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1. a creature that is repulsive and terrifying.
2. a person who instills horror in others through acts of evil and cruelty.
Tonight, she would surpass the gods.
The power already was boiling at a low simmer beneath her flesh, waiting to be unleashed... waiting for the hour of her ascendance. This would happen; it was destined. She had seen it through the veils over the lidless eye.
As one of the most powerful Fae spellcasters alive today, Lilith held a bag of tricks with near bottomless depth... including extremely limited access to the lidless eye. That was her right as the (former) Archmagus, to be granted some of Lady Summer's Hindsight spellwork, in exchange for her tireless and loyal service.
Although, and this was a fact she concealed well from the former Crown of Flame... Hindsight was not the only direction through which Lilith could utilize the eye. Seven generations removed from the Winterfae, she still had a lingering blood talent for Foresight, the other spellworking. While she could not see one's birth or death, as the Faerie Queens could do with ease, Lilith could feel the overall shape of the past and future... the rough details, enough to guide her path. It was why she knew that sacrificing her sister would truly give her the power she craved.
Morgana. Such a weakling, really. So easily bending to the winds, like a soft reed. The Faerie Queens exterminated by a lowly human, one who had humiliated her only one week previous? Morgana was right there to cozy up to the filthy Moonthistle brat, to bask in the decadence of that repugnant human city in the sands. The fact that her sister endured the regime change while Lilith had to hide out in a 'hotel room' was utterly disgusting. Power and respect, the bread and wine of Lilith's existence, had been taken from her and given to her twin...? It sickened her to the core.
But now, Morgana was dead. The Mister was in her corner. Soon, she would be beyond a goddess... perhaps a demiurge, of some sort. Power enough to capture and torture the little human wretch that pretended to be Faerie. Power enough to deal with the would-be devil that gave her this power, in fact. Power. Power beyond mortal comprehension...
And the first thing she would do is annihilate the imp that kept clinging to her breasts.
"If you do not move your hands down, so help me, I will barrel roll you directly off my broomstick," Lilith warned.
"If you weren't wearing that stupid corset and leaving me no waist worth note to cling onto, I wouldn't HAVE to grab you," Benny the Broker complained. "And I'd like to point out they are not as big or pert as your glamour is trying to make them look, thank you. I'm lucky I'm not dangling in the wind three feet behind you hanging onto these saggy things."
Yes. Annihilate the imp. That would be delicious right now.
He had been a complete pain during this entire process. When he wasn't complaining, he was looking shifty and nervous. Compared to his master, this one was clearly the weaker of will -- he had no passion for destruction or vengance. This was simply another job to him, an assignment, and he had no enthusiasm for the work. Lilith had to wonder if the demon was truly a demon, given his complete disinterest in her dark rise to power. In fact, she had to wonder what use Benny the Broker was at all.
They'd lost several days already trying to find transport that would help them catch up with Emily Moonthistle's minions. The stone circles didn't reach out to the Forsaken Shores, by order of the Queens. The Dryads didn't keep watch over the redwoods and wildlands that had seen no bipedal occupation in over a century. Benny had suggested they commandeer a jet from an airport in Texas, at the westernmost human settlement, but Lilith would sooner die than have her path to glory be paved with human iron.
With time ticking away, that only left broomstick transport. A primitive tool, one they'd designated to the human-breed witches because of how absurd it was, but it would keep them "off the radar" as Benny had put it.
Sadly, broomsticks were not really made for two, nor were they made for this kind of long distance travel. At the fastest speed she could manage, the best they could hope to do was intersect with Emily's airship before it reached its final destination... Anchorage, Alaska. The blackest and most forsaken dome of them all, with spellwork laid thick with circles of runes around its base to keep what was inside from ever seeing light of day.
That blighted place lurked as a lightless bubble, rapidly increasing in size, as they flew onward. Not far now.
And Moonthistle wishes to open relations to the horrors inside, Lilith thought, in disgust. Foolish to the extreme. If I am to save all of Faerie, I must remove her from power, and quickly...
"That's the Anchorage dome ahead, right?" Benny asked, daring to use one hand to point ahead, despite his death-grip on Lilith to avoid falling off the flying stick. "Please tell me that's the dome. I want this over with just as much as you do. Look, you don't like me, vice versa, et cetera, that's honestly never been a problem in my negotiations before. We have ONE business transaction to make here and then I'm out of your hair--"
"The Key of Iron, yes," Lilith quoted, rolling her eyes. It was only the seventh time he had reminded her. "Once I hand it over, you will use it to summon the Mister from his prison, and he will then be able to complete our bargain. Unlock the power. Then, we go our separate ways. Hmph. This would have been easier if he'd given me the power I wanted when I wanted it. Or at least some sort of weapon, if this 'guardian' you describe is truly dangerous..."
"Your pending super duper evil hell-powers wouldn't do a damn bit of good against their watchdog, according to the Mister. Not that he said why, of course. But while my master is lousy at admitting to fear, when he fears something, there's usually a good reason," Benny said. "I've been around this world enough to know that fire and water are both beaten by molecular destabilization rayguns. That's the smart way to roll; find some perpendicular power, not a direct opposite. You come at it sideways, and we'll be fine. Or are you saying you aren't badass enough for this on your own?"
Lilith deliberately dipped the broomstick, to nearly but not quite bounce the imp off her backside. Just to scare him.
"Doubt me again and you can say hello to your Maker," she warned. "I have power enough to deal with Emily's playmates. The real question is if I have power enough to survive against whatever lies within that dark prison..."
"What's in that dome? I've always wodnered, given the ridiculous amount of seals around it..."
"I've no idea. All I know is that it even gave Lady Winter some pause," Lilith said. "You'd best hope we find the key before we run into the locals. I'm going to need to be a goddess if we're to..."
"...to be LATE!" Lilith called out, kicking her heels against the broomstick, trying to pour her Will into quickening its flight.
Their target was already ahead of them.
A quick Eagleye spell confirmed it -- a flying ship, just as the Mister had described. It moved with surprising speed, considering the sheer impossibility of the thing, a wooden ocean craft dangling from a balloon by steel cables. Her broom hadn't been fast enough, they'd dallied far too much. At this rate, they wouldn't overtake their prey. The Key of Iron would fall into the dome with the ship, and knowing the terrors within, likely never emerge again.
If Lilith was very, very lucky, at least she could get close enough for one desperate gambit.
"Imp, quickly. You can teleport through flame, yes?" Lilith asked. "Can you pull someone with you when you do that?"
The anachronauts (temporary designation only) were taking no chances, this time.
No lingering long enough to crash into a helicopter or be attacked by giant robots. No splitting up the party to investigate strange noises. They weren't even going to land the ship -- just peek into the farthest edge of the dome for a few seconds, get an idea of what lurked within, then ascend out of it.
They weren't even going to leave the Key of Iron inside the ship, or slip it in a pocket. This time, he'd given it to Jeeves, who was connected to the ship to act as a proxy via some combination of technology and magic that seemed to assemble itself into being when nobody was looking. If all else failed, the autobutler would defend the dangerous artifact with his very artificial life.
"It's better this way, really," Gilbert assured, his hands steady on the controls. "I'd love to explore the unknown just as much as you, Una, but after our last two adventures I think I'm game for playing it safe. Just a peek. Then we'll discuss what to do next."
"I just think it goes against the spirit of what we're trying to accomplish here," Una protested, despite having agreed with the plan long ago. "We're trying to make contact, not just observations. In the end, we left Seattle and Vancouver better than we found them, and even made new allies. We could look in there, see some, I don't know, horrible otherworldly eighty foot tall tentacled monster and run for our lives... all without realizing it would've been our friend."
Nel shuddered. "I don't think I want to make friends with a horrible otherworldly eighty foot tall tentacled monster," she said. "Una, I understand how you feel, but this is the safest way. I mean, we're only going to be in the dome for a few seconds! What could possibly go wrong?"
Traditionally, whenever someone utters the words "What could possibly go wrong?" the question mark at the end is immediately followed by a punctuation consisting of massive explosions. Nobody knows why this is; it simply is.
Except when it isn't, as was this case.
Instead, it took six full seconds for the massive explosions to begin.
As the Clockwork Mermaid spiraled out of control through the interface of the dome, into the shadowed city lying in wait, it might have reassured Nel to know that the horrible otherworldly eighty foot tall tentacled monster they narrowly avoided colliding with was merely a stone statue erected in honor of a horrible otherworldly eighty foot tall tentacled monster.
It would not have reassured her to know that when you erect a statue in honor of something, usually that something actually exists, so you can lavish honor upon it.
All these notions would have to wait, as the crew was busy trying not to die as the Mermaid plowed through a huge wooden sign, skipped off the roof of a tavern, and skidded to a halt in an open cargo lot of fishing crates and netting which ironically allowed for a smooth and safe deceleration.
The crash would cause lights to appear in windows all over the crude fishing village that lurked at the shores of Anchorage Bay. The locals would want to know what all the fuss was about.
One of them would be particularly interested, since someone had just plowed through his carefully designed "Nyarlathotep for President: It Just Makes Sense!" campaign billboard.
the forsaken shores
by stefan gagne
Clockwork ticked along quietly inside the brass shell, notch by notch. Tiny bits of steam powered machinery, designed to carefully control and utilize the vast pressures of aetheric steam, pushed pistons and pulsed through valves to ensure that even in sleep mode, the unit was processing certain stored programs.
Once the proper alignment of cogs was established, the programs declared it was now time to serve afternoon tea. Thus, the automaton was roused from its sleep mode.
It took a few moments for Jeeves to align what he was seeing with what his memory pins had recorded only "moments" ago. For starters, the Clockwork Mermaid did not look this wrecked when he'd last looked it over. The brass consoles of the cockpit were more or less intact, but many of the glass dials had shattered, and key control levers were bent and in some cases completely dislodged. The viewing windows were all ruined, leaving only random bits of glass and twisted iron frames behind to say that there was ever a window there in the first place.
As Jeeves took in these details, he wasn't checking the damage to assess how long it would take to repair. He was instead looking for any sign of his gentleman. Be it a living body or otherwise.
One complete scan later, and the best he could come up with were some blood pools, including ones with associated drag marks. Someone had absconded with his gentleman, and his gentleman's companions, leaving Jeeves alone in the wreckage.
And reasonably so. Jeeves had, after all, been torn in half.
This didn't alarm him, as it wasn't possible to alarm him. Even so, he was pleased in some robot-y sense that his internal steam tanks hadn't ruptured; if that happened, the damage would've been irreparable, and likely the blast of scalding hot aetheric gas would've surely harmed his gentleman. Being torn in half was not exactly an ideal state, but it could be dealt with, and dealt with in a matter of hours only using his internal repair systems...
And then the wreck shifted. Wood and metal creaked, the entire hull of the ship rocking slightly. Voice could be heard, but none that matched voiceprints that he'd filed away in his memory pins... not his gentleman, not the companions. Strangers. They spoke of moving the ship, relocating it, and of various unpleasantries that would occur if this task was not completed quickly...
The autobutler would have to work quietly. Stitch himself back together silently, so that he may remain an overlooked inanimate element of the ship's systems. If he was to have a chance at finding his gentleman, he would need to evade capture... and in addition, he still held the Key of Iron, in a storage compartment between his steam vents, nice and secure. Just as the Honored Calculator of Gearhaus Heavy Industries required of him. To be captured now, with that precious artifact within him, would be a failure of unacceptable proportions.
Slowly, Jeeves dragged his torso over to his legs. He aligned the two halves of himself, precisely matching pipework to pipework, gear to gear, all while staying low to avoid being seen through the broken windows.
As he was entirely focused on the repair efforts, ignoring the outside world save to keep watch for any intruders, he was unaware of the two figures that slipped out of the ruined engine room under cover of magical glamour. The ones that were towing the wreck of the Mermaid remained unaware, as well. And Lilith wouldn't have it any other way.
Left, right. Left, right...
Her eyes followed them, fluttering open, tracking the movement. Someone had stuffed cotton in her ears and wrapped her eyes in gauze, hadn't they? No, probably not, but it certainly felt that way...
"Sir? I think she's coming to."
Una sat upright, despite the throbbing feeling behind her eyes, despite the comfortable leather armchair beckoning her back to rest. After recent events, she had become quite suspicious about waking up in comfortable surroundings, and it immediately put her on guard.
"Where am I?" she asked, as these are the sort of questions you ask when you wake up in a place you did not go to sleep.
"It's okay. You're safe now," the voice continued... person. A person, wearing a white overcoat. A slightly tattered white lab coat, yes, details were clear, now... "We've treated your wounds. You took a bad head bump when your vehicle crashed, but it's bandaged, and there's no concussion. Your sanity is likely intact as well. You should be fine--"
"Where am I?" Una repeated. "I'm sorry, but the last person in white who told me I was safe and well did not have my best interests at heart. I apologize for my directness, but I rather want to know what is going on..."
The doctor stepped away... as a surprisingly wide fellow stepped into view.
He wore a dark suit. He was very tall. He was very bulky. For all intents and purposes, this was a cloth covered wall standing before her, immobile and impossibly powerful looking. If not for the snappy crew cut, no-nonsense facial expression, dark sunglasses, and little wired earpiece, Una might've doubted he was human.
