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Sorry for the late-in-the-week posting, but this one was a hard episode to write for various reasons. (Jane's death was hard to write, but it was one of the first episodes I wrote when I started this volume, continuously editing and revising as I got closer to it.) Hope you enjoy the longest ep we've had in a few weeks.

This Neighborhood Has Gone to the Dogs

Tinkermel and Tizemt brought a levitating gurney up from the lab and a blanket, and helped Lady Justice and Madame Destiny arrange Jane's body on it.

Angelica looked up at one point during this process, after the brief and lovely taking-down of Pastor Al. Apparently living things are just really fucking around with themselves constantly, because she kept getting dizzy on her new vision/sense/whatever the hell it was Jane had thrust upon her. The gravel was restful by comparison—still teeming with tiny life, but not as… busy as human bodies.

"I brought a stasis field too," Tizemt said. "Since we don't know how long it will be before we can get her, um, somewhere appropriate."

"She's going nowhere," Lady Justice said with a grim vehemence that startled Angelica into looking up again.

Angelica and Tinkermel traded glances (she was grateful she could see his face through the haze of !!LIFE!!). Tizemt nodded. "Why don't we go into the house?" she said.

A sudden panic seized her. She was heartbroken and devastated, and felt like she should help comfort Jane's oldest friend. But every time she looked at people, the rage at what Jane had done to her welled up. Jane had been really fucking vehement about her not telling anyone until she knew what she was doing. If she went into that house, it would all come out, will she or nil she.

Her brain flailed around for something else to do, and Angelica suddenly realized there were riots in her neighborhood, and her grandmother was right in the middle of it all.

"Watson?" she said, when Watson had stuffed her cell phone into her pocket. "Can you take me to my neighborhood?"

Watson and X stared at her for a moment, blankly, then glanced after the little trail of people going into the house.

X said, "We can turn Aloysius over to the cops."

Watson said, "If we can find any that are actual cops, as opposed to paramilitary troops."

X grimaced. "That's what I like about you, Watson: your unstoppable optimism."

Angelica summoned a smile, still looking at them despite the dizzying constant shift of their bodies, and said, "Guys? I just want to see my grandmother."

Watson and X swung into the Divine Sarah, and Angelica joined them. She spent a lot of time staring at the garnet-carpeted floor or walls. The Divine Sarah might have a personality all her own, and be older than either Angelica or X, but she wasn't ALIVE in the way Angelica's new power recognized.

It was a long, brutal drive across town as the sun set and darkness slid in over the city. Some areas were clearly without power, as people sat out on stoops with flashlights and candles and maybe weapons in complete darkness. Something was burning off to the east, possibly down by the river. Masses of people surged across streets from time to time, causing Watson to jam on the brakes (and Angelica always regretted looking up at those moments—LIFE!!!111!!!). Men in black ran pell-mell away from baseball-bat-wielding middle-aged white women. (Okay, she didn't regret looking up for that one.) A group of super-types in full colorful spandex ("Supervillains. They're called The Bloggers," Watson said. "You're shittin' me," Angelica said. "I wish I were," Watson replied.) strolled slowly down the street after a panicking trio of men in black, and Watson chose another street to take.

The drive that was normally 30 minutes took three teeth-grinding, stop-starting, nerve-frazzling hours.

(Somewhere in there, they did, in fact, manage to find actual real Wonder City police and offloaded the swollen-faced Aloysius to them. Watson suggested that they fingerprint and book him while he was unconscious, as he was Faerie-touched, which made them just get on the horn with an urgent request for the Equestrian. As Watson drove the Divine Sarah away, she was smiling grimly.)

The power was out in Angelica's neighborhood, but little knots of people were standing around on street corners with 55-gallon drums that held fires, like it was the dead of winter instead of midsummer. Her stomach clenched when she saw that the groups around these fires were not her friends and neighbors, but little masses of armed white men with appalling emblems tattooed on various parts of them (like their shaved heads). One group pushed off from their "guardpost" and swaggered toward the Divine Sarah, assault rifles lazily resting on their arms.

Watson slowed to a drift as one of them walked in front of the van, and shook her head at the gestured command to roll her window down. Angelica felt unspeakably relieved that Watson's "soft butch" persona did not include so much macha as to try to talk her way past a bunch of armed racist fuckheads.

Angelica noticed that one of the guys with a gun in front of the van had something going on inside him that looked like what happened to Jane, only much smaller and less terrifyingly active. She allowed herself a tiny vindictive grimace and tried not to think about it too much right now.

The guns erected into full assault mode, and one of the men shouted, "Roll the fuckin' window down."

Watson, already humming like a struck guitar string, ran her gaze along the line. Her hands tensed on the wheel, her right thigh tightened slightly. Angelica started to slide down to the floor.

Just then two men were taken down by huge golden streaks from the darkness. The blurs of motion slowed enough for Angelica to see the glinting yellow eyes of Simon's wolf form, and to guess that the other was Ivy. The men yelled, the men around them yelled, guns slewed around wildly…

… And then a tsunami of yelping, growling golden-brown bodies poured into the scene. Half the men went down with bloodcurdling shrieks, and the other half turned and ran. The tide of lean, brown, hungry canines followed them. The men who went under weren't there when the canine-line retreated.

A few beats later, absurdly, a tiny brown dog ran through the headlights after the horde, yipping excitedly.

The three of them sat there, staring, for a long moment, before X said, "What the fuck?"

The two wolves flashed into their human forms, and Angelica clapped a hand over her mouth in a moment of terrifying vertigo. The act of transformation changed everything about their bodies in a few seconds.

After getting control of her stomach back, Angelica had to stifle her slightly hysterical laughter at Simon wearing nothing but tiny black briefs, and Ivy wearing a pair of black shorts and a bikini top. Simon walked to the driver's door, and Watson cranked down the window.

"They're all over," he said, and it wasn't clear whether he was talking about the supremacists or the dog tidal wave. "It's been a long night."

"Yeah," the three in the van said in unison.

"You keep going, we'll run an escort," Simon said.

Angelica looked away in time to avoid seeing the pair's switch, and just watched the shadows in the alleyways out the side window, trying not to dig her nails into her legs or arms in anxiety. What the hell had happened to bring a fucking militia into her home? What had happened to her grandmother, her grandmother's house? Was her mother all right? What about Kit? Her other friends? The bodega? Her apartment?

They made painfully slow progress, especially since the militia had dumped debris and other barricade-like things in the streets, when they didn't park cars across them. Watson, X, and Angelica occasionally had to stop and duck because men with guns were being taken down by wolves (and at least one more iteration of the mass of little yellow-brown dogs), and there were some shots fired. (Angelica hoped the guy who owned the van — Watson's landlord? — would be okay with a few new decorations.)

Just when she thought she was going to explode, she realized Watson had taken them around a twisting way through a part of the neighborhood she hadn't seen in a few years, and the alley they had crawled along had dumped them out right in front of her grandmother's house.

Sitting on the front steps, near the street, was the lean, lanky, familiar form of Kit Castaneda. He was cleaning his nails, from the motions of his almost-silhouette in the city glow.

They pulled up in front and Angelica leaped out of the van. Kit flashed a grin and threw his arms around her.

A second later, she was sobbing into his shoulder and saying in a low voice, "Jane. She… it was awful, IS awful. Oh my god, Kit? ¿Está bien?"

He murmured, "Está bien, she's fine, honest, I've been here the whole time."

Angelica hugged him hard, and pulled away to look up at the front door. She didn't remember pulling away from him or running up the steps, but the next thing she knew, she and her grandmother were hugging and crying and hugging some more.

After Angelica calmed down—much later, it felt like—she was suddenly terrified by the idea of looking at her grandmother, actually seeing her with the new eyes Jane had foisted upon her. Was she some sort of horrible Valkyrie now who could see Death coming for someone? She kept her eyes screwed shut for a few moments, then decided she had to find out.

In the dim light of Abuelita's glassed candles—she saw various saints represented on the candle labels—she looked at her grandmother.

Abuelita was tiny, under five feet, brown-skinned with wavy iron-gray hair cut in a bob. She was wearing one of her good dresses for Sunday Mass, a short-sleeved floral print, and none of her jewelry, not even earrings. Angelica guessed that she was preparing for someone to break in and kill her — wearing her Sunday best and having hidden her jewelry under that floorboard she'd shown Angelica a few years earlier.

Most importantly, while there was a haze of life over and around her, there was no horrible knot of mutation present.

"Your young man, he is very kind," Abuelita said, mopping her eyes with one of the tissues she always seemed to have in her dress pocket. "He brought over a couple grocery bags of food from your place, and something he'd cooked before the power went out. We had a nice dinner. He's a good cook, a very good cook. For a man."

Angelica laughed, partly from the relief and partly from the image of Kit and her grandmother, calmly having dinner while the world went to hell. She went to the door to invite everyone in.

Just then, the horde of little brown dogs ran, yelping and howling, up the street. Watson and X bounded up the steps as the wave came toward them. Kit, however, calmly watched them approaching.

Angelica raised the light level without thinking so she could see what was happening. She almost shouted to Kit, but then the dogs started merging together as they got closer to him and confused her. They went from a mass of little brown dogs to a pack of lean, sandy, pointy-faced dogs that looked like skinny, grinning wolves.

The pack leapt for Kit so fast no one had time to react.

As they arched toward Kit, in the split second before impact, they shrank. Several leapt for his arms, a dozen or more for his lean torso, two for his feet or knees, and one directly at his crotch. They all vanished as they touched him, looking like they were pulled inside him. The echoes of the yelping faded away.

Then Angelica realized something about Kit: he didn't register on her new vision. There was no cloud of changing life there, no haze, no glow.

She felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

Kit turned toward them with a lopsided smile. He seemed different somehow. Bigger. Leaner. Hungrier. Happier. Sadder.

Her grandmother crossed herself and said, "Madre de Dios," just as Angelica said it herself.

Kit's smile got more lopsided and uncertain, and he gave them a rueful little wave. "Heh," he said.

The silence was very awkward.

Then Simon cleared his throat and said, "Well, I guess we know who let the dogs out."

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The Flim-Flam Artist

Angelica heard crunching gravel, and looked up from where she and Madame were holding Lady Justice just in time to see a white man scrambling away from the Divine Sarah. Watson and X outran him easily and flanked him. He crouched, at bay, a smear of dried blood under his nose and across his mouth.

"Behave, Aloysius MacCready," Watson said in a low voice. "Someone worth a thousand of you just died."

A strange expression crossed X's face—Angelica might have called it rage—and sie suddenly spun into a beautiful, flawless roundhouse kick that caught him in the back of the head and planted him face-first into the Canis family's rocky driveway.

Watson raised an eyebrow at X, then knelt and clicked handcuffs around the man's wrists behind his back.

X stared down at him for a long moment, and said, distantly, "Not everyone gets to kick the guy who raped their best friend in the head." Then sie helped Watson throw him back into the back of the van.

Thought I'd forgotten Pastor Al, didn't you? Michelle Yeoh is here to help you envision this little moment.
wonder_city: (Default)

It was my first time running the android avatar that Larentia Canis had built me in a crowd, but I was going to by damn be AT Ruth's birthday party, not just watch it on a camera.

She was somewhat awkward to handle at first, no matter how much practice I'd had running her in my home. I called her Metro because Larentia, in a fit of whimsy, had recreated the android from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the feminine body and helmet-shaped head and deco styling, only with a dark copper finish. I was sititng in my long distance chair, wearing the control coronet. I was also drugged to the gills. Metro also had all sorts of electronic filters that affected mental powers, but the meds brought me down to a level actually manageable by those filters. I had full physical sensation, just as if I were there, without the mental onslaught of the people around me. I was just me, walking around on the hot sand beach of the remote island where everyone had gathered.

I spent a little time enjoying the feel of the sun warming the metal of my skin and the smell of the ocean and hot sand.

Of all the (few) people who knew me, Suzanne Feldstein found me first. "Renata? Renata Scott?" she said, a brown-haired, middle-aged white woman peering into Metro's eyes inquiringly.

"That's me," I said through Metro's speakers, and offered a hand. "Glad to meet you in the flesh, Suzanne. Well, flesh and metal."

Suzanne shook my hand vigorously. She was dressed in a yellow-floral-print sundress, and the sun was already starting to redden her shoulders. "I'm so glad you could come. C'mere, let me introduce you around some."

And so I met Simon, and he was just as fine in person as he was on camera, and if possible, sweeter. "Ms. Scott!" he said, shaking my hand. He was wearing a blue muscle shirt with "TEAM SIMON" on it in block letters and loose black shorts. His hair and Van Dyke were sharply trimmed. "I'm glad to meet you! Oh, I'm glad Mom did such a good job on that android body; it's really gorgeous."

