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Go West, Young Woman

"And this is Tam Lane," Nereid said to the Equestrian and Maelstrom. Wire had oddly not emerged from the far side of the horse, though Nereid could hear her moving on the trail over there. "He's been helping me since I first got lost."

"Really," the Equestrian said, staring impassively down at Tam, who smiled sweetly up at her.

"He's Victorian," Nereid rushed on. "I mean, English, from the 1880s, so he's been stuck here forever. We can take him back with us, can't we?"

The Equestrian sighed and rubbed her face. "Rescuing a human in this land isn't like picking up a stray kitten on the street corner."

"But you can do it, can't you?" Nereid said. She willed Tam silent, and for once, he decided that his silver tongue wouldn't avail him here.

The Equestrian snapped, "We'll discuss it after we've done what we came here for."

Maelstrom's large nose nudged Nereid. "You're covered in blood."

Nereid swallowed, now reminded of the mess, and was grateful when she looked down and was no longer wearing a prom gown, but her costume. The dark stains seemed to match where the blues changed shade, and she wondered if her costume was now shades of red-brown. "It was the prom," she said, unwilling to explain further.

"Ah," Maelstrom said knowingly.

"Let's move along," the Equestrian said, nudging her horse into motion. "We can chat as we go."

Nereid let the horse's butt pass her and stepped around to fall into step next to Wire. "Hi," she said hesitantly.

Wire glanced at her, and a stray beam of light from somewhere illuminated her face, composed in anger, jaw clenched, lips stitched together with thick red thread.

"Aughlgh!" Nereid said incoherently, jumping backward. "What happened?"

Wire looked away.

"Oh, that," the Equestrian said placidly. "She smarted off one time too many."

"You did that to her?" Nereid said, glancing at Tam, who shrugged as if to say, Told you so.

"She asked me to do it," the Equestrian said.

"More precisely," Maelstrom said, "she asked you to do something that would stop her from talking."

"Why?" Nereid said, unable to keep her gaze off Wire's mouth.

"You know the story," Maelstrom said, "where whenever the person said something, a frog popped out of his or her mouth?"

"Um," Nereid said.

"Well," Maelstrom went on with a disgusted whole-body shudder, "it wasn't frogs."

"There was some comment about it being something that would approve of the sewer that was her mouth," the Equestrian said, almost fondly.

Wire looked almost like she was going to make a wordless exclamation, but thought better of it.

"Rats?" Nereid suggested.

Maelstrom shuddered again. "Think more legs."

Sudden nausea seized Nereid. There was, fortunately, nothing for her to vomit. She cursed her vivid imagination.

The group strolled down the road. "We spotted a place just before we saw the fire," the Equestrian. "It's chock-full of magical defenses, and Maelstrom says he smells human soul all over it."

"Stinks of it," the horse said with a snort.

"Glad to know our souls stink," Nereid said, more than a little snippy. Maelstrom turned a surprised (for a horse) look at her, probably since she'd been relatively nice on the trip in. She was just out of cope. And she thought it was kind of weird that the Equestrian hadn't quizzed her about where she'd been yet.

The Equestrian rooted in her saddlebags and tossed Nereid a granola bar. "You're probably starving. Literally. You certainly look it."

Nereid only just managed to keep some modicum of dignity as she opened the wrapper and tore into the grainy sweetness. Maybe the Equestrian was just trying to be nice, in her weird, dysfunctional way.

The Equestrian looked at Tam. "I expect you've been eating."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, though he craned his neck curiously at the granola bar.

"All right then," she said, and snapped the saddlebag shut.

What they'd seen turned out to be a concrete and glass office building with castle-like crennelations around the top. The large flagpole in a circle of grass before the substantial staircase at the front door flew something that flapped in the night breeze. Nereid was afraid it might be something living, so resolved not to look too closely. Along and windy road stretched away from that flagpole, twining down the hillside toward them.

Nereid sighed. "Why is there so much uphill in this place?"

"It's the hard work of Progress," the Equestrian said. "Making everything a difficult climb both ways in the snow."

Maelstrom snorted. "You told me once it's because we all like to live in hills. That we have a fetish for them because they symbolize female sexuality or something."

"That too," the Equestrian said blithely, and kicked him in the ribs, a sure sign, Nereid had found, of temper.

Tam grabbed Nereid's hand and clutched it tight for the entire ascent. Nereid kept glancing at Wire, who was walking with her shoulders hunched and her head hanging miserably. Part of her longed to go try to say something nice to Wire -- it was her fault that Wire was here, after all -- but Tam wouldn't release her. When she glanced at his face, she realized he was very pale and his lips were pressed together so hard they were as white has his face.

He noticed her glance and forced himself to smile. After a moment, he leaned over and kissed her lingeringly on the neck. Their progress paused, until a pointed throat-clearing from the Equestrian made Tam jump away from Nereid like a startled cat. The two of them hurried after the horse.

Wire was staring at them, and Nereid felt a blush suffuse her face to the roots of her hair. It was a relief when they reached the front door of the building.

"No guards," Maelstrom said.

"I'll never believe that," the Equestrian said. "Do it."

Maelstrom snorted once, then again, more sonorously. He pawed the ground with one forehoof. He began to glow faintly red, and Wire jumped away from him as if she'd been burnt by standing too close.

Then the horse exhaled a blast of flame. It turned and swirled and built into a ball the size of the glass doors. Then, almost gently, he blew on the ball.

It rolled with silent majesty through the doors, leaving a neatly melted hole in its wake.

"Does it stop?" Tam asked, peering into the hole curiously.

"Where I tell it to," Maelstrom said, more than a little smug.

