|fs01 / sa01 transitions|
Author's Note: This story starts both the Forsaken Shores series (a five part tale of adventure) and the Second Age series (several one-shot tales and side stories that take place concurrently).
1. movement, change, or shifting from one stage to another.
"In the beginning, there were two worlds -- the world of humans, and the world of Faerie. Basically they were the same world, but explaining what I mean by that would take a lot of time and probably just confuse you.
"The Pandora Event made those two worlds into one. Well, not really, it was more like a transposition, a layering. You take, say, an onion skin and put it on top of a rutebega skin, and--
"Right. The confusion. Let me start again.
"The Pandora Event pasted the Faeries into the world of humans. Things didn't go real well after that. Two centuries of war were kicked off that day as one tried to lay waste to the other, because OBVIOUSLY they couldn't just share the same land mass. Nooo, that would've actually made a lick of sense and wouldn't have given them anybody to shoot at and/or skewer and/or blow up with magic.
"At some point, the Faeries got it in their heads that if they lured away young girls with promises of witchcraft (and I don't know if they got the idea of 'witches' from human folklore or if it was another remarkable cultural coincidence) they could turn human against human, arming them with magic. See, the problem is that human brains just can't handle the burnout of casting spells, and the Faeries had no problems with that, since witches were basically disposable. ...we've found ways around that problem, before any of you start to wonder if coming here was such a brilliant idea. I'm getting to that bit.
"Anyway. The war carried on, and on, then eventually people started getting sick and tired of the war. It cooled off, but never really settled down, with a raid here, some sniping there, and so on. Everybody sat in their little corners glaring at each other and sometimes throwing rocks. It wasn't really that much of an improvement over open warfare, except in terms of body count, I guess...
"Then for reasons which would, again, be highly confusing, the twin Queens of Faerie dumped their crowns on me. A human. And I was given the charge of kickstarting the Second Age. --yes? Back row."
The young girl adjusted her pointy hat, which she'd nearly knocked off with the speed at which she raised her hand.
"Wot's a Second Age?" she inquired.
"It's a Faerie legend," Lady Emily (Queen of Faerie) continued. "The seasons are a constantly shifting, time pushing forward. Everything changes. Even the thousands of years of Faerie tradition have to change eventually. The Second Age calls for a time of upheaval, when all the old conventions shuffle around, and enemies become allies... but in the end, it's what has to be, and it's the only way towards a better tomorrow."
"So we're in the Second Age thing, then," the girl decided. "Funny, I didn't see it on my calendar this morning. I got a really 'spensive one that does email and lets me call my mum."
"Way I'm seeing the Second Age is that we're going to do everything we can to make peace with our neighbors," Emily explained. "I'm a human, just like you, despite being the new Queen of Faerie. I'm doing my best to make a bridge between the old enemies. And this Witching Academy is part of that. --middle row, green hat?"
"When do we get to cast Magic Missile?" the girl asked.
Emily sighed. "You don't. I don't know how to blast things to bits with magic," she noted.
"But you're the Queen of Faerie. That means you're, like, Jesus or something, right? You can do anything--"
"Can and should are entirely different things," Emily said, cutting that line of thinking right off. "Witches of the past got that muddled up. The most important part of magic is knowing when you should be using it -- that's why you're here. All of you are from Fringe communities that want to put the past behind them, and to take part in the future. You're not going to learn how to lob fireballs at people or bake kids into cakes in a giant gingerbread house... you're going to learn how to help your communities, your families, your friends. You'll be powerful, but powerful in the sense that any problem put in front of you gets solved. Period. You are going to be totally capable, self-reliant, clever little girls--"
"--and little boys. Err. Boy," Emily corrected, quickly, as the young boy in the pointy hat glowered. "Speaking of which, Melvin, please talk to Instructor Elriel tonight about your special washroom arrangements. ...for simplicity's sake we're going to be calling you a witch rather than a wizard or a warlock or a witchalok or whatever. I like to think it's gender neutral. ...where was I? Right. Magic. The future."
Emily rose from her rocking chair, to get some extra height over her new flock of young witches. Never hurt to be a little intimidating. Scout was teaching her how to look imposing and impressive.
"Man and Faerie need to live together, and learn together. We're all stuck on this continent; we're all Americans. The borders are still strong, but I hope that in your lifetime -- and with your help, armed with the knowledge you bring home from this academy -- we can one day put the past behind us and be one nation again. Keep that in mind. Faerie, human, we look different and do things differently, but in the end, we're just folks. ...alright. I think that's enough speechmaking for one day. The Instructors will show you to your dormitories, and classes begin tomorrow. Any more questions?"
The girl with the fancy digital calendar raised her hand.
"Why's your hat so old and nasty looking compared to ours?" she asked.
"Because," Emily informed. "Now, amscray, Queenie's got work to do. The Second Age isn't starting itself, y'know. Class dismissed."
the forsaken shores
by stefan gagne
Every queen has a kingdom. A queendom, rather.
Technically, the Faerie Queen held a queendom that consisted of the entire middle chunk of the former United States of America, and most of Canada. If she wanted to, she could extend the strange magic within the Faerie Crowns, and keep watchful eye over her entire dominion, all at once. Manifest anywhere. Do anything. Rule with a fist of ice and eyes of flame...
If she wanted to. She didn't.
Her predecessors had wanted that. They were strange beings, extremes of life and unlife, nature goddesses with little care for the concerns of mortal men. In contrast, Emily Moonthistle still considered herself very concerned with mortal men. She'd grown to accept the weight of her bequeathed crowns after two years of bearing them, but to date had tapped into their limitless power only on very rare occasions... and regretted it each time. If she was going to do this, if she was going to usher in an age of peace, she couldn't rely on the old powers. She needed new powers. New wisdom.
So, instead of becoming a panopticon, a lidless all-seeing eye as her precursors so often enjoyed... she contented herself with loitering around and enjoying the view from her balcony. That was enough.
Through her mortal eyes, she observed the land known as New Orleans... a land that went through flood, upheaval, war, enslavement, and now yet another transition. One she'd initiated herself.
Her 'palace' was once a vast mansion of pleasure, built to entertain Faerie gamblers and seekers of hedonistic delights. When Emily came to power she annexed the place, partly because it was nearby another locale of incredible strategic importance, partly because she hated the former owner. All the gambling and trickery and indentured servitude and unspeakable deeds were roughly shown the door, along with their ringmistress, Lady Morgana.
(Of course, as Emily was a fair and just ruler, Morgana was given territory of vastly greater value out west to go set up camp and do her usual routine of morally dodgy gamemastering. She was given a few house rules to follow such as not enslaving her workers... but odds were good she was pushing the edge as far as possible. Just another problem for the Queen to take on... later. One thing at a time.)
Now, the House of the Rising Sun was repurposed as the Moonthistle Witching Academy... a place where forward thinking humans could learn the ways of Faerie, with Queen Emily and Instructor Elriel's specially designed educational program. Strictly safe spellcasting, burning rune-soaked pages rather than rune-soaked brain cells. A focus on utility magic and other things that would not only benefit the fringe communities but also result in great PR for the Faerie Court. All carefully tuned and calculated to produce a new crop of witches that, unlike the last one, would not have to be... neutered and put to pasture.
Not a pleasant thing to think about. Emily sighed, an action she'd been doing with alarming regularity, as she rubbed away a forming headache from behind her eyes.
"The crowns weigh heavy on my Lady's head today, it seems."
"I cope," Emily told her former teacher... a man who now answered to her with unswerving fealty, which still puzzled her on a daily basis. "Just... thinking about it. All of it. Everything we've done, everything we've still got left to do. The latter being the size of a mountain and the former the size of a molehill. My royal To-Do list grows on a daily basis. There's just so much going on right now..."
The elderly high court Faerie gave a shifty look, from inside the hood of his traditional instructor's robes. He stroked fingers along his white beard, unsure how best to speak...
"Ah... I beg pardon, but... if I may assert an opinion which is likely unworthy of--"
"Elriel... Instructor Elriel, sorry. Look, I'm ME, okay? Just me. Just Emily," the Queen of Faerie pointed out. "You don't have to do the pee-pee dance every time you want to bring up something you think I won't like. I don't do the pillar of salt act. So. What's on your mind? C'mon. "
"You're taking on too much responsibility, my Lady," Elriel spoke quickly, to avoid any halting pauses. "You are... ah... only human. And so young yet, even as you enter your twenty-first year of life. The stress is clear on your face, day in, day out. ...the former Queens of Faerie rarely took such direct hands in matters."
"And look how well THAT turned out," Emily grumbled. "I take responsibilities because they need to be taken. Because we need to start making some progress on this two hundred year old problem. ...but I get what you're saying. I need to... dammit, what's the word I want here... abdicate? Allocate?"
Elriel coughed. "Delegate, my Lady," he added for her. (If the normally straight-talking queen was having trouble with her words, clearly I was right to bring this matter up, the elder Faerie thought to himself.)
"Right, delegate. And I am, honestly. ...in fact..."
Lady Emily glanced around, an instinctive gesture when about to reveal secret knowledge. This, despite being on a balcony high above and well out of earshot of anybody in the settlements around New Orleans.
"I'm working on something huge. --not me. I have people working on something huge for me," she explained. "My job is to make the Faeries and humans play nice and be good neighbors, but in truth, I've got a wider scope than that. We have neighbors we haven't even met yet. I'm making a task force, an exploratory group that will poke around the dark corners of the Earth and see what there is to see. This planet's been under Kraken-enforced lockdown for two hundred years, and if I'm going to start pushing the human race forward, we need take action. We need anachronauts."
"Er... anachronauts? That's an odd word, my Lady."
"It's just a working name until I can think of something better," Emily assured him. "Explorers seeking out anachronisms. Trying to find the other people that were added to this world during the Pandora Event. We got the idea from the three of us waltzing around the American Dream... if you've got the right combination of skills and cultural backgrounds, you could approach and deal with anything. If we recruit the right people, we can effectively survey the landscape. So, yeah... I am delegating this huge thing. That's what Scout's up to right now, in fact. Recruiting some anachronauts."
"...which brings us to the end of the allocated time period for discussion of Concern #80CF, the matter of Culturally Harmless Applications of Hypertech," the Councilwoman droned on. "The matter will be reopened for discussion on the Earth calendar date of October 21st. The next Concern in the scheduled agenda is Concern #80D0, the matter of Renewable Energy Replacements For Mass Capacitors. The Renewable Energy Task Force has reported to me that they have tested and rejected eighty four different possible candidates..."
Roll, roll. Back and forth. Una zero point one of the Arcology (formerly Arcology #A076) nudged her stylus along the perfectly smooth surface of the council chamber's discussion table... the writing implement had no ink, no graphite, not even a clip to keep it secured in one's pocket. The technology used to produce this device and enable its functionality was centuries ahead of the ESTL (Earth Standard Technology Level). So much effort, so much energy spent, for something which could be replaced by a simple bit of wood and lead with a little rubbery pink bit at the other end...
So much knowledge. So much intelligence. So much power. And they hadn't done anything with it since crash-landing on this world.
There were good reasons, of course. Even the most Optimistic of her people understood the need for caution, for approaching the situation of healing old wounds with care. In fact, only the Council of the Arcology knew the full truth... that the Orbitals themselves had caused those old wounds, had initiated the Pandora Event. So much death and destruction, just to ensure they had enough fuel for their hyper-advanced society to keep up its hyper-advanced ways...
Two years of sitting around the Arcology, of hanging around New Orleans. Una feared at times she had developed a pessimistic streak, the antithesis of the Optimism that formed her core. Her father insisted it was simply a matter of learning realism, the lessons her mother had left behind as her legacy. Una, however, was less sure. Lately, it seemed like the only bright and shining point in her life was--
A nudge, to her shoulder. Expectant looks not only from the elven woman sitting at her side, but from the Councilmembers.
"Yes? Hello, yes?" she asked, roused from her idle thoughts.
"Your report on the status of the Concern #80D3," the meeting adjutant repeated.
Panic. The file. Una hadn't brought it with her. "Ah," she said, glancing around, hoping for some way to stall for time. "Right, it's... hold on, I just need--"
A sheet of glass was passed to her under the table.
"--my file," she concluded, producing it into view. "Yes. On Concern #80D3... our current supplies of the chemical components for Cold Fun will suffice for another three years. After that we will require resupply or substitution. ...if I may suggest a fact finding trip to sample some Earth desserts to assess their nutritional content--"
"Thank you, Una, that will be all," the Councilwoman dismissed. "Now, for Concern #80D4..."
