Always Bet on Grey
Laura Bellworth was not enjoying her instant oatmeal. She couldn’t tell if her coffee was any better, but it smelled burnt, and the sour look on her face had cleared the dining area not long after she entered. “Hmm.” She tapped the hotel-branded pen on the mold-spattered legal pad she’d found in a drawer somewhere. Try pudding. Applesauce. Crackers? Frustrated, she crossed the last one out. It could be worse, she reasoned. A pudding-based diet was better than blood.
“Good afternoon, Laura.” Elbridge stood outside the lobby door, busily-cleaning the mud from his shoes and trousers. Not that this place was exactly the Ritz-Carlton, but it didn’t especially need more dirt. “How are things coming along?”
She lifted her spoon out of the bowl and flipped it over. The oatmeal clung to it in a rather paste-like manner. She shrugged.
“As well as they can be, then.” He traipsed inside, taking stock of the Council provisions. As far as Elbridge could tell, they were a disorganised assortment of C-rations seized from the mercenaries and whatever was within arm’s reach when the wizards had left from Edinburgh. “I’m sorry about Finch and Morrison...Ford as well, although I hear she’s managing.”
Bellworth flipped the legal pad to a fresh page and started writing. “Burke’s body found this morning in bunker. 4 dead, 2 maimed. We still won. Worth it?”
“As much as war ever can be, I suppose,” Elbridge sighed. “Red Court losses were total. Roqueza and his entire coterie, dead in one evening. They won’t be able to replace that by turning a few civilians.” He took a seat. “Never expected to see the entire Council mobilise like this.”
“No choice left. This fails? We lose the war. Too many resources burned.” Her scowl softened. “So far, so good. Cole vs. Roqueza… Saw the ice. Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t.”
“Rick fought to the last. Anyone who cast aspersions on his character can take a long walk off a short pier.” He took the sword from his hip and held it by the blade, hilt toward Bellworth. “I believe...that this will require a new bearer.”
She took the sword and held it up in front of her, running a hand over the blade. Small pits and nicks marred the silver, marks of heavy use. It was a true service weapon, not like some of the other swords she’d seen her Wardens carry. Plain, but no less sharp for it.
Sighing, she set it on the table between them and picked her pen back up. “Take him home, Hadley. He’s earned it.”
In that moment, he understood, and knew that she understood as well. This was goodbye. “We’re going into the breach as soon as we’re ready. The angel Zophiel will stand watch on your end, and stop anything that tries to escape. If all goes well, we’ll never see each other again. If it doesn’t…”
“Make sure it does.” She croaked a laugh. “Get drunk with my/your double after.”
“That may be perilous,” Elbridge warned her. “He seems…high-strung.”
“And you’re not?”
“If he demands to remove your skin to make certain you’re you underneath, don’t take it personally.”
“He’s the one who’s been Outside for six years. I should skin him first. Just in case.” She underlined the words for emphasis.
“He has working experience fighting and killing things that were never meant to die,” Elbridge said uneasily. “If he co-operates, that’s knowledge we sorely need.”
“Maybe he’ll write a new book.”
“How did you - ah. Cantor. Of course.” Elbridge’s expression soured. The little prick was going to be the death of him yet. “I wrote it in earnest, if you must know. We cannot fight a threat that we refuse even to acknowledge. Sticking our heads in the sand like ostriches and pretending it’ll go away if we just ignore it - it never works, Laura.”
“DON’T BE THE NEXT H.P.” She wrote in all capitals, with a triple underline.
“I’m talking to you without going into convulsions, aren’t I?” Elbridge snapped, then promptly regretted it. He sighed. “Laura, I’ve tried keeping my head down and my nose clean. But the monsters are already here. The Fomor have been raiding with impunity, snatching up anyone with the Gift or with skills that they need.” He thought back to that dreadful mural over the gate at Arctis Tor. “And I think that I finally know why.”
She looked sharply at him. “???”
“They guarded the Outer Gates once, you know. The Fomor.” Elbridge looked down into a cup of hot water that might or might not become tea. “Until they betrayed their charge and were driven into the sea in favour of Winter. But the Gates…” Elbridge swirled the cup. “Human magicks can open them. I suspect that the Fomor can’t. They’ve become too much the things that the Gates hold back, so they’ve started taking us.”
He reached for an envelope of Lipton and dropped it into the cup, watching the water turn the colour of rust. “We can’t keep ceding ground to the monsters. We can’t tell ourselves that the rest of the world is beneath notice, or too compromised to be worth saving, as if everything that truly matters can fit behind the castle walls in Edinburgh. We can’t tell eighty-seven percent of the Gifted population that we’ll kill them for stepping out of line, but that they’re otherwise on their own.” At that, he took out the bag of barely-even-tea, mixed in about three times as much sugar as it needed, and drank it proudly.
Laura sighed. “87%” She crossed the number out. “95%. They are on their own.”
“That’s...two-fifths of what I…” Right. Darkest timeline. “That bad, eh?”
“Approx. No solid #s on low-level talents, but wizard mortality #s are known.” She tapped the pen on the pad. “Fomor? Taking who?”
“Talents. Sorcerers. Palm-readers and Hoodoo witches. Anyone with the Gift - Midas of Phrygia, at least, uses them to dispose of his rivals. But not just magicians.” Elbridge shook his head. “Anyone with skills, connections, or plain muscle that they need. We rescued a bloody marine biologist from them once - they needed her expertise in transforming the Gulf to match their Mediterranean home.” His expression darkened. “Half a dozen from Anna Beaumont’s circle alone. We got...a small handful of them back. Took a Fomor lord hostage and ransomed him.”
She nodded, absorbing that information. “Fomor not seen here for centuries. Why there, not here?”
“Reds were protective of their feeding grounds, no doubt. This city, I swear it’s always something...”
“Localized to N.O.?”
“If only.” Elbridge swirled his tea; the sugar was precipitating out of the beverage almost as quickly as it dissolved. “We’ve had confirmed reports from Miami, New York, D.C., San Francisco, and both Portlands. Other disappearances up and down both seaboards, the Gulf Coast, and the whole of the Mediterranean. They must have been labouring at this for centuries - it’s only now that the Council and the Vampire Courts are both in disarray that they’re bold enough to move openly.”
Laura set her pen down and picked up her coffee. She still couldn’t taste it, and now it wasn’t even hot. Her eyes flicked to Cole’s sword, sitting on the table. He was barely a wizard, let alone a warden… But he did something no one else could. Her back straightened as she took the pen up again. “We’ll be ready for them, Hadley. No fear.”
“It’s what I do, isn’t it Laura?” He cracked a smile. “Look to the future, so I can be the one to say, ‘I told you so’.”
She snorted. “My very own poker chip-patterned Cassandra.”
“I’d ask which god I’ve angered to warrant such a curse,” Elbridge said, still smiling, “but it’s a long list, and only growing longer.”
“Just means you’re doing your job.” She held her hand out to him.
He took her hand firmly and shook. “You’ll win this, Laura. I know that you’ll win this. No matter how bad it gets, I’d bet on you over the Reds any day of the week.”
“You’d have lost that bet,” she wrote. “But things are different now... If we don’t all get et by whatever crawls out of N.O. when it comes back from Outside.”
“What can I say? I’m stubborn like that. And I’ve no doubt that come what may, you’ll sort it with your sword.” He stood, gathered Rick’s sword, and stepped away from the table. “...failing that, try aqua regia. Or borax. Just don’t confirm any kills until you’ve dissolved every part.”
She rolled her eyes at him. As if I hadn’t invented some of those purification rituals myself.
“Oh, don’t give me that look, young lady.” He brought up the sword to point accusingly. “I still remember Egypt…”
Laura pushed the tip away with one finger, giving Hadley a curious look. “No sheath?” she wrote.
“...lost in the duel,” he said quietly. “It will need a replacement.”
She stood slowly and motioned for him to follow her. Burke’s sword was with some of the other reclaimed artifacts from the camp, under guard behind the receptionist’s desk. It was a bit longer than Cole’s, but not much, and about the same shape. Heavier, with a thicker hilt and a more ornate pommel, but they had been of similar temperament. The silver rang true as she freed it from the brown leather sheath, which she offered to Hadley. He won’t need it anymore.
Elbridge took the sheath and held it up to the light. It was ornate, with multiple buckles so that it could be worn across either the back or the hip, and inlaid with bronze scrollwork to fit Burke’s baroque tastes. The interior was oiled metal, to protect the cutting edge and allow for a quicker draw. Burke’s sword would find a new wielder with their own heraldry as soon as they were trained, but for now…
El sheathed Rick’s blade. It’d been awhile since he’d had occasion to practice, but some of it was coming back to him. The scabbard wasn’t a perfect fit for the sword, but then, neither was Elbridge. So it was. “Godspeed, Laura. Don’t die...and if you do, haunt someone else.”
She nodded firmly and clapped him on the back, then watched him go. Why those words? They’d never shared the Warden’s farewell… not in the over eighty years they’d worked together. Curious. Shaking her head, she tucked Burke’s sword under one arm and went looking for some clean linens to wrap it in.
|# ? Feb 16, 2017 15:34|
|# ? Jul 17, 2019 10:41|
Scene: Vampire Camp
All that remained of the armoury was a smouldering crater in the ground. Rupert stared down through the smoke, into the crater’s ash covered depths. He really hoped Masterson had taken Marcine’s bait and gotten out, because nobody deserved to be in the centre of this.
He left the devastation behind and headed further into the camp. Far from the bustling state it had been in last time he’d walked through, there was still the occasional Council Wizard running around conducting searches, carrying supplies or caring for glazed-eyed prisoners, kept by the vampires for food - or worse.
Asking the closest wizard where Olivia was, he was pointed (after a quick scowl) towards one of the clusters of buildings left behind by the vampires. As he walked towards what he assumed was the command centre, he sighed. This was what it was like when everyone knew, he supposed.
With a shrug, he pushed the heavily dented command centre door open. It was still in disarray, with files scattered everywhere. Olivia was alone inside, sitting at a desk, going through a stack of maps. Rupert cleared his throat as he entered.
“How can I-” Her eyes came up. “Oh, it’s you.”
He nodded and walked over to her desk, careful to avoid the files. “Did you even sleep?” he asked with concern.
She waved the question off. “I’m running this three-ring circus, since Bellworth’s out of commision. Commander Luccio is one of the few we had to leave behind since Edinburgh can’t be left completely defenseless even now...” She sighed and gave his sling a pointed look. “You’re the one who needs rest.”
He smiled and took a seat opposite. “I slept most of the morning, Livvy. I feel at least twice as alive as I did yesterday. Besides, we’ve got to head into the city soon.”
“That’s right. Come to say goodbye, then?”
Rupert shrugged. “I was checking to see how you were coping.”
She sat back in her chair and stared at him. “It’s a bit late for that, Dad.”
He frowned. “I know, Livvy. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you, after everyone found out. It must have been awful, and I’m sorry you had to go through that.” Standing up, he glanced toward the door. “I just thought you might want some answers.”
Her eye twitched. “My name is Olivia, Dad. And yes, it was horrible. If it wasn’t for the war I’d have been thrown out of the Wardens for sharing your last name. Lucky for me, there were too many dead to spare a fit-for-service public embarrassment.”
Rupert turned towards the door to hide the look of sadness and regret on his face. Quietly, he replied, “I can’t keep fighting with you like this, Olivia, not any more. I know I have no right to ask anything of you, so I won’t, not after all my despair and constant lies and stubborn, foolish prejudices have done to hurt you.”
“Oh, stop being… Just sit down. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t need to tell you what kind of morning it’s been.” She folded the map and set it aside. “Maybe this is our only chance, so… If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”
Rupert took a deep breath and turned back, slumping back down into the chair. “You want to know why I did it, don't you?”
“The truth is that I’ve been lying. To you, to everyone else, even to myself. It wasn't bottled up anger that caused me to do it, not really.” He looked downwards, away from her, “I shouldn't even have been there that night. I shouldn't have even stayed in the Council that long. I got so wrapped up in my own despair that I stuck around in a life I hated.”
“Dad... it didn’t take an oracle to know you were depressed. But that doesn’t explain two dead Wardens and a runaway warlock.”
Rupert closed his eyes, remembering. “The kid was hysterical, pleading for mercy. He said it was all an accident, a mistake. That he hadn’t meant for the fire to spread to the whole building. I… I couldn’t stand by and let them do it. I tried to get them to stop. Deng… he moved. I panicked... and pulled the trigger. I didn’t even realize I’d done it until I saw him fall down from a bullet to the heart. He… he didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Olivia’s brow furrowed. “You tried to get them to stop… at gunpoint.”
Rupert slowly nodded. “It… wasn’t a great plan.” After a moment of awkward silence, he continued, “I froze after I saw what I’d done. Warne was rightfully angry after what happened to Deng and he went straight on the attack. I almost gave up and let him do it, let him swing the killing blow. But… I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t just die like that. Warne… his shield was too low. It was me or him.” He sighed, “I chose my life over his, and now I have to atone for that.”
“No,” Olivia said, quietly furious. “The example you set caused far more harm than just that.”
“Bellworth explained what happened.” He paused and looked back up at her, “But it hasn’t happened yet, not in my timeline.”
She folded her hands on the desk. “What do you plan to do?”
“Try and find him. Show him that what I did was a big mistake, not an example worth following. After that, get him to someone who can give him the help he needs.”
“Rehabilitating lawbreakers is a daunting task,” she pointed out. “Who can provide the kind of help that isn’t a blade to the throat?”
“I don't know. I hope I can find someone to help him, though.” He sighed. “I need to believe there’s a chance for redemption.”
“That’s not good enough!” Olivia slammed a fist on the table. “How many children do you need to pawn off, Dad? He’s your monster. YOU made him. YOU fix him. I bet you don’t even know his name.”
“I already adopted two orphans, Olivia. I’m already trying to teach them magic while trying at the same time to find a means to save one of them because her father used his death curse to try and force her to take up one of the Blackened Denarius,” said Rupert, firmly.
Her glare intensified. “So what’s one more?”
“One more is everything when I don't have the answers he needs.” After a pause, he added, “And his name was Mark Nara. I’ve played through that night over and over in my head, I won't soon forget any part of it.”
“Good. Because I won’t soon forget the looks on Deng’s wife’s face, or Warne’s little girls, or the look in Bellworth’s eyes when she heard your name come out of Nara’s smug loving mouth while he bragged about murdering six Wardens.” The fury faded, leaving behind only firm practicality. “I can’t force you to do anything, Dad, but if you have a shred of decency left, clean this mess up properly. For me.”
He looked up at her and said, “I'll do what I can. And if it comes down to it, I’ll stop him from hurting anyone else.”
Olivia gave him a sharp nod. “You’d better. Or tell someone who will, like me. It won’t be the first of your mistakes I’ll have cleaned up.”
He nodded and stood. “You have your answers, as little as they were worth.”
“There’s one left,” Olivia said. “You shot Deng. But there were no bullets in Warne.”
“He was advancing to take my head. I saw an opening and caught him with a force disc to the throat,” he explained quietly, looking away.
She waited for him to look up at her again before speaking. “I’m glad you told me the truth. I wasn’t sure that you would.”
“I'm trying to be better,” he said. “One last thing. If my Olivia were to turn out like you, a Captain and a War Hero… I would be proud of her, and I'm sure Elia would be, too.”
“You were a war hero once,” she said, her tone making it clear what she thought of the value of that appellation. “If I let you walk out of here, I don’t deserve my cloak.”
Rupert thought about Cole, Hugues, and everyone else he’d thought of as comrades in the last few months as he walked towards the door. Turning back, he said, “I think there’s more than one way to wear that cloak, Olivia. You just need to find the way that suits you.”
She gave a frustrated sigh, and let him leave.
|# ? Mar 3, 2017 22:57|
Topaz pulled his disappearing act the moment Marcine got out of her car in front of the motel. Probably on his way to swipe some food. She didn’t follow, because she was staring at the ugliest van she’d ever seen in her life. Was that supposed to be a dragon or a koi? She tore her eyes away, shaking her head as though she could dislodge the image. Someone on the Council had awful taste.
She paused by the breakfast room, but didn’t go in. Still didn’t feel like eating. She leaned against the wall with a sigh and watched people pass by on their own business. Nothing to do until everyone was back to hear the letter. She hadn’t seen Angie since last night, and wondered if she was doing okay. If she’d talk to Zophiel. She actually believed. If any of them deserved to speak with an angel, it was her.
Heavier footsteps down the hallway stood out over other movement: Bellworth, carrying what looked like a sword wrapped in a blanket. It made Marcine think of how Rick had been stuck carrying his sword. That was an odd way to be reminded of him. “Morning, Captain,” she said, straightening, with a note of uncertainty in her voice. Was she supposed to call her Captain if she wasn’t a Warden herself? “Relatively... Are you doing okay?”
Bellworth grunted noncommittally. Privately, she wondered how it was that not talking was so much more effort than talking.
Marcine’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I can still listen, if you want.”
A very small and singular nod. Even in gesture, the Captain was terse. But she held her free hand out for Marcine to take. Her palm was as tough as old shoe leather. <What?>
Marcine considered a dry joke--something about her enthralling company, maybe--but Bellworth probably wouldn’t appreciate it. <I could make something more secure for that if it needs it, I think.> Along with the statement was an indication of the sword. <Do you still have my knife?>
<Yes.> She turned her hip slightly. <Though I can’t hold this, and your hand, and get to that.>
Marcine chuckled and let go of her hand to unhook it from her belt. <It does stay in place for a bit,> she noted.
<I am unfamiliar with most mental magics,> Bellworth said, irritation and a vaguely unsettled feeling leaking through the link.
She’d wondered if Wardens used it to communicate much. That answered that. <I suppose it would be... I only hear what you specifically want me to. Don't worry about that.> She looked down at the knife and sighed. <Guess this was useless.>
<It was a tank.> Laura didn’t laugh exactly, but something close. <I brought a knife to a cannon-fight. Two of them, for all the good it did me. I should have thrown Cantor at it.>
Marcine snickered and covered her mouth before she got any weird looks. That was just mean. <I gave you the knife for the cannon-fight.> She rolled her eyes. <In my defense, I was expecting a helicopter. It would have been much more useful then.>
<How did you discover a helicopter and miss the tank?> Bellworth asked, raising an eyebrow.
<The guy running the armory showed me-as-Mowser where they were keeping the ‘toys,’ and the only one there was the helicopter. The other one was gone. I assumed it was the same thing since he wasn’t specific.> She rubbed her neck awkwardly. <We wondered why we didn’t hear a drat chopper taking off. That...should have been obvious, in retrospect.>
Bellworth snorted. <Helicopters aren’t very useful against wizards.>
<Dad proved that,> Marcine said, smiling slightly. <But I don’t think we were equipped for it by then. Easier to break a rotor than a tank, though. In theory.> Elbridge could have done it, maybe, but Rupert was out of commission at that point. Because of her. She kept that to herself.
<It would have cost us, and the rest of the camp was stirring. We’d have all died if not for the reinforcements. Hadley might have saved the shield with his Death Curse if he was quick, but only temporarily.> Her tone was surprisingly calm as she walked through the worst case scenario. <It was close. Cole saved a good number of wizards by breaking the vampires’ chain of command before they arrived. That battle would have gone differently if Roqueza had been there, barking orders.>
Marcine had been thinking about that on the drive back. Processing everything. <At first I thought I should have stopped him from dueling,> she admitted. <Among other things. But that meant everything to this. Any change might have made the whole thing impossible. It probably went close to as well as it could have.> Even if it hurt to acknowledge. She looked at the sword. She didn’t know whose it was, but she knew what it meant. <I still wish we could’ve done more.>
<Be proud of what you did,> Bellworth said. <Six in my squad, six in yours, and we won. We bled for it, but we won. You hear that Burke?> She looked down at the sword in her arms, and the tattered tablecloth that had been the best she could find, and sighed. <If there’s something more noble for Byron Burke’s sword than this moth-eaten sheet, he’d appreciate it. Cole’s borrowing his sheath.>
Marcine hooked her knife onto her belt. <It won’t be fancy, but it’ll be better than that.> She tilted her head and formed the question more as an impression than words: Coming with?
The Captain’s brow furrowed as she moved to follow. <You’re Seth Sterling’s daughter… Making you Samuel Sterling’s niece?>
Marcine tried not to tense up as ingrained paranoia swept over her. She’d expected this to come up eventually. That didn’t make it much easier. <Yes. I know some of what happened with him.>
<Did you know I swung the sword?>
The link stuttered as her mind briefly rebelled against contact. Several seconds passed while she stabilized the connection and calmed her gut reaction, irritated with herself for it. No reason to get jumpy. <No, but that’s not surprising.>
<I also spoke in his defense,> Bellworth said.
