Francis Gale

On The Edge 42-06

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Everyone was talking at once, clearly frantically trying to find something, anything we could do. Meanwhile, I was pressing my hands against my head while trying not to attack myself. How could I let this happen? How could I be so stupid to walk into this place and not have a way out? I should’ve thought of it. I should have realized just how easily it could be a trap. I should have acted immediately to stop whoever was possessed in here even before we knew who it was. I should’ve–

Flick! Tabbris interrupted my rambling, desperate thoughts. Stop it and listen! But rather than just take the time to explain what she was thinking, my sister basically shoved all of it into my head at once. As she did so, my eyes widened.

“I’m not trapped.”

I said those words even as Tabbris’s explanation solidified itself in my head, making the others all look to me at once. Deveron looked a little confused before his eyes widened as he realized, “Possession.”

“Possession?” Koren looked to me, frowning before she too got it. Or at least part of it. “How will that help–wait, recall? Who did you last–”

“It doesn’t matter,” I interrupted, pointing to Miranda. “Randi! You’re in here and out there. You’re a duplicate. If I possess you right here, then stop and you go back to your original self out there–”

It was the other girl’s turn to interrupt, “Then you can recall to her–to me, to the other me. You can recall to get out of this room.”

I nodded, gesturing to the screen that showed the area just outside the office where Miranda, Theia, and Asenath’s group were. “Exactly. I’m just going to guess that the teleportation protections here don’t count against recall. I can get out there and tell them what’s going on. We can tell them what’s going on. Then we can try to find a way to open the doors, or help the others. Or something. Anything. But I need to go, now.”

Abigail was already shaking her head. “No, I don’t like it. That’s–that’s wrong. That can’t be the only thing to do. You’re a child, you–”

“We don’t have time to argue about this, Abigail!” I quickly blurted. “Look at them. They’re fighting out there. They–err… they were fighting.” I blinked at the screen. “Now they’re just sort of… standing there.”

“That’s me,” Francis announced. “This seems like an important conversation, so… let’s just say time in this room is going by much faster than time out there. So everyone can calm down and stop talking past each other. Panicking, yelling, losing your minds won’t accomplish anything. Take a breath, think, talk.”

We all exchanged glances, and Abigail took a breath before looking to me. “Can’t you possess him and try to wake him up?” She indicated the unconscious man on the floor. “Maybe he’ll know a way to get past Radueriel’s control? His mother is the owner, he might know something that could countermand it. Or–or something.”

Francis shook his head. “I love the boy, but no. He won’t be able to. But he might know more, so… I will, ahhh… possess him and wake the boy to find out what he knows about our intruders. If he was controlled by them for awhile, they might have let something important slip.”

“Uh, can you possess people?” Koren asked.

The man gave a very slight nod. “If she can, so I can.” He looked to me. “You are a guest of the Auberge, which means I can use any power you have. Unfortunately, I can’t just take your place and be the one who transports out there to head up to that vault, because–”

“Because there’s still all those blocker things in the way,” I realized. “Right, that still sounds pretty useful. So we don’t have to decide between the two. He can stay here and wake up Mennin, while I recall out and help the others upstairs.”

Wincing at the look I could see on Abigail’s face, I gently reminded her, “I’m sorry, we’re wasting time that we don’t have. I know you’re worried about me, but someone has to get out there and get the others to go up and help keep the bad guys away from that room. We just–we don’t have a choice. If the Seosten get into that vault and take Liesje’s spell–”

“But what could you possibly do to help against all that?” Abigail lamented, sounding desperate. She clearly loathed the idea of me going out there without them. Which… yeah, I could understand that. It made me think of what my father would say. Hell, I could see his worry in her eyes as she weakly continued. “If something happens to you while we’re stuck in here, if you get hurt, or–”

“Abby,” I interrupted, stepping over to hug the woman tightly. “I know. Believe me, I know. I don’t want to leave you guys here either. I don’t. But I can do this. I can go out there, grab the others, and do… whatever we can to stop them. We just have to last until Gaia and the others get in. Then it’ll be over. They have to be close. They have to be. We just have to buy them as much time as we can. Roxa’s pack, Larees, the other Seosten, they’re all up there fighting. How can I refuse to go help now just because it’s dangerous? You feel bad about letting me go? I feel bad about just letting them do all the fighting up there. They’re going to die without help. I can’t let that happen.”

“She’s right, Mom,” Koren put in. “Every little bit helps. Besides, things may blow up wherever Flick goes, but they usually end up being helpful explosions in the end. Mostly.” She hesitated, like she was going to amend herself again, then thought better of it, clearly realizing that it wasn’t helping.

It looked like Abigail was about to say something else to that, but Francis spoke first. “Actually, maybe you can do something that will help release us and stop them.” His voice was thoughtful, like he had just realized something important.

That got everyone’s attention, as the man continued. “That… creature may have locked out the hotel’s automated security. But I can give you an override that will manually activate them in one hallway.” From his pocket, he produced what looked like a small USB drive, handing it to me. “There’s a silver panel in the hallway. It extends down to the floor. You just have to find the slot on the right hand side and plug this thing in. That will manually release the security turrets. They’re set for non lethal measures, for guest safety. They’ll knock people out, incapacitate them, at least for a little bit. It should help, anyway.”

“I can see how that will help with the situation at the door, sure” Deveron agreed while looking over to the man with a frown, “but how will it help the rest of us get out of here?”  

“And how do we stop it from targeting the people we don’t want it to target?” Koren added. “I mean, if it knocks out everyone on our side too, it might do more harm than good, you know? Especially if they just bring in more reinforcements or whatever.”  

Francis answered her first, gesturing to the USB drive in my hand. “Technopath powers. I already fixed its IFF parameters. Once she plugs it in, the security system should do the rest.”

“You are a very handy guy to have around,” I remarked, giving the drive a brief smile. It may not have been much, but it would help. And as I’d said, every bit of help was important now. Because yeah, Gaia, Avalon, and the others couldn’t be too far away from getting in there, right?

I prayed that really was right, while Francis looked to Deveron to explain, “And I’ve removed the safety protocol for how much power it can take while directing it to drain from this room. So as the system attacks, it’ll take power from here. And as it takes power from here–”

Wyatt finished for him, giving a wide grin, “The security measures here will eventually turn off, including the anti-teleportation shielding.”

“And then we can all leave, yes,” Francis confirmed before looking to me. “You just have to get up there, plug it in, and let the turrets take over. They’ll do their job and drain the power from this place so the rest of us can escape.”

I nodded, holding the thumb drive tightly. “I can do that. I just hope it’s enough to delay them.” Because that’s all this was: a delaying game. Delaying until these guys could come help, delaying until Avalon got into that vault from the other side, delaying, delaying, delaying.

It was Wyatt’s turn to speak up. “This should help.” He produced a small green crystal, hesitating before holding it out to me. “You, uhh, you break this in front of the door up there. It will make a wall that should help slow them down.” Shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, he explained, “I… I’ve been channeling power into it for a few years, as an… emergency, if anything really bad happened and I needed to escape.”

I bit my lip, realizing that this was clearly a very big deal. It was Wyatt’s last ditch security measure, his… ticket to safety that he’d been putting power into for years just to make it as strong as possible. I had a feeling it was more than just a few years old. “You don’t have to–”

“Yes, I do,” the man insisted. His face twisted a bit, expression turning even more awkward. “Take it. Maybe it’ll only hold for a few seconds against them. But it’s something. It’s… it’s something. I can do something.” He sounded almost desperate, like he didn’t know how to express himself at all. He was scared. He wanted to tell me not to go. But all he could do was offer this little bit of help.

