Scene: Goldman Estate, around midday
It’d been five minutes since Ada had arrived at the gate to the Goldmans’ residence. She’d yet to ring the bell to announce herself. In spite of having just gotten done gorging herself at a bodega downtown, her stomach felt empty. As soon as she stepped inside, she’d be walking into the lion’s den, alone and unsupported by any allies, to deliver a message that would be nothing short of a death sentence on a woman whose story she’d grown up reading. Low stakes here. No pressure or anything.
For the last time, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. Elbridge would have probably suggested caution and a more exposed location, where a team could swiftly intervene if things went wrong. But following that advice would’ve denied the possibility of a peaceful resolution in, as well as the chance to expose well-kept secrets. None of that would be possible unless she could speak to the golden king in an intimate atmosphere, one where he might not come to the meeting with his guard already up. Have I really learned anything after all this time, really? Here I am, getting ready to walk the tightrope with no safety net. But maybe this is just the life I’ve chosen. It’s not like there’s someone who could come in as my backup without setting off alarm bells. I’ll just have to play this by ear and hope they’re not too far gone. For their sake, and mine too.
She shook her head, casting off her doubts. Then, she rang the bell thrice, decisively.
It was Philoctetes who answered. He smiled knowingly down and her and stroked his light beard. “Ahah, Miss duSang… Come in, come in. We’ve been expecting you.”
Behind her, the trees began to whisper as though there was a wind in their branches, but there was no wind at all.
“Yeah, I can see it;” she said, casting the trees a meaningful look. “The FX are a little too extra for me, though. Who set them up?”
“Oh they’re big gossips is all,” he laughed softly, stepping aside to let her pass. “They know something important is about to happen.”
Oh. So the trees are alive then.
...Well, more alive than your average tree, anyway. I should’ve figured that out earlier. That was a microcosm of her relationship to the Goldmans, really. There hadn’t been any time to do more than scratch the surface with them. Hopefully there would be a chance to fix this after this was all over. Nodding, she moved past Phil and looked around.
“It feels kind of redundant to ask, but mind taking me to Mr. Goldman, wherever he is? What I have to say is mostly for his ears only.”
“Of course, follow me please.” He closed the door and led her to the left this time, past the grand staircase and into a long hallway that reminded her a bit of the duSang’s hall of guest rooms. It was the same direction he’d gone when he’d vanished with the wine bottle at the dinner party.
Most of the doors to either side of her were closed, but one was cracked just enough to see the glint of gold inside. Phil moved past it without turning his head, but he slowed down just enough that she could easily take a peek if she chose to. Taking up the opportunity, Ada inched a little closer to the door and peered inside.
It was a child’s bedroom cast entirely in gold. The floor, the walls, the shelves, the toys, the bed, even the ceiling had been turned. And in the center…
A girl looked at Ada, her expression frozen forever in fear and betrayal. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Her dress was of an ancient design, one that Ada had never seen before. Though even cast in gold, her resemblance to Midas was unmistakable.
Ah. This was the most important resident of the entire house. Though she doubted the little girl would be able to see her, Ada waved goodbye and quickened her pace after Phil. She didn’t need to ask any questions about her. In this particular detail, the Goldmans had much in common with the duSangs. Did all rich families have a room of shame and memories somewhere in their homes? Or was there something in the Garden District that drew scarred families in like moths to a flame?
“A drachma for your thoughts,” Phil said, glancing back over his shoulder.
“Has Attis ever visited her?” She asked, quietly.
Phil nodded. “Circe took him once. If he has been since… well, that is between sister and brother. But I think so.”
She slowed down for a moment, looking back. “That room is like a gaping wound. No matter how much time passes, the only thing it can do is hurt everyone.” Her mind flashed back to the twins’ bedroom back home. Hurting was definitely the right word for this, and yet, this room was different. “But at the same time...it’s a good kind of hurting. If there has to be one statue in this house, this should be the one. As a reminder of what was lost, but also as a reminder to never lose hope she can be brought back to be with everyone else once again.”
She looked back at Phil, her eyes very serious. “I think there has to be a way to bring her body back. But her mind...I don’t know. I think that’s scarier than having to find a spell or remedy that can break the curse.”
“It has been too long, I fear,” Phil said, his eyes falling. “Not even the witch of Aeaea could bring her back, with all her knowledge and skill. We are all bound to our tales, Miss duSang, and Zoe’s fate is sealed anew with each retelling. Hope… I am afraid that hope is a curse all its own, in this house.”
“Because it gives way to obsession?” Ada ventured.
“And eventually despair. A wicked cycle. But we must not keep the patron waiting too long. Come.”
He was used to it. There was nothing worse than finding hope, only to lose it. Nothing, save having no hope at all. But it’s something you have to cling to, she thought, as she followed after him. Because all that pain and fear and worry are what keep you human. So long as you allow yourself to feel hope, you can’t be too far gone. Even if it means making a deal with the witch of Aeaea, or with a thousand untamed horrors, it’s what we all have to do.
The parlor that Phil led Ada to was quite different from her own. The decor was all in light creams and teak wood. Large windows along two walls were open and the gauzy curtains shifted gently. The trees outside were gossiping still, even more so when she entered.
Midas was standing at one of the windows, looking out over the front yard. His brows were furrowed, and his pristine while suit seemed slightly disheveled. “Miss duSang,” he acknowledged.
“Mr. Goldman,” she answered, with a polite, if short head bow. “I’ve got news to share. I found the culprit.”
Midas didn’t move, though it was his profile rather than his back that was turned to her. His shoulders stiffened. “That isn’t what I asked of you.”
“But it is what I needed to do to fulfill my duty,” Ada replied, imperturbably. “Or at least, the first step towards it. Is your wife present at the household right now? She should hear what I have to say too. The circumstances are exceptional.”
“I prefer to keep my wife out of certain affairs,” he said.
Ada nodded, slowly. “I understand. But in this instance, we have no choice.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “I swear on my power, my family and my honor that I did not come here to attempt trickery or deception, nor without firm knowledge of the inconvenience my request would cause. On these oaths I swear that Lady Medusa’s participation in this matter is unavoidable. If she is not involved now, then it will be necessary to seek her out later that she may play her part. Knowing all this, would you still keep her out of it for the moment?”
For just a few seconds, the King’s mask slipped, and his shock at the weight of her oath was evident. Then it was gone, replaced by consternation… and something else, hard to give a name to.
He turned and raised a hand to Phil. “Fetch her.”
“At once, my patron,” Phil said, with a short bow. He vanished out the door.
|# ? Sep 1, 2020 05:30|
|# ? Jun 24, 2021 12:29|
In the silence that followed, Midas looked her up and down appraisingly. His eyes lingered on her golden mittens. But before either of them could speak Lady Goldman arrived, alone.
“Phil said you needed to speak to me?” she asked, eyes only on her husband. She was wearing a mulberry turtleneck with black slacks and heels, with heavily-tinted glasses obscuring the upper portion of her face as usual. Her eyes glossed over Ada briefly and went to the window, and the rustling trees outside.
“Miss duSang has discovered something about my missing mayoral opponent,” Midas said slowly, letting each word hang in the air. “She strongly believes that both of us should hear it.”
“Oh she does?” Medusa plastered on a fake smile and shut the window with a little more force than was strictly necessary. “Well, I suppose we should hear her out then.”
“This won’t take long, I promise. Should we all sit down?” she asked, shooting Midas a questioning glance. Forcing Medusa to get up from her seat would buy a little time if she tried to make a getaway. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that, but it was hard to say how the two of them would take this bombshell.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said, gesturing to one of the odd sofas. He sat across from it, and his wife sat down beside him. She looked up at him briefly, then away, resting one of her hands on his arm.
Nodding, Ada sat down. She didn’t start speaking immediately. Instead, she made herself comfortable, subtly positioning herself to leap out if her target made any sudden moves. Then, she opened her mouth to speak.
“I found the one responsible for Frisk’s kidnapping and my team’s already working to extract him from his hideout.” Her eyes settled heavily on Medusa’s face. “She did it.”
The gorgon might have been a statue herself, frozen in a picture of serenity. She was not even breathing.
Midas’ lips pressed into a thin line. “Do you have proof of this claim?”
“Multiple eyewitness accounts of a rendezvous and Frisk’s own cell phone, featuring a recording of her taking him hostage and dropping the name of the Midnight Carnival, where his statue currently resides. I can send you a copy once this is over.” She turned her gaze towards the gorgon. “This isn’t my first time tracking down missing persons. The game’s over. Completely. We have a cure for him in the works as well. The only questions remaining are the motive and the outcome. Why did you do it?”
Midas sighed deeply and faced her. “Is this all true?”
“Of course it is,” she snapped, her nails digging into his arm. “Or don’t you believe me capable?”
“My wife, I have never thought you incapable of anything, but this-”
“Do not ‘my wife’ me,” Medusa said. “I have nothing to do in this backwater except make trouble, and I told you that before we even came. You insisted, and now you want to commit to another four years in this dismal swamp, and how many after that? You think I want to live here for a decade? Five? I will not have it. If you won’t listen to my pleas you will reckon with my deeds.”
She was livid, and Midas weathered the storm with sadness in his eyes. Still, he did not pull away from her. “We will talk of this privately,” he said. “Can you be trusted to wait for me in the garden?”
“Can you be trusted to fetch a glass of wine without falling into some whore’s bedsheets?”
He cupped her cheek, and she bared her teeth at him, but that was all.
“That’s not enough.” Ada’s voice cut through the silence that followed like a knife through flesh. “And talking it out in private won’t make it any better. What’s the point of staying together if neither of you’s willing to change for the other’s sake?”
“What business of it is yours?” Medusa said, pulling away from Midas. She stood, looming over Ada like a poised cobra. “You have fulfilled your task. Get out.”
“She has not,” Midas said. He rested his hands on his knees and shook his head. “I told her to bring me the head of whoever took Frisk. Her debt remains unpaid.”
“When I found out you were behind it, I thought about just going ahead and killing you. It’s not like I didn’t have good motives to try it.” Ada spoke calmly now, her face beautiful in its composure as she took her knife case out of a pocket. The knife seemed to draw the light into its obsidian flakes as she gripped it inwardly, pointing towards her. “But fulfilling my arrangement with your husband without another word would’ve meant keeping the letter of our agreement without honoring its spirit. I’m not big on doing favors for others that turn out to be cruel mercies.”
Suddenly, she tossed the knife forward, slow and low. It landed handle-up, its tip embedding itself deeply into the floor. “I want to know something. Why haven’t you divorced yet if you can’t stand the way he cheats on you? Being anybody’s trophy wife doesn’t suit you.”
“I don’t care what you want,” Medusa said. “The only thing keeping my fingers from your throat is your guest right. I will not justify myself to a vicious little bitch who thinks she’s important because she found a bone I left out in the yard.”
With that she started to stomp out.
“Is that it?” Ada asked Midas, after the door had slammed shut behind her. “Are you just gonna let her walk away like that?”
“Why shouldn’t I? She has nowhere else to go,” Midas said. He sounded resigned. “I wish you had not needled her. It only makes it harder, later.”
“What? Convincing her that it’s OK to stay in a gilded cage?” She huffed. “I can’t believe the mayoral election got hosed beyond belief by relationship drama, and especially not drama like this. What do you get out of a loveless marriage like this one? You can’t tell me it’s fun and games to watch her look at you with so much hatred it barely doesn’t burn holes in the walls behind you.”
“It’s not always like this,” he said. “She finds Attis’ presence… vexing, but he is hardly my first indiscretion. Nor has she been without her own, lest you think my infidelity is entirely one-sided. A thousand year union is no easy thing to maintain.”
“Forever’s a long time,” Ada said, nodding. “But I don’t think he’s the reason she seems so trapped and listless. She reminds me of how my ex-boyfriend was struggling to find something to share with me before he died. I think she lost whatever was driving her in life. Was there something you had to leave behind in Dubai?”
“Too many things to name. But that’s nothing new, we have picked up and begun anew many times through the ages. I don’t understand why she’s so unhappy this time.” He sighed again. “I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. You have no love for me and mine, and there is nothing you can do about it in any case.” He paused a moment. “I appreciate your coming to me with this rather than simply trying to assassinate her. The Fates do love their tragedies and I am a frequent target of theirs. Dodonna would have warned me… but of course, no longer.”
“I get the feeling she would’ve clawed her way out of her deathbed to warn you if she’d seen me plotting something. One of my colleagues thinks pretty highly of her, and he’s not the type to give anyone even the slightest bit of respect without good reasons. But I think you’re mistaken about two other things.”
“Oh?” He seemed like he was barely paying her attention anymore.
“The first is that you were right to tell me about this. Assassinating people isn’t my forte, but fixing up their problems is. The second is that it doesn’t matter if I have any skin in the game with the Goldman family. You don’t need to love someone to want to put them in a better spot.” Leaning forward, Ada picked up the fallen knife and put it back in its case. Even without bloodshed, it had managed to serve its purpose. “There had to be something Medusa loved back in Dubai that she couldn’t take with her — or someone. What was she into?”
His brow furrowed but he did not answer.
“You don’t know.” It wasn’t a question. “No wonder she’s so mad at you.” She stood up. “Circe should be able to tell us more. Let’s pay her a visit.”
“I have not asked you to- to meddle in my marriage.” He was getting flustered. “If you have chosen not to pursue the assassination you have another task to be about.”
“You have a task more important for me than rekindling the love in your marriage?” Ada said, shooting him a significant look. “With all due respect, propriety and decorum have no place in love. We’re talking about a chance at regaining happiness here. There’s nothing to be won in being too scared of embarrassment and loss of face to keep it from slipping away.”
“Hah! One cannot rekindle that which was never there. Have you never heard of a political marriage? The Lady Medusa’s investments drew my attention, not her personality.”
“Does that mean you haven’t become fond of her, over time?” She countered.
“Fondness is no substitute for love, and your attempts to redirect the task I set you run perilously close to breaking the oath you swore.”
“Would you rather I kill her after all, then?” Glaring, Ada crossed her arms. “You just need to say the word. But I won’t let anyone say there was any other author to this tragedy than King Midas himself if so.”
Midas sighed. “Miss duSang, if you attempt it then the only tragedy you write will be your own, and behaving like a petulant child ill becomes one who seeks power. Was I not gracious when you came to me for aid this summer? Did I not fulfill your request to the best of my ability, without complaint or haggling over petty details?”
“You did. And you want me to do the same, even though these matters are not the same.” She fell silent for a moment, thinking. If only there was a way to make him see…
“...We look for different things in our arrangements. You would have me do for you as you did for me. What I sought was to deliver matching value for what you gave me. Your aid contributed to protecting this city from a threat greater than anyone could’ve ever imagined. It saved something I loved.” She lowered her head. “If I have to repay you, I’d rather do so in kind. Not for my sake, but yours.”
He stood, looming over her. “And what, then, do you offer me that could match the value of saving this city that you love? That is worth more than the Lily, and more than the honor of justice against an adversary? I am listening.”
There was only one thing she knew of that could possibly equal the value New Orleans had to her. But how could she bring that back?
...It didn’t matter. She’d never known exactly how to chart a course towards a better future before. Why should she start here?
“Your family, King Midas. Your daughter, alive and in your arms again.”
“Do not mock me!” he snapped. “I would be more inclined to believe you could offer me the moon in the night sky.”
“This is something far too important to joke about,” Ada said, keeping her expression steady. “Death took two of my loved ones from me. I never harbored hope I’d have them back, and yet, they returned. One of them even woke up...in my arms...”
Suddenly her eyes widened. “That’s it! Tell me something, everything you’ve tried has been to break the curse upon her, right?” She said, speaking quickly, as if frightened the idea she was toying with might vanish like an ephemeral evening breeze. It was too crazy to believe, but at the same time, it made perfect sense from any angle, a sense derived from the miracles she’d been gifted. Is that it? Is that really it?
“It cannot be done,” Midas said. “Even Circe’s best efforts were in vain, and she is among the most knowledgeable of the ancient witches.”
“I believe that. There’s no living being that can break a curse placed by the gods by challenging it head-on. But breaking the curse isn’t needed to bring her back. When the Warden of New Orleans died, his spirit found a way to live on. When my sister died, her soul found a new vessel. And Zoe’s never died in the first place.” Her eyes narrowed, twinkling with intensity to match the excitement she felt. “I can’t turn her body back from being a golden statue to normal flesh. But nothing says we can’t twist the curse just enough to allow her to reclaim control over her gilded body once again.”
“So you would have me make a monster of her. A golden golem, brought to life to soothe an old man’s wounded heart.” His hands clenched into fists.
“A golden girl, finally able to speak and walk and embrace her father again,” Ada corrected him. “It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a fool’s errand to seek perfection. If we can bring her back, we can help her begin her life again, and look for ways to return to a proper human body from there.” Her hand twitched instinctively, clutching a phantasmal hand that wasn’t there. “I speak from personal experience when I say this: it’s better to live an odd life, free to do as you desire, than to live no life at all.”
This is a Rapport roll against Epic (+7) difficulty. Ada rolls and gets +5, which isn’t enough, but invoking On Top of the World or Buried and Soul Sisters is enough to take it to +9, making it a clean success.
Midas crossed the room until he was directly in front of her. His eyes were dangerous. “Bring me a golden dog. One that barks and wags its tail, and behaves as though it were not turned to lifeless metal. I have dealt with charlatans before, promising what you do now, and none of them were able to fulfill this basic task. If you can succeed where they failed, I will allow you to try. But know this, if you set down this path then all others are closed to you. If you fail, if you run… I will enjoy hunting you down, as a rabbit in the forest.”
A smile flashed across Ada’s face, the same confident and dangerous smile that always appeared when she was preparing herself to do something reckless and foolish that no one had ever managed to do before. “And if I succeed?”
“Then it is I who will be in your debt.”
“I’ll take you up on that.” Turning around, Ada headed for the door. Once there, she turned her head back around. “I’ll be back with a few specialists soon. Make sure Phil knows they’ll be welcome.”
“They won’t be, until you have proof of concept. One step at a time, Miss duSang.”
“Alright,” Ada said, nodding slowly. “One step at a time.”
|# ? Sep 1, 2020 05:32|
Guides and Damned Guides
Scene: St. Louis #2 Cemetery
The historic St. Louis No.2 Cemetery was much as it had been in summer, at least on this side of the veil. Although it had flooded along with the rest of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, the graves and tombs had sustained surprisingly-little water damage (aside from an unsightly brown smear at equal height on all of the structures to mark the waterline). ‘Miraculous’, they’d called it.
Elbridge certainly believed that this had been a place of supernatural intercession. He just wasn’t sure whose.
“Well,” he remarked. “Here we are again.”
"Spend a lot of time hanging around graveyards, do you?" asked James.
“Not this one, we couldn’t afford the rent,” Rick said, half-smirking. “If you think the French Quarter’s bad…”
The truth was he hadn’t been to a graveyard, not even his own, since the funeral, and he wasn’t sure what to expect. As they passed by the small brass plaque marking the entrance to the mausoleum, he felt a subtle shift in the air, as though he’d crossed a threshold with permission. He was allowed here, and as his living companions walked between the rows of water-damaged tombs he could see the ghosts that dwelled within them peeking their heads out through the marble doors with the keen interest of nosy neighbors.
“We’re being followed, just so you know,” Rick said, doing his best not to look back at the impromptu parade they were leading as they turned down the lane towards Dominique You’s final resting place. “I don’t think they mean any harm, but... Wow there’s a lot of them.”
“I suppose that privacy was never a likely expectation,” Elbridge sighed. “Not that I’m certain that any of these lot are on the Goldmans’ payroll, but then why wouldn’t they be? Seems they’ve bought out everyone else…”
James raised an eyebrow and asked, “What would he even be able to bribe a ghost with, anyway? Are spirits that big on gold?”
“I could ask,” Rick offered. “Though as far as I know you can’t take it with you.”
“You may as well,” Elbridge said. “The only risk that I can foresee is giving them ideas.”
ChrisAsmadi fucked around with this message at 08:42 on Oct 28, 2020
|# ? Oct 1, 2020 16:09|
The Grateful Dead
Scene: St. Louis No.2
Rick watched the other two round the corner feeling like he’d lost a bet. He hadn’t expected Elbridge to agree that he should talk to the locals, but since he’d offered he was stuck. I need to stop joking around with El, it never works out.
Something tugged on his pant leg and he looked down into the grinning face of a girl young enough to be missing her two front teeth. She giggled at his shocked expression then phased straight through him and ran back towards the others.
“Hey!” he said, but she’d already vanished under the skirts of a nun in a grey woolen dress. The other ghosts seemed to be giving the nun the floor, and spread around him in a loose semi-circle. While he couldn’t get an exact count, there were enough of them to make him gulp. He’d never been good with crowds when he was alive, and now he wasn’t, and it really didn’t help that they weren’t either, or that most of them bore the gruesome scars of their deaths. He tried not to stare, but no one else seemed to be affording him the same courtesy.
“Welcome, child, and may the Lord bless and keep you,” said the nun. She spoke with a pronounced Colonial French accent - a mark of the upper classes, or the educated, in the times when she would have lived. “May I ask your name?”
“Hi, er… Mother? Ma’am? Richter Cole.” He waved sheepishly. A few of the ghosts waved back, including a man who didn’t have any eyes. Wait, how…? But that was a mystery for another night. He pulled his attention back to the nun. “Pardon my asking, but are you Henriette DeLille? I saw the plaque on the way in.” It had been hard to miss, a gleaming white edifice with her name and two others carved in stone.
“Yes, I am. Was it the lack of spectacles that gave me away?” she said with a gentle smile. “Or are you here to deliver my halo?”
“Oh, no, I’m not…” He laughed, a little uncomfortably. “But you know that.”
“Hebrews 13:2,” she said. “But I am told that I have worked miracles, although I have no recollection of such, and for them the Holy Father is considering my name. So, the question becomes: if you were delivering my halo, would you even know?”
“Probably not, angels tend to be pretty circumspect.” He smiled. “If one happens to fall out of my pocket, it’s yours.”
“That’s very kind of you.” She nodded, and one of the ghosts with a covered head and pockmarked skin began to usher the others away. They didn’t stray far, but they seemed to understand the wish for a one-on-one conversation. “Richter Cole...ah. I do believe that we have you to thank for your intervention prior to the solstice.”
“Just doing my job, ma’am. I… well, I was the city’s Warden, at the time.” He sighed. She wouldn’t know what that meant, most likely, and he wasn’t up to explaining it. “But you’re very welcome. New Orleans needs her ghosts. I think half the city’s revenue is graveyard tours.” And the other half is probably alcohol.
“There is doing one’s job, and there is doing the work that needs to be done,” Mother DeLille said. “Only God knows all, but I like to flatter myself that I can make a distinction every now and again.” She smiled, and turned up her palms. “You and your friends did more for us than you can possibly know. Be at ease, Richter Cole. You are welcome here.”
Rick glanced out at the other spirits and let his shoulders relax. They weren’t so fearsome now that he had a little distance. “I appreciate that. It’s peaceful here, even though there’s so many residents. Are you doing anything special or...?”
“Teaching, child. Now there is a work that never ends.”
He laughed again, genuine this time. “I bet. Any quick lessons for a wayward soldier? I can’t stay long, there’s more work that needs doing and dying doesn’t seem to have let me off the hook.”
“Of course,” she said, in a way that could have been in response to either half of his statement. “Letters, sums, etiquette, verses - is there anything in particular you wish to learn?”
“Very well, then. To begin, it is impolite to answer in sentence fragments.”
Oh I like her. Rick cleared his throat and stood up a little straighter. “I can speak more formally if that would suit you better, ma’am.”
“I am unsure that it would, but your effort is appreciated, regardless,” she said. “May I venture to guess that your questions are more-existential in nature?”
He thought about it, and nodded. “Some of them, though I wouldn’t mind learning what etiquette means to ghosts either. I haven’t been one for very long and no one’s told me the rules.” He paused, one question had been lurking in the back of his mind for a while. “Is it okay to ask how someone else died? Or is that not done?”
“It is somewhat gauche to ask so directly,” Mother DeLille said. “It is more-acceptable to invite another to tell the story of their life, and leave the matter of the ending to their discretion.”
“That seems like a significantly longer story,” Rick said.
“We have nothing but time, Mr. Cole.”
“You have a point,” he acknowledged. Then he frowned and looked around at the gathered spirits once more. “What else is there to do with it? All that time, I mean…” Wizards tended to live a lot longer than other folks, but Rick had been avoiding thinking about his own- as far as he could tell- functional immortality. It was something that wouldn’t matter for a long time yet, but here among the dead it suddenly seemed a lot more pressing. “How do you hold onto who you are when no one’s left to remember you?”
“That is a vexing subject,” DeLille said, “and one of the few on which I, personally, cannot speak with authority. The Sisterhood we began has outlived us fourfold. There’s always someone coming by to pay respects. But those less-fortunate…” She gave a sad look at some of the wearier figures in the graveyard, their forms as weathered-looking as their tombs. “They do lose some of themselves over the years. I count myself blessed to be so well-remembered. It anchors me - gives me purpose.”
“So you can keep teaching?” Rick ventured.
“So I can keep teaching,” she echoed. “A word of advice, child: Unless you plan on moving on to your final reward, find something in the living world to care for. Otherwise, you’ll go to pieces, and no-one wants that.”
“The living world is something I need to ask you about, actually,” Rick said. Most of his problems at present involved caring too much about things in the living world, though he took her advice seriously. It might not always be that way. “Have you heard of a man named Midas?”
“I’ve heard the stories of King Midas,” DeLille said. “Touch of gold, ears of an rear end. But even if he had lived, wouldn’t he be long-dead by now?”
“Of course, but that doesn’t stop someone from using the name,” Rick said. He wasn’t proud of telling her half-truths, but time was short. “He also goes by John Goldman, or Lord Midae, and I don’t know if he has any others. I need to know if anyone here’s been approached by someone claiming to work for him, or been asked to pass him information or things like that. He’s aware of the other side and has a long history of exploiting the vulnerable for his own gain.”
“Not here in No. 2,” she said, although the worry was plain in her voice. “But I hear that City Hall is making plans for restoration work...and new construction. There’s been whispers that some of us might be relocated.”
“Is that a threat or a bribe?” Rick asked, narrowing his eyes.
“If this ‘Goldman’ character is what you say...both.” DeLille couldn’t quite keep her lips from pursing, her brow from furrowing. “Same as it ever was.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” Rick’s hand found the hilt of his sword, not in a threatening way, but a reassuring one. It was real, as real as his word. “I don’t know how well I can fight city hall, but if you ask me to, I’ll try.”
“I ask only that you do for your brothers and sisters what you hope they’d do for you,” DeLille said. “The rest is in the Lord’s hands.”
“I don’t know much scripture, ma’am,” Rick said, inclining his head slightly in deference. “But I’ve always heard that God helps those who help themselves.”
“...yet time and circumstance happeneth to us all,” Mother DeLille said with a faint smile. “May the Lord bless and keep you, Richter Cole. I will keep you in my prayers.”
Despite what he’d said Rick didn’t rush back to James and Elbridge, too deep in thought about what he’d told Mother DeLille. He hadn’t promised her anything, not exactly, but the thought of letting Goldman tear this friendly community of disturbing apparitions apart had brought something out of him he rarely felt. If he did go down to city hall it wouldn’t be about ‘just doing his job’ anymore, it’d be personal.
Personal got you killed.
A knot twisted in his stomach, the memory of fear, freezing cold water, and an iron grip on his ankle. But it wasn’t strong enough to paralyze him this time. The situations were nothing alike. Back then he’d been helpless, bound by duty, unkept promises, and regrets. He’d left all of those things behind. If he helped the ghosts of No.2 out, it would be on his terms, because he wanted to, not because he had to. He was a free agent now, which meant he got to choose where he spent his time. That didn’t mean he had to focus solely on his new job. Tempting as it was, that wouldn’t be acting any differently from before he’d died. Maybe a more balanced approach, with time for work, for play, for helping others...
We have nothing but time, Mr. Cole.
The sword was heavy on his hip. He’d been given a second chance at life and all he’d really done with it so far was shirk his previous duties, scare some college kids, and mope over his ex-girlfriend. Well, and kill that octo-shark-lobster. Cutting loose like that’d been fun, and slicing up monsters felt good and natural to him, but... Picturing the land-shark in his head didn’t cause his fist to clench like picturing someone packing cemetery monuments onto a truck did. It wasn’t about the fight itself, it never had been. He needed to fight for something, or someone… But wasn’t that just falling into the same old trap of letting others drag him around by the nose?
It doesn’t have to be. You don’t owe anybody anything anymore. But you’ll never be happy if you try to ignore the things you care about.
He scratched his cheek. James and El were in sight now, conversing with the gregarious pirate they’d come to recruit. Further introspection would have to wait. But he was going to have to make some real decisions about his priorities, and soon.
|# ? Oct 28, 2020 04:43|
Guides and Damned Guides, Part 2
Scene: St. Louis #2 Cemetery
Elbridge had conducted more research since their last excursion to the cemetery. In life, Dominique You had been notoriously-proud, insistent that he was no mere pirate but a privateer, and had refused to beg the charity of any other man. Dominique You had also died in abject poverty. Only the post-mortem evaluation of his estate had revealed the extent of his debts. His funeral was paid for at state expense, but for a hundred years, his grave had been shabby and neglected, until renewed historical interest led to its restoration.
Dominique You scorned charity, but gifts were another matter. Elbridge carried with him a bottle of green Chartreuse, filled to the brim, seal unbroken. It pained the old wizard to part with it, but You’s help could mean the difference between success and failure in the rescue of Benjamin Frisk, and a bottle of rum might have sent the wrong message. You was a privateer, not a pirate, after all, and the production of rum in his time had been an ugly business.
”Intrepide guerrier, sur la terre et sur l’onde,
Il sut, dans cent combats, signaler sa valeur,
Et ce noveau Bayard, sans reproche et sans peur,
Aurait pu sans trembler, voir s’crouler le monde.”
Elbridge read the epitaph aloud in You’s native French. Ordinarily, to make such an offering would require more ritual - to pour the drink on the grave dirt, or have a blood relative imbibe it in his stead. As active as the other ghosts were, however, You might simply be conscious enough to receive visitors, and take the drink in a manner of his own choosing.
For a long moment there was silence and then something, a crawling sensation on the back of his and James’ necks. It might have been unsettling if they hadn’t been hanging out with Rick for so long. A chill wind gusted through them and then, there he was, sitting on top of the tomb with his legs crossed. Dominique You, privateer extraordinaire. This evening he wore a white bandanna wrapped around his head, and a shirt of similar color, open in the front. He ran a finger and thumb over his pencil-thin mustache, regarding the bottle with open interest.
“I wasn’t expecting company tonight,” said You, in a heavy French accent. “Much less such prestigious company, and bearing handsome gifts. Are you trying to bribe me, Warden? Because I can be bought.” He held up a finger. “For the right price.”
“Then consider this a down payment,” Elbridge said, proffering the bottle. “Banned under Bonaparte I, as I understand, for it’s makers’ refusal to publicise the formula. Still haven’t, to this day.” If there was any subject Elbridge was more versed in than magic, it was the history of booze. “My companions must travel in perilous quarters. I should be glad for them to have a capable guide.”
“Ohoh! Perilous are my favorite kind of quarters. Now where are they going, that you can’t follow?”
You’s eyes narrowed at that, flicking from Elbridge to James and back again. “That is a place that goes well beyond perilous, my friends. Are you sure what you seek can only be found there? I know this city from the deepest canal to the highest tower, perhaps there is an alternative.”
“Men who people will follow and support, and might actually be worthy of it, tend to be in very short supply, I’m afraid,” replied James.
“Men like that don’t last long at Le Carnaval,” You said.
“A shame,” Elbridge said. “That’s where ours has been taken.”
"And, what's more, he's been turned to stone, too," replied James, "Which makes this as much a heist as a rescue mission. But we need him, because he's the only one with a chance to stop someone from buying his way into leading the city. So that's why I'm venturing into the Carnival. But like the Warden said, I could use a guide, and… from what I read about you, you seem like the sort of man who wants to keep the city safe and is more than up for an adventure, too."
(James, Rapport: -//- +5+1 = +4. He invokes on “A Smile in the Shadows” for a +2 to succeed. (FP:5->4))
“You read about me?” You said, taking a sudden interest. “Something scandalous I hope.”
“Just a cursory amount, I’m afraid,” replied James - in truth, he’d just googled the man, but he didn’t want to have to explain the internet to a ghost, “But from what I read, it sounded like an interesting life.”
“Oh it was, it was! If we’re to be adventuring together I shall tell you all about it,” You said. “Just as soon as we three share this delectable vintage-”
Rick walked into view just then, looking thoughtful.
“We four,” You corrected himself. “My friend! You are looking a little thinner than I recall at our last meeting, but I trust you can still lead your good companions to my ship?”
“Hey, You,” Rick said without missing a beat. “I’m sure I could, if I had a good reason. Are you inviting us?”
“I am! We shall drink and make merry until dawn, and then tomorrow eve I will be taking your brave and dashing friend on a rescue mission of paramount importance. Will you be joining us?” He rubbed his hands together expectantly.
“Oh hell no,” Rick said, crossing his arms. “People like me get used as prizes in that place, and dead or not I’m sure they know what the last Warden looked like. No thank you.”
You eyed the sword on Rick’s hip. “You’re not wrong, if that is what I think it is. Ah well, it shall just be us two then!” He jumped off the tomb and hung a ghostly arm around James’ shoulders.
James couldn’t feel the ghost’s arm resting on his shoulders, of course - but that didn’t stop all his hairs where the arm lay from standing on end, all at once. It was strange, even if it wasn’t outright unpleasant. But even with the weird sensations, he was starting to find the privateer ghost rather intriguing.
“That’s one more than I thought I’d have when I volunteered to head in there, honestly,” he replied with a grin, “Happy to have you watching my back.”
“Just so long as you understand that’s all I can do,” said You. “If you manage to get yourself into too much trouble, it won’t be me who pulls you out of it. No offense.”
“That would be my job,” Elbridge added drily, bracing himself for the jolt of transition to their host’s demesne. “I’d make a witty remark about drink and sailors but I expect you’ve heard them all by now.”
“Monsieur, I wrote half of them,” said You, and with a nod and a wink, off they went.
|# ? Oct 28, 2020 08:42|
Back In The Swamp... Again
Scene: The Bayou
Much to Grace’s chagrin, most of her promising leads hadn’t actually panned out yet. Surely they would, eventually… but maybe she could get ahead. Elsa made a habit of collecting things lost in the bayou, so Grace gathered up as many “Lost: Reward” type posters as she could, and hit up Craigslist as well. Most of it was junk, but there were 2 lost wedding rings, some kind of fishing sonar thingy that’s supposed to be waterproof, and a diamond necklace that might have made it her way.
It was a bit of a trek, but there was a nice breeze and so far no weird zombie murder gators on the way Elsa’s grove. As she entered the Tourbière, a half-rotten hand poked out of the bog...and waved at her.
“My my, and here I was thinking today was going to be dull for a change.” Elsa appeared on cue, rising up through the dead tree’s branches before being hanged from them by the vines. “What brings you here today, bearcat? Hmm..or maybe I should say gatorcat, in your case,” she said, stifling a laugh.
“Good morning, Elsa. I thought I would come for a visit, see if you’d come across any interesting trinkets as of late. Some folks from the city keep dropping their poo poo in the swamp. Plus, I told you I’d come back, so here I am.” Grace said with a small curtsey.
“Always nice to meet a gal of her word.” Though Elsa’s face remained quite still, Grace could’ve sworn it gave the impression of smiling nonetheless. “Fishing was good today, so there might be something I can find for you. Got a list for me to look at?”
“With pictures, in fact!” Grace pulled out a manilla folder that had some flyers and print outs. “Couple of wedding rings, some random junk, and somehow someone lost a diamond necklace? Might just be an insurance scam, though. You’d have to kind of be an idiot to lose diamonds out here. So how have you been? Anything interesting happening on this side of the swamp?”
“Is there ever! I got a visit from the right-hand man of the River King himself. Shady little fella if I ever saw one, but he had nothing but compliments, gifts and a polite request. How could I refuse him when he brought me these water lilies to brighten up my home?” A vine pointed at the edges of the grove, and there, patches of cheerfully growing flowers could indeed be seen growing, in stark contrast with the forbidding atmosphere the place otherwise cast.
“It’s been nonstop searching since last night, but I found what he wanted, and more besides. In fact...would you be up for a little trade of favors? I think I’ve got that necklace and geegaw lying around somewhere, but there’s a parcel I need to send over to the city, and I wouldn’t want to involve Glaniell’s fairies in this...”
“Of course, Elsa! That’s kind of my whole thing. Well, when I’m not a gator, anyway. Who will be receiving this delivery?”
“It’s for some rich cats at the Oak Alley plantation. Linked to the River King’s entourage somehow, if I had to guess. No specific recipient named, only the classic cryptic remarks about how ‘they’d know who it was meant for when they saw it’ or somesuch.”
A rather bulky and misshapen package emerged from the waters, wrapped in what seemed to be twenty-something bags, between paper and plastic ones. Its contents rattled as one of the vines picked it up and deposited at the edge of the tiny island where the tree stood before pulling away.. “Just between you and me, I really need to get some new neighbors, and soon,” Elsa whispered conspiratorially as she descended from the treetop. “The fairies are nice, but a girl gets tired of having to solve riddles every time they drop by.”
“Between me and you… I’m not sure if the faeries are worse, or the wizards. The fae are at least upfront about riddles and secrets.” Grace gently took the package, trying to see how delicate it was before placing it in her messenger bag.
Whatever was inside the package was tough, solid...and pointy. Very pointy. In fact, it seemed to be made of nothing but pointy bits and curves, as far as she could tell. “That so? I’ve never gotten to meet one before. How’d you come across them?”
“Well, first one was here in the swamp. I told you about that big zombie gator, yeah? Well, he was out wading around in his jeans trying to fight it. Not sure he’s technically a wizard, but he introduced me to Warden Elbridge. Crazy old guy, says a lot without saying anything, if you know what I mean. And then I got roped into delivering a message from a certain faerie princess we both know to the former Warden. And I do mean former. Dude is dead as a doorknob, and living in a sword. But that’s not stopping him from doing a big old something involving that last package of yours.”
