wonder_city: (Default)
This week has been weird and surreal -- I live in central Massachusetts, and work in Cambridge -- and today has been particularly strange, with the refreshing the browser and checking Twitter and such. I have successfully distracted written the lion's share of this episode today, however, and I hope you will forgive any little gaffes as being products of my distraction.


"Ah, Mr. Frost," Zoltan said at the door of the enormous luxury board room, his eastern European accent rolling softly over the name. "And Nereid. So pleased you could make it to our little discussion group."

Nereid stared at Zoltan. For a man who never aged, the very fine lines around his eyes and mouth seemed much more pronounced than they'd been last time she'd seen him, at least a year before. He was dressed very finely in a pale grey three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a pale blue tie. She noticed his cufflinks, though, as they shook hands -- tiny gold bats -- and it was all she could do not to giggle.

"I was pleased to be invited," Michael Frost said, staring beyond Zoltan's head at the far side of the room.

"Ah, yes, you see that Baroness Von Drachenberg has arrived before you," Zoltan said, stepping aside gracefully and gesturing them into the room. "We still await Ms. Washington, from your folk. My folk are represented, as are most of the other Mystikai."

Nereid stared around the echoing room and was gratified by the presence of Madame Destiny and X, and also the Equestrian and her steed (in tall, lean, redheaded human form) Maelstrom. She didn't know any of the many others, and noticed that a certain amount of space was left between every knot of beings as they stood around and drank coffee. Sophie would probably snark about it if she were here. Which she wasn't. And Nereid wasn't sure why she wasn't, but the absence made her anxious.

The Baroness was a short, round, cheerful woman who appeared to be middle-aged, accompanied by a couple of stocky, balding men in tweed suits. She gave Mr. Frost a little finger wave that he ignored. Nereid smiled nervously in the woman's direction.

A moment later, a ridiculously tall, willowy woman with long white hair, wearing a strangely familiar long, flowing black leather coat (with large spiky shoulder pads) and pants, strode past Zoltan into the room without a word. Under the coat, she seemed to be largely wearing straps, which accented her... prominent cleavage. She paused to regard Mr. Frost, then the Baroness with a sneer, and made her way to the center-back of the room, throwing herself into the chair at the foot of the ridiculously long table. She put her booted feet up on the table with heavy clunks.

"And with the arrival of Ms. Washington," Zoltan said, nodding to the t-shirted bar bouncer-types in the hall and shutting the door, "our numbers are complete. I am, as most of you know, Zoltan Farkas, and I speak for the Grand Matriarch of the East today, though her granddaughter --" he bowed to an African American woman who was taking a seat near the middle of the table "-- is here to correct me if I step wrongly. Speaking for the Grand Matriarch of the West is Doña Juana Salazar. Between us, we speak for the Family here in North America."

He nodded, and the Equestrian stood, looking very out of place as a young blonde teen dressed for a horse show in a velvet coat of bottle-green, breeches, and tall leather boots. "All of you know who I am," she said in her British accent. "I'm here for the Good Neighbors, specifically the one known as Lady Daphne, my sometimes-patron."

A broad-shouldered, tanned man in a black suit, surrounded by several individuals in similar suits, introduced himself as the elected speaker for the shapechanger Mystikai. Several more people introduced themselves as chosen or appointed speakers for various schools of magic. There was a fascinatingly tiny woman who was the representative of the Appalachian Gnome Queendom. A pair of thin, pale women who were clearly twins said they were there on behalf of the Wonder City vampires. A perfectly normal middle-aged middle-class woman in jeans and a sweatshirt that sported a picture of a kitten, with the glittery legend, "Hang in there!" arcing over it, introduced herself as the Outsider.

Madame stood and bowed. She was dressed elegantly in a long black dress and a black turban, a silvery-grey wrap draped around her shoulders. She was made up extravagantly, with dramatic swooshes of shadow above her eyes. "I am Madame Destiny, the current vessel for the Mystikai known as the Oracle, and I have been asked here by my friend Zoltan in case we need to consult the Oracle's wisdom." She gestured to X, who was conservatively done up in a black suit and garnet-colored cravat. "This is my apprentice, X." And she resumed her seat.

Nereid became aware, as silence fell, that Mr. Frost and the Baroness were staring at each other across the room. After a long, tense moment, Miss Washington drawled, without standing, "I'm Washington. I'm a dragon."

Both Mr. Frost and the Baroness looked at her at the same moment, a fleeting glimpse of disgust crossing both their faces. They looked at each other again, and the Baroness shrugged, and said, "I am the Baroness Von Drachenberg, and I am a Reptilian-American." She glowered in Washington's direction, then gestured grandly to Mr. Frost.

He inclined his head briefly and said, "I am Michael Frost, also Reptilian-American, and I am the patron of the superhero team, the Young Cosmics." He dropped a hand on Nereid's shoulder. "This is my team's Class 10 elemental, Nereid, who kindly agreed to accompany me."

Zoltan seated himself at the head of the table and folded his hands. "Thank you all for coming. I think we can agree that the situation in the United States, and in Wonder City in particular, is growing intolerable and is threatening everything each of us has worked for. Several of us wanted to bring the community together to discuss possible options for information-gathering and action."

One of the myriad magic-using people -- one of the few dressed in what Nereid thought of as normal clothes -- raised her hand. Zoltan nodded, and she said, "I think it would be helpful if we pooled our intelligence as to the nature of the troubles and possible sources."

"Agreed," Zoltan said, nodding cheerfully all around the table. "So let us do so. I confess that the Family has very little information on the nature or source of the troubles, only a fairly close analysis of the results. So who has more information?"

Several of the magic-using people spoke up about scrying and analytical magic and things that immediately and pedantically went over Nereid's head -- another reason to regret Brainchild's absence, she thought, was her inability to ask Sophie later what something had meant. Nereid was also distracted by Washington's openly bored posture with her head tilted back, staring ostentatiously at the ceiling.

"So what you're telling us," Zoltan said, smoothly interrupting one of the interminable lectures, "is that the main threat appears to be in orbit, and radiating something down at us that is affecting human behavior?"

"Uh," said the man in burgundy robes. "Yes. Essentially."

"Thank you," Zoltan said, and he even sounded like he meant it. "Have any other Mystikai ascertained any details?"

Nereid glanced aside at Mr. Frost's pleasantly-smiling face, expecting him to say something. Instead, Madame Destiny said, "Yes, we have."

All heads turned her way. X met Nereid's look with briefly raised eyebrows.

"Our group of... friends," Madame said with a self-deprecating air, "have determined that the ships in orbit are, in fact, of alien origin, and that the nature of the projection is a technological enhancement of a para with empathic abilities."

And then the meeting exploded into discussion, debate, and questions. Nereid watched it all, bewildered, and also watched the three drago--- Reptilian-Americans, she corrected herself. The Baroness beamed delightedly as her two tweedy companions leapt into a debate with a trio of mages and one shapeshifter. Mr. Frost watched the proceedings with a small smile. Washington continued to stare at the ceiling. The only other person who appeared so disconnected was the Equestrian, who slumped in her chair and frowned at the tabletop.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Washington burst out with, "Tell me why I should care."

Everyone froze. Nereid heard Michael Frost inhale, but whatever he was going to say was preempted by the Baroness Von Drachenberg saying, sweetly, "I would explain, but I think that you are too young to understand."

Washington leapt to her feet and glared at the Baroness. Nereid felt obscurely that she ought to have a large magical sword in one hand, then realized that as a drago-- Reptilian-American, she didn't need a weapon of any sort: she was one.

After a long moment, Washington said, in tones not nearly as sweet as the Baroness', "Try me, old woman."

Nereid noticed one of the tweed-clad men next to the Baroness discreetly scribbling notes in a battered leather-bound notebook, while the other was sliding an old pocket dictation recorder onto the table and looking around surreptitiously. Some of the mages and a few of the shapeshifters were subtly fading back from the table. Nereid herself was feeling more and more nervous sitting next to Mr. Frost.

The Baroness folded her hands on the table and, still smiling, said, "As someone without much experience in the markets of the world, you perhaps do not know how very destabilizing these sorts of events can be. You may think that such disquiet would make your particular objets du dèsir easier to obtain -- whenever you decide to obtain them -- but it is not so." She paused, reached down without looking, and clicked the tape recorder off. "At least, not in the long run."

Washington was pale with a cold rage that Nereid could feel from across the room. She leaned forward to place her hands flat onto the table, her white hair starting to blow behind her in a breeze that seemed to affect nothing else. Before she could say anything, though, Michael Frost began to laugh.

The look Washington turned on him was very little altered from what she had just been aiming elsewhere, but the gaze the Baroness turned on him was cynical, withering, and underneath it all, so sharp that Nereid had to repress the urge to run out of the room. The mages and shapeshifters took the opportunity to slide entirely back from the table toward the outer walls.

"Do forgive me, Baroness," Michael Frost said, in his suavest voice, "but it seems to me that if we are here, we have already agreed to act. There is no need for this attention-seeking posturing."

The Baroness was no longer, at all, a pleasant-looking little woman. Nereid saw the representative of the Gnome Queendom retreating behind a heavy credenza and felt an urge to join her. As if reading her mind, Michael Frost chose that moment to lay his hand over hers on the table, and action that made Nereid unbearably uncomfortable for too many reasons to list.

Nereid attempted to comfort herself with her ability to dissolve into mist at the first sign of actual violence.

At the head of the table, Zoltan looked as if he might be comforting himself similarly. He was exchanging looks with the other representatives of his Family -- whatever that was, Nereid thought, wondering if it he was a member of some kind of vampire mafia -- and both women were giving him cheerful sorts of "I wouldn't be you for a million dollars" encouraging smiles.

Washington was staring at Michael Frost, and Nereid noticed that she was becoming visibly more irritated when he refused to stare back. Her long, slender fingers gripped the edge of the table, and Nereid had an unpleasant image of her flipping it. But the moment passed, and she sat down in a kind of anticlimax.

The Baroness and Michael Frost, however, continued to match gazes, and Nereid thought that perhaps there was some sort of battle going on that she was too human to perceive except on the most uncomfortably lowest levels of her lizard brain. Like the so-called brown note, she thought.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Equestrian exclaimed, slamming her small hands on the table with moment-shattering slaps. "The rest of us don't have time for your--" she paused over word choice for a moment, then continued sourly "--politicking."

The two dragons snapped their heads around to look at her and the Equestrian pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in the direction of Maelstrom, who appeared to be dozing in his chair. Mr. Frost and the Baroness each glanced back at each other, then exhaled, and the tension oozed out of the room.

Zoltan shuffled some papers. The mages and shapeshifters glided back to the table. The Gnome Queendom representative returned to her chair.

"I think," said Doña Juana Salazar, smiling thinly around the table, "that perhaps we should take advantage of the presence of the Oracle to ascertain what level of action would work best for the Mystikai as a whole."

"Yes," the Baroness said, her good humor apparently restored, though Nereid was unsure if that was true. "It is so very easy to overreact and do more harm than good."

Michael Frost said, "Yes, let's." He yawned elaborately.

Washington just waved a hand irritably.

"Perhaps it would be best to determine what the maximum level of involvement we would be willing to pursue should be," piped the tiny representative of the Gnome Queendom.

This led to another bewildering half hour of conversations, cross-conversations, and sub-conversations that Nereid could not parse at all. None of the dragons involved themselves in these discussions; they just watched.

Zoltan tapped a glass (where did he get the glass?) with a spoon (likewise?), and the sound rang out over the room, bringing conversation to a faltering halt. He said, "If we are going to make use of the Oracle, then I think we should do it quickly. We are unlikely to come to a consensus on this issue, nor do I think it is necessary. We simply need to remember to ask yes or no questions for optimal accuracy."

"And minimal cryptic ramblings," the Equestrian muttered, getting a short laugh out of Madame and X, at least.

Madame got up and moved her chair well back from the table, then resumed her seat. X moved to stand facing her, a little to the side. Everyone at the table turned to watch Madame with great interest -- even the dragons.

Nereid had seen Madame do this many times before, and all went as usual. Madame composed herself in her chair and closed her eyes for a few moments. X watched her fixedly. Then the light in the room changed to the harsh, focused, bluish tinge it always took.

Madame's face in that light startled Nereid, like she was seeing straight through the makeup. Madame looked old. Really old. And sick, and strained. Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes. Then her eyes popped open and blue light crackled there, making everyone blink and look away for a moment.

