Mercer

The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted earlier today focusing on Reapers. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks!

What?! I silently blurted as Tabbris’s words made me physically recoil. Or rather, made the guy I was possessing recoil. That doesn’t even make sense. Why would Crossroads have a student hunt right now? It’s only a few days before Christmas for God’s sake. Aren’t they on vacation? 

Tabbris’s voice was helpless, and clearly just as uncertain. We don’t know, maybe it’s extra credit or something? Or maybe they’re really short-handed and needed more help. But it doesn’t matter, they’re just here. And they’re about to make a move against the hotel, so we’ve gotta interrupt them before they blow this whole thing and make those guys retreat with Denise.

Immediately, I replied, Hold on, I’m coming out. I’ll be right there. I was already starting to focus on looking for the nearest exit. I could walk my host that way and be down there in seconds. 

No, my sister immediately insisted. You have to find out what happened to Denise, Flick. Don’t worry about the stuff down here. Your Mom and the others can handle it. Just hurry and find Denise, before the guys in there figure out something’s wrong and make her disappear again.

She was right, of course. I hated to admit it. Boy did I ever hate to admit it. But she was definitely right.  What mattered right now was finding Denise, and if Mercer saw a fight involving Heretics right outside his front door, he wouldn’t stick around. He would grab whatever he could and disappear. Which probably included Denise herself. I had to find her and get out of here before that happened. 

So, trying to shut aside thoughts and worries about what was going on out there for the moment, I focused on my own situation. The door ahead of me and down the hall a little bit. That was where I needed to go. But there were two guys standing on either side of it who probably wouldn’t be eager to let my host go through that easily. I could deal with them, but there was a camera above the door, pointed down at it. If I started something right there, the people inside would know. Which would give them time to escape. Fuck. I was going to be careful about this, no matter how rushed I felt. No matter what, I could not give Mercer time to retreat. I had to get to him and find out where the hell he had taken Denise. Which meant getting past the guards and through the door without raising any sort of alarm. And I had to do it before the situation outside grew obvious and loud enough for an alert to be sent upstairs. 

That was the real irony of this whole thing. I had the powers, skills, and weapons to deal with these guys fairly easily if it came down to it. Probably, at least. I could smash my way through them, and could probably get through the shielded door within a couple minutes. But a couple minutes wouldn’t be fast enough to stop Mercer from vanishing, along with the only real clue about Denise that we had. I had all this power and I still had to be careful. 

Oh well, what was life without problems to solve, huh? I could handle this. It just required a little creativity rather than a straight-forward slugging match. I still had my little ghost-boy pal, hovering curiously behind me while (maybe a little impatiently) clearly waiting to see what I was going to do. He had no idea anything about the situation had changed. He just wanted to watch me do something interesting to help with his boredom. 

Silently telling Tabbris to keep me updated if they needed help down there, I went to work on my own thing. First, I did a quick check to see if my guy knew anything about Denise. But just like the last one, he had nothing. It was like he’d never heard of or seen her before. What was going on? If Mercer had taken Denise, was he really keeping the fact that he had kidnapped a little kid secret from his men? Why? Was he afraid they weren’t loyal, that they would object to the whole situation? Or that they might sell him out? I didn’t want to think that we were barking up the wrong tree entirely. Mercer had to know something about what was going on. I just wasn’t sure what, or why he was keeping it secret. There was clearly something I was missing, and I was hoping that getting to the boss-man himself would help fill in those gaps. 

To that end, I made my guy push away from the wall where he had been leaning, and turned to walk toward the room I needed to get into. The moment he moved, both of the guys on either side of that door turned their attention that way, one of them calling out, “You gotta piss again, Dugal? Come on, man, stop guzzling so much at lunch all the time. Ain’t good for you.” 

While he was talking, I took in the appearance of the two guards. One of them, the one who wasn’t talking, was another of the almost-Orcs. He was just rolling his eyes as though annoyed that his daydreaming, or whatever he’d been doing, was interrupted by something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the guy who had spoken looked like a Nekomata, a feline humanoid like Triss back home. They were the ones who were able to make ghost-fire. So siccing my new, bored little buddy on him was probably a bad idea. Come to think of it, given the Nekomata clearly had a thing against ghosts, maybe this guy had something to do with why the forcefield around the penthouse was able to keep them out. 