“It’ll hold for longer than that,” Deveron announced abruptly. “Here…” Gently taking it from his son, he focused for a moment before visibly staggering. “There… more power. Not years’ worth, but… as much as I can give you.”

As I stared, everyone else followed his lead. They all, including Francis, shoved more power into Wyatt’s crystal. Abigail had even practiced enough to be able to channel her energy into the thing. Wyatt had spent so much time making it perfect that all they had to do was shove their power into it to beef the thing up. In the end, they all looked much more tired than they had. But hey, at least they’d have a chance to catch their breath in here. Especially if Francis kept time going faster in here than it did out there. It would give them time to recover.

“Might not be able to go with you yet,” Koren muttered, handing me the crystal as she was the last one to use it. “But to hell if we don’t get to help somehow.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, holding the crystal and the USB drive. “Thanks, guys. I’ll get you out of here. And block that door. They’re not getting in there. Not if I–and you–” I added the last while waving the crystal they had helped empower, “have anything to say about it.”  

As I nodded, Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “I, uhh, I’m sorry I called you a slacker when you first got here,” he hesitantly informed me. “You are definitely not a slacker.”

Squeezing the crystal and the USB drive, I smiled faintly. “Trust me, I could do with a little more slacking now and then. But you guys better not,” I added while pointing to them. “You be ready to get the hell out of this room and come after us as soon as that power goes down enough. You got it?”

They agreed, and for a moment, I just stared at the screen depicting the struggle over the vault entrance. The fighting was still going on just as furiously as ever. There were people getting hurt up there, probably even dying. I had to go help. Swallowing, I turned toward Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail.

“Go,” my older sister urged. “Just… just be careful. I know you have to go. But don’t get yourself killed, okay? Just don’t.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but ended up just mouthing a silent, ‘both of you.’

Right. She didn’t want to give Tabbris’s existence away to Francis. Which… it almost certainly would have been fine, but still. Keeping that quiet was basically second nature at this point.

Deveron put a hand on her arm. “She’s right,” he agreed in a voice that cracked a little bit. “We’ll be right behind you, as soon as that power drops. You get out there and help them. But like she said, don’t get yourself killed.”

Despite the situation, I smiled. “I’m pretty good at getting hurt and kidnapped, but so far, I’ve been pretty bad at getting killed. Let’s hope that holds up.” I was trying to sound flippant to make them feel better, but couldn’t keep all the fear out of my voice. We were all afraid and trying very hard not to lose it in front of each other.

“Just save some for us, huh?” Koren put in, trying to break up the tension. “You’re not the only one who still wants to hit the bad guys.”

The retort came before I could help it, “Well, if you insist, I guess we’ll take it easy on them until you show up. Just don’t take forever, I don’t know how long I can hold myself back.”

After that, there was really nothing else to say. I looked to Miranda, offering her a smile. “I guess I kind of forgot to ask if you’re okay with me possessing you. That’d kind of put a stop to this real quick.”

She smiled right back at me, snorting. “Right, I’m really gonna say no at this point.” Biting her lip, she offered me her hand. “Let’s do this.”

I did so, quickly possessing the other girl before just as quickly stepping out of her. I only stayed long enough to make her my recall point. Then she waved while clearly sending the mental signal to her original self that she was ready to be disabled. A moment later, she faded from existence.

Then it was my turn. With a wave of my own toward the others, I used the recall. Tabbris took over, making sure that instead of actually possessing the original Miranda, we ended up appearing directly beside her.

The original Miranda clearly hadn’t had time to absorb all the memories of her duplicate (probably related to how much faster time was going inside the room thanks to Francis), because everyone, including her, jumped at my sudden arrival. Asenath even went as far as pivoting to lash out with a fist before catching herself.

“Maybe she would be a good Batman,” Theia noted thoughtfully, which seemed like part of a conversation that didn’t involve me. Or, knowing Theia, maybe it really was just that random.

Quickly, Miranda and I explained the situation to the rest, that the others were trapped inside that panic room, and how we could get them out.

“So we use this USB drive to call down some of the automatic security. And there’s the rest of us here. We have to go up there and help. We have to slow them down until the others can get up there with us. I–it won’t be easy. Or fun. I saw the fight up there on the monitors. If we don’t get there, the guys won’t last much longer.”

Miranda produced her shield. “She’s right. Other me saw it too. They need help, so what are we just standing here for? Let’s go help them.”

Flashing a lopsided smile, Theia announced, “Pace-I still likes her… personality.” Putting a hand against the side of her mouth, she stage-whispered, “And her b—” Before she could finish that sentence, the same hand covered her own mouth.

“You good, Pace?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. She replied with a thumbs up using her other hand.

“What are we waiting for?!” Namythiet was hovering in the air in front of me, showing her teeth. She had that tiny sword of hers clutched incredibly tightly in one hand. “No more sitting around. They–” Her voice caught briefly before she pushed on. “Mister Seth would want us to hurt them. I… I want to hurt them. Right, Clubber?”

On the floor at our feet, the emerald tiger cub made a wary growling sound for just a moment, which switched to a concerned whine as he stared up at the pixie. I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking (as much as he could ‘think’, which I still wasn’t clear on), but I had a feeling I would’ve agreed. He was clearly worried about how angry Namythiet was. Worried that his partner, owner, friend was going to lose herself to grief and do something dumb. Quite frankly, I was worried about that too.

“Hey,” I spoke up. “Mister Seth also wouldn’t want you to get hurt, okay? Be angry, but don’t lose control.” Hesitating briefly, I reached out with one finger. “We work together. Fight smart, right? Seth cared about you, Namythiet.”

“She’s right.” That was Asenath, clearly speaking past a lump in her throat. “We’ll make them pay, Namy. We absolutely will. But you’re not allowed to go crazy and get yourself killed. You hear me?” Her voice turned harder, more firm then. “You be sad later. We’ll all be sad later. But you do not get to lose it and die too.”

The pixie hovered there for another moment, looking back and forth between us before reaching out with both of her hands to shake my finger. “Right,” the pixie slowly answered in a voice that still sounded a bit hollow. “Fight smart. Don’t die. I get it. Yeah. Mister Seth would say that.”

I wanted to say more. Hell, I wanted to do more. But there was nothing else to be said or done. Not in that moment. Instead, I looked to the other young girl of the group. “Right, um, Bobbi… like I said, it’s bad up there.”

“I can help.” The girl’s voice was firm as she drew herself up. “Mister Seth was–I wanna help. You’re not leaving me behind.” She stared at me, face hidden behind the helmet of her costume. But I had a feeling that she was scowling challengingly, just waiting for me to try to insist.

Yet again, there was a lot I wanted to say to that. And yes, I did want to leave her behind. I wanted to leave both her and Namythiet behind. But I couldn’t, because it would’ve been incredibly hypocritical. So, I simply turned to walk. “Right then, like Miranda said, let’s go help them.

“And hope that the people who are supposed to be helping us aren’t too far behind. Because quite frankly, I’m not sure how long we’re gonna be able to keep this going.”

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On The Edge 42-05

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A dozen weapons snapped up into position as Asenath stepped into view. But she didn’t attack. Instead, the vampire girl took a couple steps out with her hands up and slowly cast her gaze over them. Her voice was simple. “I am going to give all of you a chance to walk away.”