Una sank back into her seat, relieved. She glanced sideways to her best friend in the world, a silent expression of gratitude. Always there to help her, always there to cover for her. Dear, dear Nelliwyn Myfanwy...
For two years, Nel had stood by her side, acting as her executive assistant, her liason between the Orbitals and the Faerie Court. She'd quickly developed the required skills... note taking, file organizing, information gathering. Nel ramped up to speed on the technologies of the Orbitals as quickly as she learned the ins and outs of Queen Emily's court. Where Una slipped, Nel caught her. Where Nel needed a hand, Una was happy to lend it. While they no longer wandered the countryside sharing a FaeSpace, a magical hotel room of sorts, they were certainly as close to live-in partners as was possible.
The rapport was so deep that when Nel was able to ghost-whisper into Una's ear, using her glamour spellcraft. No others could possibly hear it, and if they did, they'd only hear the little made-up language they'd developed together.
"time to go?" she asked, after translation from their verbal shorthand.
"please," Una begged, using the special below-audible whisper that Nel had taught her, one that only her friend could hear. "i've no more role in this meeting, and if i have to sit here listening to them fail to make one inch of progress any longer, i fear i will make an extremely audible noise which would result in social awkwardness. let's go."
...minutes later, only Una's father, Primary Council Leader Ono, took note of how "Una" and "Nel" had barely moved a muscle. He hid his smile, and opted not to tell the others that the girls had snuck out earlier, leaving behind Faerie glamour in their wake.
At this rate, supplies would only last three years.
The Orbitals were doing their best to conserve resources, to stretch those years as far as they could. That was a new concept to them, "conservation"... mass capacitors, the fusion technology which turned ordinary compressed planetary mass into energy, were supposedly limitless. However, the Arcology was stranded from the fleet, now... away from the mining ships that would've resupplied them. As a people, they would have to make do with what they had upon crash landing on Earth.
(The real reason for the supply loss was kept secret. Mass capacitors could only be generated from dead planetary mass, and thus you had to murder or relocate the entire population of a parallel world just to make sure your Cold Fun chilled storage units could keep your dessert fresh and tasty. In the end, the results were the same. And utterly deplorable.)
Despite the lack of renewable dessert, Una and Nel were enjoying small cups of their preferred treat. It would be gone, eventually... but today was so frustrating, so boring, that it merited some comfort food.
As they stood on the food court balcony, overlooking the transit tubes that ferried stylishly clothed Orbitals to and fro around the Arcology, Una continued her usual line of complaint.
"This isn't me. This isn't what I want to be doing," she reminded, at risk of repeating herself from the other times the two had this conversation. "I'm willing to help where I can, but... analyzing our snack supply? Is this really what the rest of my life holds in store?"
"Your father is the leader, yes? Why not just get reassigned?" Nel asked.
"To what? All the tasks we face are menial. We're supposed to be spreading out, helping America with its transition into peacetime... providing support using hypertech. But the caution being employed...! Is, well, important, I know. That doesn't make it any less aggravating. I want to be out there! Meeting people, helping people. Seeing things, doing things! Finding some excitement!"
"There's a thing to be said for peace and quiet, Una," her elven friend suggested. (She'd long ago come to terms with not calling her Lady Una. At least, not aloud.) "Time to reflect. Time to enjoy your life, to enjoy spending time with those you care for..."
"Oh, I am in firm agreement, do not misunderstand. Personal time is one of the few bright points in my life right now. Time spent with those I love..."
And Una set aside her Cold Fun... turning to show her brilliant smile, her eyes so full of care and adoration. That look that made Nel melt a little inside, every time she saw it...
...even when it wasn't directed at her.
Nel felt the air move, as Una rushed past her. There was the tiny hint of her friend's favored perfume, an elven blend Nel gave to her on her last birthday.
She didn't have to turn around to know who was behind her, the one that Una ran towards with joy in her eyes. Instead she calmly, very calmly, gathered up their empty snack cups to put in the recycling chute. They would probably be done kissing by the time she finished cleaning up. Probably.
Brell, the wandering bard. Poet of our age, able to mix modern musical style with the traditional elven lyre. A stunningly beautiful man, of long flaxen blonde hair, and sky-blue eyes. Everywhere he went, he drew a massive crowd, there to hear his songs of love and longing, of joy and wonder. Whenever he moved, the air seemed to sparkle about him. (In fact, it did this very thing, thanks to an amulet of glamour.)
Brell, who Una had swooned over only days after the Arcology landed on Earth. The boy who paid attention to her, who praised her beauty and virtue, who had treated her like a walking goddess. Never an unkind word, never an unthoughtful gesture. The flawless and perfect lover for a girl who'd always yearned to love, but was spurned every time she tried to make the first move. This time, he'd made the first move, and she promptly fell into his arms...
...while Nelliwyn was busy being "deprogrammed" by her culturally conservative mother, who was very, very alarmed at how her daughter had fallen in with some blasphemous human claiming to hold the title Queen of Faerie. Two weeks. Two weeks before she could slip away from Florida and return, and in that time...
Brell finally released the kiss, although the two were still entwined in each other's arms.
"No matter how many miles I may roam, how many cities and how many fans I may play before... the tireless journey is but a distant memory when I have you to return to, my dear, dear Una," he spoke, in words like music.
"I've missed you so much, Brell! All these boring, boring meetings... they wear at me," Una professed, happy to have someone else to complain to.
"Ah, but they wear not at your beauty, my fair child of the stars!" Brell insisted... lifting Una into the air with his strong, masculine arms. "For the shining light you emit is the guiding star I use to lead my way home, every time I journey!"
"Are you here for an extended duration of time? Please state that you are here for an extended duration of time!" Una begged, after being set down. (If her lover had let go, she would've swooned right off her feet, as her weight of the day's burdens now felt light as a feather.)
"Sorry, love. I'm just here for the evening, then I'm off to Florida for this year's Rock Show. As much as your radiance brightens my gloomy, travel-weary soul, the road is a harsh mistress..."
Una pouted oh so adorably. "Just one evening...? That's all?"
"We'll just have to make the most of our time together, yes?" Brell suggested... with a curling little smile. "You know... the absence of my true love compelled me to write a song in your honor. I call it 'Yearning Heart,' and if you like, I can play it for you tonight..."
And thus the two wandered away, sharing laughter and smiles.
Leaving Nel behind, unseen and ignored, beside the recycling chute.
"...you need to tell her. She has to know."
"There's no reason, now," Nel said, unsurprised by the voice from behind her. It took a master of stealth to be comfortable around another master of stealth. Nel's ability to be invisible was driven by magic... nowadays, the Lion of Summer was unseen through skill and grace alone.
Scout Moonthistle stepped forward, to watch the lovebirds depart, before returning his attention to the elven administrative assistant.
"It is how it is," Nel spoke, in flat tones. "There's no sense making life any harder for Una, clouding things up with dreams that don't matter anymore. ...at least she's happy. She seems happy. She probably wouldn't have been happy with me, anyway..."
Time was, Scout wouldn't care about someone's personal woes, and certainly not of matters of the heart. Time was, his own heart would not beat, as his life-in-death kept him cold to the world.
Those times were long gone. But as much as he wanted to comfort his old friend... he had official duties. It was a lesson all of them were learning. The work must come first, if there's to be any hope for the future.
"Emily wants to meet with you two," he explained. "We're moving forward with the anachronauts."
"You are...? And... you want us on the team? Una, and myself?" Nel asked, surprised.
"She represents the Orbitals, and holds strong cultural knowledge of Eastusa and the Faerie Court. You will represent the Faerie Court itself, in addition to your in-depth knowledge of the Transitional State of Florida and the Orbitals. I'm also told that your skills with glamour are exceptional, and only growing stronger every day. Each of you brings critical skills to the table."
"I... I don't know what to say. I'm honored my Queen would think so highly of me. ...when is this meeting?"
Scout considered. "Told me she'd like to meet with the preliminary anachronauts team tonight, at 20:00 hours. If Una's busy tonight, I could ask her to hold off and meet in the morning..."
A smile widened across the elf's lips.
"Oh, certainly not. My Lady Emily's request comes from the Faerie Crowns, yes? I must obey the will of my Queen," Nel interpreted. "And no doubt Una would never refuse her friend's request, despite this matter interrupting her evening plans. Such a shame, that disruption. We'll be there at eight o'clock, as requested. I'll go let her know right now, in fact."
Soon after Scout departed, Nel's smile faded.
Such a horrible thing to say, she realized, as her feet moved of their own volition, even as her mind grew darker. It's getting easier to say such things. I should be happy for Una. She's found what she always wanted and I have no right to interfere. That's not what friends should do. I've done many things friends shouldn't do, all out of envy, and regretting after the fact is not the same as being a proper friend in the first place...
Not that I won't tell her about the meeting. She'll accept it, of course. I know her. I know her so well...
In the White Room, she awaited her execution.
It was inevitable, of course. She was a traitor, out of favor with the new regime within the Faerie Court. That much had been explained to her, when the strange people in white and silver roused her from her comatose state. They explained how they spent nearly two years trying to repair the damage done to her mind... and how the Faerie Queen had set them to this task.
At first, Lady Runeblade (formerly Jesse, ordinary peasant girl of a fringe village) was pleased. She assumed that Lady Summer had successfully conquered the strange star-people, the creators of the technology Archmagus Lilith was studying. That meant the war with the humans was over, with Faerie victory assured. Most importantly, that meant her little solo jaunt into the wild to take over Olney apparently paid off -- somehow she had succeeded and won favor with her mentor once more!
...then she realized that the Orbital biologists had said the "Faerie Queen" wanted her healthy. Queen, singular. Not Lady Summer or Lady Winter, but... Lady Emily Moonthistle, the new Queen of Faerie.
That was when Runeblade knew she was going to be killed. She wasn't a war hero, she was a war prisoner. Her side lost, and through some insane twist of failure, the runt of the Archmagus's brood somehow sat on the highest throne of the Faerie Court. A thing which should be impossible, unthinkable...
The White Room was explained to be a 'safe place,' where Runeblade could rest and recover from her surgeries. Clearly, it was a prison cell. They had no reason to trust her; she could have murdered her way out of here and into the wild if she was capable, but she was outnumbered and unarmed. Only a fool would fight when failure was assured.
But she would not go to the gallows kicking and screaming. She would be dignified and graceful when they came to exact their revenge. Even if they were to murder her in a public square, as a violent example to others, she would not make a sound. She would be calm.
...unusually calm. When was the last time Lady Runeblade had been this calm? Her recent years had been ones of blood, and battle. And anger. A burning desire to prove herself, to take action against any slight or wronging. Calm wasn't something she was familiar with, but now that she had it again, she would use it. She would NOT become a spectacle... would not beg, would not cry. That was not who she wanted to be...
A door-shaped hole formed in the endless white expanse of her cell, and a single figure entered.
The boy. The horrible soldier boy who helped the runt-- who helped Emily. No doubt he too had been promoted under the new regime. He was here to kill her. She was going to die. Right here, right now.
"You're to be released on your own recognizance," Scout spoke.
"--what?" Runeblade asked. (Not the first word she wanted to speak to her jailer, and certainly not in that tone.)
"All former witches trained by Archmagus Lilith were given amnesty by Queen Emily," Scout explained. "Your brain damage caused by spell memorization has been repaired by the Orbitals, as well as the side effects of having your Ogre-controlling headband removed. Took longer, that part. Of course, you'll also find you're unable to memorize spells, now. Standard protocol for witches of all stripes."
...NOW the rage boiled inside her. A small flame, smaller than she remembered, but it was there. That explained why all the spells she had memorized before were gone; she assumed it was just a side effect of being comatose, but...
"You maimed me," she accused. "You took away my magic!"
"We took away your ability to hurt yourself. Magic was burning you out," he told her. "You could tell. From what the biologists tell me... your impulse control was gone. Periods of absolute anger, where you'd act and react violently, without thinking...? Sound right?"
The pause before Runeblade crossed her arms in defiance was telling. "...I am Lady Runeblade, mistress of the sword and spell. Chosen of Archmagus Lilith. I do not lose control."
"Found a calm place inside yourself that you thought you'd lost. Sure, you don't lose control... now. Before was another story," Scout correctly pointed out. "Go in peace, if you wish... to the Fringe, to Eastusa, even into the Faerie Court lands if you want. Your call."
"No doubt your Queen has set me to exile, one way or another. I'd be hounded all my days if I stayed in my adoptive Faerie homeland. ...did you know I'm known for murdering everybody in our home village? Including her grandmother. Oh, Emily will have her revenge on me. I know it. I may be 'released on my own recognizance' but my days are numbered. She hates and fears me -- and is right to do so. No wonder she stripped me of my power, to humiliate me before the kill."