All of that passed through my mind in a brief moment as I took in the scene, before making my host shrug. “What can I say,” I made his voice grunt, “I really like my–” I did a quick search of his memory for the appropriate drink. “–Coors.” 

“Gotta get that checked,” the Nekomata (his name was apparently Beied, pronounced bye-eed, while the other guy’s name was Istor, rhyming with mister) taunted with a smirk. “I read something about how having shit taste might be a sign of brain damage. Anyone who actually likes that piss water must be about three seconds from a fucking aneurysm or something. We shouldn’t even carry that shit in this place. Make Del Shannon roll over in his grave.”

I almost made my guy ask what some old rock musician had to do with anything, but caught myself. Instead, I checked my guy’s memory. Del Shannon. Right, the hotel had been renamed in honor of him back in the sixties. The Runaway. The name of the hotel was The Runaway. How… convenient. 

That sentiment about Shannon’s objection to Coors being in the hotel named after his most famous song was echoed by a couple of the other guards stationed further down the hall. All of which just reminded me that, outward appearances aside, this wasn’t a super-professional set-up. These guys were part of a gang, not world-class elite soldiers or anything. Another reason why I could have smashed my way through them pretty quickly if that was on the table. But I gave myself a firm reminder that I couldn’t be too cocky. I was on the clock, and these guys could still be a problem. After all, the Seosten had underestimated me plenty of times, and look how that had turned out for them. No matter how casual they seemed from the outside, I had to be careful. This whole situation could turn sideways really damn quick. So no dismissing them as a threat. I was not going to make the Seosten mistake of being too arrogant and then getting screwed over for it. Not when Denise’s life was on the line. 

With a quick search through my guy’s memory (hopefully without violating him too much), I shot back a retort about how Beied couldn’t talk about having shit taste as long as he kept eating something called liver sausage pineapple. Going by this guy, it was apparently a pound of liver sausage mixed with lemon juice, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce, all put together and shaped to look like a pineapple. I… I had no idea. But apparently Beied really liked it. 

There was a bit of back-and-forth teasing about who had the worst sense of taste. I was trying not to let my anxiety about what was going on outside show through the guy I was puppeting.  And yet, I could think of almost nothing except what was going to happen the moment these guys told Mercer that there were Heretics outside fighting. Trying to figure out an excuse to get in there was hard, when that was the only–wait. Hold on. Shit, I was being an idiot, wasn’t I? 

Making a show of heading down the hallway to use the restroom, I made my guy glance out the nearby window and paused. Turning him, I stepped closer and looked down for a few seconds.  I didn’t want to say anything too quickly. It had to look like he was uncertain, even though I could feel the seconds ticking away in the back of my head like a bomb waiting to go off. 

There wasn’t actually anything to see. Not yet, anyway. It looked like Mom and the others had been able to keep the attack away from the front of the hotel so far. But I didn’t really think that would last forever. Any minute now someone on the roof was going to notice what was happening and call it in. I had to get ahead of that. 

“Watcha looking for out there?” Beied finally spoke up. “Cuz if it’s a personality or a life, you might need to look a little harder. And you probably should’ve started earlier.” He chuckled at his own words, and I heard the sound of him exchanging a high five with Istor next to him. 

Pretending I wasn’t paying attention, I made my guy lean closer to the window as though staring at something intently down there. After about two seconds that felt like twenty, I made him physically recoil and pivot on his heel. “There’s something going on down there,” I informed the others in a quick voice, trying to inject it with the sort of surprise and worry that he should have given the situation. “Some sorta fight or something.” Belatedly, I added, “Ain’t no schoolyard brawl, they got weapons and shit. Could be–” I pulled the memory of a rival gang from the man’s mind. “–Darmon’s guys starting something.” 

Before I had even finished talking, several of the guys from down the hall came to look out the window or through one of the others. I pointed, telling them that I had seen the fight start to come around the corner of the building down there before they disappeared again. 

“You fucking serious?” Beied was clearly pretty unhappy about this news. “God damn it, I was ten minutes from getting off shift and hitting this great–fuck.” He pivoted, hitting a three digit code on the pad beside the door to open it. Beside him, Istor the not-Orc started to step over to see what was going on outside for himself. 

