Jammi

Four Deaths Four Killers 19-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, now we really had trouble. Our robot guide, who had been helping us figure out how to deal with all this and was the one who knew all the people in here, let alone how to get around the vault, was… off. I was going to hope he wasn’t permanently dead and instead just shut down somehow, but either way this was pretty bad. If he was down forever, could we even get out of this place? And regardless, without Sitter’s help,  how were we supposed to do anything in here? Hell, he was the main reason any of the guests were even listening to us, and while I didn’t doubt that we could force the issue if we had to, I really didn’t want it to come to that. No, we had to be more diplomatic than that, or this whole situation would spiral completely out of control. Not to mention the fact that these people deserved better than that. 

The three of us were all crouched around his fallen form, Dakota’s hand on his head. She looked at me, grimacing. “What do you think happened to him?” 

“Maybe it was a trap inside the system,” I guessed, glancing to the spot where Sitter had been plugged in. “You know, like a virus or something. Whoever was responsible for this whole thing might’ve figured he would look through the system like that and left a little thing to shut him down. And uhh, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly a robotics expert.” Not for the first time, I muttered, “I wish Avalon was here. Or Columbus. Or–” Shaking off all the thoughts of people it would be nice to have with us, I sighed. “I dunno, I think we’re on our own here unless we can find someone else in the vault who can do something with him. And even then–” 

“Even then they might not be someone we can trust, or who will listen to us,” Dakota finished. “So what’re we supposed to do now? How do we um… do anything?” She glanced toward Denny. “If we talked to people and you used your power to find out if any of them could fix him, then–” 

“No.” Denny quickly shook her head, blanching visibly. “I–I can’t, I’m sorry. I can’t use that power again, not like that. I don’t… like taking their free will–I don’t want t–I’m sorry.” She was visibly cringing, looking like she might be sick. “I know it’s not a big deal. I know, I know. But even doing it a little bit makes me think of all the times he did it. The memories, they get stronger in my head whenever I use that power and I can’t just–I can see the people he… I–” She cut herself off, folding her arms against her stomach while looking like she was desperately fighting back the urge to either cry or throw up. Or both. 

Dakota shifted over, putting an arm around the other girl. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s okay,” she murmured. “We’ll find another way. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Don’t worry about it.” 

“She’s right,” I quickly agreed, taking Denny’s hand and squeezing it. “We’ll just have to talk to people and find someone who can help. Then watch them. Or just do this without Sitter until we catch the person responsible. Or maybe it was Sitter and this is a trick, you know? I can’t be the only person who remembers how often the butler is responsible for the murders.” I offered a weak, hesitant smile before it faded. “I just mean–yeah.” 

“Well, he was the one to freeze everyone else,” Denny hesitantly pointed out. “Plus, Valdean didn’t show him that note, remember? And if he disappears right now and leaves us like… without any help or whatever, he makes it harder for us to investigate. Maybe he has another body he jumped into, or maybe he’s just inside the computer system itself.” She shrugged uncertainly. “It uhh, it could just be paranoia, but we don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s a robot who went bad. That’s a thing that happens in movies and stuff..”

My mouth opened, then shut as I considered. In the end, Dakota spoke up before I could. “Sure, uhh, yeah, maybe. But umm, you know, how would he, umm… how did he adjust everyone’s memory if that’s what happened? Robots can’t use magic.” 

“But they can use technology,” Denny reminded her. “And a lot of Valdean’s tech stuff looks like magic or does magic-type stuff. Remember, like, this whole place, being in a pocket dimension, the time-freeze, it’s all technology-based, not magic. Maybe Valdean created a memory adjustment gizmo too? One that Sitter’s been using.” 

“Okay, you have a point there,” I admitted. “But still, I don’t think we should lean too hard on ‘Sitter’s the evil one’ just because we can make that fit. He could just as easily be a victim. I…” Grimacing, I looked down at his still, silent, dark form. “If he really is hurt, we’ll feel like shit if we make him our prime suspect. I–we’ll look into it, just in case. But let’s keep an open mind.” 

“What do we do next?” Dakota asked. “I mean, while we’re keeping open minds, how do we actually find any answers? So far we haven’t been doing a very bang-up job, and that was while we had help. Now that he’s… umm… not helping for whatever reason, what’re we supposed to do?”  