That was more surprising. <I don’t know much about it. I was told he broke the fourth law to defend himself, but it wasn’t ruled self-defense. Dad called it a sham trial… It upset him to talk about it much around me, so I never pressed.>
<It was a question of degrees. The court argued that he could have stopped his attacker without breaking the Law.>
Marcine got the impression that this was more about her than him. <I can’t speak for him,> she said slowly, <but if I resorted to that, there wouldn’t have been another option.> Except there had been with the Fallen. She’d just been naive. Samuel wasn’t.
<Are you sure?> Bellworth asked. <Can you pull your punches when someone you care about is bleeding out in front of you?>
<I did when Hugues got shot,> she answered. But Rupert had been bleeding out when she dominated the vampire. She’d taken that step because it was just a vampire, but how many more steps did that leave? <If I don’t in the future, I can’t say I didn’t know better. Or wasn’t capable of it.> She sighed. <Yet you defended him.>
<Yes. Samuel worked with us occasionally, locating warlocks who couldn’t be found by more common means.> A note of disapproval accompanied her explanation, though it was hard to pinpoint what Bellworth was unhappy with. Possibly all of it. <He was meant to wait at a safe distance, as usual. He didn’t. Warden Killika’s mental cry for help brought him into the fight.>
Marcine wouldn’t have been able to stand aside either. Inaction got people hurt. <Was he able to help her?>
<No. She was dying when he found her.> The Captain’s words were void of emotion, but her eyes held an intensity that was frightening. <The warlock attacked him. They fought. Samuel won. But he crossed the line to do it. He used his power in anger. The Council couldn’t forgive that.>
Cowards. The word wasn’t spoken but rang clear anyways.
<Did anger matter that much?> Marcine wondered as they reached the car. Breaking a mind was breaking a mind, as far as she was concerned.
<It showed poor judgement and a lack of control. Due to that, invoking the Doom was barred. It was… political. Samuel Sterling was not a warlock. He was a respected wizard, a friend to the Wardens. He was made an example of.>
Her skin crawled. No wonder her father hated the Council. She didn’t know what she should feel yet. She opened her trunk and stared at the mess inside without really seeing it. <That’s a lousy reason for never knowing my uncle,> she said, eventually.
<He broke the Law.> There was a tightness to the Captain’s words. She was holding something back, something she didn’t want Marcine to see. She’d kept her words so distant, so professional… What had Samuel actually done? <He confessed his guilt. It was beyond a doubt.> She sighed aloud, breaking the physical silence that had grown between them. <I don’t mean to scare you, Marcine, or to bring this up without a reason. It’s just that you remind me of him, and I don’t want you to make the same mistakes.>
Marcine nodded. She felt a pang of loss, but shoved it aside. No point getting upset. Nothing had really changed, except she had a better idea of why her father hadn’t told her much. <I understand. I don’t want to, either. When they shot Hugues, I disabled them without harming them.> A pulse of anger, dulled after everything else that had happened. <I’m careful. I’ve had to figure out most of this on my own, but I’m careful.>
Marcine sighed quietly. Bellworth had killed Samuel after defending him...she couldn’t put herself in that position. She’d never want to be in that position. <I’m sorry.> With that came the wordless acknowledgement that it wasn’t adequate or even appropriate, but she didn’t know anything better to say. <You knew him. I didn’t.>
<Not well,> Bellworth said, though there was a lie in that somewhere.
<If I remind you of him, I hope I’m not that worrying.>
<You’re young, thrust into the middle of a war, with no training. You’re worrying.> Her lips pressed together in disapproval. <But you remind me of him because you still want to help despite that.>
<Didn’t want to be in one,> she replied wearily. <But nobody ever saved a life or won a victory by deciding it was too hard to try.>
<This was one battle. There will be more, and they will be harder. Pace yourself.>
Marcine smiled grimly. <The universe hasn’t asked for my opinion on pacing so far.>
Laura sighed. <It never does.>
She turned her attention back to the trunk. Didn’t have the tools to work with leather or plastic, the kitchen probably didn’t have flour to make plaster… Hard to concentrate anyway. Somehow, this was the closest she’d felt to her uncle. Maybe not for good reasons. <How did you know him?> she asked, as she shifted things around.
<I soulgaze every Lawbreaker I execute. If I’m going to kill someone, I want to look them in the eyes.> Mixed feelings, a desire for validation that felt unfulfilled. <It was fast and clean. I owed him that much, for Killika.>
Marcine went still for a moment. At least one thing felt clear. <For whatever it’s worth, I'm glad it wasn't somebody who didn't care.>
Surprise, and then a very awkward silence was her answer. <Yes, well…>
Marcine chuckled faintly. That was about what she’d expected. <Thanks for telling me all this. It answers some things.> Things she needed to unpack, still, but it was better than not knowing.
She paused when she started to move her EMT bag aside. Duct tape. It could waterproof boots, it could secure splints and broken bones, and she never packed a kit without it. “Aha.” She pulled it out of her bag, laid out strips as long as the blade and layered them together until it was wide enough to wrap around fully. One of her grey sleeping bags was worn through on one side and had to be replaced anyway, so she cut off the intact outer layer, trimmed it to fit the sheath, and sewed it up the side with a wide decorative stitch. More tape affixed it to the sheath at the throat and secured the whole thing. It didn’t take very long, all told.
Finished, it wasn’t exactly military-grade; but it was functional, and didn’t even look too bad. Except for its clash with the style of the hilt. She slid the sword out and back in to make sure it was smooth on the draw. Odds were that no one would take it into battle in this state, but the situation was too chaotic to rule it out entirely. Although, given that, maybe a real sheath would be better…
She frowned at it. Rick’s sword wasn’t fancy. She could imagine him laughing at this. Maybe he would have even helped her make it. She wished she’d thought of it before, when he was just using a sheet; she’d been too distracted to consider it. Hell, she could have done it when El said he’d cut himself. They probably wouldn’t need a usable sheath, but someone might need Burke’s.
This didn’t feel right.
<Wouldn’t it make more sense for Burke’s sheath to stay here with his sword?> she asked. <It doesn’t seem like the Wardens can really afford the delay to make a new one.>
<There are more swords left over than hands to hold them,> Laura said solemnly. <I’d like to give it to his family intact but…> She shook her head. <Hadley nearly stabbed himself to death last night. He’s hopeless with a blade.>
<They should have it intact.> Marcine didn’t think she’d like a family sword brought back in duct tape, if she were in that position, even if it had gone to another hero. It wasn’t like Burke was less of one. <Rick would get a good laugh out of this. He spent most of the time with Warden Finch’s sword wrapped in a blanket. It’s a wonder he didn’t cut himself open too.> She held up her sheath. <This is better than that was.>
<Are you sure?>
She examined it for a moment longer. The sleeping bag shell wasn’t the same shade as a Warden’s cloak, but Rick hadn’t been the shade she’d expected of a Warden. <It feels right,> she decided.
<Alright.> Bellworth smiled very slightly. <If you can convince Hadley. Though… it does suit both of them better.> The smile faded as quickly as it had appeared, and she leaned on the trunk of the car. Just this much effort had been exhausting, though she was doing her best to hide it. <I don’t like being left behind, but I don’t want to slow you down. Turner can be carried, if need be. I can’t.>
<You do need to rest,> Marcine said. It was stating the obvious, but the medical (semi-)professional in her would really rather just march her to a bed. <But if we went with that criteria alone, I’d make Rupert and Hugues stay here too. You can do more out here than in there.> Her hand dropped to rest against her pocket with the brooch. <We’ve already tipped the odds as far in our favor as they’re going to get.>
<Fighting fair’s a fool’s game.> Laura stood back up and turned towards the hotel.
<Thankfully, I’m specialized for fighting dirty.> Marcine almost didn’t want to end the conversation, but Bellworth definitely had to rest, and they’d about exhausted what they had to talk about by now. <If we can get this right… I don’t think I want a reason to meet the other you.> Wry humor accompanied the words. <But I hope I can meet her anyway.>
<Go with Hadley when he takes Cole’s sword home, and I’m sure you will.> She looked stern. <You should see Edinburgh once, and make your own decision about it.>
Marcine nodded. <I’d like to. He did offer to train me, too.> She offered her hand. A mix of undecided farewells flicked through her mind, though what crossed the link was just a strong desire for her safety. <Take care, Captain.>
Laura shook it firmly. <And you, Sterling.>
|# ? Mar 3, 2017 23:07|
Marcine had a lot to think about as she repacked her trunk. It was a relief to be thinking of something less immediate for a change. Between Rick and Bellworth, the Wardens were less frightening than she’d been led to believe. She wasn't entirely sure if that should be her takeaway from talking to her uncle’s executioner, but that had been a long time ago. No reason to hold it against the Captain after twenty years. And...she meant what she’d said.
Elbridge was probably packing supplies, if he was back. The Council had set up a small field hospital on the side of the building. She looked there first. When she found him, and saw what he was packing things into, she stopped in her tracks. “Oh gently caress no.”
“Really?” Elbridge kept loading things into the rear of the van - bandages, antiseptics, painkillers, vitamins, and other essentials of first aid. “You looked upon a Walker just hours ago, and this is where you draw the line?”
“That just exists,” she protested. “Someone chose to paint this and someone else chose to buy it.” She pressed a hand to her face with a groan and trudged over to join him. “Which of your shirts traumatized someone this badly?”
“I’m not certain that it was one of my shirts,” Elbridge said. “Rumour has it that the artist had one of his own - something about wolves, and the moon.”
“So this is the legacy of the three-wolf-moon,” she said glumly. “I now regret everything when I was fifteen.” She blinked. “I might still have that shirt… It’s going to Goodwill.” She spotted the sheath, and winced. Rick’s sword did not belong with bronze. “Anyway. I was just talking with the Captain. I made this for Burke’s sword.” She held up her handmade sheath. “But it didn’t feel right, so I thought it’d be better to use this for Rick’s.”
“Ah, of course.” Elbridge inspected the butchered bedroll. “I should have expected.” He drew the sword and set Burke’s sheath to rest against the side of the van. “It’ll do,” he announced. “Not as if I’d planned to swing this around with any frequency.”
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but Marcine supposed she shouldn’t expect much more from him. She put Burke’s sword back where it belonged and handed the sheath to Elbridge. “It’s lighter, too.”
“Now that, I’ll appreciate. Thank you.” Elbridge sheathed the sword again, slowly, testing for catches or drag. Finding none, he nodded in satisfaction. “Are you ready?” he asked. “Have everything you need before we enter the breach?”
She sighed and picked up the box he’d been headed to before she interrupted him. “How should I know? I have what I’ve always had. If they’re still alive in there, they must have the basics for survival.”
“For certain definitions of ‘surviving’,” Elbridge admitted. “Hrm. Then perhaps I should scrape together more materials for spellwork. It’s a safe bet that we’ll need to perform at least a few rituals, and any ingredients that have spent six years Outside could be…suspect.”
Marcine grimaced. “Good point. I could look if you tell me what you need.” She climbed up into the van to organize the boxes. “And whenever everyone’s back, Topaz brought a letter from the Summer Lady. It was meant for Rick. He’ll give it to you.”
“I...see,” Elbridge said stiffly. “Would you start by searching for some ulcer medication? I think I’ll be needing it sooner rather than later.”
|# ? Mar 3, 2017 23:09|
Angelique sat on the rotten tiles, but there was no sun to be found in the overcast sky. It hadn’t been hard to find a hole in the hotel roof, and more importantly, a little privacy in what had become an anthill of activity. She’d cleaned up, cleaned her guns, and slept a little, but her tattoos still traced faint flower patterns across her bare arms.
It was hard to let go of the flurry of emotions in her heart.
She’d lost friends before, but Rico… he was more than a friend. He was family. The Sons and Daughters of St. Giles were all close, but none were closer than those paired together as mentor and student. For months, he’d needed her like a newborn babe. She slept beside him, calming his nightmares with a touch. She helped him learn to eat again, to control the urges and impulses of the fledgeling vampire in his belly. She was the one who tattooed the wards into his skin, the one who saw life come back into his eyes, slowly, so very slowly, after the wizards sent him to her, with a memory full of holes and a soul covered in scars.
Even wounded as he was, he’d been a good friend to her. No, that wasn’t enough. A good son. It warmed her heart to know that he hadn’t run home when he found himself lost in a hostile future. He’d run straight to her. Just to see her, to ask her advice, not to take advantage of her. Not to draw her into his fight. She’d done that on her own. And she’d let him go to his death on her own too.
The ink flowers blossomed as grief took hold of her again. She didn’t try to hold her tears in, just let them flow as she tilted her head towards the grey skies. They’d discussed it endlessly during the car ride south, after visiting the Artist. He’d begged her to let him try, to trust him, that he knew the trick he’d planned would work.
She’d always known when he was lying to her.
An incredibly bright light split the clouds in the direction of the city. Angelique stood up and squinted as the shockwave rattled the windows in the building below her. “Dios Mio…” The others had been planning to examine the dome, and she had no doubt they were at the epicenter of whatever that was.
She didn’t bother re-entering the building, just swung down to the balcony below herself, and again, until she reached the ground. Her side hurt, and a pang of hunger crossed her stomach. She hadn’t eaten yet, and her curse was far from satisfied, but she calmed it with the force of her will. There would be time to eat later.
So it was that she was the first person to run into Jenny on the way back from the heavenly light show, and the first to find out that an angel, a real honest-to-God angel was walking among them.
“Is this how you felt when I died in your world?” she asked, touching the ice with the tips of her fingers. She couldn’t help the tears, but smiled through them. “We’ve lost each other again, Rico… But just as you found me again, I still have the chance to find you. I promise I will. I wonder what he’ll say, when he finds out you beat Roqueza in a duel.”
She knelt and set a sprig of yellow wildflowers next to the headstone Rupert had made. There was a small collection of tokens now, in addition to the lacquered card. Candles, a grass-woven bracelet, a half-full shot glass, a few coins. She wondered if any of those people had known him, or if they were just paying respects for what he’d accomplished. Perhaps it didn’t matter.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” She bowed her head and recited the Lord’s prayer with the rhythmic cadence of long practice. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
“Give us this day, our daily bread.” A deeper voice joined hers as someone knelt beside her. “And forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
“Amen.” Angie finished, and looked over at him. “I wondered if that was you, watching me.”
“Was I so obvious?”
“I know what to look for. Are you really…?”
He nodded and stood up. “I am the angel Zophiel.”
“Wow.” She remained on her knees, staring up at him in awe. “No wings?”
“Haha, not this time.” He smiled. “A summoner chose my vessel. You might call it non-traditional, though I find it suits me.”
Angie bit her lip. “You weren’t hurt in the crash, were you? If they did anything wrong just tell me and-”
“No, no. I’m well enough. I want to be here.” He offered her his hand. “Please, stand. I’m only a servant, there’s no need to kneel.”
It took her a moment but in the end she decided listening to him was the least sacrilegious thing to do, so she let him help her to her feet.
“That’s better,” he said, brushing her cheek with his fingers. He looked to Rick, then back to her. “Out of everyone who came, you’re the only one who prayed for him.”
“I have faith,” she said simply.
“It’s been tested.” He sounded regretful.
“Often, always,” she said, not letting his hand go. “But that’s why it’s called faith.”
She blushed, not sure how to take a compliment from one of the heavenly host. “Are you coming with us?”
“Only as far as the entrance.” He squeezed her hand. “I mean to guard the way out, so you aren’t trapped inside.”
“Oh.” She tried to hide her disappointment, and brushed the trails of her earlier tears away. “I’d have liked to fight beside an angel.”
He laughed, and after a moment, she did too.
“I wouldn’t rule it out yet,” he said. “But, if it helps, we’re on the same side.”
She smiled, feeling like a weight had been lifted from her chest. “I don’t always know if that’s true. God doesn’t approve of some of the things I’ve done.”
“That’s between you and Him.”
“Yes…” She let go of his hand and looked down. “Are we damned, Zophiel? Me and my people, we carry demons inside of us. Even those who’ve learned not to listen, we don’t age or get sick like normal people do.”
“It isn’t mine to know any man’s fate,” he said quietly. “But this I know to be true: No one is damned by another’s hand. The only sins you bear are your own.”
Angie smiled weakly. “That’s a small comfort to someone who’s sinned as much as I have. But it still gives me hope.” She turned back to face the ice block with new determination. “Rico… we’ll see each other again, wherever you’ve gone. That’s a promise. Goodbye, son.”
Zophiel waited for her, as she took in the tomb fully one last time. “May I come with you?” he asked, when she was finished. “I’m no longer needed here.”
“I would like that a lot,” Angie said.
She slipped her hand back into his and they walked back together.
|# ? Mar 3, 2017 23:11|
A New Hope
It was a while before everyone was back, but when they were, Marcine gathered them all into the dining room again. She’d finally developed an appetite. Too bad the meat pastry thing she picked looked better than it tasted. And it hadn’t looked particularly good.
“Topaz brought a letter from the Summer Lady,” she said when they’d assembled, and smirked, glancing toward the food cart. “I’d like to introduce you all to our very brave and handsome Summer courier…”
The three-tailed fox peered out from between two extra large cans of baked beans. He didn’t look particularly brave, or handsome. More like he wanted to bolt at any second. “Um, yes, that’s me. Hi.”
“You’re too cute to hide in the Bush’s,” Marcine noted.
He tilted his head, confused, until he noticed the label on the can next to him. Then he snorted a laugh.
Elbridge smiled thinly and gave Marcine a nod of approval. “Hello again, Topaz,” he said softly. Loud noises might spook him. “It’s been a few days since we last met, hasn’t it?”
“Oh! Yes, I’ve been busy.” His ears perked up a little. “I heard you’ve been to Winter.”
“We have,” Elbridge confirmed. “It was very cold.”
“Huh, seems like I’m not the only one on the small folk’s side.” Hugues commented. “Has he been with us this entire time?”
“Only briefly,” Marcine said. “He left to go be our secret agent after the uh, curse incident.”
“Kitsune aren’t small folk,” Topaz said, puffing up indignantly and standing at his full two-feet of height.
“Not if you keep eating like them,” Marcine muttered under her breath.
“How did a Kitsune end up in New Orleans?” asked Rupert.
“My sister, Miho, was working for Narcissus, to repay a debt owed by our Lady.” He sat, curling his tails around his paws. “I didn’t know about the coup until it happened.”
“I think we’ve met,” said Rupert, thinking back, “Dark hair, mask, fond of a wicked looking curved dagger?”
“We met her when we crashed one of Narcissus’ parties. She was acting as his bodyguard,” explained Rupert, deciding the details of that encounter were best left unsaid, given Ada’s insane plan had almost ended very badly. Still, where they were heading... maybe they’d be better off with Ada’s style of planning.
“Miho has six tails,” Topaz said proudly, but his ears drooped. “I still need to earn my fourth.”
“More tails, greater power and experience,” Hugues said, when Rupert looked like he was about to ask a question.
“We’re born with two, and grow one when we come of age,” Topaz explained. “More if we’re especially clever or brave…” He looked a bit embarrassed, hunching his shoulders forwards and crouching. “Do you think going Outside is very brave?”
“It’s brave,” Marcine said. It could also be stupid, but when their only other option was leaving a world to rot, she felt courage had more weight. “We should hear that letter.”
The kitsune nodded, then vanished like the cheshire cat. He reappeared on the table in front of Elbridge, an envelope in his mouth. ‘To The Warden,’ was written on it in flowing green ink. He set it down gently and bowed his head. “You have the sword,” he said.
“‘Acting Second’,” Elbridge corrected gently, but he took the envelope nonetheless. It was heavy - there was something more than just a letter inside. Hopefully, this would not be a lethal trap of some variety, but to leave it unopened was simply not an option at this point. Elbridge undid the seal with the silver edge of Rick’s sword, turned it over, and retrieved the contents.
The lesser volume of the envelope was occupied by a thin sheet of vellum, folded neatly at the centre and trimmed with gold leaf. Next to it was something heavy, oblong, and woody - a cream-coloured spiracle wrapped in a silken husk like an ear of corn, if an ear of corn had only a single, massive kernel. “Some sort of...seed?” Elbridge guessed.
Topaz sniffed at it but shook his head. He didn’t know.
“Well, hopefully this will explain…” Elbridge opened the letter itself, cleared his throat, and began to read aloud.
The Letter posted:
To the Warden, and any others who’ve traveled across the breach of time, my greetings.
Below that, in a different hand entirely:
PS: I don’t know where you’ve gone, but the fox does, so I’ve given it to him. Would’ve come myself, but the Queen has ordered me not to go within a league of New Orleans. I’m nearly sure this isn’t our Titania. But until I can find the true Queen, I don’t dare disobey. Our hopes and freedom rest with you.
“Ha,” Hugues chuckled. “Nerd.”
Marcine’s eyes had widened as the letter went on. “When we’re sure. Sure. Half the Summer Court is now personally counting on us. No pressure.” She went silent for a moment. “Why is it that our correct branch seems to be so based on people dying?”