How could I blush at a compliment meant for his mother's handiwork? Don't ask me. "Your mother has been very generous and kind to me over the years. This is only one example."

"She's like that," Simon said, then he stepped back and gestured to someone. "And here's someone who's been wanting to meet you too. Ira, this is Ms. Scott."

"Please," I said, shaking the old man's hand, "both of you, please call me Renata."

Ira beamed at me. He was wearing a big straw hat, a yellow polo shirt, and khaki shorts that showed his pale knobbly knees. He was a little thin and stooped, but otherwise looked younger than his 83 years. "I'm honored to meet you, Renata. You did such a bangup job that night, though I can't imagine it was easy."

"You did a pretty good job yourself, sir," I said.

"Ira," he corrected me.

"Ira," I said, wishing Metro's smile wasn't so very... scary, and that Larentia's attempt at the overlay projection (a la Maria's duplicate) hadn't failed so spectacularly. Someday, I'd be able to smile at people too.

Suzanne, I realized from her movements and her half-empty drink, was already more than a bit tipsy. She reached out and snagged the arm of a mousy, bespectacled white woman in jeans and a t-shirt. "Watson, Watson, come meet Renata."

So there was an orgy of introductions conducted by Suzanne, who was adding every moment to her "sheets to the wind" quotient. I met Watson Holmes, Megan Amazon, Ivy and Malik Canis (each holding a squirming puppy they introduced as belonging to their sister Jasmine -- I wasn't entirely sure what they meant by "belonging", given that the puppies were exclaiming my name delightedly), Ana Hernandez, Flo and Ebb Starr, the Silver Guardian (who was an old friend of Suzanne's apparently), and Sekhmet of the Gold Stars, and... a lot of other people whose names I'd heard but who I'd never met "live" before.

I was glad to be drugged to the gills, honestly. It was the largest crowd I'd been in for over 20 years.

Simon finally, kindly, as the afternoon advanced alarmingly toward evening, led Suzanne off to the buffet tables, saying, "We'll catch you later, Renata," over his shoulder. He winked at me, the little devil.

Left to my own devices, I made my way from the beach, where I'd been trapped by the introduction nexus after arriving there via the teleport link, up toward the line of umbrellas and beach chairs where I spotted Gloria Revelle's lean, solemn face peering around periodically. I figured that wherever Gloria was, Ruth was likely to be.

I was right. Ruth was ensconced in a thronelike wooden beach chair with some colorfully umbrella'd adult beverage in an enormous glass in one hand, grinning like a fool up at me. "You did make a gorgeous thing there, Larentia," she said, glancing up at Larentia, who was standing nearby. Ruth carefully balanced the glass on the arm of the chair, and got up to hug me. I saw Sophie reach out and steady the glass behind her, just as Ruth got me in a careful bear hug.

I leaned Metro's chin on her shoulder and enjoyed the various sensations of a solid, muscular, warm human body in my arms. I loved Ruth for many reasons, not least because for her, hugging one of her friends manifested in an android body was hardly the oddest thing she'd done in the past five minutes. "You look so much better than you did last I saw you, Ruth," I said.

"I feel so much better, Rennie," she murmured, not letting me go yet. "You helped give me back my baby. I won't forget that."

"Hell, Ruth, you gave me my life," I said, not willing to let go, feeling like I'd been in the desert for 20 years and was just getting a small sip of water. It had been so long since I'd touched a human being, and I can't actually remember when I last hugged someone without immediately being inside her or his head. "I'm glad to give something back. I mean, what do you get the most powerful para on Earth for her birthday anyway?"

We laughed, and finally stepped back a little, but our arms lingered around each other's waists. Ruth gestured around, saying, "You know Gloria, of course."

I shook hands with Gloria, and was amazed to actually see the woman smile. She had a little lopsided smile, with a mostly closed mouth, and I noticed that she had a bit of an overbite -- I suspected that might be why she doesn't smile more often. "Gloria, thank you for everything you've been doing lately with the chef roster. The variety has been really wonderful."

"I thought we could use some new blood in the kitchen," she said in her deep voice and blunt MidAtlantic accents. "You're my lab rat, you know. These are all chefs I try out on you before using them for catering and events."

"Glad to be of service," I said. "Delicious service."

"Here's Olivia," Ruth said, drawing the Fat Lady into the circle. The Fat Lady was wearing a remarkable gauzy white dress that drifted dramatically on the breeze and looked just right with her complexion, and her sleek black hair was caught up under an extravagant white sun hat.

"Renata, I've heard so many good things about you," Olivia said, turning her famous dimples and dazzling smile on me.

I confess to feeling just a little overwhelmed and, well, fangirlish, so I think I managed to mutter something polite and possibly gushed about loving her work before Ruth sicced Sophie on me.

The girl had some of the most intense dark eyes I've ever seen, and even though I technically shouldn't have been able to sense a damned thing about her, I could feel the wheels of her mind turning and turning. It was almost like I could see and feel the clockwork moving through those remarkable eyes. That's what you get from the intimate connection of stuffing someone back into her head, I suppose. There we were, caught in mid-handshake, staring into each other's minds, I think, for what felt like a piece of eternity, before we both shook ourselves and she said, "I've been wanting to thank you for everything you did."

I shrugged. "There were lots of folks who did more than I did."

"Yes, well," Sophie said, flashing a grin. She reached behind her and dragged another white girl her age foward. This one was brown-haired and utterly average in terms of looks and overt charm, but I recognized her.

"Pacifica," I said, shaking her hand. "Glad to meet you outside your head."

She smiled shyly, pressed her lips together and hunched her shoulders a bit. "I'm flattered you remember me, Ms. Scott."

"Renata," I said, thinking, Girl, how could I possibly forget you? Aloud, I added, "Your arm seems to've healed up nicely."

"It's still stiff," she said, "but Sophie makes good healing accelerators. Even if I did have to spend time in tank full of blue goo. Why was it blue, anyway?" she added, turning to Sophie.

"I didn't want anyone eating it," Sophie said.

"No one would eat that, it smelled too bad," Nereid said.

Sophie grinned. "You'd be surprised..."

There was a loud crack of lightning overhead, and everyone tensed. Ruth looked up quickly, then rolled her eyes and said to Sophie, "Didn't you give that child an invitation?"

Sophie shrugged. "I did," she said, "but she always prefers to crash." I thought I picked up just a bit of mischief there, as if, perhaps, she'd had some idea in advance.

High above us was a flying stage, limned in neon and flashing lights against the twilit sky. It slowly lowered until it was hovering just above the ocean, with the spectacular painted clouds of sunset sprawling out behind it. Myriad small, hovering robots levitated from the stage and sprang into formation in the air, turning colored spotlights onto the platform. A backdrop of enormous metal struts extruded from the back of the stage, arching up into Gothic points and then blooming into weirdly delicate curlicues that suggested tentacles, or possibly fruit.

"What the hell is that?" Sister Power said, as though she knew exactly what the hell it was but was a bit afraid of the answer. She crinkled a smile at me, her dark brown face highlighted by a glorious mane of silver hair. I'd forgotten how old she was; she'd gotten her start in the 1970s, so she must be in her 60s by now.

Ruth massaged the bridge of her nose. "It's Sophie's little friend. You remember her, Imara. The one who started a band in college. Calls herself Gogo."

Sophie snorted at this description.

An enormous grinding noise silenced us all and a pillar rose up from the middle of the stage. It appeared to be girdled with a bank of steampunk consoles and quite a lot of flashing lights. The grinding noise stopped, and then, in a burst of music, it flew open, revealing a young white woman whose top was dressed in a silver jumpsuit, and whose lower half was a kickline of seven sets of robot legs. A drum line started. She leapt down to the stage with surprising agility for someone with fourteen legs, and subtle instrumentals started up. She started to declaim in a deep voice that was projected to several points around us.

People keep saying it's the end days,
Skynet's won, we've run the maze.
In the center is Room 101:
Can we boldly go when all is done?
All the things I tried to save
Are just putting flowers on a mouse's grave.
Game over, man, and everybody dies
And there's nothing to eat but lies, lies, lies.

"I do believe," Gloria said, "we are about to have a concert."

"Oh, god help me," Ruth said, taking the umbrella out of her drink so she could swallow it faster.

A robot guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and drummer emerged from the surface of the stage, apparently fused to their instruments. I noticed the drummer had long hair so it could swing it back and forth. All of them were silver-skinned, like Gogo's jumpsuit and legs, but with gold accents. Gogo strutted down to the front of the stage (there's a lot of strut in seven sets of robot legs), seized a microphone that was dropped from above by one of her ubiquitous flying drones, and burst into song with a crash of music.

I won't be just a worker in the heart machine
I'm going to see the light of day.
I'm going to crack the world's shell is what I mean
Put on my wings and fly away.

Everyone asks me am I bad witch or good
Or one of the genetic elite
But I am telling you I'm Lilith's Brood
And we have never known defeat!

We're from Ultima Thule
And we include me and you.
She's the hero we need
Cause she makes us heroes too!

"Oh, no," Ruth groaned, and finished her drink.

Sophie looked contrite. But only a little. Nereid was watching Gogo with her mouth hanging open. An attractive androgynous Asian person appeared over Nereid's shoulder and raised inquisitive eyebrows at Sophie, who said defensively, "It's not my fault!"

Just living day to day
Learn to rise up and say
She's the hero we need
To sing Hero of Heroes today!

She's the Ultimate test!
In her Prometheus rests,
She's the hero we need
Because we give her our best!

I was pretty amazed at the dancing you could do with fourteen legs in perfect unison. At the end of the first chorus, backup dancers also melted out of the stage. I felt distinctly upstaged when I realized that they all looked just like my android body, except in silver. Talk about embarrassment for wearing the same outfit to the party.

"Hey," Larentia said faintly. She patted my shoulder apologetically.

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

At Yoshiwara's we'll dance and fight
Always alone in the night,
But reaching out, touch hand to hand,
Galadriel or Servalan.
Is the Slayer really born this way?
Or Sleepless walk both night and day?
Or maybe we'll stand up and see:
You have no power over me.

Sister Power said, "None of this makes any sense. What the hell is a servalan?"

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

For some reason, Gogo threw her microphone into the audience. Then, with a satisfied little smile, she leaned back and another one sprouted, or seemed to sprout, out of her chest. She grabbed that one and kept singing.

I noticed a middle-aged black woman, oddly wearing a suit on the beach, making her way through the crowd with purpose in her eyes. She didn't even flinch at the volume of the music. I nudged Ruth.

Ruth looked over. "Marilyn, heeeey, girl!" she said, waving her hand. I wondered idly how many of those giant glasses of booze Ruth had already consumed.

The woman, who I now recognized as Marilyn Henderson, lawyer to paras, arrived in front of Ruth with a grim little smile on her face. "Interesting entertainment."

"It's not what I would've chosen, true," Ruth said. "But the girl's got a good heart."

"And is showing a great deal of leg," Marilyn said with a glance upward.

"What're you doing, wearing that penguin suit here on the beach?" Ruth said. "Take that jacket off and set a while."

Marilyn straightened her shoulders in an ominous way that made both Gloria and I tense up. "Ruth Thomas, I am here to give you some important paperwork."

Ruth laced her fingers together and placed them under her chin. "At my birthday party." She didn't make it a question.

"Yes," Marilyn said. She whipped a folder out from under her arm and extended it to Ruth. "It couldn't wait."

Gloria's thin form had risen up and arched in a predatory fashion, inclining very slightly toward Marilyn.

Ruth sighed and took the folder.
We'll come down like angels on Tokyo

And we don't need roads where we're going.

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?

I can build my friends but I can't build you

A place for opossums to call their own.

But don't look back, don't blink I'm telling you

It's dhoom again but we are flown!

A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!

Gogo chose that moment to distract us all with another spoken piece.

We need a hero that's worth our while
Whether Wonder Woman or Trio-style
So put on your clothes, or dye your hair
And sing electric grandmother
From Alderaan to Whileaway
The winning move is not to play.
They tell us we're beyond the pale
Bionic-made or automail,
Whether you are you or me
Virtual or karakuri
Rise up and greet Red Dawn today
Like Nauscicaa we'll fly away;
To Iskandar we'll fly away;
On ships that sing we'll fly away.

And she then started singing again.

Ruth looked back down at the folder in her hands, heaved another sigh, and flipped it open.