“We need to talk to Sesh and Marina,” I pointed out. “First to tell them what happened, and also to find out if they got anything out of talking to the guests.” My expression twisted into one of uncertainty, as I sighed. “Yeah, I know it’s not very likely, but we still need to get on the same page. I just–wish we had anything useful on any of these pages.” My last words came out as a grumble, while I squinted around the room at all the computer stuff. 

Denny raised a hand, tentatively pointing out, “We did find that USB thing in the location tracking computer. They’ve gotta be using that to hide where they are, right?” Her expression fell then. “Too bad we can’t ask Sitter to figure out what areas it’s being used to mask right now.” 

“Yeah, that would be useful,” I agreed, “but I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.” Then I looked at Dakota. “Hang on, you found that instruction manual for this thing. Maybe we could use that to figure out what rooms are being given air and light and all that.” 

The girl looked down at the thick binder she had set on the floor nearby. “Um, maybe. It kinda looks like he wanted people to be able to understand it if anything umm… went wrong. But it’s still pretty complicated. We need Sesh and Marina to look at it too.”

I nodded, looking back at the dark mouth-lights of Sitter before quietly murmuring, “Yeah, like I said, we need to exchange notes with them. But on the other hand, I’m a little afraid to leave this place. What if there’s information in here and one of the three missing people comes in while we’re gone and erases it? I–hang on.” For a brief moment, I considered the emergency alert spell, but I didn’t want Marina and Sesh to think that we were in immediate danger. Especially while they were talking to the other guests. Freaking those people out even more than they already were was probably a bad idea. We had to keep everyone as calm as possible if we were going to maintain any semblance of order and not let the vault devolve into total chaos.

So, instead of doing anything with that, I rose from the floor and moved over to the doorway leading into this place. Once there, I plucked a stone from my pocket. Holding the thing in the palm of my hand, I used my image inscription power to mark the thing with a spell that I’d learned from Shyel. “There,” I announced after triggering it and setting the stone down on the floor just out of sight from someone coming through. Then I waited for a second to see if the orichalcum walls would drain the thing. But apparently as long as I wasn’t putting the spell directly on the walls themselves, it was safe. Probably because Valdean hadn’t wanted to stop people from using magic entirely

Once I was assured that my spell looked as though it would stay, I nodded firmly. “Right then. Now, as soon as we leave, the next person to come in here will set off an alert on this coin that I’ll keep with me.” Holding that up as well as well so they could see it, I added, “There shouldn’t be anyone else coming into this place except for us. So if that alert goes off and we’re not the ones coming in here–” 

“It’s probably the bad guy,” Dakota finished. “Or bad guys. Why do you think there’s three missing people?” 

My head shook. “I’m not sure, but we’ll be sure to ask them as soon as we figure out where they are.” Walking over, I bent down and picked up Sitter’s body. No way was I going to leave him here. If he really was the murderer in all this, leaving his body lying around for him to use again was a bad idea anyway. And even if he wasn’t, letting one of the actual bad guys find it and do whatever with him was a bad idea too. So no, he was coming with us. Luckily, I had enough strength boosts that hoisting him into my arms and carrying the deadweight robot figure wasn’t that hard.

Once we were actually back on the elevator, Denny abruptly made a sound of confusion deep in her throat. “Um, how are we supposed to move this thing? Do uhh, do we have any idea which of these buttons takes us back to the auditorium?” As she asked that, the girl was studying the control panel in front of her with clear bewilderment. 

“I do,” I confirmed. As the other two looked at me, I propped Sitter’s body up in the corner before turning back that way. “I was watching the buttons he was pressing every time we got in this thing. Figured it might be a good idea just in case things went wrong or we had to do it ourselves. Uh, hang on, I think I’ve got the right idea, anyway.” Now that I’d claimed that, I really hoped I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself. So, I exhaled before closing my eyes briefly to focus on what I’d seen our robot companion do. First, I raised one finger to touch the button with what looked like two squiggly lines sort of pointing toward one another. The moment I hit it, the door of the elevator slid shut. Right, so far I was one for one. That was a good record. 