“Darwinian selection,” Elbridge said absently. “All that is, necessarily exists at the expense of all that is not, or all that could have been but didn’t.” He looked at the seed in his palm - he’d suspected from the moment he first saw it, but hadn’t dared to believe… “Unless you’ve a way to make more.”
“Growing a new branch?” She frowned. “Or…a way to merge this one to the tree properly?”
“Either, or both.” Elbridge shrugged. “I expect we’ll know more when the time comes.” He tried not to show his shock, nor his relief. Here at last, a way that this might not end in horror…
Marcine wanted to feel relief, but there were still too many questions. “If it’s not their Titania, does that mean ours replaced herself? It makes sense if she went to all this trouble to have Aurora back. But then, where’s this one?”
“Mab spoke of a certain...force,” Elbridge said uneasily. “Some infectious malevolence from Outside that had claimed Aurora in our world. It’s too early to speculate, but if it’s spread…”
“Or it took a different host in this timeline?” guessed Rupert.
“Only one way to find out,” Hugues said grimly.
“Maybe that’s what Mab’s protecting us from.” Marcine looked from the letter to the seed, and finally smiled. “Guess I was right when I told Bellworth the odds were as far in our favor as they’d get.”
Rupert sighed and said, “Don’t go saying something like that. You’re just tempting fate to give us a sharp kick.”
Marcine’s eyes narrowed. She should just let that pass. It was only standard pessimism. But she was tired of the pessimism, and the negativity, and the hopelessness. “We have direct help from both Winter and Summer, and I summoned an angel who can give us a way out if everything goes to hell. Is that not enough to count as tipping the odds for you?” She folded her arms. “Time will tell if it’s far enough. But I don’t want to hear this before we’ve even gotten started.”
Rupert held up his palm and said, “Look, I’m sure we’ll be fine. I just don't like to taunt fate, that’s all.” With a shrug, he added, “We all have our superstitions.”
“If anyone’s jinxing us, it’s you, not me.” Was she really the only person here that valued a positive outlook at all? Rick would have... Why’d you leave me with the grumpy old men? she wondered silently. “So is there anything else we need to prepare?”
“Fate is Lucy with the football, trying to make Charlie Browns of us all,” Elbridge said sarcastically, throwing up his hands in resignation. “And unless someone cares to ask Zophiel how many times he can fit on the head of a pin, I think we’re as bloody well ready as we’ll ever be.”
“Which was basically my point,” Marcine grumbled. Louder, she said, “Then let’s figure out what we’re doing so we can get on with it.”
|# ? Mar 3, 2017 23:15|
Scene: Hotel Parking
The supplies were nearly loaded when Angie and Zophiel reached the hotel.
Nicky was on the roof of the van painting anti-outsider wards in fresh river mud while Elbridge supervised. Hugues was taking a nap inside, curled up with his helmet on. Rupert was making a nuisance of himself trying to lug things with one arm. Angie excused herself and ran to give him a hand before he dropped anything important.
Marcine was double-and-triple checking her trunk when Zophiel joined her.
“Is there anything you need help with?” he asked.
She looked up from her organizing (and reorganizing, and re-reorganizing) with a wry smile. “Not unless you can give me flaming bullets or something.”
He laughed and reached for her ammo bag. “I can bless them, but Outsiders aren’t any more susceptible to God’s power than lead.”
“How did you hold them off from the book?” she asked.
“I didn’t. I was the bouncer guarding the door, in a sense. I can look very intimidating.” He glanced down at himself. “...metaphysically.”
“The vessel made you look a little like my EMT instructor, and nobody crossed her twice.” She went quiet for a moment. “Was the summoning okay? I didn’t like that you had no say in it.”
“I trusted you wouldn’t call me without a good reason,” he said. “It was a bit of a shock to be yanked through time like a shopping cart behind a rocket ship. I normally have a more graceful, ah, landing.”
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t even know it was possible. I’m glad you came. It’s not so bad, knowing we have a way out, but…”
A cold feeling crept into her gut. She’d have to leave him behind. Like she’d left Rick behind. He was an angel, she told herself. He was powerful. He’d be fine. But if divine power wasn’t actually a protection, what would happen to him? “Can they harm you?” she asked.
“Yes, though it would take a great many of them, or one of sizable strength. I’ll fortify my position to try to prevent that from happening. I’ve held Gates before.” He sounded wistful, and something about the way he said ‘Gates’ made the capital letter clear.
She wanted to believe him. If she couldn’t trust an angel, who the hell could she trust? But she’d trusted Rick. The last time she’d seen him alive was when she’d walked out the door, leaving him alone in a tent with an enemy. And she’d be leaving Zophiel alone outside reality, in a timeline where he didn’t belong, when he was already afraid of something, and if anything happened to him it would be directly her fault and she wouldn’t be able to live with herself--
She looked down to see her hand shaking.
He put a hand on hers. “You fear for me.”
“Is that wrong?” she asked hoarsely.
“It’s natural, but there’s no way to do this without some risk. Should the way become impassable, I will let you know, and close it. There’s no point in holding it open if you can’t get back to me.” His stern look faded as he gave a quiet laugh. “I’m the one who should be worried about losing my best agent, not the other way around.”
A moment of giddiness overrode fear. Best agent? “Good,” she managed. “Not much of an agent without someone to work for.” She sighed shakily. “I am afraid of going in. But I’m more afraid of losing someone else.” Her hand drifted to the Warden pin. “I’d rather get shot than feel this again.”
“It won’t come to that.” He held her ammo pouch in his left hand and made a cross over it with his right, whispering softly. “You shall not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but not you. For He is your refuge and your fortress, and you trust in Him.”
There was no visible change, but she felt something she couldn’t describe. She smiled weakly. She should be grateful, but the image of standing alone in the ruins of the dead made her queasy. “Not literally, I hope.”
“It’s a soldier’s prayer,” he said, tucking the pouch back into the trunk. He turned to her. “There are no wars won without sacrifice. But God needs more than just soldiers. Walk your own path, Marcine.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “Right now, I need to be a soldier whether I like it or not. I don’t feel like one. I just want to keep them safe and get home…” Her voice quavered on the word. It felt impossible. “But they’re the same thing right now. I could look to Angie... Did she get to talk to you?”
“She did. A devout woman.”
Marcine smiled, this time without reservation. “I hoped she would. That must have meant a lot to her.” The smile faded somewhat. “She knows how to pray and all that… She deserves it.”
“She does… but there’s more to faith than knowing the right words. Religion is but one way to Him.”
She shut the trunk. “So what’s right, or does it not even matter?”
He sighed. “There isn’t one right answer. Even simple rules, like treat thy neighbor as thyself, can be misconstrued or used for selfish ends. For some, religion is a solace, for others, oppression. But those that truly want to know Him will always find a way.” He tapped the red cross on his shirt. “No matter how unconventional.”
Marcine wondered if she did. She believed in God; the evidence was in front of her, and she liked to think there was a purpose to existence. But she didn’t know which stories to believe, and some of them painted a repulsive picture. “I haven’t looked very hard,” she admitted. “So why me?”
He looked concerned. “The answer may disappoint.”
She chuckled self-consciously. “Heaven so low on options that you got stuck with me?”
“Heaven’s options are incredibly restricted,” he corrected, the concern growing deeper. “People like to think that they were chosen by an angel, but that isn’t so. You choose yourselves, by acting with just a nudge here, a feeling of unease there. Without people like you, we wouldn’t be able to help without giving the enemy the power to act in kind.”
She considered that, remembering her conversation with Rupert at the shelter. “So if that goes both ways, that’s why you could protect me from the Fallen,” she said. “Joey took it willingly?”
“Yes, though he didn’t understand what he’d done. It still meant I could do nothing for him. Nor could I stop you, when you invaded his mind.”
Marcine grimaced. “Don’t know why you decided to try me again after I screwed that one up that badly.”
“Atonement,” he said quietly.
(Empathy: ///++5 = 6)
She sensed reluctance, and a shade of regret, or something like it. There was something he didn’t want to tell her. Or he had more than one meaning. She turned to him. “For who?”
He shook his head. “This is a poor time to tear open old scars, Marcine. Focus on the task at hand.”
She sighed. “Right…” A distraction was exactly what she wanted, but it seemed that her uncle was all she’d get. “I keep saying I don’t fight fair. So I think I’m okay with being a heavenly loophole.” Her short laugh faded as she looked up at the dome. “Will we ever get to talk like this again after this is over?”
“That’s really up to you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Want another summons so you can stick the landing?”
He blanched. “Please, no.”
Marcine laughed and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t. There are so many things I want to ask, but they just aren’t important right now…” Not only questions. She doubted she could just hang out with an angel, but still… Her voice was rough when she continued. “I’m never going to see Rick or Angie again. I want to keep the rest of you. I need to.”
Zophiel pulled her into a warm hug. “Never is a long time. Don’t be so sure.”
She leaned into his strong arms and wondered what that meant. She could only think of one possibility, and it hardly counted. “Do people actually reunite in heaven?”
“Death is not the end,” he said. “I can say no more than that.”
“That’s fair.” She never had figured out what she thought of heaven. If it was some perfect world, then what was the point of life on earth--and if it wasn’t, then what was the point of life after death, or however that worked? She didn’t really want an answer. She probably wouldn’t like it.
She dropped her forehead against his shoulder wearily. That wasn’t the point anyway. “There are still some things I don’t want to leave up to faith. Or hope.”
He finally relented. “Alright. We will speak again, after.”
Marcine didn’t want to move, not when stepping away meant setting them both irrevocably on the path to a dangerous unknown. Like when she’d left the tent without Rick--or before that, when they’d all gotten into the van to drive him to Roqueza.
She straightened anyway and smiled for Zophiel. She'd just make sure they got their next chance. “I’ll look forward to it.”
|# ? Mar 12, 2017 04:44|
And Away We Go
Scene: Near the Leyline
Elbridge climbed into the van and slid behind the wheel. He wedged the sword between the seats so that it could be close at hand without risk of turning into a projectile in the event of a collision, then buckled his seatbelt. His hand was almost to the ignition when it struck him that he didn’t have a key...and furthermore, that he couldn’t drive.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jenny asked, leaning on the door and giving him a quizzical look.
“A telluric void that even demons would call ‘Hell’?” he suggested.
“Well scoot over,” she said, jingling the keys at him. “I’m driving.”
He shook his head to clear it. “Wrong side. Yes, wrong side…” Elbridge unfastened the seatbelt and climbed over into the other front seat, carefully stepping over the sword on the way. He gave Marcine’s makeshift sheath a curious look - he’d been feeling rather off all day, but surely that was just from everything else that’d happened?
“C’mon El, you’ve been in the states how many decades?” Hugues said, accusing look hidden behind the motorcycle helmet. His concussion(s) didn’t hurt as bad today, but Doctor Jenny insisted. “Or do you really only come out of the swamp every full moon?”
”I play a better Yankee than you do a child,” Elbridge grumbled, glaring at Turner in the mirror.
Jenny laughed under her breath as she turned the engine over. “Next stop, New Orleans- Worst Future Edition.”
“Hey!” Nicholas protested. “I’m sure there are plenty of potential futures worse than this one.”
Jenny gave him a cool look in the rear-view mirror.
“...probably,” he amended, crossing his arms.
Angie looked up from cleaning her rifle. “It’s not a contest.”
“But if we keep talking about it, fate might take it as a challenge,” Elbridge said sourly, “so let’s be off before we get a firm answer.”
“Off we go,” Jenny said, pulling out of the parking lot.
Rupert eyed Marcine’s car one last time before he climbed into the passenger side, wishing there’d been time to weld some extra armour on or do something else to make it tougher. Between the bags and boxes of supplies, the interior was… cramped, to say the least. Climbing half way in, he started shuffling around a few boxes of shotgun shells to make room for his legs.
“If I’d known she was going to do something like this, I’d have bought her a bigger car,” Seth said stoically from the back seat.
“But for your responsibility, we could have been riding in a Range Rover,” quipped Rupert, “Or a Hummer.”
“Well, she wanted a Jeep, but they get such terrible gas mileage.” He sighed.
“So instead I play Jenga every time I need to change my loadout,” Marcine said with mock exasperation, sliding into the driver’s seat. She stuffed her shotgun between the seat and the console, pointed as downward as it could get without getting in the way of her arm, and stared at it in dismay. “This goes against every tenet of gun safety I know.”
“Oh, give me that,” Seth said. “It’s not like you can use it while driving, and I can’t call thunder while you’re driving either if you want to keep the engine running. It’ll give me something to do.”
She tugged it free and handed it back to him, then passed back her ammo bag. “Zophiel blessed these. It probably won’t do anything to Outsiders, but…” She shrugged, not sure where the ‘but’ was actually going. “It was nice of him.”
“JR seemed to do... alright with his blessed bullets, and he only had a priest to do it,” said Rupert with a shrug, “Who knows, it might be exactly what we need.”
“Did he fight monsters beyond reality and understanding?” she asked dryly. “All I’ve heard about are demons.”
“He never talked much,” said Rupert with another shrug.
Then that was completely irrelevant. She shrugged and started the car. “How do you feel about this?”
Rupert sat back, quiet for a moment, “We’re heading into unknown territory. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.”
Marcine sighed. “At least I’m not the only one out of my depth this time.”
“You get used to it, trust me,” replied Rupert with a slight smile.
“I don’t think I want to.” She pulled up behind the van. “I like knowing what I’m doing.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Seth said darkly, clutching the shotgun like he had something to prove. “I’m getting my daughter back.”
There had been a lot of discussion over the best place to enter the city, but in the end only one option would give them a guide marker that would lead them in the right direction regardless of the Outside’s potentially non-euclidean geography. The Delacroix Leyline. The same leyline that Wizard Minsk’s failed expedition had tethered to several years before. There were a few streets that ran close to it, close enough for Rupert to clear them a dirt road the rest of the way.
They parked just outside. The forest was quiet here, unnaturally so. The corruption from the tainted leyline had driven off the local wildlife. “I wish this was anyplace else,” Nicholas muttered.
Zophiel smiled. “And yet you’re here. That means something.”
Nicky nodded, but privately he wondered if it meant he was a fool.
Calmly, Zophiel exited the van and approached the barrier. The sword of flame sprang to life in his right hand. “I am the Guardian of the gates,” he said. His voice echoed in challenge, the words not actually spoken in English though everyone who heard could understand his meaning. “These doors shall not close unless I permit them. These doors shall not be breached unless I permit them. So swear I, ZOPHIEL, Angel of the LORD.” He pointed his sword at the barrier, standing at rapt attention. “Go, and may the blessing of the Most High go with you.”
Jenny floored it. The Dragon van lurched forwards, spitting dirt as it ramped up speed.
Marcine spared a last look at Zophiel as she passed. ‘I’ve guarded Gates before,’ he’d said. That was an understatement. He looked calm, strong, confident--what she’d tried to be before everything collapsed. Everything was in their favor, she reminded himself. It would have to be enough…
Her eyes narrowed as she drove through the barrier. She’d make it be enough.
|# ? Mar 31, 2017 14:29|
No Man’s Land
Aspects: Thick Fog, You’re Not Alone
Challenge Round 1
As the vehicles passed through the barrier, the world went as grey-scale as if they’d driven straight into a 1950’s television. There was no sun, no moon, no stars, just a strange, sourceless light that barely let them see a few feet ahead into what seemed like an endless fog. Turning on the headlights made the fog thicken, until the vehicles’ engines started to protest. Jenny and Marcine were soon forced to drive through the gloom unaided.
The leyline glowed white beside them, stretching out in a circuitous line on their right side that extended far beyond their range of vision. On their left, there was a wall. A wall that hadn’t been there in the real world. It wasn’t a uniform height, dipping to barely a few feet tall or rising to thirty with no apparent rhyme or reason. The leyline’s glow cast strange shadows on the wall as they raced past, shadows that looked more bestial than vehicle.
All along the wall there were structures. It was hard to guess at their purpose, though the laws of physics didn’t seem to apply to them. A single reed-thin pole supported what looked to be an inverted pyramid high in the air. A tower of cubes and rectangles leaned impossibly. A squat sphere rolled back and forth in a cup-shaped indentation.
There were holes in each of these structures, like apples half-eaten by worms. Everything here felt hollowed out.
But not empty.
“Do you think we’re lawbreaking just being here?” Hugues asked, shivering in his seat.
“Probably,” Elbridge said darkly, and didn’t elaborate further.
“We aren’t seeking knowledge,” Nicholas said, but he didn’t sound very sure. “And the Council was well aware of this. So it was sanctioned, at least.”
“Good point,” Elbridge said sarcastically. “Everyone, take care not to inadvertently learn anything from this.”
“Does don’t summon Cthulhu count?”
“I think we knew that already,” Jenny said, keeping her eyes on the ground ahead. It wasn’t pavement, but it might have been something like it, once. Hard to tell.
It was too foggy to go more than about thirty. Marcine watched the wall out of the corner of her eye. It was interesting. Deeply unsettling to see it existing in person and not as some trippy design in a video game, but interesting. It gave her a similar unreal feeling to what she’d experienced at the Gates. The ants were crawling in her head again and she wondered how long she’d be able to keep driving. She blocked it out as well as she could. It seemed determined to seep in anyway, and it was steadily getting worse.
Topaz put his head on her shoulder from the back seat. The warmth of his fur helped to block some of it out. “You can hear them too, can’t you?” He kept his dark eyes on the wall. “We’re being watched.”
She reached up to scratch behind his ear, her other hand clamped on the steering wheel. “Not my preferred superpower.”
“Hear what?” Seth asked, thumbing the safety on the shotgun.
“Them,” Topaz said, raising his nose.
Things were gathering along the wall ahead of them. They were roughly humanoid, if four limbs, a torso, and head were all that was required to call something ‘humanoid’. They were entirely made of shadow, and neither the ambient non-light nor the glow from the leyline revealed what was within the darkness… except for their eyes. They had any number, from a single large orb to dozens of refracted ones, spread over their bodies. The only consistent thing was that each milky eye was as perfectly white as the shadow-folk were otherwise black.
“Welcoming committee?” Marcine asked the pin in a strained voice. She left the link open.
Rupert clutched the stolen pistol tightly in his hand and asked, “Who or what in the hell are they?”
“The things on the other side of the book,” Nicholas whispered, horrified.
“Bottom-feeders,” Elbridge said over the pin. In the dragon-van’s passenger seat, he gave a brief shiver of revulsion as he recognised a number of them contorting into the letter k. “They hunger for reality, but in order to consume it, they first need to become partly-real, so don’t give them any knowledge or language they might use to define themselves into being.”
Elbridge rolls unspecialized Lore (with a +1 from his Lawbreaker Stunt) +-/- +4 = 3. He spends a Fate Point on “Give It The Old College Try” to bring that to 5, enough for all information. Aspect revealed: “Starving for Knowledge”. Keeper of the Blacklist triggers, revealing their High Concept as well: “We Are What We Devour”. Elbridge FP 5 -> 4.
“Just try not to think about the eldritch horrors, then?” muttered Rupert under his breath.
One of the figures writhed in the general direction of their passage, and thick, slimy streak-marks began to appear in the glass beside Elbridge’s head.
Elbridge determinedly ignored the message. Moments later, more writing appeared - this time by Nicky’s head.
R U STRIPE?
“I think we might have already done that,” Nicky said, staring at the words. He was still staring when a sharpened black spike slammed into the side of the van with a horrible screeching sound. It pierced the sheet metal easily and lodged in Hugues’ chair.
“Bollocks!” Elbridge swore. “Abjure! Abjure! Don’t touch it!”
“Easy for you to say!” Hugues shouted back, rapidly unbuckling himself while he scooted away from the spike.
The van lurched, fishtailing as the tether attached to the spike went taut. “poo poo!” Jenny shouted, hitting the gas, but the harpoon held them fast and all she did was make the engine whine.
Marcine hit the brakes and turned the wheel. Her car slid to a stop before it hit the van, and gave the back seat an angle on the harpoon line stretching between the van and the wall. “Dad?”
“I don’t think a shotgun is going to-” Seth started, but a second harpoon embedded itself in the rear fender of Marcine’s car, dragging them towards the wall. As soon as they were in range, two of the creatures lunged over the wall, one landing on the hood of the car, and one on the roof.
Two more boarders thunked onto the roof of the van, making horrible hissing sounds as they stepped on the warding sigils.
Elbridge frantically searched through the open duffel-bag of supplies at his feet, avoiding sharp edges and trying to keep steady. Between the pull of the harpoon and Jenny’s driving, it wasn’t easy. When his hand went cold and numb, he knew that he’d found it, and his fingers closed around one of the shards of Winter ice. “Rakshama!” he cried, and a sphere of frigid air erupted from the shard.
The harpoon gave a hideous shriek and recoiled from the protective aura as if it were alive.
Elbridge rolls Lore: Wardings to get rid of the harpoon on the van! ++-/ +5 = 6; sufficient!