“I can see what you mean just by those descriptions,” Elsa said, her head jerking up and down suddenly. “That sounds like the circus rolling into town, except with magical fireworks for a change. I can’t believe Glaniell never sent that dead bimbo my way, though. The first serious poltergeist in fifty-something years and I find out second-hand that I was working to find something for him!” She huffed indignantly, causing her lifeless body to shake, but then composed herself. “They didn’t try to pull you anything silly, did they? I hear wizards can’t help themselves when it comes to making a production out of the smallest problems. They’ve got a bad, BAD reputation with the neighbors.”
Grace reached out and awkwardly gave Elsa a pat on the shoulder. “No, well… kinda. Not bad, but definitely silly. I had to haul the dead one’s sword around so he could make his meeting with Glaniell and get back home, but he let me ride his motorcycle, so that was nice of him. It does raise the question of why a dead guy needs a motorcycle. And the other two took me through the Nevernever to go burn that zombie gator’s corpse, and gave all sorts of warnings about necromancers and death curses and whatnot, but I think that was for the greater good. I don’t think they’re the type to mess with someone like me or you. But, yes, they are all a bit dramatic.”
“Phew. That’s a relief. This town’s got enough troublemakers as it is. Can you tell the dead one to come around if you ever see him again? I haven’t had someone to talk about life beyond the grave with in...in…” Her head tilted sideways, and then her whole body. “Huh. The years blur together sometimes, hun, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had someone to talk to about this condition of mine who’d properly understand it. It’s definitely a chance I can’t waste, then.”
Grace fussed with getting the package situated in her bag as she replied, "Of course, hun. I could even insinuate that he owes you for that hunk of metal, if you'd like. Rick seems to be the easily distracted type. I got the feeling he'd forget he was dead if he wasn't able to walk through walls."
“Hah! That’s one circus act I’d like to see. If you could do that for me, I’d owe you one. If you need me to put in a good word with anyone around these parts, just say the word. It’s the least I can do for my favorite visitor.”
Grace gave a little laugh at Elsa's enthusiasm. "That sounds great, Elsa. I'll try to get out here more often. And bring Rick one of these times. Is there anything you need from town?"
“Besides the company? Hmm. Maybe some newspapers. It’s been a while since the last time I got caught up with the world. Just because I can’t leave this place doesn’t mean I should live inside an oyster, you know?”
"Sure, no problem! I'll grab some when I come back for the necklace." Grace very carefully slung the messenger bag over her shoulder as she headed out of the grove.
|# ? Nov 30, 2020 20:20|
Summer in the Fall
Scene: Oak Alley Redux
The last time Ada had been to Oak Alley, the plantation lawn was strewn with revelers and feasting. The trees were much the same, reaching eagerly to entwine their counterparts over the brick pathway that led to the white, columned entrance of the house. But the grass was empty now, and trimmed to within an inch of its life.
It was after visiting hours, but there were lights on inside the house, and she could hear soft classical music playing.
It still looks good, but it’s definitely seen better days. Which was just as well. Both because the people partying inside had been willing cronies for Narcissus, and because it meant the greatest power in the city was still on the backfoot. Approaching the door, Ada knocked on it three times, lightly.
The music inside ceased, and a moment later a tall, muscular man answered. His skin was very dark, and he wore a tan suit coat with a grey tie. “Tours are over for the day,” he said, glowering down at her. “Please, escort yourself from the premises, and return tomorrow.”
“I’m not here for a tour,” Ada replied, undaunted. Her right hand came up, holding the Summerstone within it. “An heirloom of fae power fell into my hands recently. I wanted to ask a couple questions about it. What it can do, what should be done with it...mind if I come in? It shouldn’t take long.”
“An article of power, you say?” A woman of notable girth bullied her way past the muscle-man. She had on a sparkling purple gown and heels, and a thick pearl necklace. “How interesting! You don’t see something like this every day.”
“Bjergsra, please…” said the man. “We’ve not fallen so far as to invite beggars to our parties.”
The woman sighed. “The boor does have a point. Knocking on one’s door without invitation or indeed, any sort of announcement of your coming… it’s a bit gauche.” Her accent was light, but had a hint of Scandinavia. “But that’s nothing a little introduction won’t fix. What shall we call you, my dear?”
“Ada duSang of the duSangs of New Orleans. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bjergsra, and I apologize for springing this on you,” she said, turning her eyes to the lady in the purple gown and giving her a courteous bow. “Can I ask your name? I wouldn’t want to stack insolence on top of impoliteness by coming in without knowing who’s opening the door for me.”
“Bjergsra will do for me,” said the woman, elbowing her companion hard in the ribs.
“Cadair,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Alright, woman. Take her to Hob. But I am not responsible for any trouble this flame-hair brings in with her.”
“As if I’d ask you to be. You wouldn’t know an opportunity if it bit you on the nose.” She let out a little ‘hmph!’ and linked her arm with Ada’s. “Well, now that the formalities have been observed… Come in, Ada of the house of duSangs! A very old name, that one, oh yes. Such a long time since we’ve heard it too. Years and years.”
“You know of us?” Surprise mixed with a little bit of delight and caution in Ada’s voice as she took the implications in. “Huh. I’m more used to people wondering why I’m trying to talk posh with that sort of introduction than anything else.”
Bjergsra chuckled. “Why, there was a time when you couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over a duSang. Such a shame, what happened. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you though.”
She kept Ada’s arm firmly in hers as she whisked them through the party. A snap of her fingers had the pianist start up again in one corner of the room, and the dozen or so other faeries present seemed to relax, though there was a generous helping of curiosity aimed Ada’s way. They were all in human guise, and well dressed too. The decadence that had graced Narcissus’ last party seemed strangely absent.
Cadair trailed behind them like a suspicious shadow, making no noise despite his shiny leather shoes. The glares he shot the others soon had them minding their own business.
“This place is different from what I remember,” Ada murmured. “Feels...healthier, somehow. Cleaner. Hard to pin it down exactly. Did some spring cleaning go down after Old Man Pontchartrain’s return?”
“You could say that…” Bjergsra’s expression hardened. “Hob’s been trying to build something here, an alternative to both our former Lord’s debauchery and the River King’s endless revelry. We are a civilised folk and we mean to act like it.”
“Sounds pretty classy. Self-control and civilization are rare these days.” She looked around one more time, more for show than anything, and her expression turned into a frown. “This place was packed before, though. Most of the old crew must’ve not been up for it. I can’t imagine those B’rer guys liking this new atmosphere, for instance.”
“They were of his brood to begin with,” she said, with another ‘hmph!’ “The moment the coup succeeded they were scurrying back to that disgusting steamboat, and good riddance.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why do you have such beef with the Old Man of the Lake? I’ve only seen him once, but he seemed fair, even if he was also dangerous.”
((That’s a Rapport roll to open Bjergsra up. Difficulty is 5, so a 6 makes it cleanly!))
“A question with a complicated answer,” Bjergsra said. “Narcissus was very good for the Court. He knew how to make deals, how to cement alliances. Even Nerissa of the Reds respected him, and all of it without a drop of blood shed. We had peace with all our neighbors and Winter didn’t dare show their faces anywhere in the state. Of course, it was all based on lies.” She paused, letting the click of her heels do the talking for a few seconds. “I don’t fault the River King for taking back his due, but I disagree with his plans for the Court, and so do the others here. His relations- or lack thereof- with humans are especially vexing...”
“But the Winter Court’s taken up residence in the city,” Ada pointed out. “I think they set up a skating rink. Which means not staking a claim on the humans on New Orleans gives them first crack at any interesting people they might find.”
“You misunderstand,” said Cadair, still behind them. “Pontchartrain’s policy is to ignore, and in some cases, encourage encroachment on human territory. This is his answer to the damage the Outsider caused to Faerie. Not rebuilding, but resettlement.”
“There’ve been several deaths,” Bjergsra said. “It’s only going to get worse. And Winter shoving their noses in is not helping.”
“He will not touch them now, not with Summer’s power waning and the Queen missing,” Cadair said. “Interesting people are not of any concern at the moment, Miss duSang. The Courts are preparing for war. A short, bloody, and lopsided war that may very well lead to another ice age.”
“And Summer doesn’t have any allies to turn to,” Ada ventured. “With the Red Court wiped out and the White Council licking its wounds from its own war, the only other power who could stand up to Winter is the White Court. I can’t even imagine the kind of price they would extract to go against Queen Mab, if they’d even consider helping at all.” She whistled, quietly. Cadair’s annoyance masked fear well, but there was no denying it was there. Titania made the worst mistake of her life when she told Narcissus to find a way to bring back her daughter. She won’t just lose her, but her nation as well. “And there’s no one trying to pull things together? I can’t imagine the Court’s big shots are thrilled by the prospect of being crushed or forced to convert to Winter.”
“Come now, Cadair, it’s not all doom and gloom,” said a new voice. It belonged to a boyish figure, of a height with Ada. He had short, curly hair of chestnut brown and an easy, welcoming smile. “Miss duSang, was it? I’m called Hob.” He bowed, one leg behind the other, leaning on the fine cane he carried. “My friend Cadair tends to be regarded as a bad omen, so he’s… let’s say more pessimistic than most Summer courtiers tend to be. I wouldn’t start investing in woolen socks quite yet. The season isn’t over, after all, and it is one of change.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Ada said, replying in kind. “And a pleasure to see how Oak Alley’s changed in such a short time, too. It’s your brainchild, isn’t it?”
“That it is, and I’m delighted to hear you speak of it so.” He took a moment to preen, gazing out at the small, but eager, number of guests. “Now, what was that you said about an heirloom?”
“Right. A while back during the Ripple incident, I had the chance to meet the white stag, Dammis. He was trying to fix the damage the Ripple was causing in the Nevernever. We collaborated to mend one of the tears, but the process was too much for him and he...”
She fell silent for a moment, trying to find the word for it. To one of the fae, changing courts was no laughing matter. Making light of the events that had transpired at the shopping mall would be a surefire way of turning the trio against her.
“...His then-current self passed away.”
“I remember the white stag,” said Bjergsra, making a simple gesture over her chest. “Losing him to Winter was awful.”
“Take heart,” Hob said, laying a comforting hand on her side. “He was bright enough to ensure his place under the Winter King. His days will be merry, not cold and dark.”
“Small comfort,” Cadair said. His tone said more than his words. Of the three, Ada was sure he was the only one who ever knew Dammis.
“It was a tragedy,” she said, her expression becoming more solemn to match his. It had been her fault and no one else’s. All because she wanted to help. “But it wasn’t the end of his tale. When he rose once again, he had no need for his old powers, and his essence was left behind in this stone.” She opened her hand, letting the Summerstone’s comforting warmth radiate from it. “It didn’t seem right to simply draw upon its power and discard it without a second thought. I want to do right by it. Give it a use he would approve of. But for that, I need to know what it’s capable of. I was hoping you could help me find out what that might be.”
“It’s the power of Summer, no more and no less,” Hob said. “That which could not be controlled by Winter Law. I don’t know that you could use it at all, being human.”
“It would make a fine gift for any faerie of Summer,” Bjergsra said, eyes glued to the stone. “I mean, Dammis did not have the power to challenge Pontchartrain, but with his essence added to another’s, perhaps…?”
“It should be given back to the land,” said Cadair. “Bury it beneath a seedling, and the tree that grows over it will bloom forever. He would have liked that.”
“Now, now, let’s not be hasty,” Hob said. “Those things are doubtless true, but while trees and gifts are well and good, this power used wisely could eliminate the Winter delegation… Putting the River King in our debt, removing a thorn in our side, and convincing the fence-sitters who worry that our faction is too weak to support- all in one fell stroke.”
“You see why he’s the leader,” Bjergsra chuckled, nudging Ada.
“Is that so? Hmm.” Ada clasped the stone tightly, hiding it from view as she pondered their words. “Suppose I’m no big fan of Winter. How exactly could the stone keep them from encroaching upon New Orleans? It’s only one fairy’s power after all.”
“A bullet is only a tiny sliver of metal, but it can cause quite a mess,” Hob said, smiling serenely. “I’m afraid there is little point in sharing more than that if you don’t mean to part with the stone. Human loyalties are strange, and you are well-known to me as a friend of the traitor Rubeansidhe.”
Cadair growled low. “I knew there was something I didn’t like about her. She bears the scent of frost.”
“No. The scent of moths and death,” Ada said, firmly. “I don’t believe in deceptions. It’s true that the Rubeansidhe and I are close, but I have no loyalty to the Winter court. Sun and flame speaks to me far more than frost and night.” Which was truer than any of them might have suspected, considering she hadn’t managed to get past the front door with Winter and yet here she was, conversing with the Summer fey. The fairies were not the only ones who could be completely honest without being equally truthful.
((Ada takes a Compel on Life is a Fairy Tale to piss the summer fey off. Ruby may not be an enemy of Summer, but they don’t know that...))
“Loyalty to a ward of Winter is little different from loyalty to Winter,” Hob said. “If you were to act against them, you would be acting against her only defenders. Is that not so?”
“It isn’t so long as I draw breath,” Ada answered firmly. “Winter’s protection will last only for as long as she’s useful to them. But I’m not leaving her side, no matter what.”
“Then we have nothing more to discuss,” Cadair snapped. “Such loyalty would be admirable were it directed at another, but the banshee cannot be forgiven, and if you choose to side with her, you side against all of Summer.”
Hob shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid I can’t disagree with my ill-humored friend this time.”
“You think a slave can’t be forgiven for betraying the one who enslaved her?” Though Ada’s tone was even, her eyes all but glowed as she stared at them. “He murdered her parents and forced her to Choose without any choice at all. He thought he’d broken her into obedient servitude, and thought wrong. The Rubeansidhe didn’t act against Summer, she took revenge on the man who ruined her life. That she exposed his nature as a liar and a cheat was merely just desserts for putting her in a gilded cage. You know exactly how painful it is to labor under a boss who doesn’t respect you. If you were in her shoes, wouldn’t you have done the same?”
((This is another Rapport roll, with a difficulty of 7. Ada uses her Heart of Hearts stunt to reveal her Life is a Fairy Tale Aspect to the courtiers and rolls a 5. Combined, that makes for a tie!))
“Better a slave than an oathbreaker,” Cadair growled. His eyes burned with fury.
Bjergsra looked askance. “Her circumstances were regrettable, but her actions...”
“Peace, friends.” Hob held up a hand towards his companions. “I believe all our feelings on the matter are clear, and liable to cloud judgements if we continue to espouse them. However, that does leave the matter of the stone… Or was there something else?” The small man stroked his well-trimmed goatee thoughtfully.
“There was, yes,” Ada said, nodding slowly. Crisis averted -- though just barely. “I came to discuss legacies with you -- your lost comrade’s, and one belonging to the city and the court as a whole. Were any of you around to see the golden age of an establishment known as the Gilded Lily?”
“I remember it,” said Hob. “Rumor has it that Lord Midae plans to renovate it.”
“Replace it would be a better term for it. He wants to build a hotel on the property instead. A very profitable and fancy place, with none of the Lily’s soul or history.” It wasn’t as simple as saying she wasn’t planning on letting that happen. Potential sentimentalisms aside, the fairies had no reason to care about this matter one way or the other. So instead, she opted for a different tack.
“I don’t know if anyone can do something about it, but the musicians using the venue right now are planning a charity show to raise proceeds to try and outbid the Rotana group for the deed. And just in case attempts to save it don’t pan out, I want to make sure its story ends on a high note. Do any of you remember the Svartalves ever rooming in New Orleans?”
“Of course,” Bjergsra said. “Ogfri and his family have lived near here for decades.”
“That’s good, because it just so happens the old contract Ginger signed for the delivery of fey foodstuffs to the Lily fell into my lap not too long ago. It’s written in Svartalfin, though -- which means I need an interpreter to reveal its contents to me, and see if the terms still stand. And it’d be a lot easier and more convenient to arrange proper catering for the show if I could find a liaison...”
Bjergsra’s eyebrows were narrowed, thinking. “Do you mean to trade the stone to Ogfri, to renew the contract with his people? Midae would be furious, and he is not one you wish to make an enemy of.”
Hob tilted his head and watched her curiously. He had remained neutral for much of the conversation but he would take his measure of her here, by her answer.
“The very soul of a fallen friend for a business arrangement? Not a chance. Dammis himself would gore me if he found out I gave up a legacy so full of meaning in such a mercenary way.” Ada’s green eyes fixed on Cadair, verifying he wasn’t about to jump on her for invoking his friend’s name before gliding over to Hob and Bjergsra. Judging by the latter’s question, it was likely the contract had already expired. That meant renegotiating it to make sure it was renewed. Tch.
“Lord Midae and I have an arrangement going on at the moment.” Her mitten drifted up to her hair, causing a few of the gilded tips to jingle. “So long as I provide him with his heart’s desire, the contract going to me will be no cause for concern.” And if I can’t, his wrath over the contract will be the least of my concerns.
“I see,” Hob said. “It seems as though we may be able to help each other, Miss duSang-” Cadair bared his teeth, which Hob paused to acknowledge before continuing. “Bjergsra can introduce you to Ogfri. He rarely spends any time on this side of the veil, so that is no small task. In exchange, I would like you to take her to speak to Lord Midae. He seems to have-” the small man gave her hair and mittens a pointed look, “-left his mark on you, which may give us an opportunity to discuss certain matters he has so far kept himself removed from.”
“It’d be an honor, but there’s a task I must take care of first in the upcoming days. Lord Midae’s so fixated on its outcome I fear he’ll deny any requests not related to it until it’s done. Will that be an issue? ”
“No hurry,” Bjergsra said. “Ogfri can wait until after Lord Midae is available.”
[Goddammit. Nothing’s easy or fun with the fairies, is it? I should’ve seen this coming. Even Ruby makes me work myself to the bone for every little thing. How am I gonna find a dog, turn it into gold, animate it and arrange this meeting before showtime?
Outwardly, however, Ada simply smiled and nodded. “I can work with that. While I sort things out, there’s one more thing I wanted to ask about. Summer fey have a reputation for being patrons of the arts. Do you think you can—”
Knock. Knock. Knock.
|# ? Nov 30, 2020 20:44|
Don’t Eat the Messenger
Scene: Oak Alley
The sunlight was just starting to dim, leaving dappled shadows on the tree-lined pathway at the Oak Alley Plantation when Grace arrived.
She left her bike on the sidewalk, not wanting to accidentally bring iron onto the property, and walked up the long path to the house- no, mansion. She gave the door three sharp knocks, and took a step back to see who answered.
It took a moment, but a tall, lean man with dark skin and a sour expression opened the door. “A night for strays,” he growled at her, curling his lip.
She let the insult slide, clearing her throat. "Good afternoon. I have a delivery for Hob, son of Gado from Elsa of the Tourbière. Is this a good time?" Well, mostly let it slide.
“Not even remotely.” He eyed her up and down. Finally he opened the door and waved her inside. “Follow me, if you please. Touch nothing.”
Inside the house there was a small gathering of people standing in twos and threes having pleasant conversations with half-full wine glasses in their hands. They were all too pretty by half to be ordinary. Grace got a few quick glances and then their eyes seemed to glaze over. Messengers dressed in jeans and flannel shirts didn’t merit further attention.
The doorman made a beeline towards one such group on the other side of the room. He stopped in front of a short man, maybe 4’8’’, with a perfectly trimmed goatee and a curious expression on his youthful face. Two women were with him, one large and dressed in royal purple with pearls on her neck and the other-
"Miss DuSang, nice to see you again." Without waiting for an answer she turned to the short man and swung her bag around to her front. "I have a delivery for Hob, son of Gado."
“I am Hob,” he said, eyeing her bag. “From whom does this come?”
“Elsa,” said the doorman.
“Ah, that old rubbish bin.” Hob frowned at Grace, nose wrinkling as though she still bore the scent of swamp muck. “Hand it over then, don’t just stand there.”
Grace gently pulled the package out of her bag and held it out to Hob. “Careful, it’s a bit pointy.”
He took it and nodded. “Well, if that’s all then…”
Ada didn’t say anything in response to Grace’s greeting, but she answered with a wave. Hers was an unexpected arrival. She’d mentioned she made deliveries the last time they’d met back at the Lily, hadn’t she? Interesting coincidence that they’d crossed paths here and now, of all places. Or maybe it wasn’t as much of a coincidence as it seemed. This was a thread worth pulling on.
“Right. Back to what we were discussing,” Ada said, nodding. “Doesn’t seem like that package’s great news though, if you don’t mind me saying so. Is it a message from an enemy?”
Hob raised an eyebrow at Ada, but shrugged. “Elsa is an intermediary. Whoever sent this didn’t want to be known, or at least not known before it was opened. Though if it were dangerous she wouldn’t have agreed to send it. She has always remained a neutral party.”
“Perhaps we should open it now, in case a response is warranted,” suggested the large woman. “It would save our messenger a trip. What was your name, dear?”
“Grace Wagner, at your service.” She gave the woman a little curtsey, though the effect was a little lost with grabbing her flannel shirt instead of a proper skirt. “Messenger and delivery girl to the stars, fae, and as of late, some of the undead.” She laughed a little at her own terrible pun.
“Bjergsra,” said the woman, tittering a little (though it seemed more out of politeness than real humor) “And our stoic friend is Cadair.”
Cadair sighed heavily. There was something that spoke to Grace’s reptilian nature in that sigh. In some ways it was more of a growl, deeply animal. He was clearly having A Day, and one he didn’t expect to get better anytime soon.
He was quite right in that respect.
Hob produced a small pocket knife and slit the paper and string holding the oddly shaped package together. He peered inside, then a moment of realization hit him and his eyes widened almost cartoonishly.
“What is it?” Cadair demanded.
“An insult that cannot be borne,” Hob said quietly. He steadied himself and then walked directly to the center of the room.
“My friends!” He called, asking for the attention of the entire party. The gentle chatter of a dozen voices ceased instantly, and there was silence. “My friends,” Hob repeated. “Those gathered here, who reject the barbarity of the River King, who would honor the good that was done in Lord Narcissus’ name, and fulfill the promises he made… More than a fortnight has passed since we sent our letters of concern to Lord Pontchartrain. For a time we were of a mind that he had ignored them, but it was not so. Tonight he answers us.”
He dumped the contents of the package unceremoniously on the floor. They bounced and scattered at his feet. A pair of curled goat’s horns. Ten long claws strung together. Two heavy tusks.
There was a collective gasp. Cadair stared in horror at the necklace of claws, and Bjergsra covered her mouth with both hands in shock.
“This is what he thinks we should be!” Hob shouted. The glamour he wore vanished, and he wasn’t just a short man anymore, he was a goat-legged faun. But there were no horns protruding from his curled hair. “Like you, I cast away the marks of beasthood when I joined Narcissus’ court,” he said, stepping gingerly over the pile. “Like you I embraced civility! And now our new Lord has returned them to us. He asks us to take up that which marked us as feral, and return to an older time. A more savage time. When fae and man preyed upon each other, instead of treating each other as equals.”
The crowd hissed and booed in response. Cadair turned his head towards Grace, hate filling his eyes, which had begun to glow a soft red. “You brought that here? You dared?”
Grace turned to him, the hairs on her neck standing up. Rule number one, don’t shoot the messenger. Especially one that can fight back. She took a step towards Cadair, poking him in the chest with her finger. “I did not do this!” She poked him again. “I am just the messenger!” Poke. “You do not blame the messenger! Especially one invited in!” she hissed at him now, and poked him again for good measure, now standing toe to toe with the man, looking up at him. She wasn’t conscious of it, but her skin was significantly more green and scaly than it had been a moment ago, and was showing significantly more teeth than she had a moment ago.
Grace takes a compel on Apex Predator to not take this poo poo from Cadair. FP +1!
Cadair’s glamour dropped, and Grace was suddenly face-to-muzzle with a dog’s head, lips pulled back and snarling. He spat some words in a language she didn’t recognize but his meaning was clear enough.
This might have been his territory, but the insult would not stand. Grace took a step back, let out a scream and shifted, her shredded clothes hanging off her as she went were-gator, not human or reptile, but halfway in between. Her small frame bulked up, her face elongated, and she was covered in thick, green scales. She stepped to the side, circling her prey, waiting for him to twitch a muscle, start to move. For all her mass, she was sure she could move faster than him.
Startled, Ada’s hand slipped inside the pocket where she kept her knife case...and then pulled away, slowly. With her mittens getting in the way, the knife was all but useless. As primal reflex gave way to conscious thought, she bit back a sigh. There’s only two kinds of people who swing their attitudes like that: the ones that have such a big dick the fairies will bow down to them on instinct, and the ones that don’t know what the hell they’re doing. This is a rookie mistake, and it’s a big one. I’ve got to get her outta here. Standing up straighter, Ada let out a pointed cough. It was a discordant sound, delicate and civilized and distinctly not primal.
“Not that this isn’t interesting to watch, but I thought you guys operated under the rules of sacred hospitality. Was I mistaken about that?”
Bjergsra gave Ada a grateful half-smile. “He only sent them to provoke us,” she added, placing a large, meaty hand on the dog-man’s shoulder. He shrugged it off and circled Grace, neither backing down.
All eyes were on them now. The tension in the air was so thick you could have cut it with a knife.
“Cadair!” Hob snapped. “If you mean to debase yourself so, you’ll need these.” The faun kicked the necklace of claws at the dog-man and they skidded over the hardwood floor to rest at his heel.
He glanced down at the necklace, and for a moment time stood still. Then, slowly, he closed his eyes and huffed. “I will not be the one to break hospitality,” he said, raising his head.
His throat was exposed, maddeningly so. It could only be on purpose.
Ada tensed up. This was a bait. Cadair was nowhere near as vulnerable as he was making himself look. If Grace took a shot at him, there would be consequences -- the sort of consequences that ended up at the morgue and sparked blood feuds. She’d had the sense to remind the fairies not to shoot the messenger, but that had been a few moments and several acts of escalation ago. A distraction couldn’t hurt, just in case.
“Hey, Grace. Who was supposed to pay for this delivery again?” The question itself wasn’t really important. What mattered was that it existed, and had to be addressed.
Grace moved up to Cadair, putting her nose right up against his throat, breathing in. Letting him know she could end him. Her jaws opened, slowly… before snapping shut. Talking in this form took effort. Without taking her eyes away from the dog headed man in front of her, she answered the question, in a slow hiss. “It will be paid for by Elsa upon my return.”
“It’d be a shame if you had to make it up to her because you ate the recipient. Maybe come back another day when you’re not on the clock? I’m sure Cadair wouldn’t mind settling this down the line.” Fairies were too prideful to just let something like this go without causing a ruckus. If she could officialize things a little, though...that’d be a different story.
Grace held her position, still waiting for Cadair to move. She spoke slowly, each word carefully formed. “He. Is not. The recipient.”
She had a point. That’d be Hob. Which meant…
“True. But Hob wouldn’t be too pleased if you ate his friend either. He’d ask Elsa for repayment for sending a courier with a hair trigger.” She glanced at him for a moment, seeking silent confirmation.
Hob considered this for a few long seconds. “I apologize on my friend’s behalf, Miss Wagner. He has been having a difficult evening. Calm yourself, and reparations might still be made. Break your guest right, and you will find that though we value civility here, we are far from defenseless.”
Out in the crowd, several guns clicked as their safeties were removed.
The were-gator took one last sniff of Cadair’s exposed throat before stepping back, and after a couple of deep breaths, started looking more human, if significantly more exposed from her tattered clothes. She finally tore her gaze away from her prey for a moment to address Hob. “Your dog challenged me. Challenge has been met. Apologies.”
Cadair snorted, but in a moment his face had returned to a somewhat more sober-looking human one. “Bjergsra, might I trouble you to fetch something to wear for the young woman?”
“You might,” Bjergsra said, frowning in annoyance. “Be right back.”
As Ada watched Bjergsra depart, the coiled-up tension within her body finally began to relax. Things had gone as well as she could’ve hoped, considering how they’d started. And the exchanges between the fairies had been enlightening, too. If there’s a history to this spat, that means there’s a lot of petty grudges and grievances accumulated underneath it. And I can use those.
Hob crossed the floor back to the group and handed Cadair the empty paper package. “Pick the mess up for me. We’ll discuss what to do with such things later.”
Cadair nodded once and did as he was told, leaving Hob alone with the girls for a moment. The guests returned to their discussions, though there was an uneasiness in the room that hadn’t been there before.
“It does leave the matter of a response,” Hob said, ignoring the mood entirely. His eyes flicked up to his guests. “What would you send back, if someone insulted you so? I’m of a mind to write another letter, but the first seems to have had the opposite of my intended effect...”
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t send him a letter,” Ada replied. “I’d send him a message. One with balls, like what he just did,” she said, glancing towards Cadair. “He’s not gonna take whatever you tell him seriously unless you make a statement with it.”
Though clearly still annoyed, Grace chimed in. "He's trying to make you fight on his level. Tooth and claw and horn. He insults you in the language of the wild, dominance and instinct. If you want to hurt him, it won't be by playing his game. You need a civilized response." She gave a small cough, realizing she was mostly naked in front of someone she just threatened. "Do what the mundanes would do. Get lawyers involved. Do everything through 3rd parties. Take his land, ruin his name."
Hob shook his head. “With Winter about to declare war, I cannot in good conscience weaken our strongest defender in these parts. I… I must think about this. I’m sorry, Miss Wagner, I don’t believe I can send anything back with you today. Soon, certainly. I will call on no other, as recompense for Cadair’s outburst.”
She bowed her head to Hob in response. "Thank you, and I apologize again for my part in that outburst." It was easier to respond civilly with Cadair out of the conversation. She hadn't had a proper challenge since that big gator that tried to eat James a few months ago, and letting him walk away left her feeling… empty. Unfinished. Still, business first. She pulled a business card from her bag and held it out to him. "It would be my honor to deliver your eventual reply."
“I think it would be best if we continued any discussions another night,” he said, turning to Ada. “Would you mind walking- Ah, here comes Bjergsra.”
She did, and she was carrying a bright yellow rain jacket that was several sizes too large but would at least make Grace decent. It went down to her knees and she had to cuff the sleeves up by half. She looked a bit like she was trying on mommy’s coat.
Not what she would have chosen, but at least that would let her make it home without causing a scene. "Thank you, Bjergsra. I will return them as soon as I can."
She laughed at that. “Don’t bother dear, I will be taking the cost out of Cadair’s hide.”
“We won’t impose upon you any longer, then. I’ll be back soon with news of Lord Midae’s answer.” With a bow, Ada bid her goodbyes and departed. She waited until they were several steps away from the entrance to Oak Alley to let out an explosive sigh.
“That felt like doing bomb defusal on a tightrope,” she said, blinking tiredly as she looked up at the trees’ copses. “Do you have a chip on your shoulder against fairies? That response was overkill for someone who was just venting.”
Grace shrugged, assuming she looked as ridiculous as she felt, and dropped her formal speech. “It’s nothing personal, even if I do prefer the wild fae to this court bullshit. He threatened me, and insulted my job. Just ‘cuz we got all growly doesn’t mean we’re lifelong enemies or nothin’. What business do you have with the court, anyway? First the Lily and Maksim, and now here? You’ve got your fingers in quite a few pies, DuSang.”
“The whole city’s my business. If I started talking about all the plates I’m juggling right now, we wouldn’t be close to done by daybreak tomorrow.” She broke into a smile. “I wish I could tell people to piss off like that, honestly. Used to do it a whole lot not that long ago. Kinda miss it, sometimes.”
“Well, as it turns out, I’m just not very good at being anyone but me.” She took a deep breath, holding it for a second. “Stuff would probably be easier if I were, but here we are. Dogface will probably be pissy about this for a bit, but more because he got reigned in than anything I did. Territorial pissings and all that.”
“Yeah. If anything, I think he would’ve enjoyed an honest throwdown, if you could keep up with him. Getting called out, not so much.” For the fairies, loss of face mattered a whole lot more than a bunch of bruises, and this bunch in particular seemed to think pretty highly of decorum. “Pretty sure you would’ve just eaten him if he’d pushed his luck, though. How’d you learn to wild out like that? It was a pretty impressive trick.”
"Oh, um. Clan secret. Well, back when there was a clan. Dunno if you follow the fomori stuff, but you might have heard about a gator clan that got mostly wiped out in Florida. That was… yeah." she trailed off.
Ada grimaced. “I heard it was a mess. Didn’t know it had gotten that bad, though.” A couple moments passed in uncomfortable silence before she continued. “I’ve been talking with the neighborhood watch and the Warden about it. You ever had the chance to meet a fishman up close?”
"No… but let me know if you need any help on that front. I'd love to see one try to escape my bite. And it'd be good to let my gator half loose for a bit. Not good for her to stay cooped up all the time."
“Will do. How’s that work, by the way?” Ada asked, curiously. “I’ve only ever met one shapeshifter, and he’s pretty happy just staying human most of the time.”
Grace hesitated before answering, speaking slowly. "Well, done right, it's like… Well, it's an invitation. Most of us were a bit lost. Unbalanced. So you find an animal spirit that's also a bit lost. Broken in a different way. You help each other out."
“...Like you bring it into you and you’ve got two souls inside you?” Suddenly there was a change in the way Ada was looking at her. It wasn’t something as easily pinpointable as suspicion or excitement, but even so, it was unmistakable -- her voice was sharper now, and her eyes keenly fixated upon Grace.
She stopped when Ada's voice changed, turning to study her response. "That's the long and short of it, but… it's like puzzle pieces that keep changing shape. They'll never fit perfectly. But if you're open to it, keep looking, you'll find one that plays nice. Moves to the same rhythm. I was plenty headstrong and adventure seeking, she was more grounded, wanted a role to play. To be part of something. To be needed. But we both like to keep moving, and lazy Saturdays, and aren't afraid to get into a scrap." She grinned at Ada. "I always heard about best friends as a kid. Never had one until her."
So it’s not quite like what me and Alisa have, then, Ada mused. This has to be why she wants out from within me. We’ve always followed our own paths. And it’s not like compromise can make it better...because it’s not about compromising. It’s about working together.
“Can you still hear her? Talk to her, if you need a second opinion on something?” She asked, that strange keenness receding back to simpler curiosity now.
"I mean… alligators aren't exactly known for their philosophy lectures. But there's not like a line in the sand. I never adopted it, but a couple folks adopted the Royal We after the change. Like you're just… both of you. And the same person. At the same time. Sorry, its hard to explain. I never really had to. The whole clan just understood each other."
“No, that’s fine. I think I get the idea.” And in fact, getting a sense for how Grace’s clan had done things had given Ada an idea of her own. “...You know, this might come a little out of nowhere, but how do you feel about lending your experiences and talents to magical investigation? For proper compensation, of course.”
"First, you gotta tell me why you give a poo poo. The first question out of anyone's mouth after meeting their first were- is 'Doesn't that hurt?', and the answer is, yes, that's why there's screaming. Nobody asks about souls."
“Yeah, well, most people haven’t seen the poo poo I’ve seen, or lived the poo poo I have. If I told you I’ve actually got someone else sharing my body, would you believe me?”
She just shrugged. "I ain't got no reason not to. Hopefully you two get along, or it's gonna get real messy. Real fast. But back to your question, I'm down for most anything that comes with cash. Half upfront, plus you owe me a lunch so we can finish this conversation when I'm back in my own clothes."
“Sounds good. Do you need a ride anywhere? People are gonna think you’re a serial killer that escaped from a bad slasher movie sequel if they see you moving around like that.”
"Nah. I'm not the craziest biker around here. You seen the guy with the butterfly wings and the antenna? He's way worse." She swung her bag around and pulled out a business card. "Gimme a ring whenever. I deliver just about anything I can carry, and am usually available for odd jobs."
“Got it. Bring a discreet bag for lunch tomorrow. What I’m gonna offer is worth its weight in gold.”
|# ? Nov 30, 2020 20:59|
What the Cat Dragged In
Scene: Chateau duSang
It was nearing midnight by the time Rick managed to extricate himself from Dominique You’s all-night binge party. He’d thought it would just be You and the three of them having a few drinks in the Captain’s cabin, since there was only one bottle of the strange liquor Elbridge had brought as a gift. But before they’d taken more than a half-sip each, You produced several more bottles of offerings he’d been saving for JUST such an occasion and soon enough the entire ship’s crew got involved…
He hadn’t been much in the mood for drinking, but You had insisted, and though he’d stopped feeling the alcohol the moment he left the pirate ship behind, the hangover headache lingered. He could have skipped it, but that wouldn’t have been very human and he was having enough trouble remembering what it felt like to have a body lately. It wasn’t that he enjoyed pain, exactly, but it was familiar and made him feel more like a person.
Of course, now that he was here, staring up at the lights of Chateau duSang from the front driveway, he didn’t have time for that kind of thing. The haze faded and as full sobriety returned, so did his worries that absolutely nothing good was going to come of this.
“The things I do for…” He stopped and sighed heavily. Of course he loved Ada, and always would, but that wasn’t why he was here tonight. Ada would get by, with or without his help. Alisa was another matter. She might be the only person he’d ever met who’d been dealt a worse hand than he had. And while she didn’t seem to think much of him, he wasn’t going to abandon her when she needed it most. He just wasn’t built that way.
Claudia duSang posted:
“Some day, this research may reward you with a body to call your own.”
He grit his teeth. It wasn’t about that, either. If it was… He couldn’t finish the thought. You’re better than that, Rick. Please be better than that.
The light flicked on upstairs in Ada’s room, and his eyes went to her shadow on the curtain. He smiled unconsciously, remembering all their late nights together. She never went to bed before 2 am, and it was usually closer to 3. He couldn’t count how many times he’d asked her to come to sleep only to get that confused half-smile, as though she couldn’t believe he was tired.
It felt more like a dream he’d had a long time ago than a memory. He missed it, but it didn’t hurt as much as it used to. For a moment that scared him and he felt himself reaching for a pain that was as familiar and natural as the hangover headache, but… No. Not this time. You have to let it go.
He pulled his eyes away from the window and headed up the porch stairs, tapping quietly on the door a few times with the pommel of his sword. Ada being up in her room meant sneaking down to the basement would be easy. He just needed an invite, and Roy was quick to provide one.
The butler ushered him downstairs without a word, having been expecting him for hours. They stopped on a landing with an ornately carved door, and as Roy picked through a ring of iron keys, Rick glanced down the stairs towards the second basement, where the soul-stealing mirror was kept. One encounter with that thing, and the monster inside it, had been enough for him.