Okay, I had three other guys in the hall. Two were right beside me, leaning up to see through the same window in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what I had supposedly seen. Another was further down looking out a different window to see from another angle. Istor was coming up behind me, and Beied the Nekomata was faced the other direction to open the door so he could warn their boss about what was going on. None of them besides Istor were focused directly on me at the moment, and he wasn’t suspicious yet, he was just walking up to look for himself. This was my best–only chance to deal with these guys and get inside that room before Mercer was put on high alert. Getting Beied to open the door by pretending I saw the fight going on out there before anyone else could sound the alert had been a risk, but now I had to follow through. It was only a brief advantage, and it could vanish in a few seconds. So, here went nothing.  

First, I glanced over my shoulder to get Istor in my line of sight before making a portal directly in front of my current host’s hand. It was hidden from the not-Orc himself by my guy’s body, and the two beside me were focused on the window so they didn’t see it yet. The other end of the portal appeared behind Istor, and I gave him a firm tap on the shoulder before dismissing the portal. He pivoted that way. So now, for just a second, I was out of everyone’s line of sight. The camera was focused on the door itself, so it couldn’t see what was going on now that Istor had stepped out of its line of sight. 

As soon as the not-Orc turned his back, I immediately shoved myself backwards out of my current host. He was still unconscious, so the body was already starting to collapse as I appeared behind him. I was still out of sight from the two intently peering through the window in front of me, as well as the one just down the hall. That first pair might have noticed the body falling instantly and reacted, but even as I landed in my own body behind the falling man, I was already focusing hard, using my five-second pause power to freeze his shirt in place. The body sort of went limp, caught in place. It wouldn’t look at all convincing to anyone looking directly at him. But they were still distracted by staring out the window, so all they registered was that his body was still (somewhat) upright. 

It would only buy me a couple seconds, at most. Between those two standing right by the limp form, and the other guy down the hall, one of them would notice that he wasn’t conscious. Not to mention Istor, who would only be distracted by checking to see who had tapped him on the shoulder for a moment. They were going to see that something was wrong any second. 

Thankfully, a second was all I needed. Pivoting on one heel, I slapped my hand out to grab Istor while his back was still to me. A second later, I was inside him. I could feel his sudden rage and sent a quick apology and promise that I would let him go in a moment before turning.  

By that point, the two by the window had noticed their unconscious companion and had turned that way. I immediately sent Istor into a charge, sprinting straight at the two, before once more launching myself backwards out of my host. His momentum kept him going forward, slamming into the other two as they collapsed in a heap. Which caught the attention of the guy down the hall, of course. But it was too late for him to do anything, even as he caught a glimpse of me while turning to see the commotion. 

Throughout all of that, having no idea that anything was wrong just yet, Beied was still in the middle of opening the door. He had barely gotten it half-open as he started to speak up, when the sound of Istor colliding with the other two filled the hall. His words turned to a confused curse as he started to turn. But I was already there. Using a mix of my own enhanced speed and my Seosten boost, I slammed into the feline man, catching him by the shoulders before he could react. Spinning to put my back to the half-open doorway so that he was facing the hall, I lashed out with one foot. The hard kick was enough to knock the man flying backward to land in the corridor with a bellow of surprise and anger. 

Quickly stepping backward through the open door, I slammed it shut once more before touching my hand to it. A thought made another quick-inscription spell appear, and I triggered it to seal the door. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would keep them out for the moment. Long enough for me to do what I needed to. 

Spinning back even as the pounding and knocking at the door started, I took in the sight of where I had managed to get. It was a wide-open living room of some sort, full of plush couches, statues, paintings of old guys (many of them not-human) on the walls, and a gi-freaking-normous television that took up a huge portion of one wall. That was where most of the people in the room were. Ten guys of various species, all sitting around playing video games on that giant TV.  Two looked human, one Rakshasa (the other feline species I knew of that wasn’t Nekomata), a pair of what looked like goblins, three Satyrs (the goat-men weren’t as small and cute as they looked like in the cartoons and comics, but were more human in size), a silver-scaled reptilian figure who stood about seven feet tall, and… their boss. Yeah, I knew in an instant that the final guy had to be Mercer. He was even taller than the other guy, with thick, blue-green scales over his body and vertical-slit pupils. He gave off the air of being the person in charge, even as his gaze snapped from the television to me, dropping the controller in his hand. 