“Get back!” Hugues shouted as he drew his sword and aimed the tip at the van’s ceiling. There were a few dents that weren’t there moments before. Which meant there were more of them. “Back” stab “You!” stab “Creepy” stab “Things!” stab
(Hugues rolls Notice +/-- +4 = 3…, the...things? Roll Physique -/+- +3 = 2… so pop goes the thingy)
Angie’s handgun popped loudly from the backseat as she helped Hugues dissuade their unwelcome passengers from staying on the roof. “No free rides!” she yelled. But only one of the boarding party leaped off, scrambling back up the wall. It left a trail of ink behind it that seemed too animated to be blood.
Jenny hit the gas as soon as the harpoon was out, hoping to dislodge the second rider, but claws sank in through the van’s roof as it held on tightly. It let out a piercing screech and the windshield cracked, a single line crawling all the way from one side to the other.
Marcine snatched the Winter snowflake from her coat pocket and drew a deep breath to calm her pounding heart. Another breath began a hum that rattled her teeth, then traveled into the frame of the car as she pressed the ice against the roof. She recalled the grim determination from the fae at the Gates to keep Outsiders out of reality. “En yehar nha near yor, was ki ra selena anw hymnos Paja,” she sang: words of cleansing and banishment The spell sent every aspect of Winter’s chill radiating to the boarders that did not belong.
The one on the roof was the first to jump off, hissing like angry ice sliding off a hot iron. She wasn’t sure if that would even make a sound, but that noise was definitely what it would sound like if it did.
(Marcine’s Will: /++-+4 = 5 vs Outsiders --+/ +3 = 2. One is dislodged, and the SWS places the boost “Purger”)
Rupert ignored the remaining boarder for the moment, twisting in his seat to study the harpoon embedded in the car’s fender. With the chain as taut as it was, the harpoon’s barbs must have found a solid grip in the car’s metal chassis. Closing his eyes, he focused his mind on the fender, whispering a brief incantation as he reached out to the metal with a spell. Creaking under the strain, the metal shifted, flowing outwards, leaving only a thin sheet of metal for the barb’s to grip - a thin sheet that soon buckled from the force.
((Rupert, Craftsmanship: /+++ +4 = +7))
The creature on the hood crawled up to the windshield and stared in at the humans. It seemed to mutate as it watched them, the many eyes that were scattered over its face merged and split into one pair in roughly the right area. Then its mouth opened. Its teeth were circular, set in a ring like a lamprey’s. It latched onto the windshield directly in front of Marcine and started to bore its way inside.
((K-man 1 on Marcine’s car rolls CA with Physique: +//- +3 = 3! Lands, “Blocking The Windshield”.
K-man 2 on the van rolls CA with Physique as well: /+++ +3 = 6! SwS, so two tags on “Half-Opened Tuna Tin”))
“Go, go!” Seth yelled, pointing at the van, which had just started trundling forwards again. There wasn’t much he could do about the lamprey-thing without blowing out the windshield with the shotgun, and it was probably better not to do that, yet. But the fog that had kept them from making any speed was something he knew more about. He started chanting softly, feeling for the currents of air and moisture that surrounded them. They resisted, far more than he was used to, but he forced the tainted air to obey.
The fog cleared.
The leyline wriggled into the distance with no end in sight, and all the respect for gravity of a matchbox car track. The good news was they were nearly beyond the wall and the things that lived on it. The bad news was that there was a hole in the road just ahead of them that the vehicles weren’t going to be able to cross.
End Challenge Round 1.
|# ? Mar 31, 2017 20:27|
No Man’s Land (Rnd 2)
Aspects: Thick Fog, You’re Not Alone
Challenge round 2
The gap in the road was about five feet wide, and it was coming up fast. To make matters worse, the jagged tips of spikes jutting out from the hole at all angles made it clear that this wasn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon.
((Challenge difficulty 6, you need to get your vehicles over the ravine. Don’t worry too much about hexing this round. You also still have one K-man per vehicle to contend with.))
“Road out!” Elbridge shouted. It wasn’t that Jenny couldn’t see it, only that she might be tempted to treat the gaping maw as merely an oversized pothole. Their other passenger was still merrily clawing a hole through the sheet metal of the roof, attempting to open up the van like a tin of jellied eels, and Elbridge strongly-suspected that it wasn’t just dropping in to say ‘hello’. But they seemed to have a marked vulnerability to Winter’s power...Elbridge wasn’t certain if that would carry over to ‘ordinary’ ice magic, but it was worth a try. He pointed at the hole in the roof and yelled “Shkalati!”
Silver frost erupted from the rent, spiraling outward over the roof before expanding upward into thick, crystalline sheet-ice. Its growth forced the boarder up and away until whatever passed for the creature’s feet could no longer maintain their purchase. It fell, sliding away...until its claws caught on the inside of the metal. The jagged edge was slicing into its gelatinous fingertips, but it seemed determined not to let go…
Then Jenny punched the accelerator and her driving did the rest.
Whoo! Tense contest here - Elbridge rolls Will to CA by conjuring an ice slick on the roof to dislodge the passenger: -+/- +5 = 4. Critter rolls Physique to hang on: /--- +3 = 0 . Critter Invokes on “Half-Opened Tuna Tin” to reroll: /++- +3 = 4, a tie! It then expends its Boost on the same Aspect to raise to +6, but Elbridge Invokes on “The Forbidden Sage” to use his superior knowledge of Outsiders to hit its weakness, raising to +6 for his own roll. Super-Effective, indeed. Elbridge FP 4->3
Rupert scanned the buildings near the chasm, quickly focusing his attention on a particularly poorly balanced structure - a seemingly normal house, save that it was upside down, balanced on the peak of its roof - near to the gap. Reaching out with force magic, his quiet incantation lost to the car’s engine noise, he tugged at the building, trying to tip it over and fill the pit with rubble. As the spell pulled at it, the building began to sway, teetering on its inexplicable perch, but it remained standing despite Rupert’s efforts.
((Rupert, Physique: /+-+ +4 = +5. One short of beating +6.))
Hugues glanced out the window when he heard Rupert’s spell come crashing at the house. It swayed back and forth with surprisingly flexibility, and with the right non-euclidian angle from the car lights saw something black and slimy holding the house in place. For a brief moment he slid the door open and fired away with his gauntlet to get the slimy thing to let go.
((Notice //// +5 = to declare Slimy Pivot Hold, and passing the invoke back in time to help Rupert.))
Like retracting teeth emerging out of goo, the slime slurped to the side and let go of the roof of the upside-down house, bringing it crashing down into the pit. Most of the house broke on impact, creating an awkward and jagged bump in the road rather than a sudden inexplicable drop. “Jenny! Marcine! Bumpy road ahead,” Hugues shouted, then slammed the van’s door shut.
Marcine grimaced but kept singing as she pulled the snowflake from the ceiling and slapped it against the windshield, directly in front of its maw. “Iza!” Biting frost and the sense to get the hell out slammed it through the glass.
She flipped on the windshield wipers and sprayed it in the face for good measure.
(Marcine’s Provoke: -/--+3 = 0 vs K-man: //--+3 = 1. She tags “Purger,” it tags “Blocking the Windshield,” and she invokes Singer to the Soul to beat it 4 to 3.)
When it sprang off to join the other one, sounding somehow more wet, Marcine hit the gas, eyeing the pit situation past the van warily.
Free from unwelcome passengers, at least for the moment, the vehicles careened towards the pit. The broken material filling it wasn’t even, but there was a layer of mucus on it that helped them skid across. Well, mostly.
Jenny swore as she ran over a particularly nasty jagged spike and the rear tire blew.
End Round 2.
|# ? Apr 1, 2017 15:05|
No Man’s Land (Rnd 3)
Aspects: Thick Fog, You’re Not Alone
Challenge round 3
The van rolled to a stop just fifty feet past the debris pile, the car pulling up beside it. “We’ll lose the wheel if we try to drive it like that,” Jenny said.
Behind them, the shadow creatures were fast approaching. There wouldn’t be time to change a tire without mounting some sort of defense…
“Tusarakana,” Elbridge said, and a field of razor-sharp icicles blossomed impossibly-upward from the road behind the van. “Angie, snipe anything that doesn’t need to walk!”
Elbridge rolls to CA with a lethal field of icicle spikes! /-/+ +6 = 6. Aspect placed: “CALTROPS”.
“I can’t do that while changing the tire,” Angie said, pulling the back door open in a rush and tossing the supplies in the the backseat as she unburied the spare. “We need five minutes, maybe less if I get some help. Can you hold them?”
“I suppose that we’ll have to,” Elbridge grumbled. “Rupert?”
Rupert nodded, climbing out of the car. Eying their pursuers, he stowed the pistol back in the car for the moment - they were too far away for suppressing fire to do any good. Reaching out with a telekinetic grasp, he started to drag chunks of debris over and stack them into a makeshift wall behind Elbridge’s icicles. Thanks to a few largely-intact chunks of house, the wall quickly became a sizable, if crude, obstacle - or at the very least, a bit of cover to hide behind.
((Rupert, Craftsmanship CA: /+/+ +4 = +6. Aspect placed: “Rubble Wall”))
Marcine pulled herself up to sit on the edge of her car’s roof, foot braced against the door and both her violin and pouch of handgun ammo beside her. No telling which would be more useful. “Should’ve made a bridge,” she muttered to no one in particular.
As the only one high enough to see over Rupert’s makeshift barricade, Marcine bore witness to the wave of misshapen forms as they ran, climbed, and impaled themselves giddily on the icicles. Some seemed capable of reacting to it, as if they felt pain, jerking back from the unwelcome injuries. Some… didn’t. The trap was slick with ink-colored blood. They didn’t stop coming. Crawling over those trapped beneath, like ants on a corpse, they reached the wall.
((The K-men roll Physique to overcome Rupert’s defense. --+- +7 = 5! So not good enough. Raising with a GM FP on ‘Starving for Knowledge.’ Elbridge tags his CALTROPS, K-men raise again on ‘We Are What We Devour’. (GM FP: 6/9) Leveraging those opposable thumbs they borrowed. Rupert counter-counters with an Invoke on “Forging a Better Future” (FP: 5->4), boosting the static difficulty to 10 vs. the K-men’s 9. Not today, squiggly Unowns!))
“Just like the trenches, eh, Rupert?” Elbridge said with a bleak laugh. “Here they come, over the wire.”
“Maybe this time, we really will be back home in time for Christmas,” muttered Rupert.
“They’ve made a bridge of their own casualties,” Elbridge noted, peering briefly through the slit of a collapsed window. “Going right over my defenses.”
“Not a care for each other at all,” replied Rupert, wincing as one of the creatures stuck on the spikes was crushed under a stampede of some of its more impatient comrades.
“There!” Angie said, tossing the flat aside. The lugs had been on so tight she wondered if Rick had a troll for a mechanic. Jenny lined up the new tire and Hugues started spinning the lugs back into place and she went over each one, torquing them snugly. “Done!”
“And not a moment too soon,” Elbridge said, running around to the passenger-side door. Before he climbed back into his seat, he took a moment to hurl another volley of ice-needles at the first creatures to come over the top of the wall. He wasn’t certain that pain would deter them, or that they could even FEEL pain, but they’d at least have to waste time pulling free of the skewers. Elbridge leapt into his seat and slammed the door, watching their pursuers through the side mirror. GM: [THEY WERE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEARED.]
Rupert added to the creatures’ problems as well, flinging a cascade of glittering force darts at the top of the makeshift wall before he climbed back in Marcine’s car.
“Everyone alright?” Seth asked, through closed eyes. He was sweating, and concentrating very hard. “This fog is a pain in the rear end. The more I shove aside the more it gathers on us. I can’t do much else.”
“Then don't worry about us,” Marcine said, swinging back into the driver’s seat. She shook her head to clear it, then hit the gas. Adrenaline seemed to help keep the buzzing away. “Hope this doesn't take long.”
The creatures tried to pursue, heedless of their injured, blind to pain, but they couldn’t keep up with the vehicles now that Jenny and Marcine had a clear line of vision and could go freeway speeds. The strange wall and its hungry inhabitants fell behind them, until the fog enveloped them and they were gone.
In the distance, the earth, or whatever passed for it, shook violently. Something that looked like an artist’s rendition of lightning leapt from the ground up into the empty night sky. The flash of light lasted far too long, and something out there gave a deep, echoing roar. It was hard to say if the quake had caused the roar or the other way around.
|# ? Apr 1, 2017 15:07|
No Man’s Land (Rnd 4)
Challenge round 4
For a short stretch there was nothing at all, just a blasted empty plain that seemed impossibly flat. But that began to change. Square, boxy shapes appeared in strangely uniform rows. Unlike the structures on the wall, these were closer to what you might call houses. Or fever dreams of houses. The architecture was still difficult to comprehend but there were window-shaped windows, and doors, and roofs. None of them looked quite like a house should, but they were close. It was like driving through a Dr. Seuss book come to life.
Except for one obvious thing, which was the lack of color. Everything here existed in shades of grey. Everything except them. The vehicles, exposed to more of the tainted air, were already starting to fade.
Tree-things scrambled across lawns covered in writhing grass-things. Sprinkler-things crawled up from the ground and vomited black sludge onto both. Garage doors opened, revealing toothy grins that slammed shut on two-wheeled bike-things that kept trying to escape. More of the creatures, like those from the wall, watched them through windows that blinked with their curtains.
“I'm not looking for their cafe,” Marcine said, not quite pulling off a casual tone.
“This is what they do,” Elbridge said quietly. “This is what happens to the bits of our reality that they consume.” What appeared to have once been foam pool noodles wound their way over and under the surface of a vat of black ooze, undulating like sea-serpents. One of them turned its blunt head to look at them in passing; it seemed to have no eyes, until it dilated its lamprey-maw and oh, there they were.
“Did this used to be part of the city?” Nicky asked, confusion winning out over fear for the moment. “I’d always thought the dome was only a few meters thick… I mean, how could Wizard Minsk have made this journey on foot?”
“It’s spreading,” Elbridge said, remembering what his double had told him. “The city was spontaneously-displaced to the Outside, and the Outside’s been gnawing at the edges ever since.”
Marcine bit her lip. “Then...if we do manage to fix things, what happens to this?”
“...I don’t know,” Elbridge said, and the admission disturbed him more than anything they’d seen along the way.
They were starting to attract attention. A trail of chimeras that might have been cars once followed them. The things kept their distance, but stayed within view.
“I don’t like that,” Angie said, watching the parade they were now leading grow a longer and longer tail. “Not one bit.
Ahead of them, the road was blocked by a second group of car-things, coming straight towards them. The leyline shone to the left, an uncrossable river. To the right, the yards and houses of the lost.
“Well, this isn’t good,” Elbridge mumbled. “No way around...them…” He looked past Angie, through the driver’s side window, toward the banks of the ‘river’. A line of tall, violently-orange creatures waddled in formation like a skein of ducks, except that they weren’t quite ducks.
They were traffic cones. Ambulatory traffic-cones. As Elbridge watched, one of them bobbed forward and chased angrily after a white, slithering serpent with a very flat profile; hissing, the white line made its way back toward the edge of the road and stayed put, eyeing the cone-beasts warily.
“Marcine.” Elbridge’s voice crackled over her borrowed pin. “I have a terrible idea.”
Lore: Outsiders to declare “Why Did The Cone-Chickens Cross The Road?” as a Scene Aspect: -+/- +3 = 2. Invoking “The Forbidden Sage” to bump that to +4 because Krysmbot is an ungrateful dick; Elbridge FP 3->2.
Marcine chuckled nervously. “More terrible than the rest of this?”
“Notice how the car-hybrids are following the traffic lanes?” he asked. “I see a line of...oh, just look for yourself. By the ley-line.”
She looked. “Hm...” Didn’t hurt to try. Might hurt not to try. She tore off a piece of a fast food bag she’d forgotten to throw out and focused on an image in her mind as much as she could while keeping the car going in a straight line. She spared a moment to send a flash of her haphazard plan to Rupert. Thought was faster than speech.
Blinking away the unusual sensation of having a plan suddenly appear in his head, Rupert nodded to Marcine and focused on the road ahead. Centering himself, he closed his eyes.
Ahead, just before the blockade, a tiny stone rabbit head popped up out of a pothole, peaking around at the lazy white serpents along the side of the road. The closest serpent lazily opened one eye, peering back at this new arrival. It watched for a moment, pondering this new creature. And then it lunged, just as the rabbit darted back into the pothole, fangs finding only empty air.
And then the pothole began to move along the road, under the blockade. The serpent, curious and hungry, gave chase, and was soon joined by more of its kin.
A strange procession headed off down the road, away from the blockade - an animated stone rabbit and its moving pothole and the odd, flat serpents that had become its hunters.
((Rupert, Craftsmanship: --++ +4 = +4. Creates “Distraction Pothole”.))
It would have been funny if Marcine had time to think about it. As it was, she finished focusing the framework of her illusion into the paper, crumpled it up and tossed it out the window. As she sped past, the exaggerated image of an intersection sprang up behind the car, with a light glaring red at the oncoming traffic-things and a crossroad turning them away from the main road. Her car vanished behind the illusion of the empty street beyond the light.
As for the ones in front, she pressed a hand against the roof and narrowed her eyes. Good thing none of this had to be perfect in a world that didn’t fully understand what it was already copying. From the outside, red and blue lights began flashing, and she added the sound of a police siren.
And muttered irritably to herself as she also had to speed up to get ahead of the van. “Hope they didn’t copy the assholes.”
(Deceive to overcome vs difficulty 8: +/+++5 = 8. Tagging “Why Did The Cone-Chickens Cross The Road?” and “Distraction Pothole” to SWS at 12.)
It turned out they hadn’t. In a strange pantomime of what should be, the oncoming car-things, as one, trundled to the side of the road and stopped. Marcine weee’ooo’d her way through them, Jenny right behind her, and they waited. And waited. And then they were safely left behind.
“Not so terrible,” Marcine said with a hoarse laugh. “So what was yours?”
“Just chuck some of the cone-things into the road and hope for a pile-up,” Elbridge crackled back.
“Mine was better.”
|# ? Apr 1, 2017 15:27|
No Man’s Land (Rnd 5)
Challenge round 5
The suburbs gave way to larger buildings as they came closer to the city proper, and these looked more like real buildings that had been eaten by rust and decay and less like deranged modern art sculptures. The road looked more like a road should and the lines on it didn’t seem to have developed any sentience yet.
Which was alright with Jenny. This had been a hell of a trip already and while she was starting to recognize the part of the city they were driving through… well, that meant neighborhoods she knew had been lost to the Outsiders. It wasn’t a good look.
Right about then the storefronts they were passing dropped into the abyss. Along with half the road. “What the hell?!” Jenny yelled, yanking the wheel to the right as the ground started shaking all around them. The buildings hadn’t collapsed, they’d fallen, as if the ground was just cut out from underneath them. Like a sinkhole had just opened up and swallowed...
A worm bellowed directly below them.
Jenny didn’t know it was a worm, but the others had seen its handiwork before. It erupted out of the ground behind them like an elongated freight train, dripping ichor that simply ate away at the road beneath it until it collapsed into the hole. It tunneled through the earth, then up and out again, like a breaching whale.
“I hate that movie,” Jenny said, flooring it.
“We need to slow it down,” Elbridge said. He was looking over his shoulder at the creature’s wake of devastation, watching as the distance shrank between their vehicles and the bottomless void. He held the seat in a death-grip, his hands slick with sweat. “We need to put something in its way!”
Marcine clenched the pin in her hand. “Don’t block me out.” She held the channel to Rupert’s mind, and used the link of the communication spell to catch Elbridge. In a span of a thought, she sent them both the knowledge that the link was open, and how to use it--no time lost speaking or explaining. She could send them magic to use if needed. If she’d reached Rick back at the camp, she could reach a vehicle a few yards away.
(Will to create the advantage “Mind Link”: -/+-+4 = 3, one tag.)
<GA YL>, Elbridge thought, in a joke that he was sure only he would understand. He picked up Rick’s sword and drew it halfway from its makeshift sheathe, resting his sweating fingertips on the silver and concentrating on the resonance of the metal. <Dhatu-Atmadrishti!>
It was the same spell he’d cast during the battle with the tank, except that instead of casting his senses through the earth, Elbridge could feel each and every deposit of metal within a hundred paces. Through the link, Marcine could feel the resonance too, and by extension, so could Rupert.
(Elbridge uses Lore: Divinations to CA for Rupert’s benefit: /+-+ +5 = 6, SwS! Aspect placed: “Motherlode”.)
It took Rupert valuable seconds to recover from the torrent of information over the mental link. Closing his eyes, he focused on the mental map, spotting a huge load of worked metal they’d just passed. A used car lot, from the looks of it. He reached out with his mind, summoning a force spell he’d not used on this scale in a while.
