Twister

On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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On The Edge 42-06

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Everyone was talking at once, clearly frantically trying to find something, anything we could do. Meanwhile, I was pressing my hands against my head while trying not to attack myself. How could I let this happen? How could I be so stupid to walk into this place and not have a way out? I should’ve thought of it. I should have realized just how easily it could be a trap. I should have acted immediately to stop whoever was possessed in here even before we knew who it was. I should’ve–

Flick! Tabbris interrupted my rambling, desperate thoughts. Stop it and listen! But rather than just take the time to explain what she was thinking, my sister basically shoved all of it into my head at once. As she did so, my eyes widened.

“I’m not trapped.”

I said those words even as Tabbris’s explanation solidified itself in my head, making the others all look to me at once. Deveron looked a little confused before his eyes widened as he realized, “Possession.”

“Possession?” Koren looked to me, frowning before she too got it. Or at least part of it. “How will that help–wait, recall? Who did you last–”

“It doesn’t matter,” I interrupted, pointing to Miranda. “Randi! You’re in here and out there. You’re a duplicate. If I possess you right here, then stop and you go back to your original self out there–”

It was the other girl’s turn to interrupt, “Then you can recall to her–to me, to the other me. You can recall to get out of this room.”

I nodded, gesturing to the screen that showed the area just outside the office where Miranda, Theia, and Asenath’s group were. “Exactly. I’m just going to guess that the teleportation protections here don’t count against recall. I can get out there and tell them what’s going on. We can tell them what’s going on. Then we can try to find a way to open the doors, or help the others. Or something. Anything. But I need to go, now.”

Abigail was already shaking her head. “No, I don’t like it. That’s–that’s wrong. That can’t be the only thing to do. You’re a child, you–”

“We don’t have time to argue about this, Abigail!” I quickly blurted. “Look at them. They’re fighting out there. They–err… they were fighting.” I blinked at the screen. “Now they’re just sort of… standing there.”

“That’s me,” Francis announced. “This seems like an important conversation, so… let’s just say time in this room is going by much faster than time out there. So everyone can calm down and stop talking past each other. Panicking, yelling, losing your minds won’t accomplish anything. Take a breath, think, talk.”

We all exchanged glances, and Abigail took a breath before looking to me. “Can’t you possess him and try to wake him up?” She indicated the unconscious man on the floor. “Maybe he’ll know a way to get past Radueriel’s control? His mother is the owner, he might know something that could countermand it. Or–or something.”

Francis shook his head. “I love the boy, but no. He won’t be able to. But he might know more, so… I will, ahhh… possess him and wake the boy to find out what he knows about our intruders. If he was controlled by them for awhile, they might have let something important slip.”

“Uh, can you possess people?” Koren asked.

The man gave a very slight nod. “If she can, so I can.” He looked to me. “You are a guest of the Auberge, which means I can use any power you have. Unfortunately, I can’t just take your place and be the one who transports out there to head up to that vault, because–”

“Because there’s still all those blocker things in the way,” I realized. “Right, that still sounds pretty useful. So we don’t have to decide between the two. He can stay here and wake up Mennin, while I recall out and help the others upstairs.”

Wincing at the look I could see on Abigail’s face, I gently reminded her, “I’m sorry, we’re wasting time that we don’t have. I know you’re worried about me, but someone has to get out there and get the others to go up and help keep the bad guys away from that room. We just–we don’t have a choice. If the Seosten get into that vault and take Liesje’s spell–”

“But what could you possibly do to help against all that?” Abigail lamented, sounding desperate. She clearly loathed the idea of me going out there without them. Which… yeah, I could understand that. It made me think of what my father would say. Hell, I could see his worry in her eyes as she weakly continued. “If something happens to you while we’re stuck in here, if you get hurt, or–”

“Abby,” I interrupted, stepping over to hug the woman tightly. “I know. Believe me, I know. I don’t want to leave you guys here either. I don’t. But I can do this. I can go out there, grab the others, and do… whatever we can to stop them. We just have to last until Gaia and the others get in. Then it’ll be over. They have to be close. They have to be. We just have to buy them as much time as we can. Roxa’s pack, Larees, the other Seosten, they’re all up there fighting. How can I refuse to go help now just because it’s dangerous? You feel bad about letting me go? I feel bad about just letting them do all the fighting up there. They’re going to die without help. I can’t let that happen.”

“She’s right, Mom,” Koren put in. “Every little bit helps. Besides, things may blow up wherever Flick goes, but they usually end up being helpful explosions in the end. Mostly.” She hesitated, like she was going to amend herself again, then thought better of it, clearly realizing that it wasn’t helping.

It looked like Abigail was about to say something else to that, but Francis spoke first. “Actually, maybe you can do something that will help release us and stop them.” His voice was thoughtful, like he had just realized something important.

That got everyone’s attention, as the man continued. “That… creature may have locked out the hotel’s automated security. But I can give you an override that will manually activate them in one hallway.” From his pocket, he produced what looked like a small USB drive, handing it to me. “There’s a silver panel in the hallway. It extends down to the floor. You just have to find the slot on the right hand side and plug this thing in. That will manually release the security turrets. They’re set for non lethal measures, for guest safety. They’ll knock people out, incapacitate them, at least for a little bit. It should help, anyway.”

“I can see how that will help with the situation at the door, sure” Deveron agreed while looking over to the man with a frown, “but how will it help the rest of us get out of here?”  

“And how do we stop it from targeting the people we don’t want it to target?” Koren added. “I mean, if it knocks out everyone on our side too, it might do more harm than good, you know? Especially if they just bring in more reinforcements or whatever.”  

Francis answered her first, gesturing to the USB drive in my hand. “Technopath powers. I already fixed its IFF parameters. Once she plugs it in, the security system should do the rest.”

“You are a very handy guy to have around,” I remarked, giving the drive a brief smile. It may not have been much, but it would help. And as I’d said, every bit of help was important now. Because yeah, Gaia, Avalon, and the others couldn’t be too far away from getting in there, right?

I prayed that really was right, while Francis looked to Deveron to explain, “And I’ve removed the safety protocol for how much power it can take while directing it to drain from this room. So as the system attacks, it’ll take power from here. And as it takes power from here–”

Wyatt finished for him, giving a wide grin, “The security measures here will eventually turn off, including the anti-teleportation shielding.”

“And then we can all leave, yes,” Francis confirmed before looking to me. “You just have to get up there, plug it in, and let the turrets take over. They’ll do their job and drain the power from this place so the rest of us can escape.”

I nodded, holding the thumb drive tightly. “I can do that. I just hope it’s enough to delay them.” Because that’s all this was: a delaying game. Delaying until these guys could come help, delaying until Avalon got into that vault from the other side, delaying, delaying, delaying.

It was Wyatt’s turn to speak up. “This should help.” He produced a small green crystal, hesitating before holding it out to me. “You, uhh, you break this in front of the door up there. It will make a wall that should help slow them down.” Shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, he explained, “I… I’ve been channeling power into it for a few years, as an… emergency, if anything really bad happened and I needed to escape.”

I bit my lip, realizing that this was clearly a very big deal. It was Wyatt’s last ditch security measure, his… ticket to safety that he’d been putting power into for years just to make it as strong as possible. I had a feeling it was more than just a few years old. “You don’t have to–”

“Yes, I do,” the man insisted. His face twisted a bit, expression turning even more awkward. “Take it. Maybe it’ll only hold for a few seconds against them. But it’s something. It’s… it’s something. I can do something.” He sounded almost desperate, like he didn’t know how to express himself at all. He was scared. He wanted to tell me not to go. But all he could do was offer this little bit of help.

“It’ll hold for longer than that,” Deveron announced abruptly. “Here…” Gently taking it from his son, he focused for a moment before visibly staggering. “There… more power. Not years’ worth, but… as much as I can give you.”

As I stared, everyone else followed his lead. They all, including Francis, shoved more power into Wyatt’s crystal. Abigail had even practiced enough to be able to channel her energy into the thing. Wyatt had spent so much time making it perfect that all they had to do was shove their power into it to beef the thing up. In the end, they all looked much more tired than they had. But hey, at least they’d have a chance to catch their breath in here. Especially if Francis kept time going faster in here than it did out there. It would give them time to recover.

“Might not be able to go with you yet,” Koren muttered, handing me the crystal as she was the last one to use it. “But to hell if we don’t get to help somehow.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, holding the crystal and the USB drive. “Thanks, guys. I’ll get you out of here. And block that door. They’re not getting in there. Not if I–and you–” I added the last while waving the crystal they had helped empower, “have anything to say about it.”  

As I nodded, Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “I, uhh, I’m sorry I called you a slacker when you first got here,” he hesitantly informed me. “You are definitely not a slacker.”

Squeezing the crystal and the USB drive, I smiled faintly. “Trust me, I could do with a little more slacking now and then. But you guys better not,” I added while pointing to them. “You be ready to get the hell out of this room and come after us as soon as that power goes down enough. You got it?”

They agreed, and for a moment, I just stared at the screen depicting the struggle over the vault entrance. The fighting was still going on just as furiously as ever. There were people getting hurt up there, probably even dying. I had to go help. Swallowing, I turned toward Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail.

“Go,” my older sister urged. “Just… just be careful. I know you have to go. But don’t get yourself killed, okay? Just don’t.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but ended up just mouthing a silent, ‘both of you.’

Right. She didn’t want to give Tabbris’s existence away to Francis. Which… it almost certainly would have been fine, but still. Keeping that quiet was basically second nature at this point.

Deveron put a hand on her arm. “She’s right,” he agreed in a voice that cracked a little bit. “We’ll be right behind you, as soon as that power drops. You get out there and help them. But like she said, don’t get yourself killed.”

Despite the situation, I smiled. “I’m pretty good at getting hurt and kidnapped, but so far, I’ve been pretty bad at getting killed. Let’s hope that holds up.” I was trying to sound flippant to make them feel better, but couldn’t keep all the fear out of my voice. We were all afraid and trying very hard not to lose it in front of each other.

“Just save some for us, huh?” Koren put in, trying to break up the tension. “You’re not the only one who still wants to hit the bad guys.”

The retort came before I could help it, “Well, if you insist, I guess we’ll take it easy on them until you show up. Just don’t take forever, I don’t know how long I can hold myself back.”

After that, there was really nothing else to say. I looked to Miranda, offering her a smile. “I guess I kind of forgot to ask if you’re okay with me possessing you. That’d kind of put a stop to this real quick.”

She smiled right back at me, snorting. “Right, I’m really gonna say no at this point.” Biting her lip, she offered me her hand. “Let’s do this.”

I did so, quickly possessing the other girl before just as quickly stepping out of her. I only stayed long enough to make her my recall point. Then she waved while clearly sending the mental signal to her original self that she was ready to be disabled. A moment later, she faded from existence.

Then it was my turn. With a wave of my own toward the others, I used the recall. Tabbris took over, making sure that instead of actually possessing the original Miranda, we ended up appearing directly beside her.

The original Miranda clearly hadn’t had time to absorb all the memories of her duplicate (probably related to how much faster time was going inside the room thanks to Francis), because everyone, including her, jumped at my sudden arrival. Asenath even went as far as pivoting to lash out with a fist before catching herself.