I have never before seen Ruth stunned. I'm not sure anyone has. Her whole body jerked and her eyes went wide and she stared fixedly at the papers. Then her hands began to tremble, and Gloria snatched the folder away before those tiny muscular tremors could reduce what she was holding to paper pulp.

Sophie had moved to stand at Ruth's shoulder, and I noticed her giving Marilyn what I sensed was a conspiratorial and questioning look. Marilyn's smile widened incrementally.

The thing about Ruth is that she is the most powerful para in the world. And so the fact that none of us saw her move is just not that surprising. The look on Sophie's face changed to triumphant delight as Ruth threw her arms around her, though.

"You two!" Ruth roared, only locally drowning out Gogo's band. "You two!" she said again, apparently at a loss for other words.

"What's going on?" asked Imara, peering curiously over Gloria's shoulder.

Gloria said, mock-grumpily, "That girl finally pulled her head out of her ass is what's going on."

Sophie said, breathless with embarrassment and her mother's embrace, "My adoption papers. I signed them."
She's returned from the blue

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...

Gogo's army of tiny flying robots, which looked, I noticed, like dragonflies, chose that moment to shower us with her new album.

Larentia caught one and so did I. The cover was a brown-skinned woman's arm, reaching up as if to pluck a fruit from a tree, but the fruit was a giant oval containing a twisty, maze-like structure. To give Ruth and Sophie a moment of pseudo-privacy, Larentia began to read from the cover. "'Mitochondrial Eve,'" she said. "I like the title."

I overheard some people passing nearby. One of them said, "I liked her second album the best, 'Amazon Women and the Space-Time Continuum'."

The other said, "Oh, I haven't heard of that one."

"It was back when she was Gogo and the Gadgettes," the first said, and they drifted out of hearing.

"'My Mother's Positronic Brain,'" Larentia read from the track list bemusedly. "'Dear Mr. Heisenberg.' 'Cyborg Manifesto'?"

I skimmed down the list myself. "'Bad Chemistry,' 'Soylent Blue,' 'Love Me and Despair'."

Gloria said, with a roll of the eyes, "Anyone else get the feeling that child is trying too hard?"

Nereid, who I had forgotten, said wistfully, "She looks like she's having fun."

On stage, Gogo had swung into her well-known song, "A Robot of One's Own."

The well-tailored Asian person to whom I really needed an introduction said, "There's a dance floor over there, Pacifica. Would you care to join me?"

Later, around the time that Sophie was finishing up her guitar-playing on-stage with Gogo (oh, yes, she'd just happened to have her guitar with her), I overheard Suzanne saying to Watson, "Is this your work? Remind me never to piss you off!"

I looked over and saw Suzanne showing Watson her StarPhone. Watson frowned down at it, clearly puzzled. "No," she said after a moment, "that's not my work."

Suzanne noticed Metro looking her way, so she turned the display toward me. "'Aloysius MacCready, legally 93 years old,'" I read aloud, "'has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder and multiple charges of armed robbery, among other offenses. MacCready was processed for a temporal displacement grant upon his return to this dimension, and had disappeared from his stated address. More in-depth analysis of historical records found that in 1932, he participated in an armed robbery of a bank for African-Americans during which he pistol-whipped a bank teller. The teller, 26-year-old Norman Jefferson, later died of the head trauma.'"

"I know the statute of limitations doesn't expire for murder," Suzanne said. "And the temporal displacement laws extend the limitation for the armed robbery charges. But the witnesses must all be dead, so how can they prosecute?"

Watson skimmed more of the article. "They had eyewitnesses who knew MacCready by name and appearance, and who gave depositions identifying him. So with that in hand, they could use the Stefanopolous Laws."

Ana had looked over from her conversation when I started to read, and now she spoke up with, "I think I've heard of the Stefanopolous Laws, but I've never been sure what they're about."

Suzanne said, breezily, "Watson'll have to explain. I'm too drunk. But they involved a vampire."

Watson quirked a smile. "Andrei Stefanopolous was a vampire who was a repeat spree killer. He was notorious in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then he moved to New York City. They caught him after a rampage through an Italian and Greek neighborhood in the 1880s, but of course, there weren't para-ready prisons then, and he escaped to go underground again. He resurfaced in the same neighborhood 1952, and the grandchildren of the original people victimized went to the police with the photos from the 1800s and their own photos of him in the neighborhood, begging police to pick him up. They didn't -- all the original witnesses were dead and it seemed like too much trouble and besides, there weren't many people who actually believed in vampires at that point. So then he went on a much wider-spread killing spree."

"Oh, yes, the Vampire Murders," Ana said. "That's all in the college para history books."

"Yep," Watson said. "And after they caught him and the Gold Stars imprisoned him, the story broke that the police had refused to pick him up and why. So the Stefanopolous Laws were passed in a hurry to cope with immortal or temporally displaced violent offenders."

"Technically," a sleek, black-haired, white -- very white -- man said, sliding easily into the conversation and gently twirling his black parasol, "it is for the long of life, not the immortal. Because no one is truly immortal, yes?" He had an eastern European accent and what had to be a hand-tailored white linen suit. He was also the only person I'd ever seen wearing a Panama hat on whom it looked stylish.

Watson nodded and waved a hand of acknowledgement. "You're the authority there, Zoltan."

"Zoltan," Suzanne said in that floppy-headed drunk way some white women have, "it's night time. Why are you carrying that parasol?"

"Ah, dear lady," he said, "to protect against the bites of sharks."

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

"Not to mention robots," he added, "and other undesirable things that fall from the sky."

"So what will happen to this MacCready anyway?" Ana pursued, having produced a StarPhone of her own and apparently searching for the article.

"He's being held in prison," Watson said. "Apparently some anonymous person provided the police with both his DNA and a single-use scanner to locate it, because he has para powers that enable him to avoid direct detection." She looked up and past the dance floor and nearest buffet table toward a line of well-occupied comfortable chairs.

I glanced in that direction and saw Sophie sitting there, with Nereid on her lap, chatting with Simon and Ivy.

"Who could've supplied a device like that?" Ana pondered, frowning at her phone.

Watson and I looked at each other, then back at Sophie. Sophie noticed our regard and gave us a smile and a little finger wave, as if she knew exactly what we were thinking.


Note from the Author:

Apologies if the table format didn't work well for you -- I optimized for what I thought would be a usual sort of view.

Gogo's song was written as a winter holiday present for me by my multiply-gifted, brilliant, beautiful, magnificent wife. I had been banging my head against how to do it, and then she volunteered. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many SF&F references packed into one place so effectively, and I think it also works beautifully as a pop song. (And yes, Lady Gaga DOES exist in the Wonder City universe, so Gogo IS in fact purposefully referencing her.) See this document (PDF) for most of the references.

Also, in case you're interested, the full track list for Gogo's new album, "Mitochondrial Eve", contains:
My Mother's Positronic Brain
Mitochondrial Eve
Dear Mr. Heisenberg
Cyborg Manifesto
Les Guérillères
Bad Chemistry
Soylent Blue
To Milton, Love, the Monster
Love Me and Despair
The Doom Song
I Can't Be Having With This
Bonus Track: Schoolhouse Rock Mashup (feat. "Sufferin' for Suffrage")


Wonder City has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award! Thank you! Now, y'all should go check out all the nominees for fiction, webcomics, art, poetry, patron, and other projects. And VOTE!

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!

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That Name Does Not Belong To Me

Author's Note: A little experiment, playing with typography. This contains the entirety of the episode below. Please be aware that there is language above and beyond my occasional-f-bomb variety, so it is probably NSFW. There is, however, no sound to the video, so there's that.

ETA: If you can't see the video, try this link and let me know if it works.

Cut for language above and beyond anything I usually use. )

Note from the Author:

I hope my little experimental holiday present is something you all enjoyed. I apologize for any timing issues you encounter; it's my first attempt at such a thing.

There will be one more episode next week for the year, though I suspect it will be February before this story arc wraps (since today's ep is #78, you may notice that this novel is running longer than the first one!).

In the meantime, I hope the holidays (or the long weekend, if you don't celebrate these particular holidays) treat you extremely well and you get some relaxation time somewhere in there.

Please remember to vote for WCS!

wonder_city: (Default)
Ringed By Ordeals

"If you're just going to cry again," Tam snarled, "I'll just go by myself. After all, I can walk on my own, it's not like you have a car or anything."

Nereid bit down on whatever it was she was going to say and swallowed hard. It wasn't like she could win any verbal argument with Tam anyway. "No, I promised I'd take you to see the apartment." She mastered the urge to cry by biting her lower lip very hard, and turned to the door.

"Fine," he snapped, and followed her out.

Once they were out of the Young Cosmics complex, he said, contritely, "You just caught me by surprise is all. I really thought that we were looking for an apartment for us, not just me."

"I can't afford to move out," she said, running a hand through her hair and thinking vaguely that she needed a haircut. "I've got an arrangement with the Cosmics so I don't have to live on campus or with my parents. But when your temporal displacement grant comes through, you'll be able to afford a little place here in town while you look for work."

"But if I can afford a small place," Tam said, taking her hand, "surely the two of us could afford something better together."

"I really can't, Tam," she said, and did not revisit the terms of her contract with the Cosmics, and how they paid her more if she lived at the complex -- something she didn't really understand, but to which she had gladly agreed.

"Oh," he said. After a moment, in a hurt tone, "I thought you liked me."

"I do!" she protested immediately, squashing the voice in the back of her head that said Do you really?

"I mean," he said, "I thought, you know, that you wanted to be with me. Like I want to be with you."

"Oh, Tam," she said, suddenly exhausted. "We've been through all this before."

"How can you expect me to go off on my own and leave you?" he said. "You're my rescuer, and I don't want to leave you when you need me."

"I..." She swallowed what she'd been about to say: I don't need you. Because that would hurt his feelings. Instead, she said, "Tam, the place we're looking at for you is ten blocks away from the complex."

Nereid turned the corner onto Liberty Street and stopped short.

Arrayed before them for the next two blocks were pavilions full of artists and artisans, displays of jewelry and woodcarving and metalwork prominent at least at this end of the street fair. Nereid was inevitably reminded of the Industrial Era Faire, and surreptitiously looked around for Robin and Marian.

"Well, this is pleasant," he said, grinning, and then he tugged her in among the merchants.

She had to admit to herself that they had similar tastes, at least in art and jewelry. They both grinned over the glass globes filled with blue glass water and surprisingly realistic fish. They glanced at each other dubiously over the giant metal chicken sculptures. They admired the same jewelry -- he even liked the same stones she did, down to ooohing and aaaahing over the golden amber lights of a particular necklace, or the citrine and garnet ring.

He was nice to be around when things were like this, she thought. When they were out, seeing more of the city. Not when they were at home, where they always seemed to be arguing over dishes, her lack of cooking ability, or her (to him) unreasonable demands that he use a condom (what he kept calling a Fromm or a prophylactic). She made a mental note to herself -- not for the first time -- to get to the clinic to get started on the Pill.

Nereid was sad when they ran out of street fair and had to return to their purposeful walking. The day was hot and brassy in a way that portended much more weather of the sort once June arrived, and this neighborhood didn't have a lot of shade. They walked in silence, just a little too fast to be called strolling, though she noticed Tam was looking around him, eyeing the little houses and larger blocky apartment buildings with suspicion.

She stopped in front of the brown, pebble-fronted box of an apartment building. "Here we are," she said as cheerily as she could.

Tam peered up at the building and then said, "I don't like the neighborhood. Too many of those sorts."

Nereid knew, from an earlier argument, that "those sorts" was his compromise for not using the N word or any of the other shockingly offensive words that came so easily into his everyday conversation.

"Well, we're here now, why don't we at least take a look?" she said, pulling open the glass door.

He sighed, rolled his eyes, and walked in.

The agent showing the apartment was a razor-thin middle-aged woman with bleached blonde hair that didn't move from its flawless Martha Stewart coiffure and a navy blue skirt suit. Her hard eyes skimmed over Nereid and settled on Tam. "Welcome! You're Mr. Lane then?" she said, reaching to shake his hand.

Tam lit up, giving the woman a warm smile and pressing her hand lingeringly. "Call me Tam," he purred. "And you must be Aileen?" He tucked the woman's hand into the crook of his arm, turning to regard the small living room as if gazing upon a palace.

The realtor fluttered and simpered, guiding Tam on a tour of the living room and kitchenette, then into the bedroom (Tam laughingly calling it a boudoir), and then the microscopic bathroom. Nereid leaned against the doorjamb, simmering in something that was a mix of anger and embarrassment and wretchedness.