“Hey there,” I announced, summoning my staff to one hand while everyone in the room lunged to their feet, putting themselves in front of the boss. “Mercer, I presume.” Even as I said that, I focused on summoning a portal to get my hand near him. But it fizzled. The protections in this place extended to blocking that sort of thing, apparently. Which meant I was going to have to get close to him the old fashioned way, by going through everyone trying to stop me. 

“Heretic,” he snapped, the annoyance clear in his voice. “What exactly do I owe this interruption to?” 

Even as he said that, a voice from a nearby intercom frantically called out that there were Heretics attacking the hotel. Mercer gave the intercom a dark look, his voice flat. “No shit.” 

“Believe it or not,” I informed the man, “I’m not here to kill you, or any of your men. I’m here for one thing, answers.” My eyes narrowed as I stared at him. “I need you to tell me what happened to Denise Cartland.” 

Mercer showed no reaction at all to the name, his voice completely blank. “Who?” It was pretty convincing, actually. Sure, he almost certainly had to be a good liar to get into this sort of position. But still, it was hard to entirely dismiss the idea that he really had no idea who I was talking about. Not that I was going to take that for granted without checking for myself, of course. 

“Denise Cartland,” I repeated. “Tell me where she is, and I’ll go away.” 

“Kid,” he snapped back, “I got no idea who you mean. And you know what? I think you’re going away right now.” With that, he dropped his hand, and the rest of his friends in the room all launched themselves my way. 

I met their charge, but I wasn’t interested in actually fighting them. All I cared about was getting to Mercer, which meant lunging, twisting, ducking, spinning, leaping, and diving my way through every guy standing in my way. I used every ounce of my boost, pushing myself to be even faster. Those brief handful of seconds were a blur of flailing limbs, blades, claws, and more as I danced my way through everything in that room, before finally coming face to face with the man himself. 

He snarled and lashed out with a fist as soon as he saw me, but my hand snapped up to catch it. Yeah, between my boost and my general strength-enhancements I caught his fist with my own grip. It hurt, but I didn’t care at that moment. It was worth seeing the look on his face, especially knowing what I did about the shit he had pulled. 

An instant later, before he or anyone else could react, I was inside him. Once again, I used my possession power. Today was the day I had used it the most in recent history. Probably because I was so far past giving a shit when it came to anything that stopped us from finding Denise. 

I was possessing him, but it wasn’t exactly an immediate take-over. I could feel the man struggling. For a moment, I thought it might go as far as a full-on sustained battle for his body, but with a last burst of effort, I managed to shove his consciousness down. 

Then, with the people outside the room still struggling to break the sealed door down, and the ones who were already inside staring at their boss in confusion about what to do next, I focused. I searched his memory for anything about Denise, and found… nothing. No, no, no, this couldn’t be for nothing! He had to know her. I tried searching for anything about the gas station, or Kalia and her father. He had to know about them, he’d been bugging them for money to the point of driving Kalia’s father to rob that gas station and get killed by Ammon in the first place! 

But no. There was nothing. He had absolutely no memory of any of that. How the fuck was that possible? What–what had… what? 

By that point, the door had finally been broken through, as the guys outside came bursting in. Beied was at the front, demanding to know what was going on while holding some sort of falchion in one hand. 

“Some Heretic chick!” one of the Satyrs blurted a bit frantically, gesturing. “She–she fucking possessed the boss or something! Crazy bitch said something about, what, Denise Copeland? Who the fuck is that?!” 

“Cartland,” Beied corrected, his eyes not on the Satyr, but on his boss. On me, possessing his boss. “Heretic! You’re looking for Denise Cartland?” 

Narrowing Mercer’s eyes, I made him growl out, “Where is she?” 

The Nekomata, in turn, held up both hands, the falchion gripped tightly in one. “Look, the boss there forgot all about some money a chick that works at some gas station owes him. I figured she did something to him, so I looked into it, checked out who was there the last time he stopped by just to see if she hired some sort of outside mind-fucker. Found out the only other person in the place was some kid named Denise Cartland. Looked into her, but it was a dead end. Except I found out she left town. She took a bus. You let my boss go, I’ll tell you where the bus was headed. Fair?” 