Scout gave a little shrug in his uniform. "Believe what you want, but that's not how it is. You're free to go in peace."
"Really? And what could I possibly make of my life, now that you've injured me so? I--"
"You're right. You're useless."
"--what?!" Runeblade shouted... again, not the word or tone she wanted in front of her captors.
"You're a psychotic murderer," Scout spoke, just as matter-of-factly as everything else he'd said. "Helped kill your own family and everything that ever loved you. Grabbed for power even if it'd kill you in the process. If we turn you out, you'll probably just try to find Lilith, or get chased down and killed by an angry mob of extremist Queen Emily supporters. You don't really have a future, but the door's there, so you may as well walk out of here. Get lost."
Now the rage returned at full boil... but it was refined, focused. Her thoughts were no longer an unorganized jumble of offense and anger over the actions of this foolish boy... she knew what to say.
"You're wrong. You have no idea how wrong you are!" Runeblade bellowed in response. "You know nothing about me, and have no right to pass judgment on me! Neither you nor the runt do! ...you think Lilith will take me in? Lilith hates me! That's what none of you understand, that's why I had to attack Olney--!"
"You had to prove yourself to her. You weren't her chosen student, not really."
"Oh, I had power. I had skill. But I... I failed her when she wanted me to prove myself, yes! Every year since then I tried, and I tried, but I couldn't turn her head. I couldn't make her happy no matter how brutal I was, no matter what I did to destroy her enemies! All because--"
"All because you couldn't bring yourself to help destroy your home village. Wouldn't kill your own family."
The Runeblade fell to silence.
"You took part in beating Emily and leaving her at the side of the road, it's true," Scout continued. "That wasn't so hard. Probably had a doubt forming, though. Grew in your mind even while you did the deed. Then, when your 'graduating class' proceeded on to the village, and started to burn it to the ground... you couldn't keep going. We know. We confiscated Lilith's diaries. She called you, her former Chosen... disappointing. Weak."
"Weak?! I had the sword and the spell! Nobody else in our class had that!" Runeblade protested. "I was a blade savant! All the boys who picked on me in our village, I could skin them alive with one hand tied behind my back, if I wanted to--"
"Except you didn't want to. When push came to shove to get revenge on everybody who supposedly wronged you, you wouldn't do it."
"I... I wanted to. I could have," she protested.
"--FINE! Yes, I was weak!" Runeblade admitted. "Lilith hated me for that. Always hated. Olney was my salvation! If I could do that, if I could sack a village, if I could show I was what she wanted me to be..."
"If we hadn't stopped you, could you have done it? Would you have murdered everybody in Olney?"
There weren't any walls to hide behind, now. The entirety of it, the truth behind the legend of "Lady Runeblade," all of it was in the open. No point in lying anymore...
"I might have," she said, starting to echo the thoughts she held that day. "It's why I hid in my war wagon. I didn't want to watch it happen. If I didn't look, if I didn't watch the Ogres kill the... if I didn't watch, I could have let it happen and then it'd finally be over. Lilith would... love me, again."
"Murder's not that easy, is it. Can't look them in the eye."
"I can duel. I can fight!" Runeblade promised. "I'm skilled in single combat--"
"But you never killed anybody with your sword. We know. We studied your instructor's logs. You fought duels, not fights to the death. Lessons. Trials. Took pride in your skill, showed off your mastery of the sword whenever you were given a chance, but cared for little else. You didn't even use it to stab Emily when you had the chance, the day you turned on her."
"Of course not, she was my... ah..."
Her friend. In all the years they lived in that little village. Her friend. No matter how much things had changed, there was still a time when they were friends.
Her numb hands grasped for something, anything. And oddly, found themselves comfortably wrapped around the leatherbound hilt of a weapon. A familiar grasp...
Scout pressed the newly minted sword into her hand.
"If you want to prove yourself, if you want to show that you're strong... it's time to learn a new strength," he spoke. "Your friend Queen Emily has a task for you. True, you can consider it Faerie debt for sparing your life... or you can see it as a new start. This is a role that you are well suited for, if you can find it in yourself to find yourself, not just the thing Lilith wanted you to be. Up for the challenge, Jesse?"
The woman formerly known as Lady Runeblade gripped her weapon tightly.
"I will never back down from a challenge," Jesse promised. "Any challenge. You'll see. This, I swear."
Night settled in New Orleans.
In the village below, only slightly obsessive Queen Emily loyalists either turned in for the night or stayed up to enjoy fine drink and music, in the tradition of the city which once stood there two centuries past. While the French Quarter was long gone, no doubt the ghosts which haunted it would be pleased to know that jazz was mazing a comeback, albeit with far more lutes and flutes and lyres than were originally called for.
Within the silver dome of the fallen Arcology, Orbitals were settling in after a long day of trying to solve the problems they were facing. Their collective work on issues of how to best interface with Earth and how not to starve to death in a cold and dark powerless superscience residential creche in a few years time would have to wait until morning. Now, it was time for family, recreation, and relaxation.
The young witches of the Moonthistle Witching Academy were hustled off to their bedrooms for study and socialization, which only 14% of which consisted of playground power games and clique organization. It was only their first day, after all. The palace guard, which had to deal with a flock of curious and meandering children all day long, breathed a sigh of relief that now all they would have to concern themselves with were bloodthirsty assassins who wanted the Queen dead. (Not that any had shown up, in the two years they'd been ensconced here. At least, not any that Scout told anybody about after he quietly dealt with them.)
In the It's Not a War Room So Would You Kindly Stop Calling It That (or, the "War Room" to all not talking to Emily directly), a gathering of old friends and one enemy began to settle in for some serious talking about the future.
The room was originally a guest bedroom, before Emily had the furniture donated to the poor, to make room for a state of the art conference table of Orbital design. After some demonstration of how to program its built-in imaging systems, and then some additional demonstration, and then some rather heated demonstration as the Queen complained about her Orbital teacher explaining it wrong, especially the bit where you put the thing in the thing, Emily was quite adept at using it for her presentations. Comfortable chairs of elven make surrounded the table, since there was usually enough tension going on in the room to mandate a seat which wouldn't ratchet your nerves any higher.
Emily wore her Queenly garb... namely, an illusory thought-replica of her battered old Nana's witching hat, and a quite plain dress. Scout wore his Summerlion uniform, which was quite a bit like his old Frontliners uniform, with the addition of a shoulder patch bearing a roaring lion in gold thread. That was about as official as things got for them, although to be fair, it was about as casual as things got for them as well. At least, when not behind closed doors.
Una hadn't planned on dressing up, and in fact was expecting to be dressing down -- but she made sure to be wearing her best Orbital one-piece minidress for the occasion. Nel, as always, wore her unusual combination of a sensible Eastusa women's casual suit with smatterings of Faerie trim and pomp, yet made from silvery Orbital fabric.
And Jesse was surprised to find she wasn't wearing handcuffs. The door guards did request she leave her sword outside, however. The sharp looks they gave her suggested that other sharp gestures could be delivered if she refused.
Those weren't the only unusual looks she was getting. Despite Scout's insistence that this was all part of the plan and she would be welcomed to the table, Emily seemed to be trying her best not to look as uncomfortable as she was with the situation. And Una was just... puzzled, in her quirky alien sort of way.
"Er... pardon, but... aren't you the witch who tried to destroy Olney?" she'd in fact asked. (It had been some time since she last saw Jesse, honestly.)
"Yes," Jesse said. Simply. Without further comment.
Commentary was instead provided by Emily. "We've looked into her... situation," she explained. "Jesse here--"
"--Jesse here is not quite the amoral sociopathic brute we thought she was. In the context of what was going on, her behavior isn't so far gone as to be irredeemable... not any more than Scout's. You guys know what he was like before we met him. Since I know what kind of manipulation Lilith was capable of, Jesse gets some benefit of the doubt. Finally, Scout vouched for her. My husband is a fine judge of character."
That filled in some blanks for Jesse, as she cast a questioning look to the stoic young man at the Queen's side. Bringing Jesse in on this endeavor may have been more his idea than hers, it seemed...
"Frankly, if this project is going to get off the ground, we need her," Emily continued. "She's got a foot in two worlds, human and Fae. She knows how to cast a wide range of spells; we've given her the same birth-blessing I had, to block memorization, but that doesn't hamper raw talent. She's also capable in a fight, both with and without magic. Scout and I can't come along on this field trip, so you need another source of magic and violence. Jesse's got both in spades."
Jesse tapped the table, thinking. "So... I was roused from my coma because I'm to be your tool, is that it, ru-- Queen Emily?"
"We nursed you back to health because it was the right thing to do, Jesse. That's all. The timing just happens to be great for this other thing... a critically important task, one which you can excel at. If you apply yourself. If you're willing to fight under my banner and show you're more than the monster Lilith was shaping you into."
"I am myself and my own person. Not her property," Jesse stated for the record. "Nor yours. ...now, from a Fae perspective, I am indebted to you. For that alone, I would do this -- anything less would be dishonorable. But after it is done, we will see if I continue to live under your newly raised banner. ...I do promise to keep an open mind about it."
"And I promise to show you I'm more than you think I am. This is a two way street, Jesse," Emily assured. "You'll see how I do things, and I'll see how you do things. In the end, I'm confident we'll meet in the middle. ...right. Okay, let's get down to business."
Their recently crowned leader tapped the table -- then grumbled and tapped the annoyingly invisible keypad she'd missed by a few inches. (The Orbitals apparently had never heard of usability studies.)
"The project in question is the one the four of us have been talking about off and on for the last two years... the anachronauts. --I know, I know, I'm trying to think of a better title, let's just go with it..."
A simple project file glowed into existence above the table, using a hypertech 3-D image projector. Emily pulled out various files, maps, profiles, and satellite scans from it, arranging them in the space above the table.
"Before we kicked his sorry ass, Lar of the Orbitals told us that there were more worlds overlaid onto this one than just the World of Faerie," Emily explained, for the benefit of the odd woman out in the room. "All part of a scheme to destabilize the planet and destroy it. So far, the planet is remarkably undestroyed, but chances are good these other elements are like unexploded land mines. ...I don't want to go into this assuming all these immigrants are savage whackjobs bent on omnicide, but let's be fair, Lar would not have layered in the World of Cute and Fuzzy Bunnies."
Una raised a finger. "Does this mean we're going to explore Westusa now?" she asked. "I know we discussed that as the first project--"
"The Forsaken Shore?!" Jesse blurted out. "Are you insane? Have you any idea what sort of horrors are out there?"
"No, in fact, we don't," Emily replied. "And neither do you. That's kind of the point, see. We need to find out."
"Surely you know the stories! We both attended the same lectures, remember? The Queens of Faerie sealed off those lands, using the Key of Iron, forbidding all from setting foot near them!"
"Yes, well, we're under new management, aren't we?"
"And is the new management stupid enough to think that those places weren't sealed off for a very good reason?" Jesse spoke, pushing out her chair, to stand up and get some height over the runt-- over Emily. "You said yourself that the rest of the world likely consisted of 'savage whackjobs.' Lady Summer and Lady Winter clearly felt the same, and sealed Westusa for our safety!"
"Whose safety? Faerie? Human?" Emily asked. "Let's remember that the Faerie Court, until recently, was dedicated to pushing humans into the sea and laying claim to Eastusa. Or turn it the other way around -- the humans think the Faerie are all dangerous freaks and would gladly lock us away if they could! ...look. Jesse. I do get what you're saying. We should be cautious. But we need to know what's in there, to know if they're friendly neighbors, misunderstood neighbors, or mindless slavering eight-headed hellbeasts. We owe it to them and to ourselves to give them a chance. ...I'd think you'd be familiar with the idea of giving a deadly foe a chance to be something else."
At that... Jesse sat back down. Without giving Emily the satisfaction of a direct response, of course. Certainly without expressing any kind of agreement.
"I suppose it doesn't matter," she said, instead. "You don't have the Key of Iron. It was entrusted to Faeries so deeply loyal to the original Queens that you would never--"
Scout produced a deceptively simple looking metal key from his uniform pocket, and dropped it on the table. It did not clatter or bounce. It simply fell perfectly flat, with more of an echo than it should have generated against the hypertech surface.
"Had to go to great lengths to retrieve this," he said. "By the way, Emily, the mayor of Baltimore is probably going to want some gesture of thanks for his cooperation in that mission."
"So send him a damn fruit basket," she suggested politely. "Jesse, before you freak again... we are not unsealing the sealed evil in a can. We're just going there to look. That's why the team has to be small and highly skilled. The Key of Iron can let us pass through the domes, without shattering them. Get in, scope out the situation, get out. We'll only pop the bubble for good after we're sure it's safe... or we may leave whatever's in those domes in there forever. Okay? Give me some credit. We're not going to deliberately trigger an apocalypse."