From the corner of my eye as I squinted at the buttons, I saw Denny and Dakota take each other’s hands. Even with the door properly shut as it was supposed to be, it seemed like they weren’t exactly one hundred percent confident in my ability to work this elevator for some reason. Which, well, that was fair. Considering this thing moved like the Willy Wonka elevator, moving forwards and backwards and sideways and–yeah. I could see why this situation might make them a little nervous. I was pretty nervous too, but I had to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing. 

Which once again led me back to that same question from before. Was that what my mom and the other adults were doing all the time? Were they just pretending to know what was going on or how to handle everything? Was all of adulthood just faking your way through things and hoping the entire situation didn’t blow up in a way you couldn’t deal with? Because I had really been looking forward to the moment in my life where I would officially feel like an adult who knew what was going on and could teach others. The idea that might not actually happen, that the entire world–no, the entire universe was just an assortment of people who had lived long enough to sufficiently pretend that they knew what was going on was just… terrifying, really. 

Realizing the other two were starting to get even more nervous as they watched me just stand there, I shook off those thoughts, gave them a smile that was as encouraging as I could manage, and focused on the buttons once more. After watching Sitter work this thing a few times, I had a general idea of how it worked. At least I hoped I did. First, there were four arrow-type buttons. The up arrow meant ‘go up one level’, the down meant to go down a level, the left button directed the elevator to go left one track, and the right button–well, obviously made it go right one track. You were supposed to hit those in the exact order to get to the track you wanted to go to from where you were. For example, if the specific track you wanted was three tracks right, one track up, then one track left, you hit right three times, then up once, then left once. From there, you were supposed to hit the number buttons to get to the exact right room that you wanted on that specific track. 

Thinking intently, I tried to remember the sequence that Sitter had hit on our way down here from the auditorium. All I had to do was reverse that. Hit right where he had hit left, up where he had hit down, and so on. 

I was also trying hard not to think about how screwed it seemed like we were if the simple act of using the elevator was such a big deal. Seriously, how were we supposed to handle this situation when I was considering simply closing the doors of this thing such a triumph? We were in trouble, there was no doubt about it. We didn’t have Sitter helping anymore, and we were completely cut off from any outside assistance. All we had was a bunch of freaked out guests who we couldn’t be absolutely sure were trustworthy, and each other. Marina, Dakota, Denny, Fathsteth’s daughter whom I had only barely met, and me. Yeah, this whole situation could spiral out of control very quickly. 

But hey, at least I remembered the right buttons. At least, I was pretty sure I did. Squaring my shoulders, I just reached out to hit them in what I believed was the right sequence. First each of the opposite arrow buttons from what Sitter had hit to bring us down here, then the same number that I remembered him hitting when he’d taken us to the auditorium to begin with. 

The doors shut, and we were on our way. I crossed my fingers, looking at the other two before coughing once as I saw that they were both doing the same. “I uhh, see, easy-peasy.” I hoped the juxtaposition of me saying that while openly holding up my hands so they could see my crossed fingers was more amusing than terrifying. 

Thankfully, in the end I turned out to be right. The elevator took us through several floors and different tracks, before the doors opened in front of the entrance to the auditorium. Seeing that in front of us, I let out a breath of relief and barely resisted the urge to sag sideways. “And that’s how we do it. We’re here. You uhh, yeah, you guys stay right here with him. Shout if anything happens, I’m gonna go get the others.” I definitely didn’t want to carry his limp and dark body into that room in front of all the guests. Something told me they probably wouldn’t react that well. 

So, leaving the other two there to watch over him, I stepped out. The small hallway was shaped like a U, with the elevator at the bottom of that letter. Moving to the left side led to the audience entrances, while moving to the right led to the backstage area. I moved right, heading through those back rooms and over the stage itself until I could see the main auditorium. The guests were all out there, whispering together in small groups throughout the room about what was going on, what was going to happen to them now that Valdean was gone, and so on. 

Everyone noticed me, of course. All the conversations stopped quickly when they saw that I was there, and I winced a little before focusing on where I could see Sesh and Marina. “Uh, sorry for the interruption, guys. We’ll have some more food brought in as soon as we can, I promise. And like I said before, you don’t have to worry about us. We’ll figure this out and those of you who want to stay, I’m sure Valdean would’ve wanted you to. Sitter can definitely help with that. But uhh, that’s all detail stuff. We’ll get to it. In the meantime, I need to borrow my friends there for just a minute, if you don’t mind.” I tried to keep my voice as calm and casual as possible. From some of the looks I was getting, it wasn’t a complete success. Still, at least no one was openly panicking just yet. 