Well, that made the group blink. They glanced to one another before their apparent leader advanced a few steps. He had his sword in one hand, the energy blade ignited as he stared at her. “And why would we walk away?”

Asenath smiled faintly. “Because I will let you. My quarrel is with Kushiel. I have no desire to kill so many of my own people.”

That definitely got their attention. I could see the confusion written across their faces, as they tried to parse that. Which meant that it was showtime.

A glowing figure appeared in front of Asenath. My figure. I wasn’t possessing the girl herself, of course. She was a hybrid (daughter of a human vampire and an Akharu), and I didn’t happen to have an Excalibur on me to compensate (useful as that would have been). Instead, I had been possessing a tiny piece of wood Asenath was holding.

Before that, however, I had taken the time to enchant my clothes with a simple glowing light spell, cranking it up to maximum. As a result, as I emerged, my form looked like it was glowing identical to how a Seosten stepping out of their host looked. Then I simply dismissed the light spells after a second.

Now the collective Seosten soldiers could see me. Only they weren’t seeing me. Nor were they seeing the red-haired girl whose appearance I’d been using up to that point.

They were seeing Sariel. I had copied her form as exactly as I could, down to the most minute detail. Which was helped by Tabbris. These other Seosten would perfectly remember any picture, hologram, or whatever they had ever seen of the woman. But my little sister had the same memory, and she knew her mother a lot better than they did. We were as close to an exact copy of Sariel as possible.

I also held a bow in one hand, which added to the illusion. For a long second or two I let my eyes sweep over the group, who looked as though they had no idea what to do. My mouth opened and I tried to copy Sariel’s voice and speaking patterns.

“My quarrel, as I said, is with Kushiel. You are my people, as… estranged as we may be. I do not wish to kill you. But I think we know that I will if you force me to.” With those words, I put my fingers to the string of the bow to make an arrow appear, drawing it back. I didn’t aim at anyone just yet, simply pointing the bow at the floor, but the threat was implicit.

All twelve young Seosten took a step back, collectively. They looked even more uncertain. No one wanted to be the one to start a fight with an Olympian, let alone one with Sariel’s reputation. They knew they should fight, since the bounty or whatever on the woman’s head was probably astronomical. But having her (apparently) right here in front of them made all that a different story. It was one thing to brag and dream about how you could beat someone and claim a reward in the safety of hypotheticals. But it was quite another to have the opportunity thrust in front of you.

Still, the guy in charge was clearly more afraid of an eventual retaliation by Kushiel. Which was fair. Steeling himself, he raised his chin. “We can take you. You’re rusty.” He was obviously trying to convince himself, and the others, of that.

“Am I?” I asked simply, keeping my voice calm despite the fact of how nervous I was. This was the real test. If this didn’t work, they’d never believe that I was who I appeared to be. It was time to see if our plan and preparations meant anything.

“Maybe you’re right,” I allowed, slowly lowering the bow. Holding it in one hand, I put my other hand behind my head as though scratching my neck. Using one finger, I pointed down to the spot on the floor right behind my feet, which were pressed together. With that gesture, I created a tiny portal there. The other end led to a spot past all the men.

Asenath, her actions hidden by my body, produced an arrow of her own, one that I had used the bow to create earlier. Silently, she positioned it over the portal and gave it a sharp toss, so that it dropped through and embedded itself in the floor behind the Seosten at an angle.

Right as the arrow struck the floor, I spoke up loudly to cover the sound. “Or maybe…”

Without another word, I snapped the bow back into position, drawing the arrow back once more while keeping my eyes on the man who had been speaking. Without looking, I aimed the bow somewhere to the side of him and let the arrow fly.

Several things happened all at once in the next instant, all of them incredibly important for this to work. First, I thumbed over the control on the bow that turned off the arrow, erasing it in mid-flight.

At the same time, I focused on the rifles that three of the men in the vague path of where I had fired were holding. More specifically, I focused on the sand that I had spent the past several minutes before we revealed ourselves carefully floating through the air to position against the sides and bottoms of those rifles, as well as inside the barrels themselves (I’d actually done the same with all the guns, but those were the only three within the right area). With a thought, I suddenly shoved hard against all of that sand, the unexpected force jerking the weapons from the men’s hands. Quickly, I used the flying sand to direct the guns passed all the men, dropping them right over the arrow that had been embedded in the floor, so that they all fell with the arrow through their trigger guards, stacked like that.

The Seosten all whipped around. From their point of view, I had simply fired an arrow, three different rifles from different people had all been knocked out of their hands, and as they managed to turn all the way around to look behind them, those rifles were on the floor with an arrow through them. It was completely absurd, yet well within Sariel’s ability.

More importantly, it was not within the ability of any random person. Or it shouldn’t have been.

For a moment, the Seosten simply stood there, mouths agape as they stared at the arrow with the guns attached. None of them said anything, none of them moved. So I decided to hurry their reaction along.

“As I said,” I announced to draw their attention back to me while notching another arrow, “My quarrel is with Kushiel. But I am getting impatient.”

Your turn, partner.

Tabbris took over my mouth, using my voice to issue a long, complicated diatribe in Latin about how they needed to leave so that I (or Sariel) could issue a formal challenge against Kushiel, and that any of them who got in the way would be collateral damage. She made my voice hard and uncompromising, while I lifted the bow to make the point further, slowly panning it over each of the soldiers, as though daring each of them to be the one who tried something.

Shockingly, none of them wanted to be that person. They all looked at one another once more, looking extremely reluctant. Then one of them asked, “Sir, where’s the other one?”

“Other one?” the one who had been speaking to me directly distractedly replied.

“Other one,” the first confirmed. “Twins, sir. The twins. There’s one. Where’s the… the other one? There’s one, where’s the other one?

Now they were really looking around, turning as though Apollo might be standing directly behind them. Murmurs grew louder, and when they looked to me, I simply smiled.

It was enough. I wasn’t sure which one was first, but within a moment they were all racing for various doorways, abandoning their post in a rush.

Asenath coughed behind me while straightening up. “Huh, it doesn’t look like Kushiel inspires much in the way of loyalty.”

Smirking despite myself at that, I started to respond. Before I could, however, the sound of running footsteps at one of the other side doors drew our attention that way. But I recognized the objects and clothes that I could detect, and settled.

Sure enough, the new arrivals were Deveron, Wyatt, Koren, Abigail, Miranda, and Theia. They had apparently all met up at some point, and came skidding into the room. Seeing me there, looking the way that I did, all of them froze with clear confusion.

“Hi, guys,” I announced before shifting back to the red-haired form. “You might say, Sariel was here in spirit.”

Theia was the first to react, laughing almost immediately. With a cackle, she insisted, “We want to hear that story when this is over.”

“We came to help,” Deveron noted. “But it doesn’t look like you need it.”

Quickly, we exchanged the most important information. They knew basically what was going on, thanks to Roxa. Apparently Twister, Bobbi, and Namythiet’s efforts were paying off, allowing Francis to advance closer and closer. Every area he was able to enter, he cleared out the threats within very quickly. It would only be a matter of time before he got here.

“Still too long,” I insisted. “We have to get into that office, through to the panic room, and get that owner lady to expel these guys.”

Miranda nodded. “Before they get into the vault. The werewolves are already at the door with Larees and one of my other selves. They’re–we’re–whatever, they’re trying to stall them.”

“We need that Francis guy,” Asenath announced quietly. “He can get through the panic room door. But he can’t get here until all those spell things are destroyed.”

