After punching in the buttons that Perrsnile had written on his list of how to get to the area where we thought our missing trio were hiding out, we immediately heard the chime indicating that there was another elevator car in the way that would have to be moved. As soon as that happened, the two of us looked at each other knowingly. More evidence that someone was down there.
With a sigh, I slumped back against the wall before looking over at Marina. “Well, this whole thing isn’t exactly the nice, quiet break I was expecting it to be. How about you?”
She visibly and audibly snorted before looking over at me with a very slight smile. “Honestly, at this point, can you be that surprised? I’ve only been on the periphery of all of this, and even I know this seems to be par for the course when it comes to your life.” After saying that, she reached out to touch my shoulder. “But how are you doing with that? I mean… it has to be a lot to go through sometimes. This universe seems bound and determined to force you into having interesting and terrifying moments all the time. It just seems like it would be… overwhelming.”
My hand found hers on my shoulder and I squeezed it before shrugging. “At least I don’t get bored? And I get to help people. I mean, yeah, this sort of thing can be scary, yet if we weren’t here, all these people would still be waiting for someone to let them out of stasis and find that killer. So, I’m kind of okay with it. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather be dealing with this than something like Kushiel, or the Whispers. We just take it a little bit at a time.”
Shaking her head slowly, Marina offered me a quiet, “You are pretty unique, Felicity Chambers. That’s probably why the universe keeps putting you in these situations anyway, because you can handle it. Better than I could, anyway,” she muttered that while glancing away.
My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t say that. You’re pretty amazing. Come on, the way you got those kids out of the daycare and made sure neither side could use them as hostages, that was incredible. You barely found out what was happening, and you still jumped to protect them. All of them. Hell, you knocked out one of the adults and took the kids before anyone could react, and then you made sure they went back to their parents safely. You protected them, and now you’re here protecting and watching over all these kids at Wonderland. Seriously, Marina, you’re doing great. I can’t even imagine being in your situation and keeping those kids safe the way you did. I’m sorry we didn’t trust you enough last year to tell you about what was really going on. If we had, maybe we’d be in even better shape.”
Her gaze met mine, before she swallowed. “I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if you did. I want to think I would’ve done the right thing, I just…” A sigh escaped her. “Looking backwards probably doesn’t help. I’m here, and I want to help now.” Glancing forward to the doors as the elevator began to slow, she added quietly, “Before anyone else in here gets murdered.”
Right, time to focus. With my staff held tightly in one hand, I gave the other girl a nudge toward the opposite side of the elevator while stepping the other way. When the doors opened, I didn’t want either of us standing in what could be the direct line of fire. Speaking of which, with a quick pair of words and a hand on both my own shoulder and the other on Marina’s, I activated the bullet-protection spell I’d learned last year. It would slow down any projectile coming at us and make them basically harmless. Not a perfect solution against things we might be facing, but every little bit helped.
Meanwhile, as I was doing that, Marina wasn’t twiddling her thumbs. She brought two enchanted coins from her own pocket, using one on herself and one on me. Her spell was an upgraded version of that fresh air enchantment. It surrounded our heads with what felt like gentle air conditioning, pumping safe oxygen from somewhere else in the building while simultaneously keeping anything harmful away from us. If our secret, hidden adversaries thought they could poison us, they were in for a surprise on that front as well.
And yet, as the doors opened, we didn’t face a hail of bullets or a cloud of poison. We didn’t face… anything, really. There was an empty room ahead of us with a couple doorways leading off in various directions. The floor, walls, and ceiling all seemed to be made of hard cement, like this place was an unfinished basement. I could hear what sounded like voices coming from a room to the right, but they didn’t sound anxious or angry. It sounded more like… romantic confessions. Huh.
Marina had her three-pointed spear-like corseque out as well, and the two of us exchanged glances. Rather than going straight out there, the first thing I did was activate one of the privacy spell coins so nobody could eavesdrop on us. Then I pointed my staff and, with a whisper, made Jaq drop off the end. The little mouse cyberform went scurrying through the room in front of us, heading for the doorway. As he moved, I touched the bracelet on my arm and focused. Suddenly, I was able to see through his eyes. It was a little toy I’d first gotten from Broker, and then had replaced thanks to Columbus, Tabbris, and Nevada. Not only could I see what my mice saw, but even teleport to where they were. Or teleport them back to me. Again, very useful.
