1: I have gathered you all here today…
Jeremy waited for the elevator doors to close, having carefully checked and counted everyone getting on. The right number, so probably the right people.
He stood unobtrusively, but solidly stubborn, by the control panel. Those who tried to brush past, or nudge him farther in, quickly realised that he was not moveable.
When the lift was halfway up the building, he pushed the emergency stop button, quickly gaining the full attention of everyone present.
He gave them a short but perfectly crafted bow.
“Good afternoon. I do apologise for the disruption,” he began, the script unrolling in his head. “I believe that all here were invited by Kyra. I’m sure you’re all wondering why you’ve been summoned, and now you’re wondering why everyone else has been summoned, and what connects you all. Yes?”
There were some vague agreeable noises and Jeremy continued, following the script, trusting in Kyra’s promise that doing so would result in the desired outcome.
“And some of you are now, or will soon, be realising that the emergency stop button in a building like this will trigger an emergency response. Well in theory you’re correct,” Jeremy gave them a conspiratorial smile, “When I was 17, I was at a fancy party and I got to hooking up with this guy, Li Jei. So we’re going at it in the lift up to his room, and we’re feeling particularly drunk and horny and impatient. So I hit the emergency stop, and we went for it. By the time a team of security guards arrived we were…well let’s just say we were well past a PG rating. That was when I learned that those things are hooked up to something. And also that a lift in a fancy place has well-hidden CCTV.”
Jeremy shrugged and looked around, “So you see, we thought of that. The building staff have been instructed to place out of order signs and ignore this lift, the CCTV record function is turned off, and the live feed goes through to Kyra. Hi Kyra!” Jeremy accompanied this with a waggle of his fingers towards where he had been told the camera was.
“Some of you would not be amazed by the fact that a little money and power can get you whatever you like, but others of you – being less privileged like myself – might be. Either way, the fact remains that I happen to have eight extraordinary people on this elevator.”
Jeremy winked as he emphasised the extra, and gave everyone a moment for the penny to drop. When he was satisfied that it had, he spread his arms wide, “So, we’re all friends here. You’re all extranaturals, and I’m an asshole of a human who fucked up and was enlisted by the Chief Lawkeeper to help her out, in lieu of punishment. So that’s why I’m here. But why are you? And why are we having an icebreaker in a lift? Yes, my new friends, I said icebreaker. I need each one of you to offer your name, and your particular type of extranatural state, to the room. I’ve also been advised to let you know about this.”
Jeremy now removed a small device from his pocket, slipped it over his thumb, and attached it around his wrist. Then, he reached back into the pocket and produced an attached vial of something that looked like watery sludge.
“I am reliably informed that, upon my death, or should Kyra at any point feel it necessary, this will be released and it will incapacitate everyone. So. Icebreaker time! Who wants to go first?”
The group looked around at each other, their awkward shufflings and clearing of throats reminding Jeremy of the many incredibly annoying people who had made him do incredibly annoying icebreakers in the past – from first days at school, to company team building days. He stifled a laugh at being the annoying asshole now pushing that on someone else.
Eventually a young woman with black hair, tinted metallic blue at the tips, pushed back her hood and nodded, her olive-skinned face set in a determined line, “Alright, I’ll go. I’m Daiyu, or just Dai, either’s fine. I’ve got hyper-reflexes and enlarged adrenal glands. So I can be strong, flexible, run up buildings, that sort of stuff. I don’t know why I’m here though. I figured I was in trouble somehow but I always worked real hard to keep out of the Lawkeeper’s way. Don’t even know how this woman, Kyra, knows who I am. I came cos I was curious,” she stepped back, letting her hood stay down, as she leaned against the rail on the wall, eyes flitting from face to face.
They were all still hiding, somehow. Another hood over there, some with their hair over their faces, others simply looking at their feet and wishing themselves invisible, Jeremy thought, waiting.
Slowly but surely they all stepped up. A older Russian woman named Franceska said she was a witch; a middle-aged American man named Brian was, in fact, a shapeshifter; a teenager who seemed to be somewhere off the binary called Drew flashed feral eyes at them and hissed – werecat; an apparently ageless woman named Laran claimed to be a prognosticator; another young-ish northern woman named Bridget was a druid; a mid-thirties
Irish woman named Cara was a vampire; and an elderly man named Frank called himself an apothecary.