The door opened and Roy beckoned for him to follow. The first basement was a maze of ritual rooms and libraries. The one Claudia had occupied was locked behind a heavy steel door, and was almost claustrophobically small, dominated by a summoning circle that scarcely left room for a few scant pieces of furniture, such as a set of discrete shelves close to ground level. As they came in, she interrupted her examination of the implements that lay atop the shelves to stare fixedly at them.
“Sorry for making you wait, Mrs. duSang,” Rick said, not even trying to sound sincere about it. “It’s been a real busy night.”
“I can imagine.” Judging by the tone of Claudia’s voice, he was not excused, but there was no need to press the matter further. “Do we have the ritual components?” She asked, her attention moving past him.
“Everything Mr. Cole requested,” Roy said, delivering a plastic bag with a pet store label on it to Claudia. There were a number of squeak toys and a packet of catnip, alongside a plastic jug of pig’s blood from the butcher and a paper bag with some three-day-old roadkill inside. For once, Rick was glad that he’d lost his sense of smell.
“Thank you, Roy. That will be all.” After dismissing her manservant with a wave of her hand, Claudia’s attention turned towards Rick. She waited until the door had closed behind them with a rather final click, and then reached for a bottle of fine wine sitting on a nearby shelf.
“Now then, Mr. Cole,” she said, as she uncorked it with a gust of air that seemed to come from within the bottle itself and began pouring the wine into a set of grooves etched into the ground all over the circle. “Tell me more about this demon. What should I expect of him?”
“Not very much.” At least, he hoped not. This whole idea being a dead end was the best case scenario as far as he was concerned. “Murray is a curiosity demon, the lowest tier of the circle of Lust. He’s into new experiences and getting people to let him loose so he can cause trouble. No real loyalties to hell, or he wouldn’t have helped us out back when Nicole was blowing through town. As far as I know he’s the type who wants to watch the whole world burn.”
“For the sake of witnessing a new sight,” Claudia finished. “I see. Do you think he will consider the prospect of a never-before attempted magical procedure interesting enough, or will I need to offer him something special beyond that?”
“Honestly ma’am? I have no idea. Everything I know about him is from observing an alternate-timeline incarnation.”
“Then we will have to adapt.” She placed the offerings onto small upraised receptacles at key spots around the circle. “Stand back, Mr. Cole. The wine may have negative effects on wayward souls once atomized.”
As soon as she was certain he was standing at a safe distance, Claudia closed her eyes. The lines on the floor lit up with an eerie blood-red light that would have fit right into a blockbuster horror movie, and the wine vanished into a heavy purple mist that lingered on within the circle, shrouding its contents. Low, quiet chanting flowed from Claudia’s lips, as the circle filled with power -- easy, practiced power, of the sort that came only with countless repetitions of a spell. After a few moments, she raised her voice, opened her eyes, and her voice thundered, calm and imperious.
“In the name of my bloodline, I bid you come forth. Murrazanoth. Murrazanoth. Murrazanoth!”
The mist in the center of the circle began to coalesce into something more liquid than solid, a gelatinous blob of purple goo that wriggled and writhed, stretching into a child’s clay model of an animal. It shook itself, sending splatters everywhere, and looked up at Claudia with solid black eyes.
“Rrrrrow~” said the creature, crouched to spring. Murrazanoth looked more like a skinned cat than a live one. He was flat-faced with impossibly wide cheeks and razor sharp teeth, and the bones of his spine jutted out of his back in sharp spikes. “I am Murrazanoth,” he said in a light purr.
For a moment he just stared at her, then he launched himself at the outer ring of the circle in a whirl of claws and teeth, howling like an alley cat losing a fight. But it was over as quickly as it started, and soon he was sitting on his naked haunches, licking a splotchy, purple skinned arm as though it hadn’t even happened.
“Greetings, Murrazanoth,” replied Claudia without flinching. She didn’t even bother to dignify his little stunt with a response. “I have brought you here to bargain for your knowledge. I am told you are aware of a method by which bodies that may accept an unbound soul can be created. Is that so?”
“It is,” Murray said smugly. “Are you in the market for a new model? You hardly seem enough of an old hag to want to trade up yet.”
Claudia’s response was to snap her fingers. The wine cloud lit up an ominous, dark red, and then seemed to coalesce around Murray’s silhouette, becoming denser and heavier, particularly around his head. His expression quickly became dull, his eyes glazed, his body slack.
“My patience has its limits. Watch your tongue, demon, lest you find yourself losing what is most precious to you.” With another fingersnap, the wine cloud returned to its previous, normal composition. “Am I understood, or is a more permanent lesson in politeness required?”
“Mrrrrr,” said the demon, irritated. “What will you offer for the information I possess, my Queen?”
“The satisfaction of succeeding at a new, previously unattempted feat of magic, for one. Many must have asked you for a way to bring the dead back to life, yet I am certain none have asked you to assist in research on ways to split two entwined souls apart and place them into separate bodies. Among your peers, it would be your achievement and yours alone.”
“Entwined you say?” He tilted his lopsided face, interested. “How would such a thing have come to pass? Even those born with linked flesh have distinct souls, this I know to be true.”
“A pair of twins, whose story and nature must remain a secret for now. Knowledge for knowledge is a fair trade, is it not?” Though Claudia’s expression didn’t change, a certain hint of humor crept into her eyes.
“Knowledge for knowledge…” Murray repeated. “Mrrr… I cannot wait that long. An adult soul will not bind to an infant body, and the flesh doll I can teach you to create will need years to develop to maturity. No deal.”
Claudia’s expression darkened. “So that is its limit...is there some way to create a functional adult body...a grown flesh doll, as you called it? I cannot afford to wait so long, either.”
“You could always rip the soul out of a suitable candidate and use the empty husk,” Murray suggested, smiling wickedly. “I might know someone who could do that for you. Or perhaps you could do it yourself, my Queen? You are quite powerful, after all.”
Rick grimaced from the corner he was lurking in. Leave it to a demon to suggest the worst possible idea. The disgusting thing was that it would work, and there was plenty of material written on the subject, if you were willing to go that far.
“No, that is not an option,” said Claudia, firmly. “The recipient of this vessel must receive a body akin to the one they are accustomed to. Think, Murrazanoth. How did you learn this secret? Is there no one who may have perfected the craft further?”
Murray hacked a laugh. “There is, my Queen. There is! An elder sister of mine, a succubus of great and terrible power. She can craft you a flesh doll of any age, and any look you desire. For a mere three days of freedom I will give you her Name, and the means to summon her.”
Rick froze in horrified disbelief. Of course he’s going to send her up the chain, you idiot, why didn’t you think of that?! He tried to wave, made x’s with his arms and time-out signs, but Claudia’s eyes were only on Murray.
“Three days during which you may strike no bargains,” Claudia countered. “And we are agreed. What is this demon’s name?”
“Mel’Karshok,” said Murray, accenting the ‘s’ until it was almost a hiss.
“No!” Rick snapped, unable to sit silently any longer. “No, Claudia. Not her.”
“Is that the Warden I hear?” Murray said, head rotating on his neck until it faced completely backwards. The little demon’s smile widened until his jaw nearly unhinged, and then he fell over and dissolved, (quite literally,) into a fit of laughter. “Dead? Dead?! Ahahahaha! Oh, this is too good.”
“Keep it up and your freedom isn’t going to last five minutes,” Rick said, gripping the hilt of his sword. Murray was quick but he was sure he could slice the little poo poo in half before the demon set all four paws outside the summoning circle.
Murray pulled himself together long enough to eyeball Rick and the blade he still carried. “She could make one for you too, you know,” he purred.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Rick’s knuckles went white from squeezing. Three days. Maybe if he was lucky Elbridge could find the time to finally lock the feline menace in the Blacklist. He glared at Claudia through the wine-mist. “Get rid of him, already. He’s useless.”
The head of house duSang stared at him for a moment and then nodded slowly. “Your work here is done, Murrazanoth. I release you to wander the world for three days under the terms agreed on with my blessing.”
She clapped her hands once, and the wine-mist vanished. Behind her, the steel door slid open with a pained shriek.
Murray leapt over the edge of the circle with reckless abandon. For a moment he turned back, razor-whiskers twitching, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave, but then he looked at Rick’s expression, gave a full body shudder, and dashed for the door. In the center of the circle, bound in black leather, he’d left a book.
“What was the meaning of that interruption, Mr. Cole?” Claudia asked as soon as he was gone, a severe frown upon her face. “Is there something I should know about this other demon?”
“She’s not just a demon, she’s an archdemon, and she’s the one who brought the hurricane down on us last year,” Rick said, staring at the book as though it were a live cobra. “It took everything I had, everything your daughters had, all our friends, and two Angels of the Lord to send her back to Hell.”
For several moments, Claudia didn’t say anything.
“...Ah. That does present some difficulties.” She drummed her fingers on her hips, thinking, and turned her eyes to the summoning circle. Slowly, she strode around it, seeking faults or weaknesses. Then, she leaned forward, and picked up the book. “She cannot be allowed to roam freely, of course. We will have to think of another possible bargain to offer her. What does she desire?”
“What does she…” Rick stared at her, open-mouthed. “She desires to spit in God’s eye and ruin anyone she talks to. Claudia, please, she’s a monkey’s paw, anything she gives you is a trap. It’s not worth the risk.”
“So you are saying taking the risk Alisa might die for Ada’s sake once again is a better choice?” Her voice was very calm. Too calm.
Rick shook his head fiercely. “No, I’m saying the last person Mel ‘helped’ sold her soul to get her dead parents back, and got demons wearing their skins instead. I’ve seen the people she bargained with, they never got what they wanted. She prides herself on loving them over.”
“So does every other supernatural entity, Mr. Cole. Do you have an alternative to offer? Or are you telling me the best I can do is prepare myself for mourning in case the worst comes to pass?” The sound of crystals straining not to break spread across the room, even though there were no crystals to be found beyond the wine bottle.
“There has to be something,” he pleaded. But they’d gone through the options already, and the only reason he’d given her Murray’s name at all was because there hadn’t been a better one. You don’t have to do this, a little voice said inside him. You gave her the answer, all you have to do now is walk away.
So why couldn’t he?
“There may be,” Claudia replied, softly. “But I will not take vague somethings over hard certainties when Alisa’s life is at stake. If you have nothing concrete to offer, I will go through with the summoning. I would much rather take my chances at outwitting an archdemon than leaving things up to fate.”
Rick’s shoulders sagged. He understood how she felt, even as every part of him screamed that this was wrong. Unless he came up with something, right this minute, she was going to go through with it, and he’d have two options, standing aside or trying to stop her by force. Both made him feel sick. But the fact was that he’d run out of ideas, and at this point it would take a miracle...
His right hand curled loosely, as though he were holding something delicate. I might not have a halo in my pocket but I know someone who does.
“Alright, fine. I’ve got one last Hail Mary. An angel, who maybe owes me a favor. Give me one more day. You’ll need that long to get the materials for a summoning anyways. It’s a long shot but so was this, and at least then… at least we’ll have tried absolutely everything else.”
“An angel? Helping out House duSang?” The disbelief in Claudia’s voice was palpable. “It won’t do anything, Mr. Cole. All that’ll happen is we lose precious time…”
“Ada and Alisa saved his sister by helping put Mel in the ground for him,” Rick said. “It’s more likely than you’d think. Especially if the alternative is her.”
(Rick rolls Rapport at difficulty 4 to convince Claudia to trust him, //+/ +5 = 6! Clean success.)
Claudia didn’t say anything for quite some time. Her eyes scrutinized him -- his posture, his confidence, the strength of his shoulders. This clearly went beyond considering only his words -- it was a reassessment of him as a person, making a decision on whether he was trustworthy enough to deserve a chance.
He stiffened at first. Claudia could have given Bellworth a run for her money when it came to withering glares, but this wasn’t the Warden hall and he didn’t have anything to prove to her. He’d meant every word he’d said, and hadn’t tried to sugarcoat any of it. So he just stood straight and looked her in the eyes and waited to see if she was really Ada’s mom.
She didn’t look into his eyes, but held his gaze, exactly as Ada did, focusing her attention on the bridge of his nose. And then, after a few moments, she gave him a little nod.
“One day. I can’t wait any longer. Make the most of it, Mr. Cole.” She put the little black book inside one of her suit’s pockets, with a long sigh. “This place is far too dreary to remain here any longer. I will clear out the circle and retire for the night, I think. I hope your angel has pity to spare for sinners like us. There are no excuses for me to offer.”
Rick exhaled. Pity won’t be the problem. “I’ll see myself out, then. Goodnight, Mrs. duSang.”
|# ? Jan 2, 2021 04:04|
Scene: Danny’s Place
Shirley handed a big bowl of pretzels to Zia and sat down at the long kitchen table, which had been turned into a study-session-slash-warroom. The map that Elbridge had given to Gorden was just an everyday road map, which meant figuring out what the locations the Servitor had emerged from the water at had in common, among other things.
“Sorry we’re dragging you back into this,” Gorden said sheepishly as he re-read the rough draft abstract of Shirley’s notes. He’d made a bunch of copies of the map as soon as he could, and now they were scattered around the table, highlights connecting experimental networks on each like a conspirator’s red string. “But I don’t think anybody else in the Biology department would know what we’re looking for.” He scratched his head absently as he crumpled up another copy of the map. “Maybe I need some of those pretzels…”
Notice roll to try to find something in the maps themselves… @Davin_Valkri: 4dF +5 = (-+--) +5 = 3...welp!
“There’s plenty to go around,” Shirley said, puzzling over the map. “And don’t be sorry, you’re giving me a chance to hit back at the jerks that took my life from me. I should be thanking you.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Gorden said between pretzel bites. “I was never any good at fluid dynamics anyway. Good thing that’s what your thesis was all about, I guess.”
“So let’s look at this rationally,” Shirley said. “We’ve got like, a dozen and a half spots altogether. Most of them are in clusters of two or three… All over the city.”
“Hmm…” Zia pointed to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. “She went to these three a couple of times, so maybe they’re more important? What’s here?”
Gorden examined the points Zia pointed out, scratching his head. “Wait, I remember this…” He pulled out a transparency of a map related to Hurricane Katrina reconstruction and overlaid it, aligning along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. “Yeah, they’re pumping stations. Hmm...that’s, uh…come to think of it, I’d bet they’d really liked it if the city was flooded again, wouldn’t they?”
“Yeah, I bet they would,” Shirley said, frowning. “But breaking the pumps wouldn’t do anything by itself. There’d need to be a big storm to cause the flooding in the first place, right?”
“To hear Elbridge talk about it, wouldn’t surprise me if they could summon one up,” Gorden noted with more head scratches. “These other places mean anything to you? Just supply raids for people they’ve kidnapped or something more...hydrology related?”
“More pumping stations,” Zia said. “Most of the city’s under sea level, so…”
Shirley nodded. “Yeah, they’re all over the city. Basically you only hear about them when they get overwhelmed which has been… well, it’s been happening a lot since Katrina but the city won’t spend the money to install new ones. Frisk was campaigning on finally doing something about it, but I guess he’s dropping out.”
“Well, now we know where she’s been and what they have in common,” noted Gorden. “Could be monitoring, could be active sabotage...but then why would Chesterfield and Lancaster want to play along? All their poo poo would be underwater too.”
“Who says they know about this?” Zia asked, tilting her head.
“I mean, they have to be privy to more information than we are, since, you know…” Gorden nodded towards Shirley semi-inconspicuously. “We just had this map and we’re actively working against them, and we still figured it out. You don’t get tenure at Tulane...or, uh, cover up your heinous magical crimes...by being dumb.” He looked at the map again, and remembered that Elbridge had to get it by treating one of the Fomor like a whale and feeding her a tracker.
“Though maybe that means there’s a lot...less cooperation between them and the Fomor than I thought. Something to wring out of Chesterfield, I guess.” He looks at the map one more time, picking up a compass and setting one leg to draw a curve near the clusters near Lake Pontchartrain. “How fast do these guys swim, you think?”
“Fast,” Zia said. “Not speedboat fast, but I dunno, dolphin fast? Pretty fast.”
“Okay,” affirmed Gorden. “So maybe the reason these ones on the shore of the lake got hit multiple times is because she could hit all three really fast, maybe in one night. These further away ones--” he indicated the other, more scattered dots. “--she might have had to swim more, maybe half the night there and half the night back.” He checked the scale on the map and reset the compass to the cluster of pumping stations on the lake shore. “So ‘dolphin speed’ would be...and if we draw this line out…drat, it’s been forever since I’ve done pure geometry...”
Attempting to triangulate and narrow down the possibilities of where the Fomor base might be using math, which in this case is Science!… @Davin_Valkri: 4dF+3 = (bb+b)+3 = 4
“HERE!” Gorden shouted, jabbing a spot...square in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain. “Wait, shoot, it could...also be here.” More sheepishly he pointed at its mirror on shore. “Trouble with pure math is that you always gotta check your boundaries…”
Shirley looked at where he was pointing and frowned. “So how much do you know about what the fish-heads have been doing to the lake?” she asked.
“Uh, not a lot of...direct experience with that part,” Gorden admitted. “From what the people said about Miami way back when, probably nothing good.”
“Well, I don’t know what was going on in Florida, the Atlantic is out of my wheelhouse. My studies have all been on brackish water. Deltas, river mouths, estuaries- like the ‘lake.’” (she made finger quotes.) “Anyways, I noticed there was something off about the salinity and PH values I was seeing about a year ago, and one long story involving me getting kidnapped by monsters and rescued by the magic police later, I figured out that the fish-heads have been trying to make the lake into more of a sea. The Mediterannean Sea, to be precise. Which is bad news for all kinds of reasons.”
“They want to make the lake a giant saltwater fishing spot?” Gorden asked in confusion.
“Who knows? But Lake Pontchartrain isn’t deep enough or salty enough for whatever they’re trying to do. And they’re working to change that. See this spot?” She pointed to the shoreline where he’d motioned. “This is really close to where I got nabbed by them. They’d set up shop in some of the old lighthouses along the lakeshore- until the magic police showed up and made sure they couldn’t use them anymore. I’m sure their plans got set back a while after that but… after Mr. Cole died...”
“There’s only a few of those magic cops,” Zia said, shrugging. “Kinda hard for them to deal with everything, and the Fomor are a big pain in the rear end to get to.”
“I haven’t been able to take samples in months,” Shirley said, disappointed. “I don’t know if it’s still getting worse or not. It just hasn’t been safe to go, especially with Danny still recovering from being shot and all. Maybe… Do you think you could go with me? You’ve got magic.” She turned her best puppy-dog eyes on him. “Please! I really need to know, especially now that they’re messing with the city’s water too.”
“Yeah, I think I--whoa, hey, you don’t need to make those big begging eyes with me!” Gorden agreed, leaning back slightly as Shirley put on her teary face. “Even if I wasn’t magic I’d go with you out of sheer scientific interest. Zia, this sound like something you’re up for? When do you want to get going? If you want we can go now, I can call El and Ada on the way, and we can get to the lake shore before sunset.” He thought for a second about what Shirley wanted to look for. “Hang on. You don’t think...if their base is where they’re set up, that’s where they’d have been working on the water the longest, right? You think we can find them by following the salinity?”
“That’s a great idea!” Shirley said. “Go ahead and call Ada now, I’ll dig my kit out of the closet. Haven’t had much reason to use it lately so it’ll take me a minute.” She pushed away from the table and sprinted for the stairs.
Zia smiled, a little wistful. “If you don’t mind me tagging along I’m game,” she said. “I’m a little nervous about running into the Choir, but I should at least be able to tell you if we get close to them.”
“That’s appreciated Zia, thanks,” Gorden answered. “You wanna hit back at them like Shirley, huh. Alright, you help her get her stuff together. I need to make a phone call.”
“Honestly, I could go the rest of my life and never think about them again,” Zia said, shaking her head. “Revenge really isn’t my thing. But this is important to Ada, and that matters to me.” She stood up and shoved a few extra pretzels into her hoodie’s pockets. “I’ll see you guys out in the car.”
|# ? Jan 2, 2021 04:07|
A Golden Opportunity
Scene: Le Secret d’Orléans Bistro, Tuesday Afternoon
Hydrangea Place wasn’t the most welcoming location, but that didn’t mean the area didn’t have its upsides. The existence of Le Secret so close by was one of the biggest lucky breaks El had had when setting up shop in his new apartment, in Ada’s opinion. Or perhaps it had been an influence in his decision to move in here. She couldn’t discount him seeing the glorious french cuisine in his cards and deciding he might as well treat himself sometimes. It wasn’t a common move in his playbook, but every man had his little vices after all.
So does every girl for that matter, she mused, as she took her time to savor the offerings of the breadbasket the waiter had brought her minutes after sitting down, still fresh out the oven and glistening with quality butter. Mmm...note to self, pay close attention to the main dish’s flavor. If it’s half as good as this bread, I better get to know the owners. Any place with food this good is worth coming back to, and often.
Between the dim underground lighting, the attentive service and the oil paintings on the walls, the place seemed to be caught in a temporal bubble, far away from the hustle and changes of the city. The sign by the door said it had been open for forty-eight years, and it definitely felt like it too. It was a perfect place to speak in private about a secret ritual without unwanted interruptions.
“Ah, I see you’ve found one of the more-notable selling points of the neighbourhood,” Elbridge said, sliding through the door with a nod to the host. “The ratatouille, please.” His breath already smelled strongly of French culinary herbs...and alcohol. Ada was pretty sure that she’d seen the exact vintages he’d been sampling on the upper shelves at the Château du Sang.
“Pure luck that I found it. It’s pretty easy to miss. Like a hidden gem.” Her eyes were like a weight on him as he sat down. They didn’t quite carry an accusation, but they were certainly paying close attention to him -- as was her nose, which briefly wrinkled out of reflex. “Had a late night out on the town yesterday?”
“No, it was purely business,” he assured her, taking his coffee and wincing slightly at the heat. “You could say that we were working the graveyard shift.”
Some of the tension went out of Ada’s muscles. That changed things. Vices for the sake of business was something she was intimately acquainted with. “Makes sense. How’d things go with James’ preparations for entering the fun zone?”
“He should be insured against misfortune now,” Elbridge said. “As well as anyone can be.” He set down his coffee and picked up a glass of cold water in one hand and a slice of bread with garlic butter in the other. Just what he needed for his hangover. “You wished to discuss something?” he asked.
“I had a long talk with Midas. Think I’ve got a way out of the favor I owe him, something that doesn’t involve handing him power or committing a murder. But I’m gonna need a panel of experts to solve this problem. That’s why I called you up -- and why I asked a specialist to come join us, too.”
Le Secret was always one of those “someday” places for girls like Grace growing up in the city. Someday she might have a first date with a movie star or get proposed to… Not for a Tuesday afternoon work meeting. But here she was, wearing her best jeans and a sweater, meeting two people she couldn’t seem to avoid. “Afternoon, Ms. DuSang. Warden.” She figured if she kept her mouth shut she could avoid any more incidents.
“Ms. Wagner.” Elbridge acknowledged her as politely as he could through a mouthful of ratatouille.
“Hey Grace,” Ada said, smiling as she called her over. “Glad you could make it. Now the gang’s all here.” She slid her the menu. “Anything catch your eye? I’m thinking beef bourguignon. Could really use something juicy to power me up for the rest of the day.”
She ran her finger down the menu, and everything looked fantastic… and everything was way out of her normal budget. What exactly was the etiquette for something like this? Grace hoped one of them was picking up the tab, but would it be rude to order something more expensive than the host? Or less expensive? And now she’s stalling and… “The beef bourguignon sounds fantastic. Good idea.”
“A woman after my own heart.” Pleased, Ada called the waiter over and made their orders. Once he’d departed, she set the bread she’d been working on aside.
“So I figure it’s about time I told you both what we’re gathered here for. There’s a long story behind this meeting, but the short version is I told King Midas not to give up hope on curing the daughter he cursed with his trademark golden touch and he called me out for it when I told him there might be a way to bring her back. He wants me to bring him a golden dog that can move, bark, and wag its tail like one made of flesh and blood. I need people skilled at cursebreaking, transmogrification, and animal handling to make this happen. You get three guesses who I thought of when I started thinking about who to call, and the first two don’t count.”
Grace just stared at Ada before she turned her gaze to Elbridge. Maybe he was a cat person? “So, what exactly do you need me here for, then?”
“For perspective.” The reply was immediate. Clearly, this was a question Ada had already considered and come up with an answer for. “The curse we’re dealing with is one handed down by the gods. It can’t be broken -- the greatest witch of Greece spent who knows how long trying, and failed. But what no one’s ever tried before is twisting it, changing it to make it more bearable. The last time I came across a curse like this, part of the way it worked was convincing the bearer that they were statues, not people. Coaxing them out of that suggestion so they can take control of their bodies requires understanding how they think -- and there’s no one I know of with a better understanding of how the animal mind works.”
“And so, naturally, seeking advise on something so ethically-compromised, you came to me,” Elbridge said. “I’m flattered. Really.”
“There’s no breach in ethics to be had here, El,” Ada said, shaking her head. “Medical labs experiment on animals all the time to find cures for humans. All we’ll be doing is following in their footsteps. And when we succeed, not if, we’ll save a little girl’s life and an old man’s soul. I think that makes this worth doing.”
“First, I think, you ought to confirm that his daughter yet lives,” Elbridge suggested. “Your gardener’s bartered with the ferryman before - you should be able to learn whether or not he ever transported the girl.”
“I’ll confirm with her to be sure, but I’m positive she’s alive. Maybe not conscious, maybe not totally sane, but Circe spent time trying to cure her, and if she thought she was dead, she would’ve told Midas to give it up. I don’t think he would’ve forgotten to mention that kind of slight when I spoke to him about this.”
“I suppose that this knowledge might benefit poor Steven as well,” Elbridge noted. And Alisa, he did not have to say. “So be it, then. I’ll need a substitute for the moly, however - it’s quite poisonous to dogs.”
While she let a lot of this go past her without argument, Elbridge's comment caught Grace’s attention. "Wait, sorry, can you back up a second? Who's Steven and how would he tie into any of this?"
“A boy who saw too much of a demon who did not at all care for witnesses,” Elbridge said, haunted by the recollection. “She turned him into a dog.”
"Oh. Well. That sucks." Grace tried to hide her surprise that Elbridge had apparently fought a demon and it was enough to bother him. It seemed to be the first thing since she got here that seemed to get between a Warden and his lunch.
“Ordinarily, we might have put him out of his misery,” Elbridge said quietly. “But at times, it seems there’s just...a part of him that remembers who he was.”
“We had someone working on his case, but she skipped town. Now it’s up to us to pick up the pieces and do whatever we can to help him. And this could be the first step towards addressing that issue,” Ada said. There was so much to deal with, every day. Sometimes, the burden of trying to save everyone got to be a crushing weight. Thank god she didn’t have to do this all alone anymore. Not as much, at least.
“But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Elbridge, you said moly was a no-go. What else can we go looking for that might do the trick?”
“Hrm...golems can move despite the rigidity of their substance, but their animating spirits were never mortal. Without treading into necromancy, there’s only…” Elbridge snapped his fingers. “Of course! Astral projection! We prepare an inorganic vessel for the subject to control in its sleep. That would permit it to grow accustomed to such a body, at far less risk than sudden transfiguration or transference.”
“Sounds promising. How would we go about that?”
“There are certain pharmaceuticals - some of them rather, ah, recreational - that can induce the necessary state of lucid dreaming,” Elbridge explained. “If I can prepare the circle for it...ah, that’s no good. Dogs are prone to wander in their sleep. It would need a chaperone who could both keep it from breaking its tether to its own body and guide it toward the new one.”
Grace reversed her earlier turn and stare, Ada the target of her gaze now. "I, uh… I'm not sure I'm qualified for this."
“Hm.” Ada’s lips pursed. “Walk me through this. Why not?”
"Well, gators and dogs aren't exactly friends, just to start, but I've only done this like 4 times. If you count my transformation. And I've never been primary, just one of the 13…" her words slowed as she talked. Grace might not be an expert but she clearly had way more experience in this than either of them. "Okay, I guess I'm probably better equipped than any of your other friends unless you know a werewolf shaman." Please, please let Elbridge say he knows a werewolf shaman.
Ada shook her head. “Can’t say I do. If there’s anything I can do to make things easier, just say so. I know how much I’m asking for, here.”
Grace sighed, resigned to the situation. "It's fine. Better than going in blind, anyway. I gotta figure out my consulting rates the way things are going, though. Favors are great but they don't pay the rent."
“Yeah. That’s fair. I did say I was willing to hire, so don’t worry about that.” Besides, if this worked, Midas would more than happily pay for the consultation fee. “Think it over and send me an invoice. I’ll see what I can do. El, how long would it take to set up the astral projection?”
“To perform it safely?” he asked. “Three days, at a minimum. Longer, likely, to put our current business behind us...not counting all of the other poor sods sunk into Cataouatche. Er...which reminds me. Ms. Wagner, I’d like your assistance with rescuing a number of petrified victims from a lakebed. I daren’t think what a motorised winch might do to them...”
Grace interrupted Elbridge’s rambling, before the conversation took another dark turn. "Of course, can't just leave the poor bastards there. But it'll be at least a full day's work. Assuming we can fix them out there and don't need to haul a bunch of statues through the mud. Could be the better part of a week if we do. Either way you're bringing the muffuletta, that'll be hungry work."
Ada closed her eyes. “We don’t have enough time for that right now,” she murmured. There was an edge of frustration in her voice as she opened her eyes. Delays were piling up on delays, and the consequences would be catastrophic if they didn’t manage to get something done without kicking the can further down the road at some point. “I’ve got four days to give Midas his golden dog. If I can’t, he’ll get his hands on the Gilded Lily, and with it, exclusive access to a major-league contract with the fae. Putting Grace at risk isn’t an option, but I can’t do anything to keep him from sinking his claws deeper into New Orleans if I don’t get a bit more time. If we have to pick two between fast, easy and safe here, we’ll take safe and fast. What can we do to speed things up?”
“...there is an option,” Elbridge said, hesitant. “You won’t like it.”
“I like our current plan even less,” Ada muttered. “What is it?“
“We strengthen the astral tethers,” Elbridge explained. “Reinforce them, until there’s no chance they’ll snap. The fastest way to do this requires...well, more of the same substance. We will need to tap into a living soul.”
Ada’s brow furrowed. “So you want to...what? Offer up a blood sacrifice to solidify the bonds?”
“No, no.” He shook his head furiously. “The soul would need to be willing, or else it might tear through the fetters in its struggle. And in this case, there’s no need for anyone to die...not when she’s already partially an astral body.”
“‘She?’ I don’t know anyone who might…” Ada’s voice cut off as realization crept in. For a moment she just looked at El incredulously, and then she shook her head firmly. “First of all, no, that’s not my call to make. You want to try this, you gotta bring this up with her. Second, we can’t just combine a dog’s soul and a human’s willy-nilly. There’s gotta be consequences for that, far-reaching ones. Third, I’m not even sure it can work at all. Me and Alisa share everything. Souls, feelings...you name it, she can experience it, and that includes my body. It’s more likely the dog’ll just end up possessing me instead of a statute if we start daisy-chaining souls like that. It’s the path of least resistance compared to hopping into a statue.”
“...which is why you will both need to be conscious for the process,” Elbridge finished. “Her, to bleed energy into the connection, and you, to rebuff any such attempts. Your unique arrangement is the only reason that this could work without serious risk of anyone dying, or the process working in reverse. As for permission…” he took a bite of eggplant, savouring the texture. “...do you know of any other spirits that might be persuaded to make such a donation, let alone on such short notice? Or who wouldn’t attempt to hijack the ritual for their own ends?”
“No. That’s not the part that really worries me, though. Alisa and I are wound together tightly. There’s no splitting us up cleanly, it’s something I’ve spoken with my mother about before. Inviting someone else into our arrangement means joining them to us too. It’s not like a handshake or anything...it’s more like a pair of trees entwining their roots together, until you almost can’t tell where one starts and the other ends.”
“And then putting a stent into those trees and draining off their sap to make syrup,” Elbridge said. “I did say that you wouldn’t like it.”
“Moreso because of the long-term consequences than anything else. Say a piece of dog soul ends up attached to us after we finish the ritual. Can you imagine a version of me that has to deal with controlling her basic instincts tuned up to animal intensity? Is that kind of problem something you’d be willing to deal with, El? ”
"Hey!" Grace slammed her fist on the table. "The hell is wrong with you?"
“A hell of a lot of things,” Ada said, flatly. “It’s why I’m not chomping at the bit to try this. What’s bothering you in particular?”
"It's not a curse, being a were. It's a gift. And maybe some golden retriever instincts could chill you out."
Elbridge actually sprayed coffee out of his nose.
“Maybe. Golden retrievers are better people than me,” Ada conceded. “But there’s a price to pay for letting more voices inside your head, and it’s one I won’t be paying alone if I do this. A good friend taught me not to splinter my soul just to get what I want. I might make a lot of mistakes, but not learning my lessons properly isn’t going to be one of them. We need a different solution to this problem. A different kind of solution.”
Her brow furrowed in concentration, creasing so deeply it almost seemed to be collapsing onto a singular point. “So. The problem is that we have to make sure the astral cord doesn’t snap when we bring the dog there, and we can’t strengthen it enough, safely enough, to make that feasible. Am I on track so far?”
“That is *hngkkkk!* essentially-correct,” Elbridge affirmed, cleaning away the mess he’d made with a mumbled apology to the waitress.
“When you can’t stop someone from doing something, the only way to keep them in check is to make sure they don’t want to do that. And usually, that means giving them better things to do.” Ada paused, briefly, as she considered the meaning behind her own words. “That means we need to understand the dog’s mind. And since we’re gonna have to do that anyway to make heads and tails of how this curse works, we might as well kill two birds with one stone. Can we do that in any way without a mind mage’s expertise?”
"Okay, I'm far from the expert on dogs here, but I think you two might be vastly overestimating the animal mind. They don't think like people, or see like people or smell like people. They take in way more information but it's filtered differently. I think what you really need here is an astral dog treat. A dog won't stop to wonder how they left their body if there's an astral cat to chase."
“I...hmm.” Elbridge made a note on his coffee-spattered pad. “I’ll need to collect some ectoplasm to sculpt an appropriate simulacrum, then.” He actually intended to ask Rick to do it, but he was trying to keep Rick’s name out of the conversation if possible. Rick might also qualify as a willing astral donor, but unlike Ada or Alisa, Elbridge wasn’t sure that he’d recover from the experience.
“Which means a trip into the Nevernever,” Ada noted. “Will you need any backup for it?”
Grace perked up at the words Nevernever. “Oooh! Pick me again!”
Elbridge had to smile at that. “Oh, if you insist. I’ve some other errands to run on that side of the veil - I might as well make a day of it.”
“Then that settles it. Today, we prep everything we need for the experiment. Tomorrow, we get it done and I show Midas how even a punishment from heaven on high isn’t enough to slow us down. Now there’s just one more thing I need to take care of. El, does this place grow its own beef? I swear to god the dishes me and Grace asked for should’ve gotten here ages ago.”
“Oh thank god, it’s not just me.” Grace leaned back, looking for the server. “I didn’t know if that was normal here or what…”
|# ? Jan 2, 2021 04:11|
A Salty Connection
Scene: Phone time!
“Come on, don’t jinx anything now…” Gorden murmured as he hit Ada’s speed dial and listened for the ringing. He was never going to get used to having to think about hexing. “Not when we’ve finally got something…” He tapped his foot waiting for the voice on the other side.
Just then, Ada’s phone came to life with a series of arpeggiated guitar chords. She reached into her pocket with a look of surprise in her face, but as soon as she was who was calling, it vanished, replaced by firm determination.
“Sorry. Gotta take this one,” she said. “Hey Gorden. Talk to me.”
“Hey, Ada!” Gorden chirped. “Tell El we’ve figured out where his friend was coming up--she was hitting pumping stations all over the city! Well, the ones on the shores of the lake more often, but...the point is, Shirley and I think we got a lead. El there with you?”
She glanced at him significantly. “Yeah. Yeah, he is. Where’s it going to take us?”
“Out on the lake! Shirley says whatever the Fomor are doing in the lake, it’s making the water more ocean-like, saltier. It’s probably part of why they’re hitting pumping stations. She’s getting her testing stuff together now. Whatever magic salt or whatever they’re pumping into Pontchartrain to make it more like the Mediterranean, we just might be able to follow it to where they’re hiding!”
“Does that include an underwater dive? Because some of us are gonna be sitting ducks if so. Magic and water don’t mix.” She didn’t shoot Elbridge a glance again, but the way she said ‘some of us’ made clear who it was she was thinking of.
“It might, but…” If Ada listened carefully, she might have heard Gorden flipping through something. “Frick, I’m gonna need to confirm this with Shirley, but...the way the lake mixes, we should be able to figure out where the...let’s call it ‘oceanization’ is strongest with enough surface water samples. I think. I’m gonna need to come up with a better name...thassalisation?”
“Gotcha. So we just need a boat, then. And maybe some kraken treats just in case. I think I know where we can get one.” They could probably hire a rental in a pinch, but maybe it wouldn’t need to come to that if the Bigsbys could be persuaded to lend them theirs for the cause. This was something that stood to benefit everyone in New Orleans’ clued-in community, after all. “I’ll talk to the others and see what they think. Make sure to bring in a weapon to keep yourself safe with, just in case. You don’t want to rely only on magic when stepping onto the squids’ home turf, alright?”
“What do you want me to do, bring a harpoon gun?!” answered Gorden with more than a little skepticism.
“Honestly not a bad idea. If you can think of something else that might work, though. Go right ahead with it. I bet you can surprise me. Do you need anything specific from us, by the way? Might as well cover our bases as much as we can while we’re at it.”
“I dunno, how about a harpoon gun?” returned Gorden. “Otherwise I’m going to be smacking Fomor with a life preserver or the emergency paddles--I can’t exactly afford a sword...besides that, uh...gonna need to get back to you.”
“Was expecting you to retort with a squirtgun filled with acid, honestly. A harpoon gun isn’t quite mad sciencey enough to suit your style,” Ada teased him, a playful smirk on her face. “Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking to old standards if they work. I’m sure you’ll find the best solution for this, same as always.”