The other two excused themselves from the conversations they had been having, and came up to join me on the stage. Keeping my voice low, I asked if they had any idea, after spending more time with these people, who we should put in charge for the moment. 

Exchanging a look with Sesh, Marina offered, “I think Jammi could probably do it. She volunteered to be possessed first, after all. And she’s sort of… mothering in a way?” 

Sesh nodded. “Yeah, maybe her and that guy over there.” She nodded toward a short, gray-skinned figure with large red eyes and no visible mouth. “His name’s–” 

“Isolin, I remember,” I confirmed. “He’s a Peusen.” It sounded a bit like ‘poison’ but more like ‘pwahson.’ “Yeah, I think you’re right, he was pretty level-headed when I was… possessing him. Okay, let’s leave them in charge.” 

So, I called those two up and asked them to look after the others and keep everyone calm, promising that we would explain what was going on as soon as we could. The Guhlben woman seemed nervous about the whole situation, but readily agreed to help take care of her fellow guests. And Isolin, ‘speaking’ by making words appear holographically in the air, agreed as well. He could also make solid holographic shapes appear with that same power. 

Hoping everyone would be okay in here for a few minutes, I took Sesh and Marina out to the elevator. On the way, I finally explained what we found, and what happened to Sitter.  

“Wait, hold on, he just shut off after plugging into that system?” Sesh demanded. “That’s not–” She stopped as we reached the elevator itself so she could see the robot in question. “Uhh, that’s not good.” 

“Tell us about it,” Dakota promptly piped up, her face flushing a little immediately afterward. “I mean, uhh, yeah. He still won’t wake up. And I’ve been looking through this manual for the computer system, but it’s really confusing.” She waved the binder helplessly. 

“May I see that?” Marina asked curiously. When the other girl handed it to her, she flipped through it a bit, starting to shake her head. “You’re right, this is pretty–hang on.” 

“What’d you find?” Sesh asked, turning away from where she had been squinting intently at Sitter’s face. “Please say it’s something useful.” 

“The note,” Marina quickly replied, looking back to me. “Can I see the note that was in Mophse’s shoe?” 

Unsure of where she was going with that, I obliged by taking out the folded paper and handing it over to her. “Sure, you think that can help translate whatever language this is?” 

She was quiet for a moment, simply holding the note in one hand while ripping through the binder with the other. Then she shook her head, voice quiet. “It’s not a language.” Clearing her throat, she looked up at the rest of us and repeated, “It’s not a language. Look. The letters–I mean what we thought were letters. It’s actually wiring inside the computer system. See? Like this bit right here, it looks like that letter Q with the tail on both sides and the circle in the middle. It wasn’t a letter at all. None of them are. They’re all different shapes of the wiring inside that system. This note isn’t a sentence, it’s like… a series of diagrams of the computer interior.”

She was right, I realized after making a few other comparisons. “Wait, so Mophse was walking around with a piece of paper that had a bunch of different images of the wiring inside the computer system in his pocket, along with a date for two days after he was killed? I mean, no wonder Valdean didn’t need to ask Sitter what language it was. There was no language at all, just wiring specs. But why? Why would he have that at all?

“And more importantly, are those specs the reason someone killed him?” 

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Growth 18-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay, did… did we just step into the largest murder conspiracy ever?” Marina managed to be the first one of us who found her voice after we were all struck dumb by the completely baffling array of hands raised before us. 

That was the thing. The fact that there were so many hands raised appeared to be baffling not only to us, but from the look of things, to the audience themselves as well. The assembled group were all standing there with their hands raised while looking around at one another and talking all at once. They were arguing with one another, demanding explanations, denying those explanations, crying in guilt, confusion, or disbelief, and just plain raising a commotion that was getting louder with every passing second. 

“Uh, Denny, I think you can tell them to put their hands down now,” I whispered, still reeling from this turn of events. They had all been part of these murders? That didn’t even make sense. The sheer–how? 