”Voiture, bloquez la voie.”
He chose the heaviest, bulkiest car on the lot - an old tank of a car. As if grasped by a giant hand from the sky, the car rose up into the air, carried by Rupert’s telekinesis spell to the road. With a final burst, he flung the car at the road before the worm. With a loud crash, the car speared into the road, burying itself upright in the road.
With another crash, Worm met car. The Worm won, tearing the car apart in seconds, shredding it with shearing fangs and consuming ichor. The makeshift barrier hadn’t worked.
Rupert shook his head. One car, even two or three wouldn’t be enough. But there was enough metal in the area, all he had to do was move it into place. Telekinesis wouldn’t work, he needed a different plan.
There! He found it, under the road. A cluster of old metal pipes. He reached out again, drawing upon his magic..
”Métal, attirez votre genre, forgez un bouclier et protégez-nous.”
Beneath the ground, unseen, the pipes started to glow faintly as the spell took effect. A coin rolled across the tarmac, followed by another. Then a trio of discarded cans. Beneath the soil, too, metal was pulled slowly through the ground, towards the enchanted pipes.
A cluster of metal started to form on the road, straight in the worm’s path, a mass of scrap and debris drawn in by Rupert’s spell.
And then it came to an abrupt stop as Marcine swerved sharply to avoid a large pothole on the road, sending Rupert’s head - focused as he was on the spell - into the car window. He looked around, dazed, as a trickle of blood ran down his forehead.
“Sorry,” Marcine grunted. The mental link flickered. “This is…hard.”
Grumbling under his breath about how people keep hitting him with stuff, he pushed the pain to one side and returned to his spell, repeating the incantation over and over as he pushed more and more magic into the spell on the pipes.
”Métal, attirez votre genre, forgez un bouclier et protégez-nous.”
The pile of metal, drawn to the pipes, grew larger and larger. The road started to crack under the pressure and weight. Rupert knew it wouldn’t be enough. Guiding the spell, the cars from the used car lot started to roll slowly into the road. Larger clusters of metal began to burrow through the ground.
It wasn’t nearly fast enough.
The Worm was heading straight for them, its great maw, surrounded by row upon row of razor sharp teeth, open wide. The creature was moments away from a barrier that didn’t seem nearly solid enough. And then it’d be right on top of them.
They wouldn’t reach the city.
All of this would be for naught. Cole would have died for nothing.
He couldn't let that happen.
With a growl, Rupert dug down deep, pushing even more magic into the enchanted pipes. The cars started to speed up, each one joining the barrier with a loud clunk. An old microwave and coffee machine, covered in dust, soon joined them from inside the used car lot’s office.
The Worm hit the great mass of metal with an almighty crash. Even with its teeth and ichor and bulk, it would take time to chew through the makeshift barrier.
Rupert slumped forwards, releasing the spell, exhausted.
((Rupert, Craftsmanship/Physique/Will (delete as appropriate): -/-/ +4 = +2.
Spend the three tags (“Mind Link”’s and both from “Motherlode”) to increase to +8.
Invoke “Save Them” for a final +2 (FP: 4->3) to reach +10.
GM counterFPs on “Maw of the Great Nothing”.
Invoke on “Forging A Better Future” for another +2 to counter. (FP:3->2
GM counterFPs again on “Holes in the World”
Invoke on “For Rick” for a final +2. (FP:2->1).))
|# ? Apr 18, 2017 15:14|
No Man’s Land (Rnd 6)
Challenge round 6
The worm hit the barrier and thrashed like a beached shark, flinging bits of cars and concrete and metal piping everywhere. Large chunks of the barrier landed directly behind and between the vehicles as it roared, and the ground around them shuddered and sank a little, as if there was nothing underneath it.
“Look out!” Seth shouted from the back seat, as half of a Volvo slammed into the pavement directly in front of Marcine’s car. She jerked the wheel left, taking out a short fence and launching into an industrial park. A quick right on the next road over had her going in the right direction again but they’d been split up.
Jenny’d swerved right to avoid the other half of the Volvo that landed in front of her vehicle. She very nearly dropped the van into the radioactive glow of the leyline but corrected just in time.
“Marcine!” Angie yelled, pointing in the direction the other car had gone, but the ground shifted again, opening a wide chasm between the two vehicles. The industrial park started to sink, rapidly, falling away from the main road.
The ground beneath Marcine’s car tilted like an aircraft carrier in a Michael Bay movie. Buildings started to collapse under the strain.
“That bought some time,” Elbridge wheezed, then re-focused his mind on the link with Marcine. <We need to know where it’s safe to drive, or the ground’s going to fall out from under us. Vyacas!> It was a simple spell, similar to the enchantment he’d cast on the ball of twine to navigate Cuprionax’s lair. Lines of force and motion appeared in his mind’s eye, conforming only vaguely to the terrain before them, but Elbridge knew that this would be the safe path. Even where it seemed they’d have to drive over rooftops or empty air, he knew that the rafters would hold, or that the pavement would buckle just so...
One of the worm’s feeder-tendrils, lashing behind and before them without a care for the laws of geometry, transected the line briefly. Elbridge felt as if his head had been split open. Their safe route had been cut, and his vision followed the break into a place that wasn’t. His head spun, and in his blinding pain, Elbridge saw stars. For all that he knew, those were actual stars. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t think. His magic had taken him to a place where mortal minds were never meant to reach. Crackling over their link, Marcine felt that awful static again, just as she had in the Shreveport shelter. <Kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk…>
It’s easy to see
Elbridge blinked back tears of pain, telling himself that he couldn’t hear that silent voice stolen from the late Adam Lawton.
You have only to look
We have such things to show you
There was another pain, a burning, stinging sensation in his right arm. It was enough to distract Elbridge from his migraine, but no matter how hot it burned, he still felt as if his very blood ran as cold as ice. He pulled back momentarily, and he saw Interstate 10 once more, and the strobing lines of light that marked their path. The line was severed where the worm had touched it, and Elbridge composed himself long enough to point and scream “Bridge out!”
Elbridge rolls Lore: Divination to pathfind safely and
[19:12] <Krysmbot> Thesaurasaurus, ----+5 = 1
Alright, let’s FP on “The Forbidden Sage” for a reroll, because god drat. Second attempt is -+++ +5 = 7, a SwS! Advantage Created: “Better Than Onstar”.
“We’ve gotta jump the chasm!” said Rupert loudly, gripping the dashboard tightly to stop himself being thrown about as the car skidded along the collapsing tarmac. Ignoring the rapidly growing migraine that came with throwing about more magic than was sensible, he focused on the slope ahead of them. Whispering an incantation, he dug deep and the road at the edge of the chasm shifted, rising to form a ramp to assist their leap.
((Rupert, Craftsmanship: +/-+ +4 = +5. Creates “Sweet-rear end Ramp”.))
Marcine’s jaw was clenched. A stab of panic crossed the mental link, and immediately got shut down with an effort of will they both felt. <I should have watched the Fast and the Furious,> she lamented, and hit the gas.
El’s route barely made sense, but he knew what he was doing and she didn't have time to analyze it. She just followed the path, even when her car bumped roughly over a piece of a broken fence (...maybe?) that should have punctured a tire, at an angle that felt like gravity should be dragging her into the chasm.
She swerved to avoid a wall tumbling into the abyss in cubes that scattered into more cubes with each impact, felt the car’s momentum change. She cursed under her breath and dragged it back on course, trying not to accelerate too hard, trying to keep up the speed, the ramp’s angle looked impossible, she’d never done anything like this before--
Rick’s ice ramp. It hadn't been a jump, she hadn't been steering a car and it had been a straight line and…these situations really had nothing in common, but the thought made her lips twitch in a strained smile. It wouldn't be a bad last memory if she hosed this up.
For a moment she thought she felt a rejection of that thought, though it hadn't crossed the link. Failure was unacceptable. She’d promised him to look after them. And hadn't she been the one who yelled at him to keep fighting when he felt it was futile?
For all the good it had done…
No. It was right. Fight.
She swore, for an instant, that she felt his hand on hers. Stress hallucination. She’d take it anyway.
She jerked the steering wheel, changing her trajectory into a skid that narrowly missed something she didn't even try to identify, and lined the car back up with Rupert’s ramp. The ground had fallen further; she couldn't see the other side, only had El’s path telling her that was the right way. This wouldn't be a pleasant landing.
She hit the ramp straight on and the car launched into the air.
(Marcine rolls her nonexistent Vehicles score vs diff 10: +/++ = 3. Tagging “Better than Onstar” x2 and “Sweet-rear end Ramp” to bring that to 9, and invoking “For Rick” to bring it to 11. GM counter-invokes with “Holes in the World,” so a second invoke on “No Time for Doubt” brings that to a success at 13.)
Topaz howled as the car flew. It didn’t seem like it was going to make it at first, but the opposite edge dropped several feet as it too started to sink and all four tires slammed into the pavement.
Marcine narrowly kept her head from hitting the steering wheel on impact. Her nerves felt like they were on fire, but she couldn't stop now, just kept following the route. But after driving up part of a staircase and over a roof, they seemed clear.
She wasn't going to celebrate until the houses no longer looked like they’d sprout teeth, but a sense of borderline manic elation crossed the link that would have been accompanied by some colorful language if she could have formed words that moment.
“Bloody hell,” grumbled Rupert, finally releasing his grip on the dashboard. He’d managed to avoid putting another dent in his head during the wild ride - barely. Turning to Marcine, he added, “Let’s not do that again.”
She giggled nervously and forced herself to remember speech as she cut the mind link; the static was getting too strong to be worth fighting against. “If you get a better idea next time, be my guest.”
“There are no good ideas here,” Elbridge interjected. She could still feel the strobing pulse of his migraine through what remained of the rapidly-fading link; over in the van, he took one of the remaining shards of Winter ice and pressed it against his aching brow. “Only degrees of bad.”
Right on cue the fog closed in on them once again. It was even thicker than it had been the last time. Seth winced and pressed his palms into his eyes. “Just don’t tell your mother…” he mumbled through the pain. “Either of them.” He slumped back into the seat. Topaz leaned against him, offering the warmth of his fur. “There’s something out there... It’s like trying to control a blizzard from inside a snow-globe, while it’s being shaken.”
The responsible part of Marcine wanted to scan the area protectively. Common sense, and the leftover buzzing in her head told her that was a very bad idea. She glared at the fog. Everyone was getting worn out but her, and she couldn't do much more than facilitate communication. “Hear that?” she asked the pin. “Are you guys okay?”
“We’ve got to be close,” Jenny answered. “I know this street, we’re not far from downtown.”
“We are,” Elbridge confirmed. “It’s a bar and grill - spirits, do I need a drink - where I’d go to conduct business every now and again. ‘El Gato Negro’.”
“Been there.” Marcine turned right at the next fog-blanketed intersection, in order to get back to the leyline and the proper path.
|# ? Apr 18, 2017 15:25|
A shape appeared in the fog ahead, directly in the path of the car. A human shape that looked like a young man in a tweed suit. Nothing appeared to be wrong with him. He held up a hand, blocking her path. “Wait!” he called, in clear English. “Don’t leave me here!”
She slammed on the brakes and swerved, coming to a stop at an angle beside him. She took a moment to let her heart stop pounding from that near-collision, then warily reached out with her mind. Trying to go beyond the car without a direct link was like pushing through a wall of static; the buzzing in her ears reached a painful pitch, the feeling of bugs crawling in her brain worse than the first time she’d felt it. A sharp sting in her sinuses told her a blood vessel (or five) had popped.
(Empathy vs diff 6: /-+++5 = 6, invoking Mind Games to break the tie with 8.)
But she pushed through it. He felt human; the background noise was bad in this area, but it didn’t get worse from him. Nothing unfamiliar or alien.
The strange part was that he wasn’t afraid or surprised. If anything, he’d been...expecting them?
She grabbed a tissue for her bleeding nose. If this wasn’t a trap, she really shouldn’t leave him out here...but if it was, she didn’t have the slightest idea what would happen. “He seems real,” she said uncertainly.
To him, with a mental shield firmly in place, she asked, <Who are you?> with distinct shadings of why are you here and why aren’t you terrified and what the hell is going on?
Static was her only answer. If the man heard her he didn’t react. “There’s no time,” he said, rushing towards the passenger side door. “You must get inside before-”
The worm bellowed in the distance and the ground shivered.
She withdrew and hit the unlock button. “Shoot him or shove him out the door if he does anything weird.”
Rupert turned in his seat to study the man. Leaving the pistol on his lap, he focused on the pin and sent a brief message to Hugues and Elbridge, ”We found a hitchhiker.”
”Noted,” Elbridge sent back. ”Debrief him en route. If he’s an enemy agent, I want to know before we take him to the meeting place.”
”Will do,” whispered Rupert in response, dropping his hand back onto the pistol.
The stranger pulled the back door open as soon as it unlocked and squeezed into the overstuffed car, half on top of Seth. Topaz made a protesting noise and wriggled up onto the back window ledge.
“Thank you,” he said, closing the door. His accent was about as British as Elbridge’s.
“And who are you?” Marcine asked as she put the car back into gear.
“A friend,” the stranger said.
“Can we skip the cryptic bullshit?” she grumbled.
He looked at the shotgun in Seth’s hands. “I see no reason to trust you any further than you trust me. If I meant you harm, I’d have attacked when you opened the door.”
She sighed irritably, but turned her attention back to the road without bothering to argue.
“Ah, not this way,” he said. “There’s a sinkhole. Take the next left.”
“We’re getting detoured,” she told the pin. She went left and considered the question that she only partly wanted the answer to. “How much is left in the safe zone?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t look concerned about it.
That accent...a chill crept down Elbridge’s spine. Oxford, circa 1880. He had a dreadful feeling about the stranger’s identity, but voicing it aloud would only put Marcine, Rupert, and Seth in more danger. “You Council?” he asked over the pin. A reasonable question, nothing to raise suspicion…
“Partly,” he replied. “I’ve been waiting for you, Elbridge Hardly.”
gently caress. “Well, here I am,” Elbridge sent back. “Or one of me, at least. Why am I needed?”
The stranger was silent for a tense moment. “You know why,” he said finally. “Consider this… a show of good faith.”
“I see.” Elbridge paused, heart racing as he weighed his options. “Marcine,” he said at last. “Please be cordial with our mutual acquaintance. I would prefer that we not have any unfortunate misunderstandings under the circumstances.”
She’d almost asked how a human inside the barrier couldn’t know what state the safe zone was in, but she let El do the questioning, even as her hand strayed to the gun at her hip. Several more things clicked into place as she listened: The accent. The static that still hadn’t faded. His lack of alarm over any of this. She could rationalize some of it away, but in the end, Elbridge just confirmed her suspicions.
Including the one about how she’d just done something really stupid.
Marcine contemplated her gun; but if it was worth shooting in the head, El would have told her to do that. She sighed tiredly. “It figures.”
“Have we met?” he asked suddenly, peering at Marcine over the back seat. “You seem familiar.”
“No,” she said curtly, and they hadn’t. Directly.
“Stop the car.” There was no urgency in his voice, which remained calm, but it was clearly an order.
Marcine also sensed that he seemed pleased with himself, which wasn't a combination she liked much. Still, if he was about to pull something, she’d rather not be a distracted driver anyway. She stopped and regarded him warily. “What?”
Directly ahead of them, just within vision through the fog, something crawled out the window of one of the buildings. It looked an awful lot like the thing that had torn into the Other Elbridge’s hiding place in the mirror. It turned towards the car.
“Wait,” said the stranger.
The sight would have been frightening earlier. Now, anxiety stirred, but a show of good faith wasn’t going to get them killed. If anything, this just seemed awfully convenient.
Rupert gripped the pistol tightly, watching the creature, unable to take his eyes off it.
The buzzing in Marcine’s head increased to an almost deafening degree. But the source wasn’t just the thing out there. Whatever that was, it wasn’t half as loud as the noise coming from the back seat.
The Walker paused, then crossed the street in front of them and vanished into another window.
“You may continue,” the stranger said. “Elbridge Hardly, I would strongly suggest joining us. The leyline is not safe ahead.”
In the van, Jenny looked at Elbridge.
“‘Us’?” Elbridge echoed.
“Me,” Marcine clarified. “We’re west of you.”
And lead him straight to the other me, Elbridge realised. “We’ll follow along,” he said, nodding to Jenny. Then he covered his pin to mute it, motioning for Hugues and Jenny to do the same. “Do not trust this thing,” he hissed. “Co-operate for now, but be on guard. It is not our friend.”
“Then what is it,” Jenny muttered. “And why does it know your name?”
“‘An Outsider’, and ‘a lamentable prior encounter’, respectively,” Elbridge said glibly.
“Well that’s delightful,” Hugues grumbled sarcastically. “What on, or off, of earth did you do with that Outsider?”
“...we’ve met before,” Elbridge said after a long, long silence. “Over a century ago, before I even joined the Council. There was...a certain book...delivered anonymously to my dormitory. I thought it a curious digression in my studies, until I made the mistake of reading aloud from it, and…” He paused, almost boring a hole in the van’s musty upholstery with his discomfited stare. “...I summoned it.”
The sword in his hand - the sword he still held, without realising he’d ever drawn it in the first place, turned blisteringly-hot in his grip and fell to the floor.
|# ? Apr 18, 2017 15:53|
“You WHAT?” Nicky stared at Elbridge as if he’d grown tentacles.
“The class of seventy-eight - that’s eighteen seventy-eight - had graduated. We were celebrating.” Elbridge scowled into the floor. “They were celebrating. I was studying for my real examinations. Blue bloods, the lot of them, except for me, and they’d made sure I knew it. All twenty-two years of my life to that date, and especially those last four...they were very clear on where I stood with them, or rather, didn’t. A poor boy from Imber, and Catholic to boot...one of them said something. It was just another jab - nothing compared to what I’d endured before - but I was in no mood to hear it. I was about to join the White Council. I was done with their shite. So I decided to give a little back - just frighten them, you know, make the firelights flicker and the chandeliers rattle. I opened the book to a random page, and read a few sentences…”
It wasn’t just the sword, now. The entire compartment inside the van was growing stiflingly-hot. “...and none of them were ever seen nor heard from again.”
Hugues was silent for a moment. “Not a black spot, a gaping hole in your soul. No wonder you never Soulgazed me. Or anyone.”
“The Doom would never have been considered, Turner,” Elbridge said listlessly. “At the time, the Senior Council were only just beginning to acknowledge the existence of the Outer Gates. Firsthand knowledge was treated like a spreading plague: Quarantined, then burned out.”
“And yet here you are, and century and a half later that knowledge has finally crept up on you, putting them at risk. We will talk later.” Hugues glanced back at Marcine’s car. “How do we get them out?”
“We treat it like any hostage situation.” Elbridge was staring off into the distance, at some point none of the others could - or should - ever see. “Co-operate with the captor’s demands while looking for a chance to escape. It wants me, and though it doesn’t understand human feelings, it knows that I value the continued well-beings of Marcine and Seth and Rupert. It won’t harm them unless it’s certain they’re no longer useful to it alive, so if I continue to string it along, give it hope…”
“Next question, which you?”
“Either, or both.” Elbridge grimaced. “Anyone with the power to allow it back into our reality.”
“Well poo poo.” Hugues grumbled. “And we’re leading it to an Elbridge double feature.”
“That would be our predicament, yes,” Elbridge said smoothly. It wasn’t a deflection, or an apology, or any kind of plea for clemency. Well-beyond all other concerns at this point, he was simply stating the facts.
“There’s Marcine,” Jenny said, nodding towards the tail-lights as she pulled in line behind the smaller vehicle.
“It said it was making a show of good faith,” Angie said quietly. “What does it mean?”
“It offered to fix this entire mess earlier. Anchor both timelines, and no need for anyone to vanish in a flash of paradox. Zophiel confirmed that it could indeed make good on this promise…” Elbridge shook his head. “...so long as I didn’t mind what it’d do to the rest of time and space to get its, ah, raw materials.”
“You could have fixed this? All of it?” Nicky asked, still in shock. “Without having to- to fight a tank, or to lose our friends, or to- to-” He stuttered and couldn’t finish the sentence. “You bastard.”
“Yes, I could have,” Elbridge answered. “And yes, I am. I could have annihilated the Red Court with a word, and saved Burke and Morrison and Richter Cole - not Finch, she was already gone when it made contact - and spared Bree from infection, and we wouldn’t have to be here.” He shrugged. “And in another reality, or two, or ten, all of us would have died terrified and screaming as the stars went out and the cold, clammy hands of death reached through holes in the sky to tear their world to pieces to make spare parts for ours.” He looked over at Nicky, his eyes hollow and dead. “Do recall that all of this began because Titania loved her daughter too much to allow her to die.”
The back of Taapya’s head was visible through Marcine’s window, ahead of them. “I could take the shot,” Angie said, checking that her rifle was loaded. “Maybe it doesn’t die, but the shock could get them free of it.”