"...it still seems needlessly risky," Jesse protested, albeit with less determination than before.
"Oh? Saying you can't handle a little danger, 'Lady Runeblade'?"
"And I will not be goaded by such an obvious retort. ...but I assure you I can handle whatever menace lies in those unknown places. I'll keep your little friends safe, if that's what you require of me. I meant it when I told your consort that I will never back down from a challenge."
Emily leaned back in her chair, glad to be off of that subject. Which meant the REAL meeting could begin...
"All of this is nice, but I want a run-up mission first. Something to get you four working together as a team."
Una blinked near audibly. "Four? Err, three, you mean?" she suggested.
"--right, three. Sorry, it's late. And relevant to what I'm about to discuss... I think. Right. Here's the job."
She tapped the table, and dragged one finger across the surface. A map unfolded... depicting a perfect bas-relief map of the Florida coastline.
"The ElfStar network picked up something utterly impossible this morning," Emily explained. "It's why I decided now was the time to launch the anachronauts. Sure, we could crawl up the coast of Westusa, that's good times, but... then what? The entire world is under a Kraken-enforced lockdown. Any ships wandering too far from our shores get sunk by gigantic freaking sea monsters. Any airplanes... well, we don't know for certain, but we suspect some aerial equivalent of the Kraken at play. These things have kept intercontinental travel from happening for two centuries. Until this morning, I mean..."
...and a tiny oval-shaped blob crawled across the map. It hovered about a virtual half-inch over the projected surface of the ocean, coming in from the northeast... before vanishing just before approaching Florida.
"That wasn't a Kraken," Emily explained. "When we slapped an Orbital layer transposition filter over it, the representative color wasn't red, blue, or yellow."
"The... what?" Jesse asked, as she wasn't up to speed on hypertech.
"Ah, we assign different key colors to imports from different parallel worlds," Una explained. "Things brought over in the Pandora Event, or things built primarily from materials and powered by sources brought over in the Pandora Event. Yellow for Earth, red for Faerie, blue for Orbitals."
"This one's been flagged orange," Emily continued, "And Kraken are green. Which means someone, somewhere, has figured out how to cross the Atlantic Ocean without becoming shark chum. And that someone is currently somewhere in West Palm Beach, Florida. Now, for a thousand dollars cash and a vacation in Maui, who can tell me what happens in Palm Beach every year around this time...?"
"...the Rock Show!" Una blurted out. "Oh no! Someone's going to attack the Rock Show?! I have to warn Brell-- wait, no, he left already, to get an early headstart on the travel-- we have to-- we--!"
"Una! Una, calm down. We don't know if Mr. Orange is hostile or not," Emily said quickly, while waving a hand to grab Una's attention / distract her. "All we know is he seems to have broken every rule we know about long distance travel just to take in a show. That doesn't scream hostile intent to me. But it does mean we have a limited window of opportunity, if we want to meet Mr. Orange... and learn his secret."
"Travel," Jesse recognized. "Without travel, your efforts at exploring the world are over and done with after Westusa is mapped out. You need his vehicle."
"Got it in one. That's the mission, and that's more important than Westusa. Westusa can wait."
"Very well; someone that foreign will certainly stick out. Surely we can track him down, capture him, and interrogate him until he gives us his magic," Jesse suggested. "I know certain techniques--"
"And that's why Una is going to be the leader of the anachronauts," Emily announced.
Those assembled turned to look at Una. Jesse turned a bit faster than the others, not liking her moment to show off her prowess being usurped.
"Err... me?" Una asked. "Wait. Me?"
"Last time we explored the world, it was your mission, wasn't it? To track down the anachronisms the Orbitals left behind," Emily explained. "Well, you've got the leader stick again."
"But Emily, you were the one who came up with our plans and ideas! I couldn't...!"
"You could. You can. And you're going to have to, because the Queen's got a throne to sit her ass down on," Emily reminded her. "I can't go, Una. Scout can't go. You've got to take charge here. You've got Nel to back you up, and you've got Jesse to watch your back... but it's your decision making I trust most. No offense, Jesse."
Jesse gave a little noncommittal gesture. "I am freshly thawed out from prison and on probation. I'm unsurprised. Although it may be... grating, taking orders, I will do my best. Provided said orders are not suicidal foolishness."
For a moment, Una considered voicing further protest. To date, she'd mostly been assigned to simple, subordinate tasks like determining dessert supplies. Very little responsibility. Nothing on the scale of this...!
...and then Nel squeezed her hand under the table.
you can do it, she spoke, using her ghost-whisper spell. and i know you want to do it. to get out of the arcology, and explore. don't be afraid. i'll be with you. okay?
"...okay," Una agreed, aloud. "I suppose I'm ready for the task. Ah, Miss Jesse, I will do my best to make sensible decisions, founded well in both Optimism and Pragmatism. And I will welcome your counsel on the matters we face. ...although I am not in favor of, err, capture and torture of this Mr. Orange individual."
With a gesture, the display of light and shape above the table faded to nothingness. Emily rose from her chair, to address the group.
"If we fail, the anachronauts never get off the ground. Figuratively and literally," she reminded them. "I want our welcome mat extended beyond Westusa. I want to kick down the fences keeping this planet apart. I know you guys can do this... and I want to thank all of you for even considering the proposal. Get some rest. In the morning you'll get your gear, and transport to Florida. Unlike last time, we are NOT going with the clothes and broomsticks on our backs. We've had time to prepare for this, and I think you'll like what Wheedle's cooked up for you."
There is little to be said about gnomes. At least, little the Faeries care to say about them.
Much as humans always had a certain sect of the populace fascinated with the harmonies of various colored crystals and the chi of rearranging your furniture, the Faeries had a certain portion of their court dedicated to the physical and mechanical sciences. Both groups got about as much respect from society at large... at best mocking derision, at worst suspicion and active distrust.
No bardic songs are sung of the noble efforts of the gnomes. Standing at just three foot nothing, with lumpy features and alternatively smelly or crispy beards, they're hardly pleasant to wax poetic about. Plus, it's hard to rhyme anything with "internal combustion chamber." Finally, a Faerie crowd would be far more enthralled by tales of perfectly sensible and reasonable arcane combat with great wyrms and dread warlocks. After all, those things existed and made sense, while hydrodynamic pumps were the sort of thing you wrote silly Young Adult stories about.
For two centuries the gnomes had toiled away in the dull corners of the Faerie Court lands, like the soul-crushingly ordinary community of Boise, Idaho. Their work had largely been ignored, despite doing their best to come up with horrible acid-mortar flinging trebuchets that were powered by geothermal energy... Lady Summer had no interest, and if she didn't care, neither did anyone else.
So, when young Wheedle Q. Cogpolisher was hand-picked by the new Queen of Faerie to be "the Official Court Know-It-All," he was about as surprised as his peers and his detractors.
It was a role Wheedle threw himself into with great gusto, determined to put a best foot forward for his entire race. He spent months reading every book on Earth engineering he could find -- and then cornered the Chief Engineer of the Orbital Arcology and drilled him for whatever texts and tutorials he could get his grubby hands on. To his colleagues collective horror, he even got an Instructor from the Witching Academy to teach him the basics of magic, just in case it would come in handy.
Through great determination and hard work, and posessing fierce cleverness even by the high standards of the gnomes, Wheedle was now reasonably well versed in the technical workings of all three worlds. Which was exactly the task Emily set him to, when she came up with the position of the Know-It-All.
His workshop stood a reasonable distance away from anything too valuable or flammable, on the edges of New Orleans. It had been rebuilt four times; technically three and a half times, as the automaton he developed to rebuild it had an unfortunate episode in the middle of the job. Within these occasionally immolated walls, his staff of open-minded gnomes toiled away day and night in research and design, trying to find new and interesting and non-fatal ways to blend the sciences of the multiverse.
Two weeks ago, they had been given the task of developing utility items for Emily's hand picked team of anachronauts. (Emily claimed she had no idea if they would say yes to her request or not. But whispers around the workshop said that the Queen's all-seeing eye could easily predict such things.) Today, on this glorious day, it was Know-It-All Wheedle Cogpolisher's job to present these items to their new owners, with pride.
Of course, the group looked at his workshop in suspicion tinged with concern. Last night he'd asked Ratchetnut to scrape up what was left of Failed Experiment #37b/6 off the walls, but it ate the chisel, and they weren't about to needlessly lose any more good chisels.
Wheedle scratched at his new lab coat, the nice official one with the gold piping that didn't quite fit his lumpy gnomish form, trying not to look nervous in front of the gathered bigfolk. "So, ah, as you see, we've got a lot of... stuff," he explained. "Things. Good things. Queen Emily asked me to make you things to make exploration simpler, so I made stuff. Things. You want to, ah, see? Yes, well, of course you do, it's why you're here. She said you'd be here for that, and-- and, right, anyway. Okay. ...which one of you is Una?"
The young Orbital woman sheepishly raised her hand. "Err. Present? But I already have my own equipment," she reminded him, twisting a bit in a modelling pose to show off her trusty old jetpack. (It was an obsolete model by now, as newer ones came with more powerful energy weapons and more compressed dimensional storage comparments, but this one was a sentimental favorite.)
"Ah, yes, the... jetpack, right? Fascinating device, simply fascinating!" Wheedle chirped, eyes running along the curves of that sleek and lovely shape. (The jetpack, not Una. Wheedle had only one lover, and that was Science.) "Yes, that will be very handy. Very good for exploration. But I have for you, ah... here. These."
He fished a small metal case from his lab coat pocket, passing it over to Una.
"Contact lenses," he explained. "We studied the improvised dimensional color coder you developed two years ago. Good work, by the way. But since you're specifically looking for, ah... what's the word my Queen used? Anachronisms? Right. You need to keep an eye out for them at all times, and glasses won't suit! So we worked with the Arcology to shrink it down and improve on it. You can turn on and off the dimensional vision mode at will. Oh, and you can make your eyes any color you want! Except pink. Don't make them pink. It would be bad."
"Err... I'm perfectly fine with my current eye color, but thank you regardless," Una said, while studying the tiny lenses in the case. "I suspect I should wait until I'm near a restroom before testing these out, to be safe..."
"Right! Okay. Next! ...Nelliwyn?"
The elf standing at Una's side nodded in recognition. "That's me. Personal administrative assistant to Una zero point one."
"Ah, that would explain things, then. I was asked to make you something to help you record your findings..."
Next, Wheedle withdrew another small item from his pocket... this time, a pair of golden earrings, produced from a tiny jewelry box.
"Pure Faerie magic, these," he explained. "Well. Almost pure. Augmented, let's say, just a little. Flick the right earring and they'll start to record input from your five senses -- ah, touch, sight, sound, taste, and... what's... ah, smell. Right. We tried to make it record all six senses but I'm told there isn't a sixth sense. At least, not one science can detect. Yet. Flick the left earring to stop recording, stroke it for playback of recorded files. Five years of data storage space, very compact, nice and neat. Oh, and we added some additional Orbital hypertech, to scan your surroundings and look for dimensional shift oddities... useful data once you bring it back home and we get it analyzed. Very important to study the places you visit, very important. Little things you might not notice could be critical."
"And they'll look quite pretty on you!" Una commented, encouraging. "You have a lot of yellow in your outfits, so it'll match, yes?"
"Right! Last but certainly not least... ah, Jesse?"
The bored looking witch perked up at mention of her name. "That's Lady Ru-- Jesse. Right," Jesse responded, having already had a Discussion with Emily about putting on airs. "What do you have for me? A pair of slippers? Cufflinks? Some other silly thing?"
"Oh, no no no. For you, we've got... let's see..."
The gnome futzed about with the piles of smaller experiments on a nearby work table, searching for the item he knew he put there when he set down his lunch earlier today. The good news was he found what he sought, the bad news was his lunch was missing, likely vaporized for reasons that weren't wise to go into right there and then.
For Jesse, he produced... a monocle. A simple circular lens, without frame or chain.
"Very dapper," Jesse stated, flatly.
"Really? We tried to make it stylish. Form and function, that's how we work things-- ah. Well. It's actually your new spellbook, see," the gnome explained. "Adheres to skin with a flick to the rim, so it won't fall out. Use a mental suggestion to request a spell, and it prints the spell out on a micro-thin layer of Faerie onion skin applied to the lens. Cast the spell, the skin burns away, the lens is clear anew. Recharge nightly with new nanostuff packets. Calls up any spell you want-- err. Any spell the Queen allowed me to load, that is."
