Chapter 08: Overcoming The Final Problem

I couldn’t see Tinkerbell’s face, but I could feel his head whipping around as realization dawned on him. He was holding a screaming girl against her will in a room filled with the greatest heroes the world had ever known. This wasn’t going to be pretty.

A hand tapped Tinkerbell on the shoulder. He twisted, not letting me go, though his grip had loosened with uncertainty. I was face to face with a woman with straw-colored cornrows and piercing brown eyes. She had a single earring, dangling a red feather. The mint-colored tank top she wore over a tie-died ankle-length skirt showed off tautly-muscled arms. She wasn’t wearing makeup, and the lines at the corners of her eyes spoke to almost four decades behind her. She was tall for a woman, five-nine or so, though still dwarfed by the man holding me. Behind her, a slightly-built black man with white-streaked dreadlocks and round hipster glasses watched smugly.

Robin Hood and Marian. Or, presumably, Marion.

Her eyes were locked on Tinkerbell’s as she jerked her chin towards me. “Hey man, I think you heard the lady. How about letting go? You don’t want to do this.”

She said the last gently and firmly, so confident that it was true that it had to be, just on her say-so. It wasn’t a threat. He really didn’t want to do this.

Subtly, others had fallen into place behind her. She had done nothing but step forward, and people were following her lead.

His grip on me relaxed further. It looked like the chaos I’d planned for was going to be foiled by a long, hard look at his life choices. I could probably push this in the other direction, but it didn’t matter. Vivian had gotten the job done ahead of schedule, and I was done playing Moriarty’s game.

A voice crackled in my ear. “Gwen? Gwen, can you hear me?”

“One second, Doyle,” I replied under my breath. “Bit busy.”

The giant holding me rumbled, "I… I’m sorry. I just… I got so mad… When Puckie said that this little—“

Robin patted his arm soothingly. “Let’s not dwell in the past, right? Just let the girl go.”

He did, and the time bomb of a room defused. I slid away from him to stand next to my rescuer. Puck cooed over Tinkerbell, and led him off - away from the bar.

“Thanks for the save,” I nodded at the blonde woman. She was a decade older than most other people here, and I was envious of her comfortable attire. She seemed not bothered at all that the rest of us were wearing leather and lace: this was a woman who had no fucks to give.

“My pleasure,” she nodded, and extended a hand. “Robin.”

“Yeah, I know.” I took her hand. Her grip was as steady as her gaze. “Gwen.”

“Not the name I’d have called you,” she arched an eyebrow. “Unless I’ve made some faulty… deductions?”

I laughed. “No, you hit the mark. From what I hear, you always get the shot. And this must be-”

“Whatever you’ve heard, it’s true.” Robin’s companion had an affable grin and a gentle handshake. “Marion Phelps.”

“Tell me you own a cleaning service.”

He laughed, a full and hearty thing. He wiped his eye and shook his head. “No, but that’s a good one. ‘Maid Marion.’ I like you.” Turning to Robin, he said, “I like her. Good save, puddin’.”

Robin rolled her eyes in mock annoyance, and Marion planted an apology smooch on her presented cheek. “I’m not allowed to call her that outside of the bedroom,” he chuckled to me, earning a backhanded slap on the arm that sounded like it hurt. Still, the tears in his eyes were more from amusement than pain.

I liked them both immensely.

“If you two are done flirting,” Robin arched an eyebrow, "would you mind telling me what’s going on here? Every scumbag in town is laying low, and then a million little weird things start happening all over. The trail leads here. To get us in here, I had to pick the pocket of someone who used the phrase ‘highly illogical’ without any irony whatsoever.”

“Yes,” murmured Doyle in my ear, “I’d love to hear this.”

“First, I should make one other introduction. Robin, Marion, I can tell I don’t need to explain Personae to you.” She nodded silently in assent. “We’ve got someone else with us, too: Merlin. Say hi, Doyle.”

I could tell from his tone as he greeted the other two that he wasn’t thrilled, but he’d put up with me this far: he could deal.

“Doyle, I’ve got two important questions. First, have you locked Moriarty out of the audio system?”

“Yes,” he answered. “She can’t hear us, or broadcast her voice anymore. If she wants to talk to you, she’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“She’s going to send a demigod henchman to bring me to her so she can explain her evil plan?” I snarked. “Never mind; how long have I got until New Camelot gets here?”

“Twenty minutes.” He sounded almost sheepish. “I found the poker chips you’d left in the Audi. One doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that you would come here. But it wasn’t until I saw Vivian leaving that I was sure. I didn’t tell Arthur until I was positive.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “I’d worried a bit about the chips. You could have let Arthur in on things hours ago. I can work with twenty minutes. Does he know…?”

Doyle hesitated. “He asked me to find out where you were. He didn’t ask me anything about who you were. I… I want to believe that you’re not out to harm us. But we must talk soon, you and I.”

“Done,” I promised. I took a breath, and looked at Robin and Marion. "We’re all here because Professor Moriarty is planning to kill off as many of us as she can in one fell swoop. She believes in an ancient ritual called the blood sacrifice, and she thinks that it’s going to turn her into a goddess. She wants to change her story. She’s recruited the Elders here to her cause. Or… I’m still not sure about that. It’s like she’s pulling their strings somehow.”

I continued. “I was confident that Moriarty would be focused on me: she had been targeting me all day, and once I got here she made it clear that she’s… obsessed with me. I kept her attention on me while my partner set up a mesh network of cell phones and wireless antennas. They’re under the tables all around the place. A single cell phone might not get signal, but hook enough of them to the antennas that I smuggled in here disguised as sex toys, and it was enough to punch a signal out of here and let Doyle start getting himself into Moriarty’s system.”

“It’s slow going right now: I’m getting terrible bandwidth for uploading Watson’s tools,” Doyle explained. “Once I find a pipe out to the internet, I’ll go in that way and be in complete control over there. Right now, I’ve got the voice synthesizers and the door locks. Security cameras next.”

Robin squinted. “If she’s planning on killing everyone, shouldn’t we be getting everyone out of here? Like, now? If the doors aren’t locked, then I say we all take the better part of valor.”

I shook my head. “Until we can neutralize whatever weapon she’s going to use, any attempt to evacuate would just make her pull the trigger early. As long as I’m trying to stop her, she’s not going to set anything off. Also, she’s got my dog.”

Marion’s brows knitted. “Your… Could we leave now? I saw those other two take off a minute ago.”

I nodded. “And I think you should. Doyle and I can handle this. We need to-”

“Heads up,” interrupted Robin. “Trouble.” Marion subtly shifted behind her: this wasn’t their first time going into danger together.