"SPEAK, CHILDREN OF MAGIC," the Oracle said with Madame's mouth.

X turned to Zoltan and nodded.

But then the Oracle said, "STOP."

Nereid could see Madame's head and hands vibrating as if she had a palsy. The tears were coursing down her face and dripping off her chin. Her face looked grey in the blue light.

Madame gasped, in her own voice, "No!"

The light changed again -- instead of seemingly radiating from Madame's whole body, it shifted to solely from her head. And then blue lightning stabbed out from Madame into X, who echoed Madame with a more gutteral, wrenching, "No!"

Nereid ran to Madame as the older woman toppled from her chair, pulling her up from the floor and cradling her head against her shoulder. For a long moment, Nereid gazed down into her exhausted, drawn, tear-streaked face, and irrelevantly remembered the same woman, five years earlier, patiently helping her with her math homework. She remembered that Madame had been studying to be a mathematician, that she was really good at it, until the Oracle took up residence in her body.

X was suspended in mid-air in the middle of the room, blue light and lightning leaking out spasmodically. Most of the people in the room were at least standing, if not moving cautiously toward X.

Madame's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but couldn't, then relaxed back into Nereid's arms. She croaked urgently, "Don't touch X!" into the tense silence, and everyone moving stopped.

"If you touch X," Madame said more calmly, "it could distract zir from what focus zie could gather. If that happens on the first possession, we might never get X back." She closed her eyes again.

Nereid was chilled to the bone by the idea of the Oracle being permanently "on" in X's body. She looked at the disheveled figure dangling like a marionette in mid-air.

"NOW YOU MAY SPEAK," said the Oracle with X's mouth.

"Oh, god," Madame groaned.

"It's all right," Nereid whispered to her.

"I thought I could hold on," Madame said, tears trickling out of her eyes again. "I thought I could keep going. Anything so X wouldn't have to..."

"X knew this would happen eventually," Nereid said in low tones, vaguely registering that questions were being asked and answered with a staccato precision elsewhere in the room. "X was prepared for it."

"You're never prepared for it," Madame said faintly. "Never. I knew for years, and I never expected what happened."

"Is it so bad?" Nereid said.

"It's like a seizure," Madame said opaquely. "Oh, god, I should get up, I should spot X, keep people from asking too many questions." She began to struggle to sit up, at least.

Nereid helped her sit up when it became clear that she was too agitated to rest. X was still held off the floor, but was no longer quite so high in the air. Madame took one look at X's face, which was lined with strain, and made a throat-cut motion to Zoltan, who nodded and stepped between a ponderous mage and X.

"Thank you for your generous assistance, oh, Oracle," Zoltan said with a graceful bow. "Your vessel needs rest, and we have our answers."


With that, X was released into Zoltan's waiting arms. Maelstrom took X from Zoltan and the Equestrian peremptorily gestured Zoltan back into the scrum of loudly-discussing Mystikai.

Madame reached out as Maelstrom knelt to set X next to her. She stroked X's sweat-beaded forehead maternally and whispered, over and over, "I'm so sorry."

Nereid stayed on the ground with the two of them, an arm around each, content to be a literal support. X was moving slowly, blinking dazed eyes up at the ceiling. Madame was still murmuring what sounded like apologies. As an afterthought, Nereid dried their clothes and faces and hair -- sweat and tears and whatever else would leave a bit of a crust, but at least they wouldn't feel damp.

"You have my promise," Michael Frost was saying, coming to stand near Nereid and Madame and X, "that I will match the Baroness' contributions financially, and that I will permit limited involvement of my Cosmics in a decisive para action."

Washington strode almost up to him, then past, saying, "And you have my promise that I will participate in the para action myself... if it seems fun." She kicked the door open and walked out of the board room.

"I am going to take Madame and X home," Michael Frost said, reaching down to effortlessly lift Madame in his arms. Nereid helped X to stand, and stayed under the strong arm that she remembered so vividly holding her up at one time. "The rest of you may go on discussing whatever you like. Zoltan, if anything significant comes up, I trust you will notify us via the usual channels."

"Of course," Zoltan said, catching Nereid's eye with a questioning raise of his eyebrows. Nereid smiled, she hoped, reassuringly, and turned to help X follow Mr. Frost out of the room.

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The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

Somehow, it didn't surprise me, though. We'd never heard about Brandon's family on the show. They'd talked about Professor Canis, we had the memorable visit from Lizzie's father, Tom's aunt and uncle had come up from time to time, and Jeshri's family was always in her conversation. But not Brandon's. It seemed somehow fitting, karmically, that even his family abandoned him in the end.

Of course, it didn't seem fair that the people who had the most reason to dislike him were forced into the position of taking care of him. And of course they had to, especially after their closing video laying claim to him as "their jerk." They would have been ripped to shreds if it had come out that Brandon's body had been surrendered to the government for dissection.

I popped to a different screen and signed a half dozen petitions to do away with the Gold Stars research law. I knew that Ruth -- or someone -- would take care of me when I died, because god knows no one wants the government to dissect a Class 10 telepath. But didn't all the other paras, all the regular paras, all the homeless paras, anyone at all who wasn't quite the ideal human being, have a right to be buried with their secrets? Patriotic duty, my left asscheek.

It also didn't surprise me that the show's producers had abandoned any responsibility for Brandon along with their responsibility for payout or, you know, the safety of their "contestants". I did notice, however, that the producers tried to jump on the funeral bandwagon once it got rolling. In an interview with Simon:

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

Simon: We'll be livestreaming it for the fans.

WonderBlog: But no TV?

Simon: We couldn't reach an amicable compromise with the show's producers, who are in the best position to produce a televised version. They were interested in the funeral, but not interested in meeting any conditions, and we weren't interested in being screwed over again.

WonderBlog: Speaking of screwed over, who's paying for the funeral?

Simon: Fortunately, not us. There's a fund established by the Guardians and Gold Stars for the funerals of paras without families who die in a supervillain action.

Oh, good, I thought, at least the kids weren't going to have to cough up for the ridiculous costs of a funeral.

The livestreamed funeral was fascinating. I tuned in late (after taking practically every drug in my pharmacopeia that suppressed my powers without just knocking me out), just in time to see hundreds of fans packing into the largest room of the Weinstein Funeral Home. The camera view switched to Simon, in a tailored black suit, and Jeshri, in a somber brown skirt suit, walking out to meet Tom, who was pulling on a tweed sportcoat over a black polo shirt and khakis as he crossed the parking lot.

"You made it!" Simon said, shaking his hand.

"I couldn't let you guys face this without me," Tom said, next hugging Jeshri. "No luck with his dad though."

"What happened?" Jeshri said, and they all turned and started walking toward the funeral home.

"I stopped at the address you gave me, just outside Pittsburg," Tom said. "Parking the rig was a bitch and the neighbors all came out to stare. Upscale but older neighborhood, almost all white."

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

"Anyway," Tom said with a shrug, "I rang the doorbell. The lights were on and the TV was going, so I kept at it till he opened the door. And guys, the fumes just about knocked me the fuck over."

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

"As a skunk," Tom said. "He was in his wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants and had about a week's worth of stubble. Looked just like Brandon would have after twenty years of partying and smoking."

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

"I'll spare you more gory details," Tom said as they neared the door. "Let's leave it at him telling me he wouldn't attend anything associated with his wife's filthy para crotch-dropping, in those words, even if it was the funeral for every backstabbing bastard para in the world at the same time. And then he mock-apologized that his wife was on the other side of the world, probably screwing someone who looked like me, when she could have been here, comforting me for the loss of my buddy, if only all paras weren't also great big homos."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jeshri said, looking the part.

"Guess we know more about why Brandon was such a jackass now," Simon said.

"It's no excuse," Lizzie said, emerging from the doorway. "I mean, look at my dad."

"Must I?" Simon said.

"He's at least as big a jerk as Brandon's dad," Lizzie said, "and I, at least, try to be decent to other people." She was wearing a white blouse and pair of dark blue slacks.

Tom nodded. "You've got a point."

They hesitated outside the door, and then group-hugged.

"Time to butch up," Simon said, breathing deeply.

"Let's get this over with," Lizzie said, breaking away from the others and opening the door.

The camera switched back to the interior of the packed room. My computer system was blurring out faces except those I knew personally, so I noticed Ira and Suzanne Feldstein sitting in the front row, Ira in a crisp, bright Mister Metropolitan uniform and Suzanne in a dark burgundy suit. I saw Ruth, Olivia, and Larentia sitting together a couple of rows back, noticeably not in their more recognizable Ultimate, Fat Lady, and Professor Canis personas. The Steel Guardian was there with Sekhmet, representing for their particular teams. Brainchild, looking pale and wan, all nose and glasses, in a shirt, vest, and many-pocketed trousers, sat next to Wire, whose weirdly floaty blue forelock only briefly distracted me from the shining metal hand she flexed idly in her lap. And just as people were settling in and a man was stepping to the podium, the Equestrian and her horse (in his human form) strode up the aisle to sit with Ira and Suzanne.

The camera view then shifted to the plain black coffin with chrome trim and rails, against which leaned a small easel holding a photograph of a slightly younger, pleasantly-smiling Brandon -- probably a school photo of some sort. I could see any number of floral offerings around the coffin, including an ostentatious bunch of white lilies from the "It's a Wonderful House" producers.

The man at the podium was pastor of a local church who knew Tom (we were not vouchsafed an explanation for that). He was an uninspiring speaker -- I wished for the preacher from Mama's church, whose eloquence she always spoke of in glowing tones -- but white preachers have never particularly impressed me. I tuned out everything he said and concentrated on the images: the camera pans over the crowd (mostly young white people, I noticed), the expressions on the faces of the Wonderful House cast and crew (my system recognized Eartha the camerawoman in that group, and from her face I guessed she shared my assessment of the speaker), and the repeated switches back to the coffin.

He spoke for only about five minutes, which was a blessing, and no one else apparently cared to speak, so Olivia got up and sang "Ave Maria" in her most restrained voice, accompanied by a pianist I didn't know (and so couldn't see). When she was done, the pianist swung into something slow and somber, and Simon, Lizzie, Jeshri, Tom, Eartha, and another crew member I didn't know went forward, lifted the coffin, and carried it out on their shoulders. The crowd began to pour out the doors after them.

I walked away from the livestream while they drove to the cemetery. My computer system was excellent, but with the speed the cars were moving, it would inevitably miss blocking some people, and I just didn't need the headache. My family phone rang while I was pouring myself a glass of tea.

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

"You made yourself so sick over all that," she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance. "I can't imagine why you want to watch that horrible boy's funeral now."

"Because he's the end of the story," I said, adding three teaspoons of sugar to my iced tea. "It's about closure, Mama. He was that man's last victim."

"Well," she said, somewhat mollified. "When you put it that way. I suppose. Is that woman there?"

"Suzanne Feldstein? Yes, she was in the front row with her father-in-law," I said, sipping the tea and going through a door into one of my little parks, where I kept promising myself to start an aviary so I could have birdsong, another one of those things I miss.

"She wrote a very nice memorial to Yenaye and the other women, I thought," Mama said.

"Yes, I thought it was good too," I said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. The tone of her voice was detached, and I could tell there was a pressure of something she wanted to tell me. I waited.

"Rennie, I called you to tell you something," Mama said finally.

"What's up?" I said.

"Well, first thing, your cousin Benjamin asked me to ask you if you were serious about wanting a puppy, because he knows one that needs a home," she said. Mama doesn't like dogs, and that dislike dripped off her voice.

"Tell Ben that I absolutely want a new puppy, and he should send me photos," I said, feeling really excited for the first time in a while.

"You know him and his foolery with dogs," Mama said. "Of course he'd find you a dog. It'll have fleas, you know."

"There's medicine for that, Mama," I said, tamping down the excitement. "What else did you want to tell me?"

She fell silent. "I had one of my seeing dreams, Rennie," she said, her tone uncharacteristically hesitant.

"And?" I knew better than to say anything else at all, because she'd take it as disbelief and never tell me.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I saw you alone with your dog. All alone, mind you, and not in your house." She always called the bunker my "house". I guess it made it sound less like I was locked away. "Looking out a great big window over the city." Throat-clearing again. "That's all. But I knew it was a seeing."

"Thank you, Mama," I said, feeling chilled. "I don't know what it means, but I'll remember it."