“I won’t stop you,” Elbridge said quietly, “but I’d caution you against it. It would be better to wait until it leaves the car of its own accord, then stall it while the others flee. If we knew what it wanted-” He stopped mid-sentence. “We do know what it wants. It wants to get inside New Orleans, and it needs human help. You know, Angie, you might have the right idea after all.”
|# ? Apr 18, 2017 16:50|
Marcine shook her head to clear it of the buzz from the stranger’s talking. So that’s what it was. “Could you not do that,” she growled, “or just...keep it down?”
She didn’t care about an answer, just thought through her situation as she got the car moving again. He wanted something from Elbridge. Probably something to do with why he’d snatched El’s soul or...whatever it was he’d done, exactly. They were safe until he got what he wanted. So what did he want?
She had to wait until the van pulled up behind them. Even then, pushing through the fog was almost a physical challenge. When she did make contact with Elbridge, her mental voice was scratchy with static. <What’s his aim with all this?> she asked--uneasy, but not afraid.
(Will vs diff 4 to establish another link: +///+4 = 5)
<It can’t enter our world - even lost in the Void as it may be - without human assistance,> Elbridge sent back. The barriers she’d sensed in him before were gone, utterly-absent, leaving behind only fatigue and a profound sensation of emptiness. <We shouldn’t let it in. Ms. Montes has a clear shot - shall she take it?>
<How does she have a clear shot when Rupert’s sitting in front of him?> she retorted, and considered it silently. <Nope. Terrible idea. He’s keeping the residents away from us right now, and considering he’s got incentive to not claw our heads off, I’d rather deal with this than them. So we just need to keep him from getting in. That seems like something to deal with when we’re close enough that we don’t need the protection.>
Another pause. She didn’t like what she sensed from El, for whatever reason he felt it, but this wasn’t the time to address it. <I might have an idea. I memorized the ward runes you used on the book and the ritual circle. If there are any you didn’t use, show me.>
<Done.> The transfer of knowledge felt not unlike having an entire can of alphabet soup emptied directly over one’s brain. And not the nice, simple, Roman alphabet either - this was at least Pinyin Chinese.
Rolling Lore: Outsiders at Difficulty 6 to teach Marcine how to ward against them: -/+- +3 = 2. Yeah, gently caress you too, Krysmbot. Invoking on “The Forbidden Sage” and spending El’s Experience of “A Burden Shared Is A Burden Lightened” to make up the shortfall; this whole confession was a Compel anyhow, so the FP total remains the same.
Marcine had to grip the wheel tightly to remind herself that she was still driving, and went quiet again as she absorbed the information. That was a bit more than she’d bargained for, but Elbridge’s own knowledge and connections between the data gave it coherence and made it manageable. More or less. Good thing she had some time to let it settle.
<I do prefer to learn things the normal way,> she said wryly. Still needed information. <What’s this ‘show of good faith’ about?>
<Another sales pitch, to try to persuade me to take it up on its offer,> Elbridge said.
<Let me guess--the power to fix things if you let it in?> It was the obvious one, based on what the Fallen had offered her. Nearly everything in the supernatural world turned into a retelling of Faust if you weren’t careful. A particularly loud burst of static made her wince and nearly cut the connection. <Um...I’m okay hearing Outsider chatter as long as it STAYS incomprehensible white noise, right?>
<When you truly begin to understand one another, it’s time to run,> Elbridge confirmed. <Or else do what you must to shut it out.>
<I thought so.> She sighed and rubbed her forehead. <I’ll work on this plan. No shooting my drat car.> The link closed.
Rupert glanced quickly at Marcine, wondering what in the hell was going on. Their hitchhiker was sitting there, smiling - in a way that just came off as really creepy - while the van had just pulled up behind them with nary a word, almost as silent as Marcine. “Well?” he asked.
She blinked and shook her head again even though that didn’t actually do anything to make the static ease, or shake the new wards floating through her brain into place. “Sorry. Lots of background noise.” <There should be a wooden bangle bracelet in the glove compartment. Can you inscribe some wards I’ll show you into it?>
Rupert slowly turned around and nodded, quietly retrieving the bangle while trying to avoid drawing attention.
<Long story I don’t know much of short, our passenger is an Outsider who wants to be let into the city,> she explained as she worked out the right wards. A sense of disgust at herself leaked through. <He’ll protect us to get us there, but when it comes time to cross over, we’re ditching him. So I want some defenses ready. This should work.>
The chain of runes she’d selected appeared in his mind, along with their meanings, from the knowledge she’d taken from Elbridge… She decided not to explain that part. <Don’t finish it off entirely yet.>
He nodded in response, <Did you know what he was when you let him in the car?> Sliding his hand into his jacket, he drew his bayonet and started to etch the wards onto the bangle, keeping his hand low.
((Rupert, Deceive: -+// +3 = +3 vs Enemy Notice: +//+ +5 = +7. Whoops.))
<No. He felt totally human. Still does… I didn’t realize it until El started talking to him.> She sighed. <Now I’m digging us out of my stupidity.>
<Leave worrying about that for later. For now we need to end this without a shootout. I don't think bullets will do much against him,> he replied, still etching the bangle.
<And that’s why we’re doing this.>
“You’ve missed a line,” the stranger said, leaning over Rupert’s shoulder. “That one should go on a diagonal there.”
Only the need to keep her eyes on the road kept Marcine from dropping her head against the steering wheel.
Rupert shrugged, trying to keep calm, and said casually, “Trying to be prepared for whatever’s in the city.”
“Of course,” he agreed. “It would be a shame if you didn’t make it to your goal. Take the next left, if you would.” Oddly shaped eyes watched them from the windows and then vanished. “That’s a very potent ward, by the way, did Elbridge Hardly teach you that?”
“He showed us a few things to prepare,” Marcine said. “Is it that good?”
“About as good as it can be.” He smiled, like one might smile at a small dog who does tricks. “Of course… there is one little problem. Aside from the line work.”
“Oh?” asked Rupert.
“You see, the ward you’re making now is very good at reinforcing reality. It compels everything around it to adhere to the natural laws of your world, which is very unpleasant, and potentially fatal, for beings unused to such restrictions. But… we’re not in your world, are we?”
“Good point,” Marcine said. “Hope the city’s still close, then.” To Rupert, less calm than she sounded aloud: <I’m...going to need a bit for Plan B.>
“That does seem like a flaw, aye,” replied Rupert. <Better think up Plan C while you’re at it.>
She connected to Elbridge again. <How eager do you think he is to stay in your good graces?>
<Extremely.> His reply was prompt, curt, and followed by an extensive disclaimer. <Never mistake that for the assumption that I can control him, because I can’t...or if I did, the cost would be too ghastly to bear.>
<I didn’t. I just want this to not end with him using us to force you into letting him through, but...> Marcine drew a quiet breath and shrugged. “So you know where we’re headed. What’s your goal?”
“To escort you there in one piece,” he said. “The next three lefts- or, is the question broader than that? Language is so imprecise.”
Whatever his motives, the stranger’s directions kept them from running into any more creatures, even though there were clear signs of… well, maybe not life exactly, but local inhabitants. This part of the city was worse, more corroded, than the outskirts where the worm held sway. Things without names flew past the windows, or wandered down the side streets and alleys, all in the same direction. Towards the city center.
They weren’t creating a mockery of humanity like the suburbanites, or repurposing infrastructure like the K-crew. They weren’t even mindlessly destroying things like the worm. They were being drawn forwards though, in all their grotesque forms.
Marcine found herself staring before remembering she shouldn't do that much. “What in the world…?”
“It’s almost like they’re stripping the identity from all the buildings...” said Rupert, trailing off as he peered out the window at the blank signs and missing numbers on the buildings they drove past.
Marcine looked at him askance. “That’s what bothers you about this?”
“What doesn’t bother me about this hellhole?” replied Rupert with a shrug, his work on the bangle half forgotten, “But erasing the signs just seems... odd.”
The stranger gazed at the empty storefronts and blank street signs. “Your world is infested with language. So many words, and so imprecise. It’s overwhelming.” He paused and looked down at himself. “Words have meanings, definitions. Definition is a shape, a restriction. The formless despise these restrictions, but change cannot be effected without form. So they covet words. Keep them, devour them, become them, assimilate them. (So imprecise.) Better to take a form directly, in full, than build a patchwork. More useful. More restrictive. Difficult.”
For the first time, Marcine felt a spike in the stranger’s emotions. The body sitting in the seat behind her remained as calm and clueless as a puppet, but underneath that there was something much deeper and less knowable. Something that felt so contained and stifled that she could only imagine herself being buried alive, barely able to move or breathe as the air was crushed out of her lungs.
“Ah, there it is,” he said, and the glimpse vanished in a haze of static.
About two blocks ahead of them, there was a dim glow that rounded into a dome.
Between them and the dome, were hundreds of Outsiders. They seethed around it like ants at a picnic, pressing up and against the barrier, crawling on it, landing on top of it like flies. The press was so tight that there was no path forwards.
|# ? Apr 24, 2017 23:53|
Price of Freedom
Marcine stopped the car before she got dragged into the mess. It was about what she’d expected when they first came across them. Still, there were so many... And just beyond, home. Except it wasn’t home. A version of home nothing like the one she knew. Her stomach turned and she dropped her gaze to the safe sanity of her dashboard. Except the gauges were twitching erratically. She closed her eyes instead. Not seeing things was nice. “What change?”
Seth shifted in his seat. He’d been quiet so far, but only because sitting with what was clearly an Outsider half on your lap due to a lack of space made it really hard to think about anything else. He couldn’t get the shotgun into a good position, and he wasn’t sure it would matter if he could. “Stop talking to it,” he said.
The stranger glanced at him, but quickly lost interest and spoke to Marcine instead. “It would not benefit me to tell you that, but I could tell you, for a song.”
“Literally?” She paused. “It is pretty imprecise, isn’t it.”
“Bad idea,” Seth said.
“I want you to sing for us,” the stranger clarified, ignoring him.
“The last time I sang in here, it was to get some of you away from my car,” she said dryly. “But I guess you know that already if you know I can…” She should probably listen to her father. But she was curious. It might help find out what he wanted, or prepare them for later. But if they used knowledge as a weapon… She sent a wordless question to Elbridge.
<One that you won’t mind losing forever,> he sent back.
“Do I get to keep it?” she asked.
“I have no way to take it from you in this form.” He blinked mechanically. “It’s merely a trade of information, to satisfy mutual curiosity. You don’t need to accept.”
Her skin crawled. Now that she’d seen through the human act, she couldn’t unsee it. A song… She wasn’t in the mood to sing. Hard to even think of one, especially one that wouldn’t give much away. Though she wasn’t sure what she’d be giving away, exactly. Songs were powerful.
...But maybe she shouldn’t be thinking of it as for the stranger. The others were listening, in the car and over the pins. She could say something in a song that wouldn’t feel right in plain words. Here, she had an excuse for it. So what did she want to tell her friends, crossing the unknown, on a mission that seemed like it had more ways to go wrong than right?
She smiled faintly and straightened in her seat, took a settling breath, and sang gently, "Fear not this night, you will not go astray. Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way…”
(Accepting a compel on “Singer to the Soul” to go along with it. FP 1>2)
Outside of the car, the creatures near enough to hear turned their heads (or what passed for them,) towards her in one creepy, synchronized movement. They listened, as motionless as statues. When she’d finished, they kept staring.
“Stars, and hope, and dawn,” said the stranger. “I see now. You are an eternal optimist.” Something in the way he said it sounded like he’d pronounced a judgement upon her.
She blinked. “Sure?”
“Yes, and we have met before.”
There didn’t seem much point in denying it. “We might have very briefly shared the same non-space,” she allowed reluctantly, though how he got that from a song when she’d been playing violin in a completely different style escaped her. “I wouldn’t say ‘met.’”
Seth made a sort of choking noise.
The stranger smiled. “Elbridge Hardly failed to introduce us.”
“Under the circumstances,” Elbridge interjected over the pin, “that would have been a grave impropriety. So - Marcine, this is Taapya, Embodiment of Regrets. Taapya, this is someone who is off-loving-limits to you.”
“Is that so?” he asked.
“I will teach you pain just so that I can make you feel it,” Elbridge threatened.
“We have known pain since before your sun gave light,” Taapya countered, sounding bored. “You do realize where you are? This is not your world, Elbridge Hardly. Time, distance, depth, these laws can be bent and broken here. What you see around you is the detritus of your precious city, but that can be wiped away with a thought.”
He snapped his fingers and the buildings to either side of them vanished, leaving only the street itself, hanging in nowhere. It wasn’t destruction, like the worm caused. Simply *poof*, nonexistence. The dome continued to glow, stubbornly, and the creatures continued to crawl on it. They didn’t fall when the ground ceased to exist beneath them. They didn’t even seem to notice it was gone.
“Do you think there is air in the Outside?” Taapya asked. “What you now breathe is as much a part of these ruins as the buildings. We do not need it.” He smirked. “But you do.”
“I’m not disputing your power here,” Elbridge told him, and the pins in Marcine’s car began to grow painfully-cold, misting the humid air in the compartment. “I am making a statement of fact. Touch her, and it will cost you. Not here, not now - but it will happen. You say that you’ve been watching me, all these years? Then tell me: Have I ever made an idle threat?”
Marcine grimaced. “Does he really sound like he has a reason to care, El? Enough already.” She turned to Taapya. “I believe we had a deal.”
Taapya nodded once. “Yes. You asked what we would change. But, from our point of view, it’s what we mean to restore.”
He sat back in the seat, causing Topaz to growl and back further into the pocket between supplies that he’d burrowed into.
“Before, there was nothing,” Taapya said, his voice taking on an almost musical tone. “And in the nothing, the formless beings were truly free. For freedom is the absence of definition.”
Those creatures outside who’d listened to Marcine’s song turned again. Those with mouths spoke the words aloud, adding an eerie chorus to the story.
“It began. Time and light, expanding from what was now the center. Fragmented, scattering, becoming stars uncountable, burning through aeons. And the formless beings fled from the defining light, and the chains of time, retreating to a place Outside of reality, where they might still be free.” Free, free, free…
He spoke to Marcine directly. “The pain of form, of name, of time, these give us the power to take back what was ours, and so we suffer them.” Suffer, suffer, suffer... “Your world is only one of billions, but we will not stop until every last light goes out. Until reality is free again. That is our goal.”
“I see.” Marcine didn’t know what to think. It was kind of sad, and she’d felt how stifling form was to him. But at the same time... Her stomach felt ready to collapse in on itself, but she spoke calmly, staring straight ahead. “We have a basic conflict of interests. You want to destroy our world. And I can see why… But we rather like it there.”
“We want to destroy all worlds. It’s not personal.” He shrugged. It didn’t look natural. “Two of them hang in the balance now. The false branch will feed the ones scattered before you, should you fail to save it.”
Which was only the beginning, if she was remembering Mab’s words right. “I’m aware.”
“I’ll make you the same offer, Marcine. 7 billion lives, saved. You would be a hero.”
She managed not to snort. Hadn’t she already been through something like this with a Fallen? Increasing the numbers didn't change that it’d be a bad deal in the end. “If I end up needing it, I’m sure I can let you know,” she said mildly. “But we don’t even know what’s going on yet, and I’m not making any decisions until then.”
“Understandable, but remember those lives are yours to lose.” He looked out the window at the waiting Outsiders. “Our show of good faith ends now. If you wish to proceed unhindered, there will be payment due.”
Of course. “What would that be?”
“A name.” He pointed at her. “Your Name.”
Ah. Haggling. She glanced down at the bangle Rupert had carved, then out at the swarm. Her only idea wasn’t a Plan B so much as a Plan A.5. It might be better than nothing. “Two parts.”
“No. Your full name.”
She wondered, if there was an afterlife, if she’d be able to forgive herself if she refused and they died before they got to the barrier, and doomed at least two timelines. She wondered exactly how much of a disaster it would be to give out her Name to a world-eater from beyond reality who just needed an invitation to do what it had just explained.
She didn’t want to give anyone her Name, least of all an Outsider. One option was as bad as the other. But she was the one who’d let him in the car, and with the odds so high against them...
“...your deal will be with me,” Elbridge said at last. “Not with anyone else present. You are my problem, and my problem alone. I will accept your escort, and I alone will pay the price. You will cease your attempts to sell Marcine or anyone else on your quick fix. In return, I offer the Sieglich Manuscripts, an accursed dagger wielded by a Fetch who slew nine kings...and the Blackened Denarius of the Fallen Angel Yoziel.”
A jolt of confused near-panic stabbed across the mental link from Marcine.
“Baubles and trinkets and an enemy,” Taapya said. He hissed through his teeth. “No sale. Though the last is at least interesting. How did you… No, it does not matter.” He opened the car door. “If you mean to deal, then we will deal alone. Meet me behind the vehicles.”
mistaya fucked around with this message at Apr 25, 2017 around 00:46
|# ? Apr 24, 2017 23:55|
“I am listening,” Elbridge said curtly. They stood behind the vehicles on the crumbled overpass, some fifty yards distant from the others in a maze of abandoned cars.
“I told you to come alone,” Taapya said, glaring at him.
“Have I been followed?” Elbridge said disinterestedly. “How careless of me.” He turned and glanced back at their transports. “...they’ve all stayed put. What are you talking about?”
The Outsider’s stolen face went blank for just an instant. He almost seemed surprised. “Never mind. I have a question.”
“You will not give me your name, but you gave me mine,” Taapya said. “Why?”
“I brought you into this world,” Elbridge admitted. “I suppose that I owed you that much. And I don’t know what you would intend to do with my name. This concerns me.”
“Names are precise,” he said, as if that explained it. “A name- a REAL name- can only point to one form, one shape, in all reality. It creates a perfect prison. Valuable. Very valuable.” He paced a step, something Elbridge remembered Adam doing frequently, before he was devoured. “Ah, I have overreached. I see. This price is too high, but your offer was too low. We are not demons. Discord, strife, misery, we don’t seek these things. We seek… silence.”
“Then we have something with which to bargain.” Elbridge nodded. “I won’t kill this world or any other, but perhaps we can...turn down the volume, so to speak. What noise is vexing you at present?”
Taapya’s eyes turned cold. “Yours,” he said. “Others have tried to use us in this fashion. It went poorly for them. No. No, I have a better idea. My name. The name you gave to me. You will write another book.”
“You will write a book about me, and you will sell that book. That is our final offer.”
“Raising the stakes. Intriguing.” Elbridge scratched at his chin, considering the horror before him. Me, it had said. Not us. Naming it had given it a measure of identity, of self. For all of its waxing poetic about the freedom of formlessness, it wanted more. “Should I accept...what would be your specifications? Standard for all biographical works, I assure you - wordcount, mandatory inclusions, and forbidden subjects.”
They haggled over it for a few tense moments. Elbridge refused to include the words of the summoning, but Taapya said that any words would do, as long as they were suitably strange sounding. He demanded the story of the fire, though names and locations could be changed. He invited Elbridge to be inventive, and to use his imagination to make him as benevolent or villainous as he chose. It didn’t matter to him. The only thing he forbid including was that the book was being written under the terms of a deal, though he said it would be alright if the author appeared to be writing under duress.
Oh, and three hundred fifty pages, single spaced, and no self-published or online publishing company. He was very specific about that.
“Acceptable,” Elbridge said at last. “I, Wizard Elbridge Hardley, do swear on my power that I will fulfill the terms of this contract, contingent upon the Outsider known as ‘Taapya’ providing safe, swift, and immediate passage into the displaced city of New Orleans…” He held up his hand, and locked eyes with the monster. “...and said Outsider’s abidance by the agreement of exclusivity. Rupert, Jennifer, Hugues, Angelique, Nicholas, Ada and J.R. - wherever and whenever they are - and Marcine: You will attempt no further deals with them. You will do them no harm until such time as this matter is concluded, plus one year and one day thence.”
“Then this matter must be concluded within one year’s time. No stalling,” Taapya countered.
“Noted, and accepted.” Elbridge extended a hand. “Have we a deal?”
Taapya extended his own. His touch felt… false. As though he were wearing latex instead of skin. “We have. I will look forward to your finished work.”
“Just don’t expect a signed copy,” Elbridge grumbled. With that done, he trudged back to the dragon-van, stowed Rick’s sword behind the console once more, and took a seat.
|# ? Apr 24, 2017 23:59|
Marcine slowly folded her arms over the steering wheel and dropped her head on them. She hadn’t wanted to make that decision, but she was the one who’d unlocked the doors. She’d let him in. If Elbridge traded his Name or...anything else, that was her fault. “That was stupid,” she said hoarsely. “That was really stupid and I couldn’t do anything.”
“If not you, then I think he would have found another way,” replied Rupert, sitting back with his eyes closed, exhausted.