"White Temple," the man, previously referred to as 'sir' explained. His voice was labored... as if passing through a larynx that wasn't designed for speech so much as grunts and short barked orders. "A guest. Of the President. He will see you. Shortly. He will explain. More."
"And my companions?" Una asked. "There were others with me when we crashed--"
"...kill you all if you so much as lay another hand on me, I swear--!"
Doors opened at the far end of the waiting room, with Jesse being escorted in by two similar Ur-Men in Black. Una turned, trying to focus... taking in more of the room's details as her eyes passed from one angle to another.
It was a posh waiting room, indeed. Fine carpeting. Pristine white walls, made of marble, with tapestries hanging from them depicting... well, Una wasn't quite sure what they were depicting, possibly random squiggles and shapes. Couches and chairs, much like the oddly pink-and-tan blended leather chair she sat in now, were arranged around coffee tables so that persons could sit and chat. It was quite well illuminated, which helped her vision recover faster... even if she couldn't figure out exactly where the light was coming from...
Jesse, that was a sight she could settle her eyes on with comfort, compared to the odd pleasantness elsewhere in the room. She looked no worse for wear, despite the crash; a rough bandage around her forehead, dried blood trickling down from underneath, but her fancy Faerie battle dress had apparently absorbed any other impact. Surly as ever, she refused to be cowed by the walking piles of well tailored manflesh, despite being outweighed by a factor of five.
"Una. Good. I've been trying to get answers out of these mindless thugs about the location of Gilbert, and the others," Jesse explained. "All they say is that I am a guest of some kind of President and he will see us--"
"Shortly, yes, I was told the same," Una finished... daring to get to her feet, despite her dizziness. "Doctor? Did you recover our companions from the wreck? We had three others; a woman with pointed ears, a man with an unusual accent, and, err... a large brass man."
The one in the white coat looked nervously at the agents. "Ah... you should wait for the President, really. I'm just the healer," he said, trying to defer the question. "I haven't treated anyone other than you and your friend here, though. Maybe. I mean, maybe there were others. I haven't seen others. A brass man? A man of brass. A strange sight. I wouldn't have imagined that, would I? I don't think so--"
Una's guard stepped in the way again.
"Enough," he spoke, to slam the door shut on that discussion. "You two. Both awake. President Nyarlathotep. He will see you now. In the Oval Office."
The office was not oval shaped.
The shape itself was difficult to determine. It certainly wasn't a simple prism; no ordinary six sided box. There were corners. The corners had corners. If you tried to trace them, to follow the wall and make your way completely around the room, you might not have returned. You'd be lost in the infinite corridors of a fractal space...
Nevertheless, there were easier to observe features. The door the agent ushered them through. A rug, with the sigil of the United States of America, looking a bit frayed around the edges. More leather furniture. Some bookshelves. A desk.
A man behind a desk.
Una wanted to look away from the man, but once her eyes fell into that crawling chaos, she could not. It was like looking at a squiggly mass of random pencil lines, graphite strokes of harsh and scratchy black, constantly twitching and moving and shuffling like a stop motion animation. They vaguely resembled a man, the figure of a man sitting behind the desk, but at the same time looked like any number of other terrifying things that couldn't be identified properly as to why they were terrifying...
The figure was talking on the phone when they entered. He raised a hand, or at least that was what it seemed to feel like he was doing, as if to say "Just a minute, please!" What his voice in fact said was not words, not even sounds. It bypassed the ears completely, fingernails across your mind, the screaming of children from a thousand miles away...
Una felt herself shriek, even if the otherworldly noise was too loud to hear the sound from her own throat.
Then he hung up the phone. And studied the pair. The lines began to squirm less, to snap taut and go rigid. Soon they weren't lines, but shapes, fleshed out with color and depth. And soon, the man was simply a man.
"...which should be more parallel to your perceptions," he was saying, once he became comprehensible. "There. Is that better? Can you see me, can you hear me properly?"
"Of course I can," Jesse spoke, arms folded in front of her. "I could hear you fine before. Una, what's wrong? You're acting like someone lit you on fire."
"You could comprehend me before? Interesting. Well, neither of you should have any problems now," the man said, taking a moment to smooth out his tie. "Apologies. My secret service agents have a rather poor sense of timing; if I knew you were coming in I would've cleaned myself up a bit first. Hello. My name is President Nyarlathotep of the United State of Anchorage. I have other names, true, but that's the one I go by at the moment. I'm very pleased to meet you, miss...?"
"U... Una," she spoke, blinking repeatedly, as the nightmare vision faded from her memory just as swiftly as it faded from her eyes. Perhaps that was for the best, forgetting what she'd momentarily seen lurking behind that polished oaken desk... "Una point zero one. Representative of the Orbitals and liaison to the Faerie Court..."
Before she could react, the cheerful fellow was on his feet, walking around, grasping her hand in friendship and shaking it gently. He smiled brightly, white teeth in contrast to his dark skin... now seeming every inch an ordinary, likeable human being. Nothing surreal about him at all.
"It's good to finally meet visitors from the outside," he spoke. "We've been trapped under this dome for a considerable length of time. Well. Considerable as you measure time; to us, it's really just been an interesting diversion. Still, I take my duties as the democratically elected president of our little society seriously, as seriously as I will take my role in this new diplomatic relation. So! On behalf of Anchorage, I would like to welcome--"
Jesse cleared her throat. Not because it needed to be cleared, but because she felt like calling attention in the most bitter and sarcastic manner possible.
"As amusing as this meet and greet is, I have one question. Where is Gilbert Gearhaus?" she asked. "And Nelliwyn Myfanwy. And Jeeves, for that matter. Our other companions."
Una nodded in agreement. "I'm sorry, Mr. President, but she's right. We have to find our friends. Are they somewhere else in the building? Did you find them at the crash site?"
"Mmm. Right. Apologies, ladies. More immediate demands must be addressed; no time for pleasantries," Nyarlathotep agreed. "When your vessel crashed, it crashed in the fishing village. According to voting block allocation, that district belongs to the Opposition Party. Specifically, minions of the Opposition Vice Presidential Candidate, Great Cthulhu. My agents hurried as fast as they could, but as I've noted... they aren't quite good at timing. When we arrived, your companions had already been taken away by the Opposition Party."
Jesse's surliness was swapped for outright outrage. "What?! Gilbert was kidnapped?"
"Well, they were undeclared voters. A very rare commodity, as you can imagine," the President noted. "In our society, even a single vote could sway power in favor of one party or another. You say they took three of your companions...? That's not good. It means three votes for them, versus the two of you aligned with my party. I'd hate to see this election fall on a swing vote..."
"Then we will mount a rescue effort immediately!" Jesse declared, hand resting on the hilt of her sword. "Your agents, they seem capable in a fight. I will lead several of them against the enemy, and--"
"Please... miss. This is a civilized society. And one with an incredibly delicate balance of power," President Nyarlathotep explained. "In the beginning, when we were pulled into your world... yes, power was decided by the blade, and by the gun. Hmm. Guns. Such fascinating little toys... ahem. But we have moved beyond that, do you see? We now determine power by the vote, as it was done by your ancestors. Oh, it's no less brutal and insane, but nevertheless the butterfly ballot has replaced the curvy knife as a means of crushing one's enemies. I will not allow a reversion."
"You expect me to sit by and do nothing?" Jesse asked. "I fear I am known to defy such expectations. Violently, if need be--"
Una shook her head. "Jesse, please. This isn't helping."
"His 'civilized society' kidnapped our friends! Your lover as well, for that matter!"
"And no doubt his civilized society will assist us in their safe return," Una supplied. "Mr. President. Clearly, you are a man of reason. You know this city's workings better than we do. We would seek your counsel in this matter: how can we best rescue them?"
Nyarlathotep smiled, his teeth shining against the darkness of the room.
"Plans are already in motion," he explained. "I was on the phone just now with the Opposition Party's office. I'm arranging for the safe release of your friends; all I ask is for patience, young ones. I am indeed a man of reason and logic, and will ensure the safety of all. ...well. Patience, and a simple matter. Trivial, really..."
The President leaned against his desk, assuming a casual pose. Downplaying the importance of his language, be it body or otherwise.
"We'd like to be able to leave Anchorage," he spoke. "You came from the outside world. You must have a means to travel back and forth. If you can unseal our city... my people can be free. As one leader to another, Una point zero one, please consider this request."
"I... will consider it, as I do for any in the cities we've visited," Una spoke, with care. "Our mission is to contact people in your situation, to help them rejoin the world, when appropriate. Your city is... somewhat strange, admittedly, but no stranger than Seattle was."
"So, you'll destroy the dome?" Nyarlathotep asked.
"I will consider it," she repeated. "Even then, it's not my authority to make the final decision--"
"But you have the means to leave. You could take me with you," he suggested. "I would be an ambassador to your people. Gladly."
"And your duties here...?"
"Well, my Vice President is a bit of a useless lump, but she and her followers can handle things in my absence," Nyarlathotep suggested. "And better that I go with you than anyone from Yog-Sothoth's party. They're not as reasonable as I. Yes, yes, that's the way; I'll leave with you. Now, then! How exactly do you come and go...? Is it your flying ship? We have it safely stored. We can help you repair it. Is it some device you carry? Some innate power? Or--"
"--or you will accept that Una is considering your question, and expect no further information until a decision is reached," Jesse 'suggested'. "That would be the reasonable choice. As you are, in your own words, civilized."
For one brief moment... Una could swear Nyarlathotep's outline jittered. Like someone had replaced a single frame of the film reel with an angry scribble of graphite, one split second of rage... before he was back to his usual smile.
"Of course. Highly civilized," he said. "Of a logical structure so flawless, so intricate, so carefully crafted that... well. You'll see. I'll prove my sincerity through words. In fact, there's a fine idea! While my people work with the Opposition Party to secure release of your friends... you simply must attend today's political rally. I'm headed to the old temple district to speak one last time before tonight's televised debates. I'd be honored to have you as my guests. In fact, I insist."
Agents were standing behind the newcomers. One per visitor, although one unit of their inhuman bulk would've been enough to cover two of them at once.
In contrast to Una's yelp of surprise, Jesse didn't move an inch. "And if we refuse?" she asked. "Are we your prisoners, then?"
"Prisoners? Oh, of course not. I'm not like the Opposition Party. If you don't want to come along, well, you can go free," the President promised. "Wander the city, take in the sights. Although... I wouldn't recommend it. I am reasonable. My opponent is not. If Yog-Sothoth's brutes or Cthulhu's wretches get their hands on you, as they have your allies, I doubt they will be as diplomatic as I."
The first thing she heard on waking was the sound of chanting.
The words were twisted, wrong. They dripped from the lips and slithered into the ears, unwanted guests in one's senses, settling into short term memory like sticky lumps of slime. Nelliwyn, wincing at the pain in her head, tried to shut out the sound, covering her hands with her ears... except she couldn't. Her hands wouldn't raise. They were chained down.
"Ia. Ia. Cthulhu Fthagn..."
Beyond the chanting, there was the stone slab. It was definitely a stone slab she was sleeping on; she'd had to sleep on one many a time, when Lady Morgana was being especially unpleasant and vindictive. (And occasionally, in chains, even.) Eventually you got used to it... but years of comfortable Orbital beds had spoiled her. She couldn't lay completely flat on stone anymore. Muscles ached. Pressure points were sore. Sore enough for her to groan aloud at the agony of it...
"Ph'nglui mglw'nfah Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn... oh, bloody hell! She woke up! Hurry, hurry, somebody get the anointing oils! Steve, get the oils!"
"Me? I thought Bob brought the anointing oils."
"Dammit, I told you to get the oils before we left the house! How're we supposed to indoctrinate her into the cult of the dread lord Cthulhu without the oils?! I even specifically wrote on the dry erase board that YOU were on oil duty. Bob was in charge of the dribbly candles--"
"Are you still on about that? I told you, we were out of dribbly candles. I've not had time to go to the shop and get more, either."
"Yes, and the fluorescent table lamp CERTAINLY is an appropriate light source for a dread eldritch ritual. Great work, Bob. I'm sure Lord Cthulhu will eat you first when the stars align."
"I put it at a funny angle! It LOOKS spooky, doesn't it?"
"I'm not debating this right now, alright? I'm not. Someone get the knife. We DID bring the knife at least, yes?"
Okay. That's more than enough of that, Nel thought, on hearing the word 'knife'.
A goddess of rage and vengeance blossomed into view upon the altar, the metal of her chains glowing white-hot as fire exploded outward from the stone slab. Her eyes glowed with absolute malice, dark intent, ready to slay whomever that dread gaze fell upon...
"YOU FOOLS WILL RELEASE ME AT ONCE, OR SUFFER AN ETERNITY OF PAIN!" she cried out, in a voice that suggested to do otherwise would result in, well, whatever it was the person feared most.
The circle of mad cultists in hooded robes, each to a man, let out a girly little scream and ran away as fast as possible. Doors slammed shut behind them, one after another, until nothing was left but panicked echoes.
This left Nel in the middle of a darkened temple, totally alone, with nobody to enjoy her illusory goddess-of-rage gimmick. And still chained up. Which was counterproductive.
"...I think I overdid that," Nel pondered to herself, dropping the glamour.