“Oh, if that’s what’s on offer, Shirley’s better at chemistry; I think I’d go for a black hole generator instead,” Gorden leaned into the joke. “So what was that about a boat and...kraken treats?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fomor are keeping some pets there. We best be ready for anything. Actually, speaking of which...hold on a minute. El, is there anything we should be on the lookout for while paying Lake Pontchartrain a visit besides Servitors, Screechins and maybe another octoshark?” She asked, putting the phone down as she did so.
“Toxic marine life,” he said, recalling the various slugs and snakes he’d seen employed over the past six months. “We’ll need antivenin, and - ideally - a space for treatment. This is beginning to sound like an expensive undertaking.”
“Don’t suppose you know someone who’d be willing to sell themselves into slavery over this, right? Pretty sure that’d foot the bill as far as the magic touch is concerned.” There was a wry smirk on Ada’s face as she waved her golden-gloved hand around in a mock-magnanimous gesture. “You’ve got no idea how annoying having access to money with catches like these is. This curse really was made for a different age.”
“That market’s saturated at any rate,” Elbridge said, thinking of Midas and his pawnbrokers. “I’ve asked enough of the Bigsby’s of late - I’d prefer not to borrow their boat again.”
“I can drive Shirley up and down the coastline, but a boat’s...a bit out of my league,” buzzed Gorden’s voice.
Grace piped up at the disappointed man's voice. "I got a guy who owes me a favor around there. He can get us a couple of airboats pretty cheap, but we'll have to go the long way to get onto Pontchartrain."
“How long are we talking here? Couple hours?” Ada asked.
Grace grinned at Ada's question. "Depends on how fast you can pilot one. I can get there in probably 45 minutes."
That sounded like a challenge. “Bet I can make 35,” she said, grinning back.
"You're on. Loser buys first round." Grace didn't expect the rich girl to be the one she'd be going up against, but it was nice to have somebody to butt heads with again.
“Deal. So we got ourselves boats, a plan, and preparations to make. Anything else we’re missing?” Almost as soon as she’d asked the question, a thought crept into her mind. “...Actually, there’s one thing. Can we count on Old Man Pontchartrain not coming at us if we visit his lake and start taking samples? I wouldn’t want to run into him if he thought we were trespassing on his turf.”
“Did I hear you right? You’re saying some old magic guy owns the lake?” Gorden’s voice crackled again. “If he won’t let us help, ask him how he feels about his lake turning into the world’s newest salt lake!”
“I’m saying said magic guy owns all our asses. He’s the biggest power in the city right now. We don’t want to go up against him while he’s strong and we’re weak.” Ada said, thoughtfully. “I don’t think he’s any fonder of the Fomor than we are, just has less reason to be worried about them. It all depends on how useful we can make ourselves sound if he comes calling." Her face scrunched up in a frown. "This means I can't come, though, he knows me personally and will start asking questions. drat. We'll have to do the boat race some other time.”
“He only just reclaimed his place from Narcissus,” Elbridge noted. “I’d expect him to be quite sensitive to any further threats to his claim.”
“Which is why we’re not going to act like we’re one,” Ada agreed. “Don't try to strongarm him, it won't work. If we can present him with a plan that involves as little trespassing into his realm as possible, he might be inclined to look the other way while we cripple the competition. Do you think we could arrange something to part the seas temporarily, once we know where the Fomor base is located and have a posse ready?”
“No,” Elbridge said flatly, in his best this is not up for negotiation voice.
“Then we’ll have to think of an equivalent replacement,” Ada said with a shrug. “Fighting in unfamiliar turf that stops us from doing things as basic as breathing is out of the question. We’ll be compounding so many disadvantages on top of each other that even if we can find the Fomor’s base, get there and bloody their noses, it’ll be a slaughter. Either we make the environment just as hostile for them so we reduce things to a pillow fight, or we alter it so it favors us instead. We don’t have any other options if we want to execute a successful raid.”
“...or we seek common cause with those who aren’t at such a disadvantage,” Elbridge said, with a pointed look in Grace’s direction. “Those for whom taking the fight to the enemy will not require an actual, Biblical miracle.”
“I don’t actually know any of the local were-s, you know.” Grace rolls her eyes at El. “I’m not even sure if any of them know the LeBlanc clan. I can probably go talk to them, but I doubt they’ll help out of the goodness of their hearts. Even if we could offer them the lake as territory, you’re gonna need something to sweeten the pot.”
“Hopefully something less than a miracle in exchange for the marine equivalent of an invasion of Russia in Winter,” Elbridge said.
Ada just shook her head. “Don’t think we can offer them anything less than that. I spoke to the gators already. Most of them are war vets. I don’t think anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan and came back is gonna be receptive to the idea of more war just cause Auntie Ada says she needs ‘em.”
“We could ya know… ask them what they want? If they’d even consider it?” Grace shrugged. “Most everybody has a price, maybe it’ll be easier than parting the Red Sea.”
“That’s a lot of muffuletta,” Elbridge pondered aloud.
For a moment, Ada said nothing. Instead, she just stared at her golden mitts.
“You know,” she began, thoughtfully. “When I woke up today, pondering whether I could use the Midas touch to buy myself an army of weregators was not on my mental shortlist of tasks for the day.”
Grace started digging through her pockets, pulling out a couple sticks of gum and a handful of loose change. “If you’re gonna start just turning poo poo into gold for fun, you could test your powers on these.” She grinned at Ada, unabashed.
For a moment, Ada just stared at her, and then, she broke into a laugh. “Want me to count this as your hiring fee, then?”
There was a scuffling sound and then Shirley’s voice came over the phone. “Hello? Helloooo~! Can I talk to whoever said they could get a boat for a minute please?”
“Yo, this is Grace. Who’s this?”
“Shirley, the sample-taking girl. Last time I went out on the lake I got nabbed by these jerks and they put eggs in my ear! So like… Can we get something quiet? As in completely silent? Like maybe something with oars? I’m pretty sure they heard my outboard coming last time, and uh, airboats? A lot louder than outboards.”
“Uhhh… maybe?” Grace paused for a second in thought. “Or we could just get some poles and cut the fans before we reach the lake. That way we can get the hell out of dodge in a hurry if something does go sideways.”
“Oh yeah, I like the sound of that! Er, the lack of sound of that, and also the ability to go fast if-and-or-when this goes terribly wrong. Where’s your boat guy? We’ll meet you there. Also thank you, because this is kind of a big deal for me.”
“No worries, hon. I’ll text Gorden the address. Meet you guys there!”
Transient People fucked around with this message at 03:32 on Jan 6, 2021
|# ? Jan 5, 2021 00:47|
Privateer’s Eye for the Spy Guy
Scene: James' Apartment
James awoke to his brain trying to hammer its way right out of his skull - a drumbeat akin to a marching band at their liveliest or perhaps even a twenty one gun salute. It took his sleep addled mind a moment to catch up and remember why - the pirate ship, You's demesne. He was no stranger to alcohol, mind, but trying to keep up with the Warden and the Privateer… Christ, that had been an awful idea.
Mercifully, he'd drawn the curtains before he'd crashed out into bed, so there was only a tiny ray of sunlight poking through a narrow gap between them for his eyes to contend with. Blinking, he rolled over with a groan to glance at his alarm clock, blinking away on his bedside table - it was the wrong side of midday to be waking up, that was for sure.
With a grunt, he hauled himself up, turning to sit on the edge of the bed. He could smell the potent alcohol on his breath still. He glanced over to the ensuite door - the shower was almost singing a siren song to him, and he knew the hot water would be a true blessing… but if he was going into the Carnival later, looking this rough would work better than any disguise would, that was for sure. Coffee, then - caffeine, and lots of it.
Clad in only a pair of shorts, he rose up - his head protesting as he did - and stalked off out of the bedroom and toward the kitchen, in a manner akin to a hunter stalking after some prey. Hitting the button on his coffee maker, he grabbed a glass of water and some aspirin, tossing the pills back and then washing them down for even more blessed relief from his hangover.
“You look like a man in need of some onion soup,” said Dominique You, who was leaning back in a spectral wooden chair with his hands behind his head and his boots firmly on James’ kitchen table. He was all smiles, still wearing the same outfit from the night before, and not even a little hungover looking. “Or perhaps… what is it you say… A hair of the dog?”
James blinked at the apparition before him and groaned, grumbling in the gutteral noises common to cavemen - and the deeply hung over. Setting the glass down, he stalked back over to the coffee maker, lifting the now-full cup of steaming black coffee, taking a long sip. The bitter brew felt like the ambrosia of the gods to him right now. A few sips later, the cotton wool wrapped feeling around his head starting to recede, he turned back to You and said, "I can't remember anything after we entered - boarded, I suppose - your ship, but since you're here, I'm assuming this is business and you've not decided my apartment would be a great place to haunt, right?"
The ghost laughed. “My friend, this is not the kind of place I would normally allow myself to be caught dead in, pardon the expression. With time so short I wanted to make myself available to you today, which wouldn’t be possible if I were asleep in No.2. But come now, you can’t have forgotten the part where-” he dropped his voice to a whisper “-you started serenading us all with that rousing rendition of Wonderwall.”
James groaned again, though this one was mixed with a sigh. He must have been really drunk if he'd picked up a guitar again. He kept drinking the coffee, just letting it wash over him, before he spoke coherently again, shaking his head as he replied, "I don't remember it. But that sounds like something drunk me would think was a good idea. But that's a mistake to deal with another day. And at least now, I'll look the part of a washed up, half-sober private detective. And smell it, too. Unless you have any other suggestions as to how I might avoid sticking out more than I already do when it comes to the Carnival?"
“It’s truly a place of hedonism and debauchery, but most people still wear pants,” You pointed out, giving James an appreciative up-and-down glance.
After another sip of coffee, James nodded, "I'll go get dressed. Did you want to see the modern wonder that is afternoon TV while I do?"
“And miss casting judgement over your wardrobe? Never.” The ghostly chair vanished as the pirate stood up, adjusting his blouse collar. “Let us be about it.”
"As you wish, but there's nothing particularly flashy in there. I stick out too much as it is to want to wear something that stands out," he replied, carrying his half-empty cup with him into the bedroom. Pulling open the wardrobe, he stepped back, bracing himself ahead of the privateer's probably scathing remarks on his wardrobe, which was, as promised, rather plain - suits, business casual, t-shirts and jeans for off days and then various training gear.
“No, no, no. This won’t do at all.” You shook his head, hands on his hips. “There’s no such thing as camouflage in the Carnival, my friend. If you look like a tasty morsel, someone will snap you up and eat you. You have both the height and weight to strike an imposing figure if you wish, and you will need to do at least that if you want to walk through the place unbothered. This is not a world where you want to hide your strength. We should go shopping. How do you feel about snakeskin boots?”
"I can't say I'm a fan, but I get your point - I need to be closer to Tony Montana than Serpico, as it were. Walk in there like I belong there, like I'm some sort of high roller who people don't want to mess with, right?" James replied, setting his cup down on the bedside table before pulling a t-shirt and a pair of jeans out of the wardrobe to wear for a shopping trip he was certain he wouldn't manage to avoid. As he dressed, he added, "Just make sure whatever I end up with has enough spots to conceal a weapon or two, alright?"
“That goes without saying. And yes, having enough swagger can be a form of armor, but it’s not solely about strength. You have to be interesting. There will be eyes on you, and if you bore them, that’s as good as a death sentence. The patrons exist to be entertained. If you cannot provide it outside of the tents, they will have you provide it inside of them, as a contestant in one of their games. Whatever happens, you don’t want that.” He tapped his chin, looking James up and down again. “Hm. You have such a strong Nordic look, now I’m thinking fur...”
Dressed, James slipped on a pair of sneakers and grabbed his keys, wallet and phone from the table, stowing them in various pockets of his jeans before retrieving his coffee, "Be interesting, charm them so they think I'm one of them, rather than an interloper or a lost lamb. Wouldn't be the first mask I've donned, and it wouldn't be a hard one to do, either," he replied with a shrug, drinking the cooling coffee as they headed to the living space. Glancing around, he asked, "What vessel are you riding around in while we shop, then?"
“An actor as well as a musician,” You said, chuckling lightly. “But no, you’ll have to go this one alone. I’m an unbound ghost, and I’ve no attachments to any vessel save the one you got drunk on last night. I’m sure you can find something that fills the requirements. Try the thrift shop on 14th, they’re very good for odd clothes in just the right amount of disrepair.”
"Oh, I'm a much better actor than I am a musician - I actually got paid to pretend to be other people, after all, while the guitar was just something questionable I learned while I was bored during a few summers at college," replied James with a grin, once he finished his coffee and set it down, "Thrift store, gotcha. I'll try and pick an outfit that anyone in Vegas would be envious of. You going to be alright hanging out here while I'm gone?"
You’s smile turned downright sinister. “I’ll find some way to entertain myself, don’t worry.”
"Well, stay out of the black trunk in the closet. There's some holy water and ghost dust in there, amongst other things," James replied with a shrug - he didn't have time to worry about what the privateer was going to get up to in his apartment. He could only hope it was fixable after. "I'll try not to be long, and then you can tell me if there's anything else I need to know or worry about."
“If we can get through all of it before midnight I’d be surprised,” You said. “But I’ll do my best, as I promised.”
"Try to work out the important bits I need to know beforehand and anything else you can tell me on the fly," James replied, heading for the door, "It wouldn't be the first Op I've been on with incomplete information, and if we're lucky enough, it won't be the last, either."
|# ? Feb 7, 2021 15:10|
Friends From Low Places
Scene: James' Apartment
It was just over an hour later when James unlocked the door and then stepped back inside, arms full of bags from the thrift store. His shopping trip had, on some level, been successful - it was just that that success didn't exactly include an outfit he would call particularly tasteful. He could almost tolerate the dark red silk shirt, but the grey wolf fur pimp coat and the black trilby were just too far. Never mind the several gold chains he'd bought, enough to make Mr T feel a little jealous, and a few chunky golden rings, to match. But combine it with some of his black slacks or jeans and some decent shoes, and he'd look like he'd stepped right away from the blackjack table in one of the ritzier casinos in Vegas.
Setting the bags down on the couch, he glanced around for any sign of You.
The ghostly pirate wasn’t immediately in evidence but there were a pair of folded paper boats floating in the kitchen sink that hadn’t been there when he left, and a notepad missing a few pages beside it. As James watched the water in the sink rippled as though a brisk breeze had blown over it, causing the boats to sail across the water in a lazy spiral.
“Ah, you’re back!” You said from behind him. “How did it go?”
James smiled at the makeshift diorama the ghost had constructed in his sink - there was something surprisingly wholesome about the whole thing that just endeared him toward the privateer’s ghost that little bit more, given the mayhem he could have gotten up to. Turning around, he replied, “It went well enough, though I suspect the fashion police might have some words to say about this particular outfit. But it’ll stand out, that’s for sure.”
Dom insisted on seeing James’ loot laid out, which only took a moment. One he’d given it all a lookover he clapped his hands once in satisfaction. “Excellent. My friend, you shall be a veritable zebra among the herd. So tell me, what would you know of the Carnivale? I will do my best to answer… though be mindful that it is an ever-shifting place, and I have not been there to see it in some time.”
“I heard a little from someone who was trying to scare me the hell away, but beyond that, nothing,” he replied, leaning against the counter, a notepad and pen resting nearby, ready, “I was told that it’s like an eternal Mardi Gras, a decadent revel where people indulge every twisted whim, where there’s only people who indulge in it all, or people who get taken advantage of.”
“Ah, then you have spoken to our little Rose Red... She is correct, of course. The Carnivale is a place apart, where the true self outs and one dons the mantle of predator or prey. Even so, there are deals to be made and fortunes won. Brutality and excess can be beautiful things, and if you do not believe it now, a night there will change your mind forever.” His face was serene, though what he was picturing in his mind was anything but. “Therein lies the danger of course. Those who walk in seldom walk out unchanged, and sometimes don’t walk out at all. Not due to misfortune, but because they’ve found a place that suits them, monsters that they are...” He paused, raising an eyebrow at James. “Not that you’ll have any trouble with that, right my friend?”
“I’d like to think that despite the distasteful things I’ve had to do for my country - and there’s been more than a few - I’m no monster. Because I’ve seen people who enjoyed that part of the job - enjoyed killing people, made excuses to take things too far - and I never wanted to be like them,” replied James, looking away, “I don’t know what my place is - maybe it’s this city, who knows - but I’m pretty sure it’s not this Carnival.”
You nodded. “Hold to that thought, and perhaps it will be enough. But surely you have other questions, less philosophical in nature…”
“I do,” said James, turning back to the privateer’s ghost and lifting his pen, “Is there anything like an art gallery or a trophy lodge or anything like that, there? Or anywhere else they’d likely show a statue off?”
“Aye, there is,” You confirmed. “I wonder if the same patron holds sway there now, or if it’s changed hands since…”
“That seems the most likely sort of place they’d stash him, given the sort of place it sounds like,” replied James, scribbling down a note, “Who was the patron last time you were there? Anyone I’m likely to have heard of?”
“He was known then as The Archivist, and he was an odd creature… A collector of books, knick knacks, and trinkets. Anything that held his attention for long enough he coveted, and nothing more than a good story.” You paused for a moment. “It might be wise to bring something to trade, if you mean to speak with him. I doubt anything you can carry would be worth the missing mayor, but it never hurts to come prepared.”
“I’ve heard of the type, and it’s an impulse that I can respect to some extent, too,” replied James, “But I doubt that I could get my hands on anything both small enough to carry and valuable enough that he’d take it in exchange on short notice… and even if I could, I’d be wary about giving something that valuable to someone living somewhere like the Carnival. But it’s something I might be able to use - a man like that strikes me as the kind of guy who’d want something one of his neighbours has.”
“Surely there must be something,” You insisted. “It doesn’t need to be an arcane artifact, merely old and storied. A ring, or a book, or even a well loved toy.”
“See, now that, that I can probably do,” James replied with a smile, “It just so happens that I run an antiques business, and I dare say I’ve got something hanging around of sufficient size and providence that it might interest a collector. We can stop by the shop on the way there.” Tapping his pen against the countertop for a moment as he pondered his next question, he finally asked, “Is he the sort of person who has hired muscle, or the type that’s strong enough that nobody’s ever tried to mess with him?”
You gave a toothy smile. “A good question. Like most of the patrons you might encounter, his power will be fearsome within his own domain. A number of the trophies within the collection belonged to would-be usurpers. Another reason to bring a suitable gift, no?”
James nodded in response, scribbling another line to his notes. “Indeed. But it might be an edge, too - I’ll keep an eye out in case he just assumes I’m not worth worrying about because I’m no major talent.” Tapping his pen on the notepad, he summarized, “So I’ve got to look interesting, walk with enough charisma and swagger to try and impress everyone and give the guy a gift so he doesn’t get pissed off. Anything else I need to worry about ahead of time, or is the place too chaotic to do much more than get favourable odds and then play it by ear?”
“That’s everything I can think of,” You said, twirling the end of his moustache.
“In that case, let me get ready and we can head out,” replied James, setting his pen down and giving the notes one last skim. After retrieving the pile of bags, he headed into the bedroom.
Some ten minutes later, James emerged from the bedroom accompanied by a cloud of strong cologne, dressed in the very finest outfit he could find in short notice in a thrift store, the black trilby set upon his head. Rolling a casino chip down his fingers, he glanced at You’s spectre, flashed a grin and asked, “How do I look?”
You kissed his fingers. “Magnifique!”
“Not quite the phrase I’d use, but it’ll do,” replied James with a bemused shake of the head as he headed to the closet. After a brief moment of adding a few choice items to his pockets and retrieving his pistol from his gun safe, he swung it shut and headed for the door.
“Need to grab something for The Archivist and see a Wizard about moving a statue on short notice, and then, I suppose, it’s game time,” he said, looking back at You, “Until later?”
“I’ll be waiting at the entrance at midnight. Don’t be late!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” quipped James, heading out of the door. With a click, he locked it behind him and turned to head downstairs.
Or he would have, if there hadn’t been a gaunt woman with scraggly dark hair and hungry eyes standing on the stairs. She glared at him, hands in the pockets of a too-large windbreaker jacket.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, and he recognized her voice instantly- it was the woman who’d spoken when he’d had a black bag over his head, a couple days back.
James stepped sideways, leaning casually against the railing, acting as though he were nonplussed that these swamp folk - the swamp mafia? - were clearly surveilling his place, at a minimum. With a smile, he said, “If I said I was going to the casino, is there any chance you’d believe me?”
Her nose wrinkled, as much from the cologne as the line he’d just fed her. “No.”
“Then I suppose I’m going to have to ask who’s asking then,” he replied, “You have me at something of a disadvantage, ma’am. Why, I don’t even know what to call you.”
“And why, Mitra, pray tell, might a lady I’ve never seen before be interested in my evening activities?”
She bared teeth at him. “Did you find him?”
“I found loads of victims, but not him, no,” he replied, “But I found another lead, and that’s what I’m looking into.”
“We’re looking into,” she corrected, then she started down the stairs.
James sighed, “You’re just going to try and follow me even if I don’t let you come, aren’t you?”
She shrugged. “We told you that we would be watching you. That you should call. You won’t, so I’m here. Simple.”
“In my defense, you did kidnap me,” he replied with a roll of his eyes as he started following her downstairs, “But since I don’t have time to drive all around the city to slip a tail, you can come - but you follow my lead.”
“I protect you, and you get Benjamin back,” Mitra said, nodding seriously. “Everyone is happy.”
“Well, everyone I care about, anyway,” replied James with a smirk, “I dare say the people who stashed him won’t be best pleased.”
“Good.” She smiled at that, and it was even more unsettling than her glare. Something about the shape of her mouth wasn’t quite right. The way she walked, too, like her legs were just a little too long, and she kept her hands in her pockets the whole way to the car.
James suppressed most of a shudder at the sight of her smile - whatever she was, he was getting pretty certain that it was something creepy and, most likely, not entirely human. But despite how unsettling she was, their goals were aligned, at least for the moment.
Stepping out into the dimming sunlight, he glanced around for any unknown cars and, after not spotting any, remarked, “Didn’t drive here, then?”
She shook her head. “Walked. We’ll take your car.” She headed straight for it and stood next to the passenger door expectantly.
James hit the button on his car key to open it - after a few tries, it even worked - and nodded at her as he slipped his phone out of his pocket, "Just gotta make a call."
After all, even if he didn't know who or what Mitra was, he was pretty sure Elbridge would like a heads up about her.
|# ? Feb 7, 2021 15:11|
(Note: This takes place in the early hours of the same day, directly after Rick leaves Claudia.)
Scene: Chateau duSang
Rick paced back and forth on the duSang’s front porch.
“One day. I can’t wait any longer. Make the most of it, Mr. Cole.”
One day to save the city. One day to save himself. One half-assed attempt after another. One pyrrhic victory for every unacceptable loss. There was never time to do anything the right way, he just had to try like heck and hope things worked out. He was so tired of it. Just once, he wanted to take his time, solve a problem without having to flip a coin and pray for a miracle. Hell, flipping coins would be a vast improvement over the odds he was used to working with.
He huffed a sigh and sat down on the porch step, lacing his fingers together and resting his chin on them. The moonlight glimmered on the frost-stricken lawn that stretched out ahead of him. Winter was coming to New Orleans, and for all he knew it was going to stick around this time. Another world-ending problem that someone would have one day to solve. But not him. He was retired.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to think. As much as it rankled, he only had one arrow in his quiver, and one day was enough time to contact Zophiel. But there was no backup plan. If the angel couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help, then Claudia was going to summon Mel. He wouldn’t be able to stop her, and when everything went to hell he wouldn’t be able to save her either. Not without his magic.
Maybe she can handle it. Maybe you’re not giving her enough credit.
He shook his head, grimacing. Powerful, desperate people were Mel’s favorite prey, going by what Mitsuo had told him was in her little black book. Besides that, the succubus had already sworn vengeance on Ada. What would she do to Ada’s mom, if she found out who Claudia was? He didn’t doubt that the archdemon could deliver on a body for Alisa, but at the first sign of weakness the cost would triple, and quadruple from there.
In his mind’s eye he saw the crumpled and discarded figure of Eric Barnes, lying at the bottom of a stairwell with his face half rotted off. The sickly-sweet stench of sepsis hanging in the air, the regret in his remaining eye…was that what would happen to Claudia, once Mel was done with her? Or would it be something much worse?
If I just had a little more time…
The wood grumbled underneath him, pangs of unease and worry seeping out of the floorboards.
“You feel it too, don’t you?” he said quietly, reaching down to touch the plank next to him. “They’re hanging by a thread.”
The Chateau loomed over him, but for once it didn’t seem to be pressuring him to go away. He almost wished it would, as that would give him some impetus to get off the porch and get to work. (Something he was now officially avoiding.)
Ada’s light was out, so it was at least 4AM, which meant he had a couple hours at most before dawn trapped him in the blade for the day. But where should he go? Would Zophiel be more inclined to listen if he prayed from a church? Maybe the Superdome? They’d fought Mel there, side by side. Would that help get the message through?
“Prayer isn’t a magic ritual, Rico. God’s listening. Talk to Him.”
He sighed, remembering how Angie had always smiled when she was scolding him. He tried to think of what else she might say but losing her was still too fresh a wound, and though he’d found her again in the other timeline, he still hadn’t been able to say goodbye.
It wasn’t fair. He’d prayed for a cure, and he’d gotten one, and it had cost him his dearest friend. If he could have traded it back he would have in a heartbeat, but he’d had no say in the decision. None at all.
It was the last time he’d prayed for anything. Angie might be disappointed in him, but how could he have faith in a God so callous? A God who’d been content to watch as his life fell apart around him. A God who’d never consoled him when he couldn’t even look at his own tattooed face in the mirror. No. God had never been there for him. Not even once.
He stood up and opened his hands, revealing a gleaming white feather. A ghostly twin to the one clutched in his dead right hand, six years and uncountable miles away.
“Mel will ruin everything we’ve been working towards if she comes back. Set us back to square one —or worse. You could prevent it all if you got off your feathery rear end and stopped watching from the sidelines. Don’t tell me this is a free will thing. Asking a mother to walk away from her child is not a choice.”
His hand clenched around the feather, crushing it. “Don’t you care at all? Did you only use us to save Puriel? Do we get to fend for ourselves now that we’re expendable? And what did Alisa do to deserve being imprisoned inside Ada’s body without a voice for ten loving years? You’re an angel. Why couldn’t you help out an innocent child? What kind of rear end in a top hat do you work for?!”
He put his fist to his chest and closed his eyes. “Even if you don’t owe me a dime, Ada saved your sister, and now you could save hers. Come on, Zophiel. Fair’s fair.”
For a moment there was no answer, but then the feather seemed to warm in his grasp and he was joined by the presence of something infinitely larger than himself. He’d felt it once before, standing between his mind and Marcine’s in the very last moments of his life, shielding her from the psychic backlash of his death.
Shielding her as it watched him drown.
He dropped to his knees, frost forming on his wet clothes, the chill of his icy tomb overpowering his senses. “Why?” he asked, voice cracked and raw. “Why did you abandon me?”
The angel didn’t offer any excuses. Instead, Rick felt the touch of a light, warm wind on his shoulders. It was soothing, peaceful, and he wanted none of it. “Take your pity and shove it,” he growled, staggering back to his feet. “Are you going to help or not?”
Sorrow washed over him. Sorrow as deep as the ocean, and as wide as the starry sky. Cupped in the angel’s hands, with its warm breath on his back, he had his answer.
Rick barked out a half-sob. His last shot had missed again. Small wonder Claudia was willing to call on an archdemon. At least she’d show up. At least she’d do something.
“Just tell me one thing before you go,” he said, resting his left hand on the hilt of his sword. “Were you the one who tied my soul to this? Did you aid me in any way, no matter how small, that I may not have noticed or understood?”
The holy presence began to fade as quickly as it had come, but as it did he swore he heard it whisper a single word.
That was it then. There’d been no one else there who could do it. He couldn’t remember how or what he’d done, but it had been his own strength of will that had bound his soul to the sword. He let out a ragged breath. A part of him had been terrified that it hadn’t even been his choice to stay behind at the cost of his body and his magic. Or if it had, that he owed his new life to Zophiel, and the bill could come due at any time. Now he could safely lay those fears to rest.
It felt like a weight sliding off of his back, but he barely had the chance to enjoy it before he was crushed by the reality that now he had no alternatives to present to Claudia.
One goddamn day.
He raised his right hand, opened it, and watched the angel feather disintegrate into glittering dust along with whatever remained of his faith.
Sorry, Angie. If I have to do this myself, I’m not giving Him any of the credit.
But that was the problem wasn’t it? He couldn’t do it himself. Claudia couldn’t either, not without resorting to necromancy. Did anyone he knew have something even close to the capability? For a moment he thought of Gorden’s time magic and if it might be possible to age Murray’s pound-of-flesh baby into a more suitable body. But Gorden was still a novice, and even if he had the power required the odds of him getting something that complex right without months of practice were slim to none.
He paced some more on the path leading up to the porch. Revisited every option he’d set aside previously for even a glimmer of hope. As he went down the list he kept coming back to the first group he’d thought of and the first that Claudia had discarded.
Faeries. If there’s anyone who can pull this off it’s a faerie.
But that’s where he hit a wall. He knew a few faeries but they were all casual acquaintances, and all Summer. This sort of magic had an Unseelie feel to it, and the only Winter faeries he knew of any importance were manning the Outer Gates in a future timeline. Not exactly reachable by phone.
He floated for a moment with his feet off the ground, too preoccupied to even pretend to breathe. What if it didn’t need to be the same faeries he’d met? Would the Breenfjell of this timeline respond to a letter like the one they’d sent his counterpart? He couldn’t think of any reason why not. How to get it to him was another snag, but Winter had a delegation in New Orleans now, down at that ice rink they’d put up. If he went there, he should be able to at least cross into Winter, even if they wouldn’t help him.
There wouldn’t be much time, and he doubted Breenfjell knew the right sort of magic, but he might know someone who did.
Rick sighed. Shoulds, ifs, and mights had dogged him every step of the way, and he couldn’t seem to shake them. But at least he had an idea. Zophiel might have been a miss, but he hadn’t been his last shot. And if nothing else, chasing Breenfjell around Winter would let him use all those sunlit hours that he couldn’t do anything with on this side of the veil.
He would make the most of it, right up until the last hour if he had to. Hovering back up the porch steps, he lightly tapped the door with his sword’s pommel. He would need someone to write for him, and a ride to the ice rink. Thankfully, Roy was discreet enough to handle both.
Unfortunately for Rick, the aging butler wasn’t the one who answered the door this time.
It was Julian duSang.
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:49|
The Latest in a Long Line
Scene: The Chateau
“You’re floating,” Julian said after a solid minute of awkward silence.
Rick dropped like a stone and ended up knee deep in the porch. He coughed once for cover and stoically took a step up to get on the proper level. “Mr. duSang,” he said. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
It wasn’t how he’d wanted his first meeting with Ada’s dad to go. Even if they’d broken up, he’d at least hoped not to make a total rear end of himself. So much for that, he thought.
“Mr. Cole,” Julian replied, with a nod of his head that seemed eerily familiar. “It’s a very late hour for visiting. Or early, depending on how you want to see it,” he said, glancing at the skyline behind him.
“I’m not visiting,” Rick said. “I need to borrow someone’s hands for a minute, and a ride downtown. Sorry, I know it’s not a convenient time but I’m working under a deadline here.”
“That’s a lot to ask for. Is this related to speaking with that angel friend of yours?”
“No, sir. Tried that already. It didn’t pan out.”
“I see.” Julian’s tone didn’t change, but an edge of disapproval crept into it anyway. “How are you planning to make things worse now?”
Rick tensed at the barb. “Pardon my saying so, sir, but I don’t think things can be made any worse. Your wife gave me the day to find another option and I’m going to use it.”
“It only took you half an hour to suggest demon summoning last time. Pardon me if I beg to differ.” Julian’s voice was thick with bitterness as he glared at him. “It’s too cold out to keep talking at the doorway. Come on in,” he said, taking a step sideways to make way.
Rick glanced back at the lightening sky. It was near enough to dawn that if he failed to convince Julian to help him he’d be stuck at the Chateau until nightfall. That on top of the fact that he had no excuse to give to Ada if she caught him there made the whole thing a risky proposition… but then this whole ordeal had been a series of calculated risks from the start.
He nodded once and crossed the threshold.
“Let’s go right ahead and take a seat,” Julian said, seizing a small, round table for two by the window and shoving half of it past the edge. “Anything I can get you, Mr. Cole? Aside from the hands and the ride, I mean,” he asked, as he picked up a sofa chair with a grunt and placed it opposite to the one that accompanied the table already.
“Thanks, I’m fine,” Rick said, privately wondering what Julian could get him even if he asked. It wasn’t like he could share a pot of tea. “Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Oh, plenty of things.” Instead of continuing, however, Julian sat down, crossed his legs, and rested his fist against his cheek, peering at him intently. It was an effect not unlike being put underneath an X-ray. He had the same green eyes as Ada, and the same shape, but his were softer, and kinder...and much more inscrutable.
“Why do you keep coming here?” he asked at length. “You’re the first boy I’ve ever met who got dumped and didn’t cut ties with the girl who left his life. That includes her family, too.”
Rick studied the pattern on the carpet for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Could he be honest with Ada’s dad or would that be a mistake? Of course, Claudia had seen straight through him the last time he’d tried to lie, even by omission, and it was safe to assume her husband was at least as perceptive. “The simplest answer is Mrs. duSang keeps asking me to come, sir. I’m not sure why she decided to trust me over anyone else but she did, so here I am.”
“That’s only a simple answer if we remove the entire human element from it, though,” Julian pointed out. “You could’ve said no.” The hell, maybe you should’ve was implicit.
Could I, though? Rick turned the question over in his head as though he’d find something if he looked underneath it. He knew he couldn’t have, but the reason was a lot harder to articulate. When he spoke, he kept his voice studiedly neutral. “I’m not going to abandon Ada, or the people she cares about.”
Julian’s eyes narrowed, slightly. “And why’s that?”
“Because we’ve both been abandoned too many times already,” Rick said, his voice as sharp as his blade’s edge.
“So instead of abandonment, you chose demon summoning.” Ada’s father was not an imposing man, but in that moment, a Mafia don would’ve cowered before him. “Not to say I was happy with just hoping my daughters would pull through, but are you familiar with the term ‘worst aid’?“
“You can either do things fast or do them right,” Rick snapped. “Mrs. duSang wanted fast, so I brought her Murray because I’ve seen him produce results. I didn’t present archdemon summoning as a solution to anything. I tried to call the whole thing off when that came up, but she wouldn’t listen to me.”
For the first time since they’d begun speaking, the seriousness of Julian’s face broke into a smirk. “Word of advice when talking to ambitious women: before you pitch any ideas, think of the biggest, most spectacular end possible. They won’t do anything by half measures.”
Rick sank halfway into the seat of his chair before rebounding to the proper height. “You’re right,” he sighed. “I should have known Murray would try to kick us up the chain once she refused him, but I’d really hoped the old ‘half pound of flesh’ trick would work. I wanted to handle the summoning myself since I could say ‘no’ without condemning my own children, but-” he gestured helplessly at his transparent body. “-I can’t. And there’s no one else I could trust to bring in on this one.”
“And so, here we are.” Julian threw his arms out. “Do you see now why I wanted to know just how exactly you were planning on fixing the mess you’ve made?”
“Yeah, I do. Sorry about being vague earlier, I wasn’t sure how much you knew, or how much I was allowed to say.”
“Unlike other members of the family, Clau doesn’t try to keep me in the dark as much as possible. Call it one of the privileges of being married.” A sardonic smile pulled up the corners of his lips for a moment, before quickly fading away. “Let me ask again then. What are you planning?”
“What I should’ve done from the start,” Rick said, leaning forward. “Contacting Winter.” Julian quirked an eyebrow, but Rick raised his hands to ward off questions until he’d finished. “Before we get back into ‘worst aid’ again, think about it. The Unseelie have been abducting and replacing children since their very first story, so they have to be able to make convincing doubles. I just didn’t know any Winter Fae until recently, and the ones I met were in another timeline so it’s complicated.”
“Making doubles isn’t quite the same as making a new body for someone outright, though. What makes you think they won’t just replace Alisa with one of them?” Julian asked. Though the question was probing, there was no harshness in his tone as he leaned forward a little. For the first time, Rick had his attention.
“You make them swear not to,” Rick said simply. “Faeries can be trusted to keep to the exact letter of their word, and not an inch farther. They’ll drive hard bargains if you let them but they can be reasoned with and they won’t ask for your soul in exchange. I wish I could be more specific, but I don’t think my contact is going to be the one who can do this. He’s easy, he just wants to see a good fight.” And so do I, he added privately. It’d be nice to find someone he could stab guilt-free. “I’m hoping he has friends in darker places who are still honorable enough to deal with. If not, I’ll escalate until I find someone who does.”
“It’s a big gamble, Mr. Cole. And you have less than one day.”
“Story of my life, sir.”
“It’s risky, hasty and overly optimistic,” Julian said, leaning back into his chair. “It’s also a drat sight better than making a deal with a demon. What do you need me for? I’ll drive you around once we’re finished.”
“We’ll need some paper and a pen,” Rick said. “So I can dictate a letter to a troll. And we should probably get out of here before six because Ada’s going to be up and I don’t want to be caught dead here.” He managed not to...corpse. Just barely, though.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Cole.” Julian’s words were severe, but he smiled nonetheless. “She’s been sleeping in, lately. Lots of things on her plate.” He stood up. “Incidentally, she’s been telling me stories about you.”
Uh oh. “...Has she?”
“You were an absolute animal to her,” Julian remarked, cheerfully. “The only reason I haven’t knocked a couple teeth off your jaw is because you don’t have one anymore.”
Rick had expected something embarrassing, something she’d laughed at that he might wish she hadn’t shared. There’d been more of those moments than he could count. But this? He shook his head in confusion. “When?”
“Your first night together. This kind of cluelessness is exactly why I owe you a good thwack, for the record.” Though the look on Julian’s face was humorous, his eyes were dead serious. “You can’t call yourself a man if you make those kinds of mistakes, now can you?”
