LNH: Dashing Tales #4
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Fri Sep 4 21:37:47 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the fourth,
"Bowel movements (no regrets),"
by Ben Rawluk
They haven't come across anyone yet.
You'd think Hell -- whichever Hell this is -- would be teeming with the lost and damned. But it isn't -- trailing through a bloated, festering maze of bowels, not a single person of any description. The only evidence of life is the voices, stray chattering that drifts past like Reality TV confessionals. Maybe some of the organic sludge sluicing past their feet used to be people. They're in the belly of a beast, after all; maybe this Hell is digestion. Or so Clement Bogus says. Even before he started throwing his weight around, he stank of rat.
Emma Dash is starting to lose her sense of smell.
"You know," says Bogus, and Emma doesn't bother suppressing the impulse to roll her eyes, because Bogus is leading the way. "Even when I was actively pursuing -- this -- I didn't go out of`my way to seek audiences with demons." While he walks, he pulls a cigarette from one of his pockets and slips it between his lips. Then he hunts around awkwardly for a solid minute before producing a lighter. "Stupid thing," he says, and then tries to light it. No. Again. No. Again. No. Again -- yes -- there is a sudden flash and a loud bang, a fireball expanding from the lighter and briefly overtaking Bogus's face. There is a stream of expletives, Bogus on his his ass, sinking into the flesh underneath them. Emma stands over him for a moment, and part of her (though she'd never say it out loud) is pleased to have a break, even if only for a moment. They've just been wandering endlessly through the lower intestines of Hell. "You don't go looking for trouble."
The fact that he can say that with a straight face--
"You can get us out of here, right? After I've met this -- what? Duke?"
"I think they're an Archbishop, actually." Bogus reaches out a hand and Emma finds herself wrapping her fingers around his forearm and pulling him to his feet. He has the decency to pull a face that could be construed as grateful. "I can get us out of this," he says, and Emma searches his face for evidence of betrayal. He's down here, right? He wouldn't come down here if he couldn't pull himself back up.
He refuses to explain why he "saved" her, still.
They pause, staring at each other, and Emma's hand drops. She crosses her arms. Don't give in to the full-body shiver as they stand in these bowels, the soup pooling around their feet. "Lead the way," she says, carefully, unwilling to turn her back on him.
Marco hangs back, by the door. First day on the job and the Mission Monitor Room is a crime scene. The screens are dead, displaying only blue. "Emergency feeds have been rerouted to the Auxiliary Mission Monitor Room," say Mashup Laq, not bothering to look up from their LNH-brand Synthezoid Phone. "And W.I.L.B.U.R. is set up to scan and prioritize alerts." They are pacing a slow circle around the room, with Doctor Stomper and Occultism Kid standing on either side of the blast mark that used to be Emma Dash. Marco doesn't know what to do. He's gripping the golden communicator badge Stomper handed him when he arrived; the LNH is leaving an impression on his palm. Mashup Laq pauses in their wandering in front of him. They're very cute, white eyeshadow on one side and purple on the other. They say, very cautiously, "Are you all right?" Like he's a bystander. Is that what it's like for every new Legionnaire? Not that he can do anything, anyway.
"I'm fine," he says, but he doesn't commit to the words and stares down at his boots.
Mashup Laq reaches out, but withdraws their hand. "It's all right if you're aren't."
"I've run the gamut of conventional scans," Doctor Stomper is saying, gesturing at the burn marks. "This isn't science fiction. No evidence of standard teleportation methods -- not technological, not mutant." He scrapes a fingernail down his nose. "She was almost phasing in and out as she fell backwards -- and there was a smell."
Occultism Kid's movements are very precise, very spare. He tilts his head by a degree. "Sulphur and methane," he says. His nostrils flare. "This was definitely mystical in nature. Infernal, as well. Who was the victim?"
(At the word "victim," Marco can feel his face burning.)
"Emma Dash," says Stomper. "Reporter for the Netizen."
Occultism Kid scowls. "Oh," he says. There is something, almost on the tip of his tongue: "Bogus." The scowl worsens. Marco holds his jaw rigid to stop from saying anything. "What on Earth was a Netizen reporter doing in here?" He swivels on Stomper then. Is he even aware that Marco is in the room? "You know who reads the Netizen? Trenchcoaters looking for coded insults from each other in the classifieds. We shouldn't be walking their reporters by sensitive information--" Sparks begin to fly from Occultism Kid's fine blond hair. "People like Clement Bogus are one step away from being villains--" His hair lights on fire. He freezes, staring upward and sniffing. Something in the ceiling clicks and hums, and then a fire sprinkler right above Occultism Kid switches on. Eyes narrow, he says, "You get what I'm saying."