"Knowing her, it'll have fifty thousand copies of Animate, and little else," Jesse commented, crossing her arms defiantly. "If she wants me to defend you two, she shouldn't tie my hands. Give me Inferno and Destruction any day of the week... dangerous spells, but only if in the hands of a neophyte. I am no neophyte."
"Oh, ah, I think you'll like the loadout. Well. Those two aren't in there. But, well... here, give it a try."
She snatched away the monocle from the scientist's outstretched hand, and fixed it in place.
It was a curious feeling, having a list of spell words injected into your head. No runes, no actual spells... just the common-language names used by witches to identify one spell from another in conversation. Animate was there, of course. And Mending. So, Jesse would indeed be playing nursemaid to these two as well as bodyguard. And...
Well, now. THAT one is interesting, she thought...
She drew her sword -- careful to do it nice and slow, stepping away from the group, to avoid them misreading her intentions as hostile. One hand held the leatherbound hilt tightly, while the other stroked two fingers along the flat of the weapon...
...and the magic flowed through her once more. When she learned of how she had been neutered, part of her feared she'd never taste magic again. Wonderful, wondrous magic. The joy of hex...
"," she spoke.
The sword ignited instantly, wreathed in an icy blue flame. It chilled the air as she took a test swing, a simple one, away from her companions. Just to get the feel of it. Cool to her... but pure pain to her enemies. A surprisingly dark spell, considering that Emily put it in the hands of a former traitor...
"This was always one of my favorites," Jesse explained, arcing the blade this way and that, practicing to master its balance with the spell coating the metal surface. "A true fencing mage's weapon. It won't slay your enemies, or even wound them... but the touch of this flame will make them beg for death. ...I suppose that's why I'm allowed this spell. Emily wants to see if I can vanquish the threats before me without murderous deeds. She's always been soft... but it does have a diplomatic bent to it. Very well. If she armed me with a pen knife, then I would conquer my foe with a pen knife. I will use anything given to me and emerge the victor."
With a gesture, she dismissed the spell, smoothly returning the sword to its sheathe.
"I have my weapon, and I trust Una has an Orbital energy weapon of some stripe," Jesse accounted. "But I see no self defense method for the elf. Tell me, Nel, what have you--"
A finger poked at the back of her neck.
Jesse spun on instinct, to grapple whoever dared ambush her -- and grasped at the air.
"I'm an illusionist," Nel explained. "Stealth, disguise, and deception of the senses. I don't need a weapon; all I need is my glamour magic."
"And what amazing magic it is!" Una bolstered, putting one arm around her friend, for a confidence-raising snug. "She's a brilliant spellcaster. She's learned more in the last two years about glamour than... well, than anyone! Instructor Alia told me once that she's never met someone more naturally gifted in illusion before."
"Ahh... you do me too much credit, Una!" Nel claimed, shrinking into the shrug -- the moment of dominating confidence fading as quickly as the ghost touch to Jesse's neck. "I still have a lot to learn! And it's not like any of it's real... not like fire on a sword, or an energy blast. I just trick people, that's all..."
Jesse worked with the girl's self-effacement, nodding in agreement. "Glamour can be useful, when you don't have a true witch with a full spellbook on hand. I suppose you'll prove your worth, in the end. So... when do we depart? I understand we are on at timetable, yes? Are we to use a teleportation henge, or perhaps some clunky, noisy human vehicle?"
In a fair and just world, Wheedle would show a glimmer in his eye, before pulling a large white tarp off of some sort of abominable amalgam vehicle which was capable of land, sea, air, and space travel provided it was fed enough of a strange glowing substance grown in a lab which would one day burst free of its test tubes and wreak terrible vengeance upon its makers and grow to rule over this pathetic mudball with a slushy fist of doom. Nothing would have brightened his day more.
Sadly, Queen Emily had nixed the idea, and told him to point them towards the washroom instead, where transport would be waiting through the looking glass.
Another day, perhaps. Another day.
There are many methods of exploration.
For example, you can physically go somewhere, and study it in detail. That was the method that the anachronauts (working title) would be utilizing. However, before they were formed, there was another pair of explorers under the employ of Queen Emily... and their methodology consisted of pure, unadulterated voyeurism. Find a hidden view into another place, gaze through it without the observed being aware, then sneak off. Normally that would be a severe social faux pas, but in the case of Esrever the Mirror-Fiend, the Imageless One, the Silver Specter, King of the Empty Lands, the Outsider Reversed, Estranged Noble of the Winter Court (and his bride)... they had no other choice.
The two of them were stranded within a dreamscape of reflections, the world that lies behind the mirror. Every mirror. They were cursed to never set foot beyond this place, to never be able to visit with their peers in the real world. One was cursed in this way since his creation by the original Lady Winter... the other volunteered for the curse, in part for self-benefit, but in part to ease the burden of the other.
When Una and her team arrived through Wheedle's restroom mirror, Esrever and Anu were waiting.
Two years and a dramatic shuffle in upper management had transpired in the time since Anu's creation. She was birthed from a debt and a wish, a hurdle Lady Winter placed in Una's path, and a desire by Esrever for companionship. In every respect, she WAS Una... at least, initially. Nowadays, she had taken on more Faerie features, including pointed ears, and a slimmer form. Her mannerisms were calmer, more graceful... polished, if you will. But her strong heart of Optimism would always beat true.
At first, her existence was a secret... mostly to avoid unsettling Emily, as the bargain struck with Lady Winter was questionable, at best. After the coronation of Queen Emily, she discovered the truth in short order, but then it was less of a horrifying concern. Anu couldn't be used against Emily; now, she was Emily's loyal subject.
In hindsight, her birth made much more sense. It seemed Lady Winter allowed the creation of Anu so that if Una died in the dawn of the Second Age, there would at least be one remaining link between the Faeries and the Orbitals. It was Winter's style to place multiple bets down on the table. As long as one of them won, she would be victorious.
The new Queen of Faerie had a role Anu and Esrever to play, being the personal chauffers of her highest court echelons. When they needed to cross great distances in a short time, rather than journeying via the henges (where an assassin could be lurking), the mirror-world would be used. It could connect any reflective surface within Esrever's 'range' to any other reflective surface, provided you had a guide to lead the way. In this case, two guides.
The couple bowed in unison, a gesture of respect to those who came to visit. Today, Esrever took on the form of a handsome young Orbital fellow, to better match his wife. Of course, both looked quite ethereal and Fae, but clothes do make the man as well.
"We are to lead you to the land of West Palm Beach," Esrever explained. "The way will take approximately one hour of walking through these darkened corridors and connecting rooms. We would be best to begin immediately, to better serve our Queen's interests. Come along, please."
"So soon? But... I haven't seen you two in a long time," Una protested.
Her own voice reached her ears, albeit from a different set of lips. "We can discourse in a social manner during the journey," Anu suggested. "Please forgive my husband. He is ever eager to show his gratitude to the Queen of Faerie. I for one would welcome the company, even for this short time, and I believe he would as well. Now, let us make this journey as pleasant as we can."
The merry procession moved through bedrooms, bathrooms, and endless hallways. Each one lay dark and empty, fully furnished but with nobody to live there save the mirror couple that called this vast interconnected space home.
Generally, they walked in three groups. Una and Anu, of course... the two shared almost everything in common. (Almost.) Nel and Esrever, for their mutual interest in shapeshifting and glamour; Esrever had given Nel a few private lessons in magic over the years.
And then there was Jesse, who had absolutely no interest in getting to know any of these people and really wanted to get on with the mission. Not that this stopped her from eavesdropping on both groups.
"...it's a lonelier life than we thought it would be," Anu was explaining. "Oddly, it was far more lively and exciting in the first few months, as I was getting to know Esrever. But now that we've settled in... it's quiet. Very quiet. Other than Emily and a few others, we rarely have visitors. My dearest does his best to enrich our lives... dancing in ballrooms, visiting replicas of fine restaurants... but it's so empty, here. There's just... nothing. Only us. And it wears away at us both, no matter how we lean on each other..."
"I really, really should be visiting more often," Una spoke, in apologetic tones. "I'm sorry, it's just... there's been so much to do. Meaningless things, Orbital busywork, but..."
"Please... I'm not trying to layer your psyche with guilt," Anu insisted. "We understand why the mirror world is hardly a hot and happening social hangout. ...I suppose I've answered your query of 'how are you doing?' in far too much detail..."
"You could always contact father, you know. He's been interested in meeting you."
Here... Anu was given pause, in more than one respect. The others kept on walking, as she stayed in place. Eventually... she shook her head lightly, and resumed the walk.
"I've changed since I was created," Anu explained. "You likely noticed the ears, right? It's more than an aesthetic choice. I simply... FEEL more Fae than Orbital. I have a new life here. My old life is, well... it's your life, and I won't take it from you. Yes, I know you wouldn't see it that way, but I wouldn't feel like I fit into that life anymore. ...I will call upon your father, if only because I wish to be courteous. But to me, he is a memory someone else had."
Una's shoulders slumped, as she marched onwards towards Florida. "Your existence here is far more depressing than I had hoped it would be, and I am the cause. I must apologize--"
"You must do nothing," Anu interrupted. "Una... my heart beats with Optimism. Don't forget that. My complaints, my concerns, these are just hurdles to overcome. Bumps on the road of life. I am happy with my love... even in the sad times, I am happy. That's how love is. ...surely you feel the same with your companion...?"
At that, Una's expression shifted upwards from dour to bright in 1.3 seconds. "Brell? Oh, he's just wonderful!" she praised. "He adores me so much... has since the day he set eyes on me. He writes me songs, he crafts poems of my beauty, he's so gentle and tender... his touches are nearly worshipful. When we're together, truly together, it's the most wondrous experience... and... well, we simply don't HAVE sad times! Except, ah, when he's on the road playing his music, I suppose. But that's just a quiet between his visits, which are joyful!"
Anu studied her other self carefully... doubt obvious in her look, even if Una was oblivious to the obviousness of it.
"Una... you haven't forgotten the lesson of mother, have you?" her mirror sister asked. "About how you will one day find your true love where you least expect it...?"
A giggle bubbled up from Una's throat. "Well, she'd hardly have expected me to be in love with a Faerie, would she?"
"That's not what I mean, Una. This Brell... you say he adored you since the day he set eyes on you. That's a rather sudden and fierce love. The sort you used to project on others, I might add..."
"Well, I suppose there are similarities, but... there are differences, as well. I used to chase after every hint of love I saw, and be rejected. Brell instead approached me, you see! And I accepted his advances. ...have I mentioned how handsome he is?"
"Mother also spoke of patience, Una. That even as love sneaks up on you, unrecognized... when it was right, you would know. Do you know this to be right? Truly know in your heart and your head?"
...and that was about as much childish, storybook romantic yammering as Jesse could stand. So, she quickened her step, to eavesdrop on the next couple in line.
"...every single one," Esrever continued. "Although her visits are in private. The President has admitted his staff would not be happy with him meeting in secret with the Faerie Queen, but they both feel this is the best way to establish the groundwork of the Second Age. There's still too much mistrust in Eastusa. I've seen through my mirrors how much outright hatred remains towards our kind."
"I think what Emily needs is an Eastusa representative in her court. An ambassador," Nel suggested. "I'm the informal ambassador from the Faerie Court to the Orbitals, for instance. True, mostly I act as Una's assistant, but I've also given plenty of impromptu lessons on Faerie culture to curious Orbitals... and I've defused a few situations when people wander outside the Arcology and into the New French Quarter. The Queen praised my ability to bring two worlds together..."
"I endeavor to serve my Queen to the best of my ability, as well," Esrever said, with pride. "I wish not to speak ill of the dead, but... her reign has been a more pleasant one for me than that of the former Lady Winter. From Emily, I get the sense that she... well. She cares. I am more than a tool. Although I wish to be the finest tool she has available to her, as well--"
The pair turned to the one who hadn't set a word since setting foot in the reversed plane. Jesse walked alongside them now... arms crossed, defiant as her steps were firm against the marble of the random chamber they were traversing.
"Everything I've heard of Emily's style suggests she's too brash and too bold," Jesse complained. "The Second Age is a time of upheaval, according to the legends... but in two years she's turned the Faerie Court on its head. What happened to the unending reign of the seasons? The eternal dance of Winter and Summer? All the lore and legacy I was taught is being shoved to the wayside by this UNIFIED crown, in favor of madness!"
"It's more a matter of sanity rather than madness," Nel suggested. "The seasons aren't at each other's throats, and peace with mankind is on the horizon. How could that be a bad thing? Or are you afraid that as a proud warrior sort, you'll be out of a job?"