“Stop dancing around it and tell me what she said,” Rick demanded. Ada wouldn’t lie about him, but she’d never told him that he’d done something to upset her on their first night together —if you could even call it that, it had been in the middle of the afternoon— and the fact that she’d told someone else first had hit him harder than Julian’s fists ever could.
Julian gave him a funny look. “...You truly don’t know. Huh.” He shook his head for a moment, and suddenly his face turned solemn. “When she woke you up, you called out another woman’s name, Rachel. It cut her deeply. It’s not the only reason she’s trying to establish a peace in this town, but from the way she talked about it, not being able to enjoy that moment and hear you call out her name definitely played a part in her decision to take charge.”
“I thought I couldn’t give more. Thought maybe I’d earned a little rest. Thought maybe I could be loved.”
But I did love you, Ada, he thought. Was that so hard to believe, after everything we’d been through together?
“I thought she was just angry that they’d left us behind,” he said, more to himself than Julian. “I wish she’d have told me. I could’ve explained…”
“Ada doesn’t really look for apologies. She just expects people to measure up, and when they don’t, she keeps on going without putting pressure on them.” Julian crossed his arms, and stared at him for a few moments.
Rick’s brows furrowed. That was true for most people, but Ada had never once let up on him. She’d pushed him to be a better person right up until their very last night together-- no, even in the coral forest she’d been pushing him onwards. If he hadn’t measured up, why hadn’t she let him settle the way she had with Jenny, or JR?
When next Julian spoke, his voice was much softer and gentler. “She didn’t blame you for it, if it helps any. She was angry at you, but the one that made her mad was the world for setting you up for the mother of all screw ups in a relationship.”
It was a perfect setup. If Ada hadn’t had to startle him awake to go help save the day he never would have called out Rachel’s name. If the world had just hosed off for a few more hours, they could’ve found some peace. But it hadn’t, and it never would, not for them or for anyone. He’d been so busy playing the hero, trying to ‘make it mean something’, that he hadn’t been able to picture a world that didn’t need heroes anymore. It had seemed like a fantasy back then, because believing in it would have meant accepting all his sacrifices had been for nothing.
“It’s never enough, is it? We fight and hurt and cut ourselves and bleed out on some nameless ditch so someone else can live another day and it doesn’t make any difference. We kill a monster and two more come up. And I’m sick of it. Things are going to change. Now. Today.”
She was going to put me out of a job. A job that he’d been too stubborn to quit even though it was slowly killing him, like a coal miner working in a town converting to green energy. He shook his head. Of course he’d never been able to picture himself on top of the world with her. He’d tied his whole identity into being the Warden. If she succeeded, he would have to change-- not just his career but his entire mindset. He hadn’t been ready to do that, not back then. Now…
No one should have to go through the poo poo I put myself through.
And he had put himself through it. It would be easy to keep pretending it had been inevitable, that his path had been set from the moment Rachel shoved a sword into his hand. But it was his choice to abandon his mentor and chase after her. His choice to put on the cloak every morning even after she’d been dead for years. His choice to duel Roqueza to avenge her, instead of accepting the help that was right in front of him.
So many of his worst choices were centered on her that he suddenly felt filthy that her words were engraved on his tombstone. But that had been his choice too, one made a long time ago when he’d decided to live on in her memory, even though he couldn’t remember her.
It was pathetic, and he wished he hadn’t had to die to see just how pathetic. He was only the latest in a long line of dead heroes, each one inspiring the next poor sap to fall down the same miserable hole. He’d been too blinded by grief to see the trap for what it was, but Ada...
“Ada was right,” he said aloud.
“Really?” Julian asked. He’d been quiet, letting him think at his own pace. “About what?”
“The world. It has to change…” He shook his head. “No, we have to change it. I don’t have any excuses, sir. But what happened that day wasn’t the mistake. It was the consequence of much older, much bigger ones.”
“I see.” Julian was clearly curious, but didn’t pry further. “And what are you planning to do about them?”
“It’s too late to fix them, but not too late to learn from them,” Rick said, a smile starting to creep over his face. “I think I know why I keep coming back here.”
Julian quirked an eyebrow in a familiar gesture. “And why is that?”
“Because I haven’t been happy with who I am in a long time, and the duSang family keeps challenging me to be a better man,” he said. “Not just Ada, you and Claudia too. It’s not easy to live up to the ideals of this house, but trying to does me a lot of good.”
After a moment, Julian started laughing. He kept going for several moments before he finally stopped.
Rick blinked at him, bewildered. Had he said something wrong? It had taken a lot to admit that out loud, but he’d meant every word.
“Sorry, I promise I didn’t mean to make fun of you,” Julian said, still giggling. “It’s just that I started remembering how dark and moody Clau was when I first met her. A real gothic beauty type, you know? She’d never believe me if I told her she was an inspiration to anyone. ‘You’re just fibbing to make me feel good, aren’t you?’” he said, in a remarkably correct imitation of an upper-class accent.
“Heh, I’m not sure if inspiring is the word I’d use...” Rick said, rubbing the back of his neck. “But like you said, she doesn’t do anything by half measures. Neither does Ada. That includes their expectations.”
“Sometimes, I almost feel like Ada running away was a blessing in disguise,” Julian said, leaning in conspiratorially. “If she’d stuck around, Claudia wouldn’t have settled for anything but straight As in school. I can’t imagine Ada would’ve given even one toss about something like geography or chemistry. Can you imagine the rows they would’ve had?”
Rick winced. “I don’t have to imagine them, sir, we had a few. She didn’t mention the apprenticeship, did she?”
“Not at all, we didn’t have much time to catch up yet. How’d it go?”
“Let’s just say her potential grade school teachers dodged a hail of bullets. I don’t think she’d have done well in a classroom environment. Not that she isn’t a quick learner, but trying to get her to pay attention to something she has no immediate practical use for...”
“Once she knows what she wants, she doesn’t let distractions get in her way,” Julian said, nodding in agreement. “On that note, I’d better get that pen so we don’t waste any time. It’s not like you’re not on a deadline.”
He stood up, turned around, and then turned back to face him. “Oh, and one last thing, Richter.”
Rick stood to match him. “Hm?”
“‘Sir’ doesn’t go well with me. Call me Jules.”
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:52|
Girls’ Day Out
With Grace in charge of acquiring the airboats, Ada for once found herself with some free time. Receiving the gift of a precious free afternoon meant she could actually start working through some of the things she’d put on her to-do list. First amongst them was shopping. It was past time she renovated her wardrobe, and it all began with three quick rings of the bell at Rupert’s household.
After a few minutes and the telltale sensation of wards being lowered, the door swung open before her, revealing Rupert, a pencil resting behind his ear and a gentle smile upon his face. "Good afternoon, Ada. Sorry for the wait, I was busy working on something in the garage."
“Hey Rupert,” Ada said, raising a golden mitt to wave at him. “How’s it going? Any explosions today?”
Rupert smiled, bemused, and shook his head, "I knew I shouldn't have told you about that, Ada. But no, these days, those only happen when Ed's practicing, mercifully. You're here for those new gloves, right?"
“That and to make good on a threat from last time. Lucy!” She called out. “I’m here!”
“Ada? Oh! I just need five minutes!” Lucy called from deeper in the house.
“I’m gonna bring her back all dolled up,” she said, a broad grin on her face. “It’s about time we found her a proper style to call her own. Don’t worry about expenses by the way,” she said, raising a hand to forestall arguments. “This one’s on me.”
Rupert chuckled at the gesture, "Figures you'd get some positive use out of that curse, Ada. But thank you for doing this for her. I can try and be there for them both, give them a home and some stability, but, well, wizard or no, there's some things even I can't quite manage. And given how long ago fashion passed me by, this is one of them."
“Everyone needs a couple things they’re not good at. They’re charm points.” Suddenly, Ada was struck by a thought. There was a bit of homework she’d been pushing back for quite some time. “And speaking of things someone’s not good at…there’s something I wanted to ask you. Have the kids gotten to the point where you can teach them to do things outside their comfort zone yet?”
"Ed has - he's an eager student, at least when it comes to learning magic. I've been teaching him some of the telekinetic force spells I've been relying on instead of having two hands, and, while he doesn't have much fine control yet, he's showing promise." Rupert replied before glancing back and lowering his voice, "Lucy… she seems like she's worried about learning too much, as much as I try and reassure her."
“That tracks with how they are,” Ada said, nodding slowly. “Have either of them tried instinctive magic yet?”
"That's… not how a wizard is taught, in general. It's how we all start, of course, with magic awakening and acting under the direction of one's subconscious, but for the most part, actual spells are preferred. It's easier upon the mind, with the protection the outside words grant from any feedback," replied Rupert, before shrugging, "Why do you ask?"
“Remember how my magic shut off? I talked to an expert, and she told me that I didn’t just lose access to it. It’s just beyond my conscious control. She told me that if I managed to make my magic work on instinct, just doing what I want it to do, it’ll come back. Have you ever heard of anyone who did things that way?”
"Nobody mortal, no. Even the more… esoteric forms of practitioner I’ve seen, they all use some level of focus or control. But that tracks with how I’ve seen creatures from Faerie use magic,” replied Rupert, “However… it could just be that since you need to relearn magic from scratch, but, well, from what you’ve told me, at least, you’ve already been through enough that it’d be hard for you to reawaken your magic the way people usually do, in a time of need or stress… perhaps you need to force it to awaken again, before you can start to learn to utilize it properly again?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so, too.” Ada said. She remembered what others had told her when she’d confessed her newfound weakness. “My magic didn’t just die on me. I shut it away. So it’s not enough to need it. I have to want it too, badly enough that I’m OK with accepting all the trauma and difficulty and heartbreak that comes with it.”
And all the urges and monstrous desires, too, she added privately. That was why she’d cut herself off from it. So she wouldn’t have to face the monster inside her ever again.
"That seems plausible enough, Ada, though I must admit I've never heard of anyone who set aside their magic being able to take it up again. But then… anyone who did so would likely try and hide they'd done it from the Council, so that's not exactly unexpected," replied Rupert before flashing her a reassuring smile, "But I dare say if anyone could manage it, it'd be you."
“Thanks.” Ada’s smile was small, but genuine. “I’ll have to poke around and see if there are records of this anywhere, maybe from the distant past. It can’t be that people were doing magic using foci right from the jump.” There was someone she could ask about this, come to think of it. Maybe she should drop by Circe’s place for a lesson in magecraft soon. “But I don’t want to burden you with my problems any more than I already have. You said something about the gloves earlier?”
"Mhmm," he replied with a nod, turning to retrieve a small wooden box from a table beside the door, "Given more time I could have done more, neatened up the wrists a bit more, made them look a little better, but, well, they'll do what you need them to."
With a tiny flicker of will, he lifted the box's lid, showing her the contents - a pair of aluminium mail gloves, each ring barely larger than the head of most nails or screws, interlocking together.
"I took the liberty of binding a countercurse in there, just in case things get worse. Should last a few sunrises, at least," he added.
“Finally,” Ada breathed out. “I was so tired of keeping my hands to myself.” Taking one of the mitts off as quickly as possible, she motioned to grab one of the gloves before stopping herself. “Is it OK if I just gild it right now? Or will it cause me trouble if I don’t put it on first?”
"Shouldn't do," replied Rupert, "I designed them assuming they'd get turned soon enough anyway. Seemed rather inevitable, and without tying them to some outside power source to perpetually renew the countercurse, I don't think I'd be able to stop it, either. And that solution would be… less than practical."
“Alright then. Let’s get this over with.” Taking off her other mitten, Ada took a deep breath and touched the first glove. The golden colour spread all across it like wildfire — soon, it was pure gold, just like the mittens she’d taken off. Carefully, she picked it up and slipped it on. It was cold, and felt foreign against her skin, but it fit snugly...and when she moved her fingers back and forth, she felt barely any resistance.
“You don’t owe me any christmas presents anymore,” she said, grinning as she grabbed the other glove and slipped it on. “My gifts came early this year. Can I try holding it? Just to see if it works,” she said, pointing at the box in his hands.
Rupert smiled with satisfaction, glad to see his design had worked as well as he'd hoped. "Of course," he replied, offering her the box, "Bought it from one of the local paraneters - remarkably talented woodshaper, actually."
Carefully, Ada grasped the box, making sure not to brush Rupert’s fingers. When she picked it up and squeezed, nothing happened.
“It works,” she whispered breathlessly, as she marveled at the details of its construction. “It really works!”
Quickly setting the box aside, Ada grasped Rupert’s hands, shaking them in celebration....before catching herself and making sure not to grip the arm that was still in a sling.
“You’re a wizard, Rupert. In more ways than one!” She said, sticking her tongue out as she realized her accidental pun. “I can’t believe you did it so quickly too! It’s like I’ve got hands again.”
Rupert chuckled again, his smile growing wider. "Don't mention it - after all, this scheme you've been plotting, well, it can hardly function with a leader who can't use her hands, right? Think of this as my little contribution. And, besides…" He shrugged, "For all my complaints about the Council, doing things like this were one of the parts of that job I most enjoyed, and it's nice to be able to do it again for once."
Rapid thumping down the hallway preceded Lucy Evans, who skidded to a stop in front of Ada and bounced in her purple socks. She had on a plain grey sweater and jeans with worn knees, but she’d done her hair up in colorful barrettes and her eyes were shining. “Ready?”
“Always.” With a wink, Ada picked up the box and gave it back to Rupert. “We’ll be back later today. Don’t let Ed burn the house down while we’re gone, OK?”
"Wasn't planning on it, honestly," replied Rupert with a grin, turning to Lucy, "Enjoy yourself, Lucy, and don't let Ada drag you into too much mischief, alright?"
“What happens on a girl’s day out is not for old men nor stinky big brothers to know.” Lucy said, giving a passable impression of Rupert’s ‘teaching’ voice.
“Not until you come back and leave them speechless, anyway,” Ada added. “And now, we better get going. Fashion waits for no one!” It was pure grandstanding, but now that she had her hands back, Ada couldn’t resist raising one to her lips and blowing Rupert a kiss. “Mwah!”
With a laugh and a bemused smile, Rupert closed the door behind them, shaking his head at Ada’s - admittedly rather amusing - antics.
“Where are we going first?” Lucy said, bouncing in her seat. New clothes weren’t something the Evans twins had much experience with. They’d made do with hand-me-downs and donations at the orphanage, and though Rupert had taken them out shopping a few times it had been on a tight budget.
“First we’re going to a magical tailor to secure a commission,” Ada said, as she hailed a cab. “My sis has been looking forward to getting a dress made for a while, and there’s a tailor who moved into New Orleans a couple months ago that fit the bill.”
“That sounds expensive,” Lucy said, clutching her purse protectively.
Ada smirked. “Don’t worry,” she said, drawing her own out like a loaded gun. As she cracked it open, she couldn’t help but luxuriate in how easy it was. It had been far, far too long since her hands had been her own. With an unnecessary, but thoroughly satisfying flourish, she drew a stack of bills from it. “I’m flush.”
“Oh!” Lucy’s eyes went round. She’d never seen that much money in one place before. For a moment she reminded Ada of Omar, who’d had a very similar reaction to the golden coasters. But then Lucy’s eyes fell to her hands and she went very quiet, as though embarrassed.
That wasn’t the reaction Ada was expecting. She let it stew for a moment, as she gave the cabbie directions to the Stitch in Time. Ed and Lu had had a rough life, so being impressed by having money to burn made sense...but the follow-up didn’t. Guilt, maybe? As the taxi got rolling, Ada leaned back in her seat, thinking back on what she knew of her young companion.
((Ada needs to make an Empathy roll to discern what’s eating at Lucy. Her result of +3 isn’t enough to meet the difficulty at 4, but spending her I’m Tired of Living Alone boost from experience lets her make that emotional connection with a 5.
It was guilt, but deeper than that it was shame, and more than anyone should feel for not having much money. When Lucy looked back up at Ada her smile was forced instead of the genuine one it had been just a moment ago. “Your sister… She’s a ghost, right?”
“Yeah. Something like that. But we found a way for her to experience life again by sharing a body. And getting a dress was one way of making up for all those years she had to just float over my shoulder. She deserves something nice to call her own.”
Quietly, Ada put her hand over Lucy’s and squeezed. “You too. That’s why we’re gonna hit the shops together later on.”
“Right, that’s not… I mean… I was just thinking to wear a dress you’d have to, well, share, like you said. And then I thought about… other stuff.” She was a million miles away for a moment, reliving bad memories. “I’m sure it’s not like that for you, but having to share… it’s really scary.”
Ada nodded slowly. So that’s what it was. “Did you have to do a lot of it before Rupert picked you two up?” She asked. This was very personal stuff, and had to be handled with a light touch. Let Lucy say as little as she wanted, but invite her to unload if she felt the need.
“With Ed? I mean, yeah but that’s not what I’m talking about.” She sighed, and her shoulders dipped with a weight no child should have to carry. “It’s Tamiel. Rupert says I shouldn’t think about them, and I try not to… but it’s this thing that’s just always there in the back of my head. Like they’ve already got their hooks into me, and one morning I’m going to wake up and have to share and I won’t be me anymore and… then I don’t know what happens.”
“And then you’re just gone, and there’s only a monster left.” Ada’s voice was serious now, and her eyes distant. “Yeah. I know what you mean. Lu...if I tell you a secret, do you promise you won’t tell anyone else?”
“I don’t like keeping secrets,” Lucy said, her small hands balling up in her lap. “Secrets hurt people.”
Should I do it? Ada wondered. This was a big responsibility to put on Lucy, and she had a lot on her plate already. And it was dangerous, too. What she wanted to say was something that could blow up in her face if someone else found out. But at the same time…
There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re struggling all alone. Two together can stand against the world.
Gulping, Ada swallowed down her nerves. This was risky, and maybe it was stupid, but some things were more important than self-preservation. It was what the road she’d embarked on was all about. “Then it doesn’t have to be one. Would you feel better about it if you could tell anyone, if you felt it was the right thing to do?”
“Would you trust me to?” Lucy asked. Her brows knit together in childlike concern, a contrast to how piercing her eyes had become. “Even if I didn’t promise?”
“Yeah. I would.” There was no hesitation in Ada’s answer. She shot Lucy a glance that was loaded with worry, but also bore something beyond that: respect. “You’re smart and you’re tough and you’re the nicest little girl I know. That’s worth something in my book. And it’s something I have to get off my chest...but it’s hard finding someone who’d understand what I mean. Do you think you could try it?”
“Okay, I can try. What is it?”
“Alisa isn’t the only one in here with me,” Ada said, tapping the side of her head. The words came out slowly, her mouth refusing to let them go without a fight. After so many years of secrecy, old habits died hard “There’s a monster too. It’s like a wild beast that just lashes out and takes whatever it wants. And lately, it’s been fighting me hard for control. So much so, my mother’s told me we’ll need to run a ritual to create new chains to bind it.”
She looked out the window, pondering how to say what came next. “It’s been with me pretty much for as long as I can remember too. And there’s no way to get rid of it. No coin to give up. It can’t be reasoned with...it doesn’t understand anything but its own selfish wants and needs. But a fallen angel’s different. Have you ever thought about talking to them?”
“I don’t think they’d listen to me,” Lucy said. “Yoziel didn’t listen to Ed, they just… told him what he wanted to hear until he did what they wanted.”
“Because that’s how the Fallen do things,” Ada said, nodding. “Whispers of temptation are the way they communicate. But we’re human, and that’s not how we talk to each other. I think when the day comes that you have to pick the coin up, you can’t let the angel decide how they’re gonna treat you. You have to make them talk to you on your terms.”
“So you don’t think I’m getting out of it, no matter what I do,” she said, looking down again. “Rupert keeps trying to find a way to break the curse but…” her heavy sigh voiced her doubt better than any words could. “A coin can be put down again. Everyone says so, and Ed even did it after Danny got shot… but it’s different for me because I know better than to pick it up. So if I do it then I must really need it, and if I really need it then why would I ever put it down again? I can’t make an angel talk to me on my terms. I can’t even go on a shopping trip without ruining it...”
It wasn’t a conscious reaction. Upon seeing Lucy’s face, Ada simply put her gloved hands on her shoulders and pulled her in for a hug. It felt good to do so, deeply right, as if a part of her that had been cut off had been restored to its rightful place...but more than that, it felt necessary. And thanks to Rupert’s handiwork, she didn’t have to keep herself from doing what she knew needed to be done.
“Why would you think you’re ruining it?” She said, softly. “Lu, I’m surrounded by people bound by death curses. Rick got caught in one, and my gardener’s been living for millennia under a curse of her own. I’ve seen what it did to them, and I don’t think it’s something to be afraid of. The worst damage they suffered was the way they hurt themselves. You can’t change fate by trying to pretend it’s not real, but if you accept it’s there, you can twist it. Break it. Fight it. You can become strong enough to accept that future and make it your own.” Her voice was full of authority no other girl her age could’ve had. Through fairy prophecies and human magic, she’d seen all the ways an irrevocable future could change.
“If you don’t believe you have the strength to resist Tamiel’s whispers, I’ll help you find it. If you can’t make an angel talk to you the way you want to, I’ll teach you how. But before any of that, I don’t want you to ever, ever feel like you’re a burden, Lu, because you’re not. You’re a gift, and Ed, Rupert and I are all better off for having you here with us.”
Lucy hugged her back, burying her face in Ada’s shirt and trying unsuccessfully not to cry all over it. A very quiet “’kay.” was all her voice could manage.
A few moments later they were pulling up in front of the Stitch in Time. They didn’t go in immediately — keeping Lucy’s dignity intact by allowing her to dry her tears and get her composure back came first, and a nearby alleyway served that purpose well. Once she was ready, Ada led her back to the shop, and rang the bell.
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:56|
A Bit of Selfishness
Scene: Stitch in Time
Nicholas answered shortly after, peering out the half open door with a quizzical expression. “We’re open, you don’t have to-” He stopped short when he saw who was standing on the stoop. “Ah. Which Miss duSang do I have the pleasure of addressing?” he asked.
“Ada this time. Nice to finally meet you properly, Nicky,” she said, waving her hand at him (and making sure to make her fingers dance in the process). “ I brought the cash to pay for Alisa’s dress and a friend to give her an introduction to haute couture clothes.”
Stepping aside, Ada beckoned Lucy closer. “Nicky, this is Lucy Evans, professional ray of sunshine. Lucy, this is Nicholas Cantor, magical tailor, rogue wizard, and roommate to Mr. Rick Cole.” That ‘Mister’ felt foreign in her mouth, but it couldn’t hurt to do introductions properly. “She’s been needing proper clothes for a while, so I’m taking her on a shopping tour. You don’t mind if we look around a little, right? Tailored clothes are probably a little too much for a first outing, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to scout the terrain in advance, if you get what I mean.”
“Indeed…” Nicky glanced from Ada to Lucy and back again. He seemed frozen to the spot.
“I wondered why it looked so familiar,” Lucy said, looking up at the storefronts. “This was Mr. Cole’s office before… Is he here? I haven’t seen him since… er…”
“He’s out, presently,” Nicky said, shaking his head. “But do come in. Tailored clothes might be a bit much coming from… well, that.” He gestured towards Lucy’s plain sweater. “But I think I have just the thing.”
The inside of the shop was warm and the light streaming in through the back window lit the clothes on display just so, giving the racks a gentle glow. All of this was by design, and Lucy Evans had no defenses against it. She found herself walking among the dresses, gently touching the silks and velvets, and making small appreciative sounds.
“Ada, a moment, if you can spare it?” Nicky asked, tilting his head towards the register. “Let her enjoy herself.”
“That’s the plan,” Ada said, grinning as she shot Lucy a glance on the sly. “What do you need?”
“I’d very much like it to be Alisa who pays for her dress, if possible. I don’t know your arrangement but…” He fidgeted with the tail of his red striped scarf. “It’s common for family and friends to try to do everything for a loved one with a disability, and that can hurt more than it helps. My understanding was that this dress was to be her own experience, and she deserves to have it in full.”
“It’s not like that, if that’s what you’re thinking,“ Ada said, raising a hand to forestall him. “When you’re as busy as we are, you have to kill two birds with one stone constantly. I dropped by to foot the bill because this way Lucy could have some fun enjoying your handiwork. That’s all.”
“Yes, and that’s fine… but now that you’re here, is there any reason she can’t complete the transaction?” He watched for her answer closely, and she could tell this was important to him, though not why. “Has Alisa ever been allowed to purchase anything before? She had a slim grasp of what money meant when we spoke last, and that is not a slight against the wealth of your family.”
“No, she hasn’t. We only really found a way to take turns with my body a couple months ago, and it’s not exactly perfect. She can see things over my shoulder when I’m in the driver’s seat, but it doesn’t go both ways.” She crossed her arms, her expression twisting into a frown. “Not that I mind someone else paying attention to her, but what’s it to you? That’s a whole lot of interest beyond what you can chalk up to client service.”
“She trusted me to do things right by her, and I mean to,” Nicky said. His eyes went distant for a moment before snapping back to her. “I have some experience with siblings with disabilities. And of course with Richter… Well, it’s been on my mind lately. Even if it’s not as time-efficient… it means a lot to help someone live their own life, instead of living it for them because they’re inconvenient.”
“...Right.” She didn’t say anything for a few moments, thinking. Nicky’s words made sense, that wasn’t in question. But…
“I mentioned what we’ve got doesn’t work the same both ways,” Ada said, glancing at the register, lost in thought. “It’s not like letting Alisa pay is a problem, that’s easy. But if I need to be there after that’s done, and I’m not...”
“That’s between the two of you isn’t it?”
“What? No, it’s not.” The retort was sharp, as if he’d just uttered a non-sequitur. “If I’m not there and something happens, someone else pays for it. That’s always how it is. It’s not about me and Alisa, it’s about...”
She struggled to find the right words for a few instants, before giving up and throwing her arms out. “Everything. It all comes down to what I do and don’t do, and who gets hurt because of it.” She glanced at him, then looked away. “I probably sound crazy,” she murmured. “But if you’d seen the way things go wrong when I’m not in the right place...”
“You’re talking to a man from another timeline who has a sword for a flatmate,” Nicky said, shrugging. “As mundane as this all looks now I have no right to call anyone crazy. But I don’t understand why you’d trust her the other day and not now. I don’t know enough about your situation, even after being interrogated by your mother...”
Ada blinked. Twice. “You did what with whom?” she asked, a note of patent disbelief clear in her voice.
“Don’t tell me she never told you,” Nicky said, frustrated. “Ask her about it then, because I’m not getting involved in any sort of spat between the ladies duSang.”
“Oh, I’m gonna ask her alright,” Ada murmured. The question is if I can even cover for you so mom doesn’t mount you on the wall when she finds out you blabbed. There’s no way she’d call someone like Nicky in for no reason and then not even tell me. Something’s up.
And just like that, she’d added one more thing to take care of to the pile. This was exactly why she was so worried about turning the lights off and letting Alisa step in. Would she have found out about this if she hadn’t held out?
“It probably won’t be an issue if I let Alisa take care of this for a minute,” she added after a few moments, as if she’d grudgingly been persuaded by his words. “Just promise me you’ll remind her to let me back in when she’s done, OK? I don’t want to make Lucy worry about me when she realizes I’m not home.”
Nicky nodded, reaching under the counter for a bill of sale. “It shouldn’t take more than a moment, I’ve had the receipt prepared for days.”
“Alright.” Pushing the nervousness she was feeling aside, Ada closed her eyes. “Alisa, I’m at Nicky’s. He wants you to pay for your dress.”
For a few more instants, Ada whispered soundlessly, telling her sister things she’d need to know. Then, her eyes snapped open, and Alisa was there.
“Nicky!” She said, her eyes lighting up as she took in the Stitch in Time. “I came, I really came! And Ada says it’s all...”
A moment of furious fumbling inside her pants pockets ensued, before Alisa managed to pull out a sleek black wallet. “...Here!” She said, triumphantly. “Um, how much did I owe you again? I’ll get it all counted up in a second!”
He told her, showing her the figures he’d done and what each part of the dress would cost on the lines. After she’d passed him the money he pushed the receipt over to her and smiled. “And that’s it! You’re all paid up, and you keep this as proof. The fabric just came in this morning, too, so I can start work on it this very afternoon.”
“That’s great! I can’t wait to see how it comes out,” she said, clapping her hands in excitement. “Um, how will I know when to drop by to pick it up? Will you phone us up?”
“Even better,” Nicky said. “You see that paper I gave you? There’s a box right here-” He tapped the square that said ‘pick-up ready’ which was currently empty. “When this turns green, you can come and get it. A lot of my older clients can’t use telephones either, so this way they can know I’ve finished without being called. Have Ada put it somewhere you can check it, and give me at least three days to work on it before you start worrying. How’s that sound?”
“I’m not letting her move it away from her desk even if I have to possess her while she’s sleeping to make sure it stays there,” Alisa said, firmly. “And don’t worry, I’ll wait on it before I start bombarding you with calls. Just don’t put it on the backburner, OK?”
He chuckled. “To get something like this out in three days, I’m going to have to lock the doors and do nothing else. I assure you, Miss duSang, you have my highest priority. Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you to let your sister resume her duties, before young Miss Evans notices she’s been away.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to ask her to introduce us the proper way first before she catches me sneaking a joyride like this. But first...”
Quick as thought, Alisa pulled Nicky into a hug. “Thank you so much!!”
And then, before he could even react, Ada was back, staring at him.
“...Did I miss something important?” She said, shooting Nicholas a curious look.
“I daresay you did,” Nicky said, keeping both arms up as if he’d been caught by the police. The fact that Richter could walk in the door at any moment was not lost on him.
“It’s not like her to hit-and-run like this.” Ada mused. “I think the hype over the dress is getting to her.”
“Yes, well, if you don’t mind…” Nicky started, but then-
“Ada…?” Lucy’s innocent young face crept around the corner rack like a monster in a horror movie. Her bright blue eyes took in the hug as a slow and terrifyingly cute smile spread over her rosy cheeks. “What’s going on?”
Ada looked at Lucy, then at Nicky, then back at Lucy again. This was an inescapable trap -- and, belatedly, she realized Alisa had probably seen this coming and set it up. One of these days, I’m gonna get a Ghostbusters ecto-trap and chuck her in there and then we’ll be even.
There was no way out of this gracefully just by denying anything. Which meant that the only possible way to get out of this with some dignity was to play in.
“Um...grown-up stuff,” she said, letting go of Nicky with the same air of guilt as a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She looked away and coughed, pointedly. “It’s, uh...very private. Can’t share just yet.”
“Is it?” Nicky sputtered.
Ada glanced at him one more time, furtively (making sure it was clear she was looking), and then looked away as bashfully as she could manage...which was very, very much so. “Lu, we really need to get going now. If we don’t, we’re gonna be late for the rest of the shopping trip,” she said, her voice hitting a perfect ‘help me out here’ pleading note.
“Leaving already? But I wanted to…” Nicky said, before biting his lip. He’d never been good with subterfuge.
“I really like your store, Mr. Cantor,” Lucy said, with a knowing nod. “Maybe I can come back here someday, when I’m old enough to have a job and money and stuff.”
“Lucy…” Nicky said. He looked very sad for a moment. “Come here, before Ada drags you out the door.” He walked over to one of the stands, a rotating display with an endless supply of colorful scarves hanging from the pegs. “I can’t give away dresses but these are another matter. Each one is… well, they’re very special to me. I’d like you to have one.”
“Do you always wear yours?” Lucy asked, pointing to his red and white striped one. “It’s like a Where’s Waldo scarf.”
“I do, and it keeps me safe. It’s very fashionable to wear a nice scarf…”
Lucy put her hands on her hips and glared at Nicky. “Are you bribing me to keep quiet about your secret love affair?”
As good as her poker face was, the look on Nicky’s face was too much for Ada to keep down. Her laughter filled the air, in deep, vibrant guffaws. It was a good few moments before she finally managed to pull herself together again.
“That’s for both talking about me behind my back and letting Alisa set us up that badly,” she said, still grinning from ear to ear as she walked up to put a reassuring hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “She cracks way too many jokes at my expense already without having someone else helping out with the setups. But don’t worry Lu, it’s nothing like that. The day I end up in a love affair with anyone, it won’t be secret. Bet you anything that within two days, the whole town will know. Nicky and I were just working out the details of my sister’s dress together. Honest. Don’t think less of him just because he’s such a nice guy, OK?”
“Aw, that’s not half as fun,” Lucy said, pouting. “But OK, so why are you giving me a present then? I don’t know you, and even if you’re a nice guy, it’s a little weird...”
“You’re just… You remind me of someone I knew once, I suppose...” How could he tell her he’d known another version of her, an older one, and had gone through worse-than-hell with her? It had only been a few days, but the Lucy Evans of his timeline had been a brave and kind girl and seeing this version of her so shabbily dressed when he could do something about it felt awful. “I’d just like you to have one, that’s all.”
It didn’t take a masterful socialite to see just how painfully earnest Nicky was. Though Ada wasn’t 100% sure she knew what he was referring to, it was clearly a reference to his home...the time that had been his home. “Sometimes, people give gifts not just for the sake of others, but themselves too. It’s a little selfish to ask that anybody accept a gift with a hidden meaning, but I bet Nicky doesn’t mean anything bad by it. And besides, it’s gotten chilly as of late. What if we take it as a base for a cold days outfit? That way it’s not just a gift. It’s a craftsman’s recommendation on how to get started with building up your new wardrobe.”
“That… sounds kinda cool?” Lucy said. She looked at the scarves for a long moment, taking her time with the selection. At last her hand landed on a knit scarf similar to the one Nicky had on, though this one started deep blue on one end and then ran the color spectrum all the way to red on the other. “Look Ada! A rainbow scarf! I love it!” She looked up at Nicky. “Can I have this one?”
“Of course.” He took it off the rack and snipped the tag, then knelt down and wrapped it around her neck. “Twice around and then knot it like this, and there you go.” He smiled at her, but it turned bittersweet almost immediately. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you why I’m giving you this, Lucy. Wizard Singh will understand, if you ask him.”
“Is it a secret?” Lucy asked, frowning.
“Not really,” Nicky said, shaking his head. “It’s just a very nasty story, that you shouldn’t need to think about. You already know some of it, if you know what happened to Richter.”
“Oh…” Lucy’s voice went quiet. “Is she dead? The girl I remind you of.”
“No,” Nicky said, smiling again. “As far as I know she’s doing very well now. A long and painful time in her life is finally over. But I can’t see her anymore, so it makes me sad to think of her.”
“I understand that,” Lucy said. “I’ll take good care of it, I promise.”
Nicky just nodded and stood up. “Thank you, Lucy, for letting me be a little selfish. Now go on and get your shopping done.”
Ada didn’t say anything as she led Lucy towards the door, but on the way out, she looked over her shoulder to steal one last glance at Nicky. The craftsman was mousy and easily flustered, but there was a lot more to him than met the eye.
He acts like someone who knows himself, she mused, as they walked out of the shop. He might never be a hero or a leader of men, but there’s a quiet strength inside him all the same. No wonder Rick respects him. Anyone else who got to know him probably would, too.
In her reverie, Ada let Lucy pass her by. As she came out of it, however, she was struck by the fact their visit to the Stitch in Time had dumped a large, nigh-unsolvable problem on her.
...How do I even start cobbling together a winter outfit with a rainbow motif that doesn’t look like an art student’s botched end of term project?
And as Nicky's serene smile followed her out the door, she was suddenly struck by the fact that he knew this, and had gotten her back already for that stunt with the hug.
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:56|
Scene: Riverside Mall
Riverside Mall was filled up to the eyeballs with people today, as it had been most days since June when the team had staged an impromptu christmas event. Both sides of the Nevernever portal had grown stronger thanks to their efforts, a small reminder that, in spite of all it had cost, their actions had made a difference. New stores had sprung up, replacing some of the older, less popular ones all around the fountain square. Which was good, because Ada wasn’t sure they wouldn’t need to pay each and every last one of them a visit before the day was done. First, though, she had to find her contact — the person she’d called up the moment she’d begun planning this shopping trip.
Emma Lytle was sitting in one of the white-painted metal chairs in front of the coffee shop in the food court, sipping happily on a boba tea. As soon as she saw Ada she hopped out of her chair, smoothing her jean skirt and rushing over to meet her.
“Ada! So this must be Lucy,” she said, blonde curls bouncing as she offered the younger girl her hand. “I’m Emma, nice to meet you.”
“Nice t’meetchu,” Lucy said, shrinking slightly into her new rainbow scarf. She offered her hand and Emma shook it as gently as a butterfly. “Are you Ada’s friend?”
“Who isn’t?” Emma winked at Ada. She’d taken to the 2010’s like a duck to water, and while she was still Ruby in all the ways that mattered, Emma had decided to live the mortal life she’d chosen to the absolute limit. It was as if weights she’d carried her whole life had finally dropped off her shoulders. Which was to say, she could be a little much these days... but it all came from the heart.
“One of my best ones,” Ada said, pulling her into a bonecrushing hug. “I’m glad you could make it, Em. We’ve got a bit of a situation...”
Quickly, Ada explained how they’d managed to acquire Lucy’s new scarf on the way there. “...So now this isn’t just a shopping trip for fun. Now we’re on a mission, and that mission is drafting up an ensemble where Lucy can wear the scarf without clashing with the rest of her clothes. I’m thinking it’s gonna have to be the centerpiece of the attire so the rest will have to be more muted, but it’s a kind of challenge I haven’t had to deal with before. What do you think?”
“Knowing how to color coordinate costumes was my job,” Emma said proudly. “Don’t worry, you’re in good hands. Speaking of…” She gave Ada’s new gloves a raised eyebrow. “Gold’s never out of season, but you should wear darker colors to contrast if you’re going to wear those. It’s after Labor day so dark colors are in season. Maroon would be good, if you want to stay in red tones, or a black top if you want something a little sleeker.”
“I’m not gonna be wearing these for that much longer, hopefully,” Ada said, raising a gloved hand up. “But you’re right. There’s no reason not to look good while I’m at it. I’ll follow your lead here.”
Turning towards Lucy, she winked. “See, what did I tell you? One of the best friends you could ask for, right here.