"I'm not, you know, I'm not actually helping," says Marco. His hands are behind his back. The metal of the communicator badge is cold against his fingertips. He's a Legionnaire and he doesn't even get to enjoy it. He's a Legionnaire and his best friend is currently -- where, exactly? Gone. Stomper and Occultism Kid ignore him, too busy debating the logistics of tracing the spell and arguing over whether or not a reporter should have been anywhere near the Mission Monitor Room.
"And I use the term 'reporter' generously," Occultism Kid says.
"Really," says Mashup Laq, crowding in next to Marco without ever touching him. Their eyes are wide and soft and Marco doesn't really know what to do. He has this strange impulse, to recite a poem, to make the conversation, the whole scene stop. "It's okay if you're freaking out. It may seem bizarre, but this happens to us all the time. And don't mind these two--" They don't know anything about him. They're trying to help and all Marco can think about is being an intern for the Netizen, being the lowest of the low, getting coffee for an asshole like Mister King, how if they knew they'd yank the communicator right out of his hand. "Maybe I should take you to Administration, get you assigned some quarters." They keep looking at the swim goggles, and he feels stupid. They look up and down and their eyes flick back to his face. "If you want to meet New Look Lass, maybe--"
"Uh." Marco wonders about the logistics of being a net.hero who has panic attacks. "Maybe I just need -- it's probably low blood sugar," he says, because he doesn't really know what else to say that doesn't involve imagery and metre and sheer destructive power. "You -- Excuse me, please, I'm sorry."
"Please tell me time works differently here," Emma says. They're trudging now, her back hurts from the bending forward to avoid the low hang of the flesh above her. She's almost forgotten the stink -- all that's left is a slight sting at the back of her throat. "It feels like we've been walking for days." Walking, loosely; more like shambling, the sludge soaking into her ankles through her shoes and jeans and socks. Is this how it happens, how the dead waste away here? Crooked and broken and wasting down to nothing, the fluids eating away at their bodies? Is she doomed to be another stray voice in the corridors of demonic flesh?
"You're the one who wants to see the Archbishop."
"I said Satan."
"Satan doesn't live here. I told you, this is one of the lesser Hells--"
"The next time we pass one of those creepy orifices with the teeth, I'm shoving you in."
"You need me if you want your interview. And if you want to leave."
She could smash his stupid skull in, she could suffocate him in the dirty bilge slick and copious at their feet. "Bogus," she says, pressing fingers to her temple. "I'm having these -- these thoughts, these violent--"
"Hell leaks in around the edges. It's easier for me, trenchcoaters are already at peace with our nastier impulses--"
She wants to press his face into the seething organs running alongside them until he can't breathe. "Trenchcoaters," she says. "You get wasted and pass out. Nasty impulse indeed. You're always trying to sound so badass, but you have to shower at a bathhouse around the corner from the office. If I had a super-power--" She stops, then. It's the place. It's Hell. It's reaching inside of her and making her -- no. Something moves. Something solid moves alongside her leg. Emma shivers and stops, reaching out to steady herself. Everything is crawling all around her. Every inch of this place is alive and undulating. "Something touched me," she says, loud enough that Bogus halts in place and turns to look over his shoulder at her. "Something touched my leg."
(What would a demon look like, in here, swimming around in this muck?)
Bogus starts to open his mouth when the something slithers by again, slowly. And then she feels garbage breath on the back of her neck. She turns, but nothing, and then the smell is behind her again.
"Fascinating," says a voice.
"That wasn't me."
Emma closes her eyes tight. Breath like boiled cabbage, rotten fruit, something like meat. "Emma Dash," she says. "Net.ropolis Netizen. Do you have time for an interview?"
Only, there's nowhere for Marco to go. Nowhere. You don't realize -- flicking through plastic sleeves of trading cards -- just how many Legionnaires there are. It takes him an hour of wandering the hallways before he finds an abandoned corridor. An hour with his eyes on the ground, avoiding eye contact. Sometimes he runs into the same people two or three times, like the hallways are looking back on themselves, like the whole building is a strange fractal of architecture.
If he'd taken Mashup Laq on their offer, he could have quarters right now, he could have a locked room between him and the rest of the world.
He's so relieved when he finds the empty corridor that he almost ignores the way his skin crawls when he turns the corner. He's not even sure where he is, exactly. He doesn't remember which wing, which floor. The air conditioning is different here, the temperature a touch colder. The lights flicker, and down the hallway they simply give out, shrouding the far end in darkness. It's like the building simply stops, a half-finished thought. But he's alone. He's alone with a Coke machine. "Coke," he says. "Who drinks Coke? Why do they have a Coke machine?" Doesn't everybody drink Mr. Paprika? Didn't Coke die out after Coke Zero?