When the pair emerged from the bathroom, the realtor was laughing and touching her hair, and Tam still held her other hand captive and had turned the full wattage of his smile on her. "Well, what do you think of the place?" the realtor said. "You know, it's a good deal, and likely to go quickly in this neighborhood."

"Well, I wouldn't want to miss out on such a good deal," Tam said. "My friend will write a check for the deposit," he added, without even looking at Nereid.

She endured the next five minutes -- the writing of the check, the mental calculations of just how much was left in her account after that, the laughter that worked on her nerve endings.

The realtor saw them to the door, and stood, holding Nereid's check in one hand and waving with the other. "Remember, Tam, we'll need first and last month's rent and a para deposit before the first of June!" she called in her weedy voice.

When they were out of sight, Tam slid his arm around Nereid's waist and kissed her neck. "See? I could have anyone I want, and I still pick you. You're my girl, all mine. Don't stay at the Cosmics' place, baby. You're so much better than any of them. None of them like you, especially now you've got me. Move out with me and I'll take care of you." He pulled her to a stop and drew up her hand. Before she could say anything, he slid a ring onto her finger.

She stared, first with amazement, then with dawning horror, at the lovely garnet and citrine ring the two of them had admired less than an hour earlier. "Tam, how did you get this?"

His brilliant smile lost its shine. "I got it. That's all that's important."

"You don't have any money yet," she said, turning a deeply troubled gaze on him. "Tam, where did you get the money?"

A white-hot flare of rage crossed his face. "It's none of your damned business!" he hissed, his hand closing painfully on hers. "I give you a present -- one you wanted! -- to apologize and all you can do is accuse me of unspecified crimes. Is it any wonder none of your teammates likes you? You're just so damned paranoid and crazy." He threw her hand aside as if it burned him, turned, and stalked off.

She yanked the ring off her hand and leaned into a nearby doorway, biting her lip. Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry. If you cry, you'll wet yourself like a baby, like he said, like the baby you are.

When she'd fought the wave down, she walked quickly back to the street fair, hoping the brisk walk and the hot day would explain her no-doubt blotchy face.

She found the pavilion easily, and as she held out the ring and opened her mouth for explanations, the merchant gave her a pitying look. "Your friend already explained," she said. "I hope you find some help for this obsession you've got. The price is $130. I take checks and credit cards."

Nereid recoiled as if she'd been struck, horrified and appalled, and entirely unable to form words. She pulled out her checkbook again and wrote the check in silence. The merchant gave the ring a rub with a polishing cloth and tucked it into a box for her, and said, "Thank you," loudly when Nereid handed her to check. By this time, of course, everyone at the pavilion was staring, and Nereid shoved the box into her pocket and ducked her head, hurrying away like a kicked dog.

She avoided everyone as she entered the compound, even though it was time for a team meeting, and slunk back to her apartment, dreading the moment she was going to have to face Tam. What if someone recognized her name? What if someone told her mother?

When she opened the door, the television was on and Tam was sitting at the computer. He looked up mildly and said, "So what's for takeout tonight, since you don't cook?"


Note from the Author:

Posting today because No One Will Read Anything this Thursday. :) And yes, I am trying to come up with something worse than a bucket of horse piss.

Can we get up into the top 10 again? Vote for WCS!

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Home From the Hill

The nurses were entirely charmed by Tam, particularly by his devotion in staying at Nereid's bedside the entire time she was in the hospital. Well, not the entire time, Nereid reflected as he pushed her wheelchair out to the waiting Young Cosmics limousine. He had always been tactfully absent -- getting food that he cadged out of the rather silly middle-aged woman who ran the hospital cafeteria -- when her parents visited. Her mother had asked about him a couple of times, but Nereid begged off talking about him or anything else. She really was exhausted and didn't feel like telling the story yet. Besides, as Tam said, she was not required to relive the whole nightmarish ordeal of Faerie for the entertainment of a bunch of voyeurs who wanted to hear about her pain.

At the car, she stood, holding his arm, and an orderly swept the wheelchair back into the hospital. Tam smiled. "At least they didn't send some old jalopy to take you home. Glad to see my girl getting the respect she deserves."

Nereid gave him a faint smile. She let him hand her into the car, where she slid gratefully onto the new-smelling leather seats. Apparently, Mr. Moneybags had coughed up for the replacement Mercury had wanted.

Tam eeled in next to her, pulling the door shut behind him. He grinned like a kid at the lush, silent interior, the little refrigerator, the tiny bar, and ran his hands over the seats and doors. "Now this is the way to travel."

Nereid put her head back against the seat and shut her eyes, feeling the car pull smoothly away from the curb. Her doze was punctuated by Tam's exclamations about this or that landmark, store, or anything else that caught his eye. She tried very hard not to be annoyed with him, remembering that he had left Earth in the 1880s, and everything must be very strange and possibly terrifying to him.

Tam nudged her awake and she realized the car wasn't moving any more. "There's people waiting," he said, and slid out of the car.

She emerged, blinking, holding onto Tam's arm, and she was immediately embraced. "Oh, Pacifica, I am indeed very happy to see you again!" Citizen Pain murmured in her ear.

Nereid hugged him back, blinking tears away. "Pay, I'm so glad to see you too."

Tam a-hemmed next to her and she recalled herself. "Citizen Pain, this is Tam Lane. He helped me find my way back after I got lost in Faerie."

Pay grinned his chiseled, impossibly beautiful grin, and a lock of his white hair fell into his eyes. He shook Tam's hand enthusiastically. "Indeed! You are welcome, Mr. Lane. We are so relieved to have Nereid back. Indeed we are."

"Well, I'm glad to have played a part in that," Tam said stiffly, glancing beyond Pay at the rest of the Cosmics.

Mercury posed with what Nereid knew to be a faux welcoming smile, his green humanoid boyfriend Tilt lurking, half-visible, behind him. Nereid noticed that Vector was growing out her blonde pixie cut, and even so, Vector still looked like a model. Wire stood to one side, her left arm in a sling, the stump neatly bandaged.

"Welcome home, Pacifica!" Mercury said. "We're awfully glad you made it back and that you're feeling well enough to get let out of the hospital."

"Thanks, guys," Nereid said, hoping the Special Moment would be over soon and she could go to bed. "Is Sophie back yet?"

Wire shook her head. "It'll be another couple of days. She was in her 'coma'--" Wire could only do scare quotes with her right hand now "--for four months, after all. She's pretty wobbly, and the Ultimate isn't taking any chances."

Nereid nodded, her one hope of the day deflated. She didn't know why she hadn't gone to see Sophie before getting discharged. She really should have. But every time she wanted to go, Tam had to go get something to eat, or sing in the lounge, or something, and she didn't really have the energy to wheel herself there.

Everyone stood there for a moment, smiling at each other.

Vector finally said, "Well, this is really awkward, so I'm going back inside."

The other Cosmics followed her promptly, except for Pay, who lingered.

Nereid inhaled and pulled herself together. "It's awesome to see you, Pay, but I'm still really beat."

"Of course!" Citizen Pain said. "We just wanted you to see that we are indeed glad you are back. Can I help you to your apartment?"

"I'll handle that, friend," Tam said, clasping Nereid's hand to his arm possessively.

Pay didn't notice any undercurrents; he just smiled and said, "Oh, indeed! I will see you later, Pacifica!"

In her rooms, Tam glanced around approvingly. "Nice place. Simple, but nice."

"The Cosmics furnished it," Nereid said. "I just, you know, live here." Her gaze fell on the stack of schoolbooks she'd bought for spring semester, still piled neatly on the edge of the kitchenette and she said, suddenly, "I hope the Cosmics got me a dispensation for missing the whole semester. I mean, I think finals are this week."

"Oh, you're in school?" Tam said, looking up from investigating her entertainment center.

'Yeah," Nereid said, biting down on the inside of her cheek to stop herself from tearing up. After a second, she added, more steadily, "This would've been my second semester. Oh, I really hope they thought to handle that. I guess they'd have to do it for Wire at least, so maybe they remembered me too."

"I'm sure it will be fine," Tam said, coming to take her hands. "You're home now."

"Yeah," she said again, forcing a smile. "And I think I need a nap." She squeezed his hands, and let him put an arm around her waist as they walked to the bedroom. "I'm sorry, Tam. Feel free to watch TV or... oh, god, you probably don't know how to turn it on. I can..." She turned to go back out.

He held her still. "It's all right, love. There's plenty of time for me to learn to do that." He started unbuttoning her shirt. "We've got all the time in the world, right?"

She let him undress her, because it felt nice to be taken care of. She let him get into bed with her, too, because it felt nice to be held and kissed. She let him do other things too, because she figured it wouldn't take too long and she didn't have the energy to argue anyway.


Note from the Author:

Between the events of last week, our upcoming November marathon of Things Taking Up Our Weekends, the stupid Snowtober storm, and the fact that we're on Hour 59 with no power at my house (*whinnnnne*), things have been hectic and stressful and I've been forgetful. I apologize for the lack of rerun posts, and I will try to get back with the program soon, but at least I can get new episodes up.

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.


Note from the Author:

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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)
Prom Perdu

Nereid wasn't sure how they got to the strangely familiar brick box of a building, or why they were surrounded by a raucous crowd dressed in long dresses and tuxedoes. She really wasn't entirely pleased with this development. The sun had precipitately set not long before, and in the twilight she'd kept plodding along, even though Tam had tried to persuade her to rest. She was afraid that if she rested, she would sleep, and if she slept, she would not only never find Sophie, but she would never see home again.

She heard someone shout, "Humans! Humans have come!" and she wondered vaguely who would be eaten at this party.

Tam gripped her hand bruisingly while keeping a bright smile on his face. "Yes, humans, here, yes, indeed, we're glad to be here," he said to the various beings (most of them did look human, at least) who were propelling them along up the stairs. As they approached the multitude of glass doors, Nereid could read the name that was etched in concrete over them: CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL.

There were bright green and pink crepe paper streamers draped throughout the entryway. Several streamers framed a case of shining golden trophies, though the figures atop the trophies were... unusually shaped. No sprinting football players here; of them all, a hulking ogre, a writhing jabberwocky, and a figure on a broomstick caught Nereid's eye. Tam continued to tow her through the crowd.

Somewhere along the way, he had apparently donned a tuxedo. Who knew he had such powers?

Well, and somewhere along the way, her skintight costume had transformed into a frilly strapless dress of exactly the wrong shade of blue. The taffeta rustled. She was certain it looked just as horrible on her as her prom dress had. She didn't even have the advantage of professional assistance for her hair, which had been growing out and draggling around her face before she came to this place; she had no idea what it looked like now.

They were escorted into the gymnasium, which appeared to be precipitating confetti from the rafters in a steady downpour while flocks of predatory balloons circled overhead. A band, armed with mandolins, lutes, and cellos, played 1950s rock music on the stage. Their companions broke with a cheer onto the dance floor and began gyrating violently in a dance like nothing Nereid had ever seen before.

"I can't do that," she told Tam. "I don't even know what they're doing."

Tam watched with an experienced and critical eye. "Very little aesthetic sense to it. What is that they're doing with their hands?"

"Oh!" Nereid said after a moment's study. "They're, um, I think that's a... a version of the hand jive from the movie Grease."

"We should stay away from that corner of the room, I think," Tam said, nodding toward the darkest corner. Nereid could see two figures in tuxedoes circling each other with knives. The wrists of their non-knife-wielding hands appeared to be tied together with a thick rope.

Someone was steering her with a hand at the small of her back. It couldn't be Tam because he was still holding her hand. The crowd parted before her as someone bellowed through unexpectedly fuzzy-sounding loudspeakers, "And the dance contest is about to begin!"

In the center of the gymnasium was an extra-large gazebo thing, with graceful lines which managed to suggest both Art Nouveau design and eldritch tentacles. It appeared to be dripping little balls of white light, though other lights of more diverse colors were also circling the top of the structure. They were being herded toward it by the press, and swiftly, they were delivered onto the shining wooden floor. Other couples (and trios) squeezed out with them, and the band began to play. Tam swept her into his arms as dramatically as he could without socking someone in the eye.

"This isn't so bad," he said, trying to start dancing with some sort of steps. This led her to shuffle awkwardly and only just avoid him treading on her toes.

"I don't know how to dance," she mumbled apologetically.

"No lindyhop? Not even a foxtrot?" he said hopefully. He sighed when she shook her head. "Well, that's all right. Everyone else is shuffling too." And proceeded to shuffle to the music.