She glanced around as best she could, despite her limited vantage point, trying to see where the cultists fled to... but someone had knocked over Bob's helpfully provided table lamp, which did not help illuminate the room very much, and in fact made the situation worse than before. Although, when she strained to peer over the edge of the altar, it DID fall upon what looked like a pile of frayed crimson cloth...
"Hey. Hey, you!" Nel called out. "Wake up!"
The hood popped up from the ground.
"Whrrr? What? Is the scary lady gone?" Steve the Cultist of Dread Lord Cthulhu asked... then when he saw that the scary lady in fact was not gone, his already pallid face went more pallid. "Oh. Oh no. Oh no... gotta get outta here, gotta--"
"Look, I'm not going to hurt you, okay?" Nel promised. "I was just trying to avoid being stabbed, is all. It's Steve, right? Unchain me. Please? This is one of the most uncomfortable slabs I've ever been chained to."
Steve peeled himself off the ground, slowly. From the smell of it, he'd used his mad cultist robes as a restroom shortly before passing out.
"You... won't pour liquid fire into my bones and boil my brains into soup if I unchain you, will you?" he asked, while fishing in a sleeve for the key ring. "Or will you do that if I don't unchain you? Oh, man, what do I do!?"
"I won't do a thing, just release me, okay?" Nel promised, as the trembling cultist began undoing the locked cuffs. She sat on the edge of the altar once free, rubbing some life back into her wrists. "...thanks. Okay, uh. The angry goddess now wants to know where exactly she is."
"I-It's the temple of Opposition Party Vice Presidential Candidate Cthulhu What Lies Dreaming In R'lyeh We Think," Steve rattled off, able to get the well practiced phrase out despite his fear. "Err. You're our prisoner. Well, technically, Opposition Party Presidential Candidate Yog-Sothoth's prisoner. He just left you in our care, so we could indoctrinate you and get you to sign your voter registration forms. ...which I think Bob ran away with. I could go get them, if you want. Please? Can I go?"
Nel desperately tried to grasp onto some part of that speech that made the least bit of sense to her, and failed miserably. So, a new question. "Where are my companions?" she asked. "I came to your city with others..."
"Oh, well, we got you and some guy out of the wreck of your ship before the President's goons chased us off," Steve explained. "Yog-Sothoth's assistants took the guy with them, and left you in our care. And good thing we saved you, honestly! The President is a scary guy. I mean, you're scary too, please don't get me wrong! But if we hadn't rescued you, well, you'd be in a terrible situation right now."
"More terrible than being sacrificed to... what did you say his name was? Cat Hooloo?"
"Sacrifice? No, no! We were just going to carve a little voter registration mark on your forehead," Steve said, tugging his hood back enough to show an example of the eldritch symbol / scar tissue in question. "Not kill you. We're not barbarians, you know. We're duly appointed and authorized electoral representatives. Civil servants!"
"Yes, well, you come anywhere near me with anything sharp and it's the fire in bones and boiling brains thing," Nel lied. "Now. You're saying my friends are hostages? I'll have to get together with Gilbert and go rescue them immediately--"
The cultist did a little pre-cowering before his next statement. "Please don't kill me but I'm sorry you can't leave," Steve pointed out. "You're our guest. That means you're here in the temple with us."
"And you're going to let me out or else and so forth, understand?"
"Uh. We're kind of locked in here with you, too," Steve spoke. "Yog-Sothoth doesn't let us out. For our own protection! After all, if we wandered around the city, we could be conscripted into the other party. That'd be a fate worse than death or so we're told!"
Nel raised an eyebrow. "Who's Yog Soho? Didn't you say you followed this 'Cthulhu'?"
"Er. Well. Yes, of course, the king of madness, the star eater, et cetera, Lord Cthulhu the mighty," Steve clarified. "Only... he's sort of... dead. Or asleep. Or both. It's all a bit vague. I've never seen him, I mean. But! He'll rise, oh yes, and then he'll eat everything! Once the stars are right. We'll totally be ready by then."
"You live in a giant black dome that blocks out the stars," Nel pointed out. "How do you know when he's going to come? Maybe you missed it."
The thought honestly hadn't occurred to Steve. Nel could almost hear the sound of everything he knew to be true about his beliefs snapping in half.
Nel pressed one hand to her head, trying to hold back the throbbing. "I think I see why this Yog-Sothoth guy keeps you locked up in here. Same excuse Morgana had with me... you're bloody useless and annoying."
"That's what he says, yeah," Steve admitted. "So. Uh. Sorry about your friends, but not much we can do. ...wanna play Scrabble, meanwhile?"
If one were to play "Yog-Sothoth" on a Scrabble board, discounting the punctuation, one would earn twenty points and likely reach at least a double word score space. Then one would be yelled at for playing a personal pronoun. Then the offended player would be promptly devoured by a multi-tentacled thing from beyond the many-angled corners of reality. Which means, in the end, the word scoring wouldn't matter because the Old Ones always win.
The situation that Gilbert Gearhaus awoke to was nothing as pleasantly wacky as an eldritch board game. Of all those who fell from the stars onto this forsaken city, his case was by far the most dire. And, being Gilbert, he was treating it much as one would an eldritch board game.
"Hmmm," he hmm'd, tugging at his restraints, leathery creaking noises drowned out by the ominous clack-clack of wobbly wheels against cracked tiles. "I appear to be strapped down to some manner of upright gurney and wheeled down a mysterious and darkened corridor of some sort. I can honestly say this isn't something I expected when I woke up today. Therefore, I choose to be pleasantly surprised."
One of the hooded figures pushing the wheeled rack along spared a look at him. Eyes that had gazed through the veil of absolute madness and come around the other side into a state of null sanity regarded him with confusion.
"You are to be interrogated by Yog-Sothoth," the cultist informed him. "The process will likely annihilate your mind. You are... pleasantly surprised by this?"
"Well, I've never had my mind annihilated before," Gilbert explained, deciding to lie back and enjoy the uncomfortable ride. "It sounds like it'll be a very invigorating experience, yes?"
"The opposite, I believe."
"Sir, you underestimate the mind of an Honored Calculator! I would consider such a thing to be a challenge. Yog-Sothoth, you say? As in the Yog-Sothoth from the writings of--"
"The Opener of the Way does not like to hear mention of... his name," the cultist spoke.
The clack-clack simply went clack and then the wheels stopped.
"Oh dear, did I hit a nerve?" Gilbert asked. "I meant no offense, honestly. It just seemed a spectacular coincidence, is all--"
"Yes. A coincidence," the cultist agreed. "The Lurker at the Threshold, the Key and the Gate, the Beyond One is NOT a work of fiction from the deranged mind if some mortal fleshling. Every written interpretation of him is inadequate and incorrect. Yog-Sothoth is. He will always be and has always been and will take great delight in tearing your mind apart."
"Well, I'd hope he'd take delight. I'd be a poor guest if I didn't entertain my host," Gilbert spoke. "My tutors were nothing if not comprehensive in training me on etiquette and manners when a guest in another's house."
Clack-clack resumed, the cultists apparently choosing to accept Gilbert's acceptance of the situation without question. The corridor itself, which was darkened and remained darkened still, somehow felt as if it was getting brighter. Or not-brighter. Or perhaps it took a sharp left turn on the visible spectrum and was now running until its legs were bloody stumps...
"If you don't mind... why exactly does an entirely non-fictional intergalactic force of chaos--"
"Order. The One-in-All is knowledge and order incarnate."
"--force of order want to annihilate my mind?" Gilbert asked. "If it's for sport, I could see that, but usually when you set out to a good old fashioned mental annihilation you've got a higher purpose in mind, yes?"
The cultist withdrew a withered hand from the depths of his billowing sleeve... and pointed upward.
"You are... from there, yes?" he asked.
"What, the ceiling?"
"The blackened sky," the cultist corrected, starting to grow annoyed. "From beyond the blackened sky. The world beyond. Yog-Sothoth is... contained. He pierces the veil at a paradox point, but the access point cannot be moved through the dome. So, he will draw from your mind the knowledge of how to escape this dome. Then, your world will be absorbed."
"Ah. I'm afraid that even as a guest in your house, I have some limits as to how I will entertain your host," Gilbert said. "The problem is twofold. One, I'd rather not unleash an allegedly cosmic horror onto this world. Two, I haven't the foggiest idea how I could unleash an allegedly cosmic horror onto this world. The means by which I came here is more than a bit of a mystery to me; I don't have the tool on me and I've no idea how it works. So, you'll be letting me go, then?"
The clack-clack did not cease.
"You realize my companions will not stand for this, right?" Gilbert said. "Oh, you may very well squish my brains around a bit, probably even kill me, but if you do that you're going to have an extremely irate witch on your hands. As one who has experienced her ire, let me tell you, it'd be a lot more pleasant if you avoided that..."
"Your companions are either neutralized or in the hands of the opposition party. They are non-factors," the cultist said. "As will be the opposition party itself, once Yog-Sothoth has your knowledge. These childish games Nyarlathotep likes to play shall end once the way is paved for the Gate to open--"
"I'm going to have to stop you there, I'm afraid. For your own sake. This is the problem with villains, you see," the young man explained. "The hero makes an honest effort, out of the goodness of his heart, to suggest that their plans are going to fail and they are essentially doomed and everybody can avoid a great deal of heartache if they just call it a day. But no, you're so convinced you will succeed that you go 'Surrender? To the likes of you?' and less than a day later you're in the self-destructing ruins of your evil temple wondering where it all went wrong. I say to you now: HERE is where it all went wrong. You could avoid all that if you just undo these restraints and I go on my merry way. No harm, no foul. What say you, sir?"
For the final time, the clacking of the wheels stopped.
The cultist drew the hood of his robe further forward, bowing once to an unseen thing... before turning back to the sacrificial victim.
"I say," he said, "Yog-Sothoth will never surrender to the likes of you. Goodbye, mortal from beyond the dome."
His pall bearers melted away into the ur-darkness, leaving Gilbert alone, facing whatever it was he was about to face.
Which turned out to be a sphere.
One perfect sphere, glowing and brilliant, pulsing on the perpendicular light spectrum that had gradually been growing in strength during the journey. It spun lightly at a 37' angle, one rotation every minute, judging from the way minute flecks of living shadow crawled along its surface...
The sphere then bisected. Two perfect spheres. Four. Eight. Duplicating and duplicating, yet without losing mass, simply expanding to fill the "room"... closer and closer to Gilbert himself, towards the pile of simple molecules that comprised one rack, one Honored Calculator, and a lot of leather restraints.
Gilbert squinted, trying to avoid taking in the entire sight. To do that would mean widening them so far that his eyelids pulled back into his sockets.
"Sir Yog-Sothoth, I presume?" he asked, tentatively.
"Ah. Gilbert Gearhaus, Honored Calculator for Gearhaus Heavy Industries," he greeted. "Pardon if I don't get up. I take it you're about to consume my mind? Add it to the vast cosmic warehouse of knowledge that comprises your existence, if I recall my mythos properly...?"
"Right. Just making sure. ...sir, if you don't mind? Before we begin, I have a question," Gilbert dared. "I understand there's a peculiar coincidence regarding your existence and the scribblings of a particular author--"
The spheres trembled. A simple concept, but when the spheres had reached the point where four thousand and ninety six of them now filled the room around him, that trembling was nearly enough to dislocate all of his joints.
"--and... and I was wondering... why is that, exactly? I've been running into a lot of literary styled fellows in my travels. Is there a reason? Perhaps some sort of forewarning, implanted to help Earth survive the Pandora Event? Or simply the psychic backlash of the Event itself? Or is it part of something even greater than that, something yet to come?"
"...err. Yes to which question?"
"I see," Gilbert said. "Very well. Thank you for your time, you've been a fine host. So! What is it you'd like to chat about?"
And then his mind began to leak out of his ears.
The normally unflappable fellow began to scream. And scream. And scream. Until his throat grew incapable of screaming.
It's worth noting, however, that as the abyss looked into Gilbert Gearhaus... Gilbert Gearhaus was looking back. And rifling through the card catalog, with curiosity.
By the time they'd reached the Old Temple District, the flock had swelled to the point where it couldn't entirely fit in the main square.
All President Nyarlathotep had to do was leave the White Temple, and immediately passers-by began to follow him. It happened slowly, at first... people headed to and fro on ordinary business about Anchorage simply changed directions, sometimes turning around completely, to form the tail of Nyarlathotep's comet. His superhuman secret service agents kept him and his two visiting guests insulated from the unwashed masses... which was for the best, since while most of them wore ragged imitations of 20th century fashions, others simply wore rags. And all of them smelled vaguely of fish.
The buildings resembled the people; it was clear they were meant to be a modern urban landscape, not unlike the flawless representation the mimics of Seattle had crafted, but Anchorage hadn't been quite as detail oriented. Some of the doors were actually pictures of doors, carved into the weird concrete-like rock substance that was their primary building material. Odds were that many of the buildings were just there for show, and had no functional purpose or interior... simply testaments of man's former glory, kept around in a vaguely recognizable shape to placate his need for a city sprawl.
As they walked, the buildings went from honest to false to twisted to weird. Deeper into the city, towards what Nyarlathotep described as the oldest and most modified section... the Old Temple District. The place where the gods were once worshipped as, well, gods. Before Nyarlathotep's democratic reforms changed the entire structure of Anchorage, civilizing it.