At the moment, Jaq was approaching the doorway. As he peeked into the next room, I saw boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. Well, metal crates mostly. They were stacked clear to the very high ceiling, leading back in several rows to form aisles that stretched too far for to see all the way to the ends. But I could see who was talking. Or rather, what. There was a television in one corner of the room, where several empty armchairs sat facing it. On the TV was some sort of romantic comedy. Two of the chairs had been turned to face one another, in a way that looked like it had been done hastily and recently, as if someone had grabbed and shoved them around so they could face each other and talk.
This looked like people had been sitting there as recently as a few seconds earlier. Probably just before the elevator had arrived. Fuck. Yeah, they’d probably heard it, which meant they could have run away to hide, or have gotten ready to ambush us. So, we had to be even more careful about this. We had no idea who these people were, or even what species they were. We had no idea what they were capable of. This was not a fun situation to be walking into.
So, we wouldn’t walk into it. Instead, I sent Jaq scurrying to the far opposite corner of that second room, looking around rapidly as he went just in case he might be able to spot someone hiding. But there was no sign of anyone. At the same time, I let Gus drop off my staff, crouching to attach a small bead to the back of his head before sending him off to one of the other doors in the first room. As soon as he was out of sight and Jaq was safely in a corner of the first room, I shifted my bracelet to let me look through Gus’s eyes as well. That bit led to a hall with three doorways in it, so he scurried along one edge of the wall, peering in the first door to find an empty bathroom, the second to find what looked like small kitchen (equally absent of any obvious people), and the third to find another enormous storage area full of crates.
“Are we ready for this?” I whispered toward Marina. Not that whispering was strictly necessary, given the whole privacy spell thing. But still, it felt right. At the same time, I dropped a coin in the corner of the elevator. It was the same sort of alarm spell I’d left upstairs in the server room. So if anyone stepped in here and tried to leave, we’d know.
Marina, for her part, exhaled before nodding. “Ready when you are. Remember, shout out if you see anything. You’ve got the layout memorized?”
My head bobbed. Sure, the floorplan we’d received obviously didn’t account for everything. It didn’t show us where the crates were and didn’t even let us know about those rooms on the side being a bathroom and kitchen (which itself seemed pretty odd to have down in a storage area), but still. We had a general idea of where all the rooms were and how to get from one to another. Which would have to be good enough.
So, we both gave one final nod to one another. Then I activated the bracelet to send me over to where Jaq was, in that corner of the first big room. At the same time, Marina would be using one of her own powers. That bead I had put on Gus was one she had created. The beads allowed her to transport herself to wherever they were. In an instant, we would both vanish from the elevator and reappear right where the mice were. Anyone hoping to ambush us coming through the elevator doors would end up with a big surprise, hopefully. It was better than just stumbling right into a trap, anyway.
The second I appeared, I summoned Jaq back onto my staff and crouched, my gaze snapping around the room. Nothing. I saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary. Even when I shifted my vision over to infrared, there was no sign of anyone. I was starting to think whoever had been sitting in those chairs had gone for the ‘retreat and hide’ option rather than the ambush one. That or they were invisible, standing just out of range of my item sense, and waiting to–
Pushing that paranoia aside, I forced myself to focus. With my staff held at the ready, I sent a cloud of sand flying out. Not as an attack. Instead, I made the cloud spread out to fill as much of the space as possible, with only a little bit of it every few inches. With a thought, I sent the grains soaring through the room. If there was anyone hiding invisibly, my sand would (probably) bump into them and give their location away. And since I had control of it, I would detect that.
While my sand was searching the room, I turned to face the various rows of stacked crates. Ignoring the sound of the television still loudly blaring those ‘comedic and romantic’ misunderstandings, I swiftly but silently made my way along the front of those crate stacks. Still feeling the soft air conditioner-like effect of the oxygen spell, I looked down each aisle. I was splitting my attention between my item-sense, my own eyes, and the sand grains that had mostly covered the entire room by that point. Still, nothing stood out. The room seemed clear.