"Let's go," the Equestrian said, digging in her heels.

The inside of the building was far more bizarre than the outside: the walls were made of gears, big and small. You could catch glimpses of rooms and other hallways through the gaps in the gears, but not many, since there appeared to be multiple layers of gears. All of the gears were still, and Nereid suspected they were for show.

The ball of fire bobbed along in front of them as they moved through the foyer. It illuminated a giant, gleaming, metallic spiral staircase, each broad step a gigantic gear.

They paused and contemplated this construct in a long and disapproving silence.

Finally, the Equestrian leapt from Maelstrom's back. "Bloody hell," she said. "We might as well get on with this."

Her trip through this land had definitely resigned Nereid to the narratively inevitable, she thought, because she wasn't surprised at all when the gears of the staircase began to turn as soon as the Equestrian's boot touched the lowest step.

"Come on then!" the Equestrian yelled as she began to sprint up the stairs.

Maelstrom was in his human form, leaping lightly up and up. He left the fireball floating at the bottom of the stairs.

Wire, Nereid, and Tam all looked at each other. "Go on ahead," Nereid said dully. "I'm going to be slow."

Wire gave her a slightly wild look, but turned and started to run, staggeringly, upward.

"Hurry," Tam said, tugging her hand. "It's only going to speed up."

"Yeah," Nereid said, twisting her arm loose and feeling unutterably weary. "Go on."

He bounded up almost as lightly as Maelstrom.

Nereid felt like someone had turned up the gravity, but knew Tam was probably right. Still, she started her ascent in slow, deliberate steps, timing the various rotations. Some of the next steps rotated in the opposite direction from the one on which she stood; some moved in the same direction, only slightly slower or faster.

Sophie had always told her that she went about these puzzles too slowly when they played videogames together. Sometimes, Sophie would lose patience and take the controller from her. Sometimes, she'd settle for shouting instructions.

Sophie. Would they find her here? Or were they on a wild goose chase?

The gears were speeding up. Something was happening behind her, down the stairs. She heard grinding metal, felt the staircase shake.

Inevitably, she stumbled and fell, catching her foot on a tooth of a gear-step, but she caught herself on the center post. In the few seconds she faced backward, she glimpsed something huge and feline batting the fireball around kittenishly at the foot of the steps. The fireball hit one of the steps and melted right through it, resulting into another stairquake as the gears snagged. Suddenly, she had the adrenaline to follow her companions at speed.

By the time she reached the top of the stairs, the gears were starting to whirl and throw sparks. She threw herself at the landing, catching herself and shoulder-rolling to the booted feet of the Equestrian.

"About fucking time," the Equestrian snapped. "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to return you to your mum in a baggie."

Nereid was breathing too hard and contemplating the stitch in her side too much to answer. Besides the staircase was screaming and smoking and, really, it was all much too loud for reasoned conversation.

The Equestrian looked at Wire, who was trying to breathe hard through her stitched lips, and Tam, who was pointedly not looking at Nereid or anyone, really. She sighed, reached down, and hauled Nereid to her feet with a good deal more strength than any thin, slight, 13-year-old girl ought to have. "You did all right," she said in a more moderate tone.

Nereid wheezed and gulped, and said, "Thanks," because her mother always taught her to reward positive behavior. She pointed back down the stairs. "Big cat! With the fire!"

The Equestrian peered down the stairs and then glanced at Maelstrom. "Don't leave your toys around for the guards to play with," she said, adding, "And never set the cat on fire."

"Tsk," he said, rolling his eyes. "Geek."

Nereid was finally able to look around, and found that they were standing in a great domed room which appeared to be made of plain grey concrete cast in giant blocks. There was a door standing in the center of the room with no visible supports, a great carved ivory throne on a (concrete) dais at the far side of the room from them, and a very plain golden crown gleaming on the seat of the throne. A massive bank of old-fashioned computers lay in an arc before the throne, and several walls of glowing vacuum tubes were lined up like dominoes. An arch of the same gray blocks loomed over the throne, giant sans-serif letters picked out in gilt: HERE AND EVERYWHERE RULES THE LORD OF THE WEST.

"Oh," the Equestrian said upon reading the arch. "Another bloody pretender. They're a dime a dozen, here."

Nereid looked up. "It looks like it's about to fall on us."

The Equestrian snorted. "Probably not, but I wouldn't trust this Soviet Brutal style any further than I could throw it."

Maelstrom snorted and pawed at the slick gray floor with one booted foot. "I think you're being unfair to the Soviets. Brutal, I'll give you that."

Around the base of the dais were things like laboratory benches, and a great, ominous, funnel-shaped thing. A bell jar about two feet high dangled in the air above the funnel; inside it was a tiny figure.

Wire leapt forward, exclaiming, when she spotted the bell jar. Then she retched and staggered to one side, fumbling a pocket knife out, opening the blade, and bringing it to her mouth. Nereid looked away nervously, toward the bell jar.

She stared and ran forward a few paces. She looked back at the Equestrian. "Sophie!" she cried, pointing to the miniscule and slightly transparent figure under glass.

The door chose that moment to begin to glow, and there was a great moaning sound from the walls around them. Gears embedded in the concrete around the walls began to turn, and ponderously, the dome began to rotate.

"Well, shit," the Equestrian said, mouth twisting wryly. "And everything was going so well, too."

---

Note from the Author:
Just a little ostentation. For the look of the thing, really.









Date: 2012-01-28 08:49 am (UTC)
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From: [personal profile] the_leaky_pen
Still want Tam Lane dead. But I'll settle for rescuing Sophie.

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