Jesse cast a glare upon the elf. "A catty sort, aren't you? I seem to recall you were once a slave of the great Lady Morgana. It seems your manners have left you."
"I show my manners to those who respect me in turn," Nel spoke up... before catching herself, and falling back to a more pliant mindset. (It had been far too easy to be abrasive lately, far too easy...) "Ah... I will, however, apologize for that comment. It was low of me, and an improper assumption to cast on someone I've just met. Sorry."
Esrever cleared his throat, to catch attention. "If it helps your understanding... I've known Queen Emily to be a woman of vision," he spoke. "And I don't simply mean her ideas, I mean... her vision. She has the Crown of Ice and Flame. In her, I see the same majesty and wisdom of the former Queens of Faerie. Why, last year, she even opened the lidless eye, and gazed towards the... ...err..."
"Yes? What?" Jesse asked, urging him on.
"I... would not wish to violate my Queen's confidences," he decided to say. "Not to speak of concerns she voiced to me in private. ...I have spoken enough already. But if my opinion to you as a staunch defender of the Winter Court, older than the reflections of this world, has any weight... rest assured. From human stock she may be, but she is becoming one with the Faerie, every day of her reign."
...Queen Emily. The runt, the alpha girl of the village... becoming one with the Faerie, Jesse pondered, as she let the matter go, to avoid forcing a fellow member of the Court to indebt himself. The Emily I knew was a humanist to the core, unable to see Faerie magic as anything more than a toolbox to be used to support her own race. Could there be more going on here than an extension of the Emily I used to know...?
Jesse rested her hand idly on her sword hilt, as she walked in silence. The Court she had willingly given herself to required champions before, and in these times of turmoil clearly required them still. The question was exactly what causes she would be championing... and, once cleared of her debt to Emily, would she continue to be the champion they expected of her? She originally was expecting to prove herself -- as she always had when challenged -- and then take her leave... but perhaps there was more going on here than met the eye.
From New Orleans to Florida, in an hour. It was the fastest travel in the world... but it still hadn't beaten Brell and his roadie entourage. He'd left early, once he learned Una would be busy last night. She recognized his unicorn drawn carriage in the parking lot, as they emerged from the driver side mirror of a beat up old roadster with South Carolina plates -- concert attendance by humans sneaking over state lines had been increasing recently.
Brell, here in this place where Mr. Orange is lying in wait, she thought, worry rising. And all these innocents. We can only hope our visitor came for the music and not for nefarious purposes...
"Okay... here is my strategem," Una began. "Last time we attended, the Rock Show didn't start until late afternoon. That gives us several hours to set up. We'll talk to the show management -- Mr. Kennedy should be accommodating -- and position ourselves to watch everybody as they enter the stadium. We'll see Mr. Orange's dimensional shift signature. We follow him, determine his motives, and then if appropriate we will confront him. This should... wait. Where is everybody?"
The parking lot was teeming with life, the last time she was here. Tailgate parties, young people hanging out and talking about music, displays of glamour... but today, it was empty. There were vehicles aplenty, true, but not a soul in sight...
...because they were in the stadium already. The thump of the bass and the roar of the crowd could be heard.
"They started early?" Una asked aloud.
"Una, the show's grown since the one you attended two years ago," Nel informed her. "With more and more human musicians participating, they had to expand it to an all-day concert, not just an all-night concert. We're not going to catch anybody at the ticket gate..."
"Your plan is going to require modification," Jesse spoke. "Mr. Orange is likely in the crowd already... thousands and thousands of people. I hope those gnome lenses of yours are up to the task. Assuming he hasn't left already, of course... tell me, are all of Emily's schemes this well organized?"
"We... we can still do this. We can," Una the mission leader spoke, thinking fast. "We need... let's see... ah! High ground. A vantage point over the crowd, and in the back... a VIP section, in the box seats. From there I can find Mr. Orange by his shift color. It's a higher profile entrance than I wanted, but we don't have much choice..."
"I'll go speak with the box office manager," Nel offered. "Wait here, Una. No reason to call attention to yourself yet; we'll hurry through to the seats once I have arrangements made."
The elf glamoured up, fading from view -- only Una's experience with her friend's stealth let her hear the tiny, tiny sounds of her footsteps as she hurried off to set up the plan. Leaving Una alone with the brash newcomer to their team, as if her nerves weren't jittery enough...
"Ah... a lot of what we do is sort of made up as we go along," Una explained. "In fact, back when Emily, Scout and I were investigating--"
"What do you plan to do with Mr. Orange once you find him?" Jesse asked.
"The goal is to obtain the methodology he used to bypass the Kraken, right? To gain the secret of intercontinental travel. That doesn't strike me as something he'd give up willingly. After all, he's hidden his vehicle, hasn't he? It faded from your ElfStar's view after arriving at this city. Mr. Orange doesn't want to be found. Assuming we can even locate the man, we may have to beat the secret out of him. Are you prepared to do that?"
"I... ah, I can't condone violence--"
"Fail in this task, and the anachronauts never get off the ground," Jesse quoted. "But the scope is wider than that. If we fail here, humans and Fae alike may never be able to leave America. When I embraced becoming a witch, I pledged to do what it takes to defend the Faerie Court -- and that pledge holds. I will of course obey your wishes, and avoid all but the most necessary violence... but in tying my hands, you could end up losing our future. Are you prepared for that?"
...being the leader seemed so much simpler when Emily was doing it, was all Una could think of. She pushed that aside, trying to settle her nerves... and drew deep from her philosophy. It hadn't steered her wrong before. ...except when it had. Such as Baltimore. Such as-- NO. Negative thinking. No.
"I am an Optimist," she decided. "I believe we can do the right thing AND find a path to the bright future ahead of us. I'm not prepared to lose that future, but I'm not prepared to do the wrong thing to earn it. ...we will do what must be done, in the sense that we must do what is right. Do that, and I am confident in the outcome."
What a fool, Jesse thought.
"As you like," was what she said, however.
Very few people sneak into a concert when they're legitimate ticket holders. They may sneak in without tickets, or walk in with tickets, but the two don't quite mesh together well. Of course, within context, it made sense... they needed to get to the high ground, the VIP seats that the box office manager arranged for "the honored guests of Queen Emily," without being spotted by Mr. Orange. For that, they needed Nel.
Only two years ago, Nel was already a master illusionist when it came to being invisible. Granted, she was only trying to fool a few guards or scandal-prone guests of the House of the Rising Sun at the time... not a stadium packed with people, crowds that hustle and bustle. For that, pure invisibility wouldn't hold up for long. Instead, you needed disguises.
She'd taken a good hard look at the merchandise booth on her way back out of the building, armed with the three tickets. A minute or so of spellwork later, and the three girls were now dressed up like three totally ordinary elven punk rock music fans. Black T-shirts with various band logos on them, denim miniskirts, boots of various styles or retro sneakers. All three even wore new faces complete with pointed ears for the two humans, just to be safe. ...of course, Nel did reserve her best work for Una, to make sure she looked lovely. A glamour expert takes pride in their work, after all.
After some spellwork to make Una's jetpack look like a backpack covered with little pieces of flair and to make Jesse's sword look like an umbrella, they were on their way through a crowd, who were none the wiser of the three insiders in Queen Emily's court in their midst.
Una kept her eyes out, the whole way up to the VIP box. The contact lenses were fine examples of gnomish engineering... functional, brilliantly designed, and with the occasional severe usability problem that rendered the entire point of them moot. In this case, they couldn't isolate any one color tag. Once activated, Una faced a sea of red with the occasional splotch of yellow from visiting Eastusians... meaning that seeing a single person in orange would be like spotting a needle in a haystack comprised entirely of slightly tarnished needles.
Jesse led the way, her own eyes searching the crowd for any possible threats, as she played cow-catcher and cleared a path for the two behind her. She had taken well to the bodyguard role... hopefully not so well that she'd jump at the first opportunity to do some active guarding of their bodies.
i'm not getting much, Una communicated to Nel, through their mutual ghost-whisper system. i can barely see anything in this mess. what if we miss him? what if we fail?
Her hand was squeezed lightly, by the disguised woman to her right. (Even with a glamour up, Una always seemed to be able to see through to the Nel underneath. Uncanny. Perhaps something in her body language?) i have faith in you, una. you can do it. the concerts will last all night; surely in that time we can find mr. orange. --mind the step. vip box here.
Una glanced at her feet, careful to step up and into the box seating. Here, a dozen or so seats hung above the crowd below, with a fine vantage point of the stage... and the music fans. A few others were seated here, all elves, likely friends and family of the bands playing. None of them paid any attention to the three investigators.
She picked the frontmost seat she could, glancing left and right, trying to make sure she had good range of vision on the crowd. Which, much as she feared, was essentially an ocean of red light. Red and yellow.
Which, of course, blurred together to form orange blotches. Which meant this entire plan was rapidly going down the toilet. As if to rub salt in the wound, the crowd let out a cheer as the next musician took to the stage. Their joy was Una's horror inverted.
She had to find some other means to locate Mr. Orange, something that didn't require the technology. Not that she was much of a private detective, not like the gumshoes of ancient Earth media--
"Thank you, Florida! I'm so thrilled to be here!"
"--Brell?" Una blurted aloud. That voice...!
"You know that fool?" Jesse asked. "I believe I heard him once, back in my days with the Archmagus. He was touring in a nearby town and I stupidly let the other girls drag me out to see him play. His music is insipidly romantic and empty--"
"You take that back!"
Much to her surprise, Una wasn't the one who said that. The two of them glanced back, to one of the other VIPs in the box -- a young elvish woman, wearing a Brell t-shirt, with a headband reading BRELL, and with little green bracelets that matched the color of his performing tunic.
"And who are you, the president of his fan club?" Jesse scoffed.
"Yes, in fact! Lona, president of the Brell's Lovelies Club, Florida chapter. And Brell is the voice of my heart!" the fan declared. "He writes songs of pure beauty, gentle and tender, and performs with the grace of an angel!"
"My first song is a new composition, entitled 'Yearning Heart,'" Brell spoke, through the stadium's dozen-speaker large wall of sound. "I composed it for all wanderers such as myself, unable to be with our true loves as often as we wish. Fortunately, she is here with us today..."
Nel froze. "That can't be," she said. "My glamour was unbeatable; he couldn't have seen through it. He could alert Mr. Orange! Maybe he saw us in the parking lot, before we disguised--"
"...Lona, my precious and adored, I dedicate this song to you!"
And the elven fangirl rushed to the railing, nearly falling out of the VIP box as she waved her arms wildly, blowing kisses and hooting and yelling for Brell's attention.
"Up here, my love!! Up here!" she screamed. "I love you, Brell! I love you so much...!"
The 'thump' Una made as she fell back into her seat was inaudible. The roar of the crowd, the adoration of Lona, and the soothing voice of the angelic singer below were all of far greater importance to everyone. One person's perceptions of how things are shattering into a thousand pieces paled in comparison to that outpouring of adoration.
The only people to notice this collapse were her companions. Nel, whose look of horror nearly matched Una's... and Jesse's look of comprehension, as she put two and two together.
"Ah, I see," Jesse spoke. "Well, that's to be expected, yes? He's a troubadour. The word often pairs nicely with 'lothario.' In fact, if I recall, two of those silly girls from my witching flock spent the night at his inn room when I saw him perform--"
The fallen girl rose to her feet. Turned. And marched out of the VIP box, without a word.
By now, the crowd in the stadium hallways was thinning out. The day was getting long in the tooth, and music fans were settling in for a good long Rock Show. A few stragglers remained, buying merchandise, getting some snacks, or going to the restrooms. Or, in Una's case, marching with great determination around the stadium, towards the dressing rooms and backstage areas.
Nel had to accelerate from a 'please don't pay attention to me' walk to a 'I'm going somewhere with purpose and am very noticable' jog just to keep up. "Una... the mission--"
"I need to see him," Una had decided. "I need to speak with him. I need to know, Nel..."
"You honestly thought your shining star boyfriend was loyal to you?" Jesse asked, perplexed. "Woman, the wandering bard with a girl in every town is one of the oldest ones in the book. He--"
Una spun on one heel, to drill a glare of absolute rage through the back of Jesse's eyes.
"He is NOT...!" she began.
Because it was true. It had happened. There was no point in denying it. ...but there had to be a reason. There had to...
"Understand you're jeopardizing the mission to go deal with a lover's spat," Jesse continued, deepening her tones, making sure it was clear how serious she was about this. "I can understand the need for revenge, or even simply the need to know why he has done this to you. I may seem flippant about your plight, and I apologize... I do sympathize, in my own way. Much of my life was spent settling scores with those who wronged me. But this is not the time, this is not the place. We can catch up to him and have his guts for garters later. Your Queen... your friend is counting on you."