“Oh, r-right.” Clearly just as taken aback as the rest of us, Denny quickly told everyone they could put their hands down, but still not to hurt anyone. That didn’t stop the arguing spreading through the room, however. If anything, it just got louder as people turned to one another and started loudly demanding and/or desperately pleading that they stop lying and covering for them. 

I focused on one pair, a Rakshasa male and a purple slime-like creature, both shouting over one another to insist that they themselves were the killer, not the other person. A few feet past them, a Guhlben (one of the enormous, obese beings who stood ten feet tall and several feet wide) female in a very pretty dress was tightly gripping the shoulders of a pair of much smaller Satyrs while sobbing hysterically in between insisting that they shouldn’t take the fall for her. The Satyrs, meanwhile, were each shouting back at her that they were the one responsible, then looking at one another to blurt that no the other one wasn’t, they themselves were. 

And so on and so forth it went throughout the entire audience. Everyone was confessing to the murder and insisting that the other people weren’t responsible, it was only them. And the more they argued, the louder the arguing got. Not to mention the crying. A few of them shouted in our direction that the Heretics should take them, and leave the others alone. Which only made their friends loudly and frantically insist that they were the murderer. And it all just got louder from there. 

Finally, an earsplitting whistle filled the air, carrying on for a few seconds as it drowned out everyone and got their attention. It was Marina, standing up at the edge of the stage. She kept up the whistle until the whole audience finally turned to face us once more, quieting down for the moment. Which just left us standing there facing an audience of confessed murderers who were clearly just as confused about this entire situation as we were. 

“Okay,” Sesh announced dully while we stared around the room at all that. “I’m just gonna say it, this is pretty fucking weird.” 

“You’re right about that,” Marina agreed, her gaze shifting first toward Denny and Dakota, who were standing together looking baffled, then to Sesh and me. “What’re we gonna do now?” 

My mouth opened, then I stopped and glanced toward Sitter. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what’s going on here? I mean, without going into too much detail, these guys should’ve only been able to tell the truth when Denny asked if they were responsible for those deaths. They can’t all be responsible. Especially since they’re arguing with each other about it. That’s impossible.” 

“Maybe the power isn’t working anymore?” Denny offered hesitantly. She sounded rather conflicted about the possibility, glancing down at her own hands as though there would be answers in her palms. “Maybe it broke.” 

“I’m pretty sure if it broke, they wouldn’t have raised their hands at all,” Dakota pointed out. “Or only some of them would’ve. Not… not all of them.” Frowning in confusion, she glanced to the audience, who were starting to murmur amongst themselves once more, clearly desperate to go back to arguing about which of them would be taking the blame for these murders. 

Sitter, for his part, simply shook his head while those mouth lights shifted to a light amber. “I confess, Lady Flick, I am quite at a loss. It cannot possibly be all of them, and yet if, as you say, they would be incapable of lying in response to Lady Denny’s question, then the only answer is that–” 

“They all believe they were the ones responsible,” I finished for him, squinting a bit as I turned back to the audience. “Okay, umm… uh, don’t worry, people! We’re gonna get to the bottom of this, and uhh, and no one’s gonna go killing anybody else. We’ll figure this out.” 

God, this was weird. It felt weird. Why was I the one talking to these people? I was just a kid, there should be an adult here to talk to the audience, work all this out, and… and handle it. Yes, I’d been through a lot. I’d had to handle a lot. A hell of a lot, really. And yet somehow, being right here, talking to people and trying to calm them down like this felt like far more of an ‘adult thing’ than actually fighting in life and death battles did. Was it just because I was accustomed to the fighting part? Standing here, talking as though I had any sort of authority whatsoever, it just… it just felt awkward. It felt like they could all see through me, like everyone standing out there could see that I was just a confused little girl who had no idea what I was doing. 

“Flick.” Dakota’s voice was a whisper as she touched my arm. “It’s okay, you know? We can handle this.” 

It was like she knew me. She had known in a glance that I had been mentally spiraling right there. Managing a shaky smile, I nodded and straightened up a bit. I was acting like I had some level of authority because we were the ones who were here. So we had to handle it. There weren’t any adults here. 

No, that wasn’t right either. There were adults. I was one of them. So was Marina. Sesh too, I was pretty sure. We had to step up, take control of the situation, and figure this out. 