Nereid shuffled too. It was, she thought, a little like being turned on a rotisserie. She watched what she could over Tam's shoulder, such as the dance-knife-fight ending in a spurt of bright arterial blood that arced upward, where confetti and balloons dived down to catch it in hundreds of tiny mouths, and the vast, sprawling buffet table that was covered with a few hundred punch bowls. As she watched, people kept sidling up to random bowls and surreptitiously pouring things into them.

"They're spiking the punch," she said to Tam.

"Of course they are," he said. "That's what people do at dances, right?"

A nearby dancer shifted closer. "They're doing it right, aren't they?" she asked with concern, her perfect chignon not quite concealing the points of her ears. "It's very important that we get this right."

"Oh, yes!" Nereid exclaimed. "Entirely right!"

"I'm so glad to hear it," the man of the couple burbled through his copious red beard. "So glad!" They shuffled away.

The gazebo shifted restlessly under Nereid's feet.

"I think," she said thoughtfully, "that the floor is alive."

"It probably is," Tam said with resignation.

"So we're dancing on someone's... something?" Nereid said.

"Probably," he said.

"Ulgh," Nereid said. Her foot, shod only in a silk slipper, trod in something wet. She looked down, and her foot was in a glowing, silvery liquid. "Um?" she said, looking up at Tam.

"Pools of moonlight," he said. "Dunno where they're getting it in here."

Though Nereid had regretted coming on this adventure at least a thousand times since beginning it, she took a moment to regret it one more time.

The music coughed, tripped, and stumbled to a halt. There was some rough applause. A couple near them flapped their flipper things together in appreciation.

Tam clapped politely. "I could've done better," he muttered to her, "with one hand tied behind my back. But don't tell any of them that, or they'll make me do it."

A short, rotund, bespectacled man shoved through the crowd and seized her by the wrist. "WE HAVE THE WINNERS OF THE DANCE CONTEST!" he shouted, and dragged her toward the stage.

Nereid managed to seize Tam by the arm and drag him along after her. She tripped going up the stairs and was only saved by her guide being a great deal stronger than she'd thought him. He smiled down at her and she noticed that all his teeth were pointed, like a shark's.

Once on stage, someone came forward to give her an armful of flowers. Tam smoothly took them from the woman delivering them and passed them to Nereid. The delivery woman gave him a poisonous look; Nereid gave him a grateful one.

"LET'S HAVE A BIG ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR OUR PROM QUEEN AND HER KING!" the announcer said without any obvious effort; apparently, his normal volume was a genteel yell. The room shook with the cheer from the audience. Tam intercepted the arrival of the tiara, inspected it briefly, then fitted it to Nereid's head.

Her head was pounding from the noise, and lack of sleep, and starting to be really ravenously hungry again. His hands were cool, and she pressed her forehead into them, wishing they could be anywhere quiet and green and on Earth.

The hot, sticky fluid that dropped on her from above hit with enough force to make them both stagger. When she opened her eyes, she knew what she was going to see: blood soaking through the sheer fabric of her dress.

The audience cheered again. People in the front row lunged for the stage, dabbling their fingers in the liquid at her feet. A few even took a stealthy lick or two.

There was a great deal of blood. The whole world got remote, the noise grew hollow. Her vision narrowed down to a tunnel. The hot metallic stench filled her nose, and she spat on the floor to get it out of her mouth. Almost without thinking about it, she yanked Tam from her left side to her right side, and didn't react to the heavy metal bucket that plummeted down where he'd been standing.

She took a few deep breaths through her mouth. Then she thought that perhaps she could rinse herself off.

What came from her hands, though, were gouts of red fluid, not her accustomed water. Whatever parts of her had been spared the gore from above were covered and she stared at her shaking hands as if they belonged to someone else.

When she looked up, a woman in green, with green eyes and blue hair, smiled broadly at her. Nereid blinked, looked again, but the woman was gone.

The audience was watching her in ecstasies. The band was playing something and people were dancing wildly all over the gymnasium. Even the gazebo had shifted closer. There were a large number of teeth.

Nereid took hold of Tam with one hand and began to shove her way off the stage with the other. When people wouldn't move, she would spurt a scarlet blast to one side, and some of the people in her path would dive for it. Tam was saying something, prying at her hand, shouting at her, but she kept moving resolutely. Eventually, the crowd began to part for her and fall in behind her curiously.

She pushed through the heavy metal doors and into the sweet clean air and silence of the hillside that sprawled away from the school. After panting heavily and staring into the darkness, she turned back to look inside.

The woman who'd spoken to her on the dance floor was in sight. Nereid gestured for her to come closer, and ended up with crowd huddled around her.

Nereid said, "You really want to do this properly, don't you?"

Round-eyed with anticipation of human wisdom, they all nodded.

"Then you need to lock the vampires inside," she said, "and set the whole place on fire."

There were cries of appreciation, and the proper woman said, "Of course! What genius! Um, what vampires?"

Nereid blinked. She'd taken for granted that there were vampires, given the reactions to flying blood. "Ah, the people with fangs. The announcer, for instance."

"Yes! Yes! The people with fangs must burn!" Her little mob turned back toward the gym, a few of them shoving at their own pointed teeth to flatten them out.

"Do you think that's really wise?" Tam said.

"Who cares?" Nereid said, dragging him down the hillside after her. "I have done a single smart thing since I got here. Fuck this, fuck it all, I just want to go home!" Her voice broke. Tears started spilling down her cheeks. They flowed in an oddly slow and viscous way, but she decided not to think about it.

Tam, for once, apparently decided that keeping silent was his best bet, and followed her tamely. Except for his pointing out a paved road they could take that she'd missed, they passed some time -- hours? days? -- in silence. Their way was lit for a considerable distance by the conflagration of the gym building behind them.

Hoofbeats pounded on the pavement behind them, and Nereid turned, dimly and drearily determined to fight whoever was coming after them from the prom. She shoved Tam behind her and stood with her hands dangling at her sides, just waiting.

A huge black form heaved over the small hilltop behind them. She felt her power tingle in her fingertips. She tensed.

Then a voice rang out.

"I could shake you until your teeth fell out of your head," said the Equestrian. "But I'm too damned glad to see you."


Note from the Author:

And I'm really not letting up on Nereid at all, am I? Even given the conclusion?

You have a few more days to hit the comment incentive goal for July: if I get 50 total comments from readers in July, I will post twice weekly through August. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through September too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through October.

And add-on to the incentive: reviews each count as 5 comments, a TVTropes page for WCS would count as 25 comments.

wonder_city: (Default)
And Ask No Leave of Thee

The road away from Sherwood led higher and higher up over misty hills that were dotted with enormous grey stones and covered with spiny plants Nereid didn't recognize. Some of the stones were roughly shaped and balanced to make enormous doorways or irregular circles. The path, which curved along the hills in tedious switchbacks, was covered with small grey stones that rolled treacherously underfoot.

Nereid found the landscape enormously depressing. At least they were traveling sunward... she thought. It was hard to tell, since the sun was generally hidden behind high clouds.

Tam seemed to leave the shelter of the trees reluctantly, looking back at them several times. As they climbed higher, Nereid found the smallness of Sherwood surprising. It seemed to have taken them days to leave it, although after that first night there had been no further nightfall. But did that really signify, here?

While they had been under the leaves, Tam had been... sweet, she supposed. He sang songs and quoted poetry to her -- some of it in a language she didn't understand -- and, once, tucked roses behind her ears. The thorns scratched, but it was so romantic she didn't feel she could protest. He was from Victorian times, she reminded herself. He probably had different ideas about... consent... and that sort of thing. Letting him take her clothes off was probably a very clear invitation back then. Heck, it had been in her parents' day. And in that movie Grease, and stuff like that.

She had smiled tentatively, reaching up to touch the roses, and he had taken it as an invitation to kiss her and draw her down on a mossy bank under a hedge of may-bloom.

"Tam," she'd said, when she realized he was fumbling with her pants, "I don't think this is a good idea."

"Why on earth not, love?" he said, leaning back and looking hurt.

Nereid bit her lip. She felt a little blank, and there was a long pause before she was able to grope her way towards a tangible reason. "I don't want to get pregnant, Tam. And I don't think they have condoms in Faerie."

Tam frowned. "They don't have what?"

Nereid stared at him and repressed the urge to giggle. Right. Victorian. "You know. Um. Rubbers? The, um, thing you put on your..."

Tam threw back his head and laughed. "Prophylactics. No, I have never seen such a thing in Faerie. But they are not needed here."

Nereid frowned. "Not needed?"

Tam gathered her closer and slid his hands under her clothes. "No, love," he said. "'Tis a static and unchanging land. Childbirth does not happen here."

Nereid felt a sick, falling sensation inside, but sighed and tried to smile. "Oh," she said. She was too exhausted to try to think of another reason he might accept.

Tam drew her shirt over her head. "So don't worry about needing a Fromm, my little Janet," he said into her breastbone. "I'll take care of you."

Afterward, she started up, sick and panicked with the thought that she might have been asleep. (She was fairly certain that she had fallen asleep the first time, and didn't want to think about what the Equestrian would say to her about that.) Tam, who might have been asleep, got up at her insistence and led them further into the wood. After that, they stopped... two more times? Three? And each time he had... persuaded her to "dally," as he put it. Nereid gave in because she couldn't think of a good reason not to. He seemed to enjoy it.

But now they had left the wood and were climbing the hills, faded path winding higher and higher. Nereid kept glancing towards the silver plate of the sky, worried about the direction of the sun. Neither of them spoke much. Nereid was exhausted but was afraid to stop to rest.

Each time they crested the top of a hill, she thought, This is it, this is the last one, only to see another blunt, stony hill just beyond. Finally, she sat down on a rock by the side of the path and pulled out the bottle of wine. It had only a single swallow left and she drank it, staring down at her dusty, bruised feet.

"You might have left me some," said Tam, glaring at her with surprising ferocity.

Nereid thought of all the lovely clear pools in Sherwood. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Try not to be so selfish next time," said Tam.

Nereid put the bottle carefully on the ground next to the rock and looked up at the sky, blinking back tears.

"Don't be like that," coaxed Tam after a moment, reaching for her. "Come and be the light of my eyes again. I know you're not ungrateful."

Nereid hauled herself upright and started up the next slope. She could barely think as she stumbled along, her feet aching from all the small sharp stones. But finally when she looked up, there was no hill beyond. They stood on the rounded crest of all the hills.

Beyond the hills, the landscape was odd and vague. Nereid thought she saw cities, and mountains so steep they looked like a sideways landscape, and rivers and fields and forests and weirder things, like floating castles and rivers that fell into the sky.

"Which way?" she asked hopelessly, feeling more lost than ever.

Tam pointed in a direction that looked no different to her from any of the other directions. "I think that is the quickest way out."

Nereid blinked at him. "Out? Tam, I'm not leaving without Sophie. I have to find my friends."

"And how I feel doesn't matter?" he said, anger bleeding over into his tone. "I've been trapped here so long! Can't your friends find her?"

Nereid squared her jaw and gritted her teeth. "I started this. It's my responsibility. And a little longer won't hurt you."

His lip curled. "I thought I meant more to you than that."

Just then, the sun broke through the cloud cover, setting in a sea of gold and purple in the west, complete with what looked like an actual three-masted ship sailing among the clouds. Nereid pointed along the sunbeam which seemed to be cutting a path directly to her feet. She bit her lip and tried not to let her voice wobble with tears as she said, "That way."

There was a path down on that side of the hill. As her luck would have it, it was even steeper and more covered in treacherous small stones than the path up.


From ye olde Author:
You get two episodes this week because I didn't actually post an episode last week, just the interlude!

Last day for the comment incentive in June: if I get 50 total comments from readers in June, I will post twice weekly through July. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through August too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through September.

wonder_city: (Default)
Cut because this may be NSFW in some particularly stuffy workplaces; also potentially triggery )

From the Author:
These are all getting more difficult to write, and are also weirdly easier to write.

Comment incentive in June: if I get 50 total comments from readers in June, I will post twice weekly through July. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through August too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through September.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction. Clickety-click. Maybe I should make a button for this.

wonder_city: (Default)
Take Me To The Faere

The Industrial Era Faere was packed with people, some of whom even looked human. Nereid was immediately overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, and baffled by the smell of... french fries?

Nereid's first impression was that Maid Marian had somehow transported them into the middle of a flea market. They were standing on asphalt which smelled of fresh tar in the hot sun and gave a little under their feet. On either side of the newly-laid roadway were rows and rows of stalls, most with brightly-striped nylon awnings over them, although Nereid could see one that looked like a bouncy house from a child's fun fair and another that was a gorgeously detailed bow-front ice cream parlor, complete with glass door and outside tables.