I looked up in time to see Tinkerbell come crashing to the ground. Standing with his arms still outstretched after shoving the fairy was Hercules, a nasty grin on his face. He was about like you’d expect: tall, big muscles, long hair… but there was something off about him. Theseus stood nearby, of similar build with shorter hair. He wore the same grin.

“So you like to pick on little girls?” roared Hercules at the man on the ground. He began to circle clockwise, Theseus moving in lockstep on the other side.

I felt someone behind me, and whipped my head around as a pair of firm, strong hands came down on my shoulders. “Don’t worry, my dear,” Otrera cooed in my ear. “We won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“I’m fine,” I snapped. “He didn’t do any damage, and he realized he’d made a mistake. Look at him, he’s terrified. You don’t need to do this!”

Tinkerbell had tried to get to his feet, but Theseus put a booted foot on his tailbone and kicked him back over. “Lose your wings, fairy?” he sneered, and from his tone it was clear that the word was meant to refer to more than just a legend about a tiny girl with wings. It was uglier than that.

“D- don’t,” the downed man pleaded. “I was just… I’m sorry!” He caught my eye through the crowd and stretched out his hand to me. “Tell them! Tell them I’m sorry!”

Hercules chopped his hand down on the outstretched arm so fast that even I could barely see it move. There was a nasty crunch, and Tinkerbell howled in pain, curling up around an arm that now bent in an extra place.

“Don’t you look at her, you cock-sucking filth!” Hercules roared.

This is wrong. The Greeks should be predisposed against intolerance of homosexuality. This is a misdirection. Moriarty wants your attention focused away from whatever she is up to.

Misdirection or not, she had my attention completely. I couldn’t just do nothing! Tinkerbell was blubbering, huge tears rolling down his cheeks. “Puckie! Tell them, Puck!” he cried, but the smaller man was nowhere to be seen.

I started to surge forward, but something strange happened: I went nowhere. Otrera’s hands on my shoulders held me effortlessly in place. Damn Elder!

But the age of a story wasn’t the only thing that mattered with us. Your story being old made a difference, because it had survived. But it was also a popularity contest with us: who knew your story now? And who’d ever heard of Otrera?

Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand…

Otrera would be no problem. With age and fame on his side, I wasn’t so certain that I could take Hercules, but that asshole had crippled Tinkerbell already. The downed man didn’t have the time for me to sit and work out all the angles. If I was going to act, it had to be now.

I relaxed and let time slow. Absently, my hand dropped to the bottom hem of my dress and tapped out a short message on the backup phone I’d hidden there. (Of course I had a backup phone; what was I, a moron?) My network of dildo antennas had also set up a local wireless node, and I was sure the recipient would have his phone set up to connect to whatever was available. Moriarty had struck from an unexpected direction. It looked like I was going to need some help.

I couldn’t just ignore Otrera, but I didn’t want this to be a fight. Best make it look like an accident: I shifted my weight subtly forward, planning to pull her off-balance and then twist away - but again, I went nowhere. Otrera relaxed her arms and tightened her fingers just enough to make me wince.

Frustrated, I executed a subtle series of shifts that would just look like nervous fidgeting, but should have rattled her arms in her sockets enough to let me slip free. Again: nothing. She anticipated my every movement and compensated for it, invisibly, almost before it had happened.

Impossible. There’s no way that Otrera could react this quickly.

Ahh, my dear, but she isn’t.

It was the same sort of subtext message that I’d been reading off of Achilles and the others earlier, but it had been broadcast through Otrera’s fingers, into my shoulders, to be translated by my brain on the other side. This wasn’t subtext, though: this was a message. This was intentional. There was only one other mind that could speak to me like that.

This was Moriarty.

My blood turned to ice. Somehow, Moriarty was inside Otrera! She was reading my subtext, translating my every tic and gesture. She was moving as fast as I was, faster: she was anticipating my every move and countering it before I even twitched.

In the world of the flesh, Theseus had just landed a vicious kick across Tinkerbell’s face. The big man was bleeding from his nose and a cut over his eye as the two Elders tormented him. Why was no one doing anything?

The music had stopped; replaced by a static hiss. My eyes sped around the room: everyone was watching this man get the life beaten out of him. When it had been Tinkerbell grabbing me, they’d all been ready to come to my defense. Now, nobody was moving a muscle.

“They can’t,” whispered Moriarty through Otrera’s lips. “I’ve suppressed their voluntary nervous systems. It’s the first step towards assimilation.”

The gas. She’d told me that it was to reflect lasers so that the computer could read speech all throughout the room.

"I may not have told the whole truth,” she admitted. “It does do that. And a little something extra.”

Otrera laughed, sounding just like Kay had. “And here I thought you loved mysteries! Certainly you had enough to conclude I was misdirecting you. Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?”

I gritted my teeth. “The gas is some sort of psychotropic. We’ve been breathing your brainwashing fog since we got here.”

“Oh, Holmes. It’s so delightful to watch you flail about in the dark.”

Crack! Hercules drove a fist into the back of Tinkerbell’s head with the force of a jackhammer.

Inside. She’s inside Otrera. That same smile on Hercules and Theseus… she’s inside them, too!

“But you’re too slow. Now it’s time to shine a light.”

“Oi, what if I jus’ light it all up to burn it down, ye hairy-bearded thunder twat?” Puck jumped up from behind the oak top of the bar, bottles of liquor in each hand. Stuffed into the ends were bar rags, lit aflame.

Molotov cocktails.

It has been seventeen minutes, came Holmes’ voice in my head. Time for a distraction.

We were meant to look at the two flaming explosives in Puck’s hands… and not the ones he’d already thrown.

Whoomp! There was a vacuum as air rushed toward Hercules and Theseus, and then twin rushes of heat. I heard a single scream, but I was too busy to pinpoint it’s source: Moriarty had underestimated Puck, and I was damn sure going to use that to my advantage.

I whipped my head forward, sending my hair spraying into Otrera’s face. Already focused elsewhere, she misread the slight arching of my toes that pressed my shoulders up, and she pressed down to counter. I dropped my body straight down to the floor, and she lost her balance for a split second. Fast, she was damn fast, catching herself in an instant the way you’d expect of an Amazon queen.

Then she caught a Molotov cocktail with her face.

I covered my own with my hands and rolled to the side, away from the third wash of flame. Otrera was screaming and clawing at the ruin of her flesh, and a putrid reek spilled from her in sooty waves.

Not soot. Ash. Ash and oak. Ashley Oakley, heiress to the fortune of a major arms manufacturer. Better known in our circles as little Annie Oakley, the fastest sharpshooter in the West.

She stood on the balcony, where Moriarty had left her to play body double. The figure at the top of the stairs had been backlit so conspicuously that I’d noticed it without gleaning its significance. I hadn’t actually seen Moriarty since I had left her earlier. Now, in the flames pouring off of the three Elders, Ashley was illuminated despite the backlight that Moriarty had used to prevent me from seeing who was really up there. Her platinum blonde hair flickered blue and red in the firelight.