Well, if nothing else, the people who had been sitting in here right before we arrived clearly weren’t incompetent when it came to hiding. Which was just fantastic, really. Hell, for all I knew, they were inside one of these crates. But, I was on top of that as well, at least to an extent. Quickly moving down the first aisle, I reached out to brush my hand along each of the lower crates. As soon as my fingers touched the metal, I focused on my ability to see through objects in order to peer inside. As promised, the crates were full of baby supplies and other random bits and pieces. Including toys for what seemed like kids all the way up to age ten or so. Which just reminded me that we hadn’t seen any children in this place so far. Was there a reason for that, or was it just a coincidence? Clearly Valdean had been prepared to have kids around the vault, or even hoped for it, given all these supplies. Either way, I kept moving, using everything I had to search the room as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was using my item-sense to make sure no one could sneak up on me, sending my sand into every corner of the room to check for invisible people, touching every crate I could reach in order to look inside them with that power. Not to mention just plain keeping my eyes and ears open. Nothing. There was nothing and no one in here as far as I could tell.
It seemed to take forever for me to assure myself that there was no one hiding in this place. But, it was probably only a couple minutes once I got going. Still, it felt like too long. I kept half-expecting to hear the elevator alarm go off as someone snuck around us and tried to leave. But that was silent as well. Nor did I hear anything coming from Marina, so she apparently hadn’t found anything either. Whoever was down here, they were probably hiding further back in.
Part of me just wanted to get this whole thing over with. If the three people down here wanted to fight, let them jump out and try. At least that would lead to answers, one way or another. I really wanted to know the truth about what actually happened in this place, and this trio, whatever or whoever they might be, were obviously our best chance at getting those answers. But the longer this search went on, the more impatient I felt. Which was a feeling I had to rather intently push aside. Getting impatient would lead to mistakes, and mistakes would lead to… problems. The people in here were counting on us to find these murderers. And I was damn sure gonna do my best to make sure that happened. Both for them and for the victims. Valdean and Mophse deserved justice too. They deserved to be alive more, but at least I could make sure their killer, or killers, didn’t go free.
All of that passed through my mind as I checked the table near the television. There were a couple coffee cups there, and sure enough, they were still warm enough to give off steam. Just as I’d thought, the people who had been sitting here ran away right when the elevator arrived.
From there, I turned and started moving to a single door at the back corner of the room. From the floorplan I’d seen, this would lead to another large room, perpendicular to this one (wide where this one was long). There were two doors leading into that place. The first was the one I was going through, while the other was at the end of a short corridor which led out from one of the rooms on the opposite side, where Marina had gone. This whole assortment of rooms made one loop, and the two of us were going to meet in the middle right where this other large storage space was.
If these people were hiding down here, it had to be in that room. One way or another, we were about to find them.
Approaching the door into that last room, I scanned the area around it carefully. If there was any time for there to be some sort of trap, this was it. The walls were the same orichalcum as everywhere else in the vault, so they wouldn’t allow spells to be drawn on them, or for people to phase through them. But I had gotten around that by enchanting other things and leaving them near the doors, and I had no reason to believe I was the only one who could think of that.
So, I carefully examined every inch of the entrance on this side, but found nothing. Next, I sent a small bit of sand through the crack under the door and used that to scout out the area on that side. Just like how I had searching the rest of the room behind me, if anything had been there, I would be able to feel it simply because my sand would have been stopped from moving. As best as I could tell with a quick bit of blind map-by-touch, there was nothing but the ordinary doorway there.
Next, I took a coin and held it long enough to mark the thing so I could see and hear through it. Then I shrank it down so it was practically invisible and gave the thing a light toss through that crack as well. Instantly, I focused on where it was as the coin slid to a stop. The view wasn’t exactly great, as I mostly saw the ceiling in the other room. But there was enough peripheral vision for me to see that there was no one standing anywhere near this doorway, and there didn’t seem to be any weapons or enchantments that I had missed with my sand.