Jeremy had read their briefs with increasing levels of unease. He was more than out of his league here. He wasn’t even in the same solar system as these people! But Kyra had assured him. And if he said no, she would reconsider his case rather than letting him go free after this was done. All she needed was a couple of hours of his time, spent in an elevator, getting someone to reveal themselves. He didn’t know who, she really hadn’t said. Nor had she told him what to look for. Though he did have a tiny bud in his ear and a mic in his collar, so she could talk to him, if he struggled past this part. Because past this part, the script was gone. He had one last thing to say, and then he was flying blind. Blind, as in blind hope that he somehow got out alive.
“Thank you, everyone. With all that ice now nicely broken, I hope we’re a little more comfortable – or at least as much as we can be. Would everyone care to sit?”
Jeremy followed words with action, and patiently waited for everyone to follow. Cara and Drew helped Frank down and got him set up against a wall, with a rolled up coat, offered by Franceska.
When everybody was settled, Jeremy began his final rehearsed section.
“You are, of course, still wondering why you’re all here. Well, for 7 of you, I’m afraid you may never get an entirely satisfactory answer to that. But for one of you, well, by this point you’ve probably already guessed and are trying to work out how to stay hidden. The long and short of it is that Kyra has been looking for someone, for a long time. This someone is ancient – even by vampire standards, intelligent, and very well connected. They’re also very good at hiding their tracks. Unfortunately for them, Kyra is both very clever, and very patient. She has followed every trail. Every minor nudge made in the background. Devoted every second of her life outside of work to finding this specific someone, and she has narrowed her search down to the eight of you. Now, I’m not privy to her investigation so I can’t even begin to explain her reasoning, I’m merely here to facilitate working out which one of you it is.
“She knows you helped Justinia find new bodies to transfer to. She knows you helped Jaden secure dominance in the Surrey weredeer pack, after you removed his only real competition with the help of a young and impressionable werefox. She knows all of the dirty little things you’ve had your fingers in, and she would like you – whoever you are – to quietly come to her for a chat. This is the one chance you get to do so quietly and voluntarily. After that, I’m afraid I’m off the clock, and I want nothing more from life than to forget I ever knew any of the things I’ve learned of late.
“So here we are. One of you is the one Kyra calls the Ancient Stranger. Seven of you are not. Those seven know nothing about you or what this is all about, and can therefore tell nobody even if I hadn’t spent all morning painting this…”
Jeremy raised his right hand – the one not attached to the vial – to reveal a strange, pulsing, looping, moving pattern on his palm.
“This is magic that will not allow anyone here to speak of this once we leave the lift – including me. So, Ancient Stranger, you’re as safe as you’re going to get. Just show yourself, and we can let these nice people go, while you continue up to meet Kyra face-to-face.”
Jeremy leaned back against the door of the lift, relishing the faint coolness that seeped through his jacket and shirt, and hoping his face wasn’t too obviously reflecting his terrified insides.
There was silence for a long few minutes.
Then the light on the lift flickered.
Then three times in a row.
Then it went out.
But before anyone had the chance to move, it came back on. Now in place of Cara was a tall – so tall its head brushed the ceiling of the lift – figure, draped in a deep blue robe that sparkled, as if covered in tiny stars, and shaped itself around an opulent figure.
Ignoring Jeremy completely, it turned to the microphone and spoke in the voice that it had used for Cara.
“It took you far longer to find me than I thought it would, Kyra. But I agree. This has gone far enough. I have my reasons, and I have many eyes in the world, but I suppose it is time for you and I to have an…exit interview.”
The lights flicked out again, then on, and Cara was gone. Only Jeremy, and 7 frightened extranaturals remained. He took an odd comfort in the fact that these powerful folk were every bit as scared of that thing as he was.
“What the fuck was that thing?” Frank asked, suddenly spry and on his feet.
“I…have…no…idea…” Brian was staring at the ceiling, pale but for two red spots on his cheeks.