Deveron nodded. “Twister and the others are doing their best. There’s just… so damn many of them all over the place. We broke a few on the way down here, as many as we could find. But the Seosten were ready for something like this. They’ve got dozens of redundant devices overlapping everywhere. In a delaying game, they’ve got an advantage.”

“Do you know how they’re doing up by the door?” I asked quickly.

Deveron paused at that, turning his head as though focusing on something else for a moment before he looked back to me and answered solemnly, “Not well. They’re keeping them busy for now, but… we need to finish this.”

My attention turned to Wyatt. “Can you get through into the panic room? Or find a way to disable all those things at once?”

I saw his adam’s apple bob up and down a couple times as he swallowed hard before shaking his head. “Oh, oh yeah. With weeks. Days maybe. Not hours. Not minutes. Definitely not minutes. Stupid. Stupid. Should have been ready for this. Should have practiced. Should have anticipated that. Should’ve. Good for one thing: breaking spells. Good for one thing. Spells. Making spells. Breaking spells. Good for that. Have to do that. Have to be ready to do that. Hah, but I can’t do that now? Why can’t I do that now? Why, why, why?”

His hand moved to smack himself on the head, but Abigail caught his wrist. “Stop it. You’re not only good for one thing. Do you have any idea how much you contribute to…” She swallowed hard before shaking her head, not letting his wrist go. “You are very important.”

“Your sister’s right, Wyatt,” Deveron agreed softly. “You are pretty much the most amazing mage I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I’ve known a lot. Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve made of yourself…” He trailed off, looking toward Abigail and Koren. “Everything you’ve made of yourselves… is amazing. You earned it. Your mother would— is proud of you. I know she is.”

“I only had the pleasure of meeting her three times,” Francis Gale announced while entering the foyer with Twister, Bobbi, Clubber, and Namythiet. “And I don’t know any of the rest of you at all. But I would agree. She definitely wanted children, and she would absolutely be proud of each and every one of you.”

That said, the man slowly looked around the room. “Now… how many of you are her children?”

Immediately, he shook off that point. “Never mind. Later.”

He did, however, let his eyes linger on Deveron even as he addressed everyone. “She’s in really bad trouble, isn’t she?”

We all, even Miranda and Theia, confirmed that, and the man nodded. “Then I’ll help. She helped me, more than once. I’ll be there, whatever she needs. Whatever her family needs. It’s like Caela’s mother said a long time ago, Joselyn Atherby and her family will always be welcome here. But let’s kick this infestation out of my home first.”

With that, the man moved to the door at the far end of the foyer, the only one that hadn’t been used yet. As he approached, the door silently opened, and I saw an elegant office beyond. “The panic room is through here.”

“Go,” Asenath told us. “We’ll wait out here, just in case our friends come wandering back again.”

Twister, Namythiet, and Bobbi agreed, before Theia shrugged. “If danger comes, we want to be here for it.”

Finally, Miranda stayed with them as well, sending a duplicate with the rest of us.

Leaving them behind, we headed into the office. I looked over across the sparsely, yet beautifully decorated room to where Francis was pressing his hand against what looked like a blank wall. He murmured something under his breath, then drew a rune with his other hand. That went on for a few long seconds before the man finally stepped back. As he did so, the room around us suddenly changed. Apparently we were transported directly into the safe room. I didn’t know if that was an automatic thing, or his doing. Either way, there we were.

There, in this case, was some kind of command center. There were screens all over the walls showing various parts of the hotel, both inside and outside on the street. I could see Larees and the other good Seosten on one of the screens, fighting alongside the werewolves and one of Miranda’s duplicates. Roxa had joined them. On another screen, Athena and Abaddon were tearing their way through pretty much a whole floor of the hotel. So at least she was keeping him busy.

There were also weapons on racks lining every spot of wall that didn’t have a screen on it, and an open door in the back led to what looked like a pantry with months, if not years, worth of food in it, judging by what little I could see.

Two figures stood by the monitors, a tall woman with sleek, dark hair and aristocratic features who wore a crisp suit, and a younger man who looked as though he would be quite handsome if his ears and nose weren’t too big for his face.

“Francis,” the woman started immediately, sounding relieved that he was there before she suddenly noticed the rest of us. “Who are these people? What is going on?”

“They—” Francis started. But before he could get more than that single word out, a glowing red force field suddenly appeared around the woman and what was obviously her son.

The man with too-big ears sighed, straightening a bit. “I knew this was going to happen,” he lamented. “All the effort to keep this quiet, and yet I knew that somehow, all of you would find your way in here. It’s quite impressive, really. Quite impressive indeed. I would offer to shake your hands, but… well, forcefield.”

“Radueriel,” I realized immediately.

“How long do you think you can hide in there?” Deveron demanded. Even as he spoke, the man was charging up some kind of power on his fist. Francis, who had pretty much instantly figured things out as well, was doing the same.

“What?” Caela turned at that, snapping a pistol from her jacket and pointing it at him. “What have you done to my son?”

Radueriel used the man’s mouth to smile. “Don’t worry, ‘mother’. They’re right, the force field won’t last long. But then, it doesn’t have to.”

My mouth open to shout a warning, and I wasn’t the only one. But we were all too late. Radueriel boosted his host. Suddenly, he was standing beside her, with her gun in his hand. His other arm was around her throat. When he spoke, it clearly wasn’t to us. “When our… relationship began, I made certain promises as to the safety of your loved ones. As you have behaved, I find myself willing to go to certain lengths to maintain those promises. Remember that.”

With those words, the man abruptly dropped the pistol, producing some kind of badge instead, which he slapped against Caela’s arm before pressing it. In a flash of light, she disappeared.

An instant after that, Deveron and Francis both hit the shield so hard that it too vanished. Francis crossed the room in a blur, slamming into the possessed man before hauling him off the ground to shove against the wall. “Where is she?!” he demanded in a thunderous voice.

Radueriel, through his host, simply smiled. “I made promises, as I said. I promised that she could not be killed. But we can hardly give you access to her. She’s gone now, and it will take quite some time for her to be collected. Too long to do you any good. My apologies for the inconvenience.”

With a low growl, Francis leaned in close. “Let… the boy… go.”

Again, that simple smile. “Certainly.”

Then he was there. In a brief flash of light, Radueriel was suddenly standing a few feet away. As we all rounded on him (save for his now-former host, who collapsed to the floor), he held up a hand. In it was clasped some kind of detonator. “Uh uh. Trust me, none of you want to test me right now. I’m teetering right on the edge between appreciation for your effort and ingenuity, and annoyance at your persistence. Though, in this case, I suppose it hardly matters. You were nice enough to walk right into the trap, after all. Thank you for that.”

“What tra–” Koren started before abruptly slapping her own head. “The panic room!”  

His smile found her, and the cyborg man confirmed it with a nod. “During my stay here, I took the liberty of installing my own control over this room. As of now, no one may exit. So I strongly suggest that you sit back, watch the monitors, and observe while we handle this long-festering vault problem. Have very pleasant lives, all of you. No hard feelings.”

With that, Radueriel touched a spell inscribed into his mechanical arm. Instantly, he disappeared, leaving the rest of us trapped in that panic room with no way out, no way to help the others, or to stop Kushiel from getting to the vault and claiming Liesje’s spell before Avalon and the others could get to it. No way to do anything at all. But hey, at least the room was named properly.

Because I was definitely panicking.  

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On The Edge 42-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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On The Edge 42-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because this was a whole new ballgame.