Finally, as satisfied as I could be that the doorway into this last area was safe, I shifted my focus to see through Gus’s eyes once more to check on how Marina was doing. As soon as she teleported over there, she would have picked my little mouse buddy up to set on her shoulder so we could keep somewhat in contact. Apparently she was both done with the search, and had satisfied herself that her own doorway was clear, because she was standing near that last entrance leading into the big room, watching my mouse as she clearly waited for confirmation.
So, I gave it to her by activating the sound recording I had left on Gus, using the power I’d gotten way back from the guard in that prison camp when I’d been transported along with Roxa, Sands, and the others into Seosten space. As soon as I focused on that, Marina would hear my voice whisper, “Ready.”
She, in turn, met my gaze through Gus’s eyes and gave a short nod before holding up three fingers. Then two fingers. Then a single finger.
When she lowered that last finger, both of us moved. I reared back and then kicked in the door that I had just spent all that time making sure was safe. It popped open under the force of my blow, as I lunged right through. The rest of my sand came with me, and instantly spread out through this even larger storage room. There were at least twice as many big metal crates in this one as there had been in the last. Which meant even more places to hide. But my sand was already shooting out in every direction as I used it to search for invisible figures while scanning the room intently. With a thought, I shifted my vision back to infrared so I could check for heat signatures as well. Nothing jumped out immediately, but my guard was up as I turned in a slow circle, scanning every which way. On the other side of the room, I could see and hear Marina doing her own search with her mix of mundane and enhanced senses and powers.
Then, I felt it. In one corner of the room, near one of the larger crates, someone was standing while invisible. A couple grains of my sand found their foot and leg. Before giving them a chance to realize they’d been found, I summoned Gus back to my staff, spinning that way while creating a portal behind the figure. A portal which I shoved my staff through and triggered a blast of concussive force. At the same time, I shouted, “Here!” Then I was lunging that way.
In the background, I heard Marina shout as well. Before I could think too much about it, I was already catching hold of the invisible figure as they were knocked forward by the blast from my staff. They struggled, but I spun, using that momentum to throw them on the floor. My foot came down on their back before I put the blade of my staff right up to their neck. “Stop!” I blurted. “Turn visible. Do–”
Then I blinked, because nearby, Marina was wrestling with her own figure. She got the person down, pointing that corseque at them before triggering a button on the shaft. As she did so, a pair of massive glowing hardlight… bear paws emerged from the floor on either side of where the other person apparently was, before closing around them. Another gesture from Marina’s weapon made a third bear paw join the first two, this one coming out of the nearby wall rather than the floor before joining its fellows in holding the invisible person down.
Well, okay then. I’d been wondering what that corseque could do.
The figure under me had relented, no longer struggling. A moment later, he turned visible, and I saw a dark blue, scaled figure wearing black leather pants and a loose-fitting gray shirt. He twisted his head around to look at me, and I saw a round face with a pronounced nose that had three nostrils, six eyes, each about half the size of a normal human eye and arranged in a line all across the front of that face, and a vertically-slit mouth that ran from the bottom of that three-nostriled nose all the way down over his chin.
The figure Marina had captured, meanwhile, was something akin to an orc, but with bright, neon orange, gaudy-looking skin and only one eye. Which itself took up fully three-quarters of his slightly oversized head.
“Okay,” I started, “we know there’s three of you down here. Where’s the other one?” Even as I said that, I kept my staff blade close to the blue guy’s neck while scanning the room, anticipating an attack.
“Only these two now, I’m afraid,” another voice announced from nearby. My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see… a human ghost appear. An elderly-looking woman, figure tinted light grayish-blue.
“I would shake your hand, Necromancer. But I’m afraid my supposed bodyguard you’re standing on there murdered me.”
“Okay, wait, hold on.” I was holding up both hands while my brain struggled to comprehend what was happening. There were two living people down here, one of whom I had pinned while Marina was pinning the other one. And there was a ghost. A ghost who said that her bodyguard, the guy currently pinned under my staff, had killed her. Just what the hell was going on around here?