Making Mercer glance around at the roomful of eager guys waiting to stab or shoot me, I grunted. “Yeah, sure. But you and me, we’ll take a walk together, just the two of us. You tell me everything you know about where Denise went, then I’ll let your boss go. And for the record, you might want to hurry, so you guys and your boss can get the hell out of this hotel. 

“Cuz there really is a fight going on downstairs, and only a few of them are with me.”

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Interlude 12B – Denny Again (Heretical Edge 2)

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The quiet, familiar scritching sound of a small knife blade steadily carving into wood filled the small space of the closet where Denny was crouched. She had closed the door and scrunched herself into the back behind the clothes and toys, invisible if someone simply glanced inside. Between that and the fact that it was the middle of the night with no lights on other than what came through the curtained window near her bed in the main room, the area around her was pitch-black. But that didn’t matter, not really. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn’t worried about monsters. 

Because she was a monster. And monsters belonged in the closet. 

She had told her mother that she didn’t want to see that therapist again. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, she didn’t say anything about the woman changing her name to that weird one, or any of that. Denny wasn’t sure why, she just knew it was a bad idea. First her mother had wanted her to give it another try, but then they had gotten word that ‘Megan’ was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be available. So she had agreed to let her daughter see a different therapist, though that hadn’t actually started yet. She was supposed to have her first visit next week. Which didn’t help the girl right now, as she crouched in the closet, carving into the wall. 

It was also too dark to see exactly what she was carving. But that didn’t matter either, because she didn’t need to see it. She knew, deep in her soul, what was carved throughout every wall of the closet. Two different words, repeated over and over again. One was two letters and the other three letters. Me Him Me Him Me Him. The two words were cut into the walls obsessively. From the look of it, if someone had examined the carvings closely, it would appear as though many instances had one word carved first, and then the other carved almost on top of that. It was an argument, played out through a steak knife that had been borrowed from the kitchen, digging into the wall. 

Him. He was there. She could feel him, could almost hear his voice. She caught glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and felt him standing behind her. But he was never there when she looked closer. He was always just out of sight, just out of reach. He was right there with her, yet not. 

Grasping the knife carefully in both hands, the eleven-year-old girl stared unseeingly through the darkness at where she knew the rear wall was. With a shaking grip, she reached up and began to carve a much larger word, which would take up the entire wall if she finished it. 

The first letter was A. That was followed by an M. By the time she began to carve the second M, the girl’s hands were shaking so much she actually dropped the knife when the letter was half-done. She reached down, fumbling a bit until she found it. Unfortunately, her hand found the blade first and grasped it, making the blade cut into her palm. Not too deep, barely enough to draw blood. But it made the girl yelp softly. Abruptly, she looked up at the wall again, still incapable of seeing it, yet knowing what was there. The expression on her face, had it been visible to anyone, would have shifted from one of resignation, to intense anger. With the knife held tightly in her slightly injured hand, she ignored the pain and lashed out to cut a deep gouge through the aborted name she had begun to carve into the wall. Once, twice, three times she cut deep lines through it, crossing the unfinished name out. She wouldn’t finish it. She refused. He couldn’t make her. He couldn’t change her. She wasn’t him. She wasn’t. She was Denny. He was–he was–he didn’t matter. He wasn’t here. She wouldn’t obey him again. She wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wouldn’t do anything he said. The whispers, the thoughts, the impressions he left at the back of her mind, they didn’t matter. None of that mattered. She was Denny. She mattered. She was going to do what she wanted to do. She was going to be what she wanted to be. She didn’t have to listen to him. She never had to listen to him. 

The sound of footsteps creaking on the stairs snapped the girl out of her intense fit of repeatedly gouging lines through the partially finished name. Someone was coming. Him? Was it him? Was he coming because she refused to carve his name? Was he coming for her now? No, no, he couldn’t come for her. He couldn’t come, because he was already here. And because he wasn’t. He was here, and he wasn’t, and he never could be. And yet, the rush of terror that filled the girl, the animalistic survival instinct as she heard those footsteps, couldn’t be ignored. 

Straightening, she stepped out of the closet, still holding the knife in her injured hand even as she heard those footsteps steadily approaching her room. Quickly and silently, she moved to stand behind the  bedroom door, safely out of sight as the footsteps stopped. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the knife again. If he was here, if he was real, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified, yet also furious. A righteous anger, a rage that the young girl could barely comprehend, had filled her at the thought that he was coming. She wouldn’t let him hurt her. She wouldn’t let him control her. No more. Not again. Never again. 