"You do that," she said, but I could tell she was gratified. I was the only one of her children who believed in her seeing dreams. I had reason to. "All right, I'd best be getting on. You take care now, Rennie."

"I will. You too, Mama," I said. "I love you."

"And I love you, girl," she said, and hung up.

When I got back to the screen with my half-glass of tea, they'd gotten to the cemetery and were lowering the coffin into the raw hole in the green earth. As I watched fans and acquaintances pass by the grave to throw flowers into it, I raised my glass. May it be sweeter for him next time around.


Note from the Author:

Renata's not the only one grateful for closure here!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

wonder_city: (Default)
Resolving Powers

The wind was screaming. Simon leapt between Sator and Brainchild, teeth flashing. The Equestrian and Maelstrom banished the spell that entrapped them.

For one hollow second, the right side of Sator's face darkened and his eyes opened wide, mouth frozen mid-incantation. A pink mist coalesced in the air to the right of Sator. Then Sator dropped to the floor, his flesh crumbling stickily around his bones. The mist rained down and was lost in the general oversupply of gore.

The wind blew itself apart and the gears stopped cold.

There was silence.

"Well," said the Equestrian, staring at the remains of Sator. "That's a thing."

Holy shit, Simon said. Did she...?

My god, Ira said, she killed him. Took all the water... or blood... or something right out of his body.

It was the only thing to do, Suzanne said firmly, but I could feel her reeling with nausea.

We'll deal with that later, Watson said grimly. Start cleaning up, we're on our way.

Be careful, Maelstrom said. Magicians generally leave nasty surprises for posthumous applications.

So a few minutes later, a handful of Gold Stars bounced through the portal and found the Equestrian exclaiming, "I found your hand, Wire. I... think it got in the way when Nereid did her thing, though." She looked up from the object on the floor and said to Sekhmet, "Oh, hello. About bloody time you got here."

"My gods!" Sekhmet said, staring around the blood-spattered room in horror. "Who...? How...?"

The Equestrian snapped, "Later. Look, we've got a massive injury over there--" pointing to Wire "--and another couple of people down. Could you, perhaps, lend a hand?" She looked back at the floor. "I mean, help out?"

Simon was gently nudging Nereid with his cold nose, and Nereid was waking up slowly. I noticed he wasn't trying to, say, lick her face. She was blood, head to toe. (Of course, so was everyone else.)

Sekhmet and her compatriots (I recognized the Blue Eagle costume, but knew it had to be a new one -- or maybe not, if he'd somehow come back to life, which wasn't unusual for the spandex teams -- and the Green Hood) spread out, inspecting Megan and Nereid and Wire from a distance and looking up at the ceiling, where the hole was slowly closing up.

Watson and G went through the portal together and straight to Megan, who was still out cold (because I do my work right). They struggled a little -- she's a big girl -- but between them (and their minor superstrength) they backboarded her (why wasn't I surprised that Watson knew how to do that correctly?) and got her onto the giant-sized stretcher they'd brought.

Professor Fortune, in his cape and with his wacky Einstein hair looking especially Einsteinian, strode into the room like he owned it. "Ah, Molly," he said, smiling benignly at the Equestrian. He looked around quickly, and his gaze lingered on the funnel. "Oh, good," he said softly. "Nice to see the thing with the machine worked out."

Watson and G were slowly walking Megan out, and paused at the door while Watson gave the professor a strange, unreadable look. Her mind was shuttered completely from me. G shook her head at the solicitous Eagle and Hood, and gestured to Watson with her chin. Watson nodded and moved forward; they carried Megan out into Sator's shop, and the Eagle and the Hood followed them.

Sekhmet knelt next to Wire, producing a thick band of leather from some part of her costume to tourniquet the girl's arm.

"Bugger off, you useless toad," the Equestrian said to Professor Fortune. "This is my gig, not yours."

"Molly, my dear," Professor Fortune said, beaming at her, "I'm just here to help out with an analysis of the situation. The Gold Stars called me in."

"Analyze this, Harvey," the Equestrian said, flipping the bird at him (she did it both ways, in case he was too dim to figure out the British way). "Get out of here before Her Nibs notices that the self-styled Grand High Poobah of Earth is standing on her turf, from which, I note, he has been banned for more than four decades. I won't be responsible if she shows up."

The pool of blood on the floor rose up and coalesced gracefully into a replica of Nereid. It wasn't an exact twin: the replica was wearing a long gown streaked with all the shades of red and brown found in blood. Her face kept shifting and it took me a moment to figure out why: I was seeing her through the eyes of several people, and I guessed that her face altered according to the viewer's ideals of beauty. It was like looking at a very peculiar animation, especially since it was still recognizably Nereid's face.

I didn't even try to get near that mind. I'm stupid, not suicidal.

She turned and stared at Professor Fortune with the mad, cold expression of a bird of prey. He tried to smile urbanely and failed. She said in a voice that resonated in several registers, "You know the penalty, of course. I need not insult you by repeating it."

The Equestrian radiated an unholy glee as Professor Fortune backpedaled toward the door. I felt unadulterated terror from Tam Lane, who was trying to shrink behind a bit of debris.

"No offense meant, of course, Your Majesty," he said, pausing at the threshold and producing a handkerchief to mop his suddenly gleaming brow. "We had no idea that the door led to..."

The woman stared at him, motionless. Her dress rippled toward him liquidly where it met the floor.

He caught his cloak in both hands and bounded hastily through the door.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom both executed handsome bows to the creature that had manifested from the blood. "Your Majesty," the Equestrian said. "My apologies for not detecting this mess sooner."

She lifted a hand and gazed incuriously around the room. "You have stopped it, according to your bargain."

"I think we've a good bit more to do," Maelstrom muttered ruefully. The Queen ignored him as she swept into a walk so inhumanly graceful that it reminded me of a jellyfish.

Tam actually ducked his head beneath his arms as she glanced in his direction; I wasn't sure, but I thought I caught the traces of a smile on her face through the Equestrian's eyes.

The Queen paused and looked down at Nereid. Simon, who had turned human in order to lift Nereid's face out of a puddle of blood, looked nervously up at the Queen and I could sense from him that she didn't smell right -- not like blood, not like anything he'd ever smelled. "It is impolite to tamper with the lifeblood of another's realm, yet sufficient unto the day is the repayment thereof." She turned her head towards the Equestrian. "I forget the words," she said sweetly, with an undertone of malice so clear it was like metal. "How is it I should curse her?"

Nereid, who only just recovered real consciousness, looked up into that face and began leaking blood incontinently: I could see it dripping from her fingertips and it streaked her face like tears. I could feel her sheer, bone-draining terror: the closest I can describe it is that of an acrophobic being pressed to the edge of a sheer precipice.

The Equestrian blinked. Then her expression hardened, and she answered, "Your Majesty, I believe it is him you usually threaten, at least in the songs I am familiar with."

Tam came out from under his arms for long enough to shoot the Equestrian a hateful look.

The Queen raised a hand with impossibly graceful fingers -- and possibly too many of them -- to her lips. "Ah, now I remember. I cannot call shame upon her face, because after all, I am using it. Such shame as her ill-favored face may have is only that which she herself shall bring upon it. Let it be so."

She smiled at the Equestrian, as though she had just won a round of a game, and said, "Be off with you all, I want no more of you." With that, the figure collapsed to the floor in a viscous splash, the blood spreading once more into a shining pool.

"Can we get out of here now?" Simon asked the Equestrian. "Before someone changes her mind?"

Maelstrom strode over, nudged Sekhmet aside, and, with an interesting impulse of protectiveness I didn't poke at, picked up Wire, who looked grey and chalky. "Let's."

Sekhmet acquiesced to Maelstrom's preference and walked over to Simon. "May I? At least if I carry her, I can feel like I did something here."

"Please," Simon said. "Feels like she's broken her right arm and maybe some other things." He turned wolf again.

Sekhmet moved around to Nereid's left and carefully picked her up. Nereid's eyes closed.

Tam looked cautiously out from his hiding place, then rushed out to Nereid's side. He reached out for her hand, paused and grimaced. It was coated and shining with blood. Overcoming his squeamishness, he gripped her hand and looked into her face, murmuring, "Ah, my dear, my dearest." He trotted alongside as Sekhmet carried her out.

"Don't move her arm, you git," the Equestrian called after them. "It's broken!"

Nereid's eyelashes didn't so much as flutter. I couldn't parse the terror and anxiety I could sense from Tam, so I didn't try. Then they were through the door to Earth.

You look a mess, Suzanne said as she envisioned throwing her arms around Simon gratefully, and I let that go through, just to Simon.

He gave a wolfish grin and bounded out through the door.

The Equestrian took a last look around after the others had left. This is going to be a long night, she said.

Surely you're done? I said.

Not a chance, the Equestrian said, and let me have a little of her Faerie sight. I could see gaping holes ground into the dimensional wall as far as I could see. This is all over the realm. All over the Earth. We've got to gather up the escapees.

"Speaking of escapees," she added aloud, spinning one of her green balls of fire into a net. Her gaze moved to Brainchild, whose spirit was standing, looking around her with a horrified expression, in the corner of the room furthest from where the machine used to be.

Damn, girl, you have a rough job, I said.

"Yep," she said, flicking the net over Brainchild, who shrank down inside it into a green ball of light. The Equestrian strode over to pick her up, absently tucking Wire's mummified hand into her belt as she bent to receive the ball of light with both hands. She sighed.

Beer first, she said to me. Then onward. She strode through the door.


Note from the Author:

Okay! The cliffhangers are over, and the denouement has begun. What loose ends are you most looking forward to seeing tied up?

(Also, much gratitude to Akycha for helping me with the Queen's characterization.)

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What Your Shoulders May Refuse

A smoky indigo darkness like a tornado's phantom spun down out of the hole in the dome. It touched Sator and he laughed, spreading his hands wide so that the winds stretched out to the walls well before they reached the floor.

Nereid's arterial gout that had been, at least, distracting him a bit, was blasted around the room by the roaring wind. The air reeked of it. Everyone looked like they'd walked through a Hollywood slasher movie. Blood dripped off Nereid's nose and chin and she was badly nauseated from the smell. Everything felt cold and coagulated after the wind passed her on its way to the wall.

At least Sophie, being down on the floor now, seemed to be out of the range of the suction of the funnel, and being untouchable, wasn't covered in gore. She was moving around slowly, apparently confused by the information her spirit-senses were giving her. Nereid wondered why Renata hadn't pulled Sophie into the telepathic link.

Her mind's all slippery, Renata said. I tried.

Simon was a wolf again, leaping toward the magician and trying to lock his jaws into the man's calf muscle. Sator laughed at him and kicked him in the chest. Simon yelped and spun away, but said, in the link, I'm fine. I'm fine.

Nereid knew that Suzanne was out there, listening and watching, and kept looking away from Simon, hoping he was telling the truth.

The Equestrian was on Maelstrom's back, and they were in the air. The Equestrian said, Fuck me, fuck me, that wind is eroding the dimensional wall. He's trying to merge this world with Earth!

Maelstrom threw back his head and let out a shrill horse scream, which drew fire from nowhere to rain down on Sator and made the hair on the back of Nereid's neck stand up. The magician flinched as the flames struck him through his sorcerous shield, and then he gestured dramatically and a net of spinning, glowing barbs closed around Maelstrom and the Equestrian.

Sator flicked a hand at Nereid, and Nereid found herself sailing through the air. She tried to catch herself, knowing in the insanely dilated time as the wall came closer that she was about to hurt a lot, that she mustn't hit her head. Then she hit and felt sharp pains in her arm, her shoulder, and her chest as she crunched into the wall. But at least her head didn't hit. She slid down the wall to the floor, her costume and skin tearing on the sharp teeth of the spinning metal gears.

She looked up. Tam was crouching behind the remains of the control panel that Megan and Meteor had thrown. Sophie had stretched to life size and was crouched, staring around, not far from him, apparently bewildered. Nereid tried to get up. There were warning twinges in her right shoulder that told her: Not this arm. Try again later. She rolled to the other side and pushed herself up to her knees with her left arm. She weaved back and forth, then got her feet under her and stood up.

The world was weird and tinny and distant.

Sator had a moment of freedom while the Equestrian and Maelstrom were dealing with his snare, and he grinned down at Sophie. "Come, you'll seal my victory," he said, and reached out his hand.