And then it struck me. As I stood in front of that audience of people staring at me for direction and answers, I realized why this, of all things, had made me instinctively look for an adult more than much more dangerous and life-threatening situations. Being on a spaceship flying into battle, facing down a horrifying Necromancer who had abducted my mother, dealing with a psychopathic Seosten cunt who wanted to rip my face off and kill my friends, none of that had any connection to my childhood self. It was all so utterly removed from anything the young me would have been involved with that it was like we were two entirely different people. 

But this? Yes, the details were completely absurd and removed from Bystander Flick’s reality, of course. But the more general part, that was a different story. Really, what was this? Remove the supernatural and alien aspects, remove all magic and extra-dimensional stuff, and it was a mystery. It was a mystery like the ones I had often gotten involved with back in Laramie Falls. Okay, not really like those, given my childhood mysteries didn’t tend to run all the way to one murder, let alone two. Still, though, that was what I did back then. I butt my nose into things, as more than one person from back then would’ve said. This situation right here wasn’t about fighting for my life, or about saving the world, or a desperate struggle for survival. It wasn’t about any of that. 

It was about a mystery. And in all of my old mysteries, I’d always had an adult to fall back on, an adult to point at the bad guy. I’d had a safety net, someone who could step in and take charge when the time came. But here, now, it was just us. We were the adults. I was eighteen years old. 

So how long would it be before I stopped feeling like I was faking the whole adult thing and started to actually believe I was one? When would the switch activate that made me feel like the adult I was supposed to be? 

Shaking that off as the thoughts rushed through my mind in a quick moment, I focused on the audience. “Right, so here’s the thing. You all think you were responsible for these murders, and obviously you can’t all be. Wait, hang on. I’m just gonna check something real quick.” Turning to Denny, I whispered what I wanted her to ask next. 

“Um, okay.” Looking hesitant, the younger girl cleared her throat before trying again. “My name is Denise, would everyone who believes they are solely responsible for the murder of Valdean Ecclestone or Mophse Kanter, without any help from anyone else, raise your hand? And if you do not believe you’re responsible, don’t raise your hand.” 

As expected (yet still baffling) by that point, every person in that audience promptly did so. Their hands shot up in the air like they were popping out of a jack-in-the-box. And of course, all of them immediately turned to argue with their neighbors, their friends. 

Before that could get out of control again, I loudly spoke up once more. “Okay! Okay, I think it’s obvious that this is impossible. You all believe you murdered these guys, and that you each did so alone. Clearly that’s not a thing. So it’s magic. It has to be magic. Someone… I think someone must’ve used a spell to make each of you think you were the killer. So just calm down, alright? At least ninety-nine percent of you are not the bad guy here, someone just used magic to make you think you were. And we’re gonna figure this out.” 

If I expected that to calm them down, I was sorely mistaken. Everyone started talking at once again. Some were arguing that I was wrong, they really were the killer and had to be stopped before they hurt someone else, while others were demanding to know who could’ve put that sort of spell on them, pointing fingers one way or another to others in the group. It remained one big chaotic mess. 

Hey!” Sesh shouted loud enough to be heard over all the arguing. As everyone turned that way, she added, “You all want to find out who really murdered those two, right? You wanna know who the bad guy is, who killed your friends and put a spell on the rest of you to blame yourselves for it?” When everyone out there gave murmurs and nods of agreement with that, she gestured. “Well, we’re trying to help with that. But you’ve gotta calm down for a minute. Stop shouting all at once, dudes. You’re not helping anything.” 

Coughing, I nodded along with that. “She’s right, we need to take this one bit at a time. If everyone would please sit down, we’ll try something else.” 

“Who are you?” one of the guests demanded. He, and everyone else, were already starting to resume their seats amidst more confused muttering. When he put voice to that particular question, all of them focused on me. “You’re a Heretic, right? One of the rebels? We heard something about rebels.” 