The footsteps stopped outside her door, and for a moment there was nothing but the silence. Then, the door slowly began to creak open. It came about halfway, and from her position behind it, Denny was able to peer through the small crack between the wall and the door itself just enough to see a figure standing there, mostly concealed in the shadows of the hallway. He was there, staring in at the lump of blankets on her bed that made it look as though Denny was sleeping in it. 

She would stab him. As soon as he came through the door and walked to the bed, she would stab him from behind. She wouldn’t let him touch her, wouldn’t let him talk to her, wouldn’t let him do anything. He would never hurt her again. She wouldn’t let him hurt her or control her.

“Is she okay?” Those words, spoken in a hushed tone, filled the air, startling the girl. They came from down the hall, not from the figure next to the door. And the voice was quite familiar. Her mother. Her mother was just down the hall, addressing… addressing the figure there. 

“She’s asleep,” came the whispered response. A whisper she also recognized. Her father. The figure standing just on the other side of the open door, looking at what he thought was Denny lying in bed, was her own father. She had almost stabbed her own father, out of the sheer terror that had been brought on by the thought that the figure from her dreams was standing there.

While the girl was reeling from what she had almost done, the door creaked closed once more and she heard her father walk away to join her mother. She was left standing there in the dark. The knife fell from her grip to the carpet, and she raised her hands to stare at her own palms. In the slight illumination that came through the window, she could see fairly clearly. There was no wound there. The spot of her hand that she had cut was already completely healed, save for the stain of blood that proved it had once been injured. In those brief moments, the wound had entirely vanished. 

Denny’s breathing grew heavy as she stared at her hand, where the cut should have been. Where she had felt it, where there was still blood showing that a cut had once existed. Her voice was a whisper that sounded entirely too loud within the confines of this dark bedroom. 

“What… what’s happening to me?” 

*******

Gas filling her mouth, pouring down her throat, choking her on the fumes. Tears filling her eyes, panic making her want to scream. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t stop the gasoline from killing her, from–

“Yo, kid!” A sudden shout startled her. “You camping out to save a pump for your dad, or what?” 

Yes, Denny had been standing at a gas station right where a car was supposed to park, staring at one of the pumps. No, not just a gas station. Not just ‘one of the pumps.’ The gas station. The pump. The one from her dream that wasn’t a dream. She knew that, she recognized it. It was the gas station her parents sometimes stopped at on the way home, only a few blocks from their house. Standing there, staring at the pump, she knew it was the same one from those dreams. Something deep in her soul told the girl this was the right place. 

No, the wrong place. This was the wrong place entirely. She shouldn’t be here. She really shouldn’t be here. A loud voice in the back of her mind was telling the girl to turn around and run away, to never set foot anywhere near here again. 

And yet, another voice was telling her that she had to be here, that she would never get any better until she faced this and could understand it. She was so confused, so lost, she had to know the truth, had to know what was wrong with her and fix it before she… before she did something bad. 

Still, she didn’t want to get run over. So, she quickly stepped out of the way and let the man in the sedan pull up to the spot where she had been standing. He grumbled while getting out to pump his gas, and the sight of the man holding the nozzle made bile suddenly rise up in Denny’s throat. Pivoting, she rushed to the shop itself, pushing her way inside. As the polite ding filled the air, the girl took a moment to pant and catch her breath, almost doubling over as she tried to stop hyperventilating. No, no, she couldn’t be out there, couldn’t look at the pump. She couldn’t stand there and…

A sudden rush of images filled the girl’s mind. She was being hit, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly, a foot colliding with her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t beg. Her stomach hurt, there was something wrong with it, something that made it impossible to breathe properly. Her face was bleeding and broken, one eye swollen shut. The pain was awful, but it didn’t compare to the sheer terror. He was going to hit her again, he was going to hurt her, because he was told to. Because… because he told him to. Him, not the man hurting her, but the… the…

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” It was the clerk, a girl in her late teens who had come around the counter and moved to where Denny had crouched down and started crying. “Uhh, do you want me to call somebody? Are you lost or something?” 

