yeah, well, don’t be long,” came the response. “And don’t go trying to get Sorevla to help you solve that last puzzle! You know she’ll tell me if you try to cheat again.” The not-Orc was pointing at us. “I want your next move as soon as you get back. No more stalling.” 

Again, I made the guy mutter something noncommittal under his breath while walking away, toward stairs in the corner. They were playing mental puzzle games that involved multiple moves? Apparently we had accidentally chosen a couple of intellectual gang thugs to get past, which was just fantastic. I would have said that we should have tried one of the other entrances, but with our luck the guys over there would be even worse. 

Oh well, this could’ve been worse. Making the man turn to look over his shoulder toward the spot where his partner was still sitting, I hesitated by the bottom of the stairs and took the opportunity to check this guy’s memory for anything that had to do with Denise. 

I found… nothing. Yeah, zip, nilch, nada. As far as I could tell, this guy had never even heard of Denise. And it wasn’t like he just didn’t know her name. I searched for anyone who looked like her, and got a big fat zero. He’d never seen or heard of her, apparently. Which… was a bit odd, but didn’t completely rule out Mercer having something to do with her disappearance. It just meant that he’d been more subtle about it. Maybe his men would have something against kidnapping a little kid. Whatever the reasoning, we were probably going to have to get answers straight from the horse’s mouth. Which meant getting to Mercer himself. 

With that in mind, I started up the stairs just as the familiar feeling of Tabbris doing a partial-recall came. Her voice was quiet in my mind. Is everything okay? She was staying out there in order to pass messages back and forth easily. If anything went wrong, the others would be ready to jump in. Yeah, this was a big part of why Mom didn’t like this plan. It involved me infiltrating the place by myself. But hey, it was better than us starting a full-scale war with these people right off the bat if we didn’t have to. Besides, this was hardly the most dangerous thing I’ve had to do solo. Which… apparently had not been the best argument to make at the time of our discussion. For some reason, me pointing that out didn’t seem to make her feel better. 

I’m good, I replied, letting her take a quick mental scan of what was going on and how far I was in order to pass it on to the others. Including Mom, who was probably pretty antsy by now. Heading upstairs now. I’ll find out where Mercer stays and get close enough to get answers out of him. One way or another. 

Tabbris gave me a mental squeeze of encouragement, then withdrew just enough to pass the message along to the others. I could still feel her there. If I reached out, I would be able to contact the girl and let her know something was wrong. Between her half-presence and the fact that my mother was right outside, I felt pretty safe, despite the situation. 

So, after giving my temporary-host’s mind a very quick (and as unintrusive as possible) search to find out where Mercer would be right then, I started up the stairs. According to this guy’s memory, his boss would likely be in one of the main penthouse rooms at the top of the building. Which made sense, given the whole ‘totally shielded against outside viewing’ thing. So, that was where I went, hiking up the stairs to the sixth floor. A few times, I passed a couple other guys heading down the stairs, or just lounging out in the open doorways from the stairwell to the floor they were on. But other than a brief muttered greeting, nobody said anything or tried to stop me. 

One other thing I did notice, which might’ve been a problem if we’d come in here the loud way, was various spell runes that glowed slightly at assorted spots on the stairs whenever my host passed them. A quick dip into his memories revealed that, just as we had suspected, the hotel was protected against intrusion. The spells were essentially alarms that scanned everyone going up the stairs to make sure they were allowed to be there. If not, a whole lot of things would happen that would have made getting Denise out of this place a lot more complicated. 

Unfortunately, the spells were linked together, making erasing them a bit harder and more involved than I had time for. I could have done it, probably, but not with the time we had to work with. Eventually, the guy downstairs was going to start wondering what was taking his partner so long. And from there, things would just get harder. So, I left the spells intact for the moment and just continued walking. It wasn’t like they would bother me as long as I was still using this guy anyway. 

Eventually, I made it to the entrance onto the sixth floor. That was the penthouse area, and there was a key card lock from the stairwell to the hallway itself. Making my host touch the doorknob without trying to open it, I focused on using my ability to see through objects in order to mark the door so I could see what was on the other side. 

Nothing happened. Shit. Yeah, I’d been afraid of that. The defenses that were blocking certain vision-related spells and powers were clearly stopping me from checking the hallway the easy way. 