Oh boy, was that a complicated question. “That’s… a lot to get into,” I replied slowly. “My name is Flick Chambers. And yeah, I’m part of the Heretic rebellion. This is Sesh. These two are Denny and Dakota, as you heard. The girl over there with the great whistle is Marina. We’re here to help. There’s a lot more we need to get into, but first we need to find out exactly what happened here. So, for that, I’m gonna ask for a volunteer. Do all of you know who the Seosten are?” There was a general confirmation of that amongst the group, so I continued. “I have a Seosten’s power to possess people. Which means I can read your mind and see your memories. I want to do that, with each of you, one at a time. I want to see what you remember about what happened and compare all of your… versions.” I could see them getting nervous, shifting in their seats and looking at one another. “But I’ll only do it with your permission. And I’ll only be looking for stuff revolving around the murders, that’s all. Everything else is your business. This is just about finding out who… who killed Valdean and Mophse.” I felt a twinge of guilt about saying that so bluntly to people who had only just found out about the death of their benefactor, someone they clearly cared about a lot given their reactions throughout all this, but I really had no idea how else to phrase it. We had to find answers as quickly and efficiently as possible, before this situation spiraled out of control. If this whole group panicked, everything would get worse. I had to sound like I knew what I was doing. I had to be matter-of-fact and in control. That’s what these people needed right now. Even if I was faking it the entire time, they had to think I was calm and collected. They needed blunt, because they needed to believe this was something I could handle.

Pausing to let that settle in for a moment, I exchanged a glance with the others before speaking again. “Does anyone want to volunteer to be first? My friends here can walk through and talk to the rest of you about what you think happened in the meantime.” 

To my relief, after a few seconds of uncertainty, the Guhlben woman raised her hand while rising to her full height. “I ahh, I would like to submit myself for evaluation, madam,” she announced in a rather posh voice. “If as it turns out, the guilt I feel over those dreadful murders is mere sorcerous chicanary, I shall be greatly relieved.” 

She made her way around the assembled group, having been at the back of the room due to being one of the biggest people there. I heard and saw several of them murmur encouragement to her, belief that she wasn’t the killer, urging her to let them go first instead, and so on. 

“These people really care about each other, don’t they?” Denny murmured behind me. 

“Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit,” Sitter noted with pride in his voice, his mouth lights shifting to a bright green briefly before fading to a softer shade. “We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”

“Sir Sitter is absolutely correct right there,” the Guhlben woman announced, having approached the front of the stage by that point. She was still standing on the audience floor, yet she was so tall that she was still looking down toward me. “We are all family here. Granted, it’s a large family and we may not all be best friends. But we are family. Thinking about what I did to poor Mophse… and Valdean, I just–” She had started to tear up before catching herself. “But ah, if those… if those awful memories aren’t true, I would be very happy to hear it.” 

Offering her as reassuring of a smile as I could, I replied, “Well, that’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of right now, Miss umm…?” 

“Oh dear me,” she blurted, sounding positively scandalized. “I am so sorry. How awfully rude. I am Jamnikrah, but my friends here most often call me Jammi. Or Aunt Jammi. It’s… I can’t yet say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, given the terrible circumstances, but you all seem quite pleasant.” She added that with a little wave toward Dakota and Denny, both of whom waved back to her seemingly reflexively. 

“Okay, Miss Jammi,” I replied while continuing to offer that hopefully at least somewhat reassuring smile, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll just do that possession thing real quick. Be in and out, promise.” While saying that, I raised my hand that way. I didn’t reach out to touch her fully. Better that that be her decision, so it wouldn’t feel like I was taking her control away just as I was… sort of taking her control away.  

There was a moment of hesitation, understandable given what she was opening herself up to, before the large woman carefully raised her hand and touched it against mine. “If there’s something in my memories that can tell you who killed those two, please find it.” 

“I will.” Trying to sound confident when I said that, I glanced toward the others. “You guys talk to everyone here, try to get them organized into some sort of line or something, and see what they can tell you before I get to them. With so many people, this is gonna take awhile.” And with that, I focused on the possession power, disappearing into the Guhlben woman. 

Right, now I was inside her. I could feel her surface emotions and thoughts. She was terrified that she had been the one to kill the nice man who had been so kind and understanding to her, who had taught her so much of how she enjoyed presenting herself. He had seen past her species’ innate… size and helped her to feel proud of who she was and what she looked like. He gave her this pretty dress, and others like it. He taught her how to style her hair, and watched fashion shows with her. He didn’t judge and dismiss her. He took time with her, listened to her thoughts on the books they read, even offered feedback on her own short stories. She loved the man. Not in a romantic sense but more of a mix between a brother and a father. The news that he had been murdered had sent her reeling–no. She’d known he was dead, because she killed him. 