Drew shrugged, “Ancient Stranger that likes getting info and nudging things into patterns it likes? I’m going with…a really, really old god of some form. Most of them – the ones that aren’t dead, anyway – have either assimilated or abdicated, but some of them remain extant.”
The youngster spoke with an older, scholarly voice, which made Jeremy feel like he was looking at two different people, one older, stately gentleman, in sensible dress, with horn-rimmed varifocals constantly sliding down his nose as he read; superimposed over the other, youngster in goth uniform.
“It’s hard to tell more from such little info and short acquaintance, but I have a few initial guesses that I can narrow down…”
Jeremy stood, “OK. So. Anyone who wants out…” he pressed the emergency stop button again, and after a moment the lift resumed its journey to the next floor, “There’s your chance. There’s another lift just to the left of this one. Anyone wanting to help Kyra, stay with me.”
He stood aside, head bowed, hearing the sound of feet leaving, the lift to the left making a subdued bing as it opened for them. When that lift began its trip down, he looked up again.
Left with him were Daiyu, Drew and Bridget. More than he had expected, if he were honest.
“Can I ask why you stayed?”
Once again, Daiyu spoke first.
“I wanna know how she’s tracked me. Figure helping save her life might give me some leverage. Besides, much as I try to keep out their way, the Lawkeepers do good stuff, and I don’t wanna see them get lopped off at the head, y’know?”
Jeremy nodded, “Fair reasons. What about you, Bridget?”
“That thing is an abomination. Whatever it once was – god or something else – what it is now is an affront to everything I believe in. That alone wouldn’t be enough, but with clear intent to do harm added to the mix, that’s plenty. I got no problem with Lawkeepers, don’t need them much at the commune, but like Daiyu says, they keep a lid on things. Kyra seems to be important for this, so, I have a second obligation: save her. But note, that’s my second obligation, eh? First is to kill or imprison this thing. I see that chance but Kyra dies if I take it, I still take it. Right?”
Jeremy nodded, “Understood, thank you for making sure that was clear. What about you, Drew?”
Drew fidgeted shyly and took two deep breaths before speaking, “The Lawkeepers saved me. I started turning when I was 11. Parents – adoptive parents, they were – freaked. Kicked me out. Wound up feral and stuck as a cat, starving, cold, beaten up by other cats or mistreated by humans. One of them, Maria, a werehawk, saw me, realised what I was, and took me in til I could master the change and function again in the world. I’m a werecat, and non-binary, so it’s not easy a lot of the time but I can cope. Mostly. And Kyra’s the reason there’s people like Maria trying to help. So I wanna help her, if I can.”
Jeremy’s face drooped sadly as he heard Drew’s story, and he was forced to make a visible effort to pull himself back together again, “Thank you Drew, I know sharing that wasn’t easy. So we need some sort of plan and we need it real quick. Ideas? Bridget, I think, given your perspective you should take lead on dealing with the – what was it? – the abomination. Daiyu can you take lead on keeping Kyra safe? Me and Drew, we can try and figure out who needs support and give it. I…don’t have any supernatural powers or anything, like you all, but I’ll do my best.
“No, dear,” Bridget said, softly. “This isn’t a fight for a mundane human. You wait right here, we’ll be back.”
As she finished, she raised both hands, palm out, in Jeremy’s direction. He flew backwards into the wall facing the lift, propelled by a strong gust of wind. He managed to keep his feet, but by the time he had shaken off the shock, the lift was gone.
“Shit,” he grumbled, and sat down on the plush carpeting to wait hopefully for their return.
Chapter 2: Teaching an old god old tricks
The elevator made its way smoothly up towards the top of the building, At 80 floors tall, and starting from floor 16, this was going to take a couple of minutes.
“Anyone disagree with keeping Jeremy out of this?” Bridget asked.
Daiyu and Drew both shook their heads.
“Good, good. His basic plan was sound, though. My priority is stopping the abomination. Daiyu, yours is to keep Kyra at a distance from it. Drew, I don’t care what shape you’re in, but watch for who needs help and do whatever you need to. It’s difficult to trust in battle people who you don’t know, but we need to trust each other. In this, we have the same goals – the reasons why are unimportant. If any of us needs something, we shout for it. There’s no chain of command here, I jus’ like the sound of me own voice.” Bridget broke into a grin which amplified the wrinkles set around her eyes and mouth, giving them beauty in her amusement.