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Interlude 41B – Margorie And Caela Tombs

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February 18th, 1951

The sound of a meaty fist striking flesh was accompanied by two separate cries. One was of physical pain, while the other was the emotional anguish of seeing a loved one hurt and being unable to stop it. The latter carried on into a desperate plea.

“She can tell you nothing! Leave her, she is only a child!”

The woman making the plea stood just over five and a half feet tall. She wore a light blue dress and had dark red hair that fell to the middle of her back. Her face was adorned with bruises of her own and the dress was torn. Her arms were being held by two large men in jeans and flannel shirts who looked as though they belonged as bouncers in a western country music themed bar.

They stood just inside the entrance of a mostly empty auto repair shop. A single, mostly disassembled sedan sat in the middle of the shop, while the subjects of the woman’s desperate plea were a couple feet away from it. A young girl, just over ten years old, and the large man who had struck her. The man stood over six feet in height and had a large, thick brown mustache that served as the only hair on his head. His knuckles were caked with both wet and dry blood as he cracked them while staring down at the child he had just hit.

“Maybe she can’t,” the man calmly agreed with the woman’s cry, “but you can.” Turning that way, he leveled a dead eyed-stare at her. “Can’t you, mommy?”

Still held by those thugs, The woman shook her head quickly. “I can’t! I can’t give you what you want! I can’t tell you how to get in. Please, please!”

“Oh, I think you can,” the man objected. “See, you’re the majority owner of the Auberge. Which means that if anyone can get us in there, it’s you. Which you’re going to do, unless you don’t care about your daughter’s life, that is.”

Once more, the woman shook her head. A soft whine of fear escaped her before she managed to put it into words. “You’ll kill them. You’ll kill all those people. You’ll kill our guests. I can’t do that. They have families too. They are safe there. I can’t take that away from them. I won’t take that away from them. Please, please I can’t. I can’t do that.” With every word, the terror in the woman’s voice grew more apparent.

Desperately, she looked to the men on either side of her. “Please, you’re Heretics. You call yourselves heroes, right? You’re supposed to be the good guys. Does this look like something good to you? Please, she’s just a child. Let her go. Please, please just let her go.”

If the men keeping her restrained cared about her words, they gave no indication of it. Meanwhile, the one standing by her daughter looked down at the trembling child. “You hear that, kid? I don’t think she cares if I step on your head and crush it like a grape.”

The woman cried out, a desperate, horrified wail as she strained at her captors iron grips to no avail. “Leave her alone! I won’t give you what you want! I’m not going to let you do to them what you’re doing to us! I won’t let you in! I won’t! I won’t!” With each word, the woman’s sobs grew more pronounced, more anguished and broken.

For a long moment, the man looked to her before slowly lowering his gaze to the quietly crying child lying on the floor at his feet. He seemed to regard her contemplatively, as though deciding how best to end her life. Finally, a slight smile cracked his face. “That’s okay,” he replied as though they were simply having a casual conversation. “I don’t really need you anyway, though it would’ve been better for you both if you cooperated.”  Turning his head slightly, the man raised his voice. “Bring in the kid!”

Daughter and mother alike turned then at the sound of one of the side doors opening to admit several more figures. With them was another child, a boy of about five years old with pale blonde hair, who walked between them in clothes that were a little too big for him. His shoes, too large for his feet, slapped noisily against the concrete floor with each step.

“Papa?” the boy hesitantly asked, looking to the man.

“C’mere, kid.” Their oppressor raised his hand, gesturing for the boy to approach. Once he did, the man lay a hand on his soft blonde head. “You see, this here is Francis. He’s real special, aren’t you, kid?”

Rather than answer, the young Francis raised his hand to point to the fallen girl. “Is she okay?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” the man firmly ordered before continuing his explanation for the prisoners. “You see, Francis here is real special. Just like his mom was special. But unlike her, he’s going to be a good boy and do what he’s told, isn’t that right?” When the boy nodded his head, he continued. “Damn right he is. His mama was what we call a Steward. You know what that means?”

In a shaky, broken voice, the woman answered. “They protect and take care of a home. What they see as their home. They get power from staying there and keeping it safe. And… and from killing things that invade their home or threaten the people who live there.”

“Ding, ding,” the man announced, grinning. “That’s right. Except here’s the thing. When they’re young, like this little guy, their power fluctuates a lot. It’s not as reliable, but they also pick new homes really quick. It takes years for them to settle down. When they’re tiny, it means they basically pick any place they happen to be standing in as their home, if you know what I mean. Francis here may be half-human, but that’s enough for him to get the job done. And keeps him from being a full fucking monster like you creatures.”

It took the woman a moment, but her eyes widened, and she shook her head quickly while blurting, “No!”

“See?” the man taunted a little. “Told you I didn’t really need you to cooperate. You just stand right there and my boy here will copy your power to open the way to your little hotel. That’s a gift they give all the owners, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Special little gift so you can open a door from anywhere. So you just stand there and look pretty. Frances here will open the door for you. You don’t have to do anything else. Except maybe ask yourself why you left the hotel today.”

He focused on the boy then. “Now Francis, you remember what I told you to do? You just focus on the lady over there, and think about opening doors. Feel that power? You focus on that. Focus on opening that door. That’s right.”

The woman cried and struggled uselessly, while her daughter simply sobbed on the floor. Meanwhile, the boy did as he was told, focusing on the image of a door. Gradually, that door began to appear in the middle of the room. The doorway that would lead to the Auberge, and to hundreds of unsuspecting guests.

“Cowards.”

The single, simple word broke through all other sound in the garage. The men all looked to one another with obvious confusion before turning to search for the source of the voice, which had seemed to come from everywhere at once. Their eyes scanned the room, as they produced weapons. Their leader’s voice was harsh. “Who’s there? Another one of the bitch’s security? You should’ve kept playing dead if you survived, you stupid fuck. Now we’re just gonna have to finish the job.”

Their search, regardless of all the extra powers they brought into play in addition to their natural senses, was fruitless. They could not find the voice. Their leader was about to tell his hybrid son to keep bringing the door into place and forget the distraction. But when he turned that way, he found himself facing a woman. She had appeared from absolutely nowhere, her slight blonde figure giving no indication as to the tremendous power, both literal and figurative, within her. Francis lay at her feet, sleeping peacefully so that he wouldn’t have to see what came next. The doorway he had been summoning had disappeared along with his consciousness.

“Wh-” that was as far as the man got before she struck him. Her fist slammed into his chest and the man was sent flying across the garage to crash into the far wall with enough force to leave a visible crater-like dent within it.

The remaining six men in the room snapped to the attack. One of them brought up what looked like a tommy gun, filling the air with hundreds of tiny flaming bullets, while another produced a cannon-like weapon, which he fired a long metallic harpoon from. Jagged arcs of electricity danced around the thing as it flew through the air.

But it was useless. The woman’s figure was a blur of motion as she moved to them. As fast as she was, the bullets might as well have been standing still. She stepped around each one, plucking it from the air and crushing it between her fingers like ash. When she reached the harpoon, her hand caught the end of it and she pushed the thing just enough to correct its course before letting go.

The harpoon continued on its new course, which put it straight through the knee of a man who had been racing up behind her with his sword held high. He collapsed to the ground with a scream just as the woman threw the handful of hot bullet ash into the face of the man who had been shooting at her.

He stumbled back, screaming out while grabbing for his burned eyes. But she put him out of his misery quickly by flicking a hand. The gesture simultaneously restored the bullets to their original size and made them explode, sending a hot, concussive shockwave straight into his head, killing him instantly.