“Got it!” came the call from behind her. I saw a wiry man hardly taller than Puck emerge, waving an assault rifle over his head. “It was like you said in your text message: somebody hostage up here. I had to defuse an autocannon, but, you know, no big.”

Erik White. Security system tester. You called him when you wanted to pay top dollar in order to find out just how bad your corporate security really was. Because no lock was ever closed to Harry Houdini. I had a case file on him a foot thick: it just seemed too likely that he’d wind up as someone’s pawn someday, and all of his antics could be quite instructive. Of course I’d had his phone number. Moriarty wasn’t the only one who could misdirect. I’d messaged him while struggling with Otrera: where she’d stood behind me, she couldn’t see my hands.

I gave him a thumbs up. “Let me guess,” I called, “something large-caliber from Oakley & Harris?”

“Nailed it,” he affirmed. Then looked contrite. “I’d have had your back a little sooner, but whatever mojo she’s working knocked me on my ass for a minute.”

"A full minute, for the greatest escape artist of all time to get out of a trap laid by the greatest criminal mastermind? Figure out how to wake up gun girl up there, or your reputation is really going to suffer.”

The levity felt good, but my heart was beating as if I’d run a four minute mile. The static hiss all around us was messing with my head: something in it was knocking on the back of my brain, trying to get in. I hadn’t been here nearly as long as the others, so I hadn’t been exposed to as much of Moriarty’s gas… but biology was biology. If we didn’t get out of here soon, I wasn’t sure what would happen.

Yet if we do not turn off these speakers, it is far from clear what will happen to everyone who is standing here, frozen.

I stood, looking back through the silent crowd at Puck. He was by Tinkerbell’s side, face grim. He tapped his watch. “Seventeen minutes,” he called. “Ye got yer distraction right when ye asked fer it. Now we’re square. And fuck you and yer girlfriend.”

"Moriarty’s not—” I started, but then I froze. Horrid, gurgling laughter broke apart the hissing static.

Hercules was still standing. Engulfed in flames, he had just stood there, burning. He’d been so still, and so much had been going on, we’d all just ignored him, assuming he’d met the same fate as Moriarty’s other possessed Elders.

We’d been wrong. He threw back his head, blue flames eating away his mane of hair into nothing. He turned his ruined face to me. It had no eyes left, but he felt me.

“Hhhh… You can’t kill me anymore… my dear.” He spoke as if he had a throat full of glass. He took a shaky step toward me.

“Feckin’ shite!” howled Puck, throwing the last liquor bottle. This time, Hercules caught the final Molotov before it exploded all over him. With a tiny motion, he hurled it back at Puck.

Crack! A single report from an assault rifle. Hercules’ casual toss had the speed of a major league pitch, but there was an eye here sharper than the fragments of glass that scattered into a million sparkling fireflies across the room, landing at Puck’s feet.

“Like, I totally don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m wicked pissed about it.” Ashley Oakley trained the assault rifle on Hercules.

“He’s the bad guy!” I shouted. “Do it, Oakley!”

“Good. Bad. I’m the girl with the gun. Call me Ash.” Click! “And, um, this thing is already out of ammo? One shot? What the hey?”

Hercules took another step, and another.

“You can’t stop him!” came Doyle’s voice in my ear. “You have to get out of there!”

“Negative - I need you to cancel out the static,” I told him. “It’s got everyone catatonic. They’re sitting ducks!”

With a sweep of a brawny arm, the Hercules-thing smashed a paralyzed Rosencrantz out of his way. The blow bent the man in half and sent him flying, knocking people to the floor, where they lay still.

“I can’t,” he said. “Whatever’s broadcasting the static has a hardline, disconnected from the rest of the system. It’s an auditory override. I can’t cancel it out from here, either: the room’s too big, and the system is only designed for spot broadcasts. I can get you a bubble where the effect is canceled: five or six feet, maybe.”

I gritted my teeth. Names of those nearby flashed through my mind, strengths, weaknesses. I couldn’t save them all. So I chose.

“Robin and Marion. Are Vivian and Achilles fully clear?”

“She and… that… ahem, yes, they were out before Hercules and company got to work. Now go!”

Hercules was building up steam. He still shuffled like a zombie, but his movements were getting more deliberate. He was about ten feet away. I grabbed Robin and Marion, shaking them. “We’ve got to go. Now! Doyle, keep your bubble on us. Erik, the door?” I pointed to the secret door that Theseus and Otrera had taken Hercules through, shoving the groggy couple into motion.

He was still hustling down the stairs. “It’s been all of thirty seconds,” he complained. “Give me another twenty!”

“Get there!” I screamed. “Ash, follow Erik!”

I saw Puck struggling with Tinkerbell’s inert body. “Come on, baby,” he whispered. “I believe. I believe!”

He turned to me, eyes wet. “Come on, please!”

Hercules kept coming for me.

“Puck, we don’t have time!”

“I’m nae leavin’ him like this! I believe!”

“Highly illogical,” I grumbled, and darted around Hercules. He took a swipe at me, nearly landed it, but I dropped back and skidded under his arm on my knees.

I slid to a stop next to Puck and Tinkerbell. “This isn’t my story. What the hell do I do?"

He clapped his hands together, and Hercules cocked his head toward us. “Believe,” he whispered.

I clapped my hands, looking nervously as the monster changed direction, absently bowling people over as he sniffed the air. “I believe.”

“Come on, do it!” Puck begged. “Ye’ve got to believe he’ll come back! I can’t! I’m too fairy meself!”

I took a deep breath, and Hercules took a staggering step in the right direction. “I believe,” I hissed. “Come on, Tink. I believe.” I looked over at the abomination struggling after us.

If that is not evidence of stories unconstrained by nature’s law…

I clapped. “I believe in fairies!”

Tinkerbell shuddered, and drew a breath.

Hercules bowled past me and slammed a foot down on Tinkerbell’s spine. The big fairy breathed no more.

The sound that tore forth from Puck could have come from the monster that had killed his lover. It was guttural, terrible, a medley of shock, pain, and soul-burning rage. Puck rose to his feet, but his shadow suddenly swept large and alive, no longer fitting his body. There should have been no shadows in the dank light of the nightclub, but his was darker than mere shadow, a vacuum of light in the gloom. It slipped away from Puck and hurled itself at Hercules.

The burned Elder bowled to the floor as if hit by a truck. Puck took a step toward him, but Hercules lashed a hand up into the air, and his own shadow grabbed Puck’s, and squeezed. The small man gasped in pain, and suddenly the shadow was a tiny bird, flying free of the monster’s fist. Puck lost his bearings for a second - just a second - but in that time Hercules drove a backhand into his ribs that sent him flying over the bar.