Marina, after casting a quick glance my way, turned back to the ghost woman. She didn’t move to release the guy she had trapped with those solid light bear paws just yet. “Your bodyguard killed you? Are these guys both your bodyguards? Oh, and who are you guys?”
“Yeah, some names and an explanation would be nice,” I agreed. “Cuz from where we’re standing, you three are the only suspects for two other murders in this place, and if this guy killed you…” I looked down at the blue-scaled, six-eyed figure still held at the tip of my staff blade. “Maybe he killed them too.”
“No,” the Alter himself insisted without moving much. “The murderer was Ausesh.” His chin inclined very slightly toward the ghost woman. “She killed Mophse and Valdean.” The man’s voice had a Middle Eastern accent, which was kind of interesting. “She killed them to hide far more vile crimes.”
“I’m afraid my companion is rather sorely mistaken, in more than one way.” That protest came from the other Alter, the neon-orange Orc-Cyclops guy still trapped by Marina. His own voice was more of an upscale British accent, which was even more interesting than the first guy. “The true criminal and monster within this vault has already been eliminated. I killed Valdean myself, before he could do any more harm than he already had.”
Well that made me do a quick double-take, staring that way while tightening my grip on the staff. “Hold on, did you just confess to killing Valdean and Mophse?”
“I did not murder poor Mophse,” came the crisp response. “Only Valdean. Mophse was murdered by that man himself, for the crime of investigating his dark secrets.”
“That is wrong!” the guy I had captured snapped back. “Valdean was an innocent! The monster was our employer, that foul woman there. She is the one who killed Mophse. But now she has been eliminated and will cause no more harm!”
“Uhh.” Marina opened and shut her mouth before looking at me a bit helplessly. “Flick?”
My head shook a few times before I managed to find my voice. “Let me get this straight. Hold on, actually, why don’t all three of you introduce yourselves and then we’ll go from there.” Looking at the ghost woman, I squinted intently. I could feel the necromantic energy there. It would be easy for me to stop her from going anywhere, and to feel if she was about to move. For the moment, she just stayed where she was. “The guy here said your name is Ausesh?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “He is Gliner. That one over there is Archibold.” Her head nodded toward the Orc-Cyclops guy for the second one. “They were hired to be my protectors. More fool me.”
That made both of her ‘bodyguards’ start to object and talk over one another, but I quickly gave a sharp whistle to cut them off. “Okay! Ausesh, Gliner, and Archibold, got it. Now, let me see if I’ve got this straight. And no interruptions. Gliner, you say that Ausesh is the one who killed Mophse for some reason.” He started to say something and I shook my head, giving him a sharp look before continuing. “So you killed her. Which is why she’s a ghost right now. And Archibold…” My gaze turned to look at Marina’s guy. “You say Valdean is the one who killed Mophse. And you also say that you killed Valdean. Do I have that all right? Gliner killed Ausesh because he thinks she killed Mophse, and Archibold killed Valdean because he thinks he killed Mophse.”
“I am afraid there is a lot more to the situation than the murder of one man, though poor Mophse is very much a victim of our secret-holding host,” Archibold put in. “But ah, would you mind allowing us to sit up properly? Tis terribly difficult for one to hold a conversation in such a position. I assure you, neither of us mean you any harm, despite our disagreement over the ultimate villain of this situation.”
“Yes,” Gliner put in, “because I have already stopped the one who would mean you harm.”
Thinking about that for a second, I gestured toward Marina. “Weapons first. He has a collapsible sword on his left leg about midway up, a pistol on his back, a baton on his right leg, and a taser thing strapped to his back.” All of that was thanks to my item-sense, which also allowed me to relieve my own guy of his assortment of weapons. Once we had them all, I stepped back and gestured. “You can both sit up, but don’t stand. And don’t try anything. I’m sure you know we’re both Heretics, and while we do think of ourselves as more open-minded than the Loyalists back at Crossroads, we can still be a bit jumpy sometimes. We wouldn’t want to overreact.”