But I had more tricks up my sleeve. To that end, I paused there and focused for a moment. This hotel was clearly over a century old, and had been a pretty big deal back in its day. To say nothing of the fact that it was clearly the base of operations for a pretty bad gang now. All of which meant that there was a very good chance that, if I tried hard enough, I could find…

There. My senses felt something brush up against them, and I extended an… invitation was the best way to put it. I invited the presence, then waited for a few seconds. It was like feeling a sharp tug at a fishing line and then letting the fish decide if it wanted to come to the boat. 

Actually, considering I was planning on simply politely asking the presence for help rather than hurting and definitely without eating it, maybe fishing was the wrong analogy. It was just slightly possible that I had been spending too much time around my sharks ever since I was gifted with the ability to summon them to me. 

Nah, that was crazy-talk. There was no such thing as spending too much time with my sharks.

In any case, there was only a momentary delay before I felt the presence grow stronger. I stepped back from the door, just as a glowing figure stepped through. It was–he was a little boy, maybe ten years old or so, wearing a ratty, patch-work suit that was too small for him in some places and too big in others, along with a newsboy cap. He had a pair of curly horns sticking out of his forehead just under the cap, and scales were visible along what I could see of his arms and wrists. Oh yeah, and he was glowing a yellowish-orange rather than the colors I tended to associate with most ghosts. 

“Who’re you?” the little Alter boy ghost demanded curiously, floating up a bit to look me in the eyes (or rather, my host in the eyes). “I seen you before. But it ain’t you, is it? The real lug there, he ain’t got this sort of power. Yeah, you ain’t him. You someone else. Someone new. You here to raise trouble? Maybe stab a few folk? Been awhile since I got to see a stabbing.” 

Right, he was tingling my memories of Ammon just a bit, though I didn’t think there were any real similarities. He had obviously been a ghost here in the hotel for a long time, which had to mess with you a bit. So, I pushed aside my reflexive revulsion and simply told the ghost why I was there and what I needed. He, in turn, offered a shrug before agreeing fairly readily, with a warning that there were places he couldn’t go. Still, he seemed pretty eager to go for it. I was pretty sure he was still hoping some stabbing would be involved before this whole thing was over. He was clearly pretty bored. 

I hesitantly asked what had happened to him, on the basis of wanting to offer some help. But he simply dismissed that with a hand wave, saying it had been a long time ago and there was no point in dwelling on it. Then he agreed to help, but said I should get on with it before he got too bored and wandered off to find something more interesting.

“Go for it,” I agreed, telling him once more what I wanted and what he should be looking for. 

He, in turn, gave me a salute. With that, he floated through the doorway and turned invisible once more. I closed my host’s eyes and focused on seeing through the ghost himself, watching and directing him as he floated past multiple guards on the floor. He was invisible and intangible, so none of them saw him. They had no idea he was there, as he went right by them. A few seemed to have felt something and glanced around, but that was as far as it went. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t send my ghost boy all the way. He’d told me before agreeing to this that there was some sort of shield around the main penthouse where ‘the boss guy’ lived. Which meant he couldn’t go inside. 

Still, I managed to find a guard up here on the sixth floor who was a bit isolated from the others, at the far end of the hallway. As soon as I did, I positioned the ghost boy behind him. A thought made the guy I was currently possessing slump to the floor, where he would stay nice and unconscious. Hopefully, by the time anyone found him, this whole thing would be over. 

Leaving that guy where he had fallen, I stepped out of him before reaching out to put my hand on the door. It was still electronically locked, but that didn’t mean anything given my security-breaking ‘open locked things’ power. Sure, there were a good number of magic locks that could keep me out still, but this wasn’t one of them. The knob immediately turned. But I didn’t open it yet. Instead, I checked through my ghost-friend’s eyes once more while he hovered just behind my new target. A silent request made the boy turn so I could see all the way down the hall. The coast was clear. No one was looking this way, the several guards who were there all focused on other things. So, I opened the door just a tiny bit and leaned out, just enough to get a direct line of sight onto the guy in question. 

Yeah, I’d tried creating portals by seeing through ghost eyes. It didn’t work. This was the next best thing, using those ghost eyes to ensure the coast was clear so I could poke my head out, look straight toward the man I needed, and create a portal between me and the space directly behind him. 

Once more, I reached through the portal. And once more, my fingers grasped the back of his head (he looked like a human to me), before I possessed him. Which led to a repeat of the whole ‘making his consciousness go to sleep before asserting control.’ 