The only modern convenience here, amidst towering stone pillars and carvings that were probably crawling along their temple surfaces when you weren't looking, was a stage set up for his big political rally. Red, white and blue banners had been hung, with catchy slogans. A podium had an electrical mike and speaker. A television camera, despite being badly dinged and repaired decade after decade with makeshift bits, was armed and ready to broadcast his speech to the city.
Una and Jesse were given front row seats, as much as there were seats given the standing-room-only affair. The gathered masses shuffled about in near silence behind them... waiting in anticipation for the President's words of wisdom. Waiting with baited breath. Literally.
The witch glanced upwards at the towering secret service agent... then back to her companion. And tried to keep her voice low enough not to be heard by the ears lurking several feet over her head.
"I don't like this situation," Jesse mumbled. "Allying with this Nyarlathotep character... or simply waiting for him to deliver our friends."
"I'm not happy with it, either," Una replied. "I want to believe he is on our side, but... all of this feels wrong. I can't place my digits upon the specific reason for this sensation--"
"Your finger must be extremely tiny, then."
"--but we have little choice. Still. If you see an opportunity to slip away, to find the others... take it. Leave me behind. I'll stay with him to ensure we keep a representative in his group."
"Leave you here, with his peanut gallery? Are you mad?"
"I am the leader of this expedition, and those are my orders," Una stated. "I would rather Nelliwyn be safe than myself be safe... and no doubt you feel similarly for Gilbert."
"What? What I feel is none of your--"
"Shhh. Speech starting," Una said, nodding towards the stage...
...as the God of Anchorage stepped boldly up to his political platform.
NOW the huddled masses let slip their terrible cry of solidarity. They had remained quiet, dull, almost motionless... but gazing upon Nyarlathotep set them off. They clapped, they cheered, they chanted IA, IA, IA... a wave of human idolatry, pouring in waves that soared over Una's head, crashing upon the stage.
For his part, President Nyarlathotep soaked it up. He offered double V hand gestures, confident in his upcoming victory over the Opposition Party. He shook hands with various important persons who were on stage with him, no doubt leaders and champions of industry. Although the only industries here seemed to be fishing and selling fish and eating fish, from the smell of it.
The dark man stepped up to the podium, tapped the mike a few times to ensure it was on, and then Spoke.
"I was born a humble boy, on the shores of the Nile River," he began. "A simple lad from a simpler time, who went on to rule over Egypt. But despite my origins... today, I proudly call myself an American, amidst my fellow Americans. We are all Americans, because this city is part of the great United States of America. A land of freedom and opportunity, one which was lost to us ages ago... but I believe may one day return to us. I've spoken before of the golden path to the future, of opportunity on the horizon. The line that stretches to infinity, crooked and straight simultaneously.
"We pride ourselves not only on our democracy, but our non-complex administration and forward thinking issue management considerations. The Opposition considers us revolutionary, radical, too liberal! Yog-Sothoth favors the robe and the sacrificial knife, while I favor the tie and briefcase. I favor progressive thinking! Tell me, what does the term 'revolutionary' really mean? The public service is entirely back-end. If all of this seems impressive to you, that's because it is! Our approach takes the best aspects of what was and what has yet to be comprehended within the confinement of higher order synapses.
"The angles along that road are ones of hope and fidelity and resolution which will twist around us to comfort the hand of the great darkness within which lies outside time and space. The metrics for reporting are more well-understood if they are not real-time, ubiquitous. The third eye rotates counterclockwise; that's because eternity lies within us and screams for escape. Seventeen thousand hands hold the gate but only one turns the key. Engines running the second child of madness stained blood red. Beasts shudder out the orange dark with socket screaming the thousand-fold lightning fingers.
"Second, it's important to exonerate the filth beyond tertiary ideas engorged upon the flesh of terrified infants cast into the void between what is and what never is not what should be inside us. The hunter abdicates control sparingly; song saves departure friending in coze rel fag'thn ea dieru nar case hori edievik sah lotie ecetic. Arugene nenobak seriho tocas lot iehorid xih tuveleb samili tonie! Dev ocedamir cuco moreme ta berad olafenax rene lel lige. Lelon boper luf, tinemi obatiye ti rel lorom.
"In summary, I say this to you: a vote for me simply makes SENSE," the President spoke, his scribbled form twitching madly behind the podium. "Voting for the future begins today! Together, we will overcome! What say you!?"
"IA! IA! NYARLATHOTEP!" the audience chanted, on demand.
The Black Pharaoh, the Crawling Chaos, avatar of the Witch-Cult gazed upon his howling conscripts, smiling in satisfaction. Flashbulbs went off, soaring patriotic anthems played, screaming babies were kissed, and then it was all over but the weeping and chewing at the fingertips.
All of this was highly amusing, but once the crowd began to disperse to crawl away to their hiding holes, his attention swerved back to the latest additions to his flock. The ones currently being held by secret service agents, hands firmly on shoulders, to keep them from getting away before the effect of his speech could sink in.
"So, tell me, visitors from beyond..." President Nyarlathotep spoke, steepling his fingers in front of himself. "Can I count on your vote?"
Una's mouth worked itself up and down several times, as if it was trying to remember how to make sounds. Eventually, she figured out language again.
"Yeeaaa.. yee. Yesss. Ia. Ia," Una burbled. "Nyarlathotep. Change is coming. I will vote for you. You have my vote..."
"And you will help me leave the dome, yes? Because I am a sensible man, because I am reasonable. I make absolute sense to you, now. Such a stern logic that room for further thought cannot exist within your pathetic little fleshbrains--"
"You're not half as charismatic as you think you are."
For the second time that day, Nyarlathotep lost coherency, becoming little more than an angry jumble of an image. He caught himself in time to snap back into focus... taking a moment to smooth out his tie, before turning to the dissenting voice.
"...again, you've managed to resist my charms, haven't you?" Nyarlathotep asked... facing the struggling witch, who was unable to break free from the meaty hands holding her in place. "Fascinating. You seem to have defenses against others dropping constructs into your mind... yes. I see it, now. A thaumatic block against certain types of illusionary inputs, against storing pre-structured memories. Fae magic. We're not quite perfect at trumping that sort of thing..."
"Or perhaps you're just a fool who relies on parlor tricks because otherwise, nobody would give a damn," Jesse Runeblade suggested. "Either way, you've proven yourself the scoundrel I suspected you were. I suggest you release us immediately. Unlike my companion, I am not diplomatic when I am wronged."
"Really? Say I refuse. What is it you intend to do against me, then?" Nyarlathotep asked, his eternal smiling perfectly masking boiling rage.
"I'll destroy you," Jesse declared. "Completely. Underestimate me... underestimate me and my friends at your peril, Mister President. Release us, or the wrath of the Faerie Court falls upon you."
"You really believe that, don't you?" he asked. "Such unshakable self-confidence! Such a proud declaration. But... no. I think I'll simply dispose of you."
The President snapped his fingers, and a scribble of shadow wrapped itself around Jesse -- the image resolving into a set of iron chains, looped around her several times, ending in a complicated looking lock mechanism. With her arms pinned to her sides, there was no way to draw her sword, to fight back...
"Feed her to the vice president, please," Nyarlathotep ordered his black-suited minions... as he pulled Una away from them. "As for this one... it's time to strengthen my diplomatic relations. To learn how she entered the dome. My future is looking bright, indeed. Change is coming to America. A wind of change called Nyarlathotep."
To gaze upon Shub-Niggurath is to gaze upon the worst thing you can imagine.
She is technically a she, which is obvious at first glance, although you'd regret that first glance. Normal women don't have entirely that many vaginas, for starters, nor are said orifices prehensile and lined with row after row of little teeth, like the maw of a great white shark.
Tentacles abound, of course, and are almost compulsory when dealing with burbling piles of biological atrocity... but 'tentacles' is too minor, too cute a term to describe her many appendages. They ooze forth, ropy strands of skin and muscle and sinew, twisting back onto themselves and becoming conjoined limbs periodically, forming a living web of flesh. That web extended out to the walls of the vast chamber, coating it, making the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young as much a part of the room as it was a part of her.
Around this unholy terror, a circle of cultists -- wearing business suits and ties, much as the President did, or at least rough approximations of them -- were busy chanting and praying and begging. The circle was not closed; there was an opening, through which a rough line of Shub-Niggurath's children had been formed.
The children themselves were arguably human. Again, humans usually didn't have the specific count of body features these did, but much like the secret service agents, they were hybrids of monster and man... bipedal, possessing of a head and arms. Oddly, each also wore a ragged white garment, wrapped around like a diaper. Its purpose was clear, given how many of them were stained yellow and/or brown.
"Isn't it beautiful?" the woman asked.
"I can't think of a proper response to that," Jesse admitted.
"You're quite honored to be here, you know," the self-declared 'Babysitter' said. "Soon, you will join the flesh of the Vice President, and become one with Shub-Niggurath! Normally she only feasts on her own children. It's part of the President's green environmental policy, you see."
"I see. ...at the risk of regretting the question... what?" Jesse asked.
"Oh, well, Shub-Niggurath requires feeding in order to birth her children," the Babysitter explained. "Powerful entities, fed to the All-Mother, so that she may grow stronger. Of course, if she consumed all us humans, there'd be nobody left to fill the polling booths! So, instead, she births children. They're weak and mewling little things at first, but in time, they grow big and strong under our tender loving care. Once they're strong enough... they're re-absorbed. Reduce, reuse, recycle!"
"How conservatively minded of you. So. I'm to be eaten, is that it?"
"Well... 'eating' isn't exactly the right word-- ah, the priest is preparing the next offspring for absorption!" the woman said, gesturing to the ceremony, already in progress. "Excellent timing! This should explain it better than mere words can..."
The next 'child' in line was pushed forward; it wobbled on meaty stumps of legs, taking a few awkward toddling steps, until it stood before the seething mass of Anchorage's Vice President. The head priest, a fellow in a smart red power tie, opened the Holy Book of Constitutional Bylaws, right to a bookmarked page.
"Eyeless mother, hear my cry!" the priest called out, in a voice booming with equal parts pride and terror. "The time to absorb this one's power is nigh! IA! IA!"
The Babysitter was correct. What followed could not be considered "eating" in any traditional sense of the word. "Unbirthing" would be more appropriate.
Jesse did her best not to look away from the spectacle, even as the wailing thing was pulled in, even as Shub-Niggurath's fleshy orifice rippled around it and blood and mangled chunks sprayed across the room. Looking away would mean giving in to the obvious attempts by these people to terrify her. A witch is not cowed so easily. Even when her knees go weak and her stomach threatens upheaval.
"Next, please?" the priest asked, after wiping the gore away from the cover of his book.
The Babysitter clapped politely, as if enjoying a fine tennis match. "Bravo! Another fine absorption. May the Vice President grow more powerful! You see, she is without the senses you and I enjoy; the ritual signals her to consume the powerful flesh before her. We rely on her for so much, and she relies on us. It's a circle of life!"
"And... and this is what you intend to do with me, yes?" Jesse spoke, finally wrenching her eyes away from the atrocity before her.
"Of course! Isn't that wonderful?"
"Actually, it is," Jesse agreed... allowing a wry smile. "I've been looking forward to this greatly."
"You're... looking forward to being consumed?" the Babysitter asked. "But you're chained up. Presumably because you don't wish to submit to becoming the un-child of the All-Mother..."
"Oh, I've no intention of being... whatever verb is applicable in that situation. No, what I've been looking forward to, ever since my commander ordered me to seize any chance to slip away, is this moment," Jesse explained. "What we have here is a golden opportunity to enjoy myself. I've had no chance to truly put my talents to use yet during this expedition..."
The witch took one deep breath in, one deep breath out. Ready.
"Let me show you what I am capable of," she spoke. "."
Iron chains fell to the ground with a clatter.
The burning blade struck true.
Fireblade is a fascinating spell. It twists the nature of a sword, transforming it from a lethal metal edge to a nonlethal magical edge. Of course, victims of the spell sometimes wish they had been cleaved in twain once that ritual energy pours into their body, filling their spinal column with crippling agony. Which was precisely what the Babysitter was experiencing, now.
The gods that walked on the grounds of Anchorage were powerful indeed, and terrifying. But they were alien, far too alien to parse Fae magic, or they'd have broken free by now. They didn't know exactly what they were dealing with in the anachronauts. If they had, Nyarlathotep might have ordered Jesse's spell-storing monocle confiscated, or at the very least that her sword be taken away. A witch is rarely hindered by something as simple as a bit of chain, after all. Especially not a combat mage trained by Archmagus Lilith herself.
Day after day, Jesse had no outlet for her urges beyond Gilbert's mechanical fencing trainer. No way to express herself creatively in the art of war. Now, she was all alone against a number of freakish beast-children, the elder priesthood, and Shub-Niggurath herself. Just one little witch and her sword and her skill, against all that.
Her smile could be accurately described as mad. Mad in a most lovely way, a cheerful madness that promised so much to the one who was unlucky enough to witness it.
The witch sprung into battle.
A whirling blue blade of fire cut a swath through the line of Shub-Niggurath's children. Unlike the Babysitter, the arcane torture did not disable them -- the monsters instead flew into a state of crazed panic, thick arms flailing wildly, charging around the room like a toddler on fifty pounds of raw cane sugar. If anything, the hybrids did more damage to the priesthood than Jesse did, sometimes knocking priests fifty feet away and slamming them into the walls, while the Lady of War did her dervish impersonation in and around the chaos.