Marina removed the bear paws from her guy, and both of them slowly sat up, shifting a little to get comfortable. Once they were ready, I went on. “To continue the whole politeness thing, I’m Flick. This is Marina. Now, since you can’t both be right about who the bad guy around here is… or was, I think we need more information.” My gaze moved to the ghost woman. “Who are you? Why do you have bodyguards in this place? What–never mind, just focus on that. We know your name is Ausesh, but who are you beyond that?”
Now that I was looking at her more directly, and wasn’t quite so distracted, I could see that the woman was dressed like a scientist. Her form was all gray-blue and partially transparent still, of course. But beyond that, her hair was wild and unkempt, sticking out in all directions. She wore a lab coat along with loose-fitting pants that had lots of pockets, all of which seemed to be full of various tools. Her shirt was long-sleeved, with only one side tucked in, and she wore several bracelets on both wrists. Finally, she had a pair of those half moon glasses, which she was looking at us over the top of. Obviously a ghost had no need for glasses, but they didn’t really need clothes either. It was more of a ‘how they pictured themselves’ sort of thing.
“Who am I?” Ausesh echoed, straightening up a little with what I interpreted as a moment of pride. “That is both simple and rather complicated. You see, I designed this vault.”
Marina and I both gave a double-take at that, looking at one another before turning back to her. The other girl found her voice first. “Hold on, what? I thought Valdean was the one who made the vault.”
“Oh, he certainly helped,” Ausesh agreed with a dismissive tone before amending, “To be entirely fair, it would have been impossible without him. We both made it. But she is my baby. Her design and purpose was my idea. We were both Heretics, like you two. Teammates and partners. We grew… repulsed by the Crossroads way of thinking. Together, we dreamt of creating a safe location where those we had once hunted could live peacefully. I thought of a vault in a pocket dimension. He aided in making some of that come to fruition. The robot butler, the overall computer system, the electronics throughout the vault, all of that was designed by Valdean. I was responsible for the pocket universe itself, the design of the vault, its protection from outside intrusion, ensuring that everyone inside would be safe and have privacy, that sort of thing. I was more of an architect, I suppose you might say.”
Taking all that in, I slowly shook my head. “But Sitter didn’t say anything about two people putting the vault together. Nobody did. Did you erase–no, you didn’t erase that from his memory when you changed how many people were supposed to be in the vault, because that happened after he’d already told us that Valdean did all this by himself. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve mentioned it if he knew anything about Valdean having a partner.”
“Yes, well,” the woman paused to consider her words before giving a soft sigh. “You might say I preferred to remain in the background. Far in the background. I didn’t… do that well around a lot of people. That’s why Valdean and I became partners to begin with. He was always better with crowds and… all of that.” She visibly shuddered. “Socializing, eugh. I had no desire to be known. All I wanted was to live quietly down here with only a scant few people knowing about me. Fixing the vault when it acted up, adding anything our guests needed, rising to those sorts of challenges… quietly. Without dealing with dozens of eyes staring at me every day.” She made a face before focusing on me, our gazes locking. “I want people to be happy, I just want them to do it somewhere out of earshot. And preferably every other sense.” There was another pause before she shook her head. “Though I am normally worse with new people than these past few minutes would imply. You aren’t making me nearly as uncomfortable as most. Perhaps being dead has removed that particular trait. It’s hard to be afraid of people when the worst has already happened.” Her gaze moved to stare at Gliner. “Particularly when that worst was being murdered by one I trusted to keep me safe.”
“You earned your death, and more besides!” the six-eyed man snapped, though he was careful not to make a move or look like he was trying to get up. Apparently I had made enough of an impression that it overrode his obvious anger. “I know the truth behind this vault, your experiments, all of it! You are lucky I simply killed you. I would have done so for Mophse alone, to say nothing of everything else.”
“My friend, you are still mistaken,” Archibold carefully, yet firmly, informed him. “The monster was clearly Valdean, and our employer an unwilling, unknowing patsy of sorts.”
“Okay, hold on, hold on, we’ll get to that,” I promised. “But let’s clear up a couple things first. Like, which one of you went up into the server room and put that thing in it to block the computer from realizing it was giving this place power?”