But then it was done. I was on the penthouse floor, inside the body of a guard who was supposed to be there. The room itself where Mercer waited was right down the hall. And no one in here knew anything was wrong. No alerts had been sounded. Just a little further, and I would have the answers we needed about Denise. 

Umm, Flick? Tabbris abruptly spoke up in my head. You might want to hurry a little. 

What? I sent back. Why, what happened? 

There was a brief pause before she replied, Uh, you remember Zeke? I guess Crossroads must know about this place, because he just showed up with some others and they’re about to make their move. 

I think we just stumbled into one of the school hunts. 

Some of what happens between the Crossroads school hunt and the group outside will be covered in one of the upcoming Patreon Snippets, which will be the next Heretical Edge chapter. 

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The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“This feels weird, right?” Koren asked, while the two of us stood at the edge of the gas station parking lot, staring at the place ahead of us. December and Tabbris were talking about some sort of spell nearby in their rapid way, while Rebecca was checking on something in her cannon backpack, giving us time to look the place over before going in. Asenath hadn’t arrived yet. 

“Weird?” I echoed in a flat voice. “Oh, you mean seeing this place in real life after using the PAWS thing to see it in holographic form last year back in Investigation class? Yeah, it’s pretty weird.” I couldn’t stop looking at the specific pump in question, where Denise had originally been murdered by Ammon. It was the furthest one from where we were standing, past a couple other cars that were fueling up. Their drivers were just standing around, having no idea they were so close to a spot where such a horrific act had been committed the year before. Because of course they didn’t know. Even if Mom’s whole thing with Denise hadn’t actually erased the fact that someone had died right there (and I still wasn’t completely clear on how much of those memories were left in the general public, or what they knew about it), these people had no reason to pay much attention to that. Especially over a year later. The thing was just a normal gas pump for them. 

And yet, as I stood there and squinted that way, I could have sworn there was something weird about it. Frowning, I started walking that way without knowing exactly what I was seeing. All I knew was that something was off. But even under the sharp glare of the heavy canopy lighting, it wasn’t visible from where we were. I needed to get a closer look.  

The others followed without questioning it. I crossed the lot, moving around one of the cars to go straight up to the pump itself. By that point, I could see what I had only barely noticed from further away. Dents. There were dents on both sides of the pump. It looked like someone had literally slammed their hands into the thing, caving it inward partway. Not so deep that it was broken, but definitely visible. Frowning, I ran my fingers over the dents, while the others crowded around to see what I was so focused on. 

“What the hell happened to it?” Koren asked, reaching out to brush her own hand over one of them before squinting at me with a very quiet, “It looks like… you know.” 

“Pretty fucked up, huh?” That wasn’t me. It was a thin, pale guy with short blond hair and a scraggly beard in a Coke delivery uniform, coming out of the store while dragging his two-wheeled cart thing behind him. He nodded our way. “Looks like someone went after that thing with a bat or something. Damn cameras didn’t catch whoever it was though. Pieces of junk. I keep telling Zane he needs to upgrade his security. ‘Specially after that poor girl offed herself right there.” He had stopped walking by then, clearly more in the mood to gossip than get back on the road. “Such a goddamn shame.” 

Right, so they did remember that someone died. Hesitating, I asked, “A girl killed herself here? How, why? Uhh, who?” That last one was what I was really interested in, to be honest. I was curious about what exactly was in their heads after Denise’s connection to the situation was erased. Not to mention the little bit about who exactly had punched this gas pump. Because I had a feeling it was connected to our situation. It seemed a little too coincidental otherwise. 

“Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear about that?” the guy whistled, nodding to the pump we were standing by. “Happened right there. Some guy came in and tried to rob the place, but she took his gun and shot him. Guess she couldn’t deal with what happened, cuz she came out here and used the pump to drown herself.” He was grimacing then, shaking his head. “Isn’t that screwed up? I mean, sucks to kill yourself anyway. But why wouldn’t she just use the gun? Drowning herself with gasoline, just–” A sigh escaped the man before he crossed himself. “So screwed up.”  

“Who was the girl?” Rebecca piped up when the man fell silent, clearly just as curious as I was about how that had been adjusted.  

The man, however, simply shrugged. “Oh, you know, one of the girls who worked here. She was from out of town, hadn’t really lived here long. Maybe that had something to do with why she killed herself, you know? No support system, no friends. I don’t think anyone even really remembers her name. And ain’t that just awful? I mean, bad enough to go through something that screws you up that bad, but then no one even knows much about you?” He grimaced to himself, looking a bit shaken by his own words before giving us a distracted nod and heading for his truck to get back to work. 