“Maybe she would be a good Batman,” Theia noted thoughtfully, which seemed like part of a conversation that didn’t involve me. Or, knowing Theia, maybe it really was just that random.

Quickly, Miranda and I explained the situation to the rest, that the others were trapped inside that panic room, and how we could get them out.

“So we use this USB drive to call down some of the automatic security. And there’s the rest of us here. We have to go up there and help. We have to slow them down until the others can get up there with us. I–it won’t be easy. Or fun. I saw the fight up there on the monitors. If we don’t get there, the guys won’t last much longer.”

Miranda produced her shield. “She’s right. Other me saw it too. They need help, so what are we just standing here for? Let’s go help them.”

Flashing a lopsided smile, Theia announced, “Pace-I still likes her… personality.” Putting a hand against the side of her mouth, she stage-whispered, “And her b—” Before she could finish that sentence, the same hand covered her own mouth.

“You good, Pace?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. She replied with a thumbs up using her other hand.

“What are we waiting for?!” Namythiet was hovering in the air in front of me, showing her teeth. She had that tiny sword of hers clutched incredibly tightly in one hand. “No more sitting around. They–” Her voice caught briefly before she pushed on. “Mister Seth would want us to hurt them. I… I want to hurt them. Right, Clubber?”

On the floor at our feet, the emerald tiger cub made a wary growling sound for just a moment, which switched to a concerned whine as he stared up at the pixie. I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking (as much as he could ‘think’, which I still wasn’t clear on), but I had a feeling I would’ve agreed. He was clearly worried about how angry Namythiet was. Worried that his partner, owner, friend was going to lose herself to grief and do something dumb. Quite frankly, I was worried about that too.

“Hey,” I spoke up. “Mister Seth also wouldn’t want you to get hurt, okay? Be angry, but don’t lose control.” Hesitating briefly, I reached out with one finger. “We work together. Fight smart, right? Seth cared about you, Namythiet.”

“She’s right.” That was Asenath, clearly speaking past a lump in her throat. “We’ll make them pay, Namy. We absolutely will. But you’re not allowed to go crazy and get yourself killed. You hear me?” Her voice turned harder, more firm then. “You be sad later. We’ll all be sad later. But you do not get to lose it and die too.”

The pixie hovered there for another moment, looking back and forth between us before reaching out with both of her hands to shake my finger. “Right,” the pixie slowly answered in a voice that still sounded a bit hollow. “Fight smart. Don’t die. I get it. Yeah. Mister Seth would say that.”

I wanted to say more. Hell, I wanted to do more. But there was nothing else to be said or done. Not in that moment. Instead, I looked to the other young girl of the group. “Right, um, Bobbi… like I said, it’s bad up there.”

“I can help.” The girl’s voice was firm as she drew herself up. “Mister Seth was–I wanna help. You’re not leaving me behind.” She stared at me, face hidden behind the helmet of her costume. But I had a feeling that she was scowling challengingly, just waiting for me to try to insist.

Yet again, there was a lot I wanted to say to that. And yes, I did want to leave her behind. I wanted to leave both her and Namythiet behind. But I couldn’t, because it would’ve been incredibly hypocritical. So, I simply turned to walk. “Right then, like Miranda said, let’s go help them.

“And hope that the people who are supposed to be helping us aren’t too far behind. Because quite frankly, I’m not sure how long we’re gonna be able to keep this going.”

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On The Edge 42-05

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A dozen weapons snapped up into position as Asenath stepped into view. But she didn’t attack. Instead, the vampire girl took a couple steps out with her hands up and slowly cast her gaze over them. Her voice was simple. “I am going to give all of you a chance to walk away.”

Well, that made the group blink. They glanced to one another before their apparent leader advanced a few steps. He had his sword in one hand, the energy blade ignited as he stared at her. “And why would we walk away?”

Asenath smiled faintly. “Because I will let you. My quarrel is with Kushiel. I have no desire to kill so many of my own people.”

That definitely got their attention. I could see the confusion written across their faces, as they tried to parse that. Which meant that it was showtime.

A glowing figure appeared in front of Asenath. My figure. I wasn’t possessing the girl herself, of course. She was a hybrid (daughter of a human vampire and an Akharu), and I didn’t happen to have an Excalibur on me to compensate (useful as that would have been). Instead, I had been possessing a tiny piece of wood Asenath was holding.

Before that, however, I had taken the time to enchant my clothes with a simple glowing light spell, cranking it up to maximum. As a result, as I emerged, my form looked like it was glowing identical to how a Seosten stepping out of their host looked. Then I simply dismissed the light spells after a second.

Now the collective Seosten soldiers could see me. Only they weren’t seeing me. Nor were they seeing the red-haired girl whose appearance I’d been using up to that point.

They were seeing Sariel. I had copied her form as exactly as I could, down to the most minute detail. Which was helped by Tabbris. These other Seosten would perfectly remember any picture, hologram, or whatever they had ever seen of the woman. But my little sister had the same memory, and she knew her mother a lot better than they did. We were as close to an exact copy of Sariel as possible.

I also held a bow in one hand, which added to the illusion. For a long second or two I let my eyes sweep over the group, who looked as though they had no idea what to do. My mouth opened and I tried to copy Sariel’s voice and speaking patterns.

“My quarrel, as I said, is with Kushiel. You are my people, as… estranged as we may be. I do not wish to kill you. But I think we know that I will if you force me to.” With those words, I put my fingers to the string of the bow to make an arrow appear, drawing it back. I didn’t aim at anyone just yet, simply pointing the bow at the floor, but the threat was implicit.

All twelve young Seosten took a step back, collectively. They looked even more uncertain. No one wanted to be the one to start a fight with an Olympian, let alone one with Sariel’s reputation. They knew they should fight, since the bounty or whatever on the woman’s head was probably astronomical. But having her (apparently) right here in front of them made all that a different story. It was one thing to brag and dream about how you could beat someone and claim a reward in the safety of hypotheticals. But it was quite another to have the opportunity thrust in front of you.

Still, the guy in charge was clearly more afraid of an eventual retaliation by Kushiel. Which was fair. Steeling himself, he raised his chin. “We can take you. You’re rusty.” He was obviously trying to convince himself, and the others, of that.

“Am I?” I asked simply, keeping my voice calm despite the fact of how nervous I was. This was the real test. If this didn’t work, they’d never believe that I was who I appeared to be. It was time to see if our plan and preparations meant anything.

“Maybe you’re right,” I allowed, slowly lowering the bow. Holding it in one hand, I put my other hand behind my head as though scratching my neck. Using one finger, I pointed down to the spot on the floor right behind my feet, which were pressed together. With that gesture, I created a tiny portal there. The other end led to a spot past all the men.

Asenath, her actions hidden by my body, produced an arrow of her own, one that I had used the bow to create earlier. Silently, she positioned it over the portal and gave it a sharp toss, so that it dropped through and embedded itself in the floor behind the Seosten at an angle.

Right as the arrow struck the floor, I spoke up loudly to cover the sound. “Or maybe…”

Without another word, I snapped the bow back into position, drawing the arrow back once more while keeping my eyes on the man who had been speaking. Without looking, I aimed the bow somewhere to the side of him and let the arrow fly.

Several things happened all at once in the next instant, all of them incredibly important for this to work. First, I thumbed over the control on the bow that turned off the arrow, erasing it in mid-flight.

At the same time, I focused on the rifles that three of the men in the vague path of where I had fired were holding. More specifically, I focused on the sand that I had spent the past several minutes before we revealed ourselves carefully floating through the air to position against the sides and bottoms of those rifles, as well as inside the barrels themselves (I’d actually done the same with all the guns, but those were the only three within the right area). With a thought, I suddenly shoved hard against all of that sand, the unexpected force jerking the weapons from the men’s hands. Quickly, I used the flying sand to direct the guns passed all the men, dropping them right over the arrow that had been embedded in the floor, so that they all fell with the arrow through their trigger guards, stacked like that.

The Seosten all whipped around. From their point of view, I had simply fired an arrow, three different rifles from different people had all been knocked out of their hands, and as they managed to turn all the way around to look behind them, those rifles were on the floor with an arrow through them. It was completely absurd, yet well within Sariel’s ability.

More importantly, it was not within the ability of any random person. Or it shouldn’t have been.

For a moment, the Seosten simply stood there, mouths agape as they stared at the arrow with the guns attached. None of them said anything, none of them moved. So I decided to hurry their reaction along.

“As I said,” I announced to draw their attention back to me while notching another arrow, “My quarrel is with Kushiel. But I am getting impatient.”

Your turn, partner.

Tabbris took over my mouth, using my voice to issue a long, complicated diatribe in Latin about how they needed to leave so that I (or Sariel) could issue a formal challenge against Kushiel, and that any of them who got in the way would be collateral damage. She made my voice hard and uncompromising, while I lifted the bow to make the point further, slowly panning it over each of the soldiers, as though daring each of them to be the one who tried something.

Shockingly, none of them wanted to be that person. They all looked at one another once more, looking extremely reluctant. Then one of them asked, “Sir, where’s the other one?”

“Other one?” the one who had been speaking to me directly distractedly replied.

“Other one,” the first confirmed. “Twins, sir. The twins. There’s one. Where’s the… the other one? There’s one, where’s the other one?

Now they were really looking around, turning as though Apollo might be standing directly behind them. Murmurs grew louder, and when they looked to me, I simply smiled.

It was enough. I wasn’t sure which one was first, but within a moment they were all racing for various doorways, abandoning their post in a rush.

Asenath coughed behind me while straightening up. “Huh, it doesn’t look like Kushiel inspires much in the way of loyalty.”

Smirking despite myself at that, I started to respond. Before I could, however, the sound of running footsteps at one of the other side doors drew our attention that way. But I recognized the objects and clothes that I could detect, and settled.

Sure enough, the new arrivals were Deveron, Wyatt, Koren, Abigail, Miranda, and Theia. They had apparently all met up at some point, and came skidding into the room. Seeing me there, looking the way that I did, all of them froze with clear confusion.

“Hi, guys,” I announced before shifting back to the red-haired form. “You might say, Sariel was here in spirit.”

Theia was the first to react, laughing almost immediately. With a cackle, she insisted, “We want to hear that story when this is over.”

“We came to help,” Deveron noted. “But it doesn’t look like you need it.”

Quickly, we exchanged the most important information. They knew basically what was going on, thanks to Roxa. Apparently Twister, Bobbi, and Namythiet’s efforts were paying off, allowing Francis to advance closer and closer. Every area he was able to enter, he cleared out the threats within very quickly. It would only be a matter of time before he got here.

“Still too long,” I insisted. “We have to get into that office, through to the panic room, and get that owner lady to expel these guys.”

Miranda nodded. “Before they get into the vault. The werewolves are already at the door with Larees and one of my other selves. They’re–we’re–whatever, they’re trying to stall them.”

“We need that Francis guy,” Asenath announced quietly. “He can get through the panic room door. But he can’t get here until all those spell things are destroyed.”

Deveron nodded. “Twister and the others are doing their best. There’s just… so damn many of them all over the place. We broke a few on the way down here, as many as we could find. But the Seosten were ready for something like this. They’ve got dozens of redundant devices overlapping everywhere. In a delaying game, they’ve got an advantage.”