Daiyu snorted laughter and Drew put their hand up to their face, hiding a giggle.
“Can you part-shift?” Daiyu asked Drew, breaking the silence that had fallen.
Drew nodded, “Yeah, but I need to concentrate a bit. You think it’d be useful?”
Daiyu nodded, “I think it would. Weapons for hands, better vision, reflexes, all that cat stuff – it’s like adding bonuses onto your base character,” Daiyu laughed.
Drew smiled at her, “I play, too. Can we talk about that…sometime…after?”
Daiyu put an arm around their shoulders and gave a quick squeeze, “Definitely.”
“OK, just give me a minute.”
As the lift neared the top floor, Drew cleared their throat.
Daiyu looked back and smiled.
They now had cat eyes, and half-paws for hands, with claws already out, and so well sharpened they practically made the light flare off their tips. They were partially covered in fur in a calico mix of shades, and were twisting and turning to check their flexibility – which was clearly heightened from that of a human.
Bridget nodded her approval, “Good thought, both of you. Right. If this opens right out onto them, I’m going straight on the attack. If not, we’ll try to get to the room they’re in without being sensed.”
The other two nodded, and crouched slightly into position, ready to move.
On the 80th floor, a few minutes prior, Kyra had been reading through some activity reports – mostly harmless things; the majority of extranaturals were quite geared towards remaining a secret, so most would try never to act in a way which might draw attention. But there was always the minority that seemed to take up the biggest amount of attention.
Today’s standout was somebody one of her teams had been suspicious of for a while. They billed themselves a healer, but an awful lot of their patients seemed to not just remain un-cured, but take a drastic turn for the worse once they began seeing him. The team – Joshua (werewolf) and Alie (spiritwalker) had been trying to find out what he did to them, and had finally managed to get somewhere. The brother of one of his victims had planted a camera on the patient, and it had caught enough to see that the man, far from being some sort of healer (an extranatural type which Kyra knew did exist), was a soul eater. A creature that, quite literally, ate a person’s soul, slowly killing them by severing the connection between the soul and the body, diminishing both, and eventually killing the body and fully consuming the soul.
Kyra sat back and rubbed her face.This one was going to suck to deal with. But she had other problems to sort out first, like whatever was happening in that lift right now.
She turned to her laptop, tabbing over to the CCTV and turning up the volume. Jeremy was just finishing the final part of his speech, and she watched intently for any reaction from the people in there with him.
She saw the flickering of the lights, and the appearance of the Ancient Stranger from what had been Cara. She saw it shoot up through the ceiling of the lift towards the top floor, and braced herself for whatever might come next.
The lift opened out directly onto her spacious office, showcasing the incredible view directly opposite.
Her desk was along the right hand wall, facing into the room, and the rest of the space was taken up by a lounge area, a storage closet, and some comfortable chairs facing the desk. This was a new space, still smelling faintly of new carpet and paint, and Kyra was still figuring out how to put her own touches to most of it. The space was big, and she was still getting used to taking it all up for herself.
But when the robed, hooded figure shot through the doors of the lift and came to a halt, she was already up from her desk and heading over to the small refreshments table she kept in the lounge area.
“Would you like a drink? A snack? If you’re able to partake, of course.”
She poured herself a coffee, willing her hands not to tremble, and sat in one of the armchairs, motioning for the stranger to join her.
The stranger floated over but did not sit, “Why have you summoned me here? Why have you hunted me down?”
“Well, I just felt it was time we had a chat about our arrangement.”
“There is nothing to discuss. You will continue.”
Kyra smiled up at it, “I will not. Please remove the extra door, creepy typewriter and all, by the time I return home tonight.”
“You will continue,” the figure said again, voice menacing. A blue luminescence came now from under the hood, two faint dots that could have been eyes.
Kyra shook her head, “I will not. You will remove the extra room. And if I ever find you meddling with things in my jurisdiction again, I will not be so polite about it.”
The stranger growled, a deep, throbbing sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once, and suddenly Kyra was sitting in perfect darkness. Even the chair she sat in was invisible to her.