Nereid -- her face weirdly numb and cold, her vision going dark around the edges, the voices in the room and in her head moving further and further away -- knew absolutely that she was going down. As Sophie's spirit stretched unwillingly toward Sator, Nereid slid to her knees and locked her gaze doggedly on Sator. There had to be something, anything she could do.

Keep away, keep away, KEEP AWAY FROM HER, she thought, or possibly shouted, her vision going black. She reached out desperately, dragging with all her might on the blood moving in his body to keep him from stalking after Sophie.


Note from the Author:

Possibly it's just as well you didn't have to wait till Tuesday for the resolution of this one. :) As before, 10 COMMENTERS gets you the next new episode on Thursday!

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L’appel du vide

"Now you," Sator said, glancing over his shoulder. "Megan Amazon, shatter yourself." I had to drop filters in place as Megan took a magical blast that went straight through her invulnerability, ran up every nerve ending, and back down, spasming all the muscles in her arms and legs. Meteor got an accidental punch to the nose from Megan, one that knocked her backward to sprawl on the floor.

On another "channel," I apologized quickly to the Wonderful House kids and dropped them out of the link entirely: Tom was in the ambulance with Brandon on the way to the hospital, Jeshri and Lizzie and Eartha were talking to the police and the Gold Stars.

Block her motor nerves, Watson said tightly. Do it now!

She was right, the spell wasn't stopping, and Megan was apparently strong enough to overcome her own invulnerability, judging from some of the pain I was reading. I stopped everything anomalous that was happening in her motor cortex and knocked her out. She dropped limply to the floor.

Meanwhile, Simon's shape swarmed up to human form (naked) and lunged for Brainchild. His hands couldn't touch her, but he managed to catch the glass fragment -- presumably magical -- that her spirit was standing on. There was a stab of pain as the razor edges of the glass sliced into his hands. Brainchild was stable for just a second, then her spirit turned and tried to grab onto the glass, as if she was being sucked into the funnel by some secret wind.

"Oh, let her fall, child," Sator laughed. "Let her fall and see my century-old plan come to fruition at last!"

Nereid hit him with a firehose blast... of blood. While he sputtered at the mouthful he'd got, she stared at her hands, and I could feel the hysteria welling up amidst her panic.

It's not permanent! the Equestrian snapped at her. It's just this place doing it to you. Do it again!

I can't help her! Simon exclaimed, gripping the glass that was slippery with his own blood and trying to pull it away from the machine without losing Brainchild. She's going to fall!

Meteor! Ira snapped. You're a spirit when you're not in that girl's body. Do something.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom were attacking Sator again to distract him. Nereid, to give the girl credit, pulled her shit together and added her geysers of blood.

Meteor hesitated. I'm not sure I can, she said. Can't Renata help her?

I can't reach her mind, I said. I've tried. And I'm not spiritually telekinetic anyway.

Meteor, you have to save her! Suzanne nigh-shouted. You're her only hope!

Feeling Meteor peel out of the body she was possessing was like nothing I'd ever felt: like someone burning their skin off, and then being totally without pain because there were no nerves any more. Her spirit leapt out of the woman -- G, Watson told me -- and threw herself across the mouth of the black abyss just as Brainchild slipped off the glass. Brainchild hit the "surface" that was Meteor and bounced off her onto the floor.

Meteor said to me, I only ever wanted to be a hero, before her grip slipped and she was sucked into the void, her mind sliding too far away for me to reach.

G staggered backward and fell over Megan. I apologetically seized control of her motor functions, got her ass up, and walked her out the door.

One less potential victim in that room. Go me.


Note from the Author:

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Hope Like Hell That Man Is an Evil Man

Megan shouldered Meteor aside and leapt over the contorted body of the serial killer they'd chased and through the doorway. She felt Meteor follow via the link. In a corner of her mind, Megan was very impressed with Renata's power -- not every telepath could maintain contact with multiple minds through a dimensional gate, even initiating new links on the other side of the gate. In fact, Megan couldn't think of a single telepath in the literature who could.

Sator's a showier mage-type than we thought, she reported to Watson.

Sator was inspecting his opponents coolly from his vantage point, hovering well above the floor. "Ah, you," he said, his gaze falling upon the Equestrian. "I wondered when she would send you my way."

"You can hardly imagine that she'd ignore what you've been doing here," the Equestrian said, rolling a green glowing ball from hand to hand.

You knew what was going on? Nereid exclaimed in the link.

Of course not, the Equestrian said.

What is going on here? Simon asked, and Megan could hear an echo of the question from Suzanne and Watson.

If evidence can be believed, the Equestrian said, he's collected hundreds of human souls to power an interdimensional engine.

"She rarely cares about the outskirts of her realm," Sator said.

"She cares when you start rearranging the furniture in her house," the Equestrian said, gesturing upward.

"Oh, she'll like the results," Sator said with an unpleasant smile. "For about five minutes. And then I'll destroy her."

The Equestrian looked over at Maelstrom. "Where've we heard that one before?"

"Only every two-bit pretender that's come along," the horse, now much more horselike, said.

I think you all should probably back out slowly, the Equestrian said. We're used to dealing with blokes like this.

Sophie! Nereid and Wire said simultaneously, and Megan noticed, for the first time, the bell jar containing a tiny version of Brainchild.

Dammit, the Equestrian said, and there was an edge of dawning horror from her mind. She's probably the linchpin to kick his machine into high gear. There are few things more powerful than a disembodied living human spirit in this realm.

Bugger, Maelstrom said, and stepped in front of the Equestrian again just as the room became a fireworks show of multicolored magics.

"Where did you get this many souls, Sator?" the Equestrian said, gesturing a magical shield into existence.

"I've been here a long time," Sator said. "And humans -- particularly paranormals -- are very useful for fetching and carrying."

Like the serial killer? Suzanne said. I wonder if he demanded the victim type switch for some magical reason.

"Like the poor chump you've been using lately?" the Equestrian said, raising blue vines from the floor to entrap Sator.

"Oh, he was a killer to start with," Sator said, creating a shredding whirlwind around himself that took the vines to pieces. "He came to me, pathetic thing, wanting to know how to get rid of the ghosts that were following him. So I took them away, and tucked them here for safekeeping. And he went off to make more."

"Not all girls, though," the Equestrian said. Maelstrom kicked a ball of fire up at Sator.

"Oh, it was some Oedipal thing," Sator said, flicking the fireball away. "He didn't get to kill his father, so he wanted to kill his father. I promised to raise his father so he could kill him -- imagine me going to all that trouble for a foolish little creature like that -- and he went out to fetch more souls. But temptation took him back to his original targets. Humans are so predictable."

There you go, the Equestrian said to Suzanne.

That's terrible, said Suzanne.

At least there won't be any more, Ira said comfortingly.

By this one, Suzanne said.

Megan looked around as she ducked the lightning and fire and wind. There was a big, heavy control panel nearby, behind Sator. She ran to it and found herself face-to-face with Meteor, who apparently had the same idea. They nodded to each other, bent, and jammed their fingers underneath the solid mass of steel and lights.

Megan counted, One... two... THREE! and they both heaved with all their might.

The panel tore free of its moorings and slammed into Sator's back, exploding into more lightning and fire and wind.

Sator lost concentration, apparently, as his part of the fireworks ceased for a moment. There was a whirring, whining sound that cut through the air, and Wire's trademark wires, which she reputedly never used on living things, lashed out to wrap around Sator.

His clothing was reduced to ribbons, but his skin was impervious. He pursed his lips and raised a hand. The wires rebounded, lashing back toward their creator.

Wire leapt aside just a fraction of a second too late, and her left arm just... fell off below the elbow.

Megan felt Renata clamp down on Wire's reaction, but she saw the blood burst onto the floor. Wire fell, clamping her remaining hand over the stump. Somehow, Wire stayed silent against some sort of desperate panic that Megan didn't understand.

Worse, the churning, spinning wires kept on and slashed through the glass bell jar that hovered above the funnel, sending glass fragments everywhere.

Nereid screamed as Brainchild's spirit slipped toward the abyss of the black cone.


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Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

The door in the middle of the room burst open and the tail end of an ear-shattering scream blew in.

Maelstrom stepped in front of the Equestrian. Wire stepped between the door and the device holding Sophie's spirit captive. Tam stepped behind Nereid.

A light whipped through the door and struck Wire in the chest, knocking her flat. It continued unimpeded on its path into the funnel, spiraling down into darkness.

There was a pop. And another one. And another. The pops came faster and harder, like a machine gun, and Nereid suddenly realized that the walls of vacuum tubes were shattering, making noise like champagne corks in a fire, and the lights were diving down after the first, consumed by the funnel.

The shrieking scrapes of stone on stone and the thrum and grind of the gears sped up around them.

As Wire picked herself up, a little balding man with white hair and muttonchop sideburns wearing an out-of-date suit stepped through the door, tossing aside a small device that looked like a miniature gramophone.

He stopped, staring at them all through his wire-rim glasses, first with bewilderment, then with growing rage.

"Will interference from you confounded paranormals never end?" he demanded angrily.

"I don't suppose it will," the Equestrian said, a ball of green light growing in one of her hands.

There was a crash from the other side of the doorway, and Nereid heard a familiar voice shouting, "SATOR!"

"Megan?" Nereid exclaimed, then clapped both hands over her mouth as Sator glanced at her, amused.

"Don't worry, dear," he said, removing his glasses and tucking them in the breast pocket of his shirt. "I already knew her name. Humans are so careless."

The great golden-furred wolf was, apparently, just as much a surprise to Sator as it was to the rest of them, especially given the way Simon tackled Sator squarely behind the knees, knocking the magician on his face.

"Oh, that'll piss him off," Maelstrom said, snorting flame out of his human-looking face. "Magicians are sticklers about their dignity."

Simon looked up and around at everyone, and his gaze locked on Nereid. The next moment, Nereid felt someone in her mind.

Pardon the intrusion, Pacifica, a sweet, mild woman's voice said. My name is Renata Scott, and I'll be your telepathic link for today.

Oh, thank fuck, a way to talk, Wire said into the link.

Excellent, the Equestrian said, and her mental voice was much older than her physical one.

Sator rose up from the floor in a graceful swoop, his feet well above the ground and energies crackling around each hand. "I have no patience for this," he intoned.

The dome continued to open its eye to another sky wider and wider.


Note from the Author:

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Backstage Pass

"Sophie!" cried Nereid again, reaching for the bell jar. Tam slapped her hands away.

"You don't know what's holding her there," Tam snapped. "It could hurt you."

Nereid gave him a baffled frown, then looked around at the others. Wire was gagging and spitting nearby. Maelstrom was looking upward with a cynically mournful expression. The Equestrian was standing with fists on hips, looking up at the ceiling as well.

Nereid looked up too. The enormous concrete blocks that made up the dome were shifting and sliding around each other as the dome slowly rotated. It looked vaguely familiar, like a special effect she'd seen in a movie once. Or perhaps like one of those sliding puzzle games she played as a kid.

As the blocks screeched against each other, a small aperture began to open in the very top of the dome.

"I don't like that at all," Maelstrom said conversationally.

The Equestrian sighed and said, "Let's find out what it does before getting down to disliking it."

"Is it... some kind of observatory?" Nereid asked, watching the tiny hole iris open to reveal a strange, vivid darkness that seethed with burning stars and indigo clouds.

"I bet you a case of Guinness that it's not just for observing," Maelstrom said.

Wire punched Nereid in the arm, hard. Nereid exclaimed and looked at her teammate, feeling very injured. Wire, one hand clapped over her mouth, pointed furiously at the door in the center of the room.

"Oh," Nereid said. Then, a little louder, "Um, everybody? The door is glowing all over and all around."

"Oh, that," the Equestrian said. "I expect that's what it's supposed to do when it unlocks."

Maelstrom stomped over, examined the door closely, sniffed it, and then pounded on it with one bony fist. When it failed to respond, he turned his back on it, lifted one leg, and kicked back at it several times.

The door remained unmoved. It was a door.

"It's sealed," Maelstrom said unnecessarily.

"I figured that," the Equestrian said. "There is, after all, no doorknob on this side."

"Does no harm to check," Maelstrom said.

"Except whoever's door it is now knows we're here," the Equestrian said, still staring up at the dome.

Maelstrom snorted. "Only if they're standing right on the other side."

Nereid stamped her foot to much less effect than Maelstrom. She pointed at the bell jar. "What about Sophie?"