“Do you know how they’re doing up by the door?” I asked quickly.

Deveron paused at that, turning his head as though focusing on something else for a moment before he looked back to me and answered solemnly, “Not well. They’re keeping them busy for now, but… we need to finish this.”

My attention turned to Wyatt. “Can you get through into the panic room? Or find a way to disable all those things at once?”

I saw his adam’s apple bob up and down a couple times as he swallowed hard before shaking his head. “Oh, oh yeah. With weeks. Days maybe. Not hours. Not minutes. Definitely not minutes. Stupid. Stupid. Should have been ready for this. Should have practiced. Should have anticipated that. Should’ve. Good for one thing: breaking spells. Good for one thing. Spells. Making spells. Breaking spells. Good for that. Have to do that. Have to be ready to do that. Hah, but I can’t do that now? Why can’t I do that now? Why, why, why?”

His hand moved to smack himself on the head, but Abigail caught his wrist. “Stop it. You’re not only good for one thing. Do you have any idea how much you contribute to…” She swallowed hard before shaking her head, not letting his wrist go. “You are very important.”

“Your sister’s right, Wyatt,” Deveron agreed softly. “You are pretty much the most amazing mage I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I’ve known a lot. Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve made of yourself…” He trailed off, looking toward Abigail and Koren. “Everything you’ve made of yourselves… is amazing. You earned it. Your mother would— is proud of you. I know she is.”

“I only had the pleasure of meeting her three times,” Francis Gale announced while entering the foyer with Twister, Bobbi, Clubber, and Namythiet. “And I don’t know any of the rest of you at all. But I would agree. She definitely wanted children, and she would absolutely be proud of each and every one of you.”

That said, the man slowly looked around the room. “Now… how many of you are her children?”

Immediately, he shook off that point. “Never mind. Later.”

He did, however, let his eyes linger on Deveron even as he addressed everyone. “She’s in really bad trouble, isn’t she?”

We all, even Miranda and Theia, confirmed that, and the man nodded. “Then I’ll help. She helped me, more than once. I’ll be there, whatever she needs. Whatever her family needs. It’s like Caela’s mother said a long time ago, Joselyn Atherby and her family will always be welcome here. But let’s kick this infestation out of my home first.”

With that, the man moved to the door at the far end of the foyer, the only one that hadn’t been used yet. As he approached, the door silently opened, and I saw an elegant office beyond. “The panic room is through here.”

“Go,” Asenath told us. “We’ll wait out here, just in case our friends come wandering back again.”

Twister, Namythiet, and Bobbi agreed, before Theia shrugged. “If danger comes, we want to be here for it.”

Finally, Miranda stayed with them as well, sending a duplicate with the rest of us.

Leaving them behind, we headed into the office. I looked over across the sparsely, yet beautifully decorated room to where Francis was pressing his hand against what looked like a blank wall. He murmured something under his breath, then drew a rune with his other hand. That went on for a few long seconds before the man finally stepped back. As he did so, the room around us suddenly changed. Apparently we were transported directly into the safe room. I didn’t know if that was an automatic thing, or his doing. Either way, there we were.

There, in this case, was some kind of command center. There were screens all over the walls showing various parts of the hotel, both inside and outside on the street. I could see Larees and the other good Seosten on one of the screens, fighting alongside the werewolves and one of Miranda’s duplicates. Roxa had joined them. On another screen, Athena and Abaddon were tearing their way through pretty much a whole floor of the hotel. So at least she was keeping him busy.

There were also weapons on racks lining every spot of wall that didn’t have a screen on it, and an open door in the back led to what looked like a pantry with months, if not years, worth of food in it, judging by what little I could see.

Two figures stood by the monitors, a tall woman with sleek, dark hair and aristocratic features who wore a crisp suit, and a younger man who looked as though he would be quite handsome if his ears and nose weren’t too big for his face.

“Francis,” the woman started immediately, sounding relieved that he was there before she suddenly noticed the rest of us. “Who are these people? What is going on?”

“They—” Francis started. But before he could get more than that single word out, a glowing red force field suddenly appeared around the woman and what was obviously her son.

The man with too-big ears sighed, straightening a bit. “I knew this was going to happen,” he lamented. “All the effort to keep this quiet, and yet I knew that somehow, all of you would find your way in here. It’s quite impressive, really. Quite impressive indeed. I would offer to shake your hands, but… well, forcefield.”

“Radueriel,” I realized immediately.

“How long do you think you can hide in there?” Deveron demanded. Even as he spoke, the man was charging up some kind of power on his fist. Francis, who had pretty much instantly figured things out as well, was doing the same.

“What?” Caela turned at that, snapping a pistol from her jacket and pointing it at him. “What have you done to my son?”

Radueriel used the man’s mouth to smile. “Don’t worry, ‘mother’. They’re right, the force field won’t last long. But then, it doesn’t have to.”

My mouth open to shout a warning, and I wasn’t the only one. But we were all too late. Radueriel boosted his host. Suddenly, he was standing beside her, with her gun in his hand. His other arm was around her throat. When he spoke, it clearly wasn’t to us. “When our… relationship began, I made certain promises as to the safety of your loved ones. As you have behaved, I find myself willing to go to certain lengths to maintain those promises. Remember that.”

With those words, the man abruptly dropped the pistol, producing some kind of badge instead, which he slapped against Caela’s arm before pressing it. In a flash of light, she disappeared.

An instant after that, Deveron and Francis both hit the shield so hard that it too vanished. Francis crossed the room in a blur, slamming into the possessed man before hauling him off the ground to shove against the wall. “Where is she?!” he demanded in a thunderous voice.

Radueriel, through his host, simply smiled. “I made promises, as I said. I promised that she could not be killed. But we can hardly give you access to her. She’s gone now, and it will take quite some time for her to be collected. Too long to do you any good. My apologies for the inconvenience.”

With a low growl, Francis leaned in close. “Let… the boy… go.”

Again, that simple smile. “Certainly.”

Then he was there. In a brief flash of light, Radueriel was suddenly standing a few feet away. As we all rounded on him (save for his now-former host, who collapsed to the floor), he held up a hand. In it was clasped some kind of detonator. “Uh uh. Trust me, none of you want to test me right now. I’m teetering right on the edge between appreciation for your effort and ingenuity, and annoyance at your persistence. Though, in this case, I suppose it hardly matters. You were nice enough to walk right into the trap, after all. Thank you for that.”

“What tra–” Koren started before abruptly slapping her own head. “The panic room!”  

His smile found her, and the cyborg man confirmed it with a nod. “During my stay here, I took the liberty of installing my own control over this room. As of now, no one may exit. So I strongly suggest that you sit back, watch the monitors, and observe while we handle this long-festering vault problem. Have very pleasant lives, all of you. No hard feelings.”

With that, Radueriel touched a spell inscribed into his mechanical arm. Instantly, he disappeared, leaving the rest of us trapped in that panic room with no way out, no way to help the others, or to stop Kushiel from getting to the vault and claiming Liesje’s spell before Avalon and the others could get to it. No way to do anything at all. But hey, at least the room was named properly.

Because I was definitely panicking.  

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On The Edge 42-04

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Quickly (and as concisely as possible) I explained the situation. I told the man about the Seosten, and about the vault they were trying to break into and why in as few words as I could manage without being too confusing. I told him about Athena fighting Ares, as well as the fact that Radueriel was controlling the security and other staff. I told him about how we’d come in to protect the vault, and why we couldn’t be up front about it, because we didn’t know who to trust.

He listened through all of it as I sped through the explanation, his expression pensive as he clearly stopped himself from speaking up a couple times so that he could hear the whole thing. Once I finished, he let out a long, low sigh before announcing, “This war shouldn’t have come here. The guests are supposed to be safe. We promised them that they were safe.”

Wincing, I nodded. “I’m sorry the Auberge was dragged into this. We had to come stop them. If we didn’t—”

He stopped me with a raised hand. “I know. You… you are your mother’s daughter. The Seosten need to be expelled from this place, now.”

My mouth open, before I caught myself. “Err, before I say anything else, can we get back to the girls I was with? They’re probably losing their minds right about now. I kind of have this habit of disappearing.”

The man looked at me for a moment, then gave a very tiny smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “mother’s daughter. And your friends are–”

That was as far as he got before the nearby door was kicked in. It came off its hinges, and both Larees and Asenath came through like they were bringing the fury of hell with them. Which, given the flames around Larees, might have been an apt comparison.

“Wait!” I blurted, jumping in the way before this could get any worse. “Wait! It’s okay! He’s–Uhh, he’s on our side. Or, you know, on the hotel’s side.”

They exchanged glances, then squinted at me. Asenath flicked her attention to the man in question and seemed… well, not very happy. Which I couldn’t blame her for. But at least they weren’t attacking. Taking advantage of that, I briefly introduced them before realizing I didn’t know the man’s name.

“Francis,” he announced, apparently immediately realizing the same thing. “Francis Gale. And I want these Seosten and their people out of this hotel.”

“Any more contact from anyone else?” I asked the other two, not really expecting any, but I had been surprised before.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times, both shook their heads. Asenath spoke quietly. “We don’t know where anyone is, just that they’re busy fighting. And we are pretty sure no one’s managed to find Kushiel yet. Or Radueriel himself. Just the people his devices are controlling.”

“Which is a distraction,” I put in. “We could fight those guys for hours while the real threats break right into the vault. We need to find the room they’re trying to break into. And get everyone together again.”

Francis shook his head. “No, you don’t. You just need to get to Caela Tombs’ office. She’s the owner. If you get to her and explain what’s going on, she can expel them. Privilege of the owner. They can expel any guest, which sends them out of the Auberge immediately.”

Asenath did a quick double take at that. “You mean we can cut this whole thing off at the pass by kicking them out of the building before they ever get to that vault.” She looked to me then, eyes solemn. “We have to get to the owner.”

Larees was nodding, but her eyes were on Francis. “Yeah, but I have a feeling if it was that simple, he’d be on his way to do it already.”

“Hey, yeah.” I looked back to the man. “You should know where she is, right? Can you just grab her. Hell, you just made that portal, can’t you just portal us to where she is?”

He winced, looking apologetic. “There is a problem with that. They’ve done something with these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like a silver ball ornament with some kind of circuitry running over it. “They’ve got these all over the hotel. They’re blocking my power. I’m a hybrid Steward. Basically it means I draw my power from my home and the people in it. But these things cut me off from that power. They must have been planting them for days, at least. They just turned them on, and wherever they are, I can’t use my power until they’re broken. I can’t even leave the safe area or I’ll… well, it won’t be pretty. That’s why I had to wait for you to come into my range, and we only teleported over a couple hallways.”

I exhaled, trying not to make it sound like too much of a sigh. “Right, so if we break those things, you can come with us and help get to that owner lady so that she can expel the Seosten.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Caela and her son will be in the panic room by now. If I can get to it, I can open it. Then I can tell her who to expel. She won’t just kick every guest out without knowing what’s going on. And she doesn’t know that our security has been compromised. So I have to get to her.” He paused then, looking like it was hard for him to add the next part. “But I need your help to do that.”

Larees was taking a long, steady pull from her flask. “Sounds like we need to get everyone focused on breaking those devices from here to the panic room.” She paused, taking another gulp before her eyes found the man once more. “I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough for it to be somewhat close to here.”