A woman in a long magenta dress with a significant bustle brushed past Nereid on the arm of a hairy man in a Hawaiian print shirt, jams, and sandals, muttering, "I cannot believe all these people attending without garb. It's positively lazy." A pair of men, arm in arm, wore striped barbershop-quartet-style jackets and straw boaters over bare chests and tight leather chaps, passed by on the other side, one of whom was loudly proclaiming, "The food is not authentically suburban, you know, even though they import it straight from McDonald's. Apparently, McDonald's has changed its formulae in recent years. To be really authentic, we're going to have to research the original recipes and make our own."

Robin, arm-in-arm with two of his Merry Men, strolled ahead of them, talking and laughing. He turned in at an eatery marked off with orange traffic cones. A quartet of smiling men, all identically dressed with fedoras, buttondown shirts, and khakis, with pipes stuck in at the corners of their implacable grins, tended turquoise barbecue grills, each of which was adorned with chrome and fins. An orange-haired sylph in a uniform that exactly matched the grills -- even down to the chrome and fins -- roller-skated up to them, flourishing a waitress's pad in one hand.

Nereid couldn't help it. Her jaw hung open at this atrocity of a diner. Tam reached over and gently shut her mouth. "Just smile and nod," he whispered. "And don't pick up any of the newspapers."

The sylph blew a gigantic bubble with her gum. Instead of popping, the bubble separated off and floated away on the breeze, shaping itself into a red balloon as it went. "What can I getcha boys?" she snarled.

"Burgers all 'round!" declared Robin expansively.

"Cheese on those?" she said, not even bothering to write on her pad.

"Of course, my good lass. And we'll have some of those fried potatoes, and ale for everybody!" Robin said.

She rolled her eyes. "No ale here. You can get a milkshake, a Coke, or a beer."

Robin kept grinning proudly back over his shoulder at Nereid, and didn't even wilt a little at the waitress's news. "Beer then!"

The food, when it arrived, came in little cardboard boxes that were exceedingly familiar to Nereid. She eyed the elaborate grills, wondering what they were for. "So, um, these are from Earth?" she said to the waitress.

"Of COURSE!" the waitress nearly exploded with indignation. "Went to a lot of trouble to get enough. They're ENORMOUSLY popular." She slammed down a six-pack of Bud Light and rolled off to the latest group arriving at the cone-marked door.

Robin was examining the beer cans bemusedly, then extended one to Nereid. "Show us how these are properly opened on Earth, my lady! We like to be authentic here."

Nereid, bemused herself, took the can, hooked up the ring, and popped the can open. It gave out a little hiss and spray, which delighted her hosts. The expression on Marian's face after tasting her first sip of Earth beer nearly made Nereid choke with laughter on the food she was trying hard not to inhale too quickly.

"Truly," said Robin, staring at the can, "do Earth folk subsist entirely upon horse piss?"

Nereid did choke then, and only the vigorous thumping Tam gave her allowed her to finish swallowing and reply, "They, um, should try to get some microbrewery beer. It's generally better, so I hear."

"I shall speak to the organizers," Robin said, grimacing at another sip of beer. "Most earnestly."

The burger and fries in front of Nereid evaporated without her really realizing it. She wanted more food, honestly, but was afraid of Consequences of the Digestive Sort. And when would she get a chance to get more Earth food? "Tam," she said quietly, "can we get enough to carry along with us?"

"Not of this, I hope," Tam said, peering at the tiny burger under the limp lettuce leaf. "There must be more substantial fare at other stalls."

"Well, now the lady is fortified," one of the Merry Men said, "I think we can continue to explore without her staring longingly in at every door."

Marian slapped him upside his head. "Yes, we can go looking for something better," she said. "Come on, gentlefolk."

Nereid discovered that the Faere wasn't any less confusing now that she was less hungry. A trio of foot-high motorcycle toughs zoomed by on marvelously detailed miniature bikes, weaving expertly between people's feet. Their helmets were of the spiked German World War I variety, and one of them had, for some reason, stuck a cherry on top. In one area that was darkened for effect, several of the stalls were outlined with neon in a wide variety of colors. Nereid stopped to stare at a neon can-can line of ladies who were apparently advertising footwear. People -- Nereid just decided to mentally call them "people" -- in a bewildering variety of clothing hustled by on the asphalt walkway. One young man, in a very short skirt and go-go boots, made a megaphone of his hands and bellowed for some unseen companions to join him on the boardwalk. Nereid then noticed what appeared to be a carnival midway, with a Ferris wheel looming above the other rides and the noises of a rather off-key calliope playing in the distance.

Robin and Marian appeared to have got into an argument over whether they should have put on "garb" for the event. "But, Robin," said Marian, "you don't have but the one shirt."

"We ought to have made an effort!" Robin declared. "We look like rustics to our guests!"

"Robin, we are rustics," Marian said. "We live in the woods. That's practically the definition of rustic."

"But we don't have to look like it!" He reached over to one of the Merry Men and yanked a small branch out of the fellow's tangled locks. "See? This is what I'm talking about!"

Marian pressed her lips together, took a deep breath, and took Nereid by the arm. "Let's go see if they have any portable kinds of food, shall we?"

So Marian and Tam, on either side of her, propelled Nereid away from the Merry Men and into another branch of the Faere. Behind them, Nereid heard one of the Merry Men propose to Robin that they find a better alehouse. She suspected that he agreed, but his voice was lost in the crowd.

They were passed by a marathon's worth of joggers, some decked out in gold and silver lame sweatsuits. Marian paused to peer through a set of double doors that oozed smoke as though the interior was full of dry ice. Random flashes of colored light and a pounding bass line emerged as well. Nereid thought she heard the Bee Gees' distinctive voices. "Would an establishment like this have food?" Marian asked, dubious.

Nereid stared as a half dozen young women in white Edwardian dresses and the most enormous cartwheel hats she'd ever seen passed into the disco. "No," she said. "Most definitely not."

"Getcher news here!" an urchin in an overlarge floppy hat bellowed, waving a handful of newsprint.

Tam shooed the newsboy away, but Nereid glimpsed the headlines, which read, "AMAZING RESCUE OF TITANIC! WALL STREET STRIKES OUT! LINDBERGH BABY ON OPRAH!"

Nereid was briefly distracted by someone who, for just a moment, looked like Sophie. But on second glance she realized that the tall, rawboned woman couldn't possibly be her, although Sophie probably owned a similar tan jumpsuit covered in useful pockets. The woman topped off the jumpsuit with a long brown trenchcoat and a white silk aviator scarf, and was towing a very pretty young blond man in her wake. The young man gesticulated, apparently complaining about something, and the tall woman turned. Nereid could hear her drawl in an incongruous upper-class British accent, "Well, it's not all that bad, I wouldn't complain, and you're the one who pestered me to make a stop here." She had a mop of black curls, smooth brown skin, and a long, patrician nose. For some reason, although Nereid couldn't place her face at all, she felt as though she'd met her before.

"There must be another food stall around here somewhere," said Marian, peering down an adjoining alleyway which was marked "BOURBON STREET" on a neon banner overhead.

"Not there," Nereid opined. "How about this way?"

"Awh," Tam said, looking longingly down the alley. "I always liked New Orleans."

Nereid had, however, spotted a sign in bold dark green letters. "COMPLETE COMESTIBLES sounds like food to me," she said, dragging on Tam's elbow.

As they passed beneath the dark green awning, the woman in the jumpsuit strode by, her sulky companion trailing after her. "I was joking!" he said. "Always dangerous," she replied, examining some small object in the palm of her hand. It glowed blue. "This way." Then they were lost in the crowds.

This stall was completely enclosed and lit with tasteful indirect lighting. All the food was locked away in glass display cases, and one had to locate a smiling green-aproned employee with keys to obtain any of the contents. They were, however, having a wine and cheese tasting in the back of the stall, to which Nereid was drawn as a moth to a flame. The neat little chunks of cheese were each immersed in small glasses of wine. Customers were using little plastic swords to spear them out -- except when the cheese was a brie, in which case the swords were used in a more spoonlike fashion.

Nereid tried each cheese and each wine. It afforded a number of combinations, all of which she barely tasted. Tam and Marian followed her example. They merely seemed puzzled by the experience, while Nereid was made definitely tipsy.

"Bread and cheese is good traveling food," Marian said, and deposited several small wedges of cheese and a large loaf of "artisanal" bread in her green plastic shopping basket.

"So is wine!" Tam said, and directed one of the employees to provide them two bottles, a red and a white, from the case.

Nereid, not knowing who was going to pay for all this, didn't make any suggestions, though she did look longingly at a display of wrapped chocolate bars.

Marian dickered with the employee at the register, and then the three of them were back in the Faere.

"Where to now?" Marian said.

"We could find a musical performance or a play or a ballgame," Tam said, adding solicitously to Nereid, "so you could sit down in the shade for a bit, my dear. You're looking pale."

"It's so noisy," Nereid said, wobbling a little. "And there's such a crowd."

A set of attractive, nearly nude young people were acting as barkers in front of a tattoo parlor, showing off their ever-changing body decorations and announcing that even better designs could be had for a song inside the establishment. "You too can be a girl with a dragon tattoo!" shouted one of them, turning around and bending over to show off a sinuous dragon which twined over her buttocks, crawled up her back, and then launched off her shoulders with a triumphant little puff of flame. Nereid blinked and ducked a little too late as it zoomed over their heads. She felt it ruffle her hair.

"That settles it," Marian said. "We are going home."

Tam looked disappointed. "Surely we should attempt to find Robin Hood first. My lady," he added, as Marian turned to look at him.

"Robin will find his own way home," she said, and sighed. "He always does."


From the Author:
Through May, I'm running the commenting incentive again, because reading your comments improves the heck out of my day. So if I get 50 total comments in May, I will post twice weekly through June. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through July too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through August.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction.

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Ho, Ha-Ha, Guard, Turn, Parry, Dodge, Spin, Ha, Thrust!

Nereid looked forward at the road into Sherwood. Tam smiled and bowed, extending one hand. "Shall we?"

She looked at him and blinked blearily. The gnawing in her gut had abated, so she barely noticed how hungry she was now. "I guess so." She took his hand, and they followed the road into the deep green shade.

The warm forest air was abundantly perfumed. Small white and blue stars peeked up from the grass underfoot, plate-sized rose blooms in saturated reds and oranges nodded heavily from tangles of undergrowth, and white and pink apple petals flurried down on pale breezes. Bird shadows flitted from branch to branch in the golden sunlight that filtered through the canopy, and avian chatter and song rose from every shrub and tree.

At some point, Nereid paused, staring upward. A tree stood on either side of her, and one was wrapped entirely in quarter-sized pink and white climbing roses, while the other was enclosed by a climbing rose with flame-colored blossoms. Where their branches came close to touching, over her head, the two rose types mingled and twined together, making an archway.

When her gaze dropped from the arch, Tam was smiling at her. He squeezed her hand, leaned down, and kissed her gently on the lips. It was oddly dreamlike and dizzying, drawing her up on her toes. When he straightened up, his smile was wider and he said, "This place has that sort of effect. Romantic, isn't it?" He stroked her face, cupping her jaw and letting his fingers slide into her hair just a bit. "My Janet," he said softly. "Let us do go on."

Nereid let him lead her. Her exhausted mind was trying to chew on the new... pet name?... but failing utterly to even get its teeth into the subject. A simpler part of her mind just resounded with He LIKES me! And that was, mostly, enough for now.

She slowly became aware of the sound and sense of water nearby. They were walking on a hard-packed dirt path that twisted through the enormous trees, always heading downhill, and the water seemed to be following them and drifting closer as they went. At last, they descended a sharp slope -- Tam hopped down and then lifted her down to his side -- and turned a curve, coming into view of the elusive moving water.

A slender river glittered under the open blue sky as it ran swiftly between the trees. Across the river was a wide log bridge, and atop the bridge was a man in a green tunic and hose, leaning on a quarterstaff.

"Oh, no," Tam breathed. "Let's... not. Let's see if we can find another way across."

"Why?" Nereid said, squinting. The man on the bridge was handsome in a generic sort of way, with pale skin and Hollywood star features and dark hair. His little green hat was perched at a jaunty angle. He grinned cheerfully at them.

"Because we're going to have to fight," Tam said, apparently looking along the bank for an easy way to continue one way or the other.

Some fuzzy memory made Nereid look up at the sky. She saw that the sun was almost directly over the trees across the river. "I think we should go this way," she said, resisting his tugs on her arm. The man on the bridge hadn't moved, only watched them.