The lead priest, after a moment of shock at this sudden loss of situational control, acted swiftly on seeing the witch bearing down on him. He opened his book, trying to start the rite that would goad the Vice President into eating the charging girl. "E-Eyeless mother, hear my crrUFFF--"
One swift kick to the midsection sent him flying back, landing in the pile of flesh that was Shub-Niggurath. Jesse tried not to pay attention to what happened to him after.
When she turned away, her eyes instead met the fist of a service service agent.
Thankfully she wasn't sent flying towards the fate of the head priest; his swing was wide, a circular arc that sent her skittering across the stone floor. Stars filled her eyes, the kind that didn't align to spell doom. Her sword... where did it go? Had she let go of it when struck down? What an amateur hour mistake...
The two secret service agents were trained warriors, ones which were not as easily shaken as the Vice President's staff were. One pulled the dazed Jesse from the floor, holding her as easily as a limp doll... grasping her neck in one hand, and her ankles in the other. Raising the witch high, ready to bring her down hard upon his knee, to break the girl in half...
The agent lifting Jesse by the neck found himself lifted by the neck as well. His grip weakened, letting the witch drop... as the brass fingers that were locked around his flesh cinched in tight.
A glowing eye flared alight behind him.
"Ruffian," the J-33 Valet and Equerry System accused, before using one agent to repeatedly bludgeon the other. After half a minute of horrific crunching noises, both of the President's men formed one impressively large and broken pile of well tailored muscle.
The hand that crushed his gentleman's enemies was then extended softly, to offer his gentleman's lady assistance.
"I don't care WHAT your dictionary says, 'fhtagn' is not a word," Nel declared. "You can't play that."
"Oh, come on! You wouldn't let me play 'ithaqua' either. I mean, what are you expecting me to do here? I've got crappy tiles," Steve the Cultist of Dread Cthulhu protested. "Hmph. ...once the stars align and Cthulhu eats the world, I bet HE'D let me play fhtagn..."
"Yes, well, Cthulhu's not here right now and I say no fhtagn. Try again."
Steve grumbled, glancing over his rack of little wooden tiles. He shuffled them about, trying to think of something good... before laying down his next word, neatly covering a triple letter score.
"Hah! There. Forty two points! Beat that," he declared, sitting back, arms crossed in victory.
Nel squinted, trying to make out the third letter. "Uh. Wait... what IS that thing?"
"Eh? It's , the fifty ninth letter of the alphabet."
"It's... it's MOVING..."
"Well, duh. I mean, it is in the upper case gylphic strata. Didn't you learn this sort of thing in school? The--"
The sealed temple of Cthulhu became unsealed in an explosion of shattered stone and brick.
A hulking monster made of metal stampeded into the room, with a crazed harpy perched on his shoulder. The malevolent woman leapt forth, holding a sword made of unholy fire to the neck of Steve.
"Let her go, minion, or I swear to goddesses more powerful than yours that I will kill every man, woman and child in this room," Jesse declared.
Steve let out a little whimper and slipped out of his loose cultist robes easily, going completely limp. This left Jesse holding a handful of rags rather than a handful of cultist.
"Sorry, he tends to do that," Nel apologized, getting to her feet. "So, how are things? Is Una with you?"
"...no. She fell to the thrall of the president," Jesse spoke, extinguishing her sword spell as she regarded the unconscious form of Steve. "Apparently the same charm that prevents me from memorizing spells prevented him from ensorcelling me. Now. Where is Gilbert?"
"He's with Yog-Sothoth, although where that is, I wouldn't know. I've been stuck in here playing board games with Steve."
Nel pointed to the poor bastard on the floor.
"Ah," Jesse said. "Well, we'll just have to wake him up and interrogate him--"
"I think you'd better let me do that, unless you want him to pass out again," Nel suggested. "He needs a light touch."
"Make it fast, regardless. We need to rescue Gilbert and Una and take our leave of this hateful place," Jesse said. "And I don't think that's going to be an easy task. We are fighting gods. I honestly can't think of a way the situation could get worse."
Before the evening was through, the world would be either saved or destroyed, and none involved were any the wiser.
It could have been pure coincidence, that the fate of the future was to be decided that night. That powers malign and angelic would be aligning upon a single point in time and space, that so many who craved power would be drawn to this final confrontation. They had little relation to each other to begin with, the four sides of the fight; each had their own goals and own interests.
The alleged reason for the gathering was a routine exercise, a simple televised debate between all four candidates. Like the rest of the elections, debates existed only to provide Anchorage with the maddening factor of choice; it's easy to say that you're an insane cultist performing atrocity on a daily basis when you feel you have no say in the process. By democratizing it, even at a faux level, Nyarlathotep had made humanity willingly complicit in everything they did. Which accelerated its madness and deepened its horror. Which was fine with him. Which was fine with the other candidates as well, even if they traditionally didn't enjoy it as much as he did.
Perhaps because the night felt so routine, he wasn't paying attention to things he should have been paying attention to. Yes, there was the issue of the outsiders, but their leader was swayed to his side, the troublemaker was probably in the uterus of his otherwise useless female-vote-swaying EGILF Vice President. The other two visitors were unimportant. What did he have to worry about? This was a speech night. Nyarlathotep SO enjoyed a good speech night.
So, while he was adjusting his power tie and assembling his index cards behind a podium, he was unaware of the five members of the studio audience who were not what they seemed to be.
Initially, Nel was assuming it'd be difficult to 'hide' Jeeves behind a glamour. He was big and bulky, and if she made him appear smaller and thinner, it'd be spotted in an instant when he moved through crowds with an unusual amount of personal space. However, given many of the cultists had devolved into weird fish monster hybrids over the decades, a bulky figure in cultist robes fit in quite nicely.
Nel and Jesse were able to lose themselves more easily in the crowd, being smaller. Jesse insisted on keeping her sword at her side, despite the possibility of it banging into someone's shins, revealing that her 'robes' were likewise an illusion.
"Una and Gilbert will be in the crowd at the debates, according to Steve. But if we have to fight our way out of that place, we're not going to get out alive," Nel had reasoned. "There's just too many of them. We have to sneak our friends out if we're going to survive. So why keep the sword?"
"Because," Jesse had explained in painstaking logical detail which could not be denied.
Fortunately, rather than charging in swinging, the three would-be rescuers were staying in the back of the crowd. They melded with the huddled mass of men and women and other various things, perfectly... scanning the crowd for their quarry. While trying to ignore what was going on in front of the hot stage lights and cameras.
"Question one is for Yog-Sothoth," the moderator, a man who had seen through the veil of terror and come out the other side with his mind stripped away in bloody shreds only to have it reassembled enough to allow him to ask about the hard hitting political issues of the day. "The standing party's position on the environment is that all slurry from living sacrifices is to be recycled for later ritual purposes, rather than funneled into the bay wastefully. Your stance is that the universe is doomed regardless and such matters are futile to consider. Given the amount of pollution in Anchorage Bay rose 7% since the last fiscal year, has your position changed?"
The refracted focal point of the Yog-Sothoth paradox pulsed with the color out of space.
His interpreter, a man who had seen through the veil of terror and come out the other side dead only to be reanimated for purpose of being an avatar of an everliving Elder God, cleared his throat before continuing. "Yog-Sothoth's position remains eternal. He takes the long view, and on a long enough timeline, all mortals perish and all cities crumble. Environmental issues are meaningless."
"I see. Vice President Shub-Niggurath, your thoughts on the issue?"
The gibbering pile of vaginas, freshly peeled off the walls of her chamber, made some sort of gelatinous burbling noise and then coughed up someone's torso.
"We need to find them and leave. Soon," Nel urged.
"Right. Jeeves, keep an eye on the exits, we may need you to clear us a fast path out of here," Jesse instructed, hand on her sword hilt. "Yog-Sothoth's group is primarily to the left, Nyarlathotep to the right. I'll go find Gilbert; you find Una. Regroup back here with both of them in tow then we leave to go find the Mermaid."
Under glamour, the two slipped away through the crowd... unobtrusively moving between disorderly rows of cultists, seeking their respective companions.
"The next question is for President Nyarlathotep. You're on record as saying that 'the sum of all contradictions regarding the issues the American family faces is a null point on a sliding scale from zero to absolute zero.' Could you clarify that? --please remember we have a four minute limit on responses, sir..."
"Oh, I think I can explain in less time than that," the president spoke, a bright white smile against his empty skin of night. "They key is to understand that America practically invented synergy. When it comes to the dealing with the issues that matter to you, me, and your neighbors, we will step up our power to streamline without decreasing our ability to deploy. Think fractal. Think six-sigma. Think magnetic. Think cutting-edge. But don't think all four at the same time, or you could go a little crazy."
The crowd laughed nervously at their commander in chief's little joke. One screamed and clawed at his eyeballs, but everyone ignored him.
"I see. Vice Presidential Candidate Cthulhu, do you have a response to that?"
"...uh... hang on, I've... wait..." the hapless representative of Cthulhu mumbled, while fumbling a pile of index cards. "I think we talked about that in the briefing, um... 'Yes, we can'?"
A few rows deeper into the crowd, away from the podium designated for Cthulhu... Jesse nearly bumped into Gilbert without recognizing him.
He wasn't wearing cultist robes. He was in fact wearing the same shirt-and-suspenders-and-trousers gear he usually wore... but it was frayed. Tattered. He'd torn it up himself, from the looks of it, his chest smeared with blood, blood caked under his fingernails, blood on his cheeks... from his EYES...
"Oh, hello..." Gilbert burbled, rolling his head back and to the left, looking at Jesse sideways. "Say, it's you, isn't it? I can see through that disguise. It's magic. It's all numbers. It's all magic and numbers, isn't it, everything..."
Tactically speaking, casting a spell in the middle of the crowd wasn't advisable. This didn't stop Jesse from instinctively muttering a quick Mending, passing it over Gilbert's face, to close up his wounds -- and feel the heat radiating from his forehead as she did so. A fever. Another math-induced fever...
"What did that... that bastard Yog do to you?" Jesse asked, grasping her sword hilt tighter with her free hand.
"He showed me... such wonderful, wonderful things. Answers. Questions. Problems. Solutions," Gilbert spoke. "Thought I was his plaything, hah. They always underestimate the clever ones. Never see the bigger equation, the framework around the variables. I'm working on an equation right now, in fact. Oh, I'm afraid you can't stop it, no matter how much you kiss me, as much as I'd love you to try, yes, I think I would, maybe, must compute, must keep going. Even if it kills me. I'm too deep, too deep, far too deep. It's too important. The work has to continue..."
Jesse grabbed his hand, before he could continue to scratch up his chest.
"We are leaving," she declared. "I'll heal you the rest of the way later. Now MOVE, Gilbert Gearhaus..."
"The next question is regarding the recent ambassadors from the outside world," the moderator continued, unaware of those ambassadors being in the middle of a rescue effort. "It's common knowledge in our community that visitors from beyond the dome arrived this morning, and that they have talked with representatives from both parties. President Nyarlathotep, how do you see this affecting the election?"
"Ah, I'm glad you asked that!" the President said, his good cheer piling on top of his preexisting good cheer. "I have secured the votes of two of the outsiders, and with their support... I'm looking forward to a future where Anchorage rejoins America. Rejoins the world. Imagine it... one nation, one planet, under our rule. We'll be spreading democracy to the backwards regions of Earth, bringing freedom and liberty to all. I say: Let's roll."
"I see. Presidential Candidate Yog-Sothoth, your comments?"
"Yog-Sothoth will use the outsiders knowledge to aid in consuming all information from this world before crushing it like a dry husk," the Key and the Gate's representative spoke. "He also has two votes secured, and will attain the technology to destroy the dome in short order. Starting tonight, a citywide manhunt will be on for a 'brass man' that we are told from reliable resources holds the key to our future. And the world's doom. Which are essentially the same thing..."
Nel bit her lip hard, overhearing that. If they knew Jeeves was holding the key in safe keeping, in his chest... well, that would be the end. Jeeves was still near the back of the room, and now, undefended. But judging from how nobody had bumrushed him yet, clearly his glamour disguise as an exceptionally bulky man in cloth robes was holding up. Good to knew that her magic held strong enough to fool otherworldly gods...
Finding Una didn't require much work. She was the only one wearing silvery Orbital clothing, of course. Dangerously close to Nyarlathotep's podium, true, as she was his guest of honor... but far away enough that Nel easily could mask her whispering with spellwork. It would be tricky to maintain all three disguises at distance while throwing up additional stealth... but she hadn't spent so much of the last two years honing her only unique skill to let it fail her now.
After dropping a small cone of silence over the two of them, Nel shook the dazed looking Una, trying to get her attention.
"Una! Una, it's me! It's Nel," she said, trying to catch the young woman's eyes, to be noticed by that distant and vacant smiling face. "Oh no... what did that horrible man do you...?"
"He's got my vote," Una spoke, through her tight smile. "He makes complete sense to me. Everything he says makes complete sense. I'm going to let him leave the dome. Emily will be so happy with me. Everybody in the world needs to hear the words of Nyarlathotep..."
"You can't mean that! Una, you've got to fight this, you... no. No time to fight it... at least, not yourself. ...stay strong, Una. I think I know what to do..."