I was moving, running. “Erik!” I called. “Faster! Faster! Faster would be better!”

I knew better than to look behind, but from the faces of the others, I could tell that Hercules had taken chase.

“Mmmmy d-d-dearrr…” he rumbled, too close.

Damn! Unnatural abominations are not my story. I… I don’t know what to do.

I ran. I didn’t look back.

Erik had the door, and Ash was through it. Robin was pushing Marion through, but it was no good, we were right on top of them. They weren’t going to get through in time.

I threw myself to the floor, leg outstretched… In my mind, the story kept playing out. The possibilities split here, and there were only two.

The Elder tripped over my leg, stumbling and flailing for balance. He kept it, but he’d lost his momentum. Marion staggered through the door, with Robin right on his heels.

“Come on!” screamed Erik.

I shook my head, and kicked out hard, into the monster’s knee. It was like hitting a tree trunk, but now I had the tree’s attention.

“Close the damn door!” I shouted at him. “Save yourselves!”

But none of that happened.

Hercules leaped over my outstretched leg. A few strides later he caught Marion’s head in his huge hand and slammed it into the door frame with crushing force. Robin had enough time to watch the light die in his eyes before Hercules caught her by the throat, lifting her off of the ground as her feet kicked feebly.

Again my mind analyzed the probable futures. In three seconds, the monster would find his grip and crush her windpipe. With Moriarty driving him, then he would drop her and watch her claw at the ruin of her throat as she choked to death next to Marion’s corpse.

Three seconds. The door was right next to where Vivian and I had parted ways just minutes before. My bag was still on the table.

Two seconds. I pulled something long and steel out of the bag, taking a long step towards the thing that was choking Robin to death. The future wavered.

One second. I slammed a twelve-inch steel dildo in an underhanded strike into the instep of Hercules’ elbow. The blow crushed his median nerve, and it didn’t matter how much of an Elder he was: when you can’t get nerve impulses from your brain to the muscles that close your fingers, you can’t sign your name, much less crush anybody’s windpipe. Robin dropped from literally nerveless fingers.

“Get away from her, you bitch!” I shouted, teeth bared. Moriarty was in there somewhere. I hoped she felt it.

Hercules howled, more in rage than pain, and swept his injured arm back at my face. The blow would have knocked me flat, but I’d seen him use it just seconds before on Puck. I’d mapped it, measured it, and countered it in nine possible ways already. He wasn’t going to catch me with that one.

I ducked, his fist sweeping harmlessly through my hair as I passed under his arm. His blackened, ruined face loomed over me, eyes hollow sockets, nose melted away. His breath reeked of death as he gurgled, “My dea—“

“Blow me,” I spat, and drove the dildo into his mouth with every ounce of strength I had. My shoulders jerked as I felt his skull crack along the top of his mouth, driving splinters of bone into his cerebellum.

I held my breath. He didn’t drop. He wobbled. He clawed at me, body shuddering all over. I backpedaled, but I tripped over Robin where she lay on the floor, gasping for air. Hercules toppled after, landing on top of me. His weight was tremendous, crushing. My head cracked hard on the floor, and my vision swam. For a second, it seemed like he was everywhere, smothering me with the scent of death.

Then he was still. Panting, I scrambled out from under him.

“Is— is he dead?” Robin rasped.

“I think so. But let’s not stick around to find out.”

But she was talking about Marion. Blood trickled from his ears. I could read her, and her body was screaming. No, no, god, please, no, not him, take me instead, don’t take him, please, he was the best thing I ever—

In the world of flesh, she pressed her lips together. She opened them. She shut them again. She passed her hand over his face, closing his dead, open eyes.

“I love you, you silly little man. I will tell you that every day until I die.”

She pulled herself to her feet, and her eyes held hardly more life than Marion’s had. Her jaw was clenched for murder.

“Who?” she rasped. Tell me who I am going to kill.

“Moriarty,” I said. “She infected them all. I don’t know how yet, but it was her. It’s always her.” I paused. “I’m so sorry.”

Her mouth held the grimace, and her eyes said nothing, even to me. She stepped through the door without a word.

I followed her into a short hallway. It was grungy, industrial; the opposite of the opulence of the club. The single door at the other end lead to a small room with a low, drop-tile ceiling. Erik and Ash flanked the door as Robin and I stepped through into Moriarty’s lair.

A bank of monitors flashed video of every angle of the club, and a microphone on the desk at its base had allowed Moriarty to speak straight to me. The chair facing the desk was empty, but I saw red hairs on it. She’d been here.

So had Hercules. Next to the monitors was the sort of steel chair that you got when you visited the gynecologist in hell. It had wrist and ankle shackles, along with straps for the head and chest. The wrist shackles had bent, but hadn’t broken, perhaps because the strange rig that was mounted where a victim’s head would be had taken effect. It had screens that would fit over their eyes, and headphones for the ears.

He walked in, expecting a private room with Theseus and Otrera. She jabbed a needle into his neck and Theseus wrestled the groggy Hercules into the chair. They strapped him in, and got the rig in place…

I saw two blonde hairs on the rim of the apparatus. One was a normal color of blonde, slightly kinky, as if its owner’s hair had been tightly-styled. The other was a bright platinum, almost white. I could tell from the slight disturbances here and there in the dust, the fabric of the straps, and a thousand other things too small even to put to words that the room had been given a cursory sweep by someone removing any clue of what had taken place there… but the hair had been missed. Two strands of hair.

Missed… or left for me to find. The door clicked shut behind me, and I heard Erik twist a deadbolt into place.

Naturally blonde hair occurs in only two percent of the global population. Platinum blonde hair occurs almost exclusively in children. Women who bleach their hair tend to recolor it with a more vivid yellow, adopting the observed normal tone. This hair is extremely uncommon.

Ashley has platinum blonde hair.

Oh, shit. I was trapped in here with a… what, a copy of Moriarty? One whose name Moriarty had been wanting me to guess, so that I would think that I had saved her. The whole game of me “saving” people… it wasn’t that at all! Moriarty had selected them well before I ever arrived, gotten into their heads, and set me up to trust them because that’s what you did with victims: you trusted that they really were victims. Apparently, Moriarty had read Gillian Flynn.

I’d also figured out Houdini’s name. That made two of Moriarty’s brainwashed in the room with me.

The elasticity of human hair varies widely, but blonde hair tends to straighten within twelve minutes of removal from the scalp in seventy-three percent of the population due either to dye or natural oils. In this population, only hair that has been subject to prolonged strain to the point that cells have collapsed fails to uncurl.

Robin wears cornrows.

My heart hammered in my chest.

No, no, no, it couldn’t be! Robin had pickpocketed her way into the club… or so she’d said. She had been genuinely shattered when Marion had…

”Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?”

Three of them. Three Moriarty’s. Me, three copies of my greatest foe, and a locked door.

I could hear a shift behind me: Ash was bringing her assault rifle to bear - it was not empty, despite what she’d said. God damn my inability to see through Moriarty’s lies! I wasn’t sure if she was just going to execute me or if she’d try to force me into the apparatus that Moriarty had already put them all through, but it amounted to the same thing, didn’t it?

I gritted my teeth. “Reichenbach. Time to fall.”

Reaching back and grabbing the barrel of the rifle with my left hand, I spun inside Ash’s line of fire. I slammed my right shoulder into her solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her, and brought the barrel up while slipping my finger inside the trigger guard and pumping three rounds into Erik’s chest–

My attack was countered before I could get the barrel up: Ash dropped the butt end of the rifle down, spoiling my aim and keeping my finger out of the trigger. Erik dodged behind Robin, who hadn’t moved yet. They were fighting like I was, mind three moves ahead… but they weren’t cooperating. Erik was shielding himself with Robin. Was he more important than she was for some reason?

Ash lunged forward, driving the barrel of the rifle into my ribs. She followed through with her whole body, and I felt a crack as my sixth vertebrosternal rib splintered. Then I heard another crack as she pumped a round into my chest—

I spun back before she could follow through, and her strike only grazed my rib, preventing further damage.

Sherlock Holmes, Kay’s voice laughed in my memory. Vulnerability: distraction.

I was going to have to quit fighting like a detective if I was going to get out of this. I could hold my own in combat, but it wasn’t my metier. I was usually able to come out ahead thanks to my ability to always be six moves ahead of my opponent. The Moriartys… they were too fast. They fought like me, always plotting the strike to follow…

Erik threw an elbow at me from behind, in time with a leg sweep from Ash. The dual attack should have rung my bell and landed me on my ass, but I’d seen both strikes coming and thrown myself bodily at Ash. We crashed to the ground, and I saw her scrabbling to get to her feet… slower than I was. I landed a nerve strike on her shoulder that numbed her arm and loosened her grip on the rifle.

Slow… they were slower than they should have been. They could see the next move, but not all the ones that followed. They were flawed… imperfect copies of the lethality that was the original.

There were also three of them.

Robin hadn’t attacked yet, but had dropped back into a defensive posture as Ash and I fought on the ground for the rifle. Erik advanced, throwing a kick towards my face while Ash wrapped another hand around the butt of the rifle and planted her foot on my hip, tearing the gun out of my hands—

No, I wasn’t about to let that happen: I stabbed upward with the business end of the rifle, driving it into the arch of Erik’s foot and tearing it free of Ash’s hands as I spun to my feet. I slid it into my shoulder, but Erik drove a fist into my teeth—

Again, I was too fast, jerking my head back as his hand passed harmlessly by - and wrapped his reaching fingers around the bolt handle of the rifle, tugging it back and ejecting the round. I took two steps back and cocked the rifle again, but something was wrong: nothing slid into the chamber. The weight of the weapon was wrong, too - and then I noticed Ash holding up the magazine. She’d ejected it while she was “fighting” me for it.

The rifle was empty: no bullets. Disgusted, I threw it to one side. Ash pitched the magazine after it.

They grinned identical grins, and said in unison, “Everything a ruse, my dear.”

Erik began, “Can’t have this…”

“… be too easy,” Ash finished.

They sneered again, nastily. Then, Erik pointed at the table, and Ash stretched out her hand to me, almost pleading. As one they said, “Come and join us. It only hurts for a minute.”

My eyes flicked between them and the table. Somehow, it was where you got imprinted with Moriarty. I was Sherlock Holmes: what would it do to me? I beat Moriarty; that’s what I did. I was outmatched physically, that much was clear: even if I was faster, they were sneakier. The only end to a hand-to-hand struggle with Moriarty was death. If I gave in, let them use the machine on me… what then? I should be able to beat it, right?

But it had worked on Ash, on Erik, on the Elders…

The two Moriartys took a step toward me.

There was the sound of metal sliding on metal. The crash of a kennel door opening.

“Someone’s going to join you,” Robin promised as Cavill hurtled at my nemeses. “But it might hurt for more than a minute.”

He leapt into the air towards Erik, who threw up his arms and ducked way down, under the path of the furious animal. Cavill should have sailed right over him. But while Erik was fast, Cavill was fury. His head bent itself down as he arced through the air, massive jaws wrapping themselves around Erik’s arm.

They clenched. Cavill whipped his head. With his body not anchored to the ground, the motion sent his weight twisting in a wholly different direction, eighty pounds of angry pit bull moving like a wrecking ball through the air straight for Ash’s shocked face.

Cavill smashed haunches first into her, clawing wildly with his hind legs. There were claws back there. People didn’t usually think about dog claws as worrisome, but those people didn’t have them gouging at their eyes. Ash cried out, and the three of them went down in a pile.

Moriarty was smart. Moriarty was cagey. He could think faster than a computer and come up with counters for your next attack before you’d even thought about striking.

But Cavill wasn’t thinking. He was just attacking.

Erik’s arm dragged uselessly on the floor as he scrambled away from the raging beast. Cavill’s teeth sank into his calf, and he howled as he flailed at the dog’s head. Ash was on hands and knees, but I saw a flap of skin hanging down from her face where Cavill had torn it loose.

I started to take a step forward, but Robin stepped between me and the melee. Smoothly, she raised the discarded rifle, slapped the magazine in, and cocked it.

“No, wait-” I started to shout.

“‘My dear’,” she spat. “I know who they are.”

She squeezed.

Two seconds last a long time when they are punctuated by bullets. Long enough for bodies be reduced to pulpy masses of blood and tissue. Long enough to notice how steady the hand was that guided the shots, how tight the groupings were in spite of the kick of the rifle. Long enough to notice that the live bullet that had been ejected by Erik when we fought was nowhere to be seen on the floor, and that Robin’s grip suggested something in her palm.

Long enough to start to wonder about the woman who still had one bullet left, despite the empty click in the chamber.

Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?

Robin hefted the rifle to one shoulder as the smell of gunpowder surged through the room. Two piles of meat lay there, meat that had been human bodies before tooth and bullet had reshaped them. Cavill crouched in between them, hackles still raised, teeth bared. Without removing her finger from the trigger, Robin had swept around him without so much as grazing a tuft of fur.

She started to turn toward me.

I drove the heel of my palm into her temple. I pulled the blow slightly at the last microsecond, and she crumpled but her skull did not. The rifle and the final bullet clattered to the floor.

Then the only noise was that of Cavill and me breathing heavily.

He took a step forward, nosing Robin’s inert form. A breath shuddered through her. He looked up at me.

I was trembling. “She… she had one bullet left. I couldn’t… I wouldn’t have been able to stop her, if Moriarty had gotten to her. If he was inside her. Moriarty and one bullet in Robin Hood’s body… she could kill us both with that.”

I swallowed, looking down at her. I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know. I reviewed every clue I had, every single detail. Was she Moriarty? Was she just Robin?

I didn’t know.

Cavill came over and licked my hand. Ruffling his ears and scratching his head, I took a deep breath. It was calming, petting him.

I crouched down, scrubbing his neck with both hands and looking him over. He had some scratches and sore spots on his head and shoulder. Charging the cage wall. He tried to escape.

“You don’t much go for being crated, huh?” I asked him. He smiled, tongue lolling. He didn’t flinch when I brushed my fingers over the scrapes. “You look okay, though. She didn’t do anything to you, did she? Mean old lady.”

“Not a hair on his head, we swear. We’re not a monster. The cage was just so he wouldn’t run out the door when we opened it.”

My head whipped up at the voice, and Cavill was instantly on point.

Kay’s smile - no, Moriarty’s - loomed on the monitor banks, taking over all of them to project her head four feet wide.

“Doyle!” I shouted, “can you hear me?”

“No cameras in the control room, my dear, for just that reason. He can’t read your lips, and we’re sorry to report that we can’t see you, either. The microphone isn’t on the network: it’s a direct audio feed to me here, so we could have this conversation. Even if we hadn’t been certain you would prevail, the sound of gunfire and your voice afterward lead to only one conclusion.”

“There’s only ever one conclusion,” I spat at her. “I kill you. Even if you’re cloning yourself these days.”

"You’re delightful.” She waved sweetly at me from the monitors. The backdrop was a brick wall; her hair rustled slightly in the breeze: she was outside somewhere, on her phone. I couldn’t tell much about the brick given the quality of the connection: it was impossible to pinpoint her whereabouts. She waited expectantly.

“You’ve figured out a way to imprint yourself into people’s minds,” I started. “If you get enough of yourself in there, you can overwrite their natural persona: they become Moriarty-types. They walk like you, they talk like you, they think like you. But it’s not a perfect process. They’re like you, but not as fast, not as sharp.”

“Oh, Sherlock. We don’t just think like Moriarty. We are Moriarty. All of us. Unlike all other Personae, I remember my past lives. It turns out that when I imprint myself on another, those past lives aren’t done yet. There’s… a connection. They can remember me, what I’m doing now. They remember my present as if it had happened to them. And I remember theirs. We share memories, experiences, thought patterns…”

“A hive mind,” I breathed.

“We’re not yet certain what we are.  But you can’t kill us, Sherlock.  We felt a pinch, just a pinch, when Hercules-Moriarty died.  Theseus-Moriarty, Otrera-Moriarty… they perished in fire, and it only tickled us."

"The Red-Handed League was never a real thing," I blurted.  "It's a reference to a fairly silly Sherlock Holmes story.  It was just a lure, a dangle, one that I couldn't ignore.  You used the name as a message to me, and made up a bogus story about bloody hands to feed to Arthur and his rubes."

"Ever the detective.  And come after me, you did.  But what now?  You can’t hurt us anymore, Sherlock.  No one can.  It’s not just this Kay body.  There are others.  We are Moriarty.  We are immortal.  We have changed the story.”

My hands clenched. “The blood sacrifice?”

She giggled. “Oh, come on. You don’t go in for that and neither do we. A misdirection.”

“Then… why?” I asked. “Why all this? Why waste yourself, waste the Elders, waste Ash, Erik, Robin…”

She sniffed disdainfully. “The old lady there isn’t one of us. Not interested. And yes, we know that’s exactly what we would say if we wanted you to believe something false about her, but really: we know you. You suspect her now; you will always suspect her. How could we use her against you, even if she were one of us? You will never let her close.

“But why sacrifice a few hairs, a few toenails?” She grinned. “Do you know how our machine works? Images and sounds. Light and noise. The memories of a lifetime, programmed through the eyeballs and eardrums. You have to be ready to receive, with nervous system suppressed just so… but it’s just words and pictures.”

My throat tightened. “The sound system in the club. The light wall. The gas to soften them up. You… you’re imprinting yourself on all of them? Everyone out there?”

“Close, my dear,” she grinned. “You are, as ever, one step behind.”

“You’ve already done it,” I stated flatly. “You wouldn’t let me in on something that I could stop.”

“We’ve already got a few of them. Moments more and we will be legion.”

“New Camelot is walking into a trap. Arthur and his men will be here in minutes, and you’ll tear them to pieces.”

“Yes,” she said. “They are the most unified faction of Personae, and only own one of them is part of us. We don’t need them, and we don’t allow for risks. We will destroy them rather than imprinting them. The media confusion and hysteria at finding a CIA strike team murdered on domestic soil where they have no business operating will lead to inquiries, exposing all of Arthur’s more… questionable deeds to the world. Misdirection: we will fade away, unnoticed.”

“But why me? That’s the one part of all this that I still don’t understand. Why am I here?”

She sighed. “I - the Kay part of us - had… desires for you. I’d hoped for something different from you. Sadly, you disappoint. Yet we can’t go killing you, now, can we? A new Sherlock called up, and we haven’t found your replacement yet? Messy. Risky, even to us. Even though you weren’t capable of destroying us, an unknown Sherlock might. No, I’m afraid you will be taking a very long and medically-managed nap. We can keep you indefinitely comatose and alive long enough to use our machine to build a map of your mind, too. Then we imprint you on someone else before you die, and create a new Sherlock to suffer the same fate.”

She shrugged. “Sorry. I wish it had worked out between us.”

I went pale. “You’re insane.”

Another long, theatrical sigh. “We’d so hoped for better from you, Gwen. This is a solution to the Holmes-Moriarty problem! You would solve our problem, too, if it meant the end of Moriarty. Don’t be self-righteous that I beat you to it. Though this… perhaps making you watch this next bit is a touch self-indulgent.”

The camera turned away from her then, panning out of an alleyway - I knew she’d been outside - and onto a view of a street. I placed it immediately: it was a short walk from the Diogenes Club, maybe six or seven minutes. Slightly longer if you were wearing huge heels, like Vivian was as she came into the shot, clinging to Achilles’ arm. The two were laughing and close, clearly on their way somewhere intimate.

No.

Ever the soldier, I saw Achilles’ back straighten just before the van screeched into view. He was fast: he reached a hand up and plucked the stilettos out of Vivian’s hair, and before gravity had a chance to send dark locks spilling down her shoulders he’d flung one of them inside the door that was sliding open as the van pulled alongside. The dagger found its mark, and suddenly the vehicle swerved as the driver took a knife to the throat. It crashed into a parked car ahead of the couple, and Achilles leapt through the open door with a wild cry. Vivian dropped into a crouch and took cover behind a tree as the sound of gunfire erupted. In short order, one, two, three broken bodies were thrown from the van: two through the side door that Achilles had entered, and one through the front windshield. Three more shots, and the van rocked back and forth.

Then it exploded.

As the flare died down and the scene became visible again, a human shape stepped down from the wreckage of the van, shaking his head back and forth to clear it. Surfer hair swept back and forth in his face. His clothes were burnt away, but he hardly had a scratch on him. He stood backlit, unreadable, but his posture was one of confidence and glory.

Vivian! Where’s Vivian? I strained to see in the mix of gloom and inferno on the monitors. Then: Crack! Crack crack crack!

Four shots, and the camera panned back to Moriarty, her face gleeful, a fifty caliber hand cannon smoking next to it. “Spent uranium rounds,” she explained. "Not enough to kill him, but they should keep him down for a bit, and a touch of uranium poisoning will slow his healing nicely. In a day or two, he’ll make a nice addition to our little collective.”

She turned the camera phone she was holding back to the scene, and I saw that Achilles had dropped to his knees, head bent forward. The view wobbled as she walked toward him.

He raised his head weakly. "Ah. She said you had but one…” he coughed, yet he smiled, “… excuse me. Little something in my chest. You had but one vulnerability: distraction.”

“Yo, she-bitch!” came a voice. “Let’s go!”

There was a flash of light, and the sound of thunder. The monitors went dark, each announcing “Signal Lost” in small type.

“Achilles?” I shouted. “Vivian? Vivian! Moriarty? Anybody?

No one answered.

Then… a laugh. From the corridor.

I opened the door. The young woman who stood there, blonde and sparkling, had once been Cinderella. But Cinderella wasn’t the one looking out from those ice blue eyes.

She wiped a tear from them as she giggled. She was actually resting against the wall of the corridor, holding herself up as she shook with laughter.

“We… we did not see that coming!” she murmured, more to herself than to me. “Poor Kay. But my, my, a good time we’ll have tonight! She can’t hold us all off. Camelot may have to wait.”

She straightened up, a syringe in her hand. “For now, be a dear and don’t make us work for this. There are lots more of us to hold you down if we need to.”

I could have warned her about the shape that was fading into view behind her. From thin air, Puck emerged into being, feet standing an inch above the floor. His body was naked, covered entirely in brown fur, with pointed ears and a nose that merged slightly with his mouth, like a hybrid of a cat and a man. Like a cat, his fingers ended in cruel claws.

I could have told Moriarty that she was about to die again before those claws sank into her neck. I could have, but I didn’t. It was fast and almost silent.

Almost.

Fey Puck spat on the corpse as blood pooled out beneath his floating feet. Behind him, I saw flames flickering in the outline of the door to the club.

He coughed then, spitting blood, and wrapped an arm around his torso. Even he couldn’t shrug off a blow from Hercules, apparently. He braced himself on the wall, and looked across at me.

“Ye’ll want to be getting out o’ here, lass,” he said. His voice was toneless, empty. “Lot o’ flamin’ alcohol out there. Every bit of it I could find. I do believe this whole building’ll be down about our heads soon. What with some blighter usin’ a wee bit ‘o black magic to locking the doors nice an’ tight, I don’t foresee many survivors.”

“Did you leave me any way out?” I asked. Smoke was beginning to pour through the door and into the corridor.

“No.” His tone didn’t change. “I surely didn’t. I’ll be burnin’ every last one of those murderin’ fucks tonight. I just said ye’d be wanting to get out. Made no promises that ye could.”

I was tired, emotionally drained, and Puck was screwing with me. He could get me out with a snap of his fingers, and just didn’t feel like it.

“Fine,” I snapped, gesturing at Robin’s inert form. “Get her out, at least. There’s at least one more of them who isn’t here tonight. If I’m going to take down the last Moriarty, I’m going to need help from somebody who I can trust not to leave me for dead inside a building they set on fire.”

He surged forward, clawed hands outstretched, lunging to wrap them around my head and squeeze. I was tired, slow, and he was furious. Maybe I hadn’t struck the blow that killed his lover, but I’d been the reason that they were here tonight. I was pushing him, and I’d pushed too far.

But we weren’t alone. Cavill was between us suddenly, faster even than Puck had been. He didn’t attack, but the noise coming from his throat was unmistakable.

Puck froze mid-leap. He nodded to Cavill, almost in respect, and lowered his hands. Once more, he looked tired, hurt, and sad.

“I wasn’t really goin’ to do more than spook ye,” he said, as much of an apology as I was likely to get. “Seems ye’ve got a plan, and the two o’ us-” he gestured to Robin - “still have a part to play. Fine then. She’ll be under me protection. Ye know how ta reach me. Now ye’d best hurry.”

He moved to one side, and kept moving, his form seeming to move straight into the wall as if it were a mere shadow. He passed through it and vanished. I touched the wall where he’d disappeared: warm. Turning around, I saw Robin missing as well.

We must go. Now.

I raced back into the room, snatched up the rifle and the bullet, and slid it into the chamber. Doing a quick final scan, my eyes lit upon Moriarty’s machine. The chair was just the interface: the really diabolical part was a computer. I spared thirty seconds to find it - a hefty desktop that I wasn’t going to lug out of here if I had to fight my way through two hundred Moriartys.

I smashed it open with the butt of the rifle, and fished the hard drive out of the innards. Solid state, small… I tucked it into a boot.

I looked at Cavill. He looked steadily back.

I nodded, and ran.

I hit the door at the end of the corridor at a run, shouldering it open. The wall of light was still blazing with flickering images, but there was another light, too: flames roared everywhere. People were screaming. Far too few people were screaming, given how many were here, and on fire. They just… they just stood there and burned. The several who’d already been converted were desperately trying to get out through the fire doors, but some sort of vines had grown out of the oak of the doors and held them fast. They were going to die here. They were all going to die here, and they knew it.

But not me. The floor was nearly a lake of flame: I needed to buy some time with altitude. I sprinted for the nearest stairwell, heading toward the balcony where I’d spoken to Kay.

“Gwen!” Doyle’s voice shouted in my ear. “The sprinkler system’s been disabled! I can’t stop the fire! I put up anti-sound bubbles around as many people as I could and slowed down whatever it was that was happening. But then the ones I hadn’t shielded started moving. You’ve got to get them out! Arthur is still too far away!”

“No!” I shouted back. “Doyle, the moving ones are Moriarty. They’re all Moriarty: she infected them all! We have to keep them in here! Oops - one sec.”

A staggering form lurched into motion in front of me: a young Asian guy who had once been Jane Eyre. Apparently they were slow when they first awoke, but I saw the look in his eyes. It was Moriarty, through and through. And he didn’t plan on letting me out of here alive.

Plans. I bashed his face in with the butt of the rifle, barely slowing down.

I took the stairs two at a time, plotting my course and re-mapping it with every step. The Moriartys were aware of me now, and there were four of them on the stairs.

“Doyle!” I shouted. “Sound grenade on the top two!”

I hoped that he could do it, because the next few seconds were a frantic bout of hand-to-hand combat with a pair of them who’d awoken early: they were getting faster, almost as quick as I was.

But not quite. And I had backup. Cavill took the first out at the legs as I swept the rifle in a wide arc, knocking him over the railing and into the flames below. I blocked an axe kick from the next with the flat of the rifle and thrust up as hard as my legs could manage, knocking him off-balance. I leapt past without looking back: I didn’t need to take him out, just get past him.

By the time I’d gotten up two more steps, Doyle had figured out my request and executed beautifully. The Moriartys grabbed their ears and screamed, letting me snake through them with ease.

I ran. I didn’t look back.

“Gwen,” Doyle’s voice came soft in my ear. “You’re talking about murdering two hundred people. Are you certain - duck in three, two, one; very good!” A bottle of something smashed into the wall just past where my head had been. “Are you certain about this? We can save at least some of them, then try to get Moriarty out.”

“No,” I huffed, almost at the top. “Puck’s right - can’t take the chance. How would we ever be sure that we’d exorcised them? The people who came in here are already dead. Moriarty’s all that’s left. If we let them out, we let her win.”

I… I wasn’t sure of that. But there wasn’t time to be sure. Was I two hundred deaths worth of certain?

A small cluster of them were waiting for me at the top of the stairs, blocking the doors to the soundless hallway through which Vivian and I had arrived. I could see that they had been tearing at the same sort of tendrils that had sprouted from the doors below: every branch they’d torn off had simply sprouted anew from the door, holding the handles firmly shut.

Moriarty had messed with the wrong fairy.

I readied myself for a fight, but Doyle dropped the bass on them again: six men and women sank to their knees, clutching their ears. It didn’t matter how smart you were: the right frequencies and decibel levels would scramble your brain well beyond any ability to think your way out of it.

I shoved them out of the way to clear some room by the door. All right… supernatural branches growing out of oak doors. I could set them on fire, but that would take forever. This much closer to the ceiling, I wouldn’t have that long before the smoke overwhelmed me, even if the flames didn’t do the trick first.

The branches were wrapped around the door handles. The handles were almost two inches thick, and the branches growing out of the left door were wrapped entirely around the right, and vice versa. Still, if the handle came off entirely…

I had one bullet. I stood up on the tips of my toes and propped the muzzle of the rifle on the top of the right door handle. I got it as straight as I could, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger with my thumb.

The recoil was almost nothing for a single shot from the heavy rifle, and the bullet tore the handle clean off. The branches started growing again immediately, and I reached down to the base of a thick one and yanked as hard as I could. The door pulled back by a good ten inches before the grasping tendrils could reach from the damaged door across to the intact one and take hold again. I pulled as hard as I could to hold it open.

“Go!” I shouted at Cavill, and he bolted through.

The door was starting to sprout more and more branches, and they were growing fast. One snaked around my right wrist as I strained to get myself in through the gap I’d made. It wrapped quickly around and tightened down on me, effectively tying me to the door. Still more tendrils were just growing across the gap, trying to block me from getting through. The branches were winning our game of tug-of-war, too: the doors started to close again.

With my left hand, I wedged the rifle long-ways through the doors, bracing them open with the body of the rifle and the bottom of the magazine. This was a tenuous solution at best: it didn’t take a detective to realize my door stop wasn’t going to work for long. I threw myself into the gap.

I heaved and squirmed and struggled to get myself through, fighting both the narrow opening and the tendrils that sought to keep me inside. As the branch wrapped around my wrist started to pull me back, Cavill clamped his jaws around it and tugged: it snapped off neatly in his mouth. I was almost through when a meaty hand wrapped itself around my ankle and locked down.

Whipping my head around, I saw the disfigured face of Hercules, the hollow eyes blazing in fury at me. His jaw hung open, his head was cocked forever at a terrible angle, but his grip was as epic as ever. Most of my calf was still sticking through the doors, and I saw vines wrapped around the gun: in a second, they’d pry it out and my new nickname would be “Stumpy”.

Frantically, I unzipped my boot as far as it would go, planted my other foot on the closed door, and heaved. I pushed and thrust and swore… and tumbled backwards just in time for the doors to slam shut once again.

I sat there on the floor for a moment, chest heaving. One boot was on, one was gone, but I was more or less intact. Everything hurt. I took a moment to adjust my dress, which - ahem - was not really meant for the treatment it was receiving and was perhaps less of a perfect fit than it had been before.

“Public service announcement,” I grimaced to Cavill. “Vivian may like big boobs, but don’t try to force them through narrow, enchanted doors, like ever. Ow. Fuck. Ow.”

The other side of the door was strangely silent. The sound cancelation in the hallway had apparently been turned off, but I heard nothing coming from the other side. Whatever it had taken for Hercules to make it up the stairs after me, he apparently didn’t have anything left to try to break down thick oak doors. I was safe.

I pulled off the other boot - hard drive still intact, thankfully - and stood up. My ankle was tender where Hercules had been trying his best to tear it off, but it wasn’t broken. I could put weight on it, but I hoped we wouldn’t be running anywhere else tonight.

I coughed. The ceiling here was lower than it had been in the main room of the club, and the smoke was starting to build. I bent back down and gave Cavill a pat on the side.

“Let’s get out of here, boy.”

We made our way quickly down the hallway, smoke growing thicker with every step. By the time we’d gotten to the other end, I was crawling on hands and knees, and breathing was getting harder.

I groped up into the haze for the door handle, and my heart sank. Thick, enchanted branches held it fast.

I slumped to the floor, and Cavill crouched down next to me, head cocked quizzically.

“I… I don’t know, buddy.” I shook my head. “I just barely got through that last door when I still had an assault rifle. I… I can’t think of anything. There’s no way.”

I coughed. “I’m sorry.”

Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind…

Things were getting fuzzy. I put my face close to the door frame, where a faint trickle of fresh air was creeping through. Best… best… hope… someone finds… us… Average first responder time… in the District of Columbia… what is it? Can’t… remember…

There was a noise: booted footfalls on the other side of the door. A pause. Someone shouted, “Clear!”

There was an explosion. I saw ice blue eyes peering curiously down at me from behind a black balaclava.

And then I was gone.

NEXT CHAPTER