"Why, for the love of little fish?" Tam said, sighing in exasperation.

"Because I'm tired and hungry and cranky," Nereid snapped. "And it's the way we're supposed to go." She jerked her arm loose of Tam's grip and thudded forward to the river's edge, stomping up onto the log.

"Ho, and welcome to Sherwood!" the man on the bridge called across to her. "I am Robin Hood! Stand and deliver, stranger!"

In other circumstances, Nereid might have thought that meeting Robin Hood was nifty and exciting, but all of her nift and excitement had dribbled out of her on the long, long walk. "I am Nereid," she replied. "No."

"Well, then!" he said, advancing with his staff in both hands. "I am loth to strike a lady! Will not your man there step up to match staves with me? I haven't given anyone a sound drubbing in weeks."

Tam opened his mouth, but Nereid stretched out her hand over the river and water leapt into it, making a solid, glittering staff. "No," she said. "You fight me. I'm the one that wants to go this way, after all."

Robin Hood arched an eyebrow at her. "It shall be so. But come, you must measure our staves. For it would be cheating if yours be longer than mine." He winked and struck the end of his staff firmly on the log.

She struck the log a sound thump with the end of her staff and said, "You can cut the corny pseudo-old English. If you were really going to speak the way you were supposed to speak, I wouldn't be able to understand you because you'd be talking Chaucer-ese."

Robin put his hand over the ends of both their staves and nodded approvingly. "All right, then, if you're going to be picky," he said, "I'll just say, 'Come on and try to kick my ass now, kid.'"

Nereid tried very hard to remember the few staff moves that Sophie had taught her, playing around in the lab when they stumbled on what Sophie jokingly referred to as her "Bataca encounter bats." But her reflexes were as slow as her brain. Robin feinted one way, then smacked her on the ass with the other end of his staff. When she managed to block another sexually harassing strike, he tagged the side of her head, making her ears ring and her eyes cross. She staggered back, giving way for several steps, then, angry and frustrated, she struck back. Her staff wrapped a snakelike embrace around his staff, and struck him hard in the shoulder. He hung onto his staff doggedly, even as the other end of her staff whipped around to hit him in the side. She wrenched hard, pulling his staff out of both his hands, and then hit him with his own staff: once in the head, once in the back, and once, decidingly, in the crotch. He folded in on himself with a "woof!" sound and fell into the river with a sizeable splash.

Tam hurried up behind her. "Quick, let's go," he said, trying to chivvy her onward.

She tossed Robin's staff into the river after him, then thought that perhaps that wasn't the best thing to do, and started to watch for signs of him surfacing. "Why?" She let her own staff drain away from her hand.

"Because if we don't get moving now, we're going to have to..."

"Fight all the other Merry Men?" Nereid asked vaguely. There, Robin's head popped back above the water and he was sort of... rolling toward the riverbank.

"No, worse," Tam said gloomily. "We'll have to join them."

"You're going to have to help him out," Nereid said, sitting down on the end of the log on the other bank of the river. "I don't think he's walking very well yet."

"He won't drown or anything," Tam said. "Come on."

"I," Nereid said with the air of announcing something of great interest, "am going to sit right here for a few minutes."

"Why?" Tam said, wringing his hands and watching Robin crawl painfully out of the water.

"Because," Nereid said scornfully, "I am tired."

Tam fidgeted but didn't go to help Robin. Nereid became entranced by a tiny brown bird with a melancholy song that nearly moved her to tears. A few minutes went by. Finally, Robin staggered up to them, crouched over and grinning painfully.

"Truly," Robin said with a tiny squeak in his voice, "I have rarely had such a bout. You must accept the hospitality of Sherwood and come dwell among us for a time!"

This drew Nereid's attention back from the bird. "How much time?" she said.

"The lady has a pressing mission," Tam explained. "The life of another hangs in the balance."

"I see," Robin said, stroking his goatee -- he had a goatee before? Nereid wondered. "Well, a day and a night is the traditional minimum, really..."

"A day and a night it is," Tam said before Nereid could try to bargain for less. "The lady also cannot partake of the usual fare; you might perceive that she is not of this world."

"Surely that isn't truly a problem," Robin said, smiling in a way that Nereid didn't quite like.

"She is under the protection of the horsewoman," Tam said with what Nereid could only describe as a Significant Look. Robin's eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead.

"Then by all means, we shall try our best," Robin said. "Fortunately, there is an event at which we can obtain fare more particular to her circumstances. If you'll follow." He turned and sprang lightly up the bank, as if he'd never been smashed in the family jewels.

Nereid and Tam followed more slowly. Robin strolled along and sang lustily, if off-key. Tam winced every time he hit a particularly sour note.

The camp of the Merry Men was a strange mixture of rustic thatched huts, treehouses that would be more at home with the elves of Lothlorien, and children's backyard play forts. Upon Robin's call, a mob of green-garbed hooligans swarmed out of the buildings and trees to greet the newcomers.

Robin cheerfully introduced the various Merry Men, of whose names Nereid only retained a few, including Will Scarlet (noticeable for his red, rather than green, clothing), Friar Tuck (brown robe and tonsure, definite monkly signs and symptoms), and Maid Marian (distinctive for her femininity in such a masculine crowd). Tam gave them all a courtly bow and introduced himself as Tamas Lane and Nereid as Janet. Nereid blinked at this misnomer, idly wondering if she was supposed to wear a bra and slip and indulge in a spot of singing and dancing.

"In order to give our best hospitality to this noble pair," Robin announced loudly, "we shall all attend the FAERE!"

There were scattered cheers, and people scattered, apparently to dress and/or gather money. Marian neatly cut Nereid out of the remaining crowd and carried her off to a quiet corner of the encampment.

"You seem ill," Marian said with unexpected concern, persuading Nereid to sit on a large tree stump and joining her.

"I... haven't slept or eaten or drunk... drank? drinked? No, drunk," Nereid said, "for I don't know how long."

"Very remarkable," Marian said, pushing her thick red hair back off her shoulders. "You've obeyed your patron quite thoroughly."

"I've tried," Nereid said, and bewildered herself by starting to cry. "But I got lost and that was the first thing the Equestrian told me not to do."

Marian patted her hand. "Have you any guidance back to your patron? Or is this Tamas what you have?"

Nereid scrubbed at her eyes like a very tired child. "He's what I have. Though Coyote told me to always go toward the sun."

Marian raised her fine thin eyebrows. "If Coyote freely gives guidance, then you should definitely follow it. Until it gets you killed, of course."

"Oh, I can't die," Nereid said, seized with terror. "I have to find Sophie!"

Marian sighed. "Just a turn of phrase here. Don't worry about it." She looked past Nereid's shoulder. "Robin seems ready to go. At the Faere, we'll be able to get you food and drink from Earth that you can safely eat. All right?"

Nereid nodded. "I still can't sleep, can I?"

"Better not to," Marian said, helping her to her feet. "Let's go. You'll like it. It will be just like home."


From the Author:
Poor ol' Nereid.

Classic Marvel Comics no-prizes to the people who can identify the source of the title of this episode!

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Ooooh! We're back up into the top 15! Thank you! Let's keep us there.

wonder_city: (Default)
On Down Along the Creek

Tam propelled Nereid out of Mistress Wang's establishment, one hand under her elbow, and they paused to wait in a doorway of a closed shop nearby. When Nereid looked back at the face of the building, she saw beautiful women leaning gracefully on balconies, chatting with men or calling down to passerby. One drunken man staggered up the steps and bellowed up at the balconies, "Lotus Blossom! Lotus Blossom! Where is my Lotus Blossom, my darling Butterfly?"

One of the women bent down and said, "Don't worry, we're all Lotus Blossoms here."

Nereid turned to Tam. "You brought me to a... to a... cathouse?" she said in outrage. She didn't want to call it a "whorehouse" or a "brothel", and "cathouse" -- the word her father used for such things -- sprang to her fuzzy mind.

Tam looked blank for a moment, then smiled. "It was quite an experience, wasn't it? And it wasn't like I took you upstairs or anything."

"She knew you really well," Nereid said, though she wasn't entirely sure where that thought was going.

"Sweetie, a lot of people know me really well," Tam said, putting his arm around her waist. He was very warm. "I've been here a long time. It doesn't mean anything."

Nereid was feeling grumpy, but she let him jolly her. After all, he was helping her.

When Coyote joined them outside, he was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, and his long hair was caught back in a single braid as thick as Nereid's wrist. The only things that seemed particularly Native about him were the braid -- he'd tied a red ribbon to the end of it -- and the moccasins on his feet. On the front, the t-shirt read in white letters, "Other People's Possessions Come Naturally to Me," and on the back, in a smaller font, "Local Trickster's Union #007."

"Payment in advance," he said with a half-smile at Tam.

Tam frowned. "Half in advance."

"Stingy," said Coyote, narrowing his eyes.

Nereid remembered something the Equestrian had said about bargaining and generosity, and considered poking Tam in the ribs. Before she could gather the courage to do so, Tam sighed, shrugged, and offered Coyote a smile. "All right. You're taking us to where Sherwood is, correct?"

"You asked me to take you by the safest route to where Sherwood is right now," said Coyote. "I have every intention of doing so."

Tam dug something out of his pocket and put it in Coyote's outstretched hand. Coyote peered down at it, frowned, held it up to one eye like a jeweler examining a gemstone, and then popped it in his mouth. "Let's go," he said, and swallowed.

The sun was just rising behind them as they started walking along a hard-packed dirt road among rolling, dry hills. In the distance, craggy, gold-limned mountains broke the skyline. After an hour or two of walking in silence, Tam said, "So, why are you here, anyway?"

Nereid sighed. "My girl..." She paused, wondering how tolerant Faerie was of gay people, but looked over at Coyote, who was striding along cheerfully and who glanced her way with a wink. "My girlfriend," she said. "She was kind of... knocked out of her body. And when we went looking for her, she had walked through a door we were told went here. So we've come here to find her."

"That's pretty impressive," Tam said. "You're on a rescue mission, eh?"

"Yeah," Nereid said. "I'm a regular knight on a white horse."

"Nah," Coyote said. "That's another story and will be told another time." He picked up something small from the road and shied it at the single enormous oak tree that crowned a nearby hill.

Nereid looked at him, perplexed, and wished for the umpteenth time that she could sleep and eat and then maybe she could keep up with conversations here. But probably not.

"So, your friend..." Tam began.

"She's my lover," Nereid corrected, tired of dodging around the point and enjoying the little tingle saying the word gave her.

Tam looked shocked, but then covered it. "Well, good thing she's got someone looking after her then," he said.

Coyote gave him a strange look, then said, "You're here with others, though?"

"Yeah," Nereid said. "My... teammate. She used to be So... Brainchild's lover before me. She came because I didn't want to be alone here with the Equestrian."

"And rightly so, too," Tam said, gazing up thoughtfully at a maple tree that was dropping little green helicopters on the path. "The Equestrian is a strange girl, usually with her own agenda. Never know when she might decide to go off on some other quest or something."

"Huh," Coyote said. "I've always found her honorable to a fault." He skipped ahead to where the road curved around the hill, facing backwards to eye Tam with interest.

"That's because you're you," Tam said. "Everyone's honorable compared to you."

"Mmm-hm," Coyote said. And then the ground dropped out from under all their feet.

Nereid managed to catch all three of them with waterspouts drawn from the ground. It was a rough landing anyway, because her brain was muddy and her reflexes were off, and they ended up in a wet heap on the pile of rocks that had been the road.

"Ouch," Coyote said mildly, pushing himself up a bit to look around. Tam was pinned under him and squirmed a bit before freezing, a look of horror on his face.

Coyote grinned down at him and licked his lips. "Hi there, pretty boy. You can keep moving like that if you want."

"Get OFF!" Tam said, wriggling backward from Coyote.

Coyote let him go with a tolerant smile and bounded to his feet to give Nereid a hand up. "You all right? That would've hurt a lot more if it hadn't been for you."

Nereid nodded, then held her head, which hurt. "Yeah, I'm all right. Just a little head trauma."

"Nothing to worry about!" Coyote said, kissing her on the top of the head. It made her head feel a little better.

"What happened?" she said.

"Oh, well, as to that," Coyote said, examining the high walls of the giant raw hole in the ground. "Here we are!"

"What?" Nereid said.

"What?" Tam said.

"Sherwood," Coyote said. "Was right here until, oh, about twenty, thirty minutes ago."

"Oh, shit," Tam said. "We've got to get out of here! Get on the right road."