Sure enough, he shook his head. Raising a hand, he created an image of a map on the wall. It showed a side view of the hotel. “We’re standing here. The office with the safe room access is here.” The place he demonstrated was a full eight floors from where we were standing and on the opposite side of the building.

Makes sense, Tabbris silently put in. They’d want to trap him as far from being able to help as they could.

Agreeing with that, I passed the point on verbally before adding, “Everyone’s spread out right now, fighting security and the Seosten themselves while they look for that room.”

“Nine twelve.” That was Francis. “The room you’re looking for is nine twelve. And from what you said, it sounds like their leaders were staying in nine thirteen, next door. Here.” He showed us on the map.

I started to say something to that, but the man abruptly held up a hand. “Wait, something’s coming.” He put himself in front of me clearly protectively, which made me blink. My mother really must have made an impression on him. I’d have to ask him about that sometime. And also ask him how he remembered her after everything had been erased. Was it because the Auberge was in a pocket dimension, like how the Meregan has remembered her by being in another universe?

With one hand, Francis produced a long, wicked looking red-bladed sword. All of us watched that open doorway, before a wolf came trotting in. A familiar wolf.

“Wait!” I blurted once more, slipping out from behind the man. “It’s Roxa, she’s on our side.”

A moment later, Gidget entered as well, and Roxa transformed. Belatedly, I realized that she was wearing one of the Seosten bodysuits. Apparently spending some time at that camp had resulted in a little present.

Brief introductions and explanations were passed back and forth, and then the werewolf girl looked over to me. “It’s World War Three out there,” she blurted. “Everyone’s pretty much avoiding this area right here, but beyond that, it’s pure chaos.”

“They’re staying away from where Francis has power,” I realized. “Which means we need to make that area bigger. We need to break those blocker things, and get to the safe room. If we can get the owner to expel them before they get into the vault, we win.”

Roxa held up a prepared bit of wood. “I can use my fossa to get to everyone and pass the message about breaking those things. And about where the vault door is so they can head that way just in case. But I’ll need someone to watch my back.” Her eyes glanced toward her partner before she added, “Someone to help Gidget, that is.”

“I will make certain no one harms you,” Francis promised.

Larees nodded. “I’ll head for the vault access myself, try to stall them as much as possible. And collect people along the way.”

I looked to Asenath then. “I guess you and I are going to fight our way to the safe room and break all those ornament things we can find.“

Her smile was humorless, and I could see the pain of loss in her eyes. “Break things and fight people. You know, I think I’m ready to do that right now.”

Looking toward Roxa, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“As okay as anyone else in here,” she pointed out, “or anyone trying to get to the vault from the other end. It’s fine. I can use the spell, and I can communicate through it. My fossa’s quick and agile. I can make it to where everyone is and tell them about breaking the things trapping Francis here, and where the room is. I can do that. You guys go get the owner to kick these bastards out.”

Returning her nod, I looked back to Asenath. “Then I guess it’s you and me. Though I am kind of at a disadvantage. The second I pull out my staff, they’re gonna know who I am. Which means they’ll  know what I can do. They’ll know I can possess them. And that’s probably something we should hold back. Knowledge is power, you know.”

“Do you know how to use any other weapon?” Francis asked.

“I’ve got a knife I can use,” I replied. “Not to mention my werelion claws. And I’ve been training with the bow for awhile.” Even saying those words made me think of Rudolph and I flinched inwardly. Focus. Grieve later, for him, for Seth, for everyone we needed to grieve for.

Holding one hand out, Francis produced a silver bow with a golden string. “It’ll produce arrows when you draw it back,” he informed me. “But it’ll only last as long as you’re here in the hotel.” He paused then before adding, “And try not to kill anyone that you don’t have to, okay? The guests here are supposed to be safe.”

I smiled, taking it. “I will, thanks.” Looking to the others, I nodded. “Right, let’s do this then.”

*******

A tall, thin figure with purple skin and gray hair who wore a security uniform caught the arrow that had been shooting toward his leg. In a single motion, he flipped the arrow around and threw it back at me. I barely managed to snap my head out of the way.

Yeah, I was really missing my own weapon right about then. This one produced real arrows that didn’t even explode. I was back in the form of red-headed Gabrielle, hoping that Athena‘s suggestion that I keep my presence and identity secret for as long as possible would pay off.

Just as the arrow passed my head, Asenath was there to catch it. Then she was a practically invisible blur, suddenly arriving behind the security guy who had appeared in our path. The arrow lashed out to cut the man’s leg, and then she gave him a shot of against the wall as he fell. Looking to me, she beckoned. I gave the man one last look while he was trying to pick himself up before running past him. On the way, I reached out and brush the hand across his flailing arm, giving him a quick look to make sure there wasn’t a Seosten there.

Roxa had been right, the area beyond the place where Francis had his powers was total and complete chaos. There were bodies lying here and there, screams coming from every direction, and we kept being attacked from all sides. People were popping out of rooms to attack us. Some thought they were defending themselves, while others were being controlled. Even that latter wasn’t always the same. Some were controlled by actual Seosten, while others were simply taken over by Radueriel’s toys. It was a total madhouse. And I was pretty sure there was a bad fire somewhere nearby.

Complicating things even further was the fact that we were looking for those little blocker things that were keeping Francis trapped. Apparently the Seosten hadn’t been nice enough to have only one thing per area. There were dozens overlapping the same spot, and they weren’t exactly easy to find. We needed help.

Reaching the bank of elevators for that floor, we were just in time to see a large gorilla pick up one of the uniformed security and truck him against the nearest wall, where he slumped. A Seosten popped out of him with a laser sword, only to be met with a fist to the face from another Seosten who popped out of the gorilla before catching the falling energy blade by the handle and used it to backhand his surprised opponent.

A second later, a figure moving even faster than Asenath suddenly appeared. That Bobbi girl, in some kind of armored costume thing. She skidded to a halt, throwing out on arm before an arc of electricity shot from her fingers to connect with a man who had been moving behind what was obviously Twister and her Seosten partner.

Then there was Namythiet. And Clubber. The latter came racing down the hallway from the opposite direction we had approached from. Right behind the green sabertooth tiger cub came a huge troll of some kind. He was almost too big to fit in the hallway, his pounding footsteps thundering as he charged after the little animal with a roar.

I quickly moved to intervene, but it wasn’t necessary. Right before the tiger would have been covered, the even tinier figure of Namythiet shot down from the ceiling where she had been hiding. The pixie landed on the troll’s head and stuck something to his face. There was a flash of energy and then the troll suddenly collapsed, snoring heavily after his body hit the ground.

“Nighty night!” Namythiet crowed, waiting down at the unconscious figure as she hovered in the air before noticing us. “Hiya!”

Zipping closer, she hovered in front of our faces while Twister and Bobbi also approached. “Everyone went crazy, but we haven’t found the vault door thingy yet. Is Mr. Seth with Athena still?”

Oh God, what was I supposed to say to that? She looked so expectant, looking back and forth between us without the slightest clue of what we had to tell her. Seth was her teacher, her friend. He took her seriously when so many others dismissed her as a useless, tiny pest. This would hurt her so much.

“Who?” That was Twister, clearly instantly reading our silent expressions.

“Who what?” Bobbi asked, blinking between us. Then she got it too. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but her body language changed completely, slumping. “Oh no.”

“What?” Namythiet looked confused. Or maybe she just wanted to be confused, clinging to that uncertainty for the precious last second or two that she could before reality settled in fully.

It was Asenath who answered. “Ares. It was Ares. I’m sorry. None of us could do anything. It was over before—”

“Don’t.” Namythiet shook her head quickly. She was so small I couldn’t see her eyes very well. But I could hear the emotion in her voice, could tell that she was barely clinging on. “We don’t talk about it right now, okay? We don’t talk about it. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” Her voice kept rising with each word, becoming more desperate as she suddenly blurted out loud, “Don’t tell me!”

So we changed the subject. Quickly, I explained what we were doing, giving a very brief summary. When I got to the part about the spell ball things that were blocking Francis’s power, Bobbi abruptly held one up.

“You mean these things? I drained a couple of them for power back there. I didn’t know what they were, but they tasted good.”

My eyes widened at that. “Can you do that with more of them? Say, all the ones you can find?”

She nodded easily. “Sure. But the finding them part might be a little tricky.”

“I can do that.” Namythiet’s voice was firm, determined. “I can program one of them to find the others. Then you can drain them. At least, I think I can…” Despite her determination, she suddenly sounded a little doubtful. Losing Seth had rocked her that badly.

“You can.” The voice came from Clubber. Or from the Seosten who stepped up from him, carefully holding the emerald kitten in both arms. She was shorter than my natural body was, with red hair that was almost pink and worn long. “I know what these are. I can help you make something to locate them. With a Hephaesetical pixie, it shouldn’t be hard.”

The Seosten who had been in Twister cleared his throat. “The rest of us–Seosten that is, can head for the vault. We’ll do what we can to help the others stop the malefica from getting into that room.”

“And I’ll play muscle down here with these guys,” Twister announced. “We’ll get it done.”

“You’ll have help,” I put in then. “Roxa’s getting the word out to the others. But if you can get a jump on things while we get to that office…”

“Go,” Twister urged. “We’ve got this.”

I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to the pixie some more and make sure she would be okay. I wanted to do a lot of things, but there wasn’t time. There was never time. So, with one last look back, Asenath and I rushed on. The elevators were completely locked down, so we had to use the stairs, and there were plenty more problems in our way. We fought our way through said problems, trying to do as little damage as possible while still getting past the people trying to kill us.

It was slow going, but eventually, we reached the area right before the office where the panic room was. There was only one real problem still in our way. Or rather, a lot of problems.

“That is many, many guards,” Asenath noted in a whisper. The two of us were peeking through a side door in at a large foyer which was full of about a dozen Seosten soldiers. They wore the same cadet bodysuit that had been pointed out to me before. So they weren’t that old, but still. A dozen was too many. Especially given that they were ready and waiting, clearly guarding the office.

“We could try it,” Senny whispered, “but I don’t like our odds. That’s a lot of bad guys, and we don’t happen to have an Olympian with us to help right now.”

My mouth open to respond, then I stopped. My head tilted.

Yes, my little partner put in. Yes, we can do it.

“I have an idea,” I announced aloud. “But I need to know how much you trust me.”

Asenath blinked. “Of course I trust you. But is this a good idea, or a completely fucking insane idea?”

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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Interlude 38A – Asenath, Bobbi, and Company

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It was a rather eclectic group that sat in the buffet restaurant at the table furthest from both the entrance and the food, away from where anyone else was. Two vampires, one pixie, a human girl in her early teens, and a green-furred sabertooth tiger cub. They were, to put it mildly, a group that would have stood out to anyone who was capable of actually seeing through the Bystander Effect.

Of course, to those who could not, the ordinary humans in this place, they still looked perhaps a bit odd. To those humans, sitting at the table were a white adult male, a half-Asian female in her late teens, a half-black girl in her early teens, and a cat.

Namythiet the pixie, meanwhile, was basically invisible to humans. They would see her at first, or when she deliberately drew attention to herself, and then instantly forget her before they could actually react to it.