She sat back and crossed her legs, “This isn’t going to change anything. There will be no more from me, and if you refuse to remove the connection then I will figure out how to do it myself. And I’ll probably be a bit messier about it.”
A hand came from the darkness and gripped her around her throat, lifting her out of the chair so her legs dangled off the floor.
Before the creature could speak, or squeeze, there was a soft bing, and a commotion.
Kyra was dropped, and knocked heavily to one side. She was still surrounded by darkness, but it sounded like whoever was here…was not?
She heard the guttural growl again, something that sounded like threats, and the sharp sound of breaking glass – the lamp by the sofa? Kyra struggled to her knees and tried to find her bearings. Which way to safety?
There was a grunt close by, and some pained breathing. Someone across the room swore – a high pitch – and suddenly there came the deep green smell of soil and grass, flowers and manure, that signalled druidic magic. Powerful druidic magic.
The darkness lifted just enough for Kyra to see grey shadows, moving around a central figure. The Stranger lashed out to its left, a stream of black magic hitting one of the shadows, but they stood strong and snarled at it. A Were, then. Cat or wolf of some form.
Kyra found the shadow that was her coffee table, grimacing as the smashed glass – so that was that sound, then – cut through her trousers and into her knees and shins. But too much of the Stranger’s spell still lingered and she couldn’t rise above a crouch.
Ths druid suddenly began to glow in the fog, growing brighter until Kyra had to turn her face away from the light.
Once it reached its pinnacle, there came the sound of vines, twisting together. It seemed to last forever, but eventually it was done, and the fog began to lift, bringing her helpers into full view.
Kyra blinked and looked around. Three of the people who had been in the lift, were now in her office. The Ancient Stranger seemed to be bound by thick, green rope? No. Vines. The druid.
Kyra smiled and accepted the hand Daiyu offered to get to her feet.
“Wow. That was something, I’m sad I missed it – this guy had me in darkness the whole time. I’ll have to watch the camera footage later.”
Bridget laughed, “I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“What are you planning to do with him now?”
Bridget smiled, “While it’s bound and unconscious, I plan to remove the tether that keeps it here. If I may use your office in private for an hour or two, I guarantee it won’t be able to cause any more trouble. Mostly because it won’t be here, or anywhere, anymore.”
Kyra nodded, “Of course. And I’ll find some way to thank you all for this. I’m not certain I could have dealt with him – it – myself. I had to try, but I’m pretty sure I was about to die.”
“Well, it’ll be no problem to anyone anymore.”
Kyra looked at the three of them, “I assume you all had your reasons for coming to help, despite me summoning you as I did. I hope you understand a bit more of why, now. And, really, I can’t thank you enough for coming to my aid.”
Bridget grinned. Daiyu smiled and pulled Drew, who was ducking their head to hide their smile, into another side hug.
“I presume you left Jermy on the same floor he stopped you at?”
“We did,” Daiyu confirmed. “Well, Bridget did, he wanted to come with us.”
“Interesting…” Kyra said softly. “Let’s go put him out of his misery, and leave Briget to her work. I’ll be in the lobby restaurant whenever you’re done, just come down.”
Bridget nodded and began rearranging the room to make the space she needed.
Kyra, Daiyu and Drew, took the lift down to where Jeremy sat, cross-legged, attempting meditation while he waited.
When they got off the lift safely, he leapt to his feet, a look of relief crossing his face, quickly replaced by concern, “Bridget? Is she-”
“She’s fine,” Kyra interrupted. “She’s putting the finishing touches to that thing. Come on, I’m buying lunch.”
The four of them trooped back into the lift and down to the restaurant in the lobby.
An hour and a half later, Bridget joined them. She smelled strongly of herbs and grass and soil – the druidic magic she used clinging to her. She was exhausted. But she was smiling.
“All gone?” Kyra asked.
“All gone,” Bridget confirmed.
Kyra smiled and nodded, handing her a menu to order some food.
Inwardly, she sighed in great relief. She had been willing to die, if it meant that thing stopping its machinations. But that didn’t mean she was ready to. She still had plenty to do, before she was ready to check out for good. And thanks to these three, she could continue.
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