Marina quickly added. “And put that virus in that made Sitter shut down.”
For the first time, Ausesh actually looked startled. Her ghost form flared slightly, and I could feel more power coming off of it as she blurted, “What do you mean, made Sitter shut down? What happened to him?” The reaction seemed real, as did her sudden worry.
So, I explained what had happened in the server room, how he had been plugged in to check on anyone who might have been accessing the system when he suddenly shut off and wouldn’t turn back on. And about how we had left Perrsnile to try to see what was wrong with him.
Clearly hanging on my every word, as well as Marina’s when she chimed in, Ausesh kept shaking her head. “Oh dear, oh no. Not poor Sitter. He’s such a good bot. If anyone can find the problem, it’s Perrsnile. Well, Valdean, but failing that, Perrsnile isn’t a bad choice. But who–wait, you believe one of us put that virus in the system to attack him?”
“I mean…” Exchanging a look with Marina, I offered, “It’d be kind of a weird coincidence if it wasn’t one of you three, wouldn’t it? You’re the ones who wanted the vault to not report on where you were, and when Sitter goes into the system to find out who did that, suddenly he’s broken?”
“Yeah,” Marina confirmed, “so which one of you was responsible for going to the server room and putting that in? Actually, wait, how long ago were you… uhh, killed, Miss Ausesh?”
“I was on my way to do the deed and end the monster when the facility was locked down,” Gliner informed us. “When it was unlocked, I continued. She was dead within five minutes of the lock being lifted.”
Once his fellow bodyguard said that, Archibold cleared his throat. “And it was I who entered the server room to ensure we would not be detected. But, I assure you, it was not my intention to harm Sitter, or anyone else. I simply inserted the drive believing it would block these rooms from being monitored and erase the three of us from his memory. That was what I was told it did.”
“But why would you do that? And who gave you the drive? Who told you it would block the rooms from being monitored?” I quickly asked.
“I did it to prevent you–or rather, any investigators, from locating us,” he answered easily. “Given Valdean had been the one to request outside assistance, I believed anyone who came would be… under his sway. I wished to ensure we were safe from your search so that I could find a way to help the victims of Valdean’s treachery. I was not aware that my partner had come to the incorrect conclusion of blaming Ausesh, and had already carried out his form of justice.”
“It was not incorrect!” Gliner insisted. “You were the one who made a mistake by killing Valdean. He was innocent. Our employer was the evil one.”
While I held up a hand to stop him from continuing, my gaze stayed on Archibold. “So, who gave you that drive and told you what it was supposed to do?”
He paused, then turned to look toward the ghost woman. “That ahh, that would be our employer.”
“You see?!” Gliner blurted, “She was the evil one!”
Taking his reaction and accusations pretty well in stride considering she was already dead because of them, Ausesh straightened up a little and replied, “I was given that drive by Valdean, to use in case of emergency. He knew that I wished to remain out of sight, and gave me the means to do so. I was no more aware than Archibold was about any hostile effect it would have if Sitter investigated.”
While I was processing that, Marina shook her head. “Okay, but what about everybody’s memories upstairs? They all think they were the murderer. Every single one of them has one of ten different memories of themselves killing those two. Sticking a drive in a server wouldn’t do that, especially not accidentally. So what happened? Who did that? And why?”
“I cannot answer who or why,” Ausesh informed us. “But I do know that there is a defense mechanism within the vault which allows certain memories to be overwritten in case of emergency. The idea was that anyone who had to be expelled from the vault for any reason might need to have their memory of this place wiped so that they would not present a danger to everyone else. It is possible that someone took over that system and used it.”
“Okay,” I started, “but who?”
That time, an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming. They all looked at one another before Gliner focused on women intently. “It must have been her. She wanted to confuse the situation, so she used that to change everyone’s memory before I could kill her. You heard her yourself, she’s the one who knew about it.”
Marina quickly spoke up. “But why would she do that? Why would she want to make everyone out there think they were the ones who killed both those guys when one of the real killers was him?” She looked at Archibold pointedly. “And the other was, uhh…”
Archibold immediately put in, “Valdean.”