But, it would give him something to do.
He has no pockets, though, no change with him. Emma -- Emma had his wallet, his keys, his phone. "Crap." He wants to shout something, a couplet, but he'd get in trouble if he broke the Coke Machine, probably.
He freezes. He knows that voice. It isn't Emma. Nobody else here knows who he is.
He turns, slowly, pivoting on his heels. Maybe the LNHQ is playing tricks on him. And then the pieces connect. "April," he says. April Fu. "And somehow, I'm surprised," he says. "I mean, I should have known." April Fu is standing in front of him, in a white unitard with an inexplicable white skirt over top of the leggings. She has a headband on, black hair pulled into a ponytail. She looks uncertain, looking at his face and then past him, like the darkness down at the other end of the corridor might be something worth being frightened about. He'd be afraid, but he's too busy trying to keep his face from doing that thing he does he they see each other, that frozen smile.
"Sorry," she says. Does she sound sorry? "Irma told me there was a another poet." She smiles and he tries not to resent her. April has a book. Marco sat through the launch party, the readings. He has a copy on his desk at home. He's made a point of avoiding the reviews, because they're probably good; even lukewarm ones would feel like a knife. "I'm Sonnet Queen. I mean, I'm calling myself Sonnet Queen."
Of course. "I should have known." And then: "What about your book tour?"
"Couldn't afford more than a couple stops. And then it was either this or fighting forty or fifty other poets for a sessional job at Dave Thomas Deluxe."
"I'm -- I mean, I'm sorry to hear that."
April -- the Sonnet Queen -- frowns, but says nothing. They stand there for a moment, like every party they've run into each other at, until eventually she says, "When Irma sent me looking for you, I pictured the lecture hall or the cafeteria. Not -- I mean, what's down here?" She keeps looking over his shoulder. "I could have sworn I've been over every inch of this place."
He turns, to peer down into the darkness. "I don't know. I was looking for a place to be alone and eventually -- well, the hallways lead me here."
"Are you -- I mean, are you alright? You can't already be angsting."
Marco glares. What are you supposed to say to that? I'm sorry for having feelings? I'm sorry for living in a world that hates and fears me? "My friend is missing," he says. He clears his throat, because he doesn't want to sound too choked up. He's supposed to be a net.hero. He may be a failure as a poet, but he doesn't have to fail at this, right? There's always a chance. "She was waiting for me during my audition. Occultism Kid thinks it was magic."
"And -- what? You were looking for her down here? Because it's so -- I mean, it's eerie." She points vaguely down into the dim. "Does it look like it just kind of runs out, to you? It's actually kind of hard to look at, my eyes keep wanting to slide away from it--"
"I needed a break," he says, sharp and tight and trying not to get angry. "I can't really do anything, right? My power's stupid. I'm not really good for anything. The professionals are supposed to -- Occultism Kid and Doctor Stomper, they can find her, right?"
"But she's your friend. And you're a Legionnaire."
Marco freezes. That fact hasn't really sunk in yet. "I'm a Legionnaire."
"I mean -- what do you call yourself?"
He looks away. This is embarrassing. He came up with it as a joke and then Emma ran with it. He never expected to say it in front of April Fu of all people. It's like admitting defeat. "Bad-Poetry Boy," he says. He needs a better costume. The leggings are too tight and uncomfortable. "Like I said, I'm not really -- I'm not like Kid Kirby or someone."
"But what about--"
"Emma already gave me the Cheesecake-Eater Lad speech."
April shuts her mouth for a second, but she doesn't stop looking at him. He can see her through the fringe of his hair, and eventually he looks up, because they're in this holding pattern. "I was going to say," she says. "Everybody knows that -- sure, there's Kid Kirby. Or, like, Kid Not Appearing In Any -- ugh. That guy. Retcon Lad. But. Everybody knows that Legion runs on people with stupid powers. Everybody knows Limp-Asparagus Lad, or -- why fight for a crappy sessional job at Dave Thomas Deluxe, when I can be a stupid hero? People will remember Sonnet Queen. Everybody knows that net.heroes like us are the ones who make the world turn." She's breathing heavy, frustrated. And then he sees it: he was saying her powers are stupid too. "You never even know if you're talking to the real Kid Kirby, or if it's just a KirbyBot! But everybody knows WikiBoy."
"I don't get what your point is."