The Equestrian sighed and walked over to look at the tiny figure in the jar. "Yep," she said. "Looks like Brainchild all right."

Wire, who was examining the knobs and dials on the machine, lifted her head to glare daggers at the Equestrian.

The Equestrian ignored her, as usual, and peered curiously into the funnel under the bell jar. "Hmmm," she said.

"What?" Nereid said.

"Dunno," the Equestrian said, then added, "Maelstrom, go take a look at those walls of vacuum tube thingies."

Maelstrom snorted again and slouched over. "Oh," he said as he got closer. "Oh," he said again, sniffing loudly. He tapped one glowing glass bulb in the nearest wall. It rang under his fingernail. "That glow's a human soul."

Nereid exclaimed, "All of those are souls?"

The Equestrian pursed her lips and rubbed her chin. "Well, that's a thing," she said, looking at the walls of luminescent souls, then at the funnel, then at the turning gears and opening hole in the dome.

Tam said, nervously, "They're... not for a tithe, are they?"

The Equestrian said, "I think they are, in a way."

Maelstrom spun around on his heel and stared at her. "Even a bribe this big--"

"No," the Equestrian interrupted. "Not an established trade route. I think it's a magician, trying to force the wall open. It's a good night for it."

Maelstrom replied, "It's a busy one, that's for sure. But are you referring to the Far Lands, or something further?"

"Something further, I think."

Nereid exclaimed, "Could you speak in English for the rest of us?"

The Equestrian pinched the bridge of her nose. "I think someone is trying to crack open the dimensional wall between Earth and... somewhere else... using an engine that takes souls for fuel that's stationed here, in this land, because souls can be made tangible here." She pointed at Sophie, who was drifting around inside the bell jar, apparently unable to see the lot of them. "And it's May Day on the other side, a day when the walls are thinnest."

Nereid's jaw fell open. How did they lose so many months? And... a dimensional gate? She looked at Tam, whose face wasn't registering horror so much as complete bewilderment.

Unfortunately, she didn't have time to explain it to him before the machines all around them lit up and began to emit a peculiar set of extremely irritating tones.

"What is that?" Nereid said, clapping her hands to her ears.

Wire exclaimed, "That's a modem coming online!" then turned her back, retching violently.

Nereid didn't turn fast enough -- she saw something hit the floor and scurry away, and gagged in sympathy.

The Equestrian said, "Then the connection's been made. Maelstrom, watch the door. Nereid, Wire, you know computers, see if you can figure out how to get this thing shut down."


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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.

wonder_city: (Default)

"All right," the Equestrian said, looking down from the grassy hilltop where their road ended. "I think we'll try this city."

Nereid topped the hill and looked down at a walled city that held a number of modern-looking concrete buildings and a single mirrored skyscraper. The wall around the city was also mirrored, looking sleek and futuristic and utterly wrong.

"Why not that last one we passed?" Wire asked, glancing over her shoulder towards a more traditionally pseudo-medieval confection a few miles behind them.

The Equestrian cleared her throat. "They're a little too experimental."

Maelstrom snorted. "They've been trying patriarchy for a while now. Makes them unpleasant to be around."

"Sounds like what we're used to," Wire said.

"Not their sort," said the Equestrian. "Remember that things here are sort of... reversed. Always reversed, really."

"The 'king'," Maelstrom said scornfully, "has a number of advisors who actually run the place while he's busy getting bug--"

"ANYWAY," the Equestrian interrupted, "this city is somewhat more traditional politically. And it's one of the more successful experiments with modern human architecture."

"What are we going to do there?" Nereid said.

"Try to find information about Brainchild," the Equestrian said, "that doesn't cost us too dearly."

Wire didn't have a witty rejoinder -- her witty rejoinders had been getting scarcer since the wedding incident -- so they started down the hill together.

As they approached the gate, which rather resembled the skin of a disco ball pegged out to dry, the Equestrian said, "Remember. Don't eat or drink anything I don't tell you to eat or drink. Don't take gifts from anyone. Don't shoplift. Don't wander out of sight of me -- not Maelstrom, me. Be so polite none of your friends would recognize you. All right?"

Both of them had, by this time, learned to simply say, "Yes, ma'am." It made life easier. She wouldn't answer their questions anyway.

Guards stood to either side of the gate, apparently male given the hang of their neat business suits and patent leather shoes. One was examining what appeared to be a cell phone, the other was mumbling self-importantly to the air. He may have had an earphone hooked over one ear.

The one caressing his phone looked up at them. "Oh, you again," he said to the Equestrian. "Come on in, I suppose."

Just then his phone said distinctly, in a tinny little voice, "Druid," and he turned his attention back to it.

Wire reached over and shut Nereid's mouth with a clack of teeth.

The Equestrian didn't even acknowledge the guard, but kept Maelstrom moving steadily toward the gate. The wan sunlight hurt Nereid's eyes as it was reflected by thousands of mirrored facets. Then the gates swung outward, admitting them to the faerie city.

"Need a taxi, lady?" one squat man with halitosis snarled at Nereid, advancing on her from his post next to a tiny yellow car that would have fit in Nereid's school backpack.

"No, thank you," she said to him, and to the hundreds of other cabbies who accosted her in the next five minutes. She could hear Wire similarly refusing service. No one approached the Equestrian.

Once they ran the gauntlet of taxicabs, they came onto a wide, clear, clean, empty sidewalk that led inexorably to the skyscraper. "Where we want to be is on the other side of the building," the Equestrian said. "Keep close."

"Why?" Wire said despite what they'd already learned about asking her questions.

Suddenly, they were in a press of people, all dressed in various sorts of modern and near-modern business gear. There were men in gray skirt suits with large, pastel 1980s bows at their throats. There were women in black suits and bowlers, carrying umbrellas and leather cases. There were male supermodels in bulky silver spacesuits covered in pockets. There were people of indeterminate gender in housecoats, with animate antennae emerging from their hair curlers and carrying tiny metal briefcases. Nereid had written off business garb as boring and monochrome, and learned very quickly that it didn't have to be.

She followed the Equestrian's stiff back in her dark green tailcoat gamely, though, elbowing her way through the throng. Nereid was momentarily bedazzled by the mirrored side of the skyscraper, though, as it showed the reflections of everyone around her as even more incredibly-dressed and fanciful-looking than they were when she looked straight at them. That businessman in the Armani-lookalike suit was a small furry humanoid with a sticky note on its forehead when seen in the mirror. That woman in the black aviator's hat and jumpsuit, landing her jetpack carefully at curbside looked like a small green fairy woman with butterfly wings in the mirror. Her own reflection remained quite mundane, to her disappointment.

Nereid looked away, feeling more than a little overwhelmed and... found herself alone. There was no sign of the Equestrian, Maelstrom, or Wire. She ran along the side of the building where she'd last seen them but they weren't there. They weren't around the corner. They weren't anywhere in sight.

Just stay where you are, Nereid told herself, trying not to hyperventilate. They'll realize any minute and come back for you. They can't find you if you start running around like an idiot.

So she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Somewhere around the time that the sun appeared to be setting, she thought, I'm so very fucked.


From the Author:
Wonder City Stories has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Award! Voting has begun -- see this post for the fiction category. I would adore it if you voted for Wonder City. Also note that there are other categories, including webcomics, art, and "other".

I'm posting twice weekly during February. Thank you for all your comments! Please keep commenting while I come up with new ideas (or steal other people's ideas) for fan involvement. I love all your comments.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.

wonder_city: (Default)
One a' Them Mettyfors

"Come to the wedding!" sang the little birds in the branches overhead. "Everyone must come to the wedding!"

The Equestrian leaned forward and slapped Maelstrom's ears. "'I know these woods,' you said," she said. "'Just some bimorphs. No trouble at all,' you said. Bollocks."

Maelstrom laid his ears flat against his head. "It is a shortcut," he said sulkily.

Nereid looked up at the Equestrian and thought, not for the first time, how strange it was to see an expression that old on a face that young. "What's wrong? It sounds kind of nice."

"Weddings," the Equestrian said in the tone of voice people generally reserved for discussing gangrene.

Wire reached out and broke a delicate icicle off a tree branch. "Weird season for a wedding."

The woods glittered and gleamed with ice and frost and tiny sparks of snow that occasionally blew off upper tree branches like powdered sugar. The evergreens were coated with snow in the lumps generally only seen on Christmas cards. A perfect one-inch layer of snow muffled their footsteps as they made their way deeper into the woods.

"Now we have to attend," the Equestrian said, venting her ire on Maelstrom's ears again.

"We can't just give our regrets and, er, best wishes or something?" Nereid said.

"That would be rude," Wire said, possibly to demonstrate that she'd learned something from the Equestrian's frequent lectures on the necessity of politeness in this land.

"Exactly," the Equestrian said. "Let's go. The sooner we're there, the sooner it's over."

Maelstrom heaved a sigh. "They love having human guests." His ears perked up and his tone brightened. "But they should have some decent booze. And dancing. You haven't let me go dancing for ages."

"That's because you have four left feet," said the Equestrian. "I'm just acting for the public good."

Maelstrom snorted.

"So, um, is there anything we should know about, you know, what to do?" Nereid said.

"Don't eat or drink anything here," the Equestrian said. "Even if it means being rude. Because, frankly, I don't want to have to explain to your parents why I'm bringing them a ferret instead of a daughter."

"Oh," Nereid said.

The clearing was vast, and the ground was coated with snow that was hardened so that it felt like marble underfoot. Stark white birch trees stretched high overhead, coated in the remains of an ice storm, and the branches contained a peculiarly melodious chorus of birds. Down on the floor, there were long tables covered with frothy white tablecloths. The tables nearly groaned under the weight of hundreds of steaming silver platters and bowls of food. A throng of people filled the clearing, most of them appearing to be animals in human clothing, but everyone seemed to flow easily from animal to human and back again.

When Maelstrom strolled in with the Equestrian on his back and Wire and Nereid walking to either side, the crowd turned, exclaimed joyously, and closed around them. Nereid found herself pressed back against Maelstrom's shoulder by the earnest greetings of a pack of wolves in Victorian tailcoats and top hats. "Thank you," she said again and again in response to their enthusiastic compliments about her hair, her figure, her costume, her presence, her smile -- anything, in short, that they could find to compliment about her, even things they could have no knowledge of, like her kindness or grace. At least she could hear that Wire was having a similar experience on the other side of the horse. The Equestrian, however, was a silent monolith on the horse's back, glowering at everyone equally.

The wolves fell away as a large puma-woman with acres of cleavage in several square miles of heavily-corseted green satin dress advanced on the humans. A handsome young man with large, dark, sensitive eyes trailed behind her, his sculpted chest and shoulders clearly visible through his thin silk shirt. "Welcome!" she purred. "We're terribly flattered that you could attend our little... event." Nereid could swear she winked at Maelstrom, and glimpsed consternation on the face of the young man. "Why don't you come have a seat? Perhaps something to drink...?"

"Thank you, lady," the Equestrian said, "but we cannot, as you know, partake of hospitality of that sort. Though we're very glad to be able to see such a spectacular event."

"Ah, yes," the woman said, taking her young man's arm. "But surely your steed can."

The Equestrian sighed and slid off Maelstrom's back. Nereid staggered a bit as the object she was leaning against changed from solid horse to tall, slender man. He caught her, almost as an afterthought, and smiled down at the puma. "Of course I can, and I will, by your leave, lady."

The puma nodded graciously. "I hope you all will enjoy yourselves as best you can," she said before moving off with her escort. As Nereid eyed his well-built back, she noticed the large rack of antlers that crowned his head briefly.

"So who's getting married?" Wire said, looking around.

Maelstrom bowed to the Equestrian and moved off, making a beeline toward a table full of bottles that was being managed by a raven-boy. One of the wolves passed close by, paying outrageous compliments to a small, plump hen-woman on his arm.

The Equestrian ran a practiced gaze over the crowd, then pointed toward an archway of black thorny branches on which ice-carved roses bloomed. "I'd say that's her."

A slim young woman, skin pale as the snow, stood demurely under the arch. She was crowned with a sparkling tiara and wore what appeared to be a white tutu with a long, long train no actual ballerina could manage. Her bridal veil was adorned with feathers, and divided in two just below the nape of her neck, trailing behind her like wings.

"Why does she look so... human?" Nereid asked.

"She's a swan princess," the Equestrian said. "That's her thing."