Without looking (or paying much attention to the golden aura that sprang up around her), the woman made a twirling motion with her finger. At her silent command, the harpoon embedded in the one man’s leg proceeded to tear its way free and whipped around the room to cut through the throat of every other man save for the one she had originally struck, their leader. Every time the harpoon neared another victim, it glowed with blinding white power. The heat that it gave off melted part of the concrete and metal several feet away, and it cut through any defense the men had like a knife through butter. Each man was killed unceremoniously in those couple of seconds.

Then she let the harpoon drop, allowing it to clatter noisily to the floor. The only man left, the one who had been in charge, was picking himself off the floor while giving a horrified look around him. His face turned red, just before steel covered his skin. Bellowing an outraged curse, he flung himself at her.

She didn’t move. She didn’t lift a finger or twitch a muscle. The man’s fist collided with her face, and the fist lost. The metal in it snapped, cracking in several places while his arm collapsed inward like a broken accordion. The man hit the floor on his knees, screaming incoherently.

The woman reached out, putting hand on top of his head and pushing back to make him look at her. “You would have slaughtered all those people,” she spoke quietly. “The girl here and her mother, you tortured them.” The fury in her voice was palpable, filling the room with near physical manifestations of her righteous outrage.

The man realized who she was. “You,” he blurted. “Atherby. You’re supposed to be one of us! You’re supposed to kill the monsters, not take their side, you fucking traitor!”

“Kill the monsters?” she echoed, lifting her chin before looking around the room at the downed men. Then she returned her gaze to him. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

With that, the woman sent the harpoon into the back of the man’s head, leaving his dead body to collapse onto the ground as she turned to survey the rest of the room. Only three living figures remained. The slumbering boy, Francis, and the mother and daughter pair.

For a moment, the terrified red-haired woman stood silently, staring at her. Then her eyes seemed to notice her cowering, trembling daughter, and she ran that way, falling to her knees to gather the girl into her arms. Both sobbed and held on to one another.

“Wh-what do you want?” the red-haired woman carefully and fearfully asked while clutching her child tightly once she had assured herself that the girl really was alive and in her arms.

“Nothing.” The answer came simply, before their rescue were added quietly, “My name is Joselyn. Joselyn Atherby. I know you have no reason to trust Heretics. But some of us are trying to change that. Some of us are trying to make things better.”

She took one step forward then before sinking down to one knee. Mother and daughter were both watching her intently, fear and distrust written across their faces. “I know you’re scared. I would be too. After what they did, after what they were trying to do… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. I’m sorry I couldn’t save the people who were protecting you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop your daughter from seeing all of that, or from being hurt.”

She paused another moment before quietly asking, “May I please know your names?”

“Tombs,” The red-haired woman answered while keeping on arm protectively around her daughter. “Margorie Tombs. This is Caela. I… I’ve heard your name. If you’re really her, I… I…” She swallowed, still a bit afraid. “Thank you. If you’re her, thank you. But please, if this is a trick-”

“It’s not a trick,” Joselyn assured them softly. “I promise. My friends and I, we just want to help. We just want to make things right.”

“Where’s Papa?”

The question came from the boy named Francis. He was sitting up, looking around with confusion. When Margorie followed his gaze, she found that all the bodies, including that of his father, had disappeared.

“He didn’t need to see that,” Joselyn replied to the unspoken question before looking over at the boy. “Francis, right? Can you come here for a second, please?”

When the five-year-old boy obediently came to her, Joselyn gently took his hand and squeezed it. “Hi, there. Do you know what happened to your mom?”

“Papa,” the boy answered solemnly. He said nothing else, but the single word and look in his eyes made the meaning obvious. The hybrid boy’s Heretic father had killed his Steward mother.

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn whispered before giving the boys a hug. “He’s gone now, okay? He’s gone and he won’t hurt you again. He won’t make you hurt anyone else again. You are a good boy, Francis.”

“Y-you made him go away?” Francis sounded a little doubtful. He’d seen how strong his father was, had experienced just how much power the man had.

The response came not from Joselyn herself, but from Margorie’s daughter, Caela. The girl, several years older than Francis, spoke up. “Uh huh. She made him leave, and he’s never coming back. Never ever.”

Francis stared at her for a moment before offering a tentative, “I’m sorry Papa made you cry. I didn’t want to make you cry.”

He looked down at his hand then, which began to glow white. Hesitantly, the boy reached over to touch Caela’s bruised cheek and blackened eye. She reflexively tried to sit back, but at that single touch, her face began to heal. The girl gasped softly, as did her mother, as the injuries faded.

“You.” Margorie was looking to Joselyn. “He’s using one of your powers. That’s what he does, what his mother’s people do. They borrow powers of people in the place they consider home. He’s young enough, he considers everything home.”

“Yes,” Joselyn confirmed, “but he needs a better one, a more permanent one.”

Eyes widening just a little, Margorie realized, “You want us to take the boy with us back to the Auberge. You don’t want to take him with you? He’d… he’d grow up to be very helpful for what you’re doing..”

“He’s a child,” Joselyn replied softly. She reached out to gently brush her hand through the boy’s soft hair. “He deserves a chance to keep being a child. But yes, he may grow up to be very strong. Which means he’ll be able to protect his home. That should be the Auberge. Or maybe he’ll leave. The point is that should be his choice when the time comes. Right now, he’s just a little boy. And I think that you can take care of him.”

She looked over to where Francis and Caela were quietly talking and smiled faintly. “Besides, they seem to be getting along. I wouldn’t want to break that up.” As she spoke, Joselyn brought the white healing glow to her own hand while reaching out. She gently touched the other woman’s face and healed her.

“My people are at war. Your Auberge is a safe place. He deserves that, if you’ll have him.”

Touching her own now-pristine cheek with a soft gasp of wonder, Margorie then gave a quick nod. “We… we’ll take him with us. We’ll keep him safe until he’s ready to decide for himself what to do.” She hesitated very slightly before adding, “You could come too. You saved our lives, the least we can do is allow you to stay.”

“Thank you,” Joselyn graciously answered, “but I can’t. There’s too much to do. Too many people like you being hurt by people like them. I’ll just be glad to know that you and the kids are safe. So you better go, just to make sure you all stay that way. I’ll handle the cleanup here. They’ll send people to check on what happened. You need to be gone before they arrive.”

Margorie raised a hand, hesitated only slightly, then summoned the doorway that would take them back to the hotel. She stood, beckoning the two children to join her. Together, they moved to the door before the woman looked back to Joselyn.

“I heard what you said, but you still saved our lives. So, Joselyn Atherby, I want you to know that you and your family will always have an open invitation to the Auberge, if you change your mind. You are welcome in our home.”

Joselyn met her gaze with a smile. “Thank you. And who knows?

“Maybe someday we’ll take you up on that.”

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Interlude 37A – Mennin Tombs

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A pair of stunningly polished, gleaming black shoes stopped smartly directly at the edge of a puddle that was half-water and half-mud. The shoes were attached an equally well-dressed man in neatly pressed dark slacks, a red silk shirt, and black tie. A black suit-jacket completed the perfectly coordinated, yet utterly safe (and in many ways, boring) ensemble. The man within the clothes stood just under six feet in height, and could have been anywhere between forty and sixty in normal human age, his hair dark and well-groomed, his face vaguely lined.