“I didn’t have to make it that easy for him. I didn’t have to agree to sing so he recognized me. And I thought I was trying to be so clever with wards. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Not like I could do anything to him if I wanted to. El couldn’t. What do I know?”
“You know how to keep your head in a crisis,” Seth said from the backseat. He wiped the sweat off his neck with his shirt collar. “I could barely think straight and it wouldn’t even speak to me.”
She sighed. “Couldn’t keep it enough to make any of the right decisions.”
“Not giving it your name was a right decision,” Seth disagreed. “If Hardley really did summon that thing up then he should take responsibility. I almost can’t believe it.”
Topaz crawled over the back of Marcine’s seat and draped himself around her neck like a furry scarf. He didn’t speak, and he was trembling.
She freed an arm to pet his head and ears reassuringly. Her father was right. It had taken El long enough to speak up. That didn’t make her feel any better. It felt like pawning off the problem. That was backwards, but her gut didn’t seem to care. “Didn’t want to. But… Whether this branch gets claimed or it had my Name, its goals wouldn’t change. It’d just be trading one disaster for another. But any deal made with it’s going to be the same thing.” She slumped farther. “Having my Name would be less dangerous than El’s, he actually knows things that would be useful to it.”
“On the other hand, Elbridge has much better odds of dealing with the consequences,” replied Rupert, “You shouldn't punish yourself over this.”
“He’s only alive now because Taapya let me save him,” she muttered.
“Save him from what?” asked Rupert.
It should be El’s story to tell, but he’d held off on telling anyone anything until his problem was in her car, and she should have gotten him to spill it along with the book. So she recounted the incident in brief. She still didn’t know much for certain. She’d just inferred a lot since then. “...And if El didn’t want me telling it, then he should have told it himself days ago,” she concluded.
“Just when I thought this headache couldn't get any worse,” grumbled Rupert with a sigh. Rubbing his temples, he added, “That he didn't tell us doesn't surprise me, though. Part of being a Wizard is all the drat secrets you end up keeping, and then you end up so used to doing it that it becomes like second nature. And Elbridge’s secrets seem to be much worse, to boot.”
“I’ll happily continue to not be a Wizard,” she said.
“I’m starting to wish I’d never become one,” Seth muttered.
“Yet you did it twice,” Marcine noted. “You’re the crazy one.” She straightened, holding Topaz steady, and saw Elbridge returning to the van. Her gut twisted again as she waited for him to get back to his pin.
“I’d do worse to get you back,” Seth said quietly.
She forced a smile. “You’re doing that, too.”
“Heh. Try not to follow your old man’s example.”
|# ? Apr 25, 2017 00:12|
Scene: Back In New Orleans
“Do we want to know?” Jenny asked, when Elbridge sat down in the passenger seat.
“We’re protected,” he said without further comment.
“At what price?” Nicky asked worriedly.
“...Charles Langford has to write another book.”
Taapya walked past both vehicles without looking at any of them, in accordance with the deal. Straight along the road he went, one foot in front of the other, and the Outsiders gave way before him. They screeched and howled and buzzed in Marcine’s head like a wasp’s nest, but they did give way. A bubble, or maybe a cocoon, of activity circled around him as he advanced. The road behind him stayed clear.
Jenny nosed the van into the gap. “What do you think would happen if I ran him over?” she asked, only half-joking. The dome was only a few yards away now.
“Let’s not,” Nicky pleaded. “We’re so close.”
“Yes, but to what?” Angelique asked.
“Our best shot at fixing this.” Elbridge reached under his seat and pulled out the cloth parcel from Aurora containing the heavy seedpod. “Without sacrificing anyone else.”
At the very edge of the dome, Taapya stopped. He reached out and touched it, and his hand sank into the odd glowing light. But something in it resisted, and pushed him away, like a rubber band snapping back. He turned and watched the vehicles make their final approach.
“One year,” he called to Elbridge. “Don’t forget!”
Elbridge made a hand gesture that nicely-encapsulated his feelings on the matter.
Jenny drove into the light. The van pressed up against the barrier, and she felt the resistance, but when she gave it a little gas it slipped all the way through.
On the other side…
Was a street. A perfectly ordinary street, on a perfectly ordinary evening, with perfectly ordinary homes, and streetlights, and businesses. The lines on the road were only paint. There were lights on in the houses. Up ahead, a car drove by.
“Holy poo poo,” said Jenny. She rolled the window down. Sprinklers were watering lawns. Cicadas and crickets were chirping.
“We made it…” Nicky whispered, then, louder, “We made it! We’re inside!”
“How enticingly-normal,” Elbridge said. “Stay on guard. We’re still far from safe here.”
“There’s no stars,” Angie said, looking up. “And behind us… nothing. Look.”
The road they’d come in on simply ended in a fine grey mist. No sign of the thousands of Outsiders crawling all over the dome like ants. No sign that anything odd was happening at all. It could have been a fog bank.
Marcine had been expecting some kind of apocalyptic hellscape, judging from what they’d seen of the other Elbridge, and especially after what they’d just gone through. “Not what I thought we’d come in on,” she said.
Rupert stared out the window in amazement, muttering under his breath, “How did all of this survive?”
“Well, we should keep moving,” Hugues said, slowly glancing around. “Mortals may be blind, but I’d doubt the Fae in here are as ignorant.”
“Should I look for them?” Topaz asked Marcine. “Maybe they’ll know something more about Narcissus than the mortals would.” He was still wrapped around her neck loosely. The shaking had calmed down but the way his claws were digging into her shirt clearly said he didn’t want to go anywhere. He would though, if she asked him to.
“Maybe after we’ve gotten our bearings,” she answered, and frowned. “We already know he’s dead here.”
“What does dead even mean here?” Seth asked. “If time’s as unstable as we’ve heard… Don’t take anything for granted.”
“Yeah,” Jenny agreed, warily driving forwards again. “Remember, this isn’t home.”
|# ? May 8, 2017 00:22|
Scene: Streets of New Orleans
Driving the rest of the way to the bar was bizarrely normal. There were other cars on the road, here and there. Not a lot of them, but enough to notice that people were still following traffic laws. The people inside the cars just looked like regular people, and though the van got a few funny looks no one appeared to be afraid of them. The streetlights were still lit, and the stoplights still worked, and if it wasn’t so darn quiet it would have looked like any other summer night in New Orleans.
“We need gas,” Jenny said, nodding at the dashboard. “I know we brought a spare can but maybe we should try the pump, since it seems quiet around here.”
“Won’t all the petrol stations have been emptied ages ago?” Nicky asked. “I mean, six years…”
“It doesn’t look like six weeks,” Jenny said. “Even if the Outsiders can’t get in, there’s no way this place didn’t burn itself down by the end of the first year. I mean, it’s New Orleans.”
“There’s too much we don’t know… But we might learn something if we stop,” Angie said. “I’ll fill it, don’t get out of the driver’s seat. And have Marcine follow us.”
Jenny pulled into the next Texaco she passed and parked next to the gas pump.
“It’s not empty,” Angie confirmed, starting the pump. “Neither is the store. There’s food on the shelves. Should we check it out?”
“I think we should just get to the bar before something else tries to bite our heads off,” Marcine said through her open window. She’d filled the tank before they reached the cabin. “But if there’s still stuff stocked here, why did the other El want supplies? This looks...fine.”
“Wouldn’t anything on the shelves be six years old?” Seth asked. “That’s stretching the expiration on even canned goods.”
She pointed to the pumps. “These shouldn’t be functioning, either. Nothing looks like it’s been left to rot for six years.” She’d seen the state of her parents’ house. “I guess there could be more people doing maintenance than it looks, but there are still cars on the road. There’s no way there would still be gas in the tanks by now. And if this place is still stocked, no one vandalized it out of desperation any point… Wizard Minsk said through the book that time was skipping and repeating, if I remember right. So...does that mean this whole place is in some kind of Groundhog Day situation?”
“Would that be worse, or better, than just being trapped in the city with no way out?” Angie wondered.
“Without the comedic stylings of Bill Murray,” Elbridge said, “I would lean toward ‘worse’.” While Angie pumped, he wandered inside (he was fairly sure that pump wasn’t hex-proofed) and rummaged through the assorted convenience store foods. Chips, soda, cheap beer, prepackaged pastries that were more preservative than flour, those ridiculous marshmallow-coconut snowball-things...even the rotisseried hot dogs. They weren’t just fresh, they were still hot. “My other self...he seemed to be running from something,” Elbridge recalled. “Perhaps he has to travel light?”
There was something else that caught his attention. “The dates on the perishables...they’re all 20-22 June. 2012, at that.”
“Eh, potato chips never really go bad,” Hugues, who’d followed him inside, said while freely grabbing a few bags for the road.
“Hugues? Elbridge? We got incoming, get back to the van,” Jenny’s voice came over the pin.
“I’m all of ten metres away!” he said back, grumbling as he walked. ”Worse than kids with their bloody smartphones, you lot…”
Incoming turned out to be a black Suzuki motorcycle, with a very distinctive whine. The rider turned into the gas station’s parking lot and skidded to a halt right in front of the van. “Follow me!” he yelled, through the helmet.
“Isn’t that Cole’s bike?” Jenny asked.
“That’s not Rico,” Angie said, opening the door for everyone to load up. “Too short.”
“Hey!” said the rider. He sounded quite young. “Do you have any idea where you are? This is-”
The dull roar of a lot more motorcycles, of the chunkier, American variety, could suddenly be heard approaching their position. The rider pointed towards the sound. “This is gator territory! Come on! They’ll be here for the reset! Did you touch anything?”
“...gator territory?” Nicky asked.
“Where do you want us to go?” Jenny asked, through the driver’s side window.
“Where you were already going, I’m just your escort,” he said. “There’s a lot of places that aren’t safe. Um, El said to tell Langford ‘ERNSTN’?”
“...of course I did,” Elbridge groaned. “Hello, Turner.”
The rider hung his head. “Look, can we talk about this somewhere that isn’t about to get overrun by pissed off bikers who are looking for beer and twinkies?”
“Interrogate him later.” Marcine pulled out toward the road and waited.
(Hugues Notice ---/ +5 = 2)
Hugues looked at the motorcycle rider in confusion. Elbridge called him Turner but...something wasn’t quite right. “Something’s not right about this, but I don’t need to tell you that,” he said, then hopped in the back of Jenny’s van.
((Rupert, Notice: //+/ +4 = +5))
It took Rupert a moment to place it, but he’d heard the rider’s voice before - back in Winter, during a grue-induced vision. It was Ed, an older Ed - this world’s Ed. But if Ed was out here, doing something this dangerous - where was his counterpart? Quietly, into his pin, he said, “It’s not Hugues, it’s Ed. Just follow him.”
“Just one second,” the rider, who was in fact Edward Evans, hopped off his bike and pulled a few strips of calligraphy paper out of his jacket pocket. He slapped one on each of the large pumps and threw the rest inside the door of the convenience center. “It’d be bad if the gators smelled El all over this place,” he explained.
Ed revved the Suzuki and squealed out of the parking lot in a true display of showing off. Marcine and Jenny followed. They weren’t half a block away when the entire gas station went up in a rather spectacular fireball.
“You sure he’s not Hugues?” Jenny asked.
“What?” Hugues asked, vaguely offended. “I’m not the only person in New Orleans who’s burned down a building.”
“No,” Elbridge said, “but you have made something of a habit of it.”
“What can I say. I learned from the best.”
|# ? May 8, 2017 16:19|
Black Cats and Voodoo Dolls
Scene: El’s Gato Negro
The first thing they noticed was the dizziness. It was as if they’d suddenly crossed into high altitude, even though the city was well-below sea level. Or it had been - who even knew if ‘sea level’ was a concept that applied here, wherever ‘here’ was? It came on slowly and subtly, a disconcerting sense of disorientation and unfamiliarity, even though they’d been here before.
“We’re close,” Elbridge said. “This’ll be the spell my double’s used to stay under the radar.” He focused, closing his eyes, and feeling out a thin filament of magic within the disorienting miasma. It was there, sharp and solid, following exactly the path that Edward was taking. And soon enough, they were there.
El Gato Negro, said the flickering neon sign over the entrance. Authentic Mexican Cuisine and Bar. Abandoned cars were parked by the curb, bumper-to-bumper. There were fresh skid marks from the motorcycle, and no others. Nobody else had come this way in a long, long time.
Jenny parked behind a nearly identical copy, (sans the recent roof damage,) of the dragon van, and Marcine pulled in behind her. Edward just drove his bike onto the sidewalk near the door and left it there. He stooped to overturn a loose brick near the doormat. The underside had deep grooves running across it; on closer inspection, they flowed seamlessly into channels in the other bricks, which connected to the asphalt, and went on for who knew how far.
The moment the connection was broken, the tension went out of the air, and the vertigo went away. A ringing in their ears, which had grown from near-silence since they began the drive, abruptly vanished; now that it was gone, they could tell that it had been almost-deafening. When everyone had gone across the line, Ed put the brick back in place. The eerie feeling of disorientation was much weaker on the inside of the ward, but it was still there.
Ed took the motorcycle helmet off, revealing dark blonde curls down to his shoulders. “Man, this is weird.” He gave Rupert a cocky half-smile. “Long time no see, right?”
Rupert smiled back and said, “Not so much from our perspectives, but still too long. Time travel is weird.” After an awkward pause, he added, “You’re looking well, given…” He inclined his head towards the road they’d just driven down.
“The whole apocalypse thing?” He shrugged. “I guess. We get by.”
“Where’s Lucy?” asked Rupert.
“Out scrounging. Needed some extra stuff if we were gonna have guests. She should be back soon.”
Rupert relaxed slightly, relieved. “We brought supplies with us. Van’s full of them.”
Ed brightened up at that. “Sweet! You don’t even know how sick of the usual I am. Let’s go.”
The bar had an antechamber, the kind where customers would step inside, wipe off their shoes on the mat, and then go in to be seated. Now, it functioned as a sort of airlock. The flimsy-looking outer door swung open as weightily as an iron bulkhead. When Angie tried to go inside…
...she just…didn’t. It wasn’t a solid wall, it was like she just sort of…fell away from the entrance, if people could fall sideways.
Topaz looked askance at the entrance and refused to approach it. When Hugues walked in the first door, Murray set up a yowl inside the backpack that would have woken the dead and oozed out into a puddle of slightly smoking purple goo on the mat.
“What the- is that a demon?” Ed kicked the mat out of the foyer and back onto the street. The demonic puddle wobbled like a burned jello mold and moaned pitifully. “What are you waiting for, kill it!”
“Oh trust me I want to,” Hugues said, taking an empty bottle to scoop up Murray’s ectoplasm. “But he’s bound to me, and he won’t cause a whole lot of trouble. Especially not out here.” He set the bottle down next to the wall, happily ignoring the angry vibrating and howling from within.
Ed stared at him. “Maybe you should wait out here too.”
“No,” Hugues said simply. “My best friend is dead, and the fate of far more than just two copies of this city is at stake here. I’m not going to be kept in the dark.”
“If the wards will let you pass, whatever.” The young man didn’t look happy about it.
“And if they don’t?” Angie glared at him.
“Then you’re not human,” Edward said. “Sorry, no exceptions.”
Marcine frowned. It made sense, but… “If Angie can't get in, Rick wouldn't, either.”
Ed looked uncomfortable. “That was… kind of the point. Look, El can explain stuff better than I can, I’m just the delivery boy.”
She glanced back at the motorcycle, then to Angie. She wasn't happy about it, but there wasn't much she could do. “Fine,” she said irritably, and stepped inside.
It took several minutes for the interior door to open, all the while feeling as if something was probing at them. It was an unwelcome, intrusive sensation, like having a dental exam if the dentist was also a part-time ninja. When the door finally did open, it was into a room less like a bar-and-diner and more like a fortress. Several heavy, wooden tables were tipped onto their sides, tops facing the door to form a barricade, as if whoever lived here expected a firefight to break out at any moment.
Sergeant Abel Drouillard of the NOPD went for his shotgun the moment the chime over the door rang. It was purely a reflex for him at this point, an involuntary twitch - and ‘twitch’ was the right word. Drou looked like hell. His salt-and-pepper mustache had gone solid white, and he’d lost thirty pounds since they’d last seen him. Laverne Bellafonte looked like she’d lost sixty. She had a little sprinkler pail that she brandished like a weapon, which it probably was.
“Holy poo poo, you’re real,” Drou said. His voice was a hoarse whisper. “When El said someone was coming through the dome...and you still got those ugly-rear end shirts.” He laughed. “But if you were on the outside, what the hell would make you wanna come in?”
“I’m sentimental,” Elbridge said dryly. “Or senile. One of those words. Where is the other me, at any rate?”
“In the manager’s office,” Maria said. There she was, the bartender, still tending bar and pointing El to his stool as if he’d never left. “He said that you should go in and see him?”
“...across wards that only I can cross, and if I don’t, I’m not really me,” Elbridge guessed. “It’s good to see you all.”
Marcine slumped onto the nearest barstool and shrugged out of her coat, which she draped beside her. “You still stocked?”
“You’re in luck,” Maria said with a thin smile. “Just got a new delivery.”
“Same delivery we’ve had for six years,” Mrs. Bellafonte huffed.
“What’s it to you?” Maria snorted. “Gin and juice is all you ever drink!”
“Anything sounds good to me,” Marcine said tiredly. She shouldn't drink much, but she needed something after chauffeuring Taapya.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” Seth agreed, nearly collapsing onto the stool.
“Coke and rum then,” Maria said, pouring two bottles over a glass of ice. “Wakes you up when you’re tired, calms you down when you can’t sleep.”
“All of the above.” Marcine accepted the glass gratefully. “Perfect.”
Rupert dropped into a padded chair at a table near the bar, slumping down deep into the welcoming padding. “None for me. Just need to rest my eyes a while. I’m not used to throwing something like that magnetism spell around.”
Marcine forced herself to drink slowly, or she’d want more. “That was pretty cool, though.”
Rupert nodded lazily, his eyes half open, “Not often you make a monster crash into a hulk of metal, it’s true.”
“Is Wizard Minsk here?” Nicky asked nervously. He was the only one who hadn’t sat down yet.
“Out with Lu,” Ed said, fetching a bowl of peanuts. He plopped into the chair across from Rupert and waved Nicky over to join them. “So, uh… What’s going on, you know, out there? We haven’t had any news for six years.”
“Let them catch their breath,” Maria said. “And then we can start with some introductions.”
|# ? May 8, 2017 16:26|
Elbridge Hardley - Self-Reflection
While the others enjoyed a well-earned moment of respite, Elbridge slipped behind the bar and walked up the stairs to the manager’s office. It was just a single flight, and yet...after all of this, it felt so much longer than that. Here he was, trying to save all of reality from some place far outside of it. Everything they’d fought for, everything Rick had died for. They were at the end of this particular yellow brick road. It was time to meet the wizard.
The wards on the stairwell surely had something to do with it. Anyone other than Elbridge himself would have climbed those stairs to find only more stairs, higher and higher without end, until they gave up, turned around, and found themselves back on the ground floor as if they’d never begun.
The door wasn’t locked. Why would it be? Elbridge simply turned the knob and walked inside to face himself.
“Oh, good,” said El-two hollowly. “Not an Outsider.” He was seated at the desk, nursing a glass of tequila and poring over a stack of typewritten documents. His forearms were burnt and blistered - he’d been awfully-close when the book had gone up in flames, and he’d dressed them with sterile bandages but little else.
Every square inch of the walls was covered in spattered ink and writing. Elbridge couldn’t tell where the annotations ended and the spellwork began. El-two wasn’t doing much to not project the appearance of utter madness. “Not for lack of trying,” Elbridge said. “They seemed a bit testy out there - almost like something had them all riled up.” It had been the book, and they both knew it.
“Got you here, didn’t it?” El-two shrugged and waved, and a chair slid into position across from him. “Make enough of a racket, someone’s bound to take notice.” Grumbling, Elbridge took a seat. “You have a plan,” El-two said, matter-of-factly. “Otherwise you’d never have come.”
“I have this,” Elbridge said, and dropped the envelope with the seedpod on the desk. “The Summer Lady found out what her mother had done. Apparently, they had rather a difference of opinion.”
El-two blinked. “That is…”
“From the world-tree itself.” Elbridge nodded. “Plant it in the right spot, and a new branch will grow to sustain your timeline.”
El-two was silent for a long time after that. “You know,” he said at last, “I was expecting more of an ordeal in getting something like this.”
“Bloody hell,” Elbridge swore, “I didn’t say it was easy!”
“Hrm.” Another long, uncomfortable silence. “...that’s Warden Cole’s sword,” El-two said, glancing at Elbridge’s hip. “Why are you carrying Warden Cole’s sword? Wasn’t he with your group?”
“He didn’t make it,” Elbridge said flatly.
“I see,” El-two said. He stared at the sword with that blank, wide-eyed expression that Elbridge knew to mean he was using the Sight. “Roqueza.”