Glamour is about perception, true. But the truly excellent glamours, those move beyond the eye of the beholder, and into the mind of the beholder. Nel could easily shatter some gimmicky glamour, such as the one Brell used to keep himself looking pretty for his fans, but breaking down the kind of veil that had sunk past Una's eyes and deep into her mind would be another story...
She could feel it, deep in there. It was a structure, all funny angles and rerouted pathways. It bypassed critical thinking, letting Nyarlathotep's gibberish be accepted in full as totally convincing. But despite being alien in origin, despite being placed in Una's mind by a god... it was still a glamour.
It was still deep in Nel's territory. This was her fight.
The elf strengthened her cone of silence.
"Una? This is going to hurt. I'm sorry," she apologized in advance... and then began to pull.
The scream was brief. That didn't make Nel wince any less, knowing she was causing the love of her life pain, even knowing it had to be done. No matter how short, every second of it tugged at her heart...
...but in the end, Una's mind was clear. And nobody around her had even noticed the struggle.
Blink after blink, more of Una's perceptions came back online, pure and untainted. "N... Nel?" she asked, trying to focus on the hazy figure before her. "What's going... where..."
"No time," Nel insisted, grasping her hand. "Come on. We're getting out of here."
With their respective charges, both group made their way back to the rear of the television studio. Towards the hulking figure, their guardian, standing at the ready to aid in the escape. All around them, the gears of democracy turned, blissfully unaware... meaning a clean getaway may very well have been possible.
But there were four sides represented that night. Five individuals in disguise.
Jesse was the first to realize how everything was going to go horribly wrong. She was still twenty feet away from Jeeves, when she saw the tiniest glint of light, bounding off a jeweled ring... a sunstone, an honored gift only given to those who are lifelong loyalists to Lady Summer. Specifically, to the Archmagus of each generation.
Even with a thick glamour in place, former Archmagus Lilith couldn't resist leaving her precious jewelry undisguised. And that hand was now raised behind the automatic butler, who stared forward, unaware of what was to happen.
Lilith had waited, lurking the shadows with her reluctant companion. Waited and watched the events of the day. Waited until the robot was unguarded, until its companions had slipped off into the crowd. And now, at that perfect moment... she struck.
Jesse had her sword out now, rushing to try and intercept. She made it to within three feet of Jeeves before the spell was cast.
The iris behind Jeeve's glowing monocle expanded wide, just before his torso exploded in a massive wave of steam. Members of the audience standing in the blast radius were knocked aside like rag dolls, screaming from the scalding hot steam that enveloped them.
Even Jesse was caught in the luminescent blast of aetheric steam -- the metal of her sword soaking up a good portion of it, heating up painfully, making it impossible for her to hold the weapon. The blade clattered to the ground, useless...
...as Lilith reached forward, grasping the Key of Iron, which hovered in the middle of the steam cloud.
They tried to fight. They struggled to stay on their feet, to approach, to interfere, to do something. But the anachronauts were in no position to fight, no ability to affect the events unfolding before them. No sword. No spell monocle; it had fallen from her eye and been lost during the chaos. All Una's precious hypertechnology was spent up and destroyed in the effort to escape Seattle. Maybe Nel could've hidden the key, but not now, not with Lilith's hand already upon it.
They were too late to stop it.
"Yours, I believe," Lilith spoke, holding the key over for Benny the Broker to take. "Complete my bargain."
After one single moment of genuine hesitation... the man accepted the key. And exactly what he'd always feared would happen, happened.
This was his geas, the one he'd worked so very hard to ignore, after being dispatched by his master in Los Angeles. Find the Key of Iron. And upon having it in your possession, he will be free, and he will come, and he will turn man against man until the entire world murders itself. All it took was one touch of the Key's metal in Benny's hand to inevitably doom the world...
The Key of Iron flared briefly with infernal fire, and then, The Mister stood somewhere other than the ruins of Los Angeles for the first time in two hundred years.
All the players for the evening's apocalypse had arrived.
Television cameras swung around. They knew a ratings bonanza when they saw it. All eyes were on the fray at the back of the hall... even those of the Democratic Elder Things. Who showed little sign of distress, merely curiosity. Nyarlathotep in particular leaned across his podium, propping up his chin in his hands, eager to see what became of this new development...
For a lack of better option... Jesse let out a war cry, and bumrushed Lilith. No blade, no spells, just pure hate for the one who simultaneously supported her as a mentor and cut down her every effort. This had about as much effect as expected, i.e. none at all, impacting against Lilith's palm, outstretched for a Reversal spell. Her own momentum used against her, Jesse flew backwards, knocking over the intact 60% of Jeeves in the process. Her companions raced up to meet her... all four of them now together, albeit facing the most powerful sorceress in the world.
"The Mister. You have your Key. I've been complicit in murder. Now, fulfill your promise," Lilith requested.
"Oh, quite gratefully," the little imp of a man in the nicely tailored red suit promised, rubbing his hands together. "I can't wait to see how well you kill everyone here... consider our bargain complete. And rise."
Within one second, instead of facing the most powerful sorceress in the world, they were now facing a goddess.
The motif was very familiar... less a woman, and more a shape of a woman, all made of burnt and dying leaves. Red and gold and brown as they swirled, bringing with them a cold and bitter wind, one which suggested the darkening of the sky and the coming embrace of a dead night... a time to cut down your crops, to harvest, to hole up and await the doom yet to come. Atop Lilith's head... a crown of thistles and barbs, wooden branches twisted painfully into a circle, rotated slowly.
...I am neither Summer nor Winter. I exist between them. I control them both. I am the Fall.
The Fall of the the whelp's pale imitation of the Faerie Court. The Fall of all who oppose me. Kneel, or be destroyed.
The latter threat was delivered directly to her enemies... the shattered robot, the disarmed witch, the unequipped space girl, the former slave elf, and the gibbering mathematician.
To their credit, they did not kneel. But they certainly were lacking better options, each trying to think of some clever riposte that would turn this situation around. And each completely failing to do so.
But there were four sides represented that night.
"Excuse me, Miss... Fall, is it?"
The drying leaves that formed her ear perked at the sound... the nature goddess revolving slowly, to face the one who addressed her. The smiling man, now a completely solid outline in black, his power tie as powerful as always.
"I'm sorry, but we ARE trying to have a debate here," President Nyarlathotep spoke, gesturing to the podiums at the forefront of the studio. "We, meaning the duly represented and legal candidates of this election. You are standing in America, my good lady. A democracy. Nobody here is going to kneel to you. At least, not unless you get them to vote for you first..."
As her previous enemies were clearly helpless and no longer much threat, Lilith of the Fall turned her back to them... floating towards the stage, to face her new enemies.
You are the ones Lady Winter sealed within this dome, correct? I now wonder why she feared you. Democracy? Elections? You are gods. You need no justifications. But know this -- I will never again bend knee to god or goddess, not when I AM--
"Yes, yes, you're very strong, and so on. Save your talking points for the debate," Nyarlathotep suggested -- his suited secret service agents already bringing in a fifth podium, without his prompting. "Join us. A third party candidate...? Stranger things have happened. Maybe you can even qualify for matching campaign funds. So! Shall we begin?"
How... how DARE you interrupt me?! And with such a ridiculous suggestion!
"You interrupted us in the first place, ma'am. I was returning the favor. Will you debate me, as gods do?" Nyarlathotep asked. "Or... no. You like to talk, yes. But you're a new godling. You want to stretch your legs. Practice your smiting. I suppose if you wish it... we could crush you, right here, right now, Miss Fall. You're new at this whole unimaginable power thing. We aren't. We're older than time and existed before particle based cosmic matter."
And yet my predecessor's dome easily trapped you. I spawn from her blood, Elder Thing. Challenge me, and let us see who is stronger. Of course, a battle between gods would likely result in the deaths of all your worshippers...
"That would put a cramp in the election year... but we can probably scrape up what's left and grow some new ones in under four years," the President said... extending his arms, and cracking his knuckles in a very human gesture. Except for the way his fingers blended and blurred and scribbled and twisted into something other than fingers. "Shall we, then?"
Reality started to bleed.
Jesse shielded her eyes from the... whatever it was that they had absolutely no desire to look at, turning back to her companions. It was hard to be heard over the screaming of the studio audience, some of which had been caught too close to the stage when the fireworks began. The battle was between three figures... the scrawling rage of the Crawling Chaos, the Black Pharaoh. The seasonal decay of Fall. And the infinite knowledge of Yog-Sothoth.
(Shub-Niggurath, lacking conventional senses within 4-D space, simply sat there like a useless lump, waiting to be asked questions and/or fed. And for his part, Cthulhu did not in fact rise from the waves to eat the stars. Instead, his representative wet himself and was immediately vaporized.)
"We need to leave immediately," Jesse insisted. "NOW. Gilbert's mind is collapsing. We have no business in this battle. That fellow in the business suit holding the Key of Iron is distracted; he'd go down with one swift kick and then we can run for it. The Mister has no serious power except to grant wishes, and now that we know what to expect, Nel can counter his illusions. He can't stop us. We found the Mermaid parked nearby. We can be gone in two minutes."
"I-I agree," Nel said, trying to forget what she had looked at for two seconds. "Una, this is so far above us... a Faerie Queen, a real Faerie Queen, and these horrible creatures--"
Una hadn't looked away from the "battle." No matter how difficult that was.
"I've felt what these things do to people first hand," Una reminded them. "And you heard what Lilith said. If we leave, everybody in Anchorage could die. Plus, no matter who wins... we lose. If any of them get out of the dome, Lilith, the candidates, or The Mister... it's all over. We've got to stop all of them, right here, right now."
"Impossible! We fall back and find a new strategy. Una, if we don't leave, WE die," Jesse reminded. "This isn't up for debate--"
"No, it's not! I'm your commander and those are my orders!" Una spoke. "And Emily would agree with me. A witch meddles! A witch protects! ...we don't exactly have much at our disposal, but we have to try something to put a stop to this before it gets out of hand! Now. Do we have any ideas how to stop this, or do I just go in there swinging?"
"Una--!" Nel protested-- before Jesse raised a hand, to stop her.
"I'll do what I can," the witch said. "Lilith is, in the end, my problem. ...besides. I have an idea. I didn't want to try it, since 'try' is the best label I can slap on it, but... promise me one thing. If I fail... grab Gilbert and run for it. Get out. Understood?"
"If there's no other choice... fine," Una agreed. "You've got my word."
"I suppose in the end, she was always my problem to deal with..." Jesse spoke... rising to her feet, smoothing out her battle dress as best she could. "If I'm going to die, I'd rather die taking care of old business."
The witch turned, and strode with what confidence she could muster towards the writhing chaos of light and horror upon the stage. In the loudest voice her lungs were capable of, she addressed her enemy.
"LILITH GOATMOTHER!" Jesse Runeblade called forward. "Under the standards of this debate, I wish discourse with the third party candidate!"
If there was a 'chaos' switch backstage, someone must have flipped it. Because a nanosecond later, all the candidates were standing idle behind their podiums, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred just now. All that is except the mortal representatives for Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu, who were greasy smears, and Lilith of the Fall... who stood central, between the warring Old Ones.
What rage she had been directing towards them was now barely contained, and refocused on the ordinary mortal witch before her.
...I loathe my family name. I always have. Emily's ancestor knew that, calling me by the hated name at every opportunity. I killed her by inches. Are you volunteering for the same treatment, weakling witch?
"This is a debate of the issues, and I have a request for the candidate!" Jesse repeated. "She WILL hold and debate me, before you resume your combat. Do the other candidates agree?"
The President smiled openly to the girl, nodding in agreement. "Humans. You're so damned entertaining. Absolutely. We will work together to hold her, to make her comply. Speak your mind, citizen. We're all reasonable people, after all, aren't we?"
Very well. Her words cannot harm me. No memorized spells. No cheater's monocle full of runes. No sword, even. So-called Lady Runeblade, who always tried so hard to win my approval, who thought I honestly cared about her physical prowess... how far you've fallen, even from where you were. What could you possibly do to me now?
"I can destroy you," Jesse promised. "For how you ruined my life."
Lilith of the Fall floated across the stage, as if pacing, all while surveying the child... crossing in front of the podiums, one by one.
Little girl, who always craved power. I AM power incarnate. You've no hope, don't you see that? I am the Fall!
"Power is meaningless without skill. And my power is knowledge. --eyeless mother, hear my cry!" Jesse shouted, seizing the moment, as Lilith crossed in front of the second podium. "The time to absorb this one's power is nigh! IA! IA!"
It's not true that Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of the Woods, had no brain. She in fact had twelve of them. That was part of the problem; all that throbbing gray matter working out of sync, unable to really focus. But upon hearing a voice call out to her with the words handed down through aeons of ritual, those dozen minds all thought the same thing:
Snarling tendrils of flesh immediately lashed out directly in front of her. The podium went into the gaping maw of her largest tooth-lined orifice first -- but the tentacles had neatly snarled around the few physical parts of Lilith that they could. Then they snarled around the metaphysical parts. God or not, immortal or not, Lilith was power incarnate... and if there was one thing Shub-Niggurath craved more than anything else, it was to devour power incarnate.