Wire looked confused. "Looking human?"

"Yes," the Equestrian said. "And, if I'm not mistaken, she's got two potential husbands. That argument there." She pointed to a pair of young men who were clearly "having words" not too far from the bride-to-be.

"Wait," Wire said. "They don't know who's marrying her yet? But they've got the wedding set up?"

Nereid's attention was arrested by an enormous white construction nearby. "With a cake and everything," she breathed, admiring the seven-tiered edifice that stood alone on a round table, a wreath of ice-coated ivy around its base. It was decorated with sugar frosting delicate as chantilly lace, with swags of pale pastel fruit and marzipan on each tier. Fine sugar chains depended from the upper tiers, each adorned with a tiny confection of a golden ring. The cake was topped with a cage filigreed of spun sugar and holding a live turtledove, who preened and cooed, apparently enjoying being on display.

Wire turned to look and said, "How do they keep the bird from shitting on the cake?"

Nereid glowered and said, "This is like a fairy tale. Shit doesn't happen."

The Equestrian made a loud, harsh noise that Nereid thought might possibly have been a laugh, but it was hard to tell with her.

They made their way closer to the bridal arch. A small cat in very large cavalier boots and a blue-feathered Musketeer hat stomped past, making a beeline for the same table Maelstrom was inhabiting. He or she ordered an enormous glass of something and downed it immediately, ordering a refill as the glass hit the table. Maelstrom said something to the cat, and the cat rolled its green eyes expressively before slamming down another glassful.

Nereid heard Wire say, "Oh, excuse me," and saw that Wire and a lovely young woman in a figure-hugging black sequined sheath dress and a black feathered wrap had just collided.

"Not a problem," the young woman said huskily. "These affairs are always so crowded."

The Equestrian eyed her suspiciously and said, "Family of the bride?"

"My sister," the woman said, dabbing at her eyes with a black-edged handkerchief.

"Didn't I see you at a wedding not long ago?" the Equestrian said.

"Yes," the black swan princess said. "Oh, yes. My own wedding, no doubt. But as you can see, I am recently bereaved. It was a terrible, surprising event." She smiled brilliantly at Wire and undulated in the direction of Maelstrom.

"I expect the Carp Prince was most surprised of all by his own demise," the Equestrian muttered and turned toward the bride again, where the two suitors were remonstrating.

One was an auburn-haired fox man, sleek in a dark red tail coat, tight breeches, high polished black boots, and a high-necked, neatly-tied cravat a la Beau Brummel. The other was a taller, dark-haired wolf nattily attired in a grey Victorian morning suit, complete with high silk hat. They both leaned close to the bride, speaking low and urgently. She fluttered and blushed and looked to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

Finally, she turned and took the arm of the fox. A thin cheer went up around the clearing, and people began to drift closer to the arch expectantly. Nereid noticed several small knots of people were surreptitiously exchanging what looked like money or small jewels. The wolf stepped back, and seemed to be about to stalk away, when the fox said, "But stay, friend, and be my best man. After all, no hard feelings, what?"

The wolf snapped his jaws at the fox, but remained where he was. The fox smiled and clasped his bride-to-be close to his side. "Come, my dove, we'll have this wedding yet. Bring up the man to do the job!" he called.

There was a general kerfluffle among the attendees, and a squawk sounded from a goose woman that stood near Nereid. A smiling and rotund boar in a long brown robe, holding a brandy glass in one hand ambled from behind the goose and up toward the young couple. The goose huffed and hurried away from his self-satisfied smirk.

"Beerly deloved!" the boar bellowed. "No, wait, that's not quite right."

"It is for us!" a raven girl called from the drinks table, holding aloft a large beer stein.

"Dearly beloved!" the boar corrected himself. "We are gathered here today to see the marriage of the swan princess to her chosen prince! And a lucky bastard he is too, if I may say so." A cheer went up around the clearing, and the bride blushed.

Nereid had trouble keeping her gaze on the couple. Every time she glanced at the cake, she noticed new details, and she kept looking back to it. It was so glittery, so sparkly. Were those tiny interlinked hearts in the frosting swags? Did the turtledove really have a swing in its sugar cage?

Wire elbowed her and whispered, "What's got you so hot about that cake?"

"It's just so pretty," Nereid said, looking again. One tier's piping was made up of little pomegranates, each split open and showing seeds that were tinted the faintest pink. "Do you suppose it tastes as good as it looks?"

"Who the hell cares?" Wire said. "We're not going to get to eat it. We'll just get another of those energy bars the Equestrian keeps feeding us. I'm so fucking hungry I can barely see straight."

"And I've got lemon-flavored bars for the pains in my ass who shut the hell up," the Equestrian said. Wire flushed angrily.

"Where's the ring?" roared the boar-priest. "Who's got it?"

There was a general sort of scrum around the clearing, and the beautiful vixen who was apparently standing as the maid of honor finally rolled her eyes and produced a golden ring from her cleavage. She handed it to the wolf, who sulkily handed it to the fox. The fox thanked him loudly, which made hackles stand up on the wolf's neck. The red-headed vixen inadequately concealed a yawn behind one slender hand.

"Excellent!" the boar said. "Well, don't just stand there, put the ring on her hand!"

The fox bent and took up the swan princess' tiny hand, sliding the ring onto the appropriate finger. He looked up into her eyes and smiled. She smiled back radiantly, then turned to face the audience to receive the applause with triumphantly raised, newly beringed hand.

"I now pronounce you man and wife!" the boar said into the tumult. "You may now kiss the bride."

The fox bent her back over his arm and kissed her. The ravens thumped the table and cheered raucously. A host of small animals, including stoats, ferrets, crows, and raccoons rushed forward to help carry the bride's train.

Nereid noticed that there was a small flock of chickadee women and several shy, twitchy-nosed young men who quietly faded into the woods around the clearing.

The puma who had greeted them reached out and seized the arm of her cervine companion warmly.

The fox swung his bride over his shoulder, despite her squeaked protests, and carried her through the arch, pursued by the train-carriers and wedding party.

The Equestrian grabbed Wire and Nereid's shoulders and dragged them backward. "What?" Wire said, staggering a little.

"Come on," the Equestrian said. "Believe me, you don't want a ringside seat at the feast."

Unseen beyond the press of people now, the bride screamed. Nereid's eyes went wide. "What's wrong? Shouldn't we help her?"

The bride screamed again, this time a high, shrill note of terror that ended in a wet ripping sound.

"Oh, my god," Wire said, green in the face.

The wolf best man stood up on a table. His face was covered in blood and he was laughing. "I got the biggest piece! I win after all!" he shouted. Ravens circled and called overhead, croaking encouragement.

The vixen maid of honor emerged from the feast, daintily wiping her mouth with a white floral napkin. She winked at the three humans and said, "You know what they say: always a bridesmaid and never a bride." She moved off to the champagne fountain.

The Equestrian halted near the cake table. "Wait here," she said. "I have to go fetch Maelstrom." And she headed for the drinks table.

Wire still looked sick. "Still wondering if the cake tastes as good as it looks?" she sneered. With a flick of her fingers, ribbons of her trademark molecule-thick "wire" spun out and sliced down through the edge of the lowest tier. "Have a slice!" She yanked on the ribbons to peel the slice open.

An empty icing shell fell away from the rest of the cake. They both stared at the hollow cake in consternation as, slowly, delicately, beautifully, it began to crumble down to its component sugar molecules. Presently, the whole cake had become a pile of sugar with a dead bird on top.

Nereid bit back a sob, knowing that Wire would only make fun of her if she let it out.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom trotted up. "Get on," the Equestrian said, seizing Wire by the scruff of the neck and hauling her aboard. Nereid clambered up behind, and Maelstrom's enormous frame surged out of the clearing and into the woods, leaving the screams, howls, snarls, and snatches of drunken song behind.

Presently, Wire said, "What the fuck was that all about?"

Maelstrom shook his mane. "Do you need it spelled out for you?" His voice rumbled through his ribcage and against their legs. "Don't fuck anyone who wants to eat you. Literally or metaphorically."

"They take their metaphors," the Equestrian said, "seriously here."


From the Author:
Tip o' the Musketeer hat to my wife, who helped me concoct this bit of dreadful fairy drama.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.

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The Fifth Destination

"Are you serious?" Wire said, shrinking back visibly from the sanguine torrent.

The Equestrian turned to look over her shoulder as Maelstrom forded the River of Blood. The viscous serum rushed around her booted legs and Maelstrom's shoulders. "This is the way in. Don't get squeamish on me so that I have to come back across and kick your ass. There's lots worse in this country, kid."

Nereid took a deep breath of the metallic-tasting atmosphere and walked into the unimpressive current. It was warm, of course. "Come on, Wire," she said with forced cheer. "At least it isn't cold."

"Fuck that shit," Wire said, planting her back firmly against the high bank behind her. "Where are the tinkly damn bells? How do they get a whole goddamn river of blood?"

The Equestrian and her horse gained the other bank and turned to look at their charges. Maelstrom sighed explosively. The Equestrian rubbed her forehead. "They just have one, all right? Didn't you do any reading about this place? Not all of the books are wrong."

"No!" Wire shouted. "Why should I? How do I know what's right? Aren't we going with you so we don't need to do research?"

"What kind of goddamn superhero are you anyway?" the Equestrian shouted back.

Nereid, wet to the shoulder with blood, clambered out on the bank next to Maelstrom. She looked down at her formerly blue costume, up at the horse -- which was, of course, spotless by now -- and gestured with one hand. The river parted straight across, even the mud at the bottom crisping up dark brown as she removed the moisture from it. "Quit bitching already," she said.

Wire's eyes got very large and she crossed the stretch tentatively, eying the surging liquid walls at either hand. Nereid could feel the weight of the Equestrian's scowl on the top of her head.

Wire slapped Nereid on the shoulder, laughed, and said, "The parting of the Red Sea!" as if it was clever.

"I hope it doesn't come back to kick us in the arse," the Equestrian said, in a tone that anticipated several kicks in the arse.

"Sorry," Nereid said, somewhat contrite, but mostly relieved to have averted yet another Wire-induced crisis.

Maelstrom turned his back on the river and started up a road. "All right," the Equestrian said, "we will follow this road. We will not follow any other road until I say that we will. You will not step foot off this road. Think of it as the yellow brick road to Oz."

"Except that it's a dirt road?" Wire said, walking up the hill of the bank.

"Stop thinking you're witty," the Equestrian said, a harsh edge in her voice. "You might be universally thought clever at home by your playmates, but here, your jokes may be taken literally, dismissed, taken as insults, or taken as reasons for hilarity. There is no way to predict how they might be received. And if you insult someone? There's practically no way I can save you. So be very, very bloody polite. As polite as you might be to your best friend's grandma. All right?"

Nereid watched Wire's face go from irritated to contrite to stubborn and sighed internally. This was so going to be a long trip.


From the Author:
My shoulder does not love northeastern snowstorms. More specifically, it does not love the shoveling of snow after northeastern snowstorms. We went out and shoveled a bit yesterday, getting the front walk and sidewalk and most of the driveway clear. But now we're faced with having to excavate the end of the driveway, plowed in most thoroughly by the city. We are not happy campers.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.

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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Madame Destiny's little suburban split-level house had thick, white, wall-to-wall carpeting in the foyer, the living room, and the steps down to the lower level. Nereid tread softly in the slippers she put on at the door, following X's black coattails down the stairs and into Madame's Consultation Room.

"Pacifica!" Madame said as she advanced to hug Nereid, her round face wreathed in smiles. "It's so good to see you. It's been a long time. You look so much like your father these days."

Nereid endured the embrace with a rictus of a smile. "Thanks. It's, uh, good to see you too, Madame."

When Madame released her, the Equestrian stood up from the comfortable overstuffed chair she'd been ensconced in. "Hey, there," she said, extending her hand to Nereid. She was about 4 inches shorter than Nereid, slim-bodied and blonde, and eternally 13 years old. She gave Nereid the shivering willies. Nereid had really hated being 13. "I don't think we've met in a professional capacity... and I think I last saw you when you were shorter than me."

Nereid shook her hand, murmuring a greeting, and glanced around. Tiffany lamps, peach walls, and good soundproofing made the room a quiet, comfortable, easy-on-the-eyes sort of place to gather. Only she, the Equestrian, Madame, and X were there. "Where's...?" she began, a little puzzled.

