Denny’s body didn’t literally physically change or anything like that when Marina and I appeared next to her back out in the regular world. It was still just Denny’s body, even if she wasn’t the one in control at the moment.
Adjusting to the sudden information I was getting from my item-sense (and oh boy did it feel better to have my powers back), my mouth opened to ask if the girl was okay. But before I could say anything, a voice from behind us blurted, “What in the living hells was that?”
It was Gliner. He was back by the doorway, staring at us.
“Oh,” I started with a cough. “Right, sorry, you’re probably wondering where we’ve been this whole time.”
“This whole time?” the man echoed. “You disappeared for about ten seconds. Then you reappeared and now you’re talking like it’s been awhile? Wait, was I frozen again?”
“Hold on, ten seconds?” The girl sitting at my feet sounded surprised.
Then her head tilted, expression shifting. Somehow, it was like her entire demeanor changed. Walker tended to come off as a mixture of defensive and impatient. She just wanted to get on with whatever she was doing, while also assuming that most people were going to accuse her of things or make her justify everything she did. In that moment, however, her expression was more curious, eyes looking as though she was soaking in everything she saw and analyzing it.
“Ah, yes,” Letters announced, “we can speed up the flow of time, relatively speaking, within our own mind so entire conversations, or arguments, can be had while mere seconds pass in the outside world. Walker and I just had a conversation about that which, to us, lasted about five minutes. But to you, it was almost instantaneous. That should be helpful in the future.”
Blinking down at her, I tentatively murmured, “Wow. Okay, one, that’s pretty cool. And two, you guys really do shift back and forth completely seamlessly.”
“Perhaps too seamlessly,” Letters noted thoughtfully. “If we can hold entire conversations within the Carnival while little time passes outside… Hold one moment, please.”
Barely a few seconds passed before her expression changed again. This time, a wide, beaming and clearly mischievous smile appeared. Her eyes widened, though with clear excitement rather than surprise, even as an audible giggle escaped her. “Ohhh yeah. Sure, you got a deal.”
“Err, a deal?” I managed, blinking at Marina next to me. She offered a confused shrug.
“Sorry, wasn’t talking to you!” the Aspect who had taken over informed us cheerfully before using both index fingers to point at their head. “Gotta talk in the quiet indoor voice! Not used to having a mouth in the outside world! But it’s fun. Maybe I should have more, hmm?” Even as she said that, a second mouth appeared on her forehead, then a third and forth, these ones vertical, appeared on both cheeks. It was, in a word, horrifying.
“Ah,” all four mouths announced in a perfect chorus, “this was a bad idea.” Then all three extra mouths vanished. “Sorry! Still learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m Tailor. That’s T-A-I-L-O-R, like the clothes person. And I’ve got a brand new job! I’ll talk to you later, but for now, back to your regularly scheduled Aspect!”
With that, she scrunched up her nose and gave a firm nod. And with that, Denny’s skin turned gray, her eyes went pitch-black, and her clothes became the same hooded cloak I had seen inside the Carnival. Now she looked like Walker.
“That’s better,” the girl announced, looking down at herself before rising. “Letters made a deal with Tailor. She’ll pop in and shift the body whenever one of us takes over. At least then you people don’t have to be confused all the time.” Stretching her arms and cracking her neck, she blinked. “Wait, hang on. Can I still…”
Just like that, her body vanished with a slight popping sound, leaving behind a brief shadowy cloud, which dissipated quickly. She reappeared in a standing position a few feet away. Slowly, her head turned to look around the server room with obvious curiosity, including giving the man by the door a quick once-over. “I didn’t really get a chance to drive this thing before,” the girl noted, “I just took over long enough to pull you guys inside. This is neat.”
“I, ahhh, what?” That was Gliner, of course, sounding understandably baffled about this whole situation. “Can I just… huh?”
“Uh, right, long story.” Looking back and forth, I hesitated before simply shrugging. “Short version, there’s a lot of… people inside Denny right now and they’re taking turns piloting. This is Walker. The one who was talking just a second ago was Tailor, like she said. And before that was Letters. Walker, this is Gliner. They’re… uhh, I guess it’s a long story on both sides.”
Marina, who was kneeling next to Dakota to check on her, raised a hand. “De–Walker, how do we wake her up? Is she okay?”
“Sure,” the girl replied, “Hang on, she needs Tucker.”