Gliner, on the other hand, simultaneously insisted, “Ausesh.”
“Right, see that’s kind of our whole point,” I replied after grimacing a bit at how this was going. “Archibold thinks Valdean killed Mophse. And he killed Valdean. So him making everyone out there think they were responsible for killing Mophse doesn’t make sense. Maybe the Valdean part if he was throwing blame off himself. But why make everyone think that instead of just one person, especially when you could probably put a lot more detail into the adjusted memories if you focused like that? And why make them think they killed Mophse when you think Valdean did? Unless you just wanted to make the investigation quick and simple. But making everyone think they did it wasn’t quick and simple.”
Marina cleared her throat. “Yeah, and Gliner thinks Ausesh killed Mophse, for… some reason. Why would either of them change peoples’ memories to make them think they were all responsible, unless it was just to stop the investigation. But like you said, making them all think it wouldn’t actually do that. It just made the investigation longer.”
I tried to think about that for a second before shaking my head and looking at the two living men still sitting there in front of us. “Okay, you guys keep arguing about whether Ausesh or Valdean is the real monster here. But what are you talking about? What makes either of them a monster? What are you each blaming them for?”
“Yes,” Ausesh put in, “I would be quite interested in finding out that much for myself.”
“You know what you’ve done, monster,” Gliner snapped, before his gaze turned back to me. “As for what the evil I speak of is, you must have noticed what is missing in this vault. Or who.”
Blinking a couple times while he stared at me, I thought back to my previous ponderings, head turning to look in the direction of the other room, where the crates full of juvenile supplies were. “Children?”
“Precisely!” That was Archibold. “This storage room, where we have made our home for so long in the course of our service to Ausesh, is full of supplies for children. Children who never appeared. Or supposedly never appeared. Yet my partner and I found that supplies were continually used and restocked. We investigated, and I made the mistake of asking a friend, dear Mophse about the situation. I’m afraid he said something to Valdean about it, and the fiend killed him.”
“That is not true!” Gliner quickly insisted. “Ausesh was the real monster. She heard us discussing the situation and ambushed Mophse before he could find any information.”
“Okay, wait.” Taking a deep breath, I let it out before pushing on. “You both found out something bad about missing children in this vault. Archibold asked Mophse some questions about that and then either Valdean or Ausesh killed him so he couldn’t look any deeper. Then Archibold killed Valdean, because he thought–sorry, thinks Valdean is the one who killed Mophse. Around the same time, Gliner was looking for Ausesh to kill her because he thinks she killed Mophse. But before he could, Sitter found Valdean’s body and triggered the lockdown. Fast forward a few decades, the timelock ended and Gliner recovered, then killed Ausesh. While he was doing that, Archibold took the drive that Ausesh gave him to keep this place from being monitored and erase you from Sitter’s memory up to the server room and plugged it in.”
“Correct,” Archibold confirmed. “Then I returned here and found out what a mistake my partner had made. We had been discussing it, at length, for hours when you approached, at which point we tabled our discussion and… hid, hoping you would move on.”
Letting those bits ping pong around in my head a bit, I asked, “But why would Mophse have wiring diagrams for the server and that note about something happening two days after his death?” As they stared at me, I explained what we’d found.
“We planned to meet with Mophse on that day,” Gliner noted. “That is likely what the date was for. He was… a bit forgetful.”
Ausesh nodded. “And that wiring you found sounds a bit like the memory adjustment system. He was likely attempting to investigate that himself.”
“Okay, but what’s this about children?” Marina insisted, voice a bit anxious. “You keep bringing that up. I know, one of you blames Valdean and the other blames Ausesh, but what are you blaming them for? What does it have to do with children, and why aren’t there any around here?”
“There have been children,” Archibold informed us. “Many of them, over the years. But everyone’s memories of them have been erased. And the children themselves were… sold, to various groups. Heretics, slavers, and more. That is the dark, true secret of this vault. It is not simply a safe home.
“It is a breeding farm.”