Which left us standing there, staring at the dents on the side of the pump. My voice was quiet. “Do you think someone or something came trying to find out the truth? Someone with a connection to Fossor or Ammon. Maybe they found the pump and… got frustrated because of the spell that changed people’s memories. If they were trying to find out who the girl who died here was, and nobody could tell them…” I trailed off, mentally working through the possibilities. None of them made me exactly cheerful. Even if that was true, we still had no idea who or what could possibly have been trying to get at Ammon or even Fossor himself. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of people they had made enemies of, and I was pretty sure plenty of those wouldn’t care about hurting Denise on their quest for revenge. Especially if they hadn’t heard about both of them being dead already. Much as I wanted to think that any enemies of Fossor would be friends of ours, that wasn’t necessarily true. He’d pissed off plenty of bad people as well. 

Rebecca spoke up after a moment. “Maybe that’s how they found Denise. If she was having nightmares or just… memories, she might’ve come here. Then whatever made those dents noticed her and figured out she had some sort of connection to Ammon.”

That sounded like a strong possibility, and I was about to say so before Asenath arrived. I sensed someone approaching from behind, and turned to see the vampire girl on her way. She looked uhh, not great. Between her and my mother, I wasn’t sure which was more upset about this situation. What I did know was that I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible when those two found them. I had a feeling the results wouldn’t be pretty. 

In a low voice as she stared at the same dents in the pump, Senny announced, “You think whoever left those is the one who knows where Denise is now? Then I suppose we should find out who, or what, it was.” Glancing to the others, she added, “We probably shouldn’t all crowd around inside to ask questions. Do you think you can look around out here? Check for anything unusual. Signs of magic, anything… odd like those dents right there, whatever might be a sign that something was lurking around this place. There might even be a nest nearby, on one of the roofs or in the alleys. If something was really trying to find Ammon by coming here, it might’ve staked the place out for awhile before seeing Denise. Worth a shot, anyway.”

The others agreed with that, Tabbris mentioning that she had a couple spells that could help check. She and December split off with Koren and Rebecca, all four spreading out to search the surrounding area. Which left me to go into the shop with Asenath. The two of us headed that way together, as I glanced at the (much) older girl. “I wish I could give you a platitude that would mean anything. But I’m pretty sure it would just be insulting. We both know how bad this looks.”

She, in turn, gave a very slight nod, her mouth pressed tightly closed while she opened the door and gestured for me to go in. “Doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.” 

The shop itself was empty, save for the teenage clerk. She had dirty blonde hair and was reclined in a chair behind the counter, paying more attention to her phone than us, though she did take a second to raise a hand in silent greeting when we looked that way. Her thumbs danced over the screen, texting away while clearly waiting for us to  go about our business.  

Exchanging a look with Senny, I shrugged before walking through the store to look around to give the place a once-over. Yeah, it looked just like the simulated version back at Crossroads. And gave me even more of the creeps. Sure, it looked completely normal, but something about the place just… made a chill run down my spine. Probably because I knew what had happened here. 

“Thirsty?” Asenath asked while I was thinking about that. 

“Huh?” I blinked, then looked down. There was a Sprite in my hand that I didn’t remember picking up. “Oh. Uh, I guess.” Frowning briefly, I shook my head. “This place and me picking things up, I swear.” 

“What do you mean?” the vampire girl pressed, squinting at me. 

I shrugged. “It was… well, obviously now we know it was because of the whole Ammon being my brother thing. But back when we were looking into the recreation of this place for Investigation class, I picked up a few different things that happened to be like… the exact stuff Ammon bought when he was here.” 

Asenath raised an eyebrow. “And now you just picked up that Sprite without thinking about it?” 

“Sure, I guess. But… he’s gone,” I pointed out. “I just… picked up a soda while I was thinking about all this stuff, that’s all. I mean, that’s not that weird, right?” 

“Maybe.” From her tone, Asenath wasn’t really convinced. Which was okay, because neither was I.

But, I shook that off for now. Though I put down the Sprite before purposefully walking to the counter where the clerk was. “Hey, uhh, can I ask you something?” Might as well jump straight into things. We needed to find some answers. 

Glancing up from her phone, the girl raised an eyebrow. “You need the key to the restroom? It’s supposed to be for customers only, but you know, fuck that. If you gotta piss, you gotta piss. No skin off my back. Mostly that rule’s supposed to keep the druggies out of the restroom, anyway.” 