Swallowing hard, Denny pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “N-no, it’s okay. I just…” She trailed off helplessly then. How exactly was she supposed to explain what had just happened? She didn’t understand it herself. The images in her mind had been so vivid, so real. She could feel the blows, could hear the–him ordering the other man to hit her again, and again, and again. 

Forcing those thoughts down, she clenched her fists while meeting the gaze of the older girl with dirty-blonde hair. “Can um, can I ask you something, please?” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. 

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Clearly uncertain about what this girl who had just walked into the gas station before falling to her knees and crying was going to ask, the teenaged clerk gestured. “Come on, you can have a soda on me. You look like you need it. What do you need to ask?” 

A rush of confusing and contradictory thoughts ran through Denny’s mind as she followed the clerk over to the counter and accepted the bottle of Sprite. For a moment, she was able to distract herself by focusing on opening it and taking a long sip. But she felt the clerk’s curious eyes on her the whole time, and finally couldn’t wait anymore. So, Denny took a breath before looking up. Her voice caught a little as she forced the words out. “Did somebody die here? I–I heard somebody died here. Um, I think it was… uhh, awhile ago with–what?” The way the clerk was staring at her made the girl a little nervous. Even more than she had already been. 

“Did someone put you up to this?” the clerk demanded, though her voice was more resigned than angry. “Just–just tell me if someone put you up to it. They think it’s real funny just to send–” 

Eyes widening, Denny shook her head rapidly. “No! Nobody put me up to anything, I swear. I just… I heard somebody died here and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s weird, but can you please tell me? I swear it’s not a joke or anything. Please.”

There was a momentary pause as the clerk considered, before sighing. “Yeah, somebody died here. But it wasn’t recently, and it wasn’t just one person. Two people died about fourteen months ago. There was a… a robber and the last girl who worked at this place. They said the guy tried to rob her and she… um, she got the gun away from him and shot him. Then she umm… killed herself.” Slowly, the clerk turned to look out toward the gas pumps. Her mouth opened, but Denny didn’t need to hear more. 

“She died from the gas,” the young girl murmured audibly, staring in the same direction. She could smell the fumes, could taste it pouring down her throat, could–could– Shaking herself violently, Denny forced herself to look back at the clerk. “They said she killed herself?” 

“That’s… what they said.” There was doubt in the clerk’s voice as she squinted that way. “It’s kinda weird though, isn’t it? I mean, they said she felt so guilty about killing my–the guy that she had to… to do that.” 

Catching what the older girl had almost said, Denny focused on her and frowned. “Did you know the guy who–” 

“You should leave.” With those words, the clerk pointed to the opposite door from the one Denny had come through. “Go out the back. Get out of here, hurry, go!” Her words were urgent, nearly frantic in a tone shift that startled the younger girl. She was already coming around the counter, taking hold of her shoulder to pull her away. 

Denny started to argue in confusion, when the ding of the bell above the door she had come through filled the air. Both girls turned that way to find an enormous figure crouched down a bit as he pushed his way through the door. Seeing that, the clerk suddenly gave Denny a shove that knocked her to her knees behind one of the display cases. “Hide,” she hissed. 

From her place behind the shelves, Denny lifted her head and peered through the crack in time to see the figure straighten up. Her first impression had been right. The man wasn’t just tall, he was a huge, broad-shouldered man with an assortment of bright red tattoos across his scaled body. 

Wait, scaled body? Denny gave a double-take, eyes widening. Yes, the man had scales. Like… like a really bad skin condition? Her mother had always said that she wasn’t supposed to stare at people who were different like that, but this guy was really different. He wasn’t just tall, he was… he was so tall he’d had to stoop to get through the door. Over seven feet. His body was dark blue-green, with a slightly lighter face. And, again, he had scales. Very thick, obvious scales. His eyes were vertical, like a snake or a lizard. 

“Kalia,” his voice rumbled while Denny shrank back in fear. “You shouldn’t have blown me off this morning. You know I don’t like that.” His vertical pupils narrowed at the older girl. “Your dad did that a lot.” 

“Mercer,” the clerk (Kalia) managed in a clearly weak voice. “I was gonna come find you after work. I’ve got fifty dollars for you.” 

“Fifty?” The enormous, scaled figure gave a heavy, humorless laugh. “Your dad owed ten thousand when he bit the dust. You think fifty’s even a drop in that bucket?” With that, the man paused, looking around. “Come to think of it, kid, you working in the place he died trying to get my down payment is pretty fucked up. And that’s coming from me.” 