It was that confusing sudden turn that brought me up short. That wasn’t right. None of it was. One second she was reeling in horror from the revelation that this man who had been so important to her was dead, and the next, she was thinking about how she’d had no choice but to kill him. 

Needless to say, I dove a bit deeper into that and focused on her memories revolving first around Mophse’s murder. It was an accident. The man had found out that she had once unknowingly been part of the muscle for a group whose actions had led to the death of Valdean’s close friend. She’d only recently (at the time) realized who this friend was while talking to their host in his apartment area. Realizing that Mophse had overheard her talking to herself about it shortly afterward, she was terrified that he was going to tell Valdean and the man would kick her out of this place for the past transgression, that he would never forgive her. She found him in the sauna and tried to reason with him. He argued that Valdean would understand, that it was worse to keep things secret. She insisted the man could never know. The argument rose to the level of a fight before either of them knew it was happening. She kept telling him to just promise to be quiet about it. She was behind him, pulling the man back against her. He was yanking her hair, reaching up and back to shove his fingers in her eyes. She grabbed for a towel and wrapped it over his mouth while half-blinded by his grasping fingers. Bellowing and straining, she tried to yank the towel tightly in his mouth just so he would have to be quiet for a second and listen to her. 

But it wasn’t his mouth. She realized that too late. The towel was around his throat, and he… and he… died before she understood what she was doing. 

As for Valdean, that had been even more of an accident, a mistake. He’d unexpectedly called for her to see him in the kitchen, and she became paranoid that he knew what she’d done before. She took the pistol, long-squirreled away in her belongings, in the panicked hope that if he wanted her to die, she could protect herself. When she went into the kitchen, seeing Valdean with his back to her as he casually got food out of the fridge, she realized it had to be safe. But when she tried to put the gun away before he noticed, it accidentally went off. 

Yeah, there were holes in that whole thing. I noticed right away. For one, when I went digging deeper for this gang she had supposedly run with, leading to the death of Valdean’s friend, there were very few memories. They all turned blank and vague after that first quick glance. Not to mention the fact that she was too tall to have choked him from a downward position that way the body actually looked like. 

Oh, and there was the fact that she had no memory of changing everyone else’s memories. Which, yes, could have been because she had changed her own memories as well and erased those ones. For that matter, she could have specifically implanted easily disproven memories in her own head in order to look innocent, a sort of double-bluff. It would make sense for anyone who was trying to hide themselves. I really wished Sariel was here to do this stuff. Or even Tabbris. They would’ve been a hell of a lot better at sifting through these minds and finding buried or hidden memories than I was. 

But I was who we had. So, I gave another quick look through those relevant bits before thanking the woman. Then I emerged. 

“Are you okay?” Marina asked. She was standing nearby, with an assortment of people she had been talking to. The others were spread through the room. They were clearly still getting organized. 

I started to answer, then realized she wasn’t really asking me. Her focus was on Jammi. 

“Oh, I… I am ashamed, but well,” the woman assured her. 

“You shouldn’t be ashamed,” I informed her. “I’m pretty sure those memories are planted. There’s a lot of inconsistencies.” With a sigh, I looked out over the assembled group. If they all had altered memories like that, digging through and finding anything useful this way was going to be a nightmare. And yet, it was the quickest way I could think of. I just had to keep at it, going through memory after memory, thought after thought, until something big popped out. Or, more likely, until a bunch of small things popped out and we put them together like a giant puzzle. There were almost three hundred people here. This was going to take hours. 

“You know,” I murmured mostly to myself while looking out at the crowd and thinking about just how long this was going to take, “I think I know why detectives on TV are always drinking so much coffee.” 

“Is it so they have an excuse to run to the bathroom a lot and freak out in private about all the horrible stuff they’re hearing where nobody can see them?” Dakota piped up while she and Denny came closer. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I let my head tilt slightly. “Okay, two reasons. But come on, we’ve got a lot of people to talk to.

“And something tells me none of these memories are going to be pleasant to sit through.” 

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