"Who's this 'we', white man?" Coyote said, still smiling. "Mission accomplished. I'll catch you later." He turned away and started to slide and hop down the red rocks.

Tam recovered himself and said, "You've got to take us to Sherwood! That's what I hired you for!"

Coyote paused and looked up. "The contract was for me to bring you to where Sherwood was right then, when we made our agreement. Accomplished." He glanced around at the dry landscape with an air of satisfaction. The green hills were gone, replaced by watercut canyons layered with different shades of red stone. Overhead, the sky was glazed pottery blue.

"You know that wasn't what we meant!" Tam screamed. "You cheating, lying little rat!"

Coyote climbed back up to stand nose to nose with Tam, and every trace of a smile was gone from him. "You knew who you were bargaining with, little man," he said in a low voice. "I am wearing a damned warning label on my chest," he said, thumping the t-shirt front. "I am Coyote, and you made a bargain with me, and I have kept my end of it. Don't stand there telling me what a cheat and a liar I am when you wear the skin of your ancestors, who have lied and cheated their way through my lands, eviscerating the earth and murdering my people. Do not presume to tell me my business, you tiny zit, because I've been bargaining since long before your people crawled out of the mud." He paused and stared into Tam's face. Tam tried to hold his gaze, but eventually looked away. Coyote sneered. "For the sake of this woman, who is worth a thousand of you, and her quest, and because sometimes even I approve of nobility and love, I will allow another bargain. But know that I will never forget that you called me out of my name. Never."

Nereid kicked Tam in the ankle, and he whirled on her, eyes wide with a fury that drove her back a step. She clenched her jaw and glared at him. He swallowed hard and gave her a halfhearted smile, then he looked back to Coyote. "I am... very sorry for offending your lordship. I forgot myself entirely, and I am grateful for the lesson, sir."

"Spare me your court toadying," Coyote said over his shoulder.

"I have nothing else to bargain with, lord," Tam said.

"Yes you do," Coyote said.

"I?" Tam said, looking startled.

"You know where those documents are," Coyote said.

"I..." Tam sighed. "Yes, I do. If you mean..."

"You know what I mean," Coyote said.

Tam glanced at Nereid, giving her a pathetic, pained look. Nereid's anger melted then; it was clear that this information he held dear. Then Tam inhaled deeply. "Yes, if you will take us to Sherwood -- wherever it is -- I will tell you where the documents are."

"And give me the key," Coyote said.

Tam looked completely crushed. "And... give you the key."

Coyote watched him for another moment. "Very well. The fastest road is yours, lady," he said, looking to Nereid.

Nereid looked around at the increasingly-brightly colored landscape. There was no trace of the road they had followed, or any road. "How?" she asked, trying not to sound pathetic.

"Water runs in a constant direction," said Coyote. "And we won't get anywhere green without it."

Nereid stared at him for a good three minutes before she realized that he wasn't going to say anything else. So she made a river. It was a lot of water and it took a lot of effort; Coyote set off following the course of the water and Tam took her by the hand. Eventually he put an arm around her shoulders and practically dragged her along.

She didn't really snap out of her stupor until, sometime late in the afternoon, Coyote stopped and pointed at a lush green forest with enormous trees. "Sherwood," he said, and held out his hand to Tam.

Tam reluctantly reached into the pocket of his tattered trousers and pulled out a small golden key that glimmered mysteriously. "You take the last memento of my first love," he said, handing it over slowly.

Coyote took the key from him firmly and said, "Look at how many shits I don't give." He gestured over his shoulder. Nereid stared at a broad line of oblong brown objects that stretched along the road behind them, all the way to the horizon. Surely, she thought, Coyote hadn't been stopping that often. When he turned and displayed the key to the enormous crowd of turds, Nereid was horrified by the tiny cheers that went up. She was relatively certain she was dreaming. Relatively.

Her thoughts went out of her in a rush as Coyote swept her away from Tam, bent her back over his arm, and kissed her. It wasn't a friendly peck on the lips, either. What was, perhaps, worse was that she found herself kissing him back. Was that little whimper from her? Oh, god, how embarrassing.

Coyote set her back on her feet, kissed her cheek, and breathed in her ear, "When you leave the greenwood, always follow the sun, wherever it is."

Tam was red in the face and glaring. Coyote smiled at him. "Just a goodbye kiss. You can have one too, if you like," he said, extending an arm. Tam shrank back. Before the argument, Nereid would have thought Coyote's offer was playful, but now she could see the barely-checked rage in the beautiful brown eyes, and viscerally knew that they had had a narrow brush with a terrifying force.

Coyote shrugged and turned away, slouching back down the oddly turdless road. At a turn in the road Nereid didn't recall, he disappeared.


From the Author:
Wonder City tied for fourth place in the Rose & Bay awards, which is pretty good considering we were up against big names like Alexandra Erin and MeiLin Miranda. Thank you all for voting for Wonder City. Maybe we'll have a chance again next year. :) As a quick thank-you, here is a second episode for the week; I hope you enjoy Nereid's continuing quest.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Ooooh! We're back up into the top 15! Thank you! Let's keep us there.

wonder_city: (Default)
Here We Are Standing on the Corner of "Walk, Don't Walk."

"What is this place?" Nereid asked as Tam drew her through the curtain into a crowded room. She was overwhelmed by myriad rich scents of food, reminding her that it had been some indeterminate time since her last pseudo-meal. As she looked around, every face she saw was Asian, and every voice she heard was speaking a language she didn't understand.

"Mistress Wang's," Tam said.

"Why are we here?" she said, raptly watching a plate of steamed buns go by in someone's hands.

"To get information," he said. "You want to find your friends, right? If there's news of them, we'll hear it here."

"Oh," Nereid said, catching herself as she took a step after someone carrying several bowls of soup whose aroma made her salivate.

"Come on," Tam said, and pulled her to a table near the wall, tucked under the stairs to the second level.

"How will you get news?" Nereid said. "No one's speaking English."

He smiled at her and patted her shoulder. "I always manage to make myself understood somehow. Wait here."

Nereid sat at the tiny wooden table and watched it rocking under her hands, trying to focus fully on the tabletop as food -- lovely, hot, mouthwatering breads and meats and vegetables -- went past her. At a nearby table, someone was slurping noodles. Usually, the sound didn't bother her, but right now, it made her want to jump up and dismember everyone in the room with swords she knew very well that she couldn't handle. Swords just like that young woman in the amazing hat (with little fuzzy dongles all round the brim) over at the counter had crossed across her back. All for a bowl of noodles.

Tam sat back down next to her, a bowl of some liquid in his hand. "Well, the lady of the house will be by in a few then," he said.

"Will she know where the Equestrian might be?" Nereid said.

"We'll find out," Tam said, smiling and taking a swig from the bowl. Nereid eyed him pouring the fluid into his mouth, watched his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed, saw a crystalline droplet spill off his lip onto the tabletop. She could smell the raw alcohol. Her mouth was sticky as flypaper. All she wanted was a sip of water.

She thought about making some water for herself. She thought about transforming herself into water -- maybe she wouldn't feel so thirsty or hungry if she were water. If she could make that transformation on purpose. But then would that count as using something from Faerie, integrating it into her body when she changed back? Like drinking or eating? She rubbed her temples.

A tiny, elderly, Asian woman in a royal blue silk cheongsam appeared at Tam's shoulder. Her iron gray hair was caught up with pins and sticks in a complicated way. "Looking for directions, I hear?" she said in perfect, if slightly accented, English. She smiled, her face wrinkling pleasantly.

"Indeed," Tam said, smiling back at her. "Mistress Wang, my favorite lady of ill repute."

"So, the way you want to go is through Sherwood right now, you scoundrel," Mistress Wang said, swatting the back of his head playfully.

"And how do we get there nowadays?" said Tam.

"Ohhh, if you don't know," Mistress Wang said, "then you'd better hire a guide. The roads are a bit... political right now."

Tam pursed his lips. "Who would you recommend then?"

Mistress Wang looked around the hall thoughtfully. She pointed one finger -- Nereid gawped at the size of the ruby adorning it -- and said, "You might ask Coyote. From what I hear," she added, "he's one who gets around." She raised her voice. "Coyote! Got a couple of people here who want to talk to you!" She gave the two of them a professional smile and glided away to another table.

The man pointed out as Coyote was tall, wearing only a loincloth, and quite possibly the most beautiful man Nereid had ever seen. He was also clearly gayer than a nun wearing sequins in the Castro on Hallowe'en. He sashayed over to their table, flipped his glossy black hair over one shoulder, and turned a dazzling smile equally on Nereid and Tam. "Hey, how's it hanging?" he drawled suggestively at Tam.

Tam edged a little closer to Nereid. "What are you doing in this part of town?" he said, doing his best to sound casual.

Coyote pulled out a chair and sat down on it sideways. "Looking for a date, what else?" He draped a graceful arm over the back of an empty chair and winked at Tam with one long-lashed eye. "I don't suppose you're free?"

Tam slid an arm around Nereid's waist and smiled nervously. "Of course not. I'm here with my girlfriend!"

Nereid blinked at him in confusion. She felt slower of mind than she'd ever been before, and that, she thought, was saying something.

A waiter passed behind Coyote, balancing the biggest tray of food Nereid had ever seen on his shoulder. She noticed at least two sizzling, crispy, dark brown roast ducks, an enormous joint of beef with a few pink slices showing like Venetian marble at the side, the jewel-like tones of glazed vegetables, and, in the center, an enormous pile of citrus-adorned rice. The smell from the tray completely distracted her from the next couple of exchanges.

Nereid then noticed, suddenly, that she was overhearing -- and understanding -- bits of nearby conversations. "So I told him," said one of their neighbors, "at Gold Mountain, where else? And he had the gall to say that wasn't specific enough. As if everybody doesn't know where that is." His companion -- South, rather than East, Asian -- nodded sympathetically.

"It could be that I'm going that way," Coyote was saying, leaning his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand. "If the price is right."

Nereid pulled her attention from the fragrant red-cooked eggs the people at the next table were nibbling with their tea and found her gaze riveted on Coyote's perfectly-muscled abdomen. She desperately tried to look away, to focus on something else, on the conversation, on Coyote's face at least, and discovered that he was wearing an iridescent dragonfly barrette over one ear. She found it oddly endearing.

Tam said, "I think I could manage that. When would you be ready to leave?"

"Oh, any time," sighed Coyote, running his fingers luxuriously through his hair.

"Can we go before I try to eat something?" Nereid said plaintively.

Coyote stroked her hand. "Of course, dear," he said so kindly it brought tears to her eyes. Then his gaze focused over Nereid's shoulder and he stood up. "Eeeeeeeh, girlfriend!" he bellowed at someone across the room.

Nereid found herself eye to crotch with Coyote and stared at his loincloth in blank amazement. It was embroidered with fine beadwork in the shapes of little unicorns and rainbows. Tam kicked her under the table. "Could you please not stare at his... his fork?" he hissed.

"Fork?" Nereid said, thinking of food and looking around, forgetting that everyone here seemed to use chopsticks. Except when they didn't. Her head was starting to hurt.

Coyote patted her on the head as he moved around the table toward his friend. "If you like that, you should see my jingle dance regalia," he said absently.

Tam put his face in his hands. Nereid, still not quite understanding what she'd done wrong, twisted her head around to see who Coyote was talking to. An elegant Asian man with hair nearly as long and glossy as Coyote's picked his way across the room fastidiously. He was wearing what looked to Nereid like some type of formal dress. She wondered what his tall, almond-shaped black hat was made of. While he did not seem particularly put out by Coyote's greeting, his companion, who wore a bow and quiver of arrows on his back and a flute tucked into his belt, frowned repressively. This seemed only to encourage Coyote, who was, judging by his body language, flirting excessively, complete with suggestive hip motions and eyelash fluttering. Finally, Flute Boy seized his companion by the arm and drew him bodily away.

Nereid leaned over to Tam, after overhearing another patron grumbling, "Five hundred years isn't nearly enough for that monkey," and said, "I thought you said everyone here spoke only Chinese. But they're all speaking English."

Tam glanced at her, eyebrows raised. "I never said that."

Coyote drifted back to their table. Tam looked up. "Now, perhaps?" he said hopefully.

"I suppose," said Coyote. "Everyone seems to have brought their own dates tonight." He winked at Nereid.


From the Author:
Annnnnnd here's the last episode of February! I'm going to have to drop down to once weekly posting for March, due to some traveling and family medical issues, though I'll post two when I can.

My wife's fun ideas about Coyote heavily informed this episode.

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