"When I joined the Legion, Research Lass took me aside," she says. Her voice has gone quiet, and she's leaning in, like they're drunk at a party somewhere on the East Side, like they're at that part of being drunk where they think they're friends. "She told me: to make it in the LNH, you have to be the hero in your own story." She grins. "So maybe we should solve the mystery."
She wanted Satan. She wanted a jerk in a red body-stocking with horns on his head and a trident. She wanted the stupid vandyke beard and the sneering. She wanted him to try to talk her into a violin contest. If this was Big Girl Hell, if Clement Bogus was anything besides a crappy trenchcoater who sleeps under a newspaper in the office after hiding in the broom closet until everyone's left, maybe she'd have an audience -- an interview -- with a real big cheese. Instead, she's got -- well. A stomach parasite.
The Archbishop is a long, slender centipede, with a slick humanoid face -- only the face looks like plasticine, like they've molded it and slapped it on over whatever creepy pincers and compound eyes are under there. They've wrapped themselves around Bogus, tight, boa-constrictor-style. This is probably supposed to be a threat. "I could kill him in front of you. Make you watch. Watch you while I do it, paralyze you with my many, many eyes." The eyes that she can see are heavy-lidded and sleepy. "What do you think of that, child?"
"Well, for one thing, I'm the intrepid reporter. If you're going to kidnap and threaten someone, it should probably be me. And then I wait around for a hero to swoop in and save me."
Bogus tries to say something but he can barely breathe. A distended gurgle escapes his throat and the Archbishop tightens their grip. "This one already belongs to me, you know. But I know a hero when I smell one."
She shrugs. "Girl Reporter. Girl Detective. It's a thing." She wished it felt like less of a demeaning thing, though. Did Nancy Drew ever carry a pistol?
"You could have left," they say. "This one could have -- you could have left."
"You came looking for me. Heroes are always fools."
"I want something."
"Things cost, here."
"Things cost everywhere." She imagines beating the worm to death with a baseball bat. Monster-killing is a real thing. It's a valid lifestyle, career choice. They have conferences. Bogus tries to sweet-talk Victor King into paying for one at least once a year. "And don't play the big-bad-demon-lord with me, buddy." She squints. Bogus gurgles again. He's struggling. No wonder he never made it as a trenchcoater. "You swim around inside an even bigger demon. You're a parasite. You're a tapeworm. But maybe I can help you. Demons get power when people believe in them, right? Like gods or whatever? I'm offering you the chance of a lifetime. I'm offering you an interview. An exclusive."
"You're lying," says the Archbishop, although it loosens its grip, squirms closer to her.
"I'm a reporter. And you said it yourself: I'm a hero."
(She's trying not to fall apart right now.)
"What -- what is interview?"
See? Stomach parasite.
"Sonnet Queen!" Occultism Kid holds up a hand when Marco and April slip back into the Mission Monitor Room, gingerly stepping under the yellow security tape pulled across the doorway. Stomper is gone. Mashup Laq is gone -- and if Marco falters a little at that, he doesn't let either April or Occultism Kid see. They're too busy air-kissing anyway, and he is reminded of every poetry reading he's ever been to with April in the room, holding court the second she walks in the door. Sonnet Queen, hah. "I was doing some scrying, trying to lock onto our wayward lamb -- you two should get yourselves to safety."
"Bad-Poerty Boy here is friends with the victim," April says, smoothly. "And he's a Legionnaire. Maybe he -- maybe we can help."
"Well," says Occultism Kid, drawing the word out. He turns his back to them and stretches his arms out, touching middle fingers to thumbs. He takes a breath. "It couldn't hurt, if you're friends. I have to search through literally millions of Hell dimensions to find the one she's been dumped in. Twanging your psychic resonance--"
Twanging his what-now?
"There's a summoning ritual we could try," he finishes. How old is Occultism Kid, anyway? Right now, he looks so boyish, not that much older than Marco, but when he was in here before, he looked closer to middle-aged. It's almost like there's a film over him, shimmering and rippling when he moves, when he turns around. Marco blinks. Occultism Kid is looking at him. Marco looks away. He doesn't want to -- Emma would crack a joke about him having a thing for trenchcoaters. The occasional inappropriate thought about Bogus is excusable, though. It's not like there's a plethora of eye candy at the Netizen, and here--
Anyway, he got dumped two days ago!
"You're thinking about her," says Occultism Kid. "I can feel like thoughts pooling in the space around the hole." He gestures, vaguely, in the direction of the burn marks. Marco must make a face because he adds, "Don't worry! It's more like empathy. I'm not reading your thoughts." Maybe he's blushing. "You're -- I can get a good bead on the emotional landscape of your friendship. Okay. Yes."