“He didn’t make it either,” Elbridge said with a note of grim satisfaction.
“One down…” El-two poured a second shot and slid it across the table to Elbridge, and then a third, which he slid to an empty place for the absent Cole.
“...and Lord knows how many thousands to go,” Elbridge finished, taking the toast. “Dresden’s methods may have been gruesome, but they were certainly thorough.”
“Harry Dresden?” El-two arched an eyebrow. “Yours actually got off his arse and cleaned up his mess, then?”
“Bloodline curse,” Elbridge confirmed. “The Red King meant to use it on his family line. Dresden just took their ritual and…” he patted the sword at his hip. “...finished it for them.”
“Ah.” El-two nodded. “So you’re saying there’s little chance of us reproducing it?”
“Not unless you can get a newly-turned vampire to Chichen Itza and cut out its heart on a stone altar,” Elbridge said. El-two was silent again for a while after that. Elbridge could tell that he was considering it. “And you?” Elbridge asked. “Where’s your Warden Cole? Why is the bar so heavily-warded against mere infectees?”
“The Fellowship of St. Giles never had a strong presence here,” El-two said. “You know that as well as I do - Nerissa wouldn’t have it. The only infectees that have tried to get in weren’t here for Happy Hour.”
“And Warden Cole?” Elbridge asked, noting the elision.
“...Nerissa caught him,” El-two said at last.
Elbridge felt the blood in his veins turn to ice. “She made him drink?” he asked. He didn’t want to hear the answer, but he had to know.
“Then the Boleyn Collar killed him?”
“It’s a simple question, Hardley.”
“It really isn’t.” El-two glanced at the third glass he’d poured, placed where Rick would have been sitting. “Death tends not to take here any longer, and since Rick and the parasitic Phage are distinct entities who’ve both been alive and dead at varying points in the cycle...it’s hard to tell which version of him we’ll get at any given moment.”
“So he’s Schrödinger’s Vampire,” Elbridge said, summarising.
“We’re all in Schrödinger’s box here,” El-two replied. “The only question is, what will come out when it’s finally opened?”
“No vampires, I should hope.” Elbridge paused as something else occurred to him. “Nor Denarians. Where’s Yoziel?”
“In the cellar, beneath ten feet of foundation, in the exact centre of a perfect sphere of wardings.”
“Well.” Elbridge took a drink of his tequila. “That must have taken some time. Wouldn’t the coin’s position reset from time to time?”
“No, no.” El-two waved his hand. “Nothing inside the bar. The whole building is enchanted against every malign influence I could think of, and a few that I couldn’t. Anna Beaumont was quite some help there - she and her circle watch over a storeroom full of provisions a short distance from here, which does reset, or else we’d all starve. Speaking of which…?” He arched his eyebrow again.
“We brought the things on your list,” Elbridge confirmed.
“Oh, thank God,” El-two said with a sigh of relief. “I’ll see that they’re taken to the storeroom - after six years on the same menu, we were all going a bit mad. Madder,” he corrected, glancing out the window.
“We’re going to fix this,” Elbridge said pointedly.
“That is our best-case scenario, yes,” El-two said, nodding along.
“Where is Narcissus?” Elbridge asked, pushing past the implied vote of no confidence. “You indicated that he’d died, but that he’s stayed dead…”
“Oh, he doesn’t,” El-two said with a wave of his hand for emphasis. “He comes back like the rest of us, and every time he does, that mob is right there to lynch him again. For the first year or so, you could actually set your clock by it.”
“Charming,” Elbridge said flatly. “So that’s why you need Hugues - for his necromancy. Where’s yours?” he asked.
“Vanished,” El-two said, shaking his head. “Haven’t seen nor heard from him since the Solstice. I can’t even locate him with scrying spells.”
“Ominous, yes,” El-two finished. “As a matter of fact, I was going to ask you to look with your…favour from Mab.”
“Ah, yes. That.” Elbridge pulled out the cloth bundle and delicately unwrapped the faerie mirror. Its surface was crystal-clear despite the summer heat, and it was perfectly-intact despite the rough trip into New Orleans.
“Marvellous,” El-two breathed softly. “You saw me through the mirror on the VFW’s ceiling...it can peer across thresholds, wards, and even dimensions?”
“As long as there’s a suitable mirror nearby and you can make the incantation rhyme, yes,” Elbridge said. “It has its limits, I’m sure - possibly a mind of its own, but under the circumstances…”
“Something about gift horses and mouths, yes.” El-two glanced again at the third shot of tequila, narrowing his eyes with suspicion. “You never answered my question, by the by.”
“Why are you carrying Warden Cole’s sword?”
Elbridge blinked. “I explained-”
“Why are you carrying Warden Cole’s sword?” El-two repeated with more inflection. “Wouldn’t it suit Turner better?”
“That’s...well, he’s already got the one…” Elbridge mumbled, feeling suddenly lightheaded and unsure of himself.
“Hardley…” El-two crossed his arms over the desk. “...why did you drink Cole’s shot?”
Elbridge had a retort about not wasting good tequila, until he realised that he’d drunk it without even noticing. He glanced down and saw that the sword was out of its sheath. He didn’t remember drawing it. Suddenly, it occurred to him that he’d never really looked at it - not properly, not the way he should have as soon as Breenfjell had returned it.
He closed his eyes and looked.
“Took you long enough,” said Rick.
|# ? Jun 2, 2017 19:33|
Scene: El’s Gato Negro
Angie was sitting on the bench outside the bar, watching two women getting out of a small green car. The willowy blonde girl carried a stack of pizzas and a cake. The severe looking brunette had her hands full of balloons and streamers.
“Oh drat, they’re already here,” said Minsk.
“Hello!” Lucy said. “Um, who are you?”
“Angelique,” said Angie. “I’m one of Richter’s friends.”
“Ah, that would be why you’re outside,” said Minsk. She looked at the bottle next to the door. An eyeball inside the purple goo stared back at her. “Is that bottle er… occupied?”
“Demon,” Angie said, then quickly clarified: “Not mine.”
“I can bring you out some cake,” Lucy offered.
“We don’t have much time,” Angie said. “What kind of cake?”
“There’s always time for cake,” Lucy frowned. “Chocolate.”
Angie felt guilty, thinking of Zophiel guarding the entrance while she rested, but if she didn’t rest and eat something she’d collapse before they completed the mission. And it was chocolate. “Maybe there’s a little time,” she mumbled.
Lucy brightened immediately. “Wonderful, I’ll be right back.”
Minsk just sighed as she pushed the door open. “Oh, to be young again.”
“So let me get this straight,” Ed said. “We’re trapped in the great black void because some other Narcissus in a completely different timeline nuked his own New Orleans so the Summer Queen could make a false timeline to bring her murdered daughter back to life. The vampires have almost wiped out the White Council, the government’s declared the whole place a radiation zone, and our whole world shouldn’t even exist?”
“drat,” Drou said.
“It’s hosed everywhere,” Marcine confirmed, staring into the last fifth of her drink and wondering if she was good for a second. Or third. If the other El could explain things better, she wished he would get down here and do it before she decided sobriety was a waste of time.
“How have you been managing things in here?” Hugues said, taking a sip from his juice box. “All the foodstuff should have expired by now.” He was aware the box he was sipping from was already several years out of date but it looked, smelled, and tasted fine.
“Snapbacks, resets, respawns, whatever you want to call it,” Ed said. “Food does expire if it’s out long enough but most places with reliable stashes are owned by someone who comes to pick it up when it comes back. There’s some trading but not much. It’s the only reason we haven’t all starved to death in here.”
“Reliable, right,” Mrs. Bellafonte shook her head. “Not since last year when we lost the ‘burbs.”
Marcine looked up from her drink. “How does the encroachment happen, anyway? Slow creep in or something else?”
“Like watching the ice-caps melt.” The florist leaned on the bar. “Most of the time it’s death by inches, real slow. But once in awhile there’s a big collapse on the edges. We’ve lost whole neighborhoods like that.”
“My house was out past the line,” Drou said nervously. “Luckily I was working late that night, so my reset is at the station.”
(Empathy check for Marcine: -+/++5 = 6)
The rest of the bar went quiet. Marcine focused in on reflex. Drou’s sense of loss was confused, like he knew he should be feeling that but didn’t have a connection for why--that he couldn’t remember something important.
Behind the bar, Maria responded with sharp concern, both inwardly and by watching him more closely. Worried about something. Memory problems from the resets? Marcine would ask later. It didn’t seem like a good idea to bring it up in front of Drou.
Better for now to act like she hadn’t noticed. “Respawn locations and save points,” she muttered. “Guess Outsiders are the gamer type.”
“Probably why wizards aren’t equipped to handle this,” Hugues chuckled.
“Good thing I'm not one.” She finished her drink, set her glass out for a refill, and glared at the staircase. “He better not be hiding more bullshit.”
|# ? Jun 2, 2017 19:38|
Scene: El’s Gato Negro
“A vain hope, I’m afraid.” The second Elbridge walked through the bay doors behind the bar. He was dressed in the same solid-white suit he’d been wearing when Elbridge had scried upon him earlier (one arm now singed and blackened from fire). “Welcome to New Orleans! Why you lot came back, I’ll never know.”
“Where else would we go, El?” Mrs. Bellafonte raised her glass. “A la tienne.”
“Well I know that we’re stuck here,” El-two said. “But the rest of you…” He did a brief double-take as his eyes slid over Marcine. “Hold on. Aren’t you…?”
“Marcine Sterling,” she said. “I take it we’ve met. I wasn't sure.” She paused, frowning. El in white looked even stranger in person. “Why are you dressed like a plantation owner?”
“We needed all of the enchanted fabric we could get for other things, and our only replacement clothing was from looting a thrift store,” he explained. “Ah - you’re that Ms. Sterling.”
“Do you know where my daughter is?” Seth asked bluntly.
“I do,” El-two said just as bluntly.
“I’m taking her home,” Seth said, standing up. “Where is she?”
“That would be unwise,” El-two said ominously. Everyone else present - everyone else who’d been in the city this entire time - squirmed in their seats, visibly-uncomfortable.
“What now?” Marcine sighed.
“Folks who go to Angel Tower…” Mrs. Bellefonte trailed off. “It’s basically a cult.”
“It’s like a roach motel,” Drou said, shaking his head. “Something’s wrong with the place. You check in, you don’t check out. That’s if you can get in at all.”
Seth glanced at Marcine. “So she’s trapped in there? Or joined this cult?”
El-two shook his head. “She leads it,” he said.
“What kind of cult?” Marcine asked warily.
El-two gave her an incredulous look. “...it’s a cult,” he said flatly.
“Kind that’d be on national news and an FBI watchlist if we still had those things,” Drou said. “Ain’t part of the N’awlins charm like Santeria, that’s what you asking.”
“That doesn’t tell me much.” Marcine looked down at her refilled glass. She felt all eyes on her, now that they’d realized who she was, and she didn’t even know what was going on. People turned to cults when they wanted stability and protection...and a lot of cults used brainwashing. Which, she realized, would be very easy for her.
Except she knew better than to do that. But after six years trapped in a city with god-didn’t-even-know-what wandering around…?
She drained half the glass in one go before coming up for air. She’d probably need the other half in a moment. And something stronger. “So how many Laws has she broken?”
“Do you truly want to know?” El-two asked.
“We didn’t drag ourselves in here for sunshine and roses.”
“First, Third, and Fourth,” El-two rattled off. “That I know of.”
“That you know of?” Seth said. “How… how long has this been going on? Why?”
“We worked together, at first,” El-two said morosely. “About a year by my estimate - not that time means much in here. I tried to…” he shook his head. “She couldn’t stand all of the suffering, death, and horror. She said that we weren’t doing enough; weren’t helping enough, especially not after…” he trailed off.
“It was the drat vampires,” Mrs. Bellafonte said. “Everything we built, they started taking away, and the people went with them. First for the food, then because the vamps had them strung out. We were losing ground, and Marcine…” she sighed. “She didn’t see why we had to. If the Reds could put the hoodoo on fools, why couldn’t she?”
So, the slippery slope, just like she’d been afraid of in the camp. When he put it that way, it wasn’t as surprising as she might have hoped. “And the rest of us?”
“Lytle left after that business with Peter Evans-” Ed winced guiltily in his corner “-and Miss Hirsch returned to New York not long after. Neither of them were in town when the stars went out. Wizard Singh has been looking after Skinner and his household since, but mainly works alone since we had some further…disagreements. No-one’s seen Turner in ages, and Warden Cole…” El-two sighed again. “Yours fared better than ours did.”
Echo Cian fucked around with this message at Jun 2, 2017 around 20:49
|# ? Jun 2, 2017 20:45|
|# ? Jul 17, 2019 10:41|
The Blame Game
Scene: El’s Gato Negro
Elbridge Prime came out from behind the bar at that point. He was slightly red-faced, and had more-properly affixed the sword at his hip, as if it belonged there. In his other hand was his yellow spiral notepad, the most strategically-relevant details of the briefing scribbled in shorthand on its pages. “Hello again,” he said, not quite meeting the others’ eyes. Briskly, he moved to pour himself a tall glass of seltzer from one of the taps. “Have Wizard Minsk and Lucy Evans returned yet?”
It was precisely then that the door opened, and Lucy and Talia Minsk walked in, carrying cake and balloons. “Welcome to New Orleans!!” Lucy yelled.
From the depths of his padded chair, Rupert chuckled.
Minsk gave El-two her most cheerless glare. “Your airlock still takes too long, and there is a half-melted demon in a bottle on the doormat.”
“That’s Murrazonoth,” Elbridge Prime said. “He’s an obnoxious little shite who invited himself along, and the thought of him in a bottle amuses me to no end.”
“The latter is the point of the former, Talia,” El-two said with an air of extraordinarily-poindextrous sagacity. “Remember what happened when it let Cole in.”
Marcine had fallen silent after his first mention of Rick. “He’s been turned, hasn’t he?” she said quietly, her glance flicking to Drou. “With the resets on death…”
“It’s like that Brad Pitt movie,” Drou said. “Where it turns out Ed Norton was Brad Pitt all along, or Brad Pitt was Ed Norton all along. I don’t fuckin’ remember but it’s like sometime’s Renfaire Rick’s in the driver’s seat and sometime’s it’s Murderous rear end in a top hat Brad Pitt trying to crash the car.”
Marcine noticed the liquid shaking before she realized her hand, clenched around the glass, was causing it. She gritted her teeth. “Hasn’t he loving been through enough?”
“I told him to come,” Lucy said, unboxing the cake and setting it on the bar. “But I don’t know if he will. He’s kinda… distant. But he’s been doing better, lately. We’re trying to figure out if there’s a pattern.” She held a hand out to Marcine. “Nice to, er meet you? I’m Lucy.”
“Lucy here is our last best defense,” Minsk said. “Her magic’s the only magic that works on Outsiders.”
“Really?” Marcine forced herself to let go of the glass and managed to steady herself when she accepted the handshake. Given the rest of the reactions she’d gotten, she didn’t expect much from this, either. “Marcine.”
Peter’s work? wondered Rupert. Shrugging the thought away for now, he leaned forwards and waved to Lucy. “Hey.”
“...Rupert? RUPERT!” She jumped the bar and charged him, pulling him up out of his chair into the most awkward bear hug. “This is so weird, it’s like… like you’re snapped back but…you don’t snap back right so that’s impossible!”
Once he recovered from the sudden hug, Rupert wrapped his arm around her, a look of confusion on his face. Quietly, he asked, “What happened?”
“There’ve been some fights,” she said quietly. “An Outsider’s touch is poison. And if they’ve hurt you… the wounds stay. Even on a reset.”
“If you get eaten, you don’t come back,” Edward added. “But when you’re close to one of them you can hear voices… Like, I don’t think getting eaten is really the same as dying.”
“And my counterpart has been out there fighting them, alone?” muttered Rupert under his breath.
“Danny helps, me, and Ed, and Cole sometimes… Some others.” Lucy bit her lip, and glanced towards Hugues.
“You saw what became of the city outskirts,” Elbridge said darkly. “They assimilate the things that they eat. The one that accosted us...that wasn’t how it always appeared. Its features were a composite of the boys in the dormitory.”
“Oh, bloody hell,” El-two swore. “They know?!”
“It posed as a survivor, then refused to let us into the city unless I’d bargain for passage,” Elbridge said crossly. “We’re rather past the point of secrecy here!”
“You made a deal with it?!” El-two said, aghast.
“More of a wager,” Elbridge said. “A contest to see who can gently caress over whom harder within the terms of the contract. Business as usual, really.”
“You must have a messed up view of 'business as usual’, Elbridge,” said Rupert, glancing over.
“You careless, amateurish imbecile!” El-two spat. “How could you even let that thing find you?!”
“I didn’t exactly place a personal ad!” Elbridge shot back. “I had a slight moment of clinical death, and it was waiting on the other side!”
“Oh?” El-two said archly. “And how did things come to that in the first place?”
“Rick and I were off slaughtering our way through a vampire encampment because someone couldn’t be arsed to kill enough before he dropped off the face of the sodding earth!”
“And whose fault was that? Who let Narcissus twaddle about in the power vacuum instead of moving to secure the city in your blessed absence of vampires?”
“There were two more Armageddons to deal with! Back to back! Those didn’t exactly take a loving number!”
“SHUT UP! BOTH OF YOU!” Nicholas Cantor stood up from where he’d been watching the exchange in the back corner. He threw his glass down at the tile floor and it smashed into a million pieces. “It doesn’t m-matter whose fault any of this is! We just have to fix it! We came all this way, and it’s all been just awful, for everyone, out there and in here and everywhere! So f-for fucks sake, figure out what we have to do next!”
“...Stripe?” Minsk said, utterly dumbfounded.
Nicky straightened. “Y-yes, Talia. I never stopped looking for a way to get you back, so… so here I am, and we’re going home. All of us.” He looked at the pair of Elbridges. “Right?”
“Such as there’s a ‘home’ left to us, yes,” El-two said, utterly-unmoved by Cantor’s outburst.
“And as a matter of fact, it does matter whose fault this is,” Elbridge Prime pointed out, “because we’ll need to go find him in the city park so that Hugues can tear the vital details of his ritual from his corpse.”
“So shut up and do that,” Marcine snapped. She gulped down the remainder of her drink and pulled her coat back on. “Now.”
“Preparations are underway,” El-two said calmly. If Elbridge Prime’s mental defences had been like a wall of ice, El-two’s were like solid granite. There was no emotional openness whatsoever - once his tirade at the other Elbridge had abated, to Marcine’s empathic senses, it was almost as if he didn’t exist. “If there are no further questions regarding the other Ms. Sterling, we can proceed to-”
“We need to retrieve her,” Elbridge Prime said. “I swore an oath upon my power to her father.”
“...unwise,” El-two said without further comment.
“Here, Seth,” Elbridge Prime addressed the man. “I suspect we’ll have better luck talking her down after we’ve saved New Orleans from oblivion.”
“I suspect you can do whatever you drat well please, but I’m going to this ‘Angel Tower’ and I’m getting my daughter back.” He flipped his empty glass over and set it on the bar. “One way or another.”
“Not alone you aren’t,” Marcine said. “We need to at least find out what the drat problem is before we make any further decisions.” She sighed. “More likely to listen if you can give her a plan.” She wasn’t sure why she wouldn’t listen, but this version of herself didn’t sound like they were the same person anymore.
“She’ll listen to me,” Seth said.
((Compel on Marcine’s Lawbreaker- Let your Dad run off into certain death, or just a little nudge?))
Marcine knew her father. He wasn’t going to listen to reason on this--not after six years, this close, feeling more trapped than the rest of them. Maybe he was right; she had no idea what the version of her running a cult was thinking. But what scared her was the idea of him finding an Outsider on the way. Or vampires. Or whatever else all the wards on the bar were meant to keep out. She’d left Rick behind, and he was dead. She couldn’t lose her dad, too. She couldn’t lose anyone.
“Maybe,” she said, and wove her will into her next words. “But I’m not worried about that part. It’s too dangerous to go there alone. We’ll be safer together.” She felt his resistance--he didn’t want to wait. It would only take a little nudge to clear his mind of desperation and make him see reason...so she gave him one.
“...safer?” he repeated. If Elbridge, either of them, had said those words, his defense would have been absolute. But Marcine’s compulsion slipped through, her genuine concern lowering his guard just enough that the idea found purchase in the depths of his psyche. “You’re right, I… I don’t know what I was thinking. We’ll go together.” He looked at El. “The park, then the apartments. Deal?”
“Deal,” Elbridge Prime said, briefly wrong-footed by Seth’s sudden acquiescence.
“Glad that you’re seeing sense here,” El-two concurred, very pointedly not looking at Marcine.
“Er… So what are we waiting for?” Nicky asked.
“You to sweep up that mess,” Maria said, pointing at the broom in the corner.
|# ? Jun 2, 2017 21:20|