“What do you think?” Lucy asked, standing in front of the dressing room mirror and looking at her companions in the glass. She had a fuzzy sweater in white paired with dark blue skinny jeans. The sleeves were bell-ended, and gave her an almost angelic look with her bright blonde hair pulled back the way it was. There were colorful flowers embroidered on the pants pockets, matching the scarf, and if it wasn’t for the dirty, worn out sneakers she would have been cute enough to put in the advertisements.
“We better start hoping the boys at school don’t get hit by puberty this year, because they’ll make a mess of themselves the next time they see you,” Ada said, giving her a thumbs up. “It looks like it was made for you, Lu.”
“I still think a skirt would be cuter…” Emma groused. “But it does look really great hun. You’re a cherub in the church window.”
“I am?” Lucy asked, and for a half second she frowned and tugged on a stray lock of hair. “Would you help me dye my hair, Ada?”
“You mean if I was in your place? Because I’d keep it as is. Don’t you like it?” Ada asked, curiously.
“I don’t hate it,” she said, shaking her head. “But… I’d feel more like myself and less like Tamiel’s vessel if I changed it, you know? Then it’d be my choice. Even if it’s just a little bit, like a blue stripe or something.” She bit her lip as she played with her hair, watching the mirror and thinking. “D’you think Rupert would get mad?”
“No, I don’t think he would. He can be a little old-fashioned, but he’s not the type to smother people he takes care of.” And it did make sense, thinking about it. Lucy’s life had been defined by the fate her father had prepared for her. Dyeing her hair was no different, in a way, than the scars she herself had taken while chasing her future. Both were a statement, written down on their own bodies.
“If you’re sure about it, I’ll be happy to do it for you, Lu,” she said, smiling reassuringly. “You’ll have to pick a colour that’s very yours, though. Which one are you thinking of?”
“Purple? Or teal, maybe? I… I have to think about it.”
“I’ve been thinking of going for a different shade myself,” Emma said, dropping her hands onto Lucy’s shoulders. She was barely taller than the girl who hadn’t even gotten her growth spurt yet, and it was already clear that Lucy would tower over both her and Ada once she got her real height. “Auburn, like rusty red leaves. What do you think, Ada? Maybe we can make a party of it.”
“Sounds like fun. You’re all gonna make me feel left out, though, with me sticking with boring old red,” she joked. “I know it’s kind of stereotypical for a blood mage, but it fits me so well I’m not sure what I could even change it to. What do you guys think would suit me?” She asked, holding out a lock for them to look at.
“Black,” Lucy said instantly. “You’d be the best goth girl Ada.”
“Oh!” Emma giggled. “I’ve seen the ‘goths’ at Tulane. I bet she could pull it off! We’d need to stock up on eyeliner though.”
“And spiked collars and wristbands,” Lucy said, nodding.
“And pants with chains, and corsets,” Emma agreed. “Isn’t there a goth store here?”
“I saw a Hot Topic on the other side of the square, and I’m pretty sure there’s another store in the far corner that stocks that kind of clothes, but...you guys sure about this?” Ada asked, suddenly a little worried. “Isn’t black kinda moody? ...Wait, you don’t think I’m moody, right?” She asked, defensively.
“Well you’re not not moody…” Lucy said, hiding her smile under her scarf, which she was starting to appreciate more with each passing moment.
“Didn’t you come over wearing fishnets last week?” Emma asked, poking her in the ribs.
“Yeah, but fishnets aren’t goth exclusive,” Ada countered. “You can make something poppy as all get-out with them. It’s all about how you use them, it’s not like showing up with, I don’t know, black lipstick or something.” It was probably not a good idea to bring that particular cosmetic up, though. Courtesy of genetics, lipstick was something she’d never bothered with to add colour to her lips. No good could come of exposing her ignorance in the field right now.
“Black lipstick isn’t goth-exclusive either, though in your case I’d go for dark purple if you don’t want to look like a skeleton-girl. We’re all so pale-skinned it’s tragic.” Emma held the back of her hand against her brow as though she were going to faint and smiled. “Ah! Where’s a Victorian sofa when you need one?”
“Don’t quote me on it, but I think we’ve got one back home,” Ada quipped. “You’re right about the black lipstick though. That’s what I’m worried about, looking like I just came back from the cemetery. If you two think it’s a good idea though, I’m willing to try it out. But I have to look gorgeous, not gloomy!“ She said, raising a finger up as a warning.
“You’d be gorgeous even without any hair or makeup at all,” Lucy said, blushing.
“So would you, kiddo,” Emma said, eyes sparkling. “Just give it a few years.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though,” Ada said, shivering at the thought of losing her hair. Depending on how her business with Midas went, that might still be on the table. “But we can’t sit around stroking our egos all day long. First we’ve got to visit Hot Topic to see if we can cook up a look that makes Lu seem dark and mature, and then...then we’ll see if your schemes can produce a smokeshow instead of a Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:58|
The Hottest Topic
Scene: See Above
“Penny for your troubles,” Emma said, once Lucy was safely out of earshot in the dressing room.
“Do I look like I got many?” Ada asked as she studied the accessories intently. Some of these didn’t look half-bad, honestly. Maybe there was a chance she could retain some dignity still...if Emma and Lucy chose to allow it, of course.
“You look like you got nothing but ‘em,” Emma said, her hand moving threateningly towards a jar of white face paint.
“I really need to work on my poker face then. It shouldn’t be that obvious...” Ada muttered. “...Yeah. It’s been a busy week. Sometimes I feel like a juggler, trying to keep everything in the air so none of it comes crashing down upon my head.” With a sigh, she sat down on a nearby (and incredibly uncomfortable) empty chair. “Man. I’m trying to think of where to begin but it’s all such a tangled mess it’s hard to find a thread to pull from. Maybe...hm. You’re not a big fan of this golden look I’ve got going on right now, right?”
“Gold’s an okay accent color but you really don’t want to overdo it,” she said, putting the face paint back and reaching for some violet-sparkle nailpolish. “People will start saying you’re gaudy.”
“Yeah, well, leaning hard on the bling wasn’t exactly my choice. This and that...” she said, tapping the gloves and then jingling her hairtips, “...Are actually the result of a curse. I’m on retainer to King Midas right now, trying to find a way to bring him a puppy that’s been turned to gold and then brought back to life, still as a gold statue. And because I got too fresh with him, he shared his golden touch with me. It’s either wear these gloves, or gild everything I touch. No middle-ground,” she said, her face twisting into a sour-looking frown.
“Oh is that all? I thought it might be something hard,” Emma said, dropping the nailpolish into Ada’s little mesh basket.
“No, that’s just the start of it. I’ve got a deadline, and if I don’t hit it I’ll get turned into a part of his gold statue collection. And on top of that I’ve got another deadline that I set for myself, to get this done fast enough that I can get back on his good graces to introduce him to some fairies who want to make deals with him. And that’s because I’ve got another deadline to find a bigshot record label executive I can lure into the charity show for the Lily to make sure the bands come out to play—”
“Find one?” Emma blinked. “They don’t just grow on berry bushes, Ada!”
“Right, which is why I went hobnobbing with these guys, since they’re real socialites with the connections I need to get my hands on one. Hell, one of them’s even called Hob, that should tell you everything. And I need to do all of this,” she said, making a forceful hand-gesture as she spoke, “Because if we don’t raise a ton of money with this fundraiser concert, we can’t outbid King Midas and he’ll demolish the Gilded Lily to build a hotel on the lot, all in pursuit of the portal to Svartalfheim it’s hiding and the contract I found inside Ginger’s journals when I went looking for them.” She paused for a moment, trying to catch her breath. “You see what I mean? This all builds and builds and builds on itself, and it’s not even half of what I’m working on. It’s exhausting.”
“Well you’ve pickled yourself and no mistake.” Emma sat down in the equally uncomfortable chair next to her. “Is there anything I can help with? I don’t want to see the Lily knocked down either. Ruby’s been territorial of it, so I haven’t asked to help before but hearing all this… I’ve had my hands full with college but I could put up flyers, maybe? Y’know, get some student involvement going.” She looked down and frowned. “Sometimes I think she’s worried about us being friends, but it’s not like I’m going to steal you away in the night...”
“Student involvement? Ugh, don’t remind me of it. I’m supposed to infiltrate an acting camp to keep a bunch of college kids safe from their crooked teacher who’s been working with the Fomor,” Ada said, rubbing her face tiredly. “But yeah, it couldn’t hurt. The more turnout we get, the better our odds of keeping it in one piece are.” She stopped for a moment, eyeing Emma through her hands. “You think she’s jealous or something? This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Emma’s face scrunched a bit. “I don’t know. She doesn’t let me in like she does you. Always says it’s for my own good, that I shouldn’t want to be anything like her. It’s frustrating. I’m like a baby to her, not a sister. Maybe by keeping us apart she thinks she’s protecting me from something.”
“Hm.” Maybe Ruby didn’t want Emma to see the ugly side of her, but that didn’t seem right. “Was it this way from the beginning? Or did it become more noticeable recently?”
“Always, though it’s been more and more obvious lately. I think the transition stuff’s been making it harder for her to be subtle about things. She still hasn’t gone back to work and that’s eating at her too.” Emma sighed. “Mama’s gonna toss her out on her behind if she won’t get her act together.”
“And she’s trying to do it alone which makes it harder, because she doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone. So it’s causing a feedback loop where trouble builds upon itself.” Ada’s features creased in deep reflection. “We can’t help her directly, Ruby’s terrible at taking help. She’ll just say ‘it is not my place to burden you’ or something like that and push us away. But maybe we can encourage her. Do you think she’ll accept a gift?”
“From you?” Emma snorted. “Oh yes, definitely.”
“Mmm. It’s gotta be a cross, I think,” Ada murmured. “Ruby hasn’t prayed in a while I don’t think, but she used to believe once upon a time, so she’ll know it means to have faith. Hold on a sec, I think I saw one that might work.”
Standing up, she headed back to the accessories’ display. Sure enough, there it was, a black titanium cross necklace with a small ruby inlaid right in its center. Resolutely, Ada snatched it up and headed back, a small yet triumphant smile on her face.
“Score. She’ll like this one, I think. And I can gild it after we’re done here so it looks extra fancy too. We can’t have her going out with shoddy accessories when she’s trying to start a new life, can we?”
“Pretty...” Emma said, reaching for it. “I’m sure she’d love this. I mean, I like it, so naturally…” Her cheeks reddened. “Heh... Now I’m the one getting jealous.”
“You wanna see if there’s one with an emerald on it too? Sugarmama Ada doesn’t leave anyone out in the lurch.” She tapped her chest as she spoke, closing her eyes, looking like the picture of proud modesty (in her mind’s eye, at least).
Emma looked up from the cross in surprise, but shook her head quickly. “If you want this to mean something to her you can’t give it to both of us. It has to be you and her, y’know? Or it’s not special...” She passed it back to Ada quickly. “Besides, I have my own.” She pulled the pearl-bead rosary out of her skirt pocket to show Ada. “It was great granny’s, all the way from Ireland. I guess Ruby lost hers somewhere...”
“Yeah, you’re right. We can buy clothes, but the cross has to be hers alone or it won’t have the impact we’re looking for.” She stared at the rosary intently. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. You shift one of the beads around every time you finish a prayer, right?”
“Something like that,” Emma said, rolling her thumb over a silky-smooth bead. “I never spent much time using it as intended, if I’m honest.”
“And how did you use it, then?” Ada asked, curiously. “Pure fashion?”
“Never,” Emma said, giving her A Look. “I just like to be more personable with my prayers than 10 ‘Hail Mary’s’ for every one ‘Our Father.’ Maybe it’s silly, but that’s between me and Jesus.”
“I don’t think it’s silly at all,” Ada said, shaking her head. “Religion isn’t my scene, but I know enough to know it’s not supposed to be neither an art nor a science. It’s just an expression of who you are and what’s on your mind, shared with someone you trust deeply to listen and maybe help you do things right.” Even so, though, it was a gorgeous heirloom. It seemed like such a pity not to use it… “It really is so pretty, though...maybe you could make each bead count for one person you pray for, even if it’s just yourself? Less about the number of prayers, more about the loved ones in your thoughts,” she offered.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Emma said. “It’s a shame you don’t go in for Religion, though. If anyone could use a little help right now…”
“Guys, guys!” Lucy cried out frantically as she rounded the corner, dolled up in a tight black band tee, elephant pants, six flavors of spiked wristbands and black leather platform shoes. “They have socks… with skulls… and HEARTS on them!”
Ada didn’t say anything. Instead, she shot Emma a look that practically screamed ‘we have to save her from herself’, as resolutely as if she was facing down a crack team of hired guns or a pack of ravenous beasts.
Emma tried to keep a straight face. She tried as hard as she’d tried anything in her life, and she just couldn’t do it. But before she dissolved completely into giggles she got out a single word: “Where?!”
In the end they managed to escape the gravity well of the Hot Topic with one ruby cross, three edgy band tees, a rainbow WWJD wristband (“It matches my scarf!”), and a rapidly growing feeling of impending doom in Ada’s chest, which was, all in all, a lot better than it could have been.
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 06:59|
In From The Cold
Scene: New Orleans East Hospital, Courtyard
“Cold and windy” weren’t the usual words you’d use to describe New Orleans’ weather. Even in the dead of winter, seldom did the temperature fall below freezing; never in recorded history had it gone below 6℉. Even so, the chill had become impossible to ignore. The outer walls made a fine windbreak, but Sgt. Abel Drouillard still wrapped his overcoat tightly about himself and shivered as he went through his occupational therapy exercises.
Then again, that might have been the morphine. It was starting to wear off, and the dull, throbbing pain was coming back. He’d be out before the weekend was over, but he’d need a cast for some weeks to come. That hydra’s bite had loving hurt.
“Aaaaand ten. That’s very good for today,” Dr. Ackerman said, looming over his shoulder with a clipboard. “We’ll have you discharged in no time.”
“Good,” Drou said. “Gotta get back to work if I wanna keep this shield.”
“Hopefully with fewer, ah, ‘car accidents’,” Ackerman told him. “Now, uh. About the snake that did this…”
“We askin’ questions, now?” Drou asked, raising an eyebrow. “Thought you’d been told-”
“I don’t want to pry. Really, I don’t.” Ackerman put his hands up in a defensive gesture. “But if this is some kind of invasive species, I’d like to know so that we can stock up on antivenin.”
“Ain’t you conscientious,” Drou said, slumping onto a bench. “Tell you what, I find any more and I’ll save a piece for you to study.”
“That won’t be necessary,” a familiar voice said from nearby.
Both of them looked over at the new arrival. Underslept and haggard, with a few new wrinkles to show for his encounter in the sewer, Elbridge was dressed in a padded overcoat to match Drou’s, but the edge of his trademark shirt was still visible under the collar like the costume of a geriatric Superman. He leaned on his staff, the ornate head of which had been covered with what looked like umbrella fabric, and held a sample phial of cloudy liquid in his other hand. A neatly-folded envelope stuck out from his coat’s pocket.
“...I don’t recall any visitors on my patient’s schedule for today,” Dr. Ackerman said warily. “Did you check in at reception?”
“No,” Elbridge said flatly.
“It’s cool,” Drou said, in a tone that didn’t suggest it, but he’d warned the doctor that someone might show up unannounced, and he’d let him know if it was a welcome visitor.
“Ah,” Dr. Ackerman said. “You’re…”
“...here with a specimen for you,” Elbridge finished, proffering the phial and sidestepping the question of his identity. “Principally an anti-coagulant, I’m now certain, but…”
“...but you aren’t a doctor,” Ackerman said with certainty, “and without knowing the specific enzymatic action, you aren’t sure which clotting agent will counteract it without causing a stroke.”
“Correct,” Elbridge admitted.
Ackerman looked to Drou for one last nod of approval, then pocketed the sample. “Well, gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure, but I have some peptide tests to order. I’ve booked the yard for another twenty-seven minutes, but if any other patients show up without an appointment, I will have to insist that you leave in case they require an EMD - that’s ‘Electronic Medical Device’,” he added for El’s benefit.
“Of course,” Elbridge said, not wishing to explain his staff’s powers to anyone who didn’t already know. “I’ll not be long.” He and Drou watched as Ackerman went inside and pulled the blinds shut before El took a seat next to the detective.
“Just a blood-thinner, huh?” Drou asked, moving his injured arm slightly. “Thought that thing was supposed to be toxic enough to kill gods.”
“The Lernaean original and its offspring, yes,” Elbridge said, nodding. “But the creature you faced was many generations removed, and interbred thoroughly with larger, non-venomous species-”
“I’m sorry, did you say larger?” Drou interrupted. “So the thing Herc killed was just, what - a regular snake with some extra heads?”
“It’s quite possible,” Elbridge affirmed, “that it was no more than a couple of metres in length. Of course, its every bodily fluid was potent enough to render the entire region a barren waste. Simply getting close enough to strike the thing must have been quite the feat.”
“Well now I’m wondering if Mrs. Goldman keeps that kind in a terrarium with heat lamps and poo poo, and I can’t tell if that’s funny or terrifying.”
“That’s...hrm,” Elbridge trailed off. He couldn’t discount the possibility. “I certainly hope not. At any rate, I believe that the sub-species you encountered - more accurately, a stable hybrid - could be properly-described as a West African Rock Hydra.”
“Fuckin’ rich fucks and their fuckin’ ‘exotic pets’,” Drou said. “Always get loose and cause a fuckin’ mess.” He folded his good arm across his chest and scowled. “And after all that...tell me you at least got a lead on Frisk.”
“We have his location,” Elbridge said quietly. “We extract him tonight.”
“Good. ‘Cuz I don’t know…”
“Don’t know what?” Elbridge inquired.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep doin’ this, El,” Drou said, sighing and shaking his head. “This…weird poo poo. Startin’ to take over my life.”
“You’ve acquitted yourself well thus far,” Elbridge assured him.
“This ain’t what I signed up for,” Drou hissed. “Not my jurisdiction, not my fuckin’ problem! So why is it every time I ask to be left out, I get dragged in even deeper?!”
Elbridge arched an eyebrow at that. “You did approach me on this matter-”
“Will you stop talking to me like some loving ROBOT?!” Drou demanded. “You ALWAYS do this, like you talking to IA in front of a camera all the loving time!”
“What do you want?” Elbridge snapped. “For me to be careless about such a delicate-”
“Why you think you gotta be careful in front of a friend?!”
Elbridge froze up completely at that.
“...ain’t we friends?”
“Come on, man,” Drou said, his voice starting to crack.
“...you asked to be left out of this world,” Elbridge sighed at last. “If I’m to respect that, there’s only so much I can do for you, because this is my world. I don’t get a say in that. Never did, never will.”
“That’s not fair,” Drou said. He was struggling not to tear up, with mixed results. “I don’t stick my nose in its business, so why the hell can’t it stay outta mine? I got enough poo poo to deal with, why can’t it just...why can’t it just stop already?”
“I don’t understand,” Elbridge said. “If you want to put a stop to these matters, then you’ll need to be involved.”
“No, El! No! Why can’t it just stop?!” Drou turned on him then, no longer holding back his grief. “El, man, they’re already talkin’ ‘bout bustin’ me down to beat cop. ‘Cuz of my ‘accident’, but that ain’t really it. They know. They’re in on it. You know why I didn’t wanna know about this poo poo? Why I didn’t wanna make it my job?”
“Because then I’d have to pick a side. I get in any deeper, the precinct’s gonna decide I picked, and picked wrong. And next time they ain’t gonna send Carl, and it ain’t gonna be me. El, I have a family.”
Elbridge’s face only hardened. All of these things were true, and Drou’s concerns were entirely-valid, and in that moment it struck Elbridge as deeply, cosmically unfair that he should be expected to entertain a mere…personal crisis. If he had attempted any such plea before his Council superiors, it would have brought him only ridicule, scorn, and possible censure. “You want to be left out so that you can focus on your private life, is that it?” he said coldly.
“No, El. I want you to act like a loving human being for once. I wanna know you give a poo poo.”
“If you want information, I give you information,” Elbridge said, starting to white-knuckle his grip on his staff. “If you want protection, I can offer protection. Any service you have asked of me, I have provided, and now you want...now you want me to…” With his free hand, he felt in his pocket for his flask, and-
It wasn’t there. He’d taken it out earlier, to make room for the card and the specimen phial, and never put it back.
The ground began to shake. It could have been dismissed as a muscle tremor, as a figment of the imagination, but the hospital windows rattled, and the nearest indoor lights began to sway.
“No. No, I can’t...” El’s skin went so red that he looked almost scalded, and his eyes screwed shut in an expression of pain.
“You can’t what?” Drou demanded.
“I can’t do this - this...ALL of this without…” The air went from ‘abnormally-cold’ to ‘biting’ in a heartbeat. Flowers of frost bloomed as the plants themselves withered and browned, and ice began to creep up the brickwork, spiderwebbing across a glass pane until it cracked from thermal shock. “...everything...going to pieces.”
“Really? You can’t say one nice word without blowing up the whole goddamn world?” Drou’s face twisted in anger. “Like it takes that much outta you to just-”
“Nobody comes to me to see a bloody person!” Elbridge snarled. “Nobody in my world is allowed to be a person! We don’t get to make mistakes, take time off, or cry on anyone’s shoulder! You know what happens when we get emotional? People loving die, that’s what! That’s why it’s so cold out and winter’s come early! Because Summer decided to be a person, and then she hosed off and broke the world!”
“El...what are you-?”
“I made...a mistake…” Elbridge said, choking back rage, gasping between breaths. “Human error. Human frailty. I misread a prophecy. Only caught it too late, because of James. That’s why it was him at Catouache, not me. That’s why...you almost died.”
Drou looked staggered. “And you blame yourself for that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” El said bitterly. “You clearly do.”
“Well poo poo,” Drou said. “Next round’s on you.”
“I...what?” Elbridge looked up, incredulous.
“You hosed up-” Elbridge winced “- so it’s your bad. So you’re buying the beer next time.”
The quaking stopped, and the frost began to recede. “That...Abel, I almost got you killed. This seems...inadequate recompense.”
“I dunno, what does your world demand for ‘recompense’? Your firstborn?” Drou asked.
Elbridge just stared mutely in response.
“...oh.” Drou did a double take. “Really? No-one’s allowed to gently caress up?”
“I thought you didn’t want to know more about-” El began.
“I’m asking.” Drou cut him off.
“I see.” Elbridge leaned back and did his best to compose himself again (or at least let the migraine recede) before talking. “Laws and customs vary, of course, but most jurisprudence is informed by the Courts of Faerie-”
“We talkin’ Disney fairies or Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen kinda fairies?” Drou interrupted.
“...decidedly more the latter,” Elbridge continued. “Incapable of lying but not of deception. Every spoken word is true and a sworn oath. Every debt must be repaid, for good or ill. Everything - every person - has an exact, concrete value. Monetary value, that is. Under the Accords, if no other remedy for a wrong can be found, it is always acceptable to pay seven times the injury’s worth in weregild.”
Drou blinked “...wait. You sayin’ murder’s okay, as long as you got seven times the vic’s net worth to spend on it?”
“Yes,” Elbridge said, “at least for disputes between unrelated parties. Most power blocs have their own rules for settling things in-house.”
“And those rules are…”
“Brutal,” Elbridge finished. “Or else vipers’ nests of intrigue.”
“And under ‘em, regular people…”
“...have no rights at all.”
“So that’s why you can’t be one,” Drou concluded.
There was a long, long, deeply-uncomfortable silence after that one.
“...I’ve been promoted,” Elbridge said quietly. “I finally have a chance, just a chance to make a difference. Over a century of struggle to get to this point, and if I walk away now...no. I cannot. It will not have been for nothing. I must seize this opportunity.”
“What, alone?” Drou asked, scornful.
“I don’t...are you offering to help, Abel?” Elbridge asked. “I was under the distinct impression that you didn’t want to involve yourself.”
“No, El. I didn’t wanna get sucked in. I wanted to keep my head down and not come to some ugly end ‘cuz I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong, but...it don’t work like that, do it?” Drou shook his head. “The bad poo poo, I mean. It just keeps taking and taking ‘til someone cuts it off.”
“An apt summary,” Elbridge agreed. “If not us, then who?”
“No,” Drou shook his head again. “If not now, when?”
|# ? Mar 8, 2021 07:05|
A Chilly Reception
Scene: Chill Zone Ice Rink
The streets of New Orleans were almost deserted as Julian drove the Toyota Corolla he’d dredged out of the Chateau’s garage through them. The city was only just beginning to wake, and aside from a few other cars they occasionally crossed paths with, Rick and him had the asphalt to themselves. It’d been some time since he’d had to roll out like this, at odd hours and undercover. These days, his work was usually fairly higher-profile, which was just fine...but this sort of thing reminded him of the good old days, before the girls had entered his life. Bringing good memories back to life instead of bad ones was quite nice, as far as changes of pace went.
Rick was in his demesne, doing his morning drill routine. If he was going to kick down some faerie doors he wanted to be warmed up. Thwack, thwack, crack! The wood and bamboo training dummy set up behind the cabin fell into several satisfying chunks. He held his hand out and focused for a moment and the pieces flew back together, ready for another round.
“So this is the place,” Julian remarked, as he pulled up into an empty spot on the other side of the street from the Chill Zone. “Looks nice, wholesome. These are supposed to be the man-eating kind of fairy, aren’t they?” he asked, as he grabbed the kit bag he’d stashed Rick into and seized the grip.
Jules’ voice came out of a chunky 90’s boom box sitting on the tree stump next to the water bottle and hand towel. Rick smiled. He’d been wanting to try that little trick out for a while, and he was happy to hear the crackle effect he’d put on it like a real radio was working perfectly.
“Plenty of those on both sides of the seasons,” he said, leaning on the fence rail and popping the cap on the water. “But I kinda doubt they’ve got the jabberwocky renting ice skates to grade schoolers and retirees.”
“True. These days, everybody needs to pretend to be respectable. Marketing is king now, even in the supernatural world. Do they keep any mortals around to take care of their day to day business?”
“Probably, but I haven’t done any recon here so I couldn’t tell you. This is one of those last minute deals. We’re going in blind.” He took a tentative sip, and when the water tasted fresh and cool he downed the whole bottle. It might have been performative but it felt good and that was all that really mattered right now. “If you can get me in the door I should be able to handle things from there.”
“We might be able to get farther than just the door if you can tell me what sort of people we’re dealing with. Not who’s inside specifically, just what you know of the fairies we need to talk to.”
“Well, I won’t say no to help when it’s offered,” Rick said. I learned that one the hard way. “I’d say that Winter faeries are survivors first and foremost. They’ve got big appetites and few resources, so they’re willing to fight over just about anything. They use intimidation and threats to get their way since they can usually follow through with them, and they have a lot of respect for martial prowess and quick wits, things that keep you alive in the cold and the dark.”
“So you’ll bloody their noses and I’ll make bad jokes about it,” Julian summarized, the faintest hint of a smile pulling up his lips. “That about right?”
Rick laughed. “That’s about right.” He paused for a second. “Er, there’s no easy way to ask this... If things go badly in there, how do you feel about a mild case of possession? If anything happens to you on my account being dead isn’t going to save me from your wife and daughters.”
“I’m not sure how being possessed will help with that,” Julian said, giving the sword a curious glance. “Usually two heads are better than one. That goes for bodies too.”
“If there’s too much sunshine I won’t have any control over my body,” Rick pointed out. “Unless you’re a master swordsman and didn’t tell me, in which case I’ll be along for the ride.”
“Hm. I know how to take care of myself, but I can’t deny a Warden sword is probably more use in a fight than what I’d usually do. We’ll keep it as a last resort, but is there anything I need to do to prepare for it?”
“Not really,” Rick looked around his demesne in silent farewell, then closed his eyes and stepped backwards into the cool silver interior of the sword. From there he extended his sense of touch outwards, gently at first. Julian would feel Rick’s hands on top of his own, like a martial arts trainer guiding a student through the motions. “I’ll never ask for more than this,” he said. “You just have to let me help.”
“I can work with that then,” Julian nodded. “Alright then. Let’s go in, shall we?”
Rick let go of Julian’s hands and waited, senses sharp and ready for action. His path was set and of his own choosing. All he had to do now was walk it with confidence. “Yeah, let’s.”
The ice rink was almost completely empty, which was no surprise considering the hour. Leisure spots didn’t have their peak hours just after sunrise on a Tuesday. There was just the one man at the moment, getting situated behind the counter as Julian came in.
“Good morning, sir,” he called out, as he headed resolutely for the counter. “I need to speak with the manager. Are they in yet?”
“That’d be me,” the man said jovially. He was tall, with long blonde hair pulled back into a tight tail and that sort of buff build under his tan sweater that said he worked out.. His name tag said ‘Sven’. “We’re not quite open yet, sir. Are you here to reserve the rink for a special occasion?”
“Not quite, though what brings me here is indeed a special circumstance. I’m looking for passage into the holdings of Winter, to speak with a certain Mr. Breenfjell. Could you point me towards a gateway that might lead me there?”
“Ah… that’s…” Sven looked Julian up and down. “You don’t seem dressed for the weather, if you don’t mind my saying so, mister…?”
“That won’t be a problem,” Jules said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m not the one who’ll be going. Do you have a backroom we could use for negotiations? I can explain further there.”
Sven frowned. “That’s… let me make a call.” He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and turned around, keeping his voice low as he talked to whoever was on the other end of it.
A moment later a teenage boy who looked like he could have been Sven’s son emerged from behind the plastic gate that led to the ice rink. “Follow me,” he said, not bothering to introduce himself. He led Julian out of the sunlit lobby through a door marked ‘employees only’. Behind it there was a hallway with cinderblock walls and dim lighting, that ended in another door, this one with no outside handle. The boy knocked three times and the door opened into a small meeting room with a plain table, a few cheap office chairs, and a clean whiteboard. There was someone seated at the head of the table, a man with spindly arms and thin fingers. He wore a pinstriped suit and had shaggy, dark hair, coal black eyes, and nose so sharp it could have cut glass.
“I am known as Cypress,” said the faerie, for there was nothing else he could possibly be. “For whom do you seek passage?”
“That’d be him,” Julian said, drawing the sword from the bag and leaving it on the table. “Care to explain the circumstances further, Mr. Cole?”
“I would, thanks,” said Rick, flicking into view. “My apologies for showing up unannounced. I am known as Cole, and I seek General Breenfjell Stonebones of the Winter legions on a mission of great urgency. I have a letter that can be sent ahead if necessary, but I need to meet with him in person.”
“I cannot help you,” Cypress said, lacing his fingers together on the table in front of him. “There are no Generals in Winter that bear that name.”
“He’s a troll,” Rick said. “About yea high? Blue-grey skin, big tusks… Likes to watch fights and lock people in tunnels with Grues?”
Cypress raised a bushy eyebrow at that. “You’ve just described half the trolls in Winter.”
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Julian chimed in. “There is a Breenfjell Stonebones of Winter. This isn’t up for debate. Mr. Cole would like to speak with him. Where is he?”
The faerie looked like he could have argued further but the youth gave him a nod and he sighed. “Fine, there is a Breenfjell Stonebones of Winter. He can often be found in the moors near the black swamps. Is that sufficient?”
“It’ll do,” Rick said, frowning. He considered arguing further but it would probably take longer to drag a location out of the faerie than to find it himself. “Do you have a guarded entrance to the Ways?”
Cypress narrowed his eyes. “Why should I accommodate you?”
“Because I’m going to go through with or without your assistance,” Rick said, placing a hand on the sheath of his sword. “And while I have no problem cutting through the veil, sealing it behind me has become more difficult these days. It was out of courtesy that I came to ask your aid.”
“And that courtesy is appreciated,” said the youth, with a thin smile. “Take him to the portal, Cypress.”
“You’re sure?” Cypress asked.
The boy grinned. “His name is known to me. In life he was an honorable man, in death… Hah! The troll will sort him out, one way or the other.”
“As you say, Lord.” Cypress pushed up from the chair, and he was even taller than he’d looked sitting down. “Follow me then, Mr. Cole. Your courier can see himself out.”
“Make sure not to miss dinnertime, Mr. Cole,” Julian said, tipping an imaginary hat at him. “The wife and I will be awaiting your report. There anything you’d like to eat tonight to celebrate your success?”
“A whole New York style pizza with everything on it,” Rick said. If only. “But I don’t know how long this is going to take so don’t wait on my account.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Turning around, Julian raised his hand in goodbye. “Good luck, and good hunting.”
|# ? Apr 8, 2021 06:45|
Searching for Troll Man
Scene: Nevernever, Winter
The world on the other side of the portal was pale and blue, as cold as the grave. All around Rick and Cypress, a vast ice lake spread, with mounds of gathered up snow spread out in regular intervals. Close by, a massive spike of nigh-on transparent glass jut out from a hole in the ice, with four rickety wooden bridges connecting it to the rest of the territory. It looked like a cross between an alien flower and a building done in the brutalist style, its stark beauty softening the coldness of the environment somewhat. In the the distance, Rick could hear the laughter of pixies, tinkling like bells as they flitted from snow mound to snow mound, tossing tiny projectiles at each other.
“A lake? I should have guessed,” Rick said. It was freezing out and his false body was too human to ignore the cold. He focused for a moment, rubbing his hands together, and the ectoplasm clothes he wore shifted into a long brown leather coat stuffed with goose down, matching gloves, and hiking boots. “There, much better. Point me in the right direction and I’ll be off.”
Cypress sighed and raised a finger that was actually wooden instead of just gnarled. His face had taken on an ashen pallor, and his shaggy hair was deep green moss. “Follow the broken stones once you’re out of town,” he said. “Beyond them, you’re on your own.”
“Thanks.” Rick smiled despite the primal fear that standing on top of a frozen lake awakened in his chest. He would just have to get the hell out of there as quickly as he could and then… well, then he might finally get to have some fun. “See you ‘round then, Cypress.”
The dryad grumbled something mostly below the range of human hearing, but Rick didn’t wait around to ask what it was. Time didn’t have much meaning in the Nevernever, but several minutes passed before snow started to pile up more consistently over the lake’s surface, eventually hiding it (or perhaps replacing it) completely. Not long after, he saw the broken stones: a circle of menhirs, cracked at the halfway point, pointing in every possible direction.
“Follow the broken stones,” Rick muttered, shaking his head. “Alright.” He took a moment to wipe the snow from the largest, checking to see if there were any carvings or runes that might offer a clue.
As luck would have it, something was inscribed at the bottom of the cut-off top of the menhir. Concentric circles of letters, most likely Celtic, slowly shifting in alternately clockwise and counter-clockwise patterns.
Rick rolls his Lore and gets a //+- +3 = 3! He uses a FP on “Unfinished Thesis” to get to the bottom of this mystery, making it a clean success. FP 6->5.
“Hmm.” The inscriptions were obviously magical. He could sense power very, very faintly flowing from them, and judging by the way they were arrayed, they were synchronizing, combining their powers to greater effect than they'd achieve individually. It was efficient work -- someone had been pretty clever, circumventing the need for a great amount of energy to make the artifacts far more enduring and easier to use. But what were they used for?
He couldn’t read any of the Celtic languages, though he knew enough to recognize it was probably one of them. But something about the spellwork felt familiar, like the Waymarks he used as anchors when he was exploring the deep Nevernever in his early days as a wizard. It was sympathetic magic. He knew it intrinsically. Something done here would recur elsewhere, though what he wasn’t sure.
It surprised him for a moment that he could read the magic so clearly. He’d always had a good sense of the arcane, but it had never been this sharp before. Some effect of the Nevernever? The fact that his body was a natural counterspell? He wasn’t sure, but it was coming in handy now.
He sat down on one of the broken ‘fingers’ to think. Cypress had told him a flat truth and omitted all the important details, which seemed to be typical of him. Follow the broken stones… The pillars were arranged in a loose ring but there was no order to them that he could see. All of them were broken, which seemed unusual, but more than that each and every broken finger was pointing in a different direction. That didn’t feel like a coincidence.
“Hmm,” Rick repeated. Could it be a Conveyance?
He’d never seen one, but he’d heard enough rumors to include them in his thesis notes. Traveling by portal was only one of the many ways to get around in the Nevernever, but it was by far the safest (which was why it was the preferred method of squishy, air-breathing, human wizards.) Conveyances were another, one that was considerably more high impact.
A Conventional Guide to Unconventional Travel posted:
Essentially, Conveyance is the act of transporting something from Point A to Point B through a magical working. If portals overlap Point A and Point B, minimizing the distance traveled, Conveyance instead opts to reduce the travel time, either by speeding up the traveling process or obviating it outright.
Teleportation was one form of Conveyance, but there were others, and he had no way to tell which kind this one might be. He scratched at his cheek, watching the concentric rings of runes on the pillar base spin. It seemed to be idling somehow, using just a trickle of energy to keep from shutting down completely. What would happen if it drew in real power? He pushed off the finger and walked to the base, looking down the ‘shaft’ in the direction it was pointing.
“Ahah…” Though it was aimed right at a forest, not a single tree stood in the path directly extending from the finger. He checked three more of them and the same thing held true. Be it mountains or snow hills, forests or flat plains, if you looked straight down any of the fingers the path was unobstructed. These aren’t just menhirs, they’re rockets.
Of course, he didn’t know how to light them, or which one he needed to ride, but one thing at a time.
“Moors near the black swamp,” Rick said out loud, checking each of the pillars for some sort of clue. There had to be something to indicate which of these things shot you where. But all he found were more runes, which remained unhelpful. He glanced back to the strange palace on the ice lake. Someone there had to know how to work these things, and he could probably get them to help… But even though this was taking up precious time he couldn’t bring himself to give up just yet.
“Alright Rick, if you’re a faerie using sympathetic magic to make yourself a local bullet train, you’re going to need one hell of a connection. Either these pillars are made of stone traded between locations or they’re seated on a bed of the stuff...”
The menhirs were all made of the same speckled granite, so the easy check was out. Undaunted, he knelt and the base of one and started digging. The snow gave way to a crust of earth and beneath it, sand speckled with shells and kelp strands. “Ocean,” Rick muttered, carefully reburying it. Two menhirs later he found what he was looking for- thick black earth that’d be soggy if it wasn’t frozen solid, bone fragments and animal teeth. “Swampy evil moors here we come,” Rick said, dusting off his hands. “Or we will, as soon as I figure how to turn this thing on.”