"He's a filthy horseboy," the Equestrian said with a half-smile.

"He left a mess of mud and grass on my carpet upstairs a few years ago," Madame said, reassuming her seat. "He's not allowed in until he learns to clean his boots."

The Equestrian snorted. "He'll never be in then."

"You need to teach him better manners," Madame said.

"Him?" the Equestrian said. "Better luck teaching manners to a wild bull."

X gently pushed Nereid into one of the comfy chairs adorned with a pastel flower pattern, then took a seat on what looked like a piano bench.

"So," the Equestrian said after taking a long drink from a bottle of hard lemonade, "you called, I'm here. What's up?"

Nereid looked at X. X looked grim, then said, "You've heard about Sophie -- Brainchild, the Ultimate's daughter, right?"

The Equestrian nodded, examining her bottle. "Heard she's comatose since that dustup with Josh Feldstein."

X said, "That's right. Well, the Oracle gave us a clue..."

"A typically cryptic and annoying one," Madame put in. "About going on a spiritual walkabout, essentially."

"And so Nereid and I went to Lucid's Dream Party to see if anyone there had seen Sophie," X said. "And some people had."

The Equestrian was watching X's face now, a slight frown on her face. "I don't like where this is going," she said.

X shrugged. "The door she went out through was, I'm relatively certain, a door to..."

The Equestrian waved a hand violently. "Yes, yes, I can guess. And you want me to look for her?"

"Actually," X said, meeting Nereid's gaze briefly, "we were hoping you'd take us there."

"Us?" Madame said, sitting up suddenly. "Oh, no, you can't leave, X."

X twitched visibly, then grew pale. Fists bunched so the knuckles were white, X said, through gritted teeth, "Madame, Sophie is my friend. I have to help find her."

"Your duty is here," Madame said. "I can't function here without you. You keep up on everything, and there's no telling how long you'd be in that country. Worse, if you were to be lost..." Madame wrung her hands. "I just can't condone you going, X."

"I..." X began, then bit back whatever the rest of the sentence was.

Nereid, for once in her life finding a clear cue for interfering in a conversation, hurriedly said, "That's all right, X. I can ask one of the Cosmics to come along." She looked at the Equestrian's distracted frown and added, "If the Equestrian will take us, that is."

They all looked at the Equestrian.

"If I were to take you along," the Equestrian began slowly, staring at her hand where it clenched the fabric of her breeches, "you would have to agree to follow every order and direction I give you. No questions, no cavils, because if you do something wrong there, you could be trapped there forever, or worse." She looked up at Nereid. "Can you promise to do that, Pacifica? Because if you can't promise me that you'll do as I say, then I'll go looking myself and leave you here."

Nereid nodded so hard she felt her teeth rattle against each other.

"Whoever else comes along will have to agree too," the Equestrian said, glancing only briefly at X, whose face had gone angular and expressionless. "I can't predict what will happen there. We might be separated despite you following my directions. Something else might happen. The only absolute about that place is that it's always changing, and it's always the same."

Nereid frowned, trying to parse that, and then just filed it away for later. "I understand," she said. "I promise."

The Equestrian sighed and rose to her feet. "Don't leave without seeing your parents," she said. "They'd kill me if you did."

Nereid showed uncommon good sense -- she thought -- in choosing to leave with the Equestrian, especially given the almost visible tension between X and Madame. Outside the bright green front door, the Equestrian turned and looked up at her.

"Ask someone you can count on," she told Nereid, "but I'm afraid the android probably shouldn't be the person to come along. He might, um, malfunction."

Nereid said, "Oh. Oh! That would be terrible, yes. I..." She desperately thought through the team roster and said, "I'll ask Wire. She... she cares about Sophie too."

The Equestrian cocked a smile. "Sometimes, I guess, that's all one can depend on." She snapped her fingers and an enormous black stallion with a white star on his forehead and a white sock on a front hoof stepped into sight next to her. "Need a ride home?"

Nereid took a step backward from the horse, whose eyes, she was sure, glowed red deep inside, and shook her head. "I'll... I... I'll be fine. Thanks!" With a quick wave, she turned and fled down the sidewalk toward the bus stop.

When she glanced over her shoulder, the pair was gone.


From the Author:
Sorry for the disappearance. Real life suddenly came down like a hammer! I'll answer comments soon, I promise!

My wife was wonderful with titles again and always, making up for my lack of brain.

Again: I'm posting twice weekly during the month of December as a [fill in holiday here] gift for you all. If you like getting WCS twice weekly, then please comment on anything. :) If I get 50 comments over the course of December, I will post twice weekly all through January as well. If I get 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through February. If, by some amazing work of you wonderful folks, I get more comments than that, I will come up with some even better reward.

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Experto Crede

“The next time Lady Daphne calls,” Molly said, flinging her filthy green tailcoat across the room, “tell her to handle it her own damn self. The Equestrian is on leave, as of now. I’m sick of kiting off across the River of Blood at her beck and call.” She hopped on one foot, then the other, tossing her tall riding boots off in a way that left muddy scuffs on the wall. “Lazy, lousy, good-for-nothing snob.”

Maelstrom stooped to pick up the boots, put them on the shoe rack, and sighed heavily.

“What’s come in the mail, then?” Molly said, still in her Mood. She picked up the large stack of envelopes from the basket and flipped through them while standing on one foot. “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam, and spam.” She tossed most of them in the recycling, retaining a small stack of bills. “And what’s this? A package! A veritable package!” She examined the small brown-paper-wrapped box with a critical eye. “Did you order more naughty horse books from Medusa dot com?” she asked Maelstrom.

He rolled his eyes and stomped past her into the kitchen, his patent leather boots making unnaturally loud noises on the wide pine flooring.

Molly ripped the paper off the box and found that the box was, indeed, a reused mailing container, and scowled at the name of the person who’d received the box originally. “Wasn’t Fred Fine that publishing bloke? The one that called last year?”

An apparently affirmative snort drifted back to her from the kitchen, where Maelstrom could be heard rummaging in the refrigerator.

She pulled her Swiss Army knife from the pocket of her breeches and slit the packing tape open. Under unnecessary bubble wrap was a book and a chartreuse sticky note. The note read: “Thought you would enjoy seeing this new addition to ‘The Equestrian’ line! -- FF”

“Oh, bloody hell,” she said, looking at the cover. There was the curlicued green-and-gold Equestrian book logo, updated to look sleeker and more modern. There was a winsome blonde girl on a gigantic rearing black horse, and she was craning her neck to look over her shoulder, with an expression on her face that was probably supposed to look longing. Molly suspected that the image actually captured the moment before she went ass over teakettle off the horse’s back. Cursive print slanted across the cover: Hoofprints Across My Heart.
Read more... )

From the author:

Alas, I missed Hallowe'en, but the time of year is still appropriate for this particular partnership.

I have had the preponderance of crazy cat ladies in my stories pointed out to me. I will remedy soon with crazy dog ladies, I promise, and perhaps a little more focused horse-madness.

Thank you, everyone who has donated and/or reviewed/recommended Wonder City Stories in the past few weeks!

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Ain't Got Nothin' But Time

More people came to visit while they were sitting shiva than to the graveside service, which was just fine as far as Ira was concerned. Not many of his old friends were willing (or able) to brave the sleet and snow and freezing temperatures, though he had appreciated those that had. The tables in the kitchen and living room were piled high with food people had brought, and the wine rack on top of the refrigerator was restocked. Suzanne moved around the room when people were there, the gracious hostess, somehow buoyed up when things should have been beating her down. He watched her with vague admiration through the slowness of his brain.

Andrea chatted amiably with people from her enthronement in the corner that day. Her husband David was whisking away abandoned glasses and plates and dealing with other logistical matters in a low-key way that made Ira think uncharitably of a butler.

People talked to Ira. Sometimes he recognized them. Nox the Night-Stalker still had those amazing eyes that reached into you and grabbed you by your figurative lapels so you couldn't help but pay attention to him. Madame Destiny was another person you couldn't ignore, and that strange apprentice of hers... The Equestrian showed up the second or third day, all apologies for not meeting him to give him warning. She finally realized he wasn't really responding to her, or anyone, and had just hugged him hard. Her horse patted him on the shoulder and given him a sad look.

Ah, how the great -- or at least mediocre -- have fallen. Pity from a horse.

Ira didn't recognize her until she had stood in front of him for a long moment, young and nervous in her black dress and battered brown winter coat. She smiled tremulously when he focused on her and put out her hand. "Mr. Metropolitan, I'm... I'm very sorry."

He saw the details of her: brown hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, and freckles. Very, very young. He stood abruptly and took her hand. "I... I'm glad you came. Ruth... the Ultimate, you know... explained what happened. I'm afraid I don't understand all of it..."

"Neither do I," she said with a twitch of a smile. Her hand was hot and a little damp and after shaking Ira's hand, she shoved it into the pocket of her coat and stood awkwardly.

"Why don't you sit down?" Ira said, gesturing to the chair next to his. "Do you want a drink or a plate of something? So many people have brought food, I don't think Suzanne and I will be hungry for months. Ruth brought a big pot of red rice, and the Silver Guardian brought over her potstickers, and Carolus brought these little... cheese things that I'm a little afraid of..." He was vaguely aware that he hadn't spoken so much since it all happened.

She started to sit, then rose, alarmed. "Oh, no! That's fine, I'm not really hungry right now."

Ira made pat-patting motions and seated himself. She sat down too. They looked over the living room together: it was crowded with people who were para or friends of paras. Several of the Guardians were there, along with some of the ex-Junior Guardians who were active when Josh was active. A few of the Gold Stars had drifted in and out, but there was, understandably, no big organizational attendance. Ira spotted a couple of the Young Cosmics, High Speed's youngest boy Mercury and that android the Cosmics had rescued some time back -- Citizen Kane or something.

Suzanne, sleek and handsome in a grey pantsuit, swept up, smiling at the girl. "Thought you might like something warm," she said. "It's pretty bitter out there." She slid a cup of hot mulled cider into the guest's hand, winked at Ira, and made her way back into the crowd.

Ira and the girl watched her go.

"She... doesn't seem like a widow," the girl ventured, sipping her cider.

"It's been hard on her, all these years," Ira said. He sighed. "I expect she's been ready to get on with her life for a long time now."

The girl looked at him. "What's going to happen now? I mean, will you live alone?"

Ira shrugged. "I don't know. This is her house, you know. I earned my keep, as much as I could, by helping take care of Josh. And now..." He shrugged again. "We haven't talked about it."

"She wouldn't throw you out?" the girl said, sounding a little outraged.

Ira smiled. "She'd be well within her rights to do it. I'll just... I'll find some place. It'll be fine. But what about you?"

The girl's gaze dropped to the carpet. "I... well, I'm where I wanted to be."

"You are?"

She nodded, looking into her cup of cider, then taking a swig. "I made a deal with her... it... whatever it was. It would get me out of my parents' nightmare of a house, out of that crappy little town, and to Wonder City, and I wouldn't have to deal with any of it but the aftermath. And she... it... got the use of my body until its mission was over."

Ira stared at her, struggling with disbelief. Then he thought about the second Bombshell, who had told him late one night after the gang's Christmas party about how she'd gotten her para powers: she'd been terrified to leave her father's house on her own, afraid of the streets and afraid of her father, so had preferred to be taken aboard an alien spacecraft, bombarded with unknown rays, and taken off to a distant planet to fight in someone else's war to staying even one more day there.

Really, it wasn't that odd.

"I understand," he said, patting her hand. "Sometimes you have that one opportunity, and you have to take it."

"Yeah," she said. "I still have my room at the Y, and she... it... we got a job at this coffee house. So it's not like I'm living on the streets or anything."

"You're doing all right, then?" he said.

She nodded. "It'll be fine."

They smiled at each other for a long moment. Then she stood up. "I should go. I'll... see you around the Y, right?"

"Sure thing," he said, rising to take her hand again. "I'll be back there next week. Thank you for coming."

"No problem," she said, clasping his hand firmly.

She took a step away, then turned back. "I forgot to tell you," she said, "my name isn't actually Lizzie."

Ira smiled sadly. "I'd wondered."

"My name is Robyn," she said in a low voice. "But... would you mind if I kept using Lizzie? I... kind of like it. And I don't really like who I'm named for."

Ira's smile threatened to crack his face. "No, darlin'. I don't mind. And I think you would've liked my Lizzie, if you could ever have met her."