“Mr. Tombs.” The gravelly voice that emerged from the man himself sounded in equal parts exasperated and sympathetic. It was the voice of a man who very much cared about the subject of his ire, yet was also at a loss of what to do with them. “What is the first rule of the Auberge?”

The subject of his attention, who lay face-down in that muddy puddle, groaned a little in response before slowly lifting his head. Turning, he spit out a rather extensive amount of dirty liquid in one thin line, like a drinking fountain. The water narrowly missed his admonisher’s perfect shoes, before the prone man ran a hand up through long, dirty-blond hair that fell to his shoulders.

In many ways, Mennin Tombs would have been considered a quite handsome figure. He stood just an inch or so taller than the man who stood before him, and looked quite a bit younger, appearing to be barely into his twenties. His skin was fair, his shape on the thin side, yet not drastically so. His nose was perhaps a bit small for his face while his mouth was just barely too large, leaving his face looking very slightly oddly proportioned. He looked like a stunningly handsome preset within a video game whose player had tinkered somewhat with the face, throwing it off in ways that were sometimes too subtle to truly describe, yet were subconsciously noticeable.  

“Uh, sorry, Deacon,” Mennin mumbled before slapping a hand against the side of his head. “Water in my ears. What’d you–hold on.”

Grabbing his earlobe, the young man yanked down. The ear stretched to three times its normal size, before a truly impressive amount of water fell from it as he tilted his head, filling the puddle up to about twice what it had been. Releasing the lobe made the ear pop back to what it had been.

“Hah! Told you I had water in my ear. Now I can hear you.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Deacon repeated himself. “The first rule of the Auberge, Mr. Tombs.”

“Don’t talk about the Aube–no wait, that’s something else.” Squinting, Mennin snapped his fingers. “Don’t let anyone find the Auberge who isn’t a registered guest.”

“And the second rule?” Deacon prompted.

That one, Mennin answered instantly. “Don’t get any of the guests killed.”

“Mmmhmm.” Deacon paused then, before taking one step back, safely away from the puddle before nodding past them. “And do you see how your actions tonight may have… strained both of those rules?”

Turning that way for the first time, Mennin looked to where six figures were at the opposite end of the alley that they were all hidden within. Three of those bodies lay on the ground in various states of decapitation and dismemberment. The fourth and fifth sat on summoned wooden chairs, while the sixth, a man in a spotless white coat with a truly impressive looking sword in his hand, quietly calmed the sitting pair down and assured them that they were safe.

“They wanted to see the Red Sox game,” Mennin explained with a helpless shrug. “Isn’t one of the rules, ‘keep the guests happy?’ I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“Yes,” Deacon confirmed. “And there is a reason that it comes after not getting them killed, or leading threats back to the current entrance. Mr. Tombs, the Auberge has existed under various names since before the times of the biblical New Testament, and yet we have never suffered an invasion, nor have we lost one single guest while they are under our protection, so long as they followed our rules. Residence within the Auberge is expensive precisely because our reputation precedes us. We can afford to be selective in our clientele. We provide protection and security beyond what any other Earth-based location is capable of. If you find that any of our guests wish outside entertainment, your job is to take it through the proper channels. Our people, your coworkers, will ensure that the path is safe from both Nocen and the more zealous Heretics.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sighing, Mennin offered a weak shrug. “I just thought if I impressed Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin with a fun night out, they’d put in a good word for me and Mom wouldn’t think I was such a screw-up. But now I guess she’s gonna know I’m an even bigger screw-up than she thought.”

There was a brief pause then, before Deacon shook his head. “I see no purpose in bothering your mother with every minute detail of her establishment, Mr. Tombs. The Ulfins are safe, and Francis enjoyed the work-out. He may even have acquired interesting gifts from the Heretics who followed you back here.”

Blinking up at that, Mennin found a smile. “So I didn’t fuck everything up?”

“Let’s consider it a learning experience,” Deacon offered, before clearing his throat as he stepped around and past both the man and the puddle he had fallen into during the fighting, when Francis had swooped in to kill the other three Heretics. “Mr. Ulfin, Mrs. Ulfin,” he started in a perfectly polished voice. “Come, I’m afraid that while our security is top of the line, as you see in the form of Mr. Gale here, even we must put discretion over valor when Heretics are involved. With three of their number dead, there will be more sent along to investigate.”

The two guests let themselves be escorted by Deacon and Francis past where Mennin had finally made his way to his feet, Mr. Ulfin offering a sympathetic nod to him (though the man’s wife turned up her nose and sniffed with annoyance at his appearance).

Mennin followed, and the group made their way to an innocuous-looking red door in the middle of the alley. Deacon raised a hand, knocking twice, then once, then three times in rapid succession. At the end of it, a small window-slit appeared in the middle of the previously blank door, and a pair of dark, scowling eyes peeked out. Mennin and the others stood perfectly still as the eyes scanned them (in more than one way, several of which tickled) before there was the sound of half a dozen locks being undone.

Finally, the door was pushed open, revealing a truly lavish looking hotel lobby. It would have put any of those in the human world to shame, with its lavish fountains, gold marbled floor, and hanging chandeliers.

Once they were through the door, it closed behind them. And from the point of view of any on the Earth-side, the door simply vanished, leaving behind a blank brick wall attached to an unremarkable office supply store.

“Mennin!” As Francis led the two shaken guests to the bar for a drink to calm their nerves, a pointy-eared, green-skinned female goblin in a maid’s uniform bounded across the lobby holding a stack of towels. “Nine-thirteen asked for more towels. Can you take them up? They always yell at me for being too slow. Plus, that’s right next to nine-twelve.”

“Oh, uh, sure, Elky.” Mennin started to reach out for the towels, only for Deacon to stop him with a cleared throat.

“Mr. Tombs,” Deacon spoke simply when the man looked to him, “a towel is generally used for drying oneself. Which becomes exponentially more difficult when that towel is already wet.” He nodded to the floor, where Mennin was still dripping from the puddle.

“Oh, shit!” Blurting that out, Mennin whipped a handkerchief from his pocket. “Hold on, I can do this. It was… uhh… bluebeo.”

Nothing happened, as he waved the cloth at the puddle impotently.

“Ablee?” He tried again. “Abledable? Ablingle? Blue Beetle? Blue One? Beetle Bailey? Bluckblahbleen? Ableeze?  Ablaze?”

Gently, Deacon plucked the cloth from his hand, tossing it to the floor with a firm, “Abluo.”

Instantly, as the magicked cloth touched the water, it sucked all of it up, including what was soaked into Mennin’s clothes, leaving him clean and dry before the cloth itself disintegrated and vanished.

“I would’ve gotten that one eventually,” Mennin claimed, before taking the towels from Elky.

He hurried to the elevator, riding it up to the ninth floor. Whistling under his breath, the man stode toward the door with nine-thirteen engraved in the side of it. On the way, he did his level best not to look at room nine-twelve. Though without even glancing that way, he knew what he would see if he did: a door very different from the others. One made of metal rather than wood, with no numbers engraved on it. The metal looked like steel, but was actually much stronger. Strong enough, in fact, that should the entire hotel be destroyed as the rest of the Auberge was burned to the ground, room nine-twelve would still be intact, untouched, floating in the air in whatever tiny pocket dimension the Auberge called home.

No one living seemed to know why this particular room out of all others had been so thoroughly upgraded. Aside from, perhaps, the interesting fact that its position put it in the exact center of the building, with eight floors below it and eight floors above it. It was quite literally in the center of one of the most private and protected buildings on the planet.