Rick spends a FP to introduce a scene detail, ‘Ground Control’. FP: 5 -> 4
If he remembered correctly, there was a minor leyline very close to the ice rink. The stones must be drawing off of it, but the more he looked at the runes on the pillars the more he felt they were about speed and control, not drawing power. This whole thing was too well crafted, too efficient, not to have a central console somewhere. He just had to find it and hope it wasn’t too complicated.
It’d have been nice if there was one unbroken pillar or something obvious but of course there wasn’t, and the snow made it too hard to see the ground. He unsheathed his sword and closed his eyes, holding it in front of himself with the tip pointed down like a dowsing rod. Through the enchanted silver he could feel the power running under his feet. Much more power than he had the ability to counter, but that wasn’t his plan. He just needed to find the wellspring, where the power was being pulled up and out of the ground. And in a few moments… “Gotcha.”
There was a stone platform under the snow just outside of the ring of menhirs. He quickly cleared it, revealing a half-circle covered in runes, which were still mostly unhelpful but clearly connected to the pillars. He was able to follow the trace of power from the moor-finger back to the control panel and at that point there was really nothing to do except touch the rune associated with it. It lit up an ominous purple color and started beeping at rapidly increasing intervals.
Rick grinned bigger than he had in months as he ran back towards the rocket. If he’d still been human, he would never have tried something so risky and, honestly, kind of stupid. But he wasn’t, so he was drat sure not missing a ride on a real loving Conveyance when it’d been offered to him.
The finger was starting to crackle with the same violet energy, the runes on the base pillar spinning in faster and faster circles until they merged into a single, central image. He might not recognize the numerals, but it was definitely a countdown. He had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next as he jumped on top of the pillar and held on with everything he had, and he’d never felt so alive. As the timer hit 0, the world exploded into light and colour, his mind being filled with a bombardment of sounds and images -- forests, snowy plains, mountains, hills, rain, so much soggy rain, a smoking campfire and—
...And suddenly, it was dark out, and he was standing on a broken menhir that most definitely was not the one he’d been on before, and he reeled back as he felt something not unlike being tossed back into his seat by a suddenly starting car, before everything returned to normal. Out in the distance, he could see the ground below him give way to swampland, whilst in the other direction, the land rose up sharply. This had to be the moors Cypress had told him about. The crackle of a burning log caught his attention — there was a small camp set up close by, and a bunch of bearded warriors clad in leathers were staring at him, their faces none too friendly.
“Hi,” Rick said. He felt like he’d left his stomach back at the ice lake and he wasn’t about to go back for it. He resisted the urge to just fall off the side of the menhir and slowly slid down the side, remaining on his feet. “Sorry to disturb you guys, just uh, just passing through. Don’t suppose anyone knows where Breenfjell Stonebones lives?”
“What do you seek him for?” The tallest amongst them rumbled, hefting a massive double-bladed ax over his shoulder as he studied him carefully.
“Knowledge,” Rick said.
“Knowledge out of a troll,” the warrior said, giving him a derisive shake of his head. “There are worse ways to waste one’s own time, but not very many.” Raising the axe up, he pointed at the sloping terrain behind them. “Up. Look for the cave with skulls adorning its entrance.” And with that, he sat back down, clearly no longer interested in Rick and whatever he was doing.
Rick gave the faerie a nod of thanks before heading on up the slope. It was a good thing he’d thought to wear hiking boots. The climb began fairly easily, but soon it grew more arduous, as the terrain became rocky, vertical and unfriendly. To make things worse, the clouds above began to darken, suggesting impending rain. I knew this was going a little too easily, he thought, frowning at the weather. He needed to move fast, before the climb became too trying, and his ectoplasm body just wasn’t up to it.
Goddamn it. He looked down at his hands, scrunched them up until his nails dug into his palms. The pain was fake of course. There was no blood in this body, nothing to tint the color of his cheeks or drain away from his whitening knuckles. Those were just affectations, glamour made physical. The difference wasn’t noticeable most of the time because he’d practiced so much with it at the cabin, but when it came to precise movements or quick reactions he just didn’t have the dexterity to pull off what he used to in his own flesh and blood body. He could get close, but looking at the climb ahead of him… close wasn’t good enough.
“Fine,” he said. “If that’s what it takes.” He steeled himself and stepped forwards, his spirit form phasing out of the ecto-suit as he mentally cut the connection to it. He instantly felt lighter and more comfortable, and let out a guilty sigh of relief. It shouldn’t feel so good to peel his body like a banana but he had to admit that it did.
He knew he shouldn’t turn around and look at what was left of ecto-Rick but morbid curiosity won out. The colorless goo was barely recognizable as human already and half melted back into a sticky, oozing puddle. It squelched noisily as the last of the ‘bones’ collapsed. His distorted face was the last thing to go. “I don’t know what I expected,” he said to no one, shaking his head. He’d wondered what happened to his body after he left the Nevernever. He kind of regretted finding out, but at the same time it was fascinating how quickly ecto-plasm could take on or lose properties based on the will of a sentient entity- human or otherwise. Another thing to put a pin in, of course, though once he had his laboratory in Glaniell’s domain he’d be able to try all kinds of things.
It’s nice to have something to look forward to, he thought, turning back to the steep slope ahead. Climbing as a spirit was considerably easier than as a human, and though his ability to float wasn’t anywhere close to flight it meant he didn’t slip no matter how slick the terrain, which helped a lot as the rain started to come down on (and through) his head. He had to use the sword for purchase when there weren’t any handholds, once even tossing it up onto a ledge that he had to phase up and through because it jutted too far out for him to climb otherwise.
Rick uses his new stunt, New Horizons, New Insights, to boost his Pathfinding roll by 2. ++-/ +7 = 8!
Breenfjell’s cave was well-hidden on the side of a sharp gorge, with barely a small ledge to stand on. Skulls adorned the top of it, and drifted down the sides of the walls past the ledge. It was an impressive, if macabre collection, all told. As soon as Rick stepped inside, the chilly dampness of the rain vanished, replaced by a more omnipresent coldness that didn’t run quite so bone-deep. The cave was deeper than it looked on the outside -- a few minutes passed before the passageway he was in expanded into something resembling a common room. There, sitting on a rock, was a small, old woman, her back bent forwards, her hands gnarled and bony.
“Ahh,” she said as he came in. Her smile was bright and strong, brimming with mischief without malice. “And there’s the intruder.”
“I’d prefer ‘visitor’ ma’am,” Rick said. He’d manifested as soon as he got inside, not wanting to be taken for a thief. “I’m called Cole and I’m looking for the troll Breenfjell Stonebones. I was told this was where he could be found.”
A large rock whizzed past his head, leaving a dent in the wall behind him. “She was right the first time,” said Breenfjell, as he came into view from a nearby passageway. “You were not invited, weak man’s weapon. Give me a reason I shouldn’t use you to pick my teeth.”
“You’d have to catch me first,” Rick said, letting the stone go by without flinching. “But also because I’m willing to pay for a favor, if you’ll grant it. You’ve helped me once before, on a faraway branch of Yggdrasil, so I know that you’re not unreasonable.”
“That’s the stupidest excuse for a favor I’ve ever heard.” The troll spat at his feet, disdainfully. “But you don’t look smart enough to make up a lie that strange. Don’t look like you have anything good to offer, either, though.”
“I know you appreciate a good fight, and I’m my own weapon, unburdened by man’s weakness,” Rick said, standing up a little straighter. Some of those skulls at the door had been pretty large but the troll would never take him seriously if he couldn’t talk himself up a little. “I came seeking your knowledge. I’m not leaving until I have it.”
“Hah!” Breenfjell straightened up in return, a massive, muscled beast of a faerie. “You’re not leaving this place at all, once I’m done with you!”
He was about to lunge forward when two taps of the old lady’s cane against the floor stopped him cold. “What does he even want anyway?” said the crone. “He can tell a tall tale but can’t even say what his goal is! Imagine that!”
Rick had his sword out and was about to throw himself backwards out of Breen’s way when things came to a halt. He kept his eyes on his adversary but nodded. “There’s a young woman, a spirit like me, who’s about to lose her anchor. I’m trying to find a body for her before she slips away.”
“Not just a sword but a damned knight in shining armor!” Breenfjell’s laughter was more like a bark. “Enough of this. I don’t have time to waste with idealistic fools like him!”
“Then don’t,” said the crone, turning to shoot him a strange little glare. “It wouldn’t be sporting if the two of you fought each other. What do you say if I handle this matter for you, Young Stone?”
“Your mind must be going, woman. You think you and him having it out would be more entertaining?” But in spite of his words, the troll’s face split into a vicious grin. “Fine. It’ll be good comedy then.”
“Then we are agreed,” said the crone, before pointing her cane at Rick. “Aren’t we, intruder? All you have to do is defeat a withered old crone and me and my friend will help you find what you seek. Is that something you can handle?”
Rick shifted his stance to face the old woman instead of the troll. It was risky. Breenfjell might be a giant monster who was both super strong and super tough, but he was also a known quantity for the most part. This woman was not. “I was a wizard before I became a weapon, ma’am, and that means I have a lot of respect for the elderly. But you have me at a disadvantage. By what name can I call you?”
“Tsk. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk;” the crone clicked her tongue. Her features, so old and weather-worn, flushed with disapproval as she shook her head. “So young and so insolent! Reciting a name is part of the ceremony that precedes the beginning of a duel. An attempt to mine an old machi for information does not become you, intruder. You are a sword who is a wizard. I am an old woman who is a witch doctor. What else do you need to know? But fine. Have it your way! Since you are so afraid of an old woman’s magical powers, I swear upon mine that I will not cast a single spell in my attempt to defeat you! There, now you have what you wanted,” she said, jerking her pointy chin up towards him, defiantly. “Now are you going to waste our host’s time by backing out of the fight you wanted, or are you ready to make good on your word?”
“I’m ready when you are,” Rick said quickly. He hadn’t expected such an angry reaction to his question, but then, someone visiting a troll for tea or whatever was going on here probably had a similar temperament, and he might have sounded like he was stalling. Her promise was a fig leaf though and they both knew it. Casting spells at their enchanted silver swords wasn’t how you won duels with Wardens.
“Good. But this damp cave is too cramped a space for a proper duel, and you won’t catch me disturbing a friend’s home. Take me to the exit, Young Stone,” she said, raising her cane up into the air commandingly. “These old bones ache and I wish to save my strength for my duel with this upstart.”
“You take advantage of my hospitality far too much for my liking, old hag,” Breenfjell rumbled. His hand wrapped around her torso and lifted her up, as if she didn’t weigh more than a feather. “Be thankful I am looking forward to laughing at this upcoming farce. It is the sole reason I haven’t crushed you yet.”
“And it’s a good reason, too,” the crone said. “Follow us, intruder, if you can. We wait for no one!”
The master of the house took off with long strides that seemed to devour the ground beneath him, the old machi (was that what she’d called herself?) held tightly in his iron grip. He headed not for the entrance Rick had come through, but a passageway on the back-end of the cave. As Rick gave chase, the passageway split into three tunnels, and then the hallway they walked down on split into another three in turn. It took several minutes of traveling at a fast pace before they saw a faint light, coming out of the end of the tunnel they were on. A turn around a corner gave way abruptly to a plateau at the top of the hill Breen’s residence had been built on, upon which rested a circle of crude leathers — and another set of broken menhirs, like the ones far below on the slope he’d come from, enveloped by the torrential downpour still.
“You kept up. Good,” the troll remarked, as he deposited the old woman at the center of the circle and turned to face him. “If you hadn’t been able to do this much, this would’ve been poor sport. Stand upon the skins, and wait. Do not leave the circle, if you value your life any.” As he spoke, the old woman tapped one of the broken stones, causing it to spring to life, and the circle with it.
“I see you have a convenient boss arena and a teleport back down for after the fight,” Rick muttered. He’d watched Marcine play too many video games not to notice the similarity, though between Breenfjell calling him a knight in shining armor and this setup he was starting to feel like he’d ended up inside of one of them and the orchestral fight music was going to kick in at any moment.
He floated into the circle of skins as he’d been bid, though he was liking this less and less with each passing second. The rain, the cold, the duel… it was too similar to his last living moments. Much too similar, he thought, gritting his teeth.
Breen’s laughter snapped him out of his reverie. He was slapping his stomach, such was his mirth, his laughs strong, unrestrained and grotesque.
“What now?” Rick asked.
“An arena? You have the strangest ideas, sword Cole. This isn’t an arena. I greet my comrades here, and I throw unwelcome visitors off my hill to crash down upon the rocks below. It is a meeting point...and an execution site.”
The words lingered in the air for just a few, uncomfortable moments, along with Breen’s hungry glare, before the skins came to life and enveloped them, throwing the three of them into utter darkness as they took the shape of a great bag. A horrible feeling of speed and disorientation filled the air, almost making him stumble, before they fell apart, and a blinding flash of light hit him right in the eyes.
“And so, here we are.” The old crone’s voice rang out, as he struggled to adjust to the sudden change in lighting. The moors were nowhere to be seen anymore, and neither was the driving rain that had been falling down upon them moments before. All around them was nothing but ice, basked in the purple light of twilight, and farther out, a quiet ocean, ebbing and flowing back and forth as the sun descended on the horizon, the waves almost pitch-black in the fading light at the end of day. The old machi was by the edge, staring at the dying light, her back turned to Rick and Breenfjell. In the distance, the keening of a lone whale could be heard, soft and mournful. “No walls to impede our battle, and no onlookers who might interfere. This place will serve as a fitting stage for our duel. Breenfjell Stonebones,” she called out, and her voice was not nearly as raspy and diminished by age as it had been earlier. “Step back, and bear witness.”
For once, Breenfjell did not argue or make a pithy comment. His face was full of solemnity as he walked away twenty troll steps, crossed his arms and waited.
“Good. Let us make haste then. The light is fading, and our time is short. State your name, spirit, if you would challenge me.”
“Richter Cole,” he said, raising his sword in salute.
“A good name, and hopefully worthy of a good fight. Yes...” The old woman’s voice trailed off. “You asked for my name, earlier. I do not have one to call my own. I am one of four wise women, who listen to the woes of the men and women of a tribe that lives at the ends of the earth, and tend to their ills. From sunup to sundown, thus do we labor, with magic, with ritual, and most of all, with age.” The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon already. “But none of that is suited to deal with you. Thus do I shed it. And you must have a name, to know who you challenge. And so I declare...”
She was about to say more, when the water before her erupted with a massive splash. For a moment, a shadow fell upon the world, and the sun was eclipsed before its might. It took Rick a second to understand what he was seeing. It was a whale, larger than any he’d ever seen, leaping through the air, poised to land…
...Before him. With a terrible crack, the ice shattered, catapulting him into the air and swallowing the old woman into the cold depths below. And then, the whale keened again, and somehow, someway, he understood its voice.
<We are Trempulcahue, the four stewards of the lost and wayward dead in need of guidance. You’ve evaded your passage into the lands beyond the western edge of the world for quite some time, little lost soul. But now, at last, I’ve come for you…!>
At the top of the sword’s arc, in that weightless moment before gravity claimed him, Rick laughed. He laughed at the world, at the whale, at himself for thinking that walking into Winter itching for a fight was going to lead to anything except the worst possible outcome.
“I JUST WANTED DIRECTIONS!” he shouted as he started to fall. The gaping hole in the ice waited below, the sum of all his fears. Of course Breenfjell had been hosting a psychopomp the exact same day that he’d come calling. Why not? When had anything he’d ever tried turned out right for him?
If I ever meet the fates, or God, we are going to have some WORDS.
He hit the water and everything went dark.
|# ? Apr 11, 2021 16:57|
Edge of the World
Scene: The Austral Sea
A hand closed around his ankle and dragged him under. For a moment he knew it wasn’t real, but then the shards of his broken memory crystalized and he was back in the pocket dimension with Roqueza, thrashing helplessly against the vampire’s grip.
Pain. Cold. Fear. Despair.
He could see the surface above, see the sunlight fading as he was pulled farther and farther away. He couldn’t hold his breath much longer. A few more seconds and he would drown, and it would all have been for nothing. If he had to die, to follow Rachel into that empty darkness, he wanted it to mean something. He didn’t need to save the world, to complete the mission… he just needed his people to be safe. El, Marcine, Rupert, Hugues, Nicholas, Angie… Angie, who had only let him go because he’d made her believe he would come back...
Sorry, Angie. Everyone.
He opened his eyes and stared into his enemy’s. Then he smiled, and spoke his final word. “Freeze.”
He was dead before the ice even formed, his lifeforce spent as fuel for the spell. Cut loose from his body, his soul sank to the bottom of the pocket dimension. That would have been it, but then his right hand found the hilt of his sword. Hold on. It was all he knew how to do. All he’d ever done. He grabbed onto it with both hands, instinct guiding action, and shoved the blade into the corner of the pocket so there was at least a chance that someone might be able to pull it out. An instant later the water froze.
((Rick takes a compel on Too Human, trapping himself under ice as he relieves the moment of his death! This manifests in an aspect titled, fittingly, Trapped Under Ice.))
Without the pocket dimension to shape it, the water around Rick erupted into the shape of a gigantic quartz cluster, the sword frozen solid within the largest crystal. His consciousness drifted, unfocused, unable to hear or to see. There was no one here. There was no one coming. He tried screaming into the void but he couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t move either. His body was rigid, unfeeling. My name is Richter Daniel Cole and I am a Warden of the White Council and I live in New Orleans and… and… Scraps of thought, of identity. He clung to them, repeating them over and over again. Somehow he knew the words were untruths, but he repeated them anyways because he didn’t have anything else to believe, and if he stopped believing in anything he would unravel.
It felt like an eternity before something changed. Another’s hand fell upon him. Rough, angry, solemn, respectful. Entirely alien. Help! he cried. Help! Please, help! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m lost! Please, god, don’t leave me like this...
Breenfjell. He knew the name somehow, even though he shouldn’t. He felt something that he didn’t understand then, but recognized now as being lifted, carried, wrapped in something soft and furry. Still blind, still deaf, still mute, but not alone anymore.
And then he was passed into someone else’s hands, someone he knew and trusted. Elbridge.
How long did you carry me before you knew, El?
No... El wasn’t here. He’d come alone. And this Breenfjell didn’t respect him at all…
When he opened his eyes, the grey light of the sword’s interior met them. He groaned, so stiff he couldn’t move, while his mind lagged behind, still busy sorting out the memories from reality. He pressed his right hand to his chest and took a deep breath. His heart started with a jolt, the echo of his pulse pounding in his ears for a moment before fading. “My name is Richter Daniel Cole,” he said quietly. “I’m a sword with a human soul. I live in New Orleans with my roommate Nicholas.” His body was as ethereal as the mist surrounding him, but speaking the words gave him substance and form. He ran his hands through his hair, touched his face, rubbed the soft stubble that he’d never quite managed to smooth out.
That was too close, he thought, extending his awareness outwards. Cold, clear, rigid... Ice? How? He had a vague memory of an old lady summoning a giant whale, or possibly turning into one, intending to drag his wayward soul to the great beyond. Right. Psychopomp. Duel. Body for Alisa. Get it together.
<You cling so tightly to life, still.> The Trempulcahue’s voice seemed to come from all around him at once, enveloping him as tightly as the ice did. <And what for? A pale imitation of life as it was, one that you yourself reject. Surrender, lost soul. Relive the memories one last time, and let go.>
Something slammed against the ice with a massive impact, causing cracks to spread all over it, and a flood of memories to assault him. Memories of how he’d taken his life and wasted it, never really living for his own sake. A life that had belonged to others, because he’d been too weak to carry its weight...
Once more he was thrust into a world of memories, but none of them were powerful enough to make him lose himself again. He grit his teeth, letting the old familiar shame, doubt, and debasement wash over him. She was right that his new life had started off as a pale imitation of his old one, but things had changed when he moved in with Nicholas. He had a home now, and new friends he wanted to get to know better. His thesis was just waiting for him to start writing it… How could he let go when he had so much to live for?
((Trempulcahue opens with a Provoke attack on Rick’s psyche, +--/ +5 = 4! Rick resists with Will, +//+ +5 = 7! SwS! Taking a boost, ‘Reasons to Live’. Puck to Rick. He takes a second to roll his Lore: Spirits skill to see if he recognizes the Trempucahue, and he gets a 5!))
He remembered now, the story Nicholas had read to him about the four legendary whales. Old witches who collected gemstone tithes from the dead and took them to The Land Out West, to give to a boatman who some said was Charon himself. Looks like I get a free ride. Lucky me.
He was still trapped in the cracked crystal, as though he’d really cast his death curse once again. He couldn’t move, couldn’t even force his spirit-form out of the sword. His magic held his new body fast, as it held his old body in the false future. This wasn’t going to be much of a duel if she could keep hitting him when he couldn’t fight back.
Wait a second. Cracked? His final spell hadn’t been so weak. Nevermelting ice couldn’t be damaged by anything as crass as blunt force. This isn’t real magic, he realized. It can’t be, my magic is gone. Which meant the ice was just an extension of his body, like the suit he’d made for himself when he first stepped into the Nevernever. Ectoplasm, reacting to his mental trauma. He focused, intending to release it the same way he’d let go of ecto-Rick earlier but letting go of the ice meant submerging himself in the freezing water again, and he hesitated.
‘Relive the memories and let go.’ The psychopomp’s words echoed in his head. Would he snap back into the death loop again if he broke out of the ice? Feel that pull on his leg, watch the sunlight fade- STOP THAT- but what if, what if, what if…
He clung to the sword, the only thing he had left to hold onto, just like he had the last time. She couldn’t hurt him while he was stuck in the ice. He could repair it every time she hit him, hiding inside a prison of his own making forever, or until she gave up and left him there, once he was trapped so deep he could never get out.
Playing to not lose. That’s how he’d lived his whole life. It’d kept him alive so many times, but it’d cost him everything in the end. He’d never get to live the new life he’d worked so hard for. He’d never finish his thesis, or tell Ada she was right, or help Elbridge fix his messes, or eat that pizza with everything on it that Jules had promised him.
I’ve got to start playing to win. Stop hesitating. I know how to get out of this. I just have to take the risk.
The sword glimmered within the ice, the enchanted silver warming as the counterspell within flared to life. It wasn’t his magic, so it hadn’t died with him. It was his will, and he still had plenty of that. With a resounding CRACK, the crystal holding him split and shattered, the pieces melting away into nothing.
His spirit form appeared next to the blade, panting with the effort. No phantom hand grabbed at his leg. The water didn’t scare him any longer.
<Get out of my head,> he snarled at the Trempulcahue. <It’s my life, my second chance. You’re not taking it from me when I’m just starting to figure things out!>
((Rick rolls Will to overcome Trapped Under Ice, diff 6. +-// = 5, tagging his Reasons to Live boost to bring that to a 7! But the Trempulcahue counters by spending a FP on Trapped Under Ice to reinforce it to +8, and Rick uses his Warden Sword stunt to forcefully dispel his own traumatic ice cocoon at the cost of 1 mental stress (using the ‘exceeding the stunt’s reach at a cost’ rules.) Puck to the whale! End of Round 1.))
It was hard to make out in the darkness underneath the surface, but dimly, a massive shape could be seen, swirling in the distance.
<Ahh, how interesting of you to show resolve now, little lost soul. Where was this defiance in life? I wonder how sincere it is.>
In the darkness, the shadowy figure of the whale swirled, back and forth, faster and faster with each passing moment...
<Let us put it to the test and see how long you can hold out, shall we? In the end, all go to their last reward, either willingly…>
...And then, a massive surge of water hit him like a ton of bricks, sending him hurtling backward.
<...Or fighting to the last.>
There was no time to look, but behind him, he felt an unnatural chill, far, far colder than the ice he’d just escaped from.
((Not pleased with Rick’s defiance, the Trempulcahue forcibly attempts to shove him toward the afterlife. She rolls Phyisque +6 and gets ++++ . Rick would ordinarily defend with Poltergeist here...but he doesn’t have a trapping to brace against forced movement. Whoops! Rather than throwing FP out the window by trying to contest this monster roll, he opts to take the loss. The Trempulcahue gets a Success with Style and creates the Aspect Adrift on the Currents of Oblivion, with two free invokes. Puck to Rick!))
Rick tried to hold fast, but he didn’t stand a chance against that current. He tumbled dizzily for a moment before righting himself and riding it. Fighting a riptide was how you died in the ocean. You had to swim with it, angle yourself out. Out? No. Down. His metal body wanted to sink, he just had to help it. Every human instinct he had screamed at him to kick for the surface, but that was pointless. He didn’t need to breathe, and she’d already proven how useless the ice floes were.
Gently, then harder, he nosed down until the blade slipped free of the current. But he’d been pushed back so far he couldn’t see her anymore. He whipped in a circle, looking everywhere but at that horrible cold spot. <I’ll show you how sincere I am if you come over here and fight me already,> he said. <This is supposed to be a duel, remember?>
((Rick uses Pathfinding to make some headway towards the whale, who is two zones ahead of him. //-/ +7 = 6! Which beats the +4 base difficulty. The Trempulcahue counterinvokes with one of the free invokes on Adrift in the Currents of Oblivion, which Rick counters with a FP on ‘Nobody’s Tool’ because nobody puts Ricky in the Afterlife. Rick goes down one zone and forward one zone and ends up below Zone 3. Puck to the Steward! End of Round 2.))
<Duels can be fought with unequal weapons, little lost soul. You use your steel, but words are all that I require to break you.> She spoke with the absolute confidence of a being so ancient and experienced she had seen everything. <You died in ice, and to the ice you will return before embarking on your final journey. You can feel it, can’t you? That chill that runs directly to your core. With every motion forward, it chases after you. You struggle desperately against the wrong opponent. Turn around, and face the air and darkness behind you, before it consumes you whole.>
((Taking advantage of the momentary distance between them, the Trempulcahue stings Rick with some words to incite doubt and fear. She rolls a Provoke attack and gets a -3 which is awful, but tapping the remaining free invoke on Adrift on the Currents of Oblivion rerolls that to a 5, and invoking it using the scene’s FP budget raises it to a 7, beating Rick’s Will roll of 6 and forcing him to tick his second stress box. The ball is now in Rick’s court.))
How do I beat her if I can’t even find her? The water extended endlessly in all directions, and the chill had crept so close that a filigree of frost had covered his blade. He tried to brush it off but the pattern only reformed. For a quiet moment he hugged himself and shivered, trying to conserve heat in a body that held none. Fighting her in the water like this was hopeless. The game was rigged, and he was so tired of being forced into impossible battles against giant, ancient beings.
Giant ancient beings… That’s it! His eyes popped open. A monster that size had to be displacing the water something fierce. He held the blade straight up in front of him and waited. Silver was a harder metal than steel but the enchantments woven into it made it just as flexible. A moment later, the tip of the sword began to waver, just enough to be noticeable. He turned with the vibration, tracking her movement...
((Rick rolls his Pathfinding to CA, /+-- +5 = 4! Enough to create “The Wake of Giants” with one invoke. Moves one zone closer. End of round 3, puck to Trempulcahue.))
There! Up above and a little bit further ahead. He could see the shadow, just barely amidst the dark. Another mournful keening resonated through his body, mingling with the vibrations of her passage.
<You are not the first to linger out of pure stubbornness. All creatures cling to life as a reflex. Many are like you and stumble blindly in the dark, yearning desperately for a dream to chase, and all of them are already dead. Their bodies keep them prisoner, trapping them within patterns of self-destruction they are too small-minded to see and change. What makes you think you won’t continue to be a shade-in-life if you escape this deep sea?>
<I was a shade in my first life, not this one,> Rick said quietly. <I’ve got a dream now. My own dream, no one else’s. There’s a hole in the world and I’m going to watch it heal, help it if I can, and write down everything so that people in the future can learn from my trials and errors. All I’m yearning for is a little more time to get it done. Do you still have to take that from me?>
<You still do not understand, child.> The Trempulcahue’s keening was so distant it was almost inaudible, in spite of not being so far away. <You were asked for reasons why you might do things differently, not for a list of tasks you’ve yet to do. That was a response, but not an answer.>
Tch. She’d admitted her words were her weapons, and he’d wasted precious time sparring with her instead of getting close enough to use his own. <You’ll keep trying to put me back in the ice no matter what answer I give you. If you cared you would have asked me in the cave.>
<So you could fall back on your web of painstakingly constructed self-deceptions, lost soul? I think not.>
Bullshit. All she wanted to do was keep him talking, and he was done playing along.
((A truly tragic roll of Provoke ---- +5 = 1 to Create Advantage from the Trempulcahue seems like it might undermine her arguments but then Rick manages to match her with a Will ---- +5 = 1 and has to consider it for a moment… until a quick re-roll off: Trempulcahue uses Rick’s ‘Too Human’ to tempt him into despair with a -/+/ +5 = 5… (GM reserve now 11/14) and Rick invokes his ‘Brand New Thesis’ to counter at +/// +5 = 6! No sads today. Rick FP: 5 > 4 Puck to Rick.))
The Trempulcahue’s wake guided Rick’s path as he propelled the sword faster and faster with sheer force of will. At some point his spirit-form had merged back into the blade as it cut through the water like a heat-seeking torpedo. He didn’t need to be outside of it to see any more than a pilot needed to be outside of an airplane. From below, he slipped past her tail and then angled up and struck, embedding his blade somewhere just behind her right flipper.
((Time for Rick to go on the offensive. He spends 1 FP to perform a dramatic charge, allowing him to move two zones and attack on the same turn! A roll of 6 starts starts things off pretty promisingly, but the Trempulcahue defends with the same number and gets a 7, which would make this a miss...until a timely invoke on The Wake of Giants takes him up to 9. Two-stress hit! Pass to the Trempulcahue, and that’s the End of Round 4.))
|# ? Apr 11, 2021 17:06|
Light of Judgement
A low moan of pain escaped the whale’s body, causing the sword to vibrate violently as she shifted around. Something not unlike laughter followed, derisive and low.
<Wonderful resolve, child of man. We shall see if you can hold on to it in the face of doom, then.>
The Trempulcahue twisted, and for a moment, Rick thought she was trying to throw him off, but then her tail struck the blade’s hilt, embedding it deeply in her flesh. Her next keening carried a note of satisfaction within it.
But… what- oh. Oh poo poo.
A moment later, she started moving again... straight for the source of the unnatural cold.
((The Trempulcahue tries for a grapple here, by embedding Rick within her flesh. She rolls Physique and gets a 5, which his Athletics of 2 can’t compete with. She succeeds with style, creating the Aspect Firmly Stuck with No Way Out, with two invokes! Then, she moves one zone to Ocean 3, with Rick in tow. Puck goes to Rick now.))
Great. Wonderful. Fan-loving-tastic.
He rocked the sword back and forth in a burst of frustration, but the hilt had caught under the Trempulcahue’s rubbery hide and it was impossible to get unstuck in time. The blade was embedded in a layer of blubber as thick as he was long, and he had no way of actually doing any appreciable damage to her unless… unless…?
Suddenly, he had an idea. His body might be stuck but his spirit was free to roam, and roam he did, straight up and into the whale’s innards. It was pitch dark, and the thundering boom of her heartbeat echoed through it like a vast cavern. He’d hoped it would be easy to track, but there were too many layers of muscle and fatty tissue distorting it for him to get a bead on it. Okay, so what was close by? What would force her to concede before he had no choice but to do the same?
Pain. The answer came almost too easily, and for a moment he flinched away from it. But this was Winter, and the Trempulcahue’s nerves were giving off weak electric signals that only a being made of metal could sense. Just like that, he had his target.
((Oh hey Phase is actually useful one time before it gets rewritten! --// +5 = 3. ...marginally useful. Creating a boost ‘Nearby Nerve Cluster’, something for Rick to aim at if he’s going deeper, which at this point is his only real option. End of Round 5))
The Trempulcahue’s muscles sprang to action, and with a powerful lurch, they hurtled forwards. It only took a few moments for the chill to assault him, this time full-bore. With each second that flew by, it only grew colder and colder, and as he glanced outside, he realized why: they were headed into an endless wall of ice, so pale he could see through it to the infinite darkness beyond.
((Rather than attack, the Trempulcahue chooses to make a full move this turn. It gets a 3, which is lowish...but it’s enough to take her and Rick straight into the ??? zone. It reveals its nature, as The Endless Wall, and its deleterious effects. Every turn spent in this zone, Rick has to make a Will roll, first against Difficulty 4 but increasing by 1 with each subsequent turn. Failure will inflict a shift of Mental stress, along with other, more unusual effects.))
The whale’s flesh did nothing to shield him from the soul-freezing chill, which was disappointing in the extreme. So much for Luke Skywalker tactics, he thought, pushing closer to the nerve cluster. On the one hand, he was really grateful he couldn’t smell anything, but on the other he was completely submerged in MEAT now and being a sword didn’t make that any less disgusting. It was too gross to pay much attention to the cold yet, though he knew he was risking a reverse ‘frog boiling in a pot’ scenario if he didn’t hurry. He twisted in place, once, twice, three times, each rotation loosening her grip on him, and slowly, inexorably, pushed closer to that nerve cluster.
A little farther, and… there! Her reaction was instant but he was careful not to destroy the bundle of ropey strands. Severing it would leave him with nothing to hurt her with. He had to cut just enough, press just hard enough to make her feel it…
((Rick rolls Will to resist the Spoopy Wall, /-++ +5 = 6! No spoopy this round. Then he goes for an attack! Poltergeist -/++ +7 =8 w:2! She defends at +4, and tags both of her Stucks to get to 8 a:2, which would be a boost for Rick but he invokes on Nearby Nerve Cluster to bring that to 10 w:2 and hit her 2nd box (rolls up to third). End of Round 6))
An indignant cry followed his attack, as the Trempulcahue’s body shook from it. However, she remained undeterred in her course. As Rick continued his grisly work, the Trempulcahue slammed against the wall of translucent ice, causing it to shatter before her. A strange light that did not seem to come from anywhere broke through, illuminating the ocean with a pale glow that exposed the barren sands below and caused everything to fade into tones of black and white.
The impact did not seem to slow the whale down any — instead, she continued onwards, as though it wasn’t there, leading him closer and closer to something that made his heart stop briefly with dread.
((That hurts, but the Trempulcahue isn’t out yet. She performs a Physique Create Advantage upon the wall, with her result of 5 against diff 3 succeeding cleanly. The aspect Cleansing Light is created.))
As the light grew stronger, he felt its warmth fall upon him, cutting through the cold and darkness, filling every crevice of his soul. It settled upon something for which he had no name, causing it to catch fire like dry kindling. Guilt, inadequacy and fear washed over his body, and he knew —he wasn’t sure how, but he knew— that the light itself was judging him, exposing all his weaknesses and failings and considering them...and that he was perilously close to being found wanting.
He dove back into the sword in a panic but the relentless glare cut through the misty skies and reflected off the silver sea even more brightly than it had outside, casting the black sand beach in stark, uncaring light. He dropped to his knees and pushed his palms into his eyes, screaming in agony.
It hurts so much.
His hands fell into his lap, all color drained away. His right hand had gone stiff and when he opened his eyes it had turned to silver. The metallic stain spread up his arm as he clawed at it with his other hand, but a moment later it spread to his left fingers. His heart shuddered and stopped. There was no breath left in him and trying to take one felt like inhaling liquid fire. What was happening to him?
Make it stop. Please…
He had to give up now, before it was too late. The Trempulcahue had won. This was her ocean, her world. She had a million years of experience and ten tons on him. What chance had he ever had? But this wasn’t a duel to the death. All he had to do was let her win and she’d have to honor the terms. He could go home, tell Elbridge that Claudia was about to summon the arch-demon they’d banished, and watch them kill each other, all because he couldn’t stop a little old lady from punking him.
Why does everything I do end up like this? It's like the minute I make a decision I’ve already lost. Nothing goes how I planned it so what’s the point of planning? Why pretend I have any control over a situation when it spirals out of control immediately? I keep showing up, I keep trying my hardest, sacrificing myself because other people ask me to, but they don’t do the same for me and I’m just so tired of being the responsible one that everyone relies on. I’m not good enough to do this. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m not smart enough, not strong enough, or just too unlucky… But I can’t. I can’t anymore. I just want it all to stop.
The heat intensified until his fingertips started dripping beads of molten metal that hissed when they hit the sand. His vision swam. He wasn’t going to be able to hold out much longer.
I could take her with me, he thought bitterly. Aim for the heart, the liver, the kidneys. Something that not even the Trempulcahue could heal easily. If she was going to destroy him he had to at least do that much. He’d done it before. Hell, if he let the death loop take him again he could turn her into a big frozen whale-sicle just like… like...
His leg burned where Roqueza had grabbed it, and for a moment that lasted forever he teetered on the edge of the knife. It would be easy to make sure that no one won, instead of losing alone. Easy, and pointless, and pathetic.
One more pyrrhic victory for the road? Is that the best I can do?
He tilted his head up and looked across the silver sea. In the distance, a boat emerged from the mist. A tall, thin figure in dark robes stood at the prow. A shadow without a face in this burning light, but Rick remembered him well enough. All he had to do was call out, and it would stop. No more pain, no more being unappreciated, abandoned, used. No more struggling against impossible odds. No more deadlines, no more battles, no more bad bets.
He could make it stop right now, if he wanted. Someone else would write the book on the Nothing. The world didn’t really need Richter Cole.
Slowly he rose to his feet and started wading out into the water. The silver on his skin was melting away, and as it did, he could feel his bond to the sword weakening. Soon, his soul would be free to move on.
I don’t want this.
He could hardly hear his own voice underneath all the layers of resignation. He’d lost. There was no more point in struggling. Besides, since when did it matter what he wanted?
He stared up into that blinding glare with unblinking eyes. His whole life had been about doing what other people told him to, from the cradle to the grave. Even when he’d tried to strike out on his own it had just delayed the inevitable. But the life he had now, as strange as it was... it wasn’t tainted by anyone else’s expectations. He’d fought so hard for it. For a chance to make his own decisions, find his own meaning, his own happiness and purpose. Could he really choose to climb in the boat and leave now, without accomplishing any of it?
Do I have a choice? Did I ever?
He shaded his eyes and lowered them to the silver sea. The black boat and its helmsman had come no closer. He would have to swim out there, not passively wait to be taken away.
Yeah. I always had a choice. I still have a choice.
“I can’t go with you,” he called to Charon. “Not today.”
What I want matters, starting right now. I want to live. Not survive, not cling to life, live. For me. Not for Rachel, or Ada, or the Council… Just for me.