"Thank you." She hesitated, then kissed him on the cheek. "See you around."

He was still smiling as he settled back into his chair.

The Outsider came over to give him a cup of tea. "That the girl?" she asked.

He nodded. "Sweet kid," he said. "Nothing like her, of course. I wonder why I thought so?"


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La Soirée

"Welcome to the dungeon, my dear!" Zoltan said, embracing Megan one-armed, since his left hand was occupied with a glass full of something red. The interior of his apartment was very warm and dimly-lit and noisy, full of fabulously-dressed people and wood smoke and incense. There was some sort of background music, but Megan could only occasionally hear notes above the general hubbub. "Come in, have a drink or three."

"Thanks," Megan said, sliding through the door and adjusting her black leather necktie and the collar of her green dress shirt. "I assume you have more conventional beverages." She thought she saw someone with fairy wings run past.

The corner of Zoltan's mouth turned up. He was decked out in an electric purple silk waistcoat over a black dress shirt and slacks. There were birds of some sort -- phoenixes, perhaps -- worked into the silk brocade of the waistcoat. When he moved, the silk shimmered and changed from electric purple to iridescent green and back to purple. "If you're looking for soda pop, my dear, you will find it hidden in the cooler behind the wine and beer table. This -" he said, displaying his glass "- is a lovely Merlot from Australia."

She grinned and said, "Who's here?" She got a glimpse of a trio of identical Latino men with their arms around each others' shoulders, doing a little kick-step to the shrieks and laughter of a group who sported enough sequins and rhinestones to blind Europe.

"Everyone from the house, now that you've arrived," Zoltan said. "And some friends of mine from around town. A few from out of town. I promise that practically no one is boring." He glided off into the crowd, exclaiming, "Darling! Let me get you another drink!"

Megan looked around, coughed a little at the dense smoke in her atmospheric zone, and headed for the drinks table.

As she was examining the myriad options, a small blonde girl in jeans and a t-shirt bounced up to the table. She reached unerringly for a Guinness.

"Er," said Megan. "Should you be drinking that?"

The girl looked up at her with a sarcastic twist to her mouth and a sharp look in her eyes. "How long were you 13 years old?" she said in a slightly slurred English accent.

"Um," said Megan, already thinking that she'd got in over her head. "A year?"

The girl stood on tiptoe, grabbed Megan's necktie and hauled her down so they were face-to-face. Megan could smell the beer on her breath. The girl poked a finger at Megan's shoulder and hissed, "I've been 13 years old since nineteen forty-one, and if that doesn't entitle me to a pint now an' then, I don't know what does!"

Megan nodded, eyes wide.

"Right!" the girl said with a decided nod, and released Megan's tie.

A tall man with a long, mournful face and a mane of flaming red hair nodded at Megan as she straightened up. He reached over the girl and removed the Guinness bottlecap, then tucked the cap into an inner pocket of his dark blue suit coat.

"Thank you, Maelstrom," the 13-year-old said regally. With a sniff, she turned her back on Megan and marched away into the party. The tall man followed her.

"Who was that?" Megan said by way of greeting to Simon, loosening the knot of her tie.

Simon peered through the smoke. "Oh, her? That's the Equestrian. Old friend of Zoltan's. Comes to all his parties."

"Is she, you know...?" Megan tapped her canine tooth and made a bitey motion. She plucked a beer from the ice bucket.

"Oh, no," Simon said, refilling his wine glass with a California chardonnay. "No one's quite sure what that big guy is, other than some magical horse, but she made some sort of deal with him so she could save her parents during the Blitz or something."

"Wow," Megan said, looking after the pair again. "Poor kid. Didn't know what she was getting herself into. I hated being thirteen."

"Didn't everyone?" Simon said. "Hey, there's someone you should meet. C'mon."

Making their way through the party was less directed action and more drifting with the tides. At one point, they ended up near a large Victorian couch upholstered in scarlet brocade.

"I don't care which Elizabeth you saw crowned, dear heart," Zoltan said to the pretty young man draped over the arm of the couch, "whether it was the queen, the empress, or the other queen, you're ancient."

The young man folded his arms and scowled prettily.

Zoltan leaned closer and said in a low but carrying voice, "And if you move to town and try that trick of 'going back to high school', I will have you arrested for child endangerment, as well as for anything else you manage to pull off before I make the call. And people here know about our sort, unlike your blind and uncaring West Coasters."

"You're not the Grand Duke!" the young man snarled.

"There is no Grand Duke here," Zoltan said, spreading his hands and smiling angelically. "We're one big happy family here. Very democratic. Very happy. Very getting-along with the mortals." His smile vanished. "Very not biting up their children under false pretenses, because the mortals here have more than stakes and pitchforks."

"They're just mortals," the young man said, shoulders hunched up near his ears and chin firmly pressed to breastbone.

"This town is a favorite haunt of every Mystikai on the planet," Zoltan said, looking at the young man from under lowered lids. "They may not have children attending high school, but they have friends who do."

"What if I went to college?" the young man said after a silence, still sulky.

"If you will insist upon your usual approach to people," Zoltan said, "there are plenty of older women and men who would welcome advances by a young man with full pouting lips. Even should he choose to nibble upon them. You could become a sidekick! Or perhaps you could market your saliva as a treatment for arterial hardening."

The young man snarled and turned his back on Zoltan.

When Megan looked away from that exchange, trying not to laugh out loud, she noticed that Simon was being loomed at by a masculine figure that was dressed in snugly-fitting leather trousers and a leather motorcycle jacket. The man's smooth steel cranium shone dimly as he leaned back from whispering something in Simon's ear, and he grinned a metallic grin, eyes glowing faintly blue under his brow.

Simon lowered his eyes flirtatiously. "C'mon, Mr. Hammer, you know I'm not nearly man enough for you." Simon rapped on the man's metallic abdomen, producing a ringing sound. "I'm still not invulnerable."

"Hah!" The bigger man's voice had an electronic and echoing quality. "I can be careful, you know, pretty boy."

Simon looked up at him and grinned lopsidedly. "I've seen the guys coming out of your door too many mornings. They all need a buff and shine, or bandages."

Mr. Hammer laughed again. "Well, you know where I am if you suddenly get less chickenshit."

"Megan," Simon said, gesturing in an introductory fashion, "this is Jack Hammer, the guy who lives out in the carriage house. Mr. Hammer, this is Megan Amazon."

Jack Hammer extended a big, well-formed steel hand. "Good ta meetcha, kid."

Megan shook his hand. "Thanks."

"The bloodsucker finally got someone in the parlor rooms, huh?" he said. "Well, welcome to Zoltan's House of Crazy Queer Paras." Then someone else caught his eye, and he turned and sauntered off with a not-quite-apologetic nod.

"'Mr. Hammer'?" Megan said, raising her eyebrows.

"He's, uh, older than I am," Simon said, avoiding her gaze.

"Mmm-hmm," Megan said. "Robotic leather daddy seeks young shapeshifter for fun and games?"

"Just who I've been looking for!" Simon said feverishly, stepping through a gap in the crowd. "Megan, G; G, Megan. G is on the second floor across from me. Her apartment frequently smells of diesel fuel. Megan is on the first floor, in the grand parlor suite. Her apartment is occasionally soggy."

"Only when your friends come and weep on my furniture," Megan said, extending her hand to G. "Hiya."

G was dressed in well-faded jeans that clung to her hips and thighs and covered the tops of worn brown cowboy boots. She wore a tuxedo shirt, open at the collar, adorned with faceted onyx cufflinks. A small jade pendant hung on a braided hemp cord and rested at the hollow of her throat. She was a lean, wiry woman with sculpted cheekbones. The wind and sun had started carving lines around her eyes and mouth. Her auburn hair was about an inch long on top, shorter on the sides, starting to show just a few white hairs. G levered herself up from her chair, revealing that she was shorter than Simon, maybe 5'2", but her hand delivered a bone-straining grip. "Hey," G said, offering a lazy smile.

Simon melted away into the crowd, leaving the two of them facing each other. G pointed to a nearby chair with her beer bottle. "I hate standing around. The crowd gets to me," she said, folding herself back into her own chair.

Megan sat cautiously, still reluctant to bend at the middle even though her ribs were knitting up nicely. "How long have you lived here?" she said, casting about for conversational topics.

"About six years," G said with just a touch of a drawl. She took a long pull on her beer. "You new to the city?"

"Yeah," Megan said. "I lived out in Las Vegas with my mom. Decided to make a break for it."

"Ah, family," G said with a faint smile. "What're you doin' to keep body and soul together while you're here?"

"Loading delivery trucks," Megan said. "At any rate, I was. I'll find out Monday if I've still got a job."

"Was the place hit by the aliens?" G said.

"No," Megan said. "I... said some things to my boss and, uh, the guy he owed money to." She took a swig of beer. "How about you?"

"Architect," G said.

"Wow!" Megan said.

G waved it away. "It's not all that. I'm still small potatoes. But I came here originally to learn more about this city's architecture. It's coming back into vogue, you know, all the Deco stuff."

"It's all the fault of that TV series," Megan said. "Steam Heroes."

"You watch it?" G said.

"Mom hates it, so I never really bothered to pick it up."

"Good casting. Stupid, terminally straight romances. Enormous merchandising campaign," G said, gazing out over the party. "Reviving interest in the para first wave all over the place."

"Hunh," Megan said. "So after you learn what you can, you going to move?"

G brought her focus back to the conversation and smiled. Megan liked watching the line on the left side of her mouth deepen.

"I'll probably never leave," G said.

Megan looked at G's eyes, which were blue-gray. "You're completely in love with this city, aren't you?" Megan said thoughtfully. Then she covered her mouth with a hand, feeling the blood rush to her face. "Sorry. Inside voice on the inside, Megan."

G laughed. "Thought a big woman like you would hold your liquor better," she said, winking. "But yeah, I guess I am."

While Megan wrestled with her embarrassment, G got up. "Hey, speaking of work, I should go. I have an appointment early tomorrow." She put a hand on Megan's shoulder. "See you around the house, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Megan mumbled. "Good night." And she watched G stroll away, noticing how her jeans were faded around the rectangle of her wallet in her left hip pocket.

Megan picked up another beer and went in search of Simon, but stopped when she saw Simon sitting on the arm of a chair, leaning close to the middle-aged woman with brown hair who sat in it, looking up into his face and laughing. There was a dazzled, adoring look in Simon's eyes that rang some bells in Megan's head. Had Simon invited that woman he'd been talking about since the alien attack? What was her name, Suzanne?

Megan sighed and turned toward the door. She wasn't feeling particularly sociable after putting her foot in it with G, and didn't want to muck up Simon's chances with the current woman of his dreams.

She noticed an Armani-suited older white man leaning against the front wall of the suite, watching the party with hands in pockets. His hair was short, sleek, and executive-perfect, black with just a touch of white at the temples. His profile looked like it belonged to a catalog model or a movie star. He was so jarringly out of place that Megan felt drawn to him.

He gave her an odd Mona Lisa smile as she approached.

"Hello," Megan said.

"Hello," the man said.

"Friend of Zoltan's?" she said.

"I suppose you could say that," he said.

"I'm Megan," she said.

"Nice to meet you," he said.

Megan put her back to the wall next to him and watched the party while working on her beer.

"Since this seems to be my night for putting foot in mouth," she said, and in her peripheral vision, he looked at her, "I might as well say it: you don't look like you're comfortable here."

He nodded. "Very astute."

"So why are you staying?"

He tilted his head back to examine the ceiling. "Just because I'm an outsider doesn't mean that there's nothing for me to learn here."

Megan looked at him sharply. "In a police raid or alien invasion sort of way?"

He gave her a brief, spasmodic flash of a larger smile. "I thought you weren't in spandex."

"Congenital paranoia."

"An excellent legacy from your mother."

"You say that like you know her."

"I do." He stepped away into the party. "If you'll forgive me." He bowed slightly and vanished into the depths of the party.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom arrived seconds later. "Bloody hell, he was just fucking here!" said the girl, who was looking rather worse for the wear.

The horse gave Megan a long-suffering look.

"Which way did he go?" the girl said to Megan.

Megan pointed in the general direction of the man's departure. The girl flounced that way, and the horse sighed noisily before striding after her.

Megan sighed as deeply as Maelstrom had. Giving the evening up as a bad job, she finished her beer and departed in search of her bed.


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Wonder City Stories

June 2017

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