"Counting on me to do what? To find this one man in a sea of thousands?!" Una exclaimed -- powered now by anger, a state she was not familiar with and had few defenses to. "It's useless! I can't find him, Jesse! I've checked the crowds, it's all a mish-mash of color. This is a fool's errand! ... Brell. I can do something about Brell. I can go back there right now, and intercept him when he returns from his set... I can..."
...and she shook her head, wandering off. Continuing on her new mission.
Jesse eyed Nel. "And you'll be going with her, won't you? You're her right hand. Assuming that's all you are..."
The elf bit her lip, glancing back and forth between the two... the blade witch, and her friend, rapidly walking away.
"I... I'm sorry. I have to... I'm sorry," she spoke quickly, before turning to dash off after Una.
And then there was one, Jesse thought, bitterly. Odd that of all the people to remain loyal to Emily's causes, it would be her. Simply because once she sank her teeth into something, she never let go. That stubbornness was making her into the one doing the right thing. How precious...
"Sir, those ARE chips."
"No, these are crisps. Maybe you're not understanding me; I want some chips. Chiiiipppss. Look, you've got some back there, haven't you? I can smell them from here..."
...how curious. Jesse angled her head, to better hear the argument going on at a nearby snack vendor. She wandered to the merch booth next to it, pretending not to listen...
"Yes, sir, I heard you. Chips. Those are Falrel's Own Potato Chips, a fine elven brand. I'm afraid we don't have any Eastusa brands here, er... you're from Eastusa, right?"
"...nevermind. S'pose I'm not that hungry," he spoke. "Good day to you, madam."
Jesse took a sideways glance, through a pair of sunglasses she was pretending to try on. That was not the walk of a man who was casually wandering back to his seat to enjoy the music. That was how you moved when you were trying to get away from a dangerous situation... such as being identified as a tourist from parts unknown. Parts very unknown.
She tossed the sunglasses aside, adopted a much more praticed walk of unsuspiciousness, and gave chase. Mr. Orange would be hers this day, and she didn't need fancy gnomish lenses to prove she was capable of the hunt.
So focused was Jesse on the mysterious stranger, that she failed to notice the considerably larger tourist from parts very unknown that had just picked up on her own trail.
It had been a good day.
The ride down here was brutal, but his entourage made things nice and easy for him. Security kept his darlings at bay, so he could rest and relax in his personal dressing room before and after the show. The set was short and sweet, just as he preferred them... just enough time to express his muse and soak in the emotions of the crowd, before departing for a pleasant evening with--
The woman waiting for him in his dressing room was not Lona. This was somewhere between a pleasant and unpleasant surprise.
"Una, my love!" Brell declared, smile widening after the initial shock had passed. "I didn't know you were attending the Rock Show this year. You should have told me! I could have arranged to get you good seats--"
"Next to Lona?"
Ah. The arms crossed, the dark expression... this was familiar territory for Brell. He let out a sigh of discontentment, settling in graciously on the dressing room couch next to Una.
"Una, my love... there's something you need to understand," Brell began. It was a speech he'd practiced many times before; he knew the words by heart at this point. "My heart is not like those of other men. It overflows with love. My cup runneth over with my emotions... I pour them into my music, as I pour them into my fans. If I am to be true to my muse, I must embrace love and life to its fullest--"
"You wrote that song for me, not for this Lona person," Una spoke... oddly calm about it, unlike other girls Brell had this discussion with in the past. "You told me that--"
"I wrote it for all of them, all my loves. Including Lona. Including you. Una, this is not that unusual among the elves," he pointed out. "We live a very long time, and some of us have many loves. Sometimes sequentially... sometimes simultaneously. I myself have so much love to give, so much of myself to devote to others, how can I deny those I care for--"
"How many do you love?" Una asked.
"I speak not of numbers, my dear, but of boundless, endless love--"
"Infinity is not an applicable numerical concept in this situation. There is a number. ...and I suppose it doesn't matter. If anything, knowing the number would make this worse. ...you say you love me just as much as all the other women you love?"
The musician swept up Una's hand, to lay a soft kiss to the back of it, a token gesture of romance. "Absolutely," he spoke, smile returning. "I'm glad you understand, Una. Often, my lovelies do not understand my heart. Sometimes, however... they do understand. Then, a deeper love and sharing than you can imagine opens up to us! This is a joyous thing, my lovely, lovely Una. Una, the wondrous star-child! Thank you so much... now, if you like, I can summon Lona, and we can--"
"You love me as much as you love them," Una said. "And for that reason, I can't hate you. In your own... unique way, you are being genuine and honest. ...but I can't love you, Brell. In fact... I don't think I love you."
"...ah. So. That's how it is, then," Brell spoke, his disappointment at this turn of events clear. "Very well. I understand--"
The young woman withdrew her hand from his... rising from the couch, smoothing out her dress.
"No. No, I don't think you do," Una said. "I don't love you, Brell. And in fact... I don't think I ever did."
Brell froze, befuddled at those words. This was a new twist on the familiar conversation. "What...?"
"Now that I think about it, now that I REALLY think about it... all I really loved was how you made me feel. I didn't love you," Una clarified. She wasn't even looking at him anymore... eyes distant, looking inward, as it were. "I loved being in love. That's all. It was foolish and silly of me, and just another example of my own desperation that I would fall for what you consider to be love."
Now the wandering bard was on his feet, and looking perturbed. Grace and elegance be damned. "Excuse me?" he asked, leaning forward... nearly leaning and looming over her. "What do you mean, consider to be love? I know more about love than you ever--"
"You don't. My mother and father, they had love," she said. "What you have is this... empty, hollow worship. Love of the idea of love and nothing more. You lavished it on me whenever you felt like dropping by my doorstep. I accepted it because I wanted it, I needed that feeling. That's all we had. Yes, in hindsight... I would say you were the third worst thing to happen to me."
The backhand slap stopped in midair.
Brell felt the strange grip around his wrist, holding him back -- and then found himself roughly shoved backwards onto the couch, banging his head against the wall in the process.
A young elf emerged from her glamour of invisibility... glaring at the man she had just bodychecked away from harming her best friend.
"You would dare to strike the emissary of the Orbitals to the Faerie Court?" Nel seethed. "Una--"
"No... no point. Don't bother," Una spoke, with a dismissive wave. Her voice was flat, uninterested, as she turned away from him. "He's nothing to me. Just as I was to him. ...we need to get back to our mission. Let's go, Nel."
Slowly she crossed the room... turning the door knob and departing, into the throng of Brell's adoring fans, barely being held back by concert security. Vanishing back into the crowd from which she came.
Brell grumbled to himself, rubbing a hand against the back of his head, where a bump was rising. Fortunately, his perfect hair hadn't been mussed. "...silly little girl, doesn't know what she's missing," he mumbled to himself--
And Nel's eyes narrowed, as she cast the Hex.
A blast of sparks exploded outward from Brell's chest... the Hex spell struck his glamour amulet dead on, the one that kept his appearance pristine and flawless. With a sickening noise like popping lightbulbs and crunching tinfoil, the magical device shorted out, spellwork unravelling itself, glamours twisting and fading away into thin air...
...leaving behind a very ordinary looking elf. Not a handsome bardic god of romance, not a lovely creature carved from the marble of the heavens. Just a guy who happened to be able to sing and play a lyre. He wasn't even a natural blonde.
Where once Nel stood as a tower of rage, now there was nothing. She had vanished just as soon as she had cast the counter-glamour... leaving behind a fallen star, and the awaiting fans outside, who got a good eyeful of their idol au naturale.
In a nearby hallway, away from the impromptu media circus, Una was crying. And Nel was there for her.
This was opportunity incarnate.
Her prey was cornered. He hadn't returned to his seat, hadn't fled the stadium. Instead, he went to the men's room.
If Jesse walked in, it would be patently obvious to Mr. Orange that someone was onto him. If she waited for him to emerge and continued to tail him, she could lose him... she nearly had lost him twice already, even with the sparse afternoon crowd. Perhaps he knew someone was on his tail? If so, why would he enter an inescapable room...?
When she trained in the art of fencing, she was taught to see opportunities and sieze them. You couldn't let a hole in your opponent's defense go unopposed... you may never get another opening. When the time is right, strike. Don't overthink it. Don't think at all. Act, and achieve your victory.
Perhaps it was fortunate that Una ran off to deal with her lover's betrayal. After all, she wouldn't approve of what was about to happen -- what must happen.
Act within the space of seven breaths. Center yourself. And proceed.
She pushed through the door to the men's room.
The looming spectre of Mr. Orange, the unknown, the outsider, was busy washing his hands and whistling a merry little tune. It was hardly a threatening visage of doom.
In fact, now that she finally had a look at him up close, Mr. Orange wasn't an entirely unfetching young lad. He was human, at least from appearances -- which could be deceiving, admittedly. Assuming it wasn't an elaborate ruse to make her underestimate the enemy, he seemed to be a young man in his twenties, with short dirty-blonde hair, a button-up white shirt with the sleeves rolled to allow proper handwashing, and simple slacks with suspenders to keep them up. Two days of shaving stubble sparsely dotted his chin.
All very interesting and such, but the main thing to catch Jesse's eye was a crease in his pants, near the pockets. Something stored there. A weapon? She had to assume a weapon, because to assume otherwise and be caught offguard would be fatal...
If the man noticed her, he didn't show it. He was busy towelling off, using the paper towel dispenser. But soon, he acknowledged her.
"I can't see how you tolerate it," he spoke, wadding up the brown paper and tossing it in a nearby bin. "So rough and scratchy. Very industrial. A proper gentleman wouldn't call these towels, much less try to use them and call it personal hygiene. Look at this, my hands are still wet with little fibers all over them, and I already went through three of the bloody things..."
Jesse's hand moved to her sword hilt.
"We make do, somehow," she decided to say.
Mr. Orange gripped the sink with both hands, still looking into the mirror, rather than at her. A show of good faith? Not going for his weapon?
"I came for the music, understand," he spoke. "I'd heard good things about it, how different it was than the dull, dull operas they made me attend back home. I had to see for myself, before... well. Point is, I'm not here to start a barney. Nothing of the sort. In fact, I can be on my way, if you prefer. Your call, love."
"You're from England. I recognize the accent from old media."
Finally, the young man turned to face her... leaning casually against the sink, arms folded.
"Gilbert Gearhaus, former citizen of the British Empire. At your service. I would like at this time to note that your umbrella is a sword," he spoke. "Oh, it looks like a proper umbrella, I'll give it that. But it doesn't move like one. The twitching of your muscles under your skin -- that's not your skin, that's a disguise as well, isn't it? -- says you're ready to strike me down if I prove to be a naughty boy. I'm here saying I'm nothing of the sort, and you're unsure. In fact, you're erring on the side of assuming I'm a bad seed, just to be safe. Or maybe because you want to fight? That's it, isn't it? It's like you."
Jesse's hand didn't waver, even under that wave of analytical scrutiny. "All we want is to know how you got here. How you avoided the Krakens. Tell me what I want to know and you can go back to your seat and enjoy what passes for music in this backward little beach town."
"I'm rather liking it, myself," Gilbert said, with a charming smile. (It was deliberately charming, in a sense of letting you know he wanted it to be charming, and was aware you were aware it was intentionally charming, which in the end just made it... weird.) "The music of this land has a good beat to it. Not quite three-fourths, but if you want to waltz--"
In a blur, the former Mr. Orange was in fencing position. In his hand, a telescoping wand of some sort -- a brass epee, which somehow had gone from pocket storage to fighting poise in less than a second.
"--I'm never one to turn down a dance with a lady as lovely as yourself," he completed.
An 'umbrella' was drawn from its nonexistent sheathe in turn, as Jesse adopted a stance of her own.
"This is your last chance, and I'm only offering it because my superiors would not be happy if I was undiplomatic," she spoke. "All we want is information on your travel arrangements. There's no need to fight... but you should know I'm never one to turn down a dance, either."
"Afraid I'm intending to take my secret to the grave," Gilbert said, with a little mocking sigh. "So the only question is, can you put me there--?"
And the epee poked forward.
At last! Jesse thought, mad with glee inside as the fight began.
This was pure fencing -- evade, parry, thrust, counterthrust. Unlike the training sessions she'd engaged in years ago, the boy was pouring his fullest into it... no mere lesson, no demonstration, but a pure fight to prove skill and domination! How long had it been since Jesse faced a worthy opponent, one who wouldn't back down before her? Too long. Far too long...