The mist swirled in the distance, and the boat vanished into it. For a moment he wasn’t sure if it had ever really been there, or if it had only been a trick of his mind. The light still seared as painfully as ever, but he was no longer afraid of it, and he wasn’t melting under the heat anymore either.
His mind was strangely at peace as he extended his senses out beyond the blade. He was still wedged deep in the Trempulcahue’s body, and she was carrying him deeper into the light.
Well. The ocean might have been her domain, but as a sword, the flesh was his.
<My name is Richter Cole,> he said simply.
The silver sea leaked from his blade, a trickle of enchanted water traveling along the sharpened edge from one end of his hilt to the other. Each revolution faster, and hotter, and under more pressure until it became a blade of water sharper than any metal could match.
<This is my resolve.>
He went straight through her like a hot knife through butter, bursting from the skin of her back in a cloud of blood, a fountain of black under the glare of the light. His sword blazed a trail back the way they’d come, a silver drill that slammed into the ice wall that had reformed behind them. He could see the ocean on the other side, and in just a few seconds, he’d punched through, back into the world of color and darkness and freezing cold.
((Rick attacks! -/++ +7 = 8 w:2. Trem defends with her physique: -+/+ +6 = 7 a:2. Then the invokes begin. Rick is currently dealing 1 stress, he needs to get to 5 to take the mild and end the fight. He invokes on Nobody's Tool to take control of his destiny, Spirited Pathfinder to not give up, and Growing Urban Legend because if a fight against the Trempulcahue isn't legend-worthy, then nothing is. Trem counterinvokes on Unnerving Judgement and Cleansing Light, which means he falls short... but! Rick then uses his 1/milestone Eye for Details stunt to slap a free invoke onto Cleansing Light, which he invokes at +3 with Know Your Environment. He reveals his own toxic coping mechanisms so he can overcome them and pierces through to victory! The Trempulcahue takes a Mild Consequence, Wound Sustained in the Line of Duty.))
The water around him surged into a violent whirlpool. A loud keening caused the blade to vibrate, its sounds conveying nothing but pain. The tide carried him away, spinning wildly out of control, and after a few moments, he realized he was rising. Then, the water broke and he flew through the air, before landing on the ice, blade down.
“Well done, child of man.” The Trempulcahue’s voice beamed with pride as she sat down heavily beside him. “Well done!”
“Is it over?” Rick asked, his spirit-form flickering into visibility, seated and leaning back against the stuck sword. He was still a bit dizzy, both from the whirlpool and the moments before it.
“It is, all thanks to you. I was not about to send a confused young man out into the world without making sure he was ready for it first.” She winced, clutching her side. “You could have been a little gentler, though. These old bones ache after a scuffle, you know?”
“If I’d held anything back I don’t think I’d have made it through,” Rick said. He held up his hand and splayed his fingers. They were still silver. “You weren’t so gentle yourself.”
The Trempulcahue nodded. “Gentleness has its time and place, aye. It is not to be used with those who are held back by fear. Would you have listened if I’d simply tried to speak with you?”
“Listened, yes,” he said. “Understood? No.”
“You know yourself well enough to not tell lies now.” The old woman nodded approvingly. “Remember this clarity. It will be tempting to turn your back on it and return to your comfortable old lies, but they can only hinder you. As unforgiving as the path of sincerity is to walk, it is the only way forward you have left.”
The heavy tromping of footsteps behind him announced that they had a visitor. “Well? How did you find our little contest, old friend?” the Trempulcahue asked, not looking back.
“Weak,” said Breenfjell, tossing a small pane of ice at her feet. “Not enough broken bones or dismemberment.” He shot Rick a glance. “Decent sword technique, though.”
“Thanks,” Rick said. That was high praise from a troll. “So, where do I find a faerie who can embody my friend?”
The Trempulcahue nodded slowly, and her expression became serious.“Before I take you to them, there is something you must understand first. There is no fairy within the court of Winter that can give a body to a wayward soul with no strings attached and no limits. Such a thing is beyond the power of Winter. Can you accept that? Or will this all be for naught if you cannot all but bring the dead back to life?”
“If I wanted that I’d find a necromancer,” Rick said, shaking his head. “What I’m looking for is a compromise. An option that may have strings or drawbacks, but with a cost that can be borne without regrets.”
“Whether a burden is too heavy to bear depends on the one who has to carry the weight. But there is a tribe that may make you an acceptable offer.” She raised her hand and snapped. “Help me up, both of you. I will take you to see the Shadow People.”
The Trempulcahue posted:
|# ? Apr 11, 2021 17:26|
Scene: Lake Pontchartrain
Zia sat at the front of the airboat, head slightly tilted and eyes closed. Something soft hummed deep in the back of her skull, but the chorus wasn’t close enough to be afraid of yet. They’d turned the big fan off just a few moments ago, and Grace was using a long metal pole to propel the boat forward a little at a time. Poling was a very effective means of propulsion here, where the water was only a couple meters deep.
It was mid-afternoon now, though the sun didn’t seem to be offering much warmth. Zia watched Shirley lean over and scoop up a vial full of lake water, holding it up and looking at the brownish-liquid as if it held all the secrets of the universe.
“Hear anything yet?” Shirley asked her.
“Not yet,” she said. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll be somewhere else today.”
“Let’s hope so, cause I can’t see a thing,” said Gorden, staring over the side of the airboat at the brackish water and holding a fire extinguisher as if he was actually going to try to knock a Fomor off the boat. “Hey, Grace, did you ever notice anything weird out here? Like, salt in the water and stuff?”
Grace made a long, deep push, letting the boat glide forward for a bit while she turned and responded to Gorden. “I uh, actually normally hang out on the south side of town. Pontchartrain is a bit too open for my tastes, to be honest.”
“Oh,” said Gorden, with an expression that looked like someone had just gut-punched him. “That makes sense.”
“There’s always some salt in the water here,” Shirley said. “This isn’t even a real lake, it’s an estuary.”
“And there’s way too many tourists up here.” Grace chimed in. “How do you tie into this whole mess, anyway, Gorden? I made friends with James and ended up doing some odd jobs for Ada, but somebody said you’re a grad student?”
“Yeah, Astrophysics at Tulane,” Gorden affirmed. “Shirley did...does…” he stumbled. “Hydrology there too. One of my undergrad students said she heard rumors about her quitting and wanted to know why, I did some digging, that led me to Elbridge and all the rest and...now I’m here. Helping Shirley get her life back together.”
“Um, I thought this was about preserving the lake…?” Shirley said uncomfortably. “Since the fish-heads are going to ruin the local ecology? Kill all the fish and amphibians and birds and everything that isn’t a blood sucking mosquito?”
“Well, that too, obviously!” Gorden fired back, “but Grace asked why I’m here, and it started with looking for you and then helping out with the bullshit you’ve had to put up with!”
“Okay, fine! I appreciate it!” Shirley said, scrunching down in her seat. “But you’re making it sound like I’m a damsel in distress or something. I was doing just fine when you showed up on the porch like a lost kitten who didn’t even know what a threshold was.”
“Quiet, both of you. I thought we were trying to be stealthy out here.” Grace let out a grunt with her next push, half muttering to herself. “I’m just over here trying to avenge all my dead friends and family, don’t mind me.”
There was a brief, awkward silence.
“Maybe we should start over,” Zia said quietly. “Hi everybody, my name is Zia, I like to do street art. This summer I got captured by the Fomor and they tried to integrate me into their creepy cult, but then Ada got me back in a prisoner exchange and I’ve been trying to y’know, do life stuff again since.” It was an almost practiced method of introduction, like she was at an AA meeting, or some kind of group therapy. She hid a smile behind her sleeve. “Okay, now you guys. One at a time though.”
“...probably for the best,” Gorden admitted. “Sorry, Shirley. Uh, I’m Gorden, grad student at Tulane, Astrophysics. And, uh, also a time mage, I guess. Someone asked me to help out with...things,” he paused, trying to avoid picking at that scab, “and then I fought one of the profs on campus, and then they tried to kidnap me and throw me to the Fomor, and then I got rescued, and then...uh, well the point is, now I’m here.” He looked around the airboat. “I’ve had to do these ‘everybody introduce yourselves’ things since kindergarten, you’d think it’d be easier.”
“You’d think,” Shirley sighed. “I didn’t mean to snap, Gorden. It’s just that we’re getting close to well… that.” she pointed at the spire of a lighthouse looming ominously over their location.
“I’m Shirley, also a grad student at Tulane, Hydrology. I’m currently on sabbatical because the last time I was out taking samples on this estuary the fish-heads kidnapped me and locked me in that lighthouse. They wanted me to do measurements for them, so I did for a few weeks. They weren’t trying to induct me, just control me via a bunch of parasite eggs they put in my ear. Anyways, the Warden- the previous Warden that is- and his friends broke me out of there and I ended up moving in with my mostly-a-demon roommate since they knew where I lived. That’s why I can’t go back to school, even if the whole rear end in a top hat professor thing gets handled.”
“And I’m Grace, were-gator. Probably the last gator of Clan LeBlanc of the Everglades after a fomori massacre. Delivery girl for A-1 Delivery, as well as a side business delivering for anyone up to and including honest to god faerie princesses. And whatever Ada needs as long as she’s turning my spare change into gold. Oh, and helping a freaking vampire save the The Gilded Lily, because as weird as life in the glades could get, being back home is way weirder.”
“I wish I could turn into an alligator,” Zia said, dipping her fingers over the side of the boat into the cool water. “That sounds so relaxing.”
Grace laughed softly at Zia. “It can be. There’s a… stillness that the human world just doesn’t experience. All this... “ She waved her hand vaguely in the air. “Nonsense matters less. I can just sit and watch the world just happen.” She let the thought settle in the quiet of the lake for a second. “Maybe once this all settles down we can see about starting Clan Wagner if you’re still interested.”
“Is it something you can teach?” Zia’s eyes widened. “I thought magic was something you had to be born with.”
Grace shrugged at Zia. “Becoming one with a gator isn’t exactly magic you do. It’s magic done to you. I’m not sure I have the talent to pull it off, to be honest. But it’s way more about being open and willing to share your body with another soul. Which also can’t be really be taught, I suppose.”
“I’m imagining walking on all fours and having a tail and big jaws and my brain’s spinning already,” laughed Gorden, taking advantage of the moment of relief. “How long does it take to get used to that?”
“Honestly, no time at all? It’s like a memory that you forgot you had. All of the human worries and stress fade away, and you’re just another gator floating and waiting for something delicious to pass by. It’s coming back that can get hard. When your human life has bills to pay and an early delivery tomorrow morning... ” Grace stopped and gave the boat another push. “Pretty sure that’s why most were-s don’t have nine to five jobs, ya know?”
“I wonder if I would ever want to come back,” Zia said wistfully. “Maybe it’s better that I don’t have the temptation. It’s fun to think about though...”
Grace laughed a little at Zia’s musings. “Yeah, well, that’s why you need to be in a good place before going down that path. Those that aren’t end up getting some pretty bad movies made about them. What was that vampire versus werewolf movie?”
“Underworld, I think?” chimed in Gorden. “I saw it on a student discount and I think I overpaid.”
“I saw it for free and I felt like I overpaid,” Shirley said, smirking through the greenish-liquid in the vial she was holding up. “Being able to turn into an animal sounds really cool but I wouldn’t trade my opposable thumbs for anything. Gotta love humanity’s one weird evolutionary trick, y’know?”
“Apes together strong!” agreed Gorden. “Anyway...hey, Shirley, need some help getting that data written up?”
“Please,” Shirley said, nudging the (somewhat damp) pad of paper over towards him. “I’ve got testing strips in half of these already, I’ll do the rest if you can do the notation?”
“Gotcha,” said Gorden, grabbing the pad and pulling out a pen. “Feels kinda nice doing stuff old school--playing with entropy might make the gathering faster but I can only imagine it’d play hell with the diffusion coefficients, and that’s the whole reason we’re out here, right?”
“Right, and given how poorly water conducts magic it’d likely do more harm than good.” Shirley seemed quite pleased by his dedication to science. “Magic is a great tool, but when you use it to take shortcuts… well, it can get ugly.”
Doing it with Science! 4dF +3 = (b+-+) +3 = 4
Grace ignored their chatter, scanning the calm waters of the lake as they worked.
Zia seemed content to do the same, running her fingers through her long dark hair while staring off into the middle distance. But a few moments later her head snapped up and she grabbed the side of the boat with one hand and pointed with the other. “They’re coming. That way. Two or three, maybe.” She looked back at Grace. Her eyes had gone very round, almost inhumanly so.
Grace hissed at Gorden and Shirley, while very deliberately making a single push towards the shore. “Quiet. Now.” A second push angled into some reeds and grass, hopefully enough that whatever Fomor were passing by wouldn’t look any closer. She kneeled and stuck the pole into the mud below them, her eyes on Zia, rather than the lake.
Stealth to avoid the Fomor, 4dF +5 = (b+b-) +5, Invoke Weregator Without A Cause for +2 = 7
“Is this the last one?” A man’s simpering voice crept in through the tall cattails, and Shirley’s head whipped towards it, her expression a mix of shock and fury.
“Yes, yes, we’re almost done,” said another voice, this one deep and croaking. “Pull us ashore, my pets.”
Through the reeds, the passengers on the fanboat could make out a small dinghy with three occupants sliding by at around the same speed they had been traveling. In the back sat two grey-skinned fomor, with round, amphibious eyes and wide, frog-like mouths. At the prow sat a mussed up, mousey-looking professor that Gorden instantly recognized from his profile picture.
“What the F--?!” started Gorden, before clamping his mouth shut and trying to fumble for his phone. With all the magic going around it might have been merely a placebo, but it was something to do besides scream.
“Good,” Lancaster said, fidgeting with his hands. “Very good. And if all goes to plan this should be the last renewal...”
“Won’t you miss our little trips together?” The second fomor’s voice carried that same croak but had a softer, feminine tone. “I’ve enjoyed our chats, the…” she paused, smiling to herself. “Cultural exchanges…”
Lancaster returned her smile with an almost sheepish one of his own. “Yes, well, there’s no reason we can’t stay in touch after, you know, all this business is settled. I would like that very much, in fact.”
The hull of the dinghy scraped softly on the mud as it beached and the three passengers stepped out into the shallow, brackish water.
“You’ll need to come up with some other arrangement with Lord Ibor if you mean to keep that creature fed,” said the fomor man.
“Ah, I had hoped Prince Dierg would be more… amenable?” Lancaster said.
“To cutting deals with your kind? Oh, there’s no doubt about that. Prince Dierg was the one who suggested this plan to begin with. But… Lord Ibor does not easily trust men who are not kept as sheep, and even they are suspect to him. If it were not for the Key being among the humans I wonder if he would even keep a flock of his own.”
Lancaster was pawing around in the water, looking for something, but his expression at the mention of the ‘flock’ was pained. “Will he release them, after the Key is found? If he doesn’t trust them, perhaps...”
“Oh no,” said the fomor woman. “Don’t hope for it, Rueben. I know how you feel but there aren’t enough of us to take the Gates without the flocks. And we cannot wield the ironbane- which will be needed to drive the Winter Sidhe away. Once the Key is found there will be counts, and when the quota is met the holy war will begin.”
“And everything else will come to an end,” Lancaster said miserably.
“No, it simply changes, as all things must,” said the fomor man. “The Singer Below used to long for silence, as all their kind did, but not anymore. They have changed, and their lost kin will change too.”
“But how many will they consume-”
“Oh! Here it is,” said the woman, lifting a large silver disc out of the water. It glimmered with celtic designs.
Lancaster took it from her and nodded. He started to chant over the disc while the fomor pair watched in silence. After a few moments he sighed and wiped his brow. “There, it’s done. How many did we do today, twenty? I can barely see straight.”
“It’s no small task to blind the lords of faerie,” the woman said, laying a webbed hand on his chest. “You may not believe in our gods, but your service to the Singer will be rewarded.”
“Of course it will, Fia,” Lancaster said. “In the form of a truckload of fish flesh. Friday delivery, as usual?”
She shook her head and sighed. “As usual. Let’s go home. I tire of all this air-breathing.”
“As do I,” said the fomor man. “And on Saturday? Has Katherine finished her preparations?”
“I believe she has.” He bit his lip. “This is the only way, you’re sure?”
“It’s only one,” Fia said. “The last one, as promised.”
The three of them climbed back into the boat and it slipped away from the shore, turned silently, and went back the way it had come from. A few moments later all was still.
4dF +4 Notice = (+-++) +4 = 6
Between the cattails, the shaking of the boat, and Gorden quivering with suppressed swearing the phone video was useless. He sighed and resisted the urge to kick the side of the fanboat.
“That spineless… sneaking… shithead!” Shirley tried not to raise her voice but didn’t bother hiding her contempt. “He’s not just working for them, he’s friends with them? Oh it’s just one grad student, I bet that’s what they told him, just one, it’s fine!”
Grace watched Gorden and Shirley’s responses, her eyes started to turn to vertical slits. She doesn’t know who Lancaster is, but clearly he’s a problem. “Should I go retrieve him… or at least his body?” she asks Gorden.
“I thought the whole reason we were doing is this is so they didn’t figure out we’re here,” hissed Gorden in answer.
“Yeah, but…” Grace hissed back and gestured towards the direction of Lancaster. “I don’t know who that guy is, but he’s a traitor and clearly deserves to be fed to the wildlife.”
“And what happens to us after you get Lancaster and then his buddies call their pals on us?! Maybe you can fight, but I’m not exactly a SEAL, here!”
Grace just responded with a long, low growl before taking a deep breath. “Fine, this is your show, but he will end up dead and eaten before this is all said and done.”
“Now that’s a good reason to give up opposable thumbs,” Shirley muttered under her breath.
“Did you see what they were doing out there? With the disk thingies?” Gorden turned to Shirley and Zia. “Are those giant self-replenishing salt licks or something?”
Zia shrugged. Her eyes had gone back to normal and she seemed tired. “If I had to guess that was a ward of some kind, but I don’t do magic so I’m not sure…”
“Can we check it out or do you think there’s an alarm or something?” Shirley asked.
“They’d probably come running back if we moved it, but if they alarmed it against looking, every fish in the lake would set it off,” Gorden suggested. “I’m sure we can at least do that.”
Grace didn’t turn her head from watching where Lancaster and the fomor headed off to as she responded. “Well then go look, I’ll let you know if they come back.”
“I can do that,” Zia said with a small smile. “Don’t worry.”
“Pole us over to that shallow part then. Good thing I brought waders…”
Notice Roll: @Davin_Valkri: 4dF +5 = (+--b) +5 = 4, spending an FP on The Time Lord Most Curious to investigate this potentially dangerous thing to make it +6, and Grace assists for a +7.
“Gah, this is cold...should have brought thicker ones,” shivered Gorden as he flopped over the side of the airboat. “Okay...Lancaster pulled up there, they walked over here…” he recited as he walked with great effort through the mud. “And his friend pulled it up...where the hell is it?”
Grace let Gorden muck about for a bit, mostly wondering how she kept ending up in the swamp with guys who have no business out here. “Try the reeds to your left. Their root structure kind of floats, easy to hide something under them.” She’d kept some fae ‘shine in similar hiding places before, not that he needed to know that.
“These reeds here--whoa!” It turned out roots that floated off the muck made quite the trip hazard, and Gorden just barely caught himself before his face hit the water. Fortunately, that put him at just the right angle to see the disc lying on the bottom. “Oh, there it is.”
It was hard to keep his eyes on it, the symbols and lines seeming to draw his gaze away into the murky water. A fish swam by and he couldn’t help following it, momentarily forgetting all about what he’d found. Only by focusing very hard was he able to draw his attention back to it, and keeping it there was like holding onto a bar of soap.
“What the...ungh…” If Gorden hadn’t had practice sweeping the night sky for almost imperceptible phenomena he’d probably have glazed right over the disk. It was somehow like finding a pixel in a sea of vaguely similar pixels, but the drat thing was bigger than a laptop, so how could that be?! With great effort he pulled out his grimoire and, between balancing it atop the water and repeatedly glancing back at the disk, painstakingly and hesitantly transcribed the patterns he could see.
Will roll to not mess it up! Vs +6: @Davin_Valkri: 4dF +5 = (-+++) +5 = 7
It went better than could be expected, given the water distortion. He soon had a good sketch of each symbol, and the overall disc itself.
“Well, I’ve got my samples,” Shirley said. “I think, given everything going on, we’d better finish this up at home. If things go well, I should be able to give you a solid map of the salinity levels in the lake by tomorrow afternoon. Which should tell us approximately where the salt’s coming from, which should be some kind of fish-head… facility? Something like that. Then you guys and the magic cops can go kick the doors in, right?”
“Last time I broke in somewhere, Chesterfield got on my rear end and got people to flashbang me,” Gorden half-joked as he pulled himself back onto the boat. “I got the pattern, and you got the samples. Let's go before the fomor reveal they have flashbangs.”
Grace didn’t need any further convincing. She poled them back towards the inlet they entered from.
|# ? Apr 11, 2021 20:27|
Scene: Mary’s Voodoo Shop
“The last time I did something like this Chesterfield literally sent people to kidnap me soon after,” Gorden confessed to Grace as he pulled into a parking spot near Mary’s Voodoo Shop. “Did you see anybody following us? Either after we left the lake or after we dropped off Shirley and Zia?”
Grace looked up from the etching Gorden had made of the rune. “What? Sorry, this thing is kinda mesmerizing. You were driving, weren’t you watching the rear view mirror?”
Notice 4dF + 4 = -//- = 2
“If I watched the rear view mirror the whole time, I’d crash into something in front of me!” Gorden protested. “...nevermind. It’s just me coming down from the adrenaline, maybe. I guess that means I drew the thing well?” He stepped out of the car, gave one last quick glance up and down the road, then walked over to the sidewalk to open the passenger door. “Have you met Mary? Her daughter goes to Tulane, too; she’s in one of my classes…”
“Mary? Yeah, I’ve started delivering some of her more sensitive items. Or in one case, rather mundane items that just get dropped off under a specific tree in the cemetery. Whatever she needs.” She got out of the car and handed the paper back to Gorden. “Really, it’s just amazing how even with a copy, your eyes just want to slide right past the symbols.”
“I know, right?!” Gorden answered enthusiastically as he took back the tracing. “I haven’t felt my mind glaze over like that since Scotty tried to explain superstrings secondhand. And he said they had twenty of these things? How did nobody just trawl them with an anchor by accident?”
“Even if they did, they’d probably just ignore it as a rock or whatever. You were drat near standing on that one and could barely find it. Hell, I bet even that old warden would have a tough time finding these.” Grace chuckled to herself as she gave Gorden a light push towards the door.
“I don’t think I’d have found it unless Lancaster picked it up first,” Gorden admitted with a scratch of the head as he pulled open the shop door. “Ms. Laveau, hello? Are you available? We could use a quick consultation!”
The shop was empty, at the moment, other than Mary. She was sitting on a stool behind the heavy counter, affixing pins to the latest crop of sack dolls, none of which had any magical significance whatsoever.
“An’ what sort o ‘ting would ye be needin’ to consult wit’ me about den?” she asked, her over the top tourist accent on full display. When she recognized her customers though she coughed. “Oh! Sorry, I had to play the fool for a bus full of seniors an hour ago.” She glanced from one of them to the other. “I didn’t realize you two were acquainted. What’s the trouble?”
Grace stood up on her tiptoes, making sure nobody was in any of the aisles. "Elbridge roped us both into some bad business, Mary. Gordo got some sketchings of some odd runes. Something about being invisible to faeries. We figured you could point us in the right direction, at the very least."
“Invisible to faeries? That’s awfully specific. Can I see them?” She pushed the dolls aside to make room.
“Yeah, I was able to make a copy of one of them,” said Gorden as he produced his copy of the pattern. “It might be invisible to faeries but it’s really hard to focus on even if you aren’t…it took way too long to trace these for being on a giant disc...”
“Hmmm…” She pulled a pair of glasses out of a case under the counter and peered down her nose at the paper. “Well I can’t read them offhand but these look like druidic symbols to me and they’re definitely some kind of ward against prying. A strong one, if they’re even making a copy hard to look at.” She blinked and rubbed at her eyes. “I’ve seen these sorts of spells before- the wizards use them a lot to discourage mortals from noticing their messes- but you really don’t need something this potent to stop your average Joe from poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. This is BIG juju. Where did you find this thing?”
“Out in the lake, in one of the shallows,” Gorden replied, “and the guy who pulled this out said there were twenty more at least!”
“Oh! A ritual matrix. That makes a lot more sense. Twenty-one or twenty-seven would be my guess, they’ll usually work in groups of threes… But water disrupts mortal magic, so I have no idea how they managed to drop such a delicate thing into a lake without it fizzling to uselessness...”
Grace's voice dropped to a whisper as she tried to fill in Mary's missing information. "The guy who did this is working with the Fomori. Their rules about water seem different than yours or mine."
“The Fomori?” Mary blinked and gave the book a little push back towards Gorden. “Whatever it is you’d better be careful then. Which lake did you say you found this thing in?”
“The big one, Lake Pontchartrain,” answered Gorden. “That’s...probably why they have over twenty of them.”
Mary’s eyes bulged. “The Lake Pontchartrain? Home and hearth to Old Man Pontchartrain, Lord of Summer in these parts? That Lake Pontchartrain?”
"You know another Lake Pontchartrain the Fomori are messing around with?" Grace tried to make a joke of it, but the seriousness of the situation kept it from landing.
“The Lake Pontchartrain!” affirmed Gorden. “The one the Fomori are trying to turn into the Dead Sea, by my friend’s estimates! That Lake Pontchartrain!”
“Well then I think it behooves ya’ll to find out exactly what those runes say,” Mary said. “And tell Warden Hardley right-quick once you do. Now I don’t happen to have much in the way of Celtic-themed books in my Voodoo Shop, but that’s okay. I know where you can find some.” She grinned, a little crazily. “Either of you ever been to the Library?”
Grace raised an eyebrow. “I’m assuming you’re not talking about the public library on Common Street, right?”
“Capital L, dear. Technically it’s a bunch of magical knowledge repositories that all go under the one name. They’ve got an old, storied history and whatnot, but you can bother the monks about that if you’re interested. We’re lucky enough to have a branch in town. I’m sure you can find what you’re looking for there.”
It would have been nice to know those guys existed a few months ago, Gorden thought to himself. “Thanks for the tip, Ms. Laveau,” he said aloud. “It’s publicly available, right? We’re not going to have to find a building covered in these sorts of marks?” He indicated the sketch.
She smiled at him. “I can give you the address, but it isn’t open to the public, no. You’ll need a Library card to get in, of course.”
“And you or Elbridge or Ada have one of those, right…?” Gorden said tentatively, strongly suspecting the answer was “no”.
“I do, and I’m sure Warden Hardley does too. But that doesn’t help you any,” she said, reaching under the counter for a pen and some stationary. “I can give you a letter of recommendation though. That’s how these things work, you have to know somebody.” She finished writing and folded the paper, slipping it into a plain envelope and writing the address on the outside. “Here you go. Tell them you’re on the Warden’s business and they’ll probably expedite the whole thing.”
“Thanks, Ms. Laveau,” nodded Gorden as he pulled out his phone to check the address. “Let’s hope after it’s expedited we can be looking this stuff up in minutes and not months…”
"Yeah, thanks Mary." Grace chimed in. "You're a lifesaver, as always."
“Oh you,” the shopkeeper said, clearly enjoying all the praise. “If you really want to thank me, bring me some of that moonshine I’ve been hearing about next time.”
"Of course!" She elbowed Gorden. "C'mon let's get moving."
Gorden barely avoided stumbling into a shelf of cheap voodoo dolls--Grace was strong!--as he ran out the door behind her.
|# ? Apr 11, 2021 20:31|
|# ? Jun 24, 2021 12:29|
The sky above was inky black, lit only by the distant twinkling of a few scattered, faraway stars in a sea of darkness. The land below it was much the same, its sandy plains and scant greenery illuminated only ever so slightly by the dimming light of the bonfire as the Trempulcahue methodically applied an ointment to her side.
“There,” she said, wiping her hands off as she stood up uneasily with the help of her cane. “We are ready. Would you like some advice before we begin your interview with the Shadow People, child?”
“If it’s freely given, sure,” Rick said. “I’m not going to have to fight them too, am I?”
“I do not think so. Not unless you anger them, at any rate.”
“Don’t ask stupid questions, don’t beg, and don’t be pathetic.” Breenfjell had brought a hefty club with him for this meeting, which was fairly ominous. His vicious voice was even more gruff than usual, if that was actually possible.
“The Shadow People are dangerous folk, and more than that they are alien. They come from the deepest reaches of Winter, and obey no rules but their own. Be thoughtful and careful with your words, and remember they have no patience for haggling. Negotiate carefully and precisely, because they will interpret scrambling for an appropriate offer as a denial and refuse to continue to deal with you.” She paused for a moment, and looked at him. “You are strong, child, and resourceful. Remember that and everything will be alright.” Then, she turned to Breenfjell. “Kill the light.”
It was said and done in a moment. The troll kicked up a massive storm of sand and dirt, and the bonfire was snuffed out. Darkness fell upon them, blinding in its depth and strangely silent. The seconds ticked away as they waited for something to happen, but not a sound could be—
We see you, taken one.
...A manifold susurrus crept up his spine and caressed the back of his neck, like the crawling of a centipede. He turned around, but there was no one there. When he turned his attention forwards once again, he saw a pair of swirling red lights, inches from his face.
“And I see you, shadowed one,” Rick said, standing straight and very still. “I am called Cole, and I have traveled far and risked much to find you. I’ve heard your people possess the means to grant a body to a spirit without one of their own.”
The lights pulled back, allowing Rick to see the figure they belonged to, a distinct silhouette in the dark that became fuzzy around the edges. It looked human...but pieces of it stuck out in ways that just didn’t quite fit. And behind it, there was an army of creatures just like it.
We have We have We have the power to TAKE others, and make them ours. You wish to become one with us? The voice echoed, coming from all of the silhouettes before him and none of them at the same time.
“No,” Rick said, patting his sheath. “I have my body right here with me. There is another, a friend who is about to lose her vessel. What would it mean to become one with you?”
We are Shadow People. We are one and we are MANY. She will become as we are. It might have just been his imagination, but the figures on the edges of his vision seemed to move in an encircling motion as they spoke.
“Is it possible to become as you are without becoming one with you?” he asked, ignoring the knot forming in his stomach. If becoming a Shadow Person meant Alisa would have to subsume herself to a hive mind this was another dead end.
You wish for her to become like us in body but not in soul? A formless whisper erupted amidst the shadows, too muddled to work out any words, and yet loud enough for the creatures’ indignation to be clear. It is not our way, taken one. This will be a special service, with a great price to be paid in exchange.
So it’s possible. Alright. “I understand,” he said. “And I agree that a special service like that would be worth a great price. But I know little of your people. Would she be able to live in the world outside the Nevernever without undue hardships?”
We are shadow. In darkness, our POWER is great. We can be anything, and anyone.
The central silhouette flickered, and then Rick saw himself standing there, sword in hand, same as he had always looked except for the glowing red eyes. “Even you,” the shadowman spoke, with his own voice, before returning to its normal dark shape.
We fear nothing, and no one, save for the accursed Great Enemy. Before it, we are powerless, It strips us of STRENGTH and FREEDOM, and entraps us to a single, unmoving form.
So they’re shapeshifters… Normally he’d be more concerned when conversing so casually with monsters straight out of a horror movie, but an army of red-eyed living shadows seemed almost quaint after his fight with the Trempulcahue. Rick touched his chin thoughtfully. Alisa was already used to having a mutable form. It shouldn’t be too hard for her to adapt. “The Great Enemy?” he asked. He had an idea but it was best to confirm.
“They mean the sun.” A chorus of hisses and whispers erupted as the Trempulcahue uttered the last word. “They are shadows. In darkness a shadow is master, but in light, it is beholden to the being it is attached to...and a free shadow becomes bound to the nearest surface.”
Do NOT speak that name here, old one! You blaspheme at your own peril! The central shadow warned, as something dizzingly fast and sharp sprouted from its back.
“Peace,” Rick said, holding up a hand. “It was only my ignorance she sought to correct.” He nodded to the old woman appreciatively. “Entrapment only, not destruction?”
The Trempulcahue nodded. “Only entrapment. She will be able to move as a shadow on the wall or at the heels of others, but nothing more until she can escape the daylight.”
“The Shadowfolk are strong, then,” Rick said, turning back to the central figure. “I think this will work, though I’ll need to tell my friend the good news before I can agree to anything on her behalf. As for the price, I’m an explorer and a scholar as well as a warrior, so if you have no use for my blade…” He nodded to the shadowman, who had not put away his weapon yet. “Perhaps something I know would be of higher value, such as Summer’s true role in the Ripple event from a few months ago.”
Much is whispered about the actions of the lightborne. Little is of substance, taken one. Slowly, the sharp edges retracted back inside the shadowman’s body. The nature of their actions interests us less than their consequences. We feel the holes in reality, calling at us. If you would explore for us, then we shall request a favor in two parts from you.
“The Nothing?” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m familiar with it. What interests you there?”
Its location. Its origins. Its NATURE. We are closely connected to the place where existence gives way to emptiness. You will explore this Nothing, and report to us about it, sharing what you have learned. In return, your friend shall have her body, still one, but tethered to many. Once the second half of this favor is fulfilled, we shall sever that link, and she will be free to do as she wills.
Rick nodded. So far so good. Creatures of darkness being curious about the darkest of places made sense, and it wasn’t like they could go to Summer and see it for themselves without starting a war. It would mean a lot more risk to himself, but that wouldn’t be anything new. “And the second half?”
The shadowman raised an inky black hand. That, you will know about when the time is right.
“I see. In that case, you may not compel me to kill for you, to sacrifice my own life, or to betray an oath I’ve sworn,” Rick said. “What will happen to her if I‘m unable to fulfill your second request? Without knowing what it is, I can’t assure you that I can do it.”
Then we shall find new terms. If we CANNOT... The shadowman jerked, and something snapped with a sickening crunch, like breaking bones. We will not ask you to act as our assassin. However, if we call upon you to stand by us, we expect you to fight to the best of your abilities. Is that...acceptable?
“Yes.” He wished he had a counteroffer, but other than that IOU it didn’t seem like the worst deal. Certainly better than anything Claudia would get out of Mel. He wondered if he was overstepping, taking on the debt himself, but there was no time for second guessing now. “I’ll bring this to my friend. If she finds the terms agreeable, I’ll return here to finalize the deal. Is that acceptable?”
Yes. We have come to terms, taken one known as Cole. It was hard to see in the darkness, but for a moment, the shadow army bent forward, in an eerily synchronized bow. We shall be expecting you. Return to us soon, and we will begin working on your friend’s new body.
There was a gust of wind, and the darkness lifted, taking all the shadow people with it.
“Not the worst negotiation I’ve seen, child,” the Trempulcahue said, nodding approvingly. “That will certainly do, at least for now. What do you think of your new allies?”
Rick shivered involuntarily. “Different,” he settled on, after a brief struggle. “They don’t seem to want the same things that other faeries do… and there was something…” He rubbed the back of his neck where all the hairs had stood straight up. Something that felt like that cold, empty place Elbridge took me before I woke up. He carefully packed that dangerous thought away. “They’re just what I was looking for, thank you.”
“They are strange beings, not fully of Winter, just as I am.” The old woman’s voice was thoughtful, as she knelt down to relight the bonfire. “More dangerous, yet also very wise. They’ve grown beyond the petty desires of many of their kinsmen...though some would argue they’re not truly so petty.”
Breenfjell didn’t even dignify that comment with a response. “Shadowy bastards,” he muttered instead. “Never show up to a good scrap unless they get a queenly summons.”
“Do you know why they called me ‘taken one’?” Rick asked. It hadn’t seemed appropriate to ask but he was curious.
“That name? They sense that you are not quite of your world anymore, you see. A being who is part of another being, and yet still his own person, standing with one foot in the realm of the living, and another in the realm of the dead. It is that bond of yours to your sword, I think. It makes you more than merely human,” the Trempulcahue said, shooting him a knowing look.
He looked down at his silver hand. More? He’d been struggling not to think of himself as less, but… He had to admit that he couldn’t have won that duel as his old self. Not just physically… He hadn’t had the courage to believe that he could win, or the desire to live for himself instead of for others’ sakes.
“We must get going soon. The Shadow People are territorial, and visitors who have finished their business in their lands are not considered guests.” As the bonfire sparked to life, the Trempulcahue rose, using her cane for support. “Before we do, however, there is one more thing we must take care of, child. Come here.”
For a second he narrowed his eyes, but then sighed and did as she asked. They’d been through too much together for him to mistrust her, as crazy as that sounded.
“You’ve been through much today, and must be tired by now of adventures.” As the Trempulcahue spoke, she stared at the bonfire, her eyes fixed upon the flame. “Every trial bestows rewards upon the victors, however. As tempting as it might be to avoid struggles, you must remember, child, that it is not peace that defines the souls of men, but strife. Take this, as a reminder of what choosing the harder path may win.”
She turned around, and in her hand there was a smooth, flexible piece of keratin, not unlike a lone venetian blind. It took a moment for Rick to realize that it was a baleen hair, used by whales to filter their food from water.
He didn’t know what to say as he accepted the gift. It was too precious a thing for someone like him to hold, let alone possess… but that was the old Rick talking. He’d earned this with blood and silver, or she wouldn’t be giving it to him. “You honor me,” he said, flushing bright red. “Thank you.” Carefully he slipped it into his sheath next to the blade, so it’d be protected on his journey back.
“It is quite magical, and has potent magical properties.” The Trempulcahue smiled, enigmatically. “Use it well, when the time comes.” Then, she tapped the ground with her cane a few times, and started walking towards the fallen stones circle that had brought them to the darkened plain. “Now let’s get out of here, shall we? It’s late, and this old woman has earned some rest.”
((The Trempulcahue reveals another one of her stunts, Guidance for the Lost! When her allies gain an experience which is conceivably related to receiving counsel from her, it can be invoked for a +3 bonus, instead of +2! Additionally, Rick receives the Trempulcahue’s Whalebone, a shed piece of the great whale’s body.))
|# ? May 23, 2021 00:40|