Halfway through her second plate, Bobbi Camren pointed to the green-furred animal with her fork. “I still can’t believe they let us get away with bringing Clubber in.”

Smirking a bit at that, Seth reached out to brush the cloth animal-vest that Clubber wore. The vest designated him as a handicap assistant animal. “No one wants to be the one to tell a handicapped person they can’t have their assistance or comfort animal. Long as we keep him away from the serving tables over there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Clubber, for his part, looked down at the licked-clean plate in front of him before turning a yearning gaze toward the tables in question while making a soft whimpering sound.

“Don’t worry, partner!” Namythiet gave her animal friend a quick thumbs up while launching into the air on fast-beating wings. “I got it!” She flew off quickly to retrieve more food for the hungry feline.

From where she was sitting, Asenath raised her hand as if to say something about that before simply shaking her head and lowering the hand. “Never mind,” she murmured.

Seth chuckled, spearing a piece of very rare, bloody steak with his fork. “Might as well let them fill up as much as they want. This next one’s going to be rough. Probably the hardest one out of the bunch.”

“That’s why we saved it for last,” Asenath pointed out. “We’ve got everything else Gaia asked for. This is the only piece left. Well, that and the fact that we had to wait for a time when it was even reachable at all.”

Bobbi blinked back and forth between them. “You guys said you already got a piece of a dragon, right? Weren’t they supposed to be like the most powerful things ever? You made me write that report on them a few days ago.”

“Yeah,”  Seth confirmed, “and you totally earned that B plus. But while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that math homework when we’re done with this.”

The vampires and pixie had recruited Bobbi to help them with their mission. They had explained everything they were doing, at least as much of it as they understood, and the girl had wanted to help. Not to mention the fact that they could explain a lot more about what the hell was going on in this world than she had managed to put together in her time working as a superhero with her inherited powers. Thanks to them, she knew about the world of Heretics and Alters, and about the Seosten. And she wanted to help, really help.

So they had taken a page from the Crossroads book and convinced her father that she was being recruited by a private school, with a full scholarship and everything.

To Bobbi’s surprise, it had turned out that her new friends actually took the school thing seriously. They made her study of human and Alter/Heretic subjects, quizzing her at times, and even giving her homework to do. If she didn’t get the work done, she didn’t get to help. They taught her history, math, magic, English, even a bit of foreign languages. They took her education very seriously between them. Just like they took her training seriously. They kept teaching her more ways to use her power, as well as how to protect herself with and without it. They put her through an educational and physical boot camp of sorts.

Asenath and Seth seemed to argue a fair bit. Okay, more than a fair bit. But on Bobbi’s education and training, they were pretty much always in complete agreement: she needed more of it.

“Math, got it,” the girl confirmed before asking, “but what about this really hard thing. You really mean it’s worse than the dragon piece? I might’ve gotten a B-plus, but I distinctly remember dragons being basically the most powerful things ever.”

“You’re not wrong,” Seth agreed, leaning back a bit in his seat before adding, “Bits of dragon are probably more rare, but the thing we’re going after is still harder to get to. It’s… complicated. Let’s just say, we got a bit lucky with the dragon piece. This one’s more specific. That could have been any bit of dragon. But the thing we’re after now has to be this one. Well… there’s another, but it’s even more impossible to get to. This is the only one that’s actually vaguely reachable. Which means we don’t get to pick and choose a piece that’s less guarded. This one’s going to be a pain in the ass to get to, but we don’t have a choice. It’s the one we need.”

“Which is why you need to eat up,” Asenath finished for him, using her fork to point at the girl. “And remember the rules. You have the necklace?”

Nodding promptly, Bobbi reached into her pocket to take out the necklace that Namythiet had made for her. It was part of her agreement with them. If, at any point while they were on one of these missions, one of them felt that things were too much for the girl, they would give her the codeword. At that point, Bobbi was to touch the necklace and speak the word that would activate the spell on it. That spell would teleport her to safety.

They had sworn to the girl that if they told her to use it and she didn’t, assuming they all survived they would take her home immediately and leave her there. They only agreed to let her come with them and help on the conditions that she continue her schooling under them, and that she listen to all of their orders. And part of that was to retreat when they told her to.

Besides, Bobbi was pretty sure they had ways of activating the necklace against her wishes anyway, should she try to disobey and stick around. It just felt like something they’d do, given their obsession with keeping her as safe as possible while still letting her help.

By that point, Namythiet was on her way back to the table, carrying a plate laden with various meats. A few people glanced that way before turning back to what they were doing.

“Err,” Bobbi leaned forward a bit, lowering her voice reflexively. “What do people see when they look at that? Do they just, like, completely forget the plate, or think that they saw a normal person carrying it?”

“Eh,” Seth drawled while glancing that way, “you know, I’m not sure, exactly. Probably depends on the person, but I’d say… they mostly forget it. Yeah, they probably forget it.”

Namythiet had reached the table by then, carefully setting the plate down in front of Clubber, who immediately started to happily chow down on the selection of meat.

“See, buddy?” the pixie chimed while patting her furry friend on the head, “I’ve got your back.” She took a small piece for herself then before hovering over to sit in the middle of the table at the dish that she was using. “Hey, are we ready to plan out this job or what?”

Asenath gave a faint nod at that, taking a bite of her salad. “When Twister gets back from making sure there’s no last-minute instructions or advice from Sinclaire.”  

“Wait, when do I get to meet this Gaia person?” Bobbi put in quickly. “She sounds interesting. You said she’s like… the principal of the whole school full of these zealot guys, right? But she’s nice? How many other ‘nice’ zealots are there?”

“It’s complicated,” Asenath informed her. “But yeah, there’s some nice ones. And some really not nice ones. Mostly the latter at the moment, unfortunately. As for Gaia, you’ll meet her… eventually. Hopefully as soon as she can pull herself away from the school once we get this last piece.”

Seth grunted an agreement. “From the way she was talking, she’ll need everything pretty soon. Sounds like this spell she’s cooking up is gonna take some time to work.”

“Maybe she’ll actually tell us what she needs all this stuff for,” Namythiet huffed, clearly annoyed that she hadn’t been able to figure it out from the ingredients that they had been gathering. “Secrets are annoying, you know.”

By that point, Bobbi had been around the group long enough to know what that meant. “You mean they’re annoying if you don’t know what they are.”

“That’s exactly what she means.” The voice came from Twister, the final member of their group, as she approached the table. Like Bobbi, her skin was dark. She also looked younger than the other girl, though that much was… well, complicated, to say the least.

Sliding onto a seat at the table, Twister grabbed roll from Seth’s plate, munching as she continued, “Pixies like knowing secrets. Part of being sneaky little shits.” The last was said with a wink in the tiny, winged-girl’s direction.

Huffing at that, Namythiet folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, we’re so small, we have to take advantages where we can get ‘em. Part of that is not being noticed when people are talking about private things.”

For a moment then, Bobbi just sat in her chair and marveled at everything that had happened in such a short time. For a year, she had done everything she could to protect her small neighborhood from the worst of the monsters she found hunting within it. She’d had no idea about the wider world beyond, no way of understanding just what she was, why she’d gained her powers from the dead mobster, or why the non-humans who realized that the girl could see what they were happened to be so afraid.

She didn’t know anything. Then she’d met Twister and Asenath, and the others by extension. Through them, she had learned so much more. And now she was helping them do… well, she didn’t know what. And neither did they. But it was something important, that much was clear. She was helping them, learning from them. It was cool, but it was also dangerous.

And she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She liked her new little family. She wanted to protect them, help them, learn from them. She wanted to be a part of them, even when they teased her.

She missed her father, and her imprisoned mother. But Bobbi truly felt as though she belonged here, with these people. Despite not knowing the group for very long, she felt close to them. Their problems were her problems, and she was going to help any way that she could.

“Yooooo.” That was Twister, waving a hand in front of Bobbi’s face. “Earth to space cadet. You okay in there?”

Flushing a little at the realization that she had been zoning out again, Bobbi quickly nodded. “Sure, yeah, I’m here. What’d you find out from the Gaia lady?”

So Twister told them, and the group finished eating as they planned out how they were going to grab what would apparently be the most difficult item on Gaia Sinclaire’s list of magical ingredients.

And once she heard what the thing they were going after actually was, Bobbi didn’t question why it would be so hard to acquire anymore.

In fact, she wondered if they would even be able to pull it off.

******

The horrific, deafening sound of a machine gun filled the air like the roar of a beast clawing its way up out of hell itself. Hundreds of bullets ricocheted off of the glowing, blue-white shield that Bobbi held in front of herself in those few seconds. Then the girl focused on the other aspect of her power: her speed.

Instantly, everything went almost completely still. She could see even more bullets almost completely frozen in the air. And beyond them, she saw the massive, eight-foot tall gray-furred figure holding the machine gun in one hand (he had a giant axe in his other hand). He was frozen in mid-laugh, head thrown back as he tried to mow Bobbi and the others down.

The others. Twister was a bear, one frying-pan sized paw currently busy slamming a green-skinned amphibian figure to the ground while his own broken gun lay uselessly nearby.

Senny had a knife in each hand, arms extended to stick the blades into the throats of two different figures. A short distance from her, Seth stood, surrounded by half a dozen bodies of his own.

They were in the front lobby of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The place looked like any other glass obelisk, just like the buildings around it. But most office buildings didn’t have quite this level of security.

The floor was littered with the bodies of the men who were trying to stop them from doing what they needed to do. Some of them were unconscious, while others were dead.

The first time Bobbi had seen her new friends actually kill people, even if they had been bad guys, it had sent her into a spiraling nightmare of a flashback. She had been back in that store again, back in the blood of the man whose powers she had gained. It had taken quite awhile for them to talk her around afterward, as they had explained that some people just couldn’t be left alive. There was no prison to send them to, and they would readily kill many more innocent people if left alive.

But Bobbi couldn’t kill them. She wouldn’t go that far. She’d even made the others promise not to kill anyone she incapacitated, unless they absolutely had to. Maybe it was stupid. But… she didn’t want to be responsible for it. She didn’t want to be responsible for people dying. Or at least, not more responsible than she already was for helping.

It just felt uncomfortable. And wrong. She helped, she participated, but she wouldn’t kill. She didn’t force the others to follow her own moral code or anything, aside from not wanting them to kill the people she personally stopped. That felt like… like the best compromise she could manage. She was slowly starting to understand the world beyond her little neighborhood and just how dangerous it really was. And maybe she was just being a stupid little kid about it.

But she wouldn’t kill. She just… wouldn’t.

Her own form was a blinding blur of motion to the outside world then, as she sprinted around the incoming bullets, glowing sword appearing in her hand just in time to cut the massive machine gun in half. In the same motion, Bobbi threw herself up and around into a kick. Someone her size kicking someone as enormous as her opponent would normally, of course, do basically nothing. But as fast as she was moving, the impact knocked the man to the ground with a cry, even as his gun fell into two pieces around him.

Landing in a crouch after that full-bodied hypersonic kick, Bobbi’s brief burst of superspeed ran out just in time for a second big guy with an enormous gun of his own to sight in on her.