I checked the name tag on her shirt. “Uh, Kalia? Right, nah, it’s not about the restroom. But thanks. Actually, we were wondering if anything weird had happened around here lately. You know, anything different from usual I’d say, probably within the past few weeks. Maybe three weeks ago to be specific?” Yeah, I was being about as straight-forward as possible. There wasn’t time to be cute about it, not with Denise’s life on the line. 

Something about the question had clearly immediately struck the other girl, judging from the brief expression that crossed her face before she wiped it away and offered us a squint. “Unusual?  We get a lot of weirdos in here. Comes with the territory. You know, open all night, close to a homeless camp about three blocks that way, and an improv theater about two blocks the other way. Weirdos are like, our number one customer base. So you’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.” Belatedly, she added, “Why, you looking for someone?” 

Well, screw it, time to go all-in on that whole not beating around the bush thing. “A girl, about ten to twelve years old. This tall, dark hair. She would have come in at some point in the past few weeks. And we think she might have, uhh, been hanging around out there to get a look at the gas pump where that, uhh, girl died.” Yup, just jumping straight on into the whole thing. 

Kalia, for her part, blinked at the question. Again, there was something telling in her expression  for just a moment before she shook it off, eyes narrowing. “What, did someone send you in to play games too? Cuz it’s not fun. It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now. So you can just–”

“Whoa, hey.” Asenath held up both hands while protesting. “I promise, we’re not playing games, and nobody sent us in here. What are you talking about? We’re looking for a girl who went missing, and someone said she might’ve come in here and started acting weird. That’s all.” 

I nodded. “What she said. We’re just looking for this girl. But uhh, why do you think someone’s playing very not-funny games with you? What does that have to do with a girl?” 

Kalia looked back and forth between us as though trying to decide if we were being serious.  Finally, she exhaled and answered. “A little over a year ago, a guy came into this place and started to rob it. But the clerk who worked here shot and killed him. Then she killed herself.” 

“Yeah,” I started to confirm, “we heard about that much, but I don’t–” 

“He was my dad,” the girl replied. “He came to rob the place to make up for… because he borrowed money to take care of me. He borrowed it from a really bad guy named Mercer. He’s like this gang boss or whatever. Real lowlife, but don’t let him find out I called him that. He’s scary. Like, really scary. That–that son of a bitch was gonna do–he was gonna do something bad, to me, because he wasn’t getting his money back fast enough. My dad was desperate. He came here and he got killed. The owner gave me a job because I was hanging around just trying to see the place where my dad died. He gave me a chance. But then Mercer kept coming around, trying to get money out of me instead. He wouldn’t leave it alone. Nothing was enough for him. I didn’t–I didn’t have a chance. I kept trying to tell him to wait for me to be paid enough, but he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t–and then he just… he just…” 

Frowning, I asked, “He just what? Did he do something to you?” Oh boy, was I not in the mood to find out about some guy hurting and terrorizing a girl. I was already reeling from the revelation that she was the daughter of the original robber. That was–yeah. Eesh. It complicated that whole situation, that was for sure. And now to find out that the prick who had set the whole thing in motion was still trying to force this girl to give him more money after everything she had already been through? I really wanted to find whoever that was and give him a piece of my mind. And maybe a piece of my staff while I was at it. Fucking piece of shit.  

Again, the other girl hesitated. It looked like she was afraid to get into the details. She had a pensive look on her face and squirmed a little while fidgeting with her hands.

“It’s okay,” Senny gently reassured her, raising a hand to touch Kalia’s wrist while meeting her gaze. “Trust us, we don’t have anything to do with that Mercer guy. We’re not here for him, just looking for the girl. But tell us what happened. Did he hurt you? Has he threatened you again?”  Despite the gentleness of her tone as she tried to keep the girl calm, I could tell that she was just as close as I was to demanding directions to that guy so we could do something about him. 

Kalia, however, shook her head. “No, that’s the thing–I mean he was. He was being really demanding.” A frown crossed her face again. “He was really pushing hard, wouldn’t let up about it. He was supposed to come in the other day. I was waiting for him, but he never… he never came. Then I went to see him, I had fifty dollars. And he… he said he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he took the fifty bucks, but he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know who I was or who my dad was. He terrorized my father into getting himself killed, which–which drove another girl to kill herself because of it. Then he kept pushing me for more money. And then suddenly he doesn’t know who I am?”