There was a brief pause, during which it was apparent that Tailor had briefly taken over, as their skin shifted once more. Instead of being white or gray, it became a sort of dark purple, with a few white (like paper white, not skin white) swirls along her arms. Her eyes were black with little flecks of white, like stars. And just like that, she abruptly jerked upright and smiled brightly. “Hey, hey, sorry I was busy in there before and didn’t get to meet you! The others made me clean out the ticket booths just because I spilled blueberry soda on one of the seats. Apparently they think I’m exhausting. Which, I kind of am, but it’s only literal when I want it to be.” Even as she was saying all that, the girl was literally bouncing up and down excitedly. “See, I drain energy from things and people and then convert it into my own energy so I can move faster, be stronger, all that stuff. And whatever gets drained gets sorta shut off.” Looking one way, then the other around the room, she added, “I guess I probably shouldn’t do it to the machines in here, right?”
We all exchanged books before I shook my head. “Yes, please don’t drain the computers in here. I feel like that’s probably a bad idea.”
“Okay!” With that cheerful agreement, the girl, Tucker apparently, darted over to where Dakota was and dropped to her knees. “I’m sorry, we all sort of panicked when everything happened, and I was the part of Denny that sort of made her go to sleep. Here.” Putting both hands on the girl’s shoulders, she seemed to focus for a moment.
Abruptly, Dakota‘s eyes opened and she jerked a bit. “Wh–Denny!” she blurted upon seeing the girl in front of her. An instant later, she was embracing her. Then she just as suddenly stopped, pulling back to blink at her altered appearance. “Uhh, Denny?”
“Err, not exactly,” Tucker admitted once that was over. “I’m Tucker. It’s great to meet you, but I’m not even supposed to be out here right now. It’s Walker’s turn, I was just helping undo what we did. And now you’re awake, so uhh, catch you later!”
With that, Walker resumed control, skin turning gray as she straightened up. “There. We think she’ll be okay. I mean, she should be. Like Tucker said, when that whole thing went down, we all panicked and just did whatever we could to protect Denny. We weren’t even fully formed yet, not really.” She turned to look down at the girl who was still on the floor and added, “Walker, nice to meet you, I guess.”
Yeah, needless to say, Dakota was a little confused. As was Gliner. So, we gave all them a quick crash course in what happened. Which took a little while, and involved a lot of questions. Especially when I had to take a quick detour and give Gliner a very abbreviated version of what happened with Ammon. Basically just that he was a sort-of pseudo Heretic with a Pooka power who had been killed and had that resurrection gift temporarily transferred to Denny, one of his victims. And now she had his power. Or rather, powers, apparently. It was a pretty huge box of worms to get into, but I felt like he (and his partner, once one of us told him what was going on) deserved to have some clue about what was going on with this whole situation.
Finally, once we were done with that, Dakota stared at the girl in front of her. At some point, she picked herself up so they were both standing facing one another. Her voice was slow and hesitant. “You’re… not Denny. But you sort of are? I mean, the actual Denny is herself, and you’re more of a little piece of her mixed with a piece of one of the… umm, dead people Ammon killed?”
Letting out a breath, Walker held up a hand. “Hold on. Someone else should deal with this. I’m not in the mood.”
“There, hi,” came the announcement a moment later as she turned back into a blonde-haired white girl. “I’m Letters. The short version is yes, you might say we’re a mix of a dead person, or several dead people in some cases, and various pieces of the actual Denny’s personality. Some parts are magnified, other parts are minimized. But what it comes down to is that we’re all our own people. We just happen to live mostly inside our own little world in Denny’s head, and now we’re going to take turns controlling her… our body.”
“But… Denny’s still in there?” Dakota asked tentatively.
After another brief pause, Letters offered, “Do you want to hop inside and visit her for a little while? She’s… she doesn’t feel comfortable coming out right now, but you can go in. If you want.”
When the other girl looked at me, I nodded. “Go ahead, we’ve got stuff to do out here. I think she could use your company.”
Marina agreed immediately. “You guys should hang out in there while we’re dealing with the rest of this. It’s umm… you should meet everyone.”
So, Walker took over once more and put a hand on Dakota’s shoulder. A second later, with a puff of black smoke, the girl was gone. Then Walker looked at the rest of us. “Are we gonna get on with this, or what? I didn’t agree to come out here just to stand around and explain everything. I wanna see the outside world. And I don’t just mean the inside of this vault. Dakota figured out Perrsnile was the bad guy and Denny… dealt with him when he hurt her before she could tell you. So it’s over, right?”
I hesitated. “Mostly, I guess it is. At least that part of it. We know he was the one who–wait, what did Dakota figure out? What happened while we were gone, exactly?”
“Uuuuggh,” came the annoyed response, “I just said I didn’t want to stand around explaining things. Whatever, call me when you’re doing something interesting.”
And just like that, she was gone. Her skin went back to being white, even as her hair shortened all the way up into that near buzzcut. It wasn’t exactly easy to tell, given Denny herself was only like thirteen, but their body did seem a bit more ‘male-presenting.’ Hands locking behind his back, she announced, “Hey there, it’s Bang-bang. I guess I’m taking over for this part. Must be what I get for letting everyone think I enjoy briefings.”
Bang-bang, for his part, explained things as succinctly as he could. Apparently, Dakota had been pacing around the server room while they waited for us to get back, when she found a small leaf on the floor. It was a leaf that Perrsnile had tracked in on his shoe. When she touched it, she got some sort of… memory flash or something (which she could get from plants sometimes, apparently) of him killing Mophse. Unfortunately, Perrsnile apparently recognized the look on her face when she looked at him reflexively, and immediately went after them. Dakota activated the alarm spell and tried to use my taboo power to warn me, while Denny attempted to use Ammon’s power to make the man sit down. But he was too fast, and managed to knock them both down before covering Denny’s mouth with one hand while he choked Dakota with the other.
That was when Denny had killed him. She saw Dakota’s face turning red and was fighting to get out from under Perrsnile, or at least get her mouth free so she could talk. But she couldn’t. He was bound and determined to stop her from using Ammon’s power. So… so she did what she had to do. She punched through his chest. Which was… yeah.
In any case, she killed him and then freaked out. The rush of new personalities who were trying to protect her ended up dragging Sitter and Dakota over to the corner of the room, before that Crystal personality made them, and Denny herself, invisible. Tucker also reflexively drained Dakota’s energy to make her fall asleep in the process, because Denny was terrified of letting the other girl see her as a murderer.
We couldn’t really blame them too much for what happened. It was, from the way Bang-bang put it, a spur of the moment thing in the midst of what amounted to being born. They didn’t really have control over themselves at the time. They barely had any idea of who they even were.
“And, well, that is basically the whole story,” Bang-bang informed us once he’d gotten through all that. “You know the rest. Though we would all like to hear the explanation from your end. What was happening inside this vault?”
Which meant it was our turn to fill in the blanks. By the time we finished explaining the whole story, I felt parched. “So that’s the whole story. Perrsnile was working with slavers to sell the children in this vault and used the memory erasing system, which was supposed to be used to make sure no one could tell people on the outside anything about this place, to make everyone forget those kids ever existed. Archibold and Gliner over there found out and asked Mophse to help them look into it. But Perrsnile found out and killed him. Archibold thought it was Valdean and Gliner thought it was that woman, Ausesh. They both killed their respective suspects.”
“Three deaths,” Marina put in. “And we know who killed all three.”
“Four, technically,” Bang-bang pointed out. “Mophse was killed by Perrsnile. Valdean was killed by Archibold. That Ausesh woman was killed by Gliner. And Perrsnile was killed by Denny. Four deaths, four killers.”
My mouth opened to say that Denny wasn’t a killer, but I stopped. It was more complicated than that. And from the look on Marina’s face, she was having the same thought. So, I simply replied, “She saved Dakota and quite possibly all of us. I had no idea Perrsnile was the bad guy at the time. None of us did. We probably would’ve left our guards down. Then he would’ve either gotten away with it, or actually killed one or more of us when we weren’t expecting it. Either way, it would’ve been bad. She and Dakota exposed him, even if it took awhile for us to work the whole thing out.”
“For you to work it out, you mean,” Marina insisted. “I had no idea.”
I shrugged at that. “Whatever, I couldn’t’ve done any of this without all you guys. And speaking of all you guys, we need to go find Sesh and tell her what’s going on. Not to mention everyone else. And then… what about Sitter? We need him to turn off the lockdown now that we can say we know who the killers were. Oh, and uhh, I should do something about Perrsnile’s ghost before that trap wears off.”
“Not to mention talk to Ausesh and Archie about all this,” Gliner noted.
Marina shook her head. “But how are we supposed to wake Sitter up? Ausesh said that Valdean was the computer guy on their end, and we can’t exactly ask Perrsnile to do it.”
Looking toward the bodyguard, I asked, “I don’t suppose you or the other two might know any good candidates for fixing a broken robot so he can let us out of this vault?”
“Ah, pardon me,” Bang-bang put in with a raised hand. “Not to speak out of line, or toot the horn of my compatriot, but I do believe Letters might be just the person you’re looking for.”
“Hey, right.” My fingers snapped. “She’s a technopath, isn’t she? Do you think she could help wake up Sitter?”
Giving a short nod, Bang-bang half-drawled, “Well, as they say, there’s no time like the present to try. I’ve explained the situation, and I believe–”
Abruptly, his head tilted a bit, as he blinked a few times while his hair extended out and lightened. Then… well, she focused on us. “Hello again. Dakota and Denny just started catching up in one of the diners. They’re having pancakes. Sorry, I would have brought some out, but… I don’t think we’re quite talented enough for that just yet. In the meantime,” she added while looking back to me. “There was something about fixing a robot? That’s Sitter, right?” Her hand rose to point to the motionless figure on the floor nearby.
“Yeah, that’s him,” I confirmed. “Do you really think you can do something about that?”
“I–” She paused, clearly hesitant. “I want to say yes, but I’m not positive. This… ahh, this is sort of my first time using these powers out in the real world. I have vague memories of accomplishing much more difficult tasks with my gift, but of course, that was not me. It was the person whose power was… given to me. For all intents and purposes, I am completely new to this.” Her face twisted a little with distaste about that whole situation. “I will try.”
So, she sat down next to the robot and put her hands on him. While the girl was busy with that, I looked over at Marina. “Okay, I think we’re good now. Could you stay with her while I go down and deal with Perrsnile, Archibold, and Ausesh? Then I’ll go let Sesh and the others know what’s going on.”
“Yeah, I’ll go with you,” Gliner agreed with a grimace before looking at me. “ I guess I owe Ausesh a few apologies. Not that–damn it. Not that it’ll be enough. But I owe her that much, at least.”
So, the two of us took the elevator back over to the room we had left the ghosts in, while Marina stayed with Letters and Sitter. On the way down, I glanced at the blue-scaled, six-eyed man next to me and hesitated slightly before speaking up. “You didn’t know. You were trying to stop her from having a chance to sell any more kids. Or… get away. With magic and the fact that this was her vault, anything could’ve happened if she found out what you thought you knew.”
“That does not excuse my mistake,” the man insisted flatly. “If I had attempted to capture her, render her unconscious, find some way of…” He trailed off before sighing. “I was employed as her bodyguard, and I betrayed that.”
I had no idea how to respond to that. He was right, he had. And maybe there was a better thing he could’ve done. But on the other hand, given what he believed, if he had been right, how could he possibly have captured an old Heretic without giving her a chance to escape and do even more harm? It was–fuck. Yeah, it was an impossible situation. Especially considering what he had believed she was guilty of.
And yet, in the end, he had killed an innocent woman, who probably could still have done a lot of good. No wonder he clearly felt like shit. That was going to take some time for him to get through. But hey, at least he could actually talk to the woman herself about it.
Speaking of which, the elevator arrived back at that room, and we both stepped off. To my intense relief (I had been low-key terrified that something else would go wrong), Perrsnile’s ghost was still trapped right there in the spell I had made, with Ausesh floating nearby, next to Archibold.
“Okay, well, first things first.” Focusing on the small, trapped ghost-man, I announced, “We found both girls, and they’re going to be fine.”
“That’s good,” Perrsnile murmured before his eyes found mine. “You must understand, I never… wanted to hurt them. I never wanted to hurt any of the children. Things simply got… so far out of control. When it started, I thought I could save–”
“Stop.” With that word, I focused my Necromancy that way. As I’d said before, I couldn’t compel a ghost to speak the truth. But I could force them to stop speaking entirely. “Anything you say could be true, or it could be a lie. But you know what it comes down to?” My shoulders rose in a shrug. “I just don’t give a shit about your tragic backstory.”
Letting that hang for a moment while pointedly keeping him silent, I continued. “You hurt children for your own benefit, and then you killed to cover it up, and you were willing to do it again. I’m not sure when the best time for you to feel guilty would’ve been, but it was definitely at some point before you forced one child to kill you in order to save the life of another child you were choking to death. So I’ll tell you what. I’m going to let you talk now. And you’re going to tell me the names and locations of all the people you sold those children to, and how to restore everyone’s memories that you erased, the ones of their children.”
“I can tell you how to do the second thing,” Ausesh put in. “You don’t need him for that.”
“Good,” I replied without looking that way. My attention was centered on Perrsnile. “Names and locations. And before you decide whether or not to tell me the truth because you think I can’t do anything worse to you now that you’re a ghost, let me tell you exactly who I am. My name is Flick Chambers. My mother is Joselyn Atherby. Yes, that one. When I was a little girl, the necromancer named Fossor, yes, that one, abducted her. Last year, the Seosten named Manakel, better known around here as Hades, tried to kill my girlfriend. They were two of the strongest Necromancers who have ever set foot on this planet. Then they hurt the people I care about. Now they’re dead, and I have their powers. You think I can’t hurt you now just because you’re dead? Ask yourself what you really want me to do, send you on to whatever afterlife is waiting for you…
“Or get creative.”