And then his weapon fell apart into about a dozen pieces, right as the man was about to pull the trigger. As the machine gun collapsed, Namythiet appeared from where she had been inside the weapon, taking it apart from there. “Avast!” the pixie declared while swiping her sword back and forth in the air, “Not so big without your pea-shooter, are y–eeep!”

The big guy took a swipe at her, which the pixie easily dodged by flying straight up before driving her pin-like sword into his eye. As he roared and jerked back, Bobbi was there. She had conjured a glowing hammer, which she drove hard into his stomach. As he doubled over a bit, her hands grabbed his shoulders, and she sent a burst of electricity into him that put the man on the ground.

The fighting continued like that. For quite some time, longer than Bobbi had ever actually fought at one time, the group worked their way through the main lobby of the office building they had just broken into, moving into the stairwell and continuing up. They had to get to the top floor, and they had to do so before the reinforcements could be called in.

Even without the reinforcements, it was exhausting. She kept having to absorb more and more power from the nearby light fixtures and computers. And even then, by the time they reached the top floor, Bobbi was too tired to keep fighting. Which Asenath noticed and made her stay behind with Namythiet and Clubber to watch the stairwell while she, Twister, and Seth finished up.

So Bobbi sat there, panting and watching the stairs while taking a drink from the water bottle that Clubber had helpfully held up in his little mouth for her. She was panting, feeling utterly wiped from all the fighting. Using her power that much, even with plenty of energy to drain, still took a lot out of her. She needed to just sit and rest.

“No time to nap,” Seth called from the doorway at the end of the hall. “C’mon kid, we need your help to open this thing.”

With a grunt, Bobbi pushed herself up, bracing herself against the wall while Namythiet flew up to land on her shoulder. The poor pixie was exhausted as well. As was Clubber, who trudged alongside Bobbi as the girl tiredly made her way down the hall. She passed more than a dozen other bodies, trying not to think about what had happened to them, before reaching the actual doorway where Seth was waiting.

Looking past him, she saw what looked like a conference room of some kind. There were floor to ceiling windows all along three of the four walls, including the far corner from the doorway. Most of the room itself was taken up by a long table, with a three foot long, two foot high metal safe right in the middle of that table. There were yet another seven bodies laying around that room, their blood and… other things decorating the windows, floor, and table itself.

“You okay, Lite Brite?” Despite his clear impatience, Seth put a hand on the top of the glowing helmet that covered her head, making her look up at him. “Got enough oomph for one more thing?”

“I can do it,” Bobbi insisted, chin up as she stared at the safe. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Asenath confirmed. “Sorry, we’d give you more time but… well, we’re out of it. We need to grab this thing and get the hell out of here yesterday.”

“I’m okay.” Bobbi really wasn’t sure that she was, but she had to try. Getting the safe open was the most important thing. It was apparently warded against all kinds of magic. But not against her.

Nearby, Asenath turned, putting her fist through the wall. Tearing out some of the debris, she caught hold of some wires and yanked them free as well, snapping the wires in the process. Live electrical wires.

“All yours, Bobs,” she offered, “drink up.”

Holding both hands out that way, Bobbi focused on draining all the power she could through those wires. Electricity jumped visibly from the wires to the girl’s hands. She was draining everything she could, not just from the room, but from the entire building. The place was on its own separate power grid, and she was taking everything. She could feel the electricity filling her up, giving her a quick rush of euphoria.

Hard. This was going to be hard. It wouldn’t have been easy at the best of times, but now? Now she was already tired from everything else. It was going to be a nightmare.

And yet, she would do it. She would make this work, because it was important. Because her new friends had asked her to. She would do it.

The others were all waiting, standing guard while Bobbi gathered all the power that she could through those exposed wires. She was focusing almost solely on that safe, tuning out everything else as much as possible. Only two things existed, herself and the safe. And what was inside. More power. She needed more. As much as possible. Had to hold onto it, keep holding it… keep holding it…

When she could hold it no longer, Bobbi’s right hand snapped forward, away from the exposed wires. In the next instant, a powerful, blinding jolt of lightning-like electricity shot out of that hand to crash into the safe. Or rather, near the safe. The electricity actually stopped a few inches out, hitting a glowing red shield that popped up around it.

It was a magical forcefield, along with other protective spells. Namythiet and Twister had taught Bobbi about how she could use a powerful burst of electricity to overwhelm spells like that. Some spells could be overwhelmed by the judicial use of a taser. But in cases like this, that wasn’t normally viable, because it would take an entire building’s worth of power to knock out the spell that was protecting the safe.

So… it was a good thing she had an entire building to draw from, then.

The lights went out almost immediately, leaving the room lit only by what came in through the windows. Everything in the building went dead one by one, as Bobbi channeled the power through herself and straight into the continuous lightning bolt (was it really a bolt when it kept going on for a long time?) into the forcefield surrounding that safe.

Seth had a knife. He’d shown her to her. The blade could cut through spells, actually absorbing the energy from any spell that it touched in order to completely disable it. Unfortunately, the people who ran this building were prepared for that kind of thing. They had layered their protection spells in such a way that disabling one with that knife, or anything that worked in a similar way would result in the safe teleporting away. Simply cutting through the spell would send the safe away.

But this? Hitting the protective forcefield with enough electricity to completely overwhelm it, that was different. Different because the forcefield and the spell that would teleport the safe away both drew from the same well of power. If Seth were to use his knife to disable the forcefield, it would kill the shield immediately, at which point the teleportation spell would send the safe away.

But in this case, the forcefield was being hit by a building-worth of electricity. To keep itself powered, it would keep draining that well of power. Which meant that when it finally collapsed, it would be because there was no more power for it to draw from. Which, in turn, would mean that there was no power for the teleportation spell to do its job.

Of course, there were two back-ups for that. The first was that the teleportation spell was supposed to jump to powering itself with the building’s electricity if its normal energy well wasn’t there. But, well, that would be impossible because Bobbi was already using it.

If it failed to power itself through either of those means, the teleportation spell had a third condition, which was to drain ambient energy from the living beings who were trying to get at the safe and use that to teleport the safe away. But that third option was the last one specifically because it was the slowest. Only by a few seconds, but still. There would be a brief window where the shield was down, yet the teleportation spell had no power. And in that window, Seth would then use the knife to disable it.

Essentially, they had to overwhelm the forcefield in one specific way that made it drain the well of power before it was destroyed, leaving the teleportation spell no way to power itself for at least a few seconds, during which Seth could destroy it and leave the safe vulnerable.

Even this would have been impossible most of the time. The safe’s normal location was far more protected than this meeting room. But it had been temporarily brought here, only for a short window. And the time between when the safe had been placed there and when the main meeting that had been intended to take place in this room would take place was even shorter.

And they had absolutely no intention of being in this room when that meeting was supposed to happen. Being around any of the people involved in it would have been a bad idea. Being around all of them… suicide. They had this very, very brief opening where the safe was in position and before the big players had arrived for the meeting. This one chance. That was it.

It was an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted, and Bobbi didn’t intend to. She channeled electricity through that shield until the thing shattered. At almost the same time, she felt her own exhaustion catch up with her, and collapsed.

The world went dark, while the sound of Seth rushing past her to do his part filled her ears.

Sleep… she wanted to sleep… preferably for a month. But maybe just for a few seconds… or minutes… or…

Bobbi’s eyes opened some time later. She was laying in grass in the middle of a field somewhere. With a gasp, she sat up and looked around wildly.

The others. They were all there. All… eating cheeseburgers, actually. Greasy, yummy cheeseburgers that made her mouth water. After everything she had just done, fuel was needed. Lots of it.

Seth obligingly offered a paper sack to her, raising an eyebrow. “Dinner? You earned it.”

Quickly, Bobbi grabbed the sack and began to devour the first burger she could unwrap. It was only once she was halfway through it that she remembered to ask (through her full mouth) “Did we get it?”

“Did we get it, she asks?” Twister scoffed at that. “As if we’d leave a job unfinished. Pshaw. I am insulted.”

Senny shook her head and nudged the Pooka. “We got it.” She nodded toward a wooden box that sat between them. “Namythiet just finished taking all the tracking spells off it before we came here. We’re safe, for now.”

“Not that anyone’s safe near something like that,” Seth observed flatly, his eyes staring at the box.

“Can I see it?” Bobbi asked, curious about the thing they had worked so hard to get hold of.

Obligingly, Asenath picked up the box. “Don’t touch,” she reminded the girl before opening the lid.

For a moment, the girl just stared at the short, six inch length of rope within. “It looks so small…”

With a chuckle, Seth nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s because the Heretics have most of it. I mean, they think they have the whole thing. But they don’t know about this piece right here. If they knew this bit was out and about, they’d move heaven and Earth to get to it.”

“Of course they would,” Asenath agreed while showing her fangs in a smile.

“If they knew we had a piece of the rope from the Hangman that they’re all connected to, they would lose their fucking minds.”

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Interlude 36B – Bobbi Camren (Contest Winners’ Interlude)

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One Year Ago

“Hey, kid. Yeah, you.” The gruff, bordering on angry voice filled the small convenience store as the grizzled man behind the counter pointed a finger at the small, thirteen-year-old girl standing near the drink cooler. “I’ve got the cops on speed dial. I see one goddamn thing go in your pockets and we’ll see how fast they can get here. You hear me, not one goddamn thing. I don’t care if it’s a stick of gum. You keep that shit out where I can see it.”

Bobbi Camren didn’t argue with the man. It wasn’t anything new. Being dark-skinned meant that the first thing people like this guy thought when they saw her was thief.

“Yessir,” she murmured instead, drawling the two words together while making a point of keeping her hands out where they could be seen. She’d only come in here to use the bathroom, but it felt bad to just do that, so she’d at least buy a drink or something.

Biting her lip, Bobbi moved to the cooler, standing by the door to look inside. In the reflection of the glass, she saw the man watching her, a slight scowl crossing his face. He didn’t want her in his store. He was convinced that she was going to steal something, and he just wanted her to leave so he could relax again. It was an expression that she had seen a lot recently. Her age didn’t matter, the fact that she had done nothing wrong didn’t matter. One thing mattered: her skin was dark.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t even as simple as that. Because while the girl’s father was very black, her mother, in turn, was incredibly white. Like, living in the Hamptons white. Bobbi’s mother had been a rich white girl who had gone down to party with some guys from the bad side of town. Which, in a place like New York City, was saying something. She had ended up pregnant, and kept the baby against her parents’ wishes. Sometime later, Bobbi had come along.

Through the first twelve years of her life, Bobbi hadn’t known anything about her father at all, only that he had run out on them. She had gone to private school and had been incredibly spoiled by her mother. Her grandparents had also done their share of spoiling her before they in turn had passed away when the girl was ten, each going within a few months of each other.

For a couple of years, it had been just Bobbi and her mother. But even that had come to an end, as Megan Camren was eventually arrested for some kind of financial fraud thing that Bobbi didn’t even understand. All she knew was that her mother was going to prison for several years.

For a while, it had looked as if she would need to be put into the foster care system. But, in the end, they had actually located her birth father. So, the girl had been sent to live with him, where she had discovered that Dennis Orsen had not actually run out on them. Rather, he had never been told of her existence. To him, his date with Bobbi’s mother was nothing more than a one night stand. He had spent over a decade with no idea that the quick fling had resulted in a child.