"Are we -- can I really help?"
Occultism Kid closes his eyes, tucks his chin against his chest and snaps his fingers. The light quality in the Mission Monitor Room changes -- blue screens go dark. Mood lighting. Marco blinks, and finds five black candles and a piece of white chalk hovering in the air in front of him. "I need a pentagram with a candle at each point," Occultism Kid says. The chalk drifts over to April, who catches it and gets to work immediately. The candles settle into Marco's outstretched hands. He didn't even realize he was holding them open. "There's a plotline running between you and here. Your friend. Emma? Emma. I can use that to reel her back." He frowns. "You ran off before. I didn't have a chance to--" His mouth snaps shut. "No, skip the angst, focus on finding her. It's okay."
"That's actually really creepy," says Marco, and he brandishes a candle in front of him. "April -- sorry, Sonnet Queen, she said I could find Emma. That's all I want right now. I want to find Emma. She's not a Legionnaire, but--"
"We're supposed to protect the regular folks from the bad stuff." Occultism Kid turns with a flourish, trenchcoat fanning out behind him. He looks like everything Clement Bogus wants to be. "And this junk is my bag. So I'll be your co-pilot in finding your friend."
"And me," says April. She's finishing the pentagram, and she tilts her head at Marco. "Two hero-poets probably need to work together. I love collaborating. Candles?"
"Right! Right." He stares down at them. "I don't have -- I don't have a lighter."
"You must have some kind of appropriate power," says Occultism Kid. He stands in the centre of the pentagram. April is about to step across, but he holds up a hand. "You stand outside the circle, and be ready to scuff out the chalk if we need to put a stop to things. Bad-Poetry Boy is inside with me. Once the candles are going."
Marco looks up. Appropriate power. He looks down at the candles again. He holds them up to his mouth, and he whispers. It takes exactly one stanza -- whispered, he doesn't want to hurt anybody -- but every single wick bursts into flame. It is aggressive, angry flame, and he has to pull back to stop himself from getting burnt. "Crap!" He admits the lines don't scan very well. He looks up -- surprised, maybe a little singed -- and Occultism Kid is watching him. Marco looks away. Marco walks in a slow circle around the pentagram, setting out candles at each point before stepping across the chalk line. "What now?"
Occultism Kid doesn't answer, but he holds his hands in the air on either side of Marco's head. Creepy, so creepy. He tilts his head back and Marco honestly doesn't know what's going on now. Is this magic? Aren't there usually more special--
Something sharp hits Marco's belly and he convulses, head snapping forward. The candle flames flare. "This is really basic summoning spell," Occultism Kid says, but he's gritting his teeth. He bites down on his words and his eyes glow, the pupils vanishing.
But before Marco can say anything about, can utter the word "creepy" as if to get across the point, he finds himself swimming. He's still here, still in the pentagram, in the Mission Monitor Room -- but over top of that is laid a new layer, a glossy, translucent space superimposed like a double exposure. There's Emma. And she's talking to -- there's a worm? A giant worm has wrapped itself around Clement Bogus but she's talking to it. Only then she sees him, drifting through the scene, and she's saying something loud, the way her mouth opens like that, wide, and Bogus is making a face, and Marco reaches out--
It doesn't seem like they should be able to touch, but his fingers brush against her wrist. She starts to pull away but he reaches out and grabs onto her. He's not letting her live forever in some crappy Hell dimension. He looks back and locks onto Bogus, and reaches out--
"Only room for one," says Occultism Kid, pulling at Marco's chin until they're looking into each other's eyes and suddenly Marco is really, really uncomfortable with the situation. Life and death occult death trap. Right. This isn't a thing. This isn't going to be a thing. "And we are absolutely not bringing that -- thing through."
He can still feel Emma's wrist. She shouting soundlessly at him. And then he pulls--
There is a stutter and a start. There is a moment where it feels like time has stopped -- on the other side of the chalk line, April is shouting something, but she's frozen -- before things flicker, and speed up, and there's an explosion, like meat sauce splattering in a microwave, and Marco stumbles backwards, Emma Dash suddenly in his arms, and she's shrieking at him. "I was in the middle of an interview, you jerk!"
Emma Dash, Clement Bogus, the Archbishop, Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez) and Sonnet Queen (April Fu) are owned by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Doctor Vincent Stomper is the creation of T.M. Neeck, also open for use.
Mashup Laq is the creation of Andrew Perron, and I one-hundred-percent promise they will get way more attention the next time I write them.
Occultism Kid is the creation of Josh Geurink, open for use.
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