Yeah, she was right. That did sound pretty weird. And distinctly unnatural. Before Asenath or I could say anything, however, the girl went on. “And with that girl going on about some tattooed monster coming in, I just–it was a weird coincidence. Especially with you coming in now.” 

“Hold on, a girl asked about a tattooed monster?” Asenath pressed, giving me a brief look. 

With a nod, Kalia confirmed, “Yeah, a little girl like the one you described. First she came in and was asking me about what happened with my dad and that clerk. I mean, she didn’t know he was my dad before. But she was asking about that. Then it was like… she went nuts? She started asking about some monster with scales and tattoos before just taking off and running outside. Then I never saw her again. Hell, might not even be the right kid.” 

To that, I dug in my pocket for my phone. “Hang on, I think I have a picture.” I had a copy of the video that my mother had shown us before when she revealed that Denise was alive. Bringing up a still shot of that, I held the phone out for the other girl to see. 

Kalia’s head bobbed quickly as she pointed at the screen. “Yeah, that’s her. Who is she?” 

“Her name is Denise,” Asenath explained. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen her since that day? She hasn’t come in again, or been hanging out or anything?” 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t,” Kalia replied with a shrug. “She just yelled about the tattooed monster and ran out. I didn’t really think much about it until all the stuff happened with Mercer.  Like I said, he was supposed to show up that day and he didn’t. And he’s got tattoos. Big bright red ones all over his body. No scales though. But I mean, she was a little kid, and kids have imaginations, you know? It’s just really weird. He completely forgets about the whole thing and acts like he’s never heard of my family, right after this kid was asking about stuff related to that and then went off about a tattooed monster? It’s two weird things in one day, and it sort of seems like they might be related. But I just sorta decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Then you guys came in and started asking about it and are you sure you don’t know him?” 

“No, pretty positive we don’t,” Asenath murmured, gazing off into the distance thoughtfully. 

“But I’m starting to think we should.” 

*******

Leaving the store, we met up with the others just behind the building and explained what we’d discovered. Then they told us about what they had found in turn. Apparently December and Tabbris had picked up signs of a big Alter of some kind, probably accompanied by others, hanging around the store several weeks earlier, but not recently. The traces were old and pretty faded. 

“Yeah,” Rebecca put in, “That totally fits with what we heard.” She nodded in the direction of some old homeless guy laying in a doorway across the street. He had a Coke he was sipping that had clearly come from the nearby vending machine, probably courtesy of her and Koren. “Elmer over there, he told us there used to be this guy who is really bad news with tattoos and stuff that came around the station, but he stopped a few weeks ago. And, get this, he saw a little girl with dark hair too, the same day the big guy stopped showing up.” 

Yeah, this was all sounding pretty suspicious. I had a bad feeling that this Mercer guy was related to why Denise had disappeared. Which was a thought that suddenly made me wonder–

“What if Ammon killing that guy wasn’t as random as we thought?” I put in. “I mean, what if this Mercer guy actually had some connection to Fossor after all? Then Denise shows up because she’s starting to remember stuff, and Mercer finds out, so he takes her and… and goes somewhere.” 

“That doesn’t explain why he would forget about the debt,” Asenath reminded me. “This guy hounded her dad into the grave and then kept pushing her about it. And then one day he just stops completely? Not just stops, seems to literally forget about it entirely. And it doesn’t explain those dents in the gas pump, like someone attacked it. There’s something really… strange about this whole bit. It feels like we’re missing something obvious. It’s right there, but I just can’t get a finger on it.” 

Tabbris piped up, “Maybe you could just ask him why he forgot the debt. I mean, possess him and read his mind. We should be able to find his memories from back then, and Mama taught me some about finding lost memories.”

“Right,” I murmured to myself a bit thoughtfully. She had a point, that might be the easiest way to actually get a firm idea of what was going on. “We just have to find the guy.”

“Ohthat’seasy,” December immediately informed us. “Thespellwe… wereusing…thatshowedushe…. washangingaroundhere… wecanusethat… totrackwherehewent.” 

“Uh huh, uh huh!” Tabbris bobbed her head quickly alongside the other girl. “He left a trail we could follow all the way back to his base.”  

“Sounds like a plan,” Asenath murmured, already taking out her own phone. “Let me call Twister, just in case we need a little more muscle.

“Then we can pay this Mercer guy a visit, and find out what really happened that day.”  

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