For just under a year now, Bobbi had lived with her father in a rundown apartment that the man could barely afford despite the fact that he worked almost twelve hours a day, six days a week. He did everything he could to provide for her, but it meant that she was left alone most of the time. Alone in a world where she was too dark to be seen as white, and too white to be seen as black. Plus, there was the fact that someone had spread the news that she had come from a rich household, so now most of the kids at school hated her for being spoiled, never mind that she’d had no choice in how she had been raised, and that she was living just as poorly as the rest of them did at the moment.

She was disliked and distrusted by both sides. White and black, rich and poor. She was wrong for everyone. Anyone who lived the kind of life that she used to live saw her as a criminal or thug, while those who were living the life that she lived now thought she was a selfish, spoiled brat. Or worse, a race traitor, whatever that meant.

The point was, no one wanted her around, something she had grown accustomed to over the past year.

“Look, kid,” the man finally spoke up while she had been lost in thought, “if you’re not going to buy anything, you need to—”

Ding.

The sound of the door into the shop chiming as it was opened distracted the man, and both he and Bobbi glanced toward what turned out to be four men stepping inside. Three of the men wore suits, while the fourth was dressed in baggy cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt that barely covered his expansive stomach. The latter was a good twenty years older than his companions, who all looked attentive and dangerous, like the cops that never took their eyes off of Bobbi when they saw her, or the secret service people that protected the presidents on TV. That was what they look like, the Secret Service. Or FBI. Or the private security that some of her mother’s old friends had had.

Seeing the fourth man enter, the guy behind the counter instantly forgot all about Bobbi. “Hey,” he started, his voice suddenly much more subdued than it had been a moment ago. “I told you, you can’t just come in here anytime you want and-”

“Is that right?” When the man in the Hawaiian shirt spoke, it was with a distinct Italian accent. “Are you telling me that I can’t enter a store that I own? Is that what you’re saying to me right now, that I am somehow barred from the premises of my own establishment?”

Since none of the men who had just come in seemed to have noticed her, Bobbi quickly sank down into a kneeling position behind the nearest set of shelves, peering around it to watch what was happening while staying as much out of sight as she could.

The man behind the counter gave a low growl while his head shook. “It’s not yours, Ricky. I own the shop just like my father did, and it’s not for sale. Not to you, not to anyone.”

Ricky wagged his finger twice, his tone curious. “Now you see, that’s curious. Because I own this street. I own this block. I own this neighborhood. So, if there is a shop inside of this neighborhood, which I own, then it would stand to reason that I own that shop.” He turned to one of his men and then gestured. “Does it makes sense that I would own every last thing in this neighborhood except for this very spot right here?”

When all three of his men silently shook their heads, Ricky looked back to the shop owner while giving an exaggerated helpless shrug. “You see, everyone agrees, it doesn’t make sense.”

The shop owner’s hand shifted a bit, and he pulled a sawed-off shotgun out from under the counter there, making Bobbi’s eyes widen as she barely stifled a gasp. “You don’t scare me,” he insisted while glowering at the man. “Now get the hell out of my store.”

Ricky chuckled low in his throat, a dangerous sound. “I don’t scare you?” he asked, clearly curious. And then Bobbi must have blinked or something, because the man was suddenly standing directly in front of the counter, having crossed the distance from the door in an instant.

“If I don’t scare you like this,” the man announced then, “maybe we should do something about that.”

Things happened really fast then, as the man behind the counter started to bring that gun up a little more directly. Before he could get it in line, however, Ricky lashed out with his hand. And then… then… then lightning erupted from his fingers, wrapping around the guy before picking him up and throwing him backwards. The gun fell to the floor, and the man started screaming and writhing while the electricity danced over him.

Wait, wait, what?! How was he…? Eyes widening with shock at that, Bobbi covered her mouth with one hand to contain her cry of fear and confusion. The squeak that emerged from her was thankfully lost against the sound of the man’s screaming.

“How about now?!” Ricky demanded while casually electrocuting the man with his fingers. “Are you scared now, you stupid piece of shit?! Or maybe–” A weird glowing dagger thing just appeared in his other hand. “Maybe you’d like a different taste of–”

“Stop it!” Bobbi was on her feet, suddenly standing where the men could see her. “Leave him alone! You’re hurting him!” Even as she spoke, the girl found herself shaking violently. Now she really had to use the bathroom.

Four pairs of eyes snapped to her, the men in suits reflexively grabbing for the guns that they had left holstered. Even Ricky’s gaze snapped her way as he let up with the electricity for a moment.

It was just enough. As the electricity let up, the man behind the counter grabbed his fallen shotgun. With a shout, he brought it up, just as Ricky spun back that way, his hand raised once more. But it was too late, the deafening roar of the gun firing filled the shop and convincing Bobbi that the entire store had exploded. She fell to the ground with a scream, while Ricky himself was taken full in the chest and crashed to the floor.

More gunfire filled the shop then, as the three bodyguards emptied their pistols into the store owner, who collapsed in a puddle of his own blood. Bobbi was still screaming, covering her ears while her face was pressed to the floor. She felt and tasted something sticky, coppery, and gross, but didn’t dare open her eyes. She just whimpered like that.

Footsteps came closer to her, and the girl wind a little more, covering her head as if that would help. Then, distantly came the sound of rapidly approaching sirens. One of the man cursed, and another said, “Ricky’s dead, let’s get out of here. We’ve got to tell his dad.”

“What about her?” another one of the men asked.

There was a pause, and then the first man replied, “I ain’t killing a kid, man. I’m just not. To hell with that. Leave her.”

The footsteps moved away from her, and then there was the sound of the door training again. Still, Bobbi didn’t move. She stayed like that, hands over her head with that sticky taste in our mouth before slowly opening her eyes to find that it was Ricky‘s blood. It had pooled out across the floor from that horrific gunshot wound, reaching as far as where she was laying. That was what she had been tasting, what had gotten into her mouth.

The girl retched a little, spitting up just as the sirens grew even louder as they reached the parking lot.

No, no, no. She couldn’t be here. She had to leave. Policeman didn’t like her. They didn’t trust her. Her mom was already in jail. They wouldn’t believe anything she said. They never did. She had to go. She had to run. Terror gripped the girl’s heart, as visions of being arrested filled her mind. They’d blame her, they’d think she had something to do with it

Every light in the store suddenly went out. The hum of the coolers was cut off entirely, as was the steady sound of a fan that had been on the counter. Even the small radio that had been quietly playing in the background was completely silent.

It was all dark, except for Bobbi herself. The girl was glowing. No, it was more than that. There were actual lines of power, of electricity, dancing over her skin. In the darkness, her form was illuminated by the lightning crackling all along her skin.

Power. She felt power, felt strength. And she felt something else, a kind of energy that she couldn’t describe. It was begging to be let out. It needed release. And Bobbi released it by lunging to her feet. Before she really knew what she was doing, the girl was running for the front door.

Running, but more than running. Her entire body was filled with so much energy that she was moving faster than she had ever moved before. Faster than anyone could move. The policemen in the parking lot, stepping out of their cars, were completely frozen as the girl raced right past them. In the time that it took them to notice the motion of her passing and turn their eyes that way, the girl was already two blocks away.

She stopped then, in an alley far away from the store. Seconds. She had been running for barely a few seconds, and she was already blocks away.

“Wh-“ Bobbi started with confusion while stumbling a little as the rush of energy completely left her. Her clothing was in tatters, the speed of her running having almost totally destroyed them. “What’s happening to me…?”

“Hey you, kid.” A voice nearby made the girl gasp and quickly turn, only to see a figure laying near the dumpster, covered in blankets and ragged coats. “You okay?” the gruff, yet kind voice asked. The clearly homeless man added, “You look pretty rough. Do you need the cops or… or something?”

Quickly, Bobbi shook her head. “No,” the girl blurted. “No, I’m o-okay. I just— I just need to go home. I need to go home.”

“You ain’t going to get home anytime soon with clothes looking like that, kid.” There was a brief pause before the bundled up figure grunted and pushed one of those coats that were piled up on him out toward her. “Take this one. It’ll do ’til you get home.”

Blinking at that, Bobbi started to refuse. “Oh, I couldn’t take one of your—”

“I got a dozen of them, kid,” the figure snapped. “Just take the coat and get home. You go straight home now, hear me? You don’t need to be out here on the streets like this. It’s dangerous.” There was a brief pause before the figure muttered, “More dangerous than you know.”

Hesitantly Bobbi reached out to take the coat. As she did so, the girl caught a glimpse of the man’s extended arm. Only, it didn’t look like an arm. Not exactly. There were feathers on it. The man’s arm was covered in feathers. She gasped, blinking up to see his eyes. And his nose. A nose that looked too large. Way too large. It looked more like a… a beak?

The nose—no, beak— parted, opening like a mouth as if the man was going to say something else. Seeing that, Bobbi let out a yelp and spun to run away, only belatedly realizing that she still had the coat in her arms. She ran out of the alley, pulling the coat on as she went while trying to ignore the man’s voice calling after asking what was wrong with her.

For a few seconds, the girl stood there with the coat pulled around her, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as she fought to understand what she had just seen, what she had seen in the alley and back in the store. What happened? How had she gotten out of the store so fast? What happened to her clothes? What—

The sound of a wolf whistle caught her attention then, and the girl’s eyes snapped up to see a trio of men down the street who were waving at a prostitute on the corner. Except the man who had been wolf-whistling was an actual wolf. Or at least his head was. His face was covered in fur, with the snout and everything. He looked like a humanoid wolf. His two buddies, meanwhile, looked more like green porcupine things with too many eyes.

For a moment, Bobbi just stared, shock completely taking over her every sense and muscle. She simply stood there open-mouthed while gaping that way.

“Hey, you got a problem kid?” The voice came from behind Bobbi, and she spun once more to find herself being approached by four men. Three of them looked completely normal, human. But the one who had spoken, he didn’t look normal at all. Instead, the man’s head was oversized, and looked more like that of a whale or shark. When he smiled, his mouth was way too large, with several intricate rows of deadly teeth. And the way he was looking at her, it was with hunger.

“Come on,” the man started while extending his hand. “We’ll get you home.” But from the look in his eyes, home was the last place the man intended to take her. Unless it was his own.

When the girl took a step backward reflexively, the shark-man sighed and gestured for his companions. “Just grab the kid and let’s get out of here.”

The other men stepped toward her, and Bobbi panicked once more. Her heart jumped, and she turned to run. In mid-step, the nearby stoplight, along with a bright neon sign attached to a liquor store, and a car that had been sitting at that stoplight all went dead. And Bobbi felt that sudden power again. She felt that rush.

She ran. Once again, the energy coursed through her, and Bobbi found herself standing in front of her own apartment building only a minute or two later. She barely remembered running the entire way. Everything was a blur, just as she herself had been. She’d crossed the whole distance, several miles, in only a minute or so. How?! How was any of this happening? What was happening?!

“Bobbi, sweetie? Are you okay?”

The sound of the familiar voice made the girl settle a little bit, some of the panic fading out of her. It was Mrs. Gimple, the nice old lady next-door who always gave her cookies. Turning that way on the front step of the apartment building, she opened her mouth, only to stop short.