Jesse didn't look away for one second. Didn't close her eyes to the death screams of a newly born goddess. It was cruel, it was terrible, it was a fate she wouldn't have wished upon her worst enemy... and yet, she had. And she felt not a lick of sympathy, as the last remnants of Lilith vanished into the transdimensional uterus of Shub-Niggurath.
"Oh well," President Nyarlathotep, said, with a sigh. "Here I was hoping she could shake things up a bit. Maybe she'll be reborn as something interesting in a hundred years, once the Vice President finishes with her..."
A slow clap began from the rear of the studio.
With little curls of smoke rising from the carpet where he stepped, the Mister approached, offering Jesse a standing ovation as he walked. His smile rivaled one of the President's finest.
(Behind him, Benny the Broker followed... looking considerably more glum, as he held tight to the Key of Iron. He'd perfected the art of being unimportant, so his presence was barely acknowledged by anyone in attendance.)
"That... was a GLORIOUS murder," the Mister spoke. "I knew you had it in you, Jesse, my girl. True, it's a shame, I was sort of hoping Lilith could help me set up the next great chain of dominoes, but... it was still worth it, for a show like that! You know, I could use someone like you in my operation--"
Jesse turned to the side, to ensure she had her back fully turned to the Infernal. "I refused you once before," she reminded. "My answer is still no."
"Ah, but look where you and your friends are," the Mister reminded. "Oh, you dealt with your former mentor, and splendidly! But you still have Mythos and buddies to deal with, don't you. Do you have a clever plan for them? Look at the President. Already smiling. Already thinking of what to do with you, now that you've proven yourself a threat. ...say the word. Agree to work with me. I can help you out of this jam."
"I'm no more her tool than I am yours, or theirs, or anyone's. The answer is, and always will be, no."
"Mmmm. Well, I suppose I had to make a token effort," the Mister decided. "I can hardly call myself a good representative of the down below if I don't try, right? Good luck with your horrible deaths, all. Benny? Give me the key and let's get going."
"Au revior, my colleagues!" the Mister said, adding a fancy little bow to the end of it. "I hope you all enjoy being trapped in this dome, eating each other alive and what did you just say to me?"
Benny the Broker's grip tightened on the Key of Iron. His knuckles began to whiten, and smoke...
"I said no," Benny said. "No. The geas you slapped on me when I got caught outside Los Angeles two hundred years ago? You forced me to track down the key and summon you. But you never said I had to give it to you once I was done. No. I'm not giving you the key. I'm not letting you smooth-talk the world into murdering itself."
"I'm sorry, I missed the part where you had a choice?" the Mister said, turning to his 'ally', cocking his head curiously. "Don't forget, you're an imp of the upper circles. I'm a fully qualified representative from the City of Dis. I outrank you--"
"This isn't our world!" Benny protested. "These aren't our mortals to lead astray! Damn it all, where do we even FIT into this cosmology now? The angels, the devils, a single God, everything that made sense... nothing makes sense since Pandora! ...except one thing. I like this world. I like making deals. I like getting people things they want. And if you kill them all off, where does that leave me? No! No, you don't get the Key!"
In defiance, Benny tightened his grip -- and flames exploded out from between his fingers. In a brilliant flash of light... the Key of Iron was gone. Not destroyed, simply... gone.
The Mister tapped his chin, considering his options.
"I could force you to bring it back, you know," he said.
"No, you can't," Benny reminded him.
Turning swiftly on his heel, the Mister darted towards the stage -- mounting it in one smooth jump, to stand between the democratically contested candidates for President of Anchorage.
"All of you, listen to me, and listen well!" he declared. "Black Pharaoh. Mother of a Thousand Young. The Key and the Gate. You want to leave this dome? That one holds the key! Take it from him. I will give you anything you want, anything you could possibly want. Things beyond even your power! All you have to do is such a little thing, so utterly trivial to the likes of you, just to be complicit in a few, hmm, million human murders. Together, we can devour this world! Together, we do such amazing things...! What do you say? Do we have a deal?!"
The three slavering entities from beyond space and time, cruel and cold, eager for any chance to lay dominion to this wretched toilet of a planet for ten thousand generations didn't say a word.
In fact, they looked a bit confused. Granted, with Shub-Niggurath, that was a default state... but Yog-Sothoth's spheres weren't pulsing. And the President simply... cocked his head, tugging at an ear, curious.
"...I said, do we have a deal?" the Mister repeated. "Hello? I'm offering revenge against the ones that trapped you here! I'm offering this world on a silver platter! I KNOW you want this. I can tell you want this! Just say yes, and--"
"They can't hear you."
An elf now stood alongside his former lackey and the obstinate witch. A light sheen of sweat had broken out on her brow, a fierce level of concentration in effect... as she kept her eyes tightly focused on the Mister.
"You're invisible. You're inaudible. I've put a cone of silence on you," Nelliwyn Myfanwy explained. "Faerie magic trapped them here. They can't crush it so easily. You aren't making a deal with anyone tonight."
The space cadet was next to join them. There was understanding in her expression... and, much to the Mister's disgust... a hint of pity.
"You're all alone here, now," Una said. "Nobody will help you, nobody will support you. That's how your magic works, isn't it? You can't do anything for yourself; all you can do is make deals with others to indirectly get what you want. But every rule you lived by is different now, don't you see that? It's like your friend said. You don't have to be this thing you are anymore. ...you could leave with us, but only if you promise to give up your desire to hurt people."
Despite being surrounded by potential bargain makers, despite having vast and incalculable power beneath his fingertips... the Mister never felt so small and alone and afraid as he did in that moment. Not even since the fall from grace. Not since plummeting from the sight of the Word.
And even feeling as tiny and helpless as he did, even with the golden lifeline being thrown to him by quite possibly the most forgiving soul on this entire planet, he couldn't help but respond in the only way he knew how.
"I can't give up what I am," the Mister whimpered.
that is why you must not be.
"Okay, now who said THAT?" Jesse complained, rubbernecking around the room, trying to find the source of the voice. "I swear, it's just a series of endless dramatic interruptions tonight, isn't it...?"
"Is it... getting brighter in here?" Nel asked, unable to take her eyes off the one she was shielding. "And cloudier...?"
When steam escapes a vessel, the vaporized water dissipates back into the air. The humidity rises a bit, but otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary occurs.
At least, that's how it works with normal steam. For aetheric steam, the strange thing that powered the glorious apparatuses of Britannia... in most situations, the result also follows the laws of physics. This was not one of those situations, which would be much to the surprise of scientists on either side of the pond.
Like film running in reverse, the cloud of steam released by the explosion of one autobutler went from being a light mist in the air to being a large cloud to being a large, glowing white cloud hovering directly where Jeeve's upper torso used to be. Scattered metal parts, cogs, sockets, memory pins, every bit of the robot that shattered apart began to hover in the air... reassembling itself, continuing the motif of the reverse explosion.
A monocle surrounded by brass screwed itself into place, and then lit up brighter than the eye of God.
The television audience, already completely stunned by the series of insane events going on around them, parted like the red sea for Jeeves as he made his way forward. Even the assembled anachronauts stepped aside, to allow the butler to pass... stepping up directly in front of the Mister.
Underneath that divine glow, his whimpering intensified.
"I was only doing what I was supposed to be doing," the Mister protested. "I can't help it. ...what else did you expect us to do, after what happened? What else could I do?"
Instinctively, he raised his arms, ready to block another haymaker -- memories from the first one, back at in Los Angeles, still fresh in his mind...
...only to find a metal palm pressed to his forehead. A touch, almost soothing, despite the metal shell that encased the thing he had been so completely terrified of.
With one final exhale, the Mister lay down his burdens.
A pile of ashes fell to the floor of the stage.
The task complete, the shell turned back to his comrades. And blinked several times, his light monocle flickering, as pins reset themselves, cogs ticked back to life, and gears began to churn anew...
"Bafflement?" Jeeves the Autobutler asked, glancing around as he tried to make some sense of where he was now...
"I... think whatever it was that we don't have time to really speculate on just wore off," Nel whispered to her friends. "And we still have three crazy cosmic gods to deal with--"
Reality changed itself around in less than the span of a single heartbeat. The outsiders, gathered up onto the stage, writhing in agony as scribbled lines of shapes of forms of things danced around them. In one moment, there was just a tense confrontation -- in the next, there was no confrontation. Only defeat. Only pain.
"This has been a very engaging show, I must admit," Nyarlathotep admitted, leaning over his podium to look down at the pile of failures. "But unlike your last two enemies, I've no intention of letting you pull of some hail mary play on my watch. As much as I hate to break the debate format, I'm afraid I need that Key your new demonic ally is holding, and I'm perfectly willing to twist you all into unrecognizable shapes if that's what it takes..."
The president loomed over Benny... who, despite being an Infernal, despite not really being allied with these mortals, despite only being tangentially related to what was going on, went down just as easily as the others to the power of an Old One. He didn't scream so much as whimper pathetically under that onslaught.
"You... you'd be just as bad... as he'd be," Benny realized, through the agony haze. "Can't. Can't give you the Key. Not you..."
"Can't? Or won't?" Nyarlathotep asked. "Your brief flare-up of morality may have been a long time coming, but I doubt you can muster that strength again. You don't want to die. You try to run away from any mortal peril you face, I know this just from the look in your eyes. Oh, you like this world, true... but maybe you like being alive more? I think you'll crack. Crack like an egg, crackle, fragment, fall apart. And then your hidden prize will be mine... what say you, human females? How long do you think this subcreature can last?"
Jesse was standing before. Now she was lying down. Now someone was pouring acid into her veins. That just wasn't fair, she mewled inside... trying to meet Gilbert's eyes, as the melting-down mathematician lay sprawled on the floor next to her, his shredded and bloody shirt hanging open...
Nyarlathotep now was crouched at their side... the dangling red, white and blue tie the only thing about him that wasn't a feral and terrifying sight. "Jesse Runeblade, maybe you won't break, but I warn you that he will," he warned. "Benny the Smuggler is not your friend. Oh, he knows your Englishman, but they're not exactly friends, either. He'll give up. He'll bequeath to me the Key of Iron. And then we're going to set up polling booths all across your pathetic little world. Have any of you anything to say to that? Any cunning, last second plans to defeat us? No? I didn't think so, no..."
Her eyes must've been going red. Blood. So much blood. Lines of it, tracing out across Gilbert's form. Hallucinating? That would just add insult on top of injury if...
...no. Not a hallucination. Structure.
When she found Gilbert, he was working on some silly math problem, she'd assumed. Scratching himself up as he giggled and stumbled about. Scratching lines. Scratching very specific lines, right there, for her to read...
One square, with various lines and letters inscribed within it. A Word. Written out in such a method as to describe the Way in which it was to be read. Faerie spellbooks usually had stunningly beautiful calligraphy, it's true, but in the end all that mattered was the Word and the Way. You could illustrate them even with a few simple lines.
Gilbert Gearhaus had a question for Yog-Sothoth. And on asking it, he began to dig a little deeper, even as the entity dug into him. And nobody stops Gilbert when he's keen on solving a problem... the boy always found his answer.
"...y...y cn't... be srs..." Jesse mumbled, looking from the spell back to Gilbert, in horror.
The boy's smile was half-mad, true... but also, half-sly. "Serious," he confirmed. "Do... it..."
"This is it, isn't it?" Nyarlathotep asked -- now pinning Jesse down, kneeing on her chest, crushing her slowly. "You swore you'd destroy me. Is this the trick? You can't make my own Vice President eat me. You've got no spells. ...you have no spells, right? ...oh. This is it, isn't it. This is the trick."
"Yes," Jesse confirmed, before speaking the word that would one day break the world in half. "."
Normally, tearing open a rift between worlds required use of an Orbital shift engine -- a massive array of computers, linked up to a gyroscopic device of strange make. It was science that burned down the walls between worlds, allowing travel between them... and allowing entire populations to be forcibly relocated from one plane of existence to another. However, lacking any available hypertechnology, Gilbert Gearhaus had to rely on a hodge podge of deduced magical theory and the cosmic library that was Yog-Sothoth. The end result was the same.
"Oh," the normally verbose Elder Thing said, crestfallen. And then he was torn from this plane, every scribble and scratching of the Crawling Chaos drained away into the microscopic hole that had opened up twenty feet over his head.
Wind screamed past her ears, carrying with it the howls and shrieks of abominations. Secret service agents. The toddling muscle pillars of Shub-Niggurath's young. Hybridized fish people. Anything tainted, anything touched, anything spawned forth from the world of the Old Ones was pulled away by the magically induced Pandora Event... spiraling from one Earth into another, like water down a bathtub drain. Sent wailing back where it came from, back to the dead and dying world they'd already finished eating thousands of years ago, to enjoy another thousand years contemplating where they went wrong.
Fifty seven years or fifty seven seconds later, and the rift sealed itself. The pain was gone. All that remained were the very confused looking human citizens of Anchorage, and a weak pile of visitors from beyond the dome.
Carefully, very carefully, Jesse peeled herself off the floor. Jeeves was there in a flash, no longer paralyzed by the Elder Things, to assist his gentleman... Nel and Una helped each other rise.
Soon, they stood before the puzzled masses, the ones who had caused directly or indirectly the deaths of multiple gods that evening. That was more than enough to get Anchorage on its knees. The election had been won, by virtue of only one candidate left standing.