The men's room was hardly a good place to fight. Cramped, tight... but with a perfect line for the push and pull of a fencing match. The boy was following the rules, neat and precise in his strokes of the blade, advancing and retreating as appropriate. Clearly, he was taught by skilled fencers...
...but he hadn't learned the sort of brutality that Archmagus Lilith was famous for.
Jesse waited for the first opening, the first chance where his control wasn't tight enough to defend himself... and then struck. Specifically, she struck a nearby sink faucet.
Water sprayed out at high pressure, blasting the man directly in the face. To his credit, he didn't lose his weapon -- but he was too stunned to notice Jesse moving in on him until it was too late, and he had an umbrella pressed tight to his neck.
"Yield," Jesse ordered.
The epee clattered to the floor.
"...that was hardly Marquis of Queensberry rules," the boy complained... careful not to move a muscle, as the girl behind him kept him locked in place, edge brushing against his sensitive skin. "Sooo. Now what? You lay open my throat?"
"You can't tell me your secret if you're bleeding out like a stuck pig," Jesse reminded him.
"And you can't kill me if you want to know what I know. So, impasse. Except I know something other than what you want to know which is equally important for you to know."
Jesse sighed, growing irritated with the boy's endless patter. "And that is...?"
"I didn't come here alone."
That's when the men's room door was torn off its hinges.
Gloved hands punctured directly through the metal, left and right, grasping the door so tightly it buckled under the strain. The bolts holding it in place popped like corks, the entire frame bending from the effort as the door was casually tossed aside by the hulking figure that almost couldn't get through the entrance.
The monster wore an overcoat and fedora, covering its features completely... but in the shadow cast by that oversized brim, a single eye glowed bright white, trained on Jesse as she backed away slowly, the young man locked in her grip...
It paused there, content to simply occupy the space and cut Jesse off from the only escape route she had.
"Liberation?" the monster asked, in an unusual voice... like chimes of a bell, echoing themselves with tones that mimiced human speech.
"I think I'm doing fine at the moment, Jeeves, thank you. I shall inform you if I require your assistance," the man spoke. "So. As you can see, ma'am, I have you as much as you have me. While I may have some skill at waving a bit of sharp metal around, my confidant is certainly my better in a fight and is more than capable of pacifying you should you try to get past him. So. Would you kindly allow me to be on my way?"
Jesse's hand remained steady... even as her mind wavered. Part of her wanted to put that beast to the test, to prove she could overcome it, but... well, that wasn't a productive plan, was it? Options. There had to be options. Jesse glanced left, glanced right--
At her own reflection.
"At the risk of encouraging your annoying habit of banter," she said, tightening her grip as she slid two steps to her right, "I'm not here alone, either. --Esrever, Esrever, Esrever!"
The eye of white light refocused, as the monstrous thing tried to comprehend how the two of them could vanish into thin air. He lacked the data to understand that they had vanished into the thin silver lining pressed beneath a sheet of glass.
Programming shuffled itself around inside his mind, gears turning and sprogs slotting into place. A brief burst of steam flared out from his back exhaust vents, making his overcoat flap for ten seconds straight. Once a course of action was determined, the lumbering form known as Jeeves turned around, and walked away.
The master would likely return. If not, protocol dictated what to do.
As prisons went, this one wasn't all that bad. In a way, it reminded him of home... an endless series of nicely furnished rooms and hallways, elegant and tasteful, while devoid of any warmth or happiness. All in all, it beat a six foot by six foot concrete cell or the back of a paddywagon.
He had chased his captor through a few rooms, before she managed to lose him... and then he managed to lose himself. An easy task, when the place was set up like one of those fancy optical illusions like men walking along interconnected stairways in and out of euclidian dimensions, all designed to screw up your sense of spatial thinking. After the third bathroom connected to a ballroom connected to a lakeside picnic area, he decided to give up the chase and sit down for a quiet think.
In his case, however, "a quiet think" wasn't the sort of relaxing activity it sounded like. Instead, he was pouring back and forth through his eidetic memory -- analyzing the way the rooms fit together, scanning for some sort of pattern. There had to be one. Even the purest chaos followed a pattern, he was taught, even if it was a pattern the scope of which most couldn't grasp. Gilbert Gearhaus had a wider scope than most.
Scrawled upon the easel of his mind, he had almost completed Gilbert's Formula for Reflective Connectivity of Mirror Spaces (Draft Edition) when a guest arrived, bearing snacks.
The woman wore a prim and proper dress, not unlike those of his homeland. The oddity was her hat; a somewhat floppy and battered old hat, originally of pointed make. She even had a broomstick on a holster slung around her back. Some sort of witch costume, perhaps? If so, where was the black cat and the wart? --but those details were brushed aside, in favor of his stomach commanding his eyes to stare longingly at the offered foodstuffs.
"Chips?" she offered, holding out a small cardboard cup of them. "I popped over to the Atlantic City boardwalk to grab some for you. 'course, around here, they call them french fries. I never understood that, but hey..."
"I think you'll find that food drugged with truth serums and other tonics won't work on me. I've a highly disciplined mind," Gilbert warned -- but not before graciously accepting the offering and having a few of those delicious potato wedges. "...good gracious, these ARE good. Is that peanut oil? I can't say I've sampled chips fried in this manner before..."
"That's the point of visiting new and interesting places, isn't it?" the witch spoke, having a seat next to him by the lakeside. "To sample the unknown. New food... new music. Even this place is new and interesting. Sure, you're stuck here--"
"For now. I've almost sussed out the pattern to it," Gilbert spoke, tracing a brief equation in the air with one 'french fry'. "Which means one way or another, I'll be departing soon. I suggest sooner rather than later, however. The secret your agent seemed so eager to obtain will be destroyed within a day; I've encoded rather strict protocols into Jeeves, afraid."
"The J-33 Valet and Equerry System. J33-VES. Jeeves for short. My metal manservant is quite loyal, you'll find. If you do manage to locate my transport, he'll simply advance the protocol and destroy it before you set foot aboard. So, it's in your interest to let me go, yes?"
The witch removed her hat, scratching an itch at the back of her head. ...briefly, Gilbert could swear he saw something else hovering over her head... some sort of shape like a halo...
"Honestly, this all went a bit crazy on me. I never wanted to hold you captive," she explained. "All I wanted to do was talk with you. From the sounds of it, my friends went a little around the bend when it came to making that happen. So, let me properly introduce myself... my name is Queen Emily of the Faerie Court."
"...you? You're the Queen of the Faeries?" Gilbert asked, of genuine surprise. "But Benny told me that the Faeries were ruled by Lady Winter and Lady Summer..."
"Yes, well, things change. I'm actually a human... more or less. And unlike my predecessors, I'm trying to put an end to centuries of cultural misunderstanding ranging from unkind stereotypes to outright racial warfare between humans and Faerie. ...and I need your help. For that, and much more."
The boy rattled around the few remaining chips in his cup, considering.
"The lass you sent for me said you wanted my Sea Dragon-avoidance technique. You call then Kraken, but I suppose it's the same thing. Despite being an ocean apart, we have the same problems..."
"I understand why you don't want to give us your technology outright," Emily said... idly picking up a small stone, skipping it across the reflected lake. "...I haven't told too many about this, but... being Queen of the Faeries gives me a few... advantages. Access to certain visions. I've seen the British Empire. I understand why you wouldn't want them to have that technology."
Gilbert raised one eyebrow; another telling gesture, to illustrate his surprise and curiosity to this newcomer. "A magic crystal ball, eh? ...mmm. I've never been one for war. It's not my thing, despite the various machines of war I've had to design over the years. I knew when I finished the formula that it only had one use... letting the empire spread across the seas. I won't be responsible for that."
"And here I am, sending 'agents' to wrest it away from you. You're right to assume I'd want to expand my own empire, even if the assumption itself isn't right. Frankly, I've more empire right now than I ever wanted, with the amount I wanted being roughly zero. You have no reason to believe me when I say that, of course... not yet. So, I'll make you a deal..."
The Queen rose to her feet, and brushed dust and dirt from her nice-yet-plain regal dress.
"I'm putting together a team of explorers," Emily said. "You've met one of them. ...she's a bit new at this, so you'll have to forgive her manners. There are dark corners of this world that need to be examined... studied. We may find foes, or we may find friends, but until we scope them out we'll never know. The west coast of this country, for instance, is riddled with unknowns. If you join the anachronauts--"
"The what, now?"
"It's just a temporary name," she insisted. "Anyway, if you join them in their mission, you can see for yourself if I'm being genuine. All I want to do is start opening up the borders that keep this world isolated and afraid, alone in the dark. Not to conquer... just to extend a welcoming hand. If you study my work up close and find I'm being truthful, maybe you'll share your secret with us. If not, you can go... well, anywhere you like. Heck, if you don't want to take the chance, you can leave right now. I'll have Esrever lead you back to Florida. Fly away from it all."
The boy picked up a stone from the lakeside shore, turning it over and over in his hand. Through his senses, he could analyze the surface, the curvature... he could even throw it so precisely that it would skip eight times before sinking. But eventually, it would sink. No mortal throw could keep that rock aloft forever...
"I suppose I owe it to myself," he decided.
"I'll join your expedition, Queen Emily of the Faeries," Gilbert decided. "I came to your land as an explorer, didn't I? To experience the new, to live my life to its fullest in the time I have left. What you offer me is more than I could have hoped for... rather than skulking around trying to play the invisible tourist, I'm a state sanctioned tourist of the most extreme sort imaginable. How can I resist that temptation? --but the technology that shields my lovely Clockwork Mermaid from the Kraken remains mine, until such time as I feel confident it will be put to good use. In short... we have an accord."
Before rising to shake the Queen's offered hand, he gave the rock a casual throw; a snap of the wrist.
Skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip... skip.
"...well, I'll be," he mumbled to himself. "You never know, do you?"
New Orleans at night. A balcony with a view.
Emily was familiar by now with the sights and sounds of her queendom. The royal palace / Witching Academy. The fallen Arcology. The city below. All quite normal and ordinary, in the dawn of the Second Age...
An airship docked at a makeshift launch tower, that was a new one. The Clockwork Mermaid hovered in a way that worried her, despite Gilbert's assurances that his dirigible was perfectly safe. All those decorative curly brass trimmings certainly didn't look lighter than air, and the balloon was hardly large enough to support the ornate boat danging from suspiciously thin wires...
A strange sensation. Seeing something that made no sense, something which did not belong here, yet fit in perfectly. At least, it had in her vision. A vision always felt true, like a hard nugget of reality squatting in your psyche. No matter how insane, you couldn't deny it for what it was.
"Can't say I'm satisfied with the mission," her husband commented... his own eyes fixed on the unusual sight, as well.
"Okay, so Una ran off to confront her loser boyfriend, Nel got dragged along for the ride, and Jesse nearly gutted the fourth anachronaut," Emily summarized. "Mistakes were made. I'm not totally happy about Una's priorities, either. But in the end, we got what we wanted... give them time, alright? They'll get the hang of the wacky adventures gimmick sooner or later."
"Preferably sooner than later..."
"Look, we know how this shapes up. The process to get us there is going to be a bit bizarre, but you can't argue with success."
"Success is a relative concept. All we know for certain are the images you saw. Actual outcome is open to interpretation. You sure that-- no. You're sure. Wouldn't be doing this if you weren't sure."
"They have their work, we have ours, Scout. There's a lot to be done to make sure the Second Age gets off on the right foot," Emily said, turning away from the view... and leaning into her husband's arms. "Just... stick by me. Help me through this. We're going to be okay, no matter what any stupid vision tells me. Everything's going to be okay. I won't settle for anything less."
Far to the west...
A merry little tune carried through the still and lifeless air, hummed by a contented throat.
He wandered through this wasted city, picking apart the rubble and ruin. Wherever the arrangement of it displeased him, wherever evidence of his work was obscured, he shuffled things about. Everything he'd done had to be here, had to be out in the open. It was very important to put your best foot forward, to make a good impression, to shake the right hands, to know the right people.
The movers and shakers climb the ladder of success in a dog eat dog world. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. All these wonderful terms he'd learned since coming here, since working with those in the highest echelons of society as well as the kingpins of the underworld... all gone now, of course. Neat and tidy. The plate cleaned and ready for more.
Soon, he would have guests. The man didn't know who was coming or why, but it didn't matter. He couldn't tell how he knew they would be here soon, in fact -- it was just one of the many things he Knew. The fact that anybody was coming at all was delightful enough in and of itself. Nobody had come along to chat in nearly two centuries.
When they arrived, he would have the welcome mat out and waiting. They would parley. And then everything would be okay. The man wouldn't settle for anything less.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne