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 to 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 me 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.