"H... hey, no, don't do that!" Una insisted, waving her arms, trying to get their attention. "Don't worship us...! We're only here to help. ...got to do something. Okay. Listen! We're going to get some people here who can help you evacuate the city and resettle, don't worry--"
Gilbert interrupted Una's moment of leadership by hacking up a thick wad of blood.
"...I think I've done a number on myself," he informed them, on his knees as well, albeit for other reasons. "Making that spell took everything I had left. Every little bit. ...heh. As deaths go, that's quite what I was hoping for, you know? Some vast and incalculably impressive moment of heroism..."
"Where is my spell monocle?!" Jesse shouted. "Someone find it! I need a Mending spell for him!"
"Won't help, love," Gilbert said. "So sorry. I lived breathing the steam for years. It's soaked me through, tainted me. Can't be removed now, not by any science or magic known to man. Nothing you can do. Nothing you can do to stop it. But that's fine. I came here to find a good death, and I did, didn't I?"
"Jeeves, help me, damn you!" the witch yelled, banging on the metal man's torso once with her fist. "Do that thing you did before! When you spoke in another's voice and exorcised the demon. Do something to get the steam taint out of him! He's your GENTLEMAN, you bastard, you've got to be able to do something!"
For once... the AutoButler had no single word to offer. His shrug of mechanical shoulders was quite helpless.
Cursing repeatedly, Jesse tore off into the crowd, shoving kneeling cultists if need be to find her spell monocle. It had fallen somewhere near the back of the studio, when the automaton exploded, when she was hit by the blast of white hot glowing steam...
White hot. Glowing.
Her sword was too hot to touch, so she'd dropped it. And here it lay, near her fallen spell monocle, untouched by all... and still glowing. Still surrounded by a swirling cloud of the strange aetheric steam. Not all of it had gone back into Jeeves.
The Mister told me you'd stab me in the back. Your very sword, right in the heart.
Yes, well. Father of lies, and all that.
She had to be sure about this, despite how absolutely unsure she was. She had to have faith, or it certainly would not work.
After screwing the monocle into place, Jesse grasped the hilt of her burning hot blade. The pain could be ignored for as long as this would take.
Screaming to the heavens, she turned, and charged at the exposed back of Gilbert Gearhaus. The scream wasn't just to confuse and surprise her allies, to keep them from interfering. It was a call out to whoever was lurking within the mists that wrapped themselves around her blade, the thing that had absolved the Mister, whatever it was that she now knew lie on the path before her, a path that would take her very far from home indeed... to that entity, she had one simple request.
The sword sank neatly into Gilbert's back. It was the fastest way to a man's heart, anatomically speaking.
Water flows. Gasses try to escape. Steam is gaseous water. It follows the path of least resistance from one vessel to another, even if that path leads uphill, along the length of a blade.
By the time her friends had forcibly pulled her away, it was done. The weapon was pulled roughly from the wound, but before Gilbert could bleed out, Jesse called up a Mending spell and dumped every last bit of her Will into it. Both of them collapsed to the stage... but in the end, both were alive.
There were the expected howled recriminations, why did you do that, what were you thinking, did she really just stab Gilbert, what's going on, etc., etc. None of that mattered. All of it could be answered, in time.
The only one Jesse paid attention to, as consciousness began slipping away, as Gilbert Gearhaus.
A word formed on his surprised lips, inaudible to the others as they went into full panic mode.
"Because," Jesse breathed, "I find myself unable to carry on without the crown prince of fools at my side."
Her sleep was well deserved.
The Queen drummed her fingers on the armchair of her throne. (Which was, in fact, simply a rocking chair with a very comfortable padded seat on it, something strange made from strings of beads that she'd ordered special from an ergonomics specialist in Boston.)
"Twenty five years," Emily repeated.
"He emphasized it was only a guess," Jesse insisted. "But knowing Gilbert Gearhaus, that foolish boy's guesses would pass as flawless answers in any other context. He's just as sharp as ever, despite what happened. So, yes, both of us will likely live another twenty five years, but no longer. The connection balanced out his steam taint by sharing it between the two of us. He gets time. I lose time."
Queen Emily of Faerie rocked in her chair a little, because it relaxed her, and she preferred to be relaxed while thinking.
"Honestly, if you asked me yesterday 'Do you think Jesse would give up a chunk of her lifespan for someone else?' I'dve said no way in hell," Emily admitted. "But I've been on the same kind of crazy-ass road trip you just went on. I know it changes people in ways they'd never expect. I'm not going to question what you did; it's your life and your decision. I will say I'm glad to hear you found something you cared about more than yourself and your thirst for power, though."
"As you say, my Queen. A crazy-ass road trip enacts many changes," Jesse repeated.
"So you're going to stay on as Ye Royale Subjecte a bit longer, then?"
"Gilbert's staying. So, I'm staying," Jesse stated. "I don't think I've any need of your throne, nor do I feel like wandering this world aimlessly. Given my choices are obedience, dominance, or avoidance, I'll take the lesser of three evils. But somehow I doubt being a member of your court will be akin to being yoked to Lady Summer's chariot... or to Lilith's, for that matter."
The young queen shuddered at the name, still not sure how Jesse could relate Lilith's horrible fate so calmly. "Right. ...well. It's not like I've got a lack of work that needs doing around here. Between what Gilbert's told me in private conference about the British Empire, and what that demonic business guy you dragged back here tells me... there's plenty going on that's going to need a capable witch to keep it in check."
"I've... felt as much, yes," Jesse spoke, having left out the unusual connection she felt, upon grasping her steamed sword. "Something larger on the horizon. Larger even than a devil, a new Faerie Queen, and a host of cosmic lunatics..."
"There'll be a few changes to the anachronauts program, of course. And I've got some other initiatives I'm launching as well, to reach out to countries around the world that aren't sealed away in big black domes of doom. It'll be some time before you're needed again. You and Gilbert should take a vacation somewhere... get some rest. You've more than earned it."
"If it's all the same, I'd rather stay and train, so I'll be ready when the time comes," Jesse suggested.
"Your call. ...look, I've got... some important stuff to discuss with my hubby. Can you send him in on your way out? We'll talk later, Jesse. ...I'm glad to have you here, you know. Thank you."
The witch nodded curtly, before turning to walk out of the throne room. Head high, and dignified.
Once Jesse was out of sight... Emily could breathe easier. Because she felt anything but dignified right now. The next meeting, THAT would be the difficult one, compared to a simple mission debriefing...
The journey aboard the Mermaid had felt longer than it really was. Long enough that the little two-occupant cabin that Gilbert had given them was a home away from home... but this, this was truly home. The Arcology. All glass and metal and shine and gleam and perfection.
Here, Una was safe and secure, protected from the dangers of the outside world. She was with her own people, the ones who largely kept to themselves despite being parked outside the hotbed of activity that was New Orleans. Here she had her metamorphic sleeping platform. Here was her collection of old media, any Earth movie she wanted on tap. Here, she could have Cold Fun whenever she wanted it.
"I think we should move out," Una suggested, after setting down her wrecked jetpack. "Let's go. Right now."
Nel was about to unpack some books from her satchel -- hand frozen around the spine of a leatherbound volume, in confusion. "Err. Go? Go where?"
"I don't know. Somewhere down in New Orleans," Una suggested. "Away from the Arcology. Don't get me wrong, I still love this place, but... we've been cooped up too long. Two years, Nel! I was loitering around here for two years before Emily pulled me out to go journey across America. Two years in stagnation, just sitting in on meetings, and... wasting my time on Brell."
"Well, yes, but that's all behind you now, right?" Nel said. "You're better off now than before."
"Oh, definitely. But all the same... I want more. And by that I mean less," Una explained, glancing to her broken jetpack. "I had to give up all my conveniences to save you in Seattle. But I got by without them, in the end. The Orbitals may need to learn how to do that, if we can't find an alternative power supply. I could take the first step. ...but it's more than that. I don't know how to explain it, Nel. I just feel like everything's different now. You and me. Myself. More change, that's exactly what I want. Change everything. Reinvent myself! I'm ready. Let's go."
"So... a place of our own?" Nel pondered... the possibilities starting to unfold. As an illusionist, she was quite good at visualizing. "Not an apartment. A house. A nice little house... modern style or Faerie style. Modern Faerie style. A lovely little cottage. ...with a kitchen, where we can make breakfast each morning. A garden out back. A library, oh, we need a library, all the books we love to read, I could stock up on some glamour theory texts, and--"
"Right now. We'll head out right now and find somewhere for the house of your dreams. I'm sure Emily can help make it happen," Una suggested -- reaching out, to grasp Nel's hands, giving them a squeeze. "Let's go out and have an adventure called 'our lives together'. For as long as we can, until we need to go save the world again. Okay?"
"But what about the Arcology?" Nel asked. "I mean... you've lived here all your life..."
"I can bring bits of it with me. Only the bits I need, not the things that pamper. And we'll be nearby; I can visit father whenever I want. I'll even attend all those boring meetings again. It's fine with me... as long as at the end of the day... I can come home to you."
Minutes later, and the only evidence that the room's occupants had returned was one broken piece of hypertechnology, abandoned and forgotten.
Gilbert Gearhaus wanted to openly weep.
The question was whether he was keen on weeping with sorrow or joy. Sorrow, at the sight of the Clockwork Mermaid being towed back to New Orleans by a squadron of Orbitals armed with jetpacks and gravity hooks... or joy, at the prospect of making the old girl sail again, better than new.
"I think that given enough time, I can make some serious improvements to the engines," he was explaining, the blueprints already sketching themselves out in his mind, chalk-white lines overlaid on the slowly floating airship wreck. "The key with all English engineering is not complexity, but efficiency. Our devices tend to operate on a wing and a prayer, after all. I can strip down the cogs, forge some new ones, make the propellers spin faster while keeping hull stability tight as a drum..."
"Gilbert. If you melt down into a little puddle of math goo in the process of making your shiny toy ship shinier, this time I will not be rescuing you from certain doom."
"Won't be an issue, love," Gilbert promised, turning back to the witch at his side. "I don't seem to be overheating anymore when I have a serious think. It's all balanced out, somehow. Can't say as I understand the science behind what you did, mind..."
"I'm fairly certain science had absolutely no part in it," Jesse spoke... watching the airship be carefully placed in drydock, gravity hooks disengaging with appropriate zappy-zoop noises. "I can't say as I'm certain what inspired me, but... science it was not. ...has Jeeves remained uncommunicative on the subject?"
"Inscrutable as ever, afraid. His memory pins seem to have no program logs for the period in which he was... hmm. Possessed? Even so, I plan to keep him online as much as possible... as long as my steam tanks don't run out. I'll keep the ship offline if need be, to ensure Jeeves's continued operation. I owe him as much, I feel..."
"What's inside the steam?" Jesse asked, looking away from the ship dock, to discuss matters more seriously. "There's something going on there. It's not just hot water. Water doesn't turn you into a super genius. Water doesn't exorcise demons. ...unless, of course..."
"I'm reasonably sure the C of E isn't involved in producing aetheric steam, love. I told Queen Emily as much when we talked. But... my homeland is certainly not to be trusted. There's good reason I fled to America, remember..."
"We're going there, aren't we?" Jesse asked. "Maybe not tomorrow. Not soon. But we're going to have to deal with jolly old England at some point. ...when the time comes, I'm coming with you. Otherwise you're liable to get yourself heroically murdered, and I am not wasting my investment in you."
The boy smirked, hands in the pockets of his trousers. "Ah. So I'm simply your investment, then?" he asked, smug.
"Of course not, don't be stupid," Jesse scoffed, nose in the air. "You're to be my husband."
"I suppose that's to be excuse me wait a moment what now?"
"Don't think I'm going to make it easy for you, boy," the witch warned. "I am a Lady of the Faerie Court. There are certain standards I'm going to expect out of you regarding your courtship. I suggest you discuss the matter with some of Emily's advisors, so that they can give you a starting point. I require nothing less than a perfect gentleman's finest efforts at winning my hand."
For once, the boy didn't have a smug, glib, snarky, or even cheery response. He barely had a response at all.
"Oeeer?" he non-cleverly stated, head tilting sideways in a slow manner.
"I do suggest you not dally," Jesse spoke, gathering up her battle dress. "Neither of us have time for missteps, if we are to enjoy our remaining years in each other's comforts. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must look to securing proper lodgings. And preferably a good training facility for my fencing. Your mechanical practice dummy is beneath me at this point. Good day to you, Gilbert Gearhaus."
With that, the lady swished away, leaving the stunned mechanic behind to contemplate his future.
Eventually, a smile crawled across his lips.
"I suppose my gloriously heroic doom can wait a bit longer," he mused aloud.
She couldn't trust some silly enchanted tea cup and magic leaves. Couldn't trust the bonding ritual, even if it was performed by one of her trusted mages.
No, instead, she had to order away for what she needed... a simple bit of plastic and chemicals. Science. When it came to something this important, she wanted an outside opinion, to be completely sure.
Carefully, Emily withdrew the item from her pocket.
The little blue plus was very telling.
Groaning, she sank low in her beaded rocking chair cushion. Her husband was there, a comforting hand on her shoulder, a warm smile on his face. But despite the good cheer of her lifelong companion... the inner grumbly witch felt need to forward a token objection to the happy news.
"I'm too damn young to be a mommy," Queen Emily complained.
copyright 2010 stefan gagne
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