The spells that were on it which ensured no one could ever enter, or use any magic or power to see inside, were the most powerful of their kind that anyone Mennin knew had ever seen. The most anyone else seemed to know was that it had been that way for at least five hundred years. Whoever had been the last to rent that room had paid for permanent residence, and had spent Gods only knew how much time and energy ensuring that it would never be accessed.

Beyond that, all Mennin knew, all anyone knew, was that no one ever opened that door. No one entered that room, and no one left that room. Ever.  

Reaching the next room over, the man raised a hand to knock twice before stepping back. He did his best to pull his clothes into something resembling presentable with one hand before clearing his throat as the door opened. “Your, uh, towels, sir.”

Grunting, the big (human-looking) man took them from his hands and stepped back while jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Err, she?” Blinking uncertainly, Mennin waited until it was clear that the big guy wasn’t going to offer any further insight. With a shrug, he slowly stepped over the threshold of the room and moved inside.

The place, like all suites in the Auberge, wasn’t like some cheap, normal Bystander motel room. Each was practically the size of a palace inside, with a dozen rooms of fairly enormous size. This particular door opened into the foyer, where a second man much smaller than the first, with an obviously mechanical arm and leg stood beside a dark-haired woman whose cold expression sent a shiver down Mennin’s spine.

“Um,” he started once more, “sorry it took awhile to bring your–”

“Quiet,” the woman interrupted. After speaking that single word, she slowly moved closer. A frown touched her face. “You are the child of this facility’s current owner, are you not?”

That was a strange question, and it took Mennin a moment to answer. “Uh, yeah? I mean, technically. But Mom doesn’t really… you know, involve me in the nitty gritty of the family business very much. I’m not much more than busboy. And a handyman sometimes, so if you have problems with your pipes or–”

“Quiet,” the woman repeated that single word that made his mouth snap shut almost against his will. She watched him for another moment before speaking again. “He may be a fool, but he has access to everything we need, and won’t be suspected. He will do.”

“Oookay, yeah, I think this is where I say that you won’t–”

In mid-sentence, Mennin felt a hand on his arm. The shorter man, the one with the mechanical limbs, had moved surprisingly quickly to grab him. He opened his mouth to object while starting to pull his arm back… and then stopped.

The other man was gone, and Mennin froze. Not because the man had disappeared, but because he quite literally could not move. Until he did. His arm lowered, and he straightened up, entirely against his will.

Wha–what?! Hey! Hey! With mounting panic and confusion, the man worked to stop himself, to make himself move and take back control of his own body. What the hell just–did you just Bodysnatchers me, you son of a bitch?!

“I’m in,” his voice announced aloud. “I should get back down there before someone wonders where he is.”

“Yes,” the woman replied, and that time her voice cracked just a little as she stood up. “And while you are at it, do try not to get yourself killed by an ignorant monkey-child, thereby forcing the rest of us to abandon our actual missions to solve your problems while the rest of the Empire scrambles to correct a mistake that endangers not only our place on this world, but our entire civilization.” By the end of her brief diatribe, the woman was shaking a bit, her fist pressed against the table as she glowered at no one in particular.

Mennin didn’t have the slightest clue what they were talking about, but the big guy grimaced. “Told you, just let me have one straight go at the little bitch. I’ll make her pay for it.”

“No.” The woman’s voice was brittle, like slowly cracking glass. “You know Metatron’s orders. Until we know how she did what she did, hands off. Whether it is her mother’s doing or some other force, we are not losing anyone else to this barbaric child. Stay away from her. It’s too much of a risk, given what we have lost already.”

Boy, Mennin inwardly wondered. Whoever had pissed these guys off so much must have been pretty damn powerful.

Too bad she wasn’t here right now.

The woman said something else, but Mennin was too busy struggling in vain against the being that was puppeting his body to listen. Hey! Hey, don’t ignore me, I’m talking to you! Pay attention to–hey! Hey, I know you can hear me. Don’t make break out the Lambchop song. I went a full twenty minutes once and I’m willing to break my own record.

His body was turning by that point, heading back to the door. The big guy who had let him in was holding something in his hand. It took Mennin a second to recognize it as a flyer for the demolition derby that was happening in the same town he’d just taken Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin through. He’d seen a few ads for it while they had been out.

Waving that flyer, the big guy grunted, “You promised.”

“I did,” his own voice replied, as he gave a bow that the real him never would have been able to pull off without looking ridiculous. “You’re quite right, my love. Allow me some time to ensure my cover with the coworkers and family, and then we will have our date. I know you’ve been quite looking forward to seeing Earth entertainment again. And, while it is hardly what I would consider stimulating, I would say that your enjoyment more than makes up for such deficiencies.”

“Yeah,” the big guy replied, “love you too.”

While Mennin was trying to comprehend that, his body moved out into the hall.

Now then, the voice of his puppeter spoke, a few ground rules. First, I will tolerate your attempts at escape. It’s only natural, and I would wonder about your sanity if you did not at least try. But I will tell you now, it is futile. You are not nearly strong enough to even present a challenge. That is not meant as an insult, only simple fact.

Second, should you attempt to distract or annoy me purposefully, particularly at important points or around others, you will regret it. You will be punished, and if you manage to actually convince anyone that something is wrong, one of three things will happen. They will be possessed as well, their memories will be erased, or they will be killed. Do you understand that?

Part of Mennin thought that he should object, or threaten to hold out to the bitter end, promising the man that he would fight him forever. But… well, honestly, he was afraid. Afraid of these clearly powerful people and what they could do to him or the people he cared about.

So, after a brief pause where all those thoughts ran through his mind, he quietly (or at least he felt it was quiet, given there was no sound involved at all) responded, I understand.

There was a sense of satisfaction that he was sure the man who was his slaver allowed him to feel. Good. Now, for the good news. You could have ended up with a much worse person than me taking you, I promise you that. If you behave, do not annoy or distract me, and generally sit quietly, I will allow you moments of entertainment. You will be allowed to retain control of your own body while alone in your room, whenever I do not need you. And, so long as circumstances do not change, our business here should not end in the death of those you care for. Do you understand that?

Yes, Mennin started before blurting, but why are you here? I mean, are you thieves or assassins or…

There was a brief pause before his eyes turned to look at the door into room nine-twelve. There. The woman who purchased that room hid something inside of it. Something which we are here to recover. That is our mission. Cooperate, and we will leave when that mission is over, you will not remember any of this, and you may continue your life.

After another brief hesitation, Mennin asked, I don’t understand. If you want what’s in the room so bad, why don’t you just break the door down and get it?

He felt some minor amusement from his captor then, before the response came. I am afraid that it is much more complicated than that. His body turned then, heading back for the elevator. To enter a blood vault requires a good bit more effort and planning than simply breaking down the door.

Whoa, whoa, what? That’s a blood vault? Mennin was still reeling from everything, but that threw him for yet another loop.

Well, the other man replied, to be specific, it is a backdoor into a blood vault. Same protections as the front door, but less… shall we say, public. But yes.

That doesn’t– Mennin started to say that it didn’t make sense, before stopping himself. You need the oldest blood relative to get through that, the heir.

Yes, well… for reasons that are too involved to get into right now, we are forced to seek alternative measures, came the response.

Alternative measures? Mennin hesitated. Like… like what? How the hell are you going to get through a blood vault without the, you know, blood part?  

His body stepped onto the elevator then, his hand reaching out to press the button for the lobby as his captor replied simply, Quite carefully.

Quite carefully, indeed.

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