Mrs. Gimple wasn’t Mrs. Gimple. She looked more like a cross between a lizard and a peacock, a bright red-skinned lizard with multicolored peacock feathers along the back of her neck and coming out of her four-fingered hands. The woman looked at her quizzically. “Bobbi?” she asked in the familiar woman’s voice. “Sweetie, do you want me to call your dad?”

Bobbi didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer. There was a lump in her throat that she thought she might choke on. Shaking her head while terror gripped her heart, the girl spun and ran into the building. She ran all the way to the apartment, unlocked it, and threw herself inside before slamming the door after herself. Then she ran all the way to her room, dove under the bed, and pulled her favorite stuffed animal in after her. Laying there in the relative darkness, the girl hugged her bear to herself while whimpering.

“What’s going on? What’s going on?

“What’s going on?!”

********

Present Day

“M-man, j-j-just take my money, okay?” The terrified voice filled the small, dark alley as the stuttering man pressed himself back against the cold brick wall, his eyes centered on the man in front of him. Nearby, a small, dark squirrel cowered close to a dumpster.

The imposing man, if he could actually be called man, took a step closer. His skin was rough and leathery, his face extended into something more akin to a crocodile snout filled with teeth than a normal person’s. He chuckled low and dark, shaking his head. “Money? I don’t need your money. I need your flesh. I need your bones. I need to taste them. I haven’t eaten in days, and it’s time to feast.”

“Have you considered Sizzler?”

The gator man spun at the new voice, hissing with anger before abruptly stopping. He blinked then, staring in clear confusion. “The hell are you?”

Bobbi was there. But it was a Bobbi who was a good deal different than she had been one year earlier. The now fourteen-year-old wore what looked like actual body armor, though it was unlike any armor that a normal person would have worn. It looked almost like it was made of glass, a bright blue/white glass with actual electricity dancing inside of it. The suit fit her almost like a second skin, or an exoskeleton, with a helmet that covered the girl’s head entirely. There was no visor, no open parts to the helmet at all. It was all one solid piece, with one line of electricity along where her mouth would be that bounced up and down like the line on one of those monitors in the hospital when she spoke.

“You know,” she started again with a gesture that made the electricity in the arm of her suit dance almost hypnotically. “Because you said you were hungry. You could try Sizzler. I think they’re having a sale right now.”

“Oooh.” The crocodile man licked his lips. “I’m not one to spoil my supper, but you look positively delicious.”

His mouth opened again, and this time, an enormous, long barbed tongue shot out toward her. It was as thick as a grown man’s arm, and probably strong enough to fling that grown man clear across the street. It was also wicked fast, able to snatch unsuspecting targets from a good fifteen feet away before they even knew what was happening. Just like now.

But Bobbi was ready, and she was faster. With a blur of motion, the girl snapped her arm up. A glowing glass-like shield appeared on that arm, expanding and snapping into place just as the tongue bounced off of it.

The croc-man started to yank his tongue back again. It was a motion just as quick as extending it had been. In an instant, his tongue, extended out that full fifteen feet, would be back in his mouth.

But again, Bobbi was faster. Everything slowed down, as the girl threw herself into a brief, blurred run. She crossed the fifteen feet more quickly than a gunshot could have. For that brief moment, a bullet would have appeared to have stopped in midair.

Reaching the spot right in front of the man, Bobbi’s free hand snapped up. In mid-motion, a long, glass-like sword appeared there, also crackling with energy. It cut straight through the extended tongue, cutting it off at nearly full extension. Nearby, the squirrel made a startled squeaking noise.

Even as the crocodile man started to give a startled scream, Bobbi pivoted on her foot. Her left arm snapped up, the shield on it disappearing as she pressed her fingers to the figure’s chest. A second later, he was blown backward by a blast of electricity, crashing to the ground before lying completely still save for a bit of shallow breathing.

“Oh thank God!” The man who had been about to be eaten was suddenly clutching her shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the suit that she wore. “You had a taser,” the man gushed. “Thank God you had a taser. Police, we need the—”

As the man spoke, Bobbi raised one hand behind herself. The glow of a nearby street light went out completely, leaving the alley much darker than it had been a moment earlier. Her other hand extended toward the man she just saved, and he was suddenly encased in a glowing, glass like box. As the man gave a shout out surprise and confusion, Bobbi gestured, sending the box up into the air and down the street. It would land on a roof several buildings away before disappearing to release the man. He would be safe there. Safer than he was here, where he clearly had no idea what was going on.

They never did. The humans that she helped, they never remembered what actually happened. They never really understood. Bobbi didn’t know why, but everything supernatural or strange was always somehow edited out of their memories. They saw it, and then instantly forgot it. Or their brains just filled in something more ordinary, like her having a taser. That was a super common excuse for the impossible things that she did. Things that she had been capable of ever since she had swallowed the blood from Ricky, back in the store. Ever since that night, where she started seeing the people who weren’t human.

It had taken the girl quite some time to really understand just what she was capable of. It centered around electricity. She generated some by herself, but for any of the big things, she had to drain it from other sources. Anything powered by electricity, she could absorb from and hold onto the power that she got indefinitely.

That power could then be put to multiple things. The most simple was the jolt of electricity from her fingertips. Or from any other part of her body, really. But she could also transform that electricity into bursts of intense super speed.

Or, she could turn the electricity that she absorbed into these solid energy constructs. That’s where her shield and sword had come from. It was where her armor came from (armor that meant her clothes didn’t burn up when using that super speed). It had taken quite a lot of time and energy for her to construct them. But now that they were there, she didn’t have to make them again. She simply dismissed them when they weren’t needed, and the power went back into her body. At a thought, she could summon them up again. The same went for any other construct that she made, like the box that she had just used to move the man to safety. It took hours, or even days to absorb and shape enough power for each construct. But once it was done, she could bring it out at will. Electricity shaped into solid energy and then stored away.

Weeks. It had taken her weeks to actually understand what she could do, to make any sense of it. And as far as the rest of the world was concerned… she still didn’t know. She’d tried looking up ‘hidden monsters’ and ‘humans forget’ on the internet, but it was impossible to sort through everything.

That and ‘monsters hidden in the modern world’ was a surprisingly common subject for stories, which made actual truth even harder to find. She’d spent three days off and on scrolling through one forum in particular before figuring out that they were all just roleplaying.

So what was she supposed to do? Everyone she tried to talk to about… any of this just forgot about it. Most of the seemingly nice not-humans she’d tried to talk to ran away when they realized that she knew what they were, that she could see them. More than one had said the word ‘Heretic’. Which was weird, because she didn’t even know what their religion was and wasn’t that a religious thing?

She’d gone to Mrs. Gimple’s once she’d worked up the nerve, but the woman had disappeared. Later, Bobbi had been told that she’d moved out with no warning.

She was afraid that it was because of her reaction, because the woman realized that Bobbi had seen what she really was and had run away from her.

She hoped she’d see Mrs. Gimple again. So she could apologize.

A groan then drew Bobbi’s attention to the crocodile man, who was lifting himself up on his elbows. “What the hell hit—” When he saw her, the man’s eyes grew wide. “You! You little bi—”

He was cut off as Bobbi’s sword returned to her hand, the blade snapping down close to his throat. “You need to leave,” she informed him. “Go away and never come back.”

Despite the position he was in (and speaking quite well for someone who had had most of his tongue cut out), the man demanded, “Why should I leave?”

Bobbi remembered what Ricky had said back on that day. “Because this is my street. This is my block. It’s my neighborhood. And if you don’t leave, I’m going to cut more than your tongue.”

She didn’t attack everyone who didn’t look human. That would’ve been stupid. Mrs. Gimple was nice, and the bird-man who had given her the coat that night, he had been nice too. No, Bobbi didn’t know why others couldn’t see that they weren’t human, but she also knew that they weren’t all evil. She attacked the ones who attacked others. She protected people, as much as she could, and drove out the non-humans who caused trouble, who hurt people… or worse. She did everything she could to keep them out of her neighborhood. It wasn’t easy, especially at first, but… but she tried.

The man opened his mouth to say something else, but before any sound could come out, Bobbi abruptly extended her hand. A glowing ball of energy appeared there, which she dropped into his open mouth. Reflexively, he swallowed it. Then he choked. “What the fuck!?”

“That’s my energy,” the girl informed him flatly. “I can track it everywhere in my territory. If you come anywhere within my area, I’ll know. I’ll be able to find you. And I won’t be very happy.”

With a growl, the man demanded, “How the hell am I supposed to know what your territory is?”

Bobbi’s reply was simple. “I dunno. Guess you’ll just have to leave town just to be safe.”

The man grumbled and argued, but finally left. She tracked the energy ball she had deposited in him until it left her range a couple blocks later. He was gone.

It was all she could do. She wasn’t going to kill someone like that. There had been some obvious mindless animal monsters that had roamed the streets, and those she had killed. But a living, thinking person? This guy may have been a monster, but she couldn’t just kill him. It was… it was wrong. Wasn’t it? But now she was letting him go, and he might hurt someone else. Yet she couldn’t just kill them. She kept them away from her neighborhood, away from as big of an area that she could patrol, that she could protect.

The police would have been useless. The monster would just kill them because they wouldn’t realize what kind of threat he was. They couldn’t handle it, and they couldn’t actually remember anything strange about him.

Why? Why could nobody else ever remember what they saw? Why was she the only one who knew the truth, who saw the truth? Was she the crazy one? It was a question she’d asked herself a lot over the past year. Was she crazy?

Her father didn’t remember. She told him the truth, had shown him what she could do, and he instantly forgotten. Everyone she talked to, everyone she tried to get help from, had forgotten almost instantly. There was no one out there who could help her, no one who could tell her what was going on. She was alone.

Not that that was anything new. She wasn’t black enough, and wasn’t white enough. She wasn’t rich enough, and wasn’t poor enough. She was a mongrel, a mutt. No matter where the young girl went, she never truly fit in.

But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. Because she had these gifts. And she would use them to protect the people in her neighborhood, the people who had no idea that there was anything to be protected from. She would stop the monsters that showed themselves on these streets. She would protect everyone that she could, even if she had no idea what the hell was going on.66

“You know he’s just going to go somewhere else and hurt someone, right?”

The voice startled Bobbi, and she spun to find that squirrel from earlier. Only it wasn’t a squirrel for long. A second later, the tiny rodent suddenly grew into a girl slightly younger than she was, with equally dark skin. “That guy,” the shape shifting girl continued, “he’ll just go kill someone else.”

Sword springing back to her hand, Bobbi demanded, “Wh-who are you? How did you do that? Are you like me? What—”

“It’s okay.” Again, the voice came from behind Bobbi, and she pivoted once more to find an older girl standing at the mouth of the alley. She could barely be seen through the shadows, but the girl looked vaguely Asian.

“My name is Asenath. That’s Twister. We’re not going to hurt you. We came because we need your help with a project that we’ve been working on. Ricky Gileo, you’re a Natural Heretic of him. Which means you can get into his vault.”

“Ricky?” Bobbi blinked back and forth between the two, keeping her sword up and ready despite their apparent friendliness. “What do you mean, Heretic? Why do people keep calling me that? What’s a Heretic? What’s going on? What happened to me? Why do people keep forgetting everything that happens?”

“Oh man,” the girl called Twister groaned.

“This is gonna take awhile.”

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