Wait, wait, the girl was– Denny was left reeling from that revelation, even as the huge, alien figure stalked forward to close the distance between himself and Kalia. “Now,” he snarled, “Now, you gonna dig deep and find a way to get the money your family owes, or am I going to have to try to pry it out of grieving family member number three?” Before the girl could answer, he snapped a hand down to grab her by the throat. “Maybe what you need is some motivation. Cuz clearly, I ain’t done enough t–” 

“Stop it!” Without even knowing what she was doing, Denny had leapt to her feet and held both hands up. “Stop it, stop!” 

The giant figure did stop, his head slowly turning to look that way. Those vertical eyes focused on her. “Who the fuck are you?” 

“I…” Her throat was dry, a thick lump filling it. She could barely breathe, could barely think. “My… my name is Denise.” 

“Yeah? Good for you.” Mercer’s voice made it clear how little he cared. “Now, if you don’t mind, I–” His grip tightened on the other girl’s throat enough to make her yelp in pain. 

“Stop it!” Denny blurted as terror filled her. “Let her go!”  

Abruptly, the enormous figure did just that. He released Kalia, allowing the girl to suck in panicked gasps of air. Then just stared at Denny. His eyes narrowed. “What… the fuck did you just–” With an animalistic roar, he began to lunge that way. 

Denny, in turn, jerked backward with a panic. “Stop!” she desperately cried out. 

And, again, the figure stopped. He abruptly jerked to a halt, glowering at her. “Listen to me, you little shit. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but–” 

But something had a hold of the eleven-year-old by then, some subconscious realization that she didn’t fully understand. Her shaky voice came once more. “P-put… both hands… above your head.” 

He did, which almost scared the girl more than if he hadn’t. As the man raised both hands high over his head, palms flat against the ceiling, he began to snarl very intricate and detailed threats about what he was going to do to them. 

“St-stop talking!” Denny hurriedly stammered, terror filling her. “I–I–umm… ummm…” What was happening? Why was he obeying her? What was he? He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t normal. “P-please, just… just…” Her mouth opened and shut. Just what? What was he supposed to do? 

There was a… whisper at the back of her mind. A whisper she couldn’t quite hear, but her subconscious knew what the whisper was saying. Some small part of her understood the advice. “Forget you were here,” she finally managed. “Forget that girl there, and anything her family owed. Forget all of it, everything that happened here and everything about Kalia and her family. And… and go away. Walk away, and don’t stop walking until you… until you’re ten miles away.”  

And with that, the horrifying figure obeyed. He turned and left the store, walking away across the lot while leaving both girls standing there staring after him. 

“Wha… what j-just happened?” Kalia managed. “Who the hell–how did–” In mid-sentence, the girl abruptly stopped, shook her head, and then turned back to Denise with a smile, her voice utterly devoid of any fear or reaction to the events from a moment earlier. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?” 

“Th-that guy, who was he?” Denny asked, confused by the girl’s sudden chipper attitude. 

“Sorry, what guy?” Kalia looked politely curious, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t see any guy. Were you looking for someone?”

“The guy who was just here!” Denny blurted. “The big–the monster with the scales and the tattoos!” 

Still, Kalia just stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Are you okay? You’re the only one who’s come inside in like half an hour. Hey, do you want me to call someone? Do–hey, wait!”

But Denny didn’t wait. As a tumultuous rush of confusion and fear filled her mind, the girl raced for the door. She slammed her way through it, ignoring the older girl calling after her. Instead, she ran across the lot and stopped in front of the gas pump. The gas pump. For a moment, she just stood there, staring down at the spot where… where…

Gasoline filled her throat. She saw the boy staring at her, watching, waiting. She felt the terror, the certainty that she was about to die. She felt it, she knew it was coming. Any second it would be too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t–

A scream tore its way out of the eleven-year-old girl’s throat, as her hands lashed out reflexively. They slammed into the gas pump with enough force to leave a pair of visible dents on either side.

Seeing that, Denny stumbled away a couple steps. Her hand covered her mouth, as she fell to her knees there on the asphalt. “No, no, no…” she mumbled behind her own palm as tears of confusion flooded her eyes. “Please… please…

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.”

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