8FOLD: Mighty Medley # 25, January 2016, by Messrs. Alambre, Brenton, Perron, Russell, and Stokes

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Fri Jan 15 20:01:04 PST 2016

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-------------- ISSUE # 25    JAN 2016 --------------
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-------------TOM RUSSELL--COLIN STOKES--------------
--------------- Editor, Tom Russell ----------------


"Jack Teer, Criminal Detective"
  by Wil Alambre

A private dick, a dame, a double-cross: Mr. Alambre delivers the
noir-infused goods in one of his signature tales of life on the wrong
side of the law. Plus!: many helpful examples of cant to help you pass
through the underworld unscathed.

"Beyond the Fields" Part 24
  by Saxon Brenton

A treatise on how magic works in the unreality. The best method for
escaping psychic Nazi werewolves. The Castle of Wonder, Herman the
German, and a famous painter. Marcus's deepening appreciation of how
wrong his world is.

"Smile Cure"
  by Andrew Perron

Can I just take a moment to say that one of the things I find
consistently wonderful about Mr. Perron's writing is the combination
of heartfelt generosity, deep kindness, and earned optimism? I often
wish I could write from that place.

"Empress of Pages" Part 10
  by Colin Stokes

A bifurcated installment in Mr. Stokes's mystical epic: the Librarian
and her Library redecorate and ruminate, while their daemonic ally
searches the underworld for the Tome of Royal Lineage. On the
properties of blackstone, and qualities of the Lesser.

"Seven 'Gainst Thebes" Part 23
  by Tom Russell

Celine's story, or rather, stories; the rescuer, rescued; sex and
violence; an injury with lasting consequences. Our second act comes to
its close.

--------- JACK TEER, CRIMINAL DETECTIVE ------------
------------Copyright 2016 Wil Alambre--------------

Maybe you need something found... or maybe somebody... but you can't
go to the cops because you're public enemy number one.
   That's when you need a _very private_ private eye. Someone who can
be objective about any of your _questionable_ objectives.
   Someone like me.
      My name's Jack Teer. I'm a criminal detective.

It was a sallow night in the city and I'd just gotten back to my
office hideout. Hadn't even had a chance to peel off my domino mask
when she slinked right in through my door, without so much as a knock
or how-you-do. She was all smooth curves that swished and swayed, from
the top of her cat-eared cowl to the tiger-claws on her boots. The
sort of woman who knows how good she looks in a costume that tight.
   "I've got a crime for you, Mr. Teer," she said with a purr.
   I poured myself a glass of whiskey while she told me a tale of her
and her new partner. They'd recently pulled off a _hell_ of a caper. A
big bank job, a high paying score. It's one I'd been hearing about
over the hourly report. After a knockover like that, they should've
had the bees... but it seems someone lammed off with their take.
   It was the sort of story that can be embarrassing, if it got out in
the state it was. I asked if it was worth fifteen percent of her jack
for me to write a better ending. She didn't bat an eye.
   "It's not about the money, Mr. Teer. I can't have people crime-ing
against me. Find someone I can punish."
   And like that, I had myself a case.

People figure there's always a chinese angle to these things. Truth
is, most of my detective work is disappointingly pedestrian. All it
takes to crab them is legwork and perseverance. But once in a blue
moon, though... well... let's face it, my clients aren't the most
trustworthy bunch. And I've been played the rube before.
   So me and my camera spent the next couple nights tailing my client.
   For someone that had her payday pinched, she kept herself
expensively entertained. Her days were shopping escapades in amongst
high fashions boutiques. Her nights were longs series of gin joints
and dancing before finally retiring to a ritzy penthouse apartment.
She was all class and cliche, only really crime-ing for the thrill of
it. There'd be no fun in it for her, trying to grift me.
   She spent the entire time hanging off the arm of a guy I didn't
recognize. He had to be the new partner she was talking about... with
heavy emphasis on the 'new'. He had the tightly-wound worry of someone
who expected sirens at any moment. If it wasn't for her, he'd have had
a stroke by now. Watching the two of them together, I was convinced
she had him wrapped too far round her little finger for him to pull a
fast one on her.
   And once I got a peek through their penthouse skylights, I found
them wrapping more than just fingers. I made sure to take a couple
'artistic' pictures of the two of them fadoodling while I was there.
'Course I did. If this case didn't pan out, I knew a tabloid newshawk
who'd pay me under the table for 'em.
   With them on the up-and-up, the next likely candidates were the
hired help. The client's new beau was too green, and _way_ too much of
a nervous-nelly for anyone to trust him. But her, she was the real
mccoy. With the street cred she's built up over the years, she could
easily pull in extra muscle for a bank job. Depending on their
timetable, she may not've vetted them properly.
   It's duck soup getting into the case files at police headquarters.
They have lousy locks and lazy patrols and they haven't moved a _damn_
thing since they kicked me off the force way back when. Oh yeah, used
to be a time you wouldn't recognize me without a badge. Thing is, you
wouldn't recognize me without a bottle, neither. One eventually won
over the other, and I had to find myself a new line of work.
   According to the police paperwork, the client ran with two regular
mooks. One's a straight up merc. In and out of bing so much they've
may as well have a revolving door on his cell. Works for a number of
different masks and trouble boys whenever the work comes up. He's a
regular torpedo, too savvy to ruin his reputation ripping off a boss's
   The other palooka was a lifer, the kind of fanatic who only worked
for a single criminal. Whenever she was out sharpening her claws, this
guy was right out there with her. God knows what gets into these sort,
but I find _they're_ the ones you really had to be careful of. And
with just one look at his mug shot, I was _sure_ I'd found my man. I'd
seen that goofy look in his eyes in any number of stupid men.
   His kind rarely think for themselves. They lean on their boss for
decent aliases and reliable safehouses. He didn't have either going
for him, so it only took me a couple days to track him down. I was
waiting in his motel room when he stumbled in.
   "The jig's up, buddy," I told him. "Was stupid of you to cross your
boss. She'll skin you for stealing that bank roll."
   He was all sad puppy dog eyes and stunk of cheap rye. He played
dumb, and he played it well. "You... you don't know her like I do.
She'll forgive me, sure she will."
   When I tossed him the pictures of his boss tangled up with her new
toy, that's when he lost his temper. Drunk and angry, he didn't make
for much of a fight. All wild swings and clumsy tackles. It wasn't
long before I had him crying 'uncle'.
   "Tell me where the money is, and I'll stop breaking your fingers," I said.
   "I don't have it anymore! I gave it to El Gato, I swear!"
   "'El Gato'? Come on, mac, how stupid do I look? What kind of
third-rater would crime under a terrible alias like that?"
   "It's him! Him in the pictures! Her new partner!" Son of a gun.
   I gave the poor sap twelve hours to skip town. If he was lucky, he
got himself gone before she started looking for him. He crossed a
line: he got caught crime-ing against his own boss. He'd never work
this burg again.

Next day, I was back at penthouse. The skylight had a laughably basic
alarm, but the liquor cabinet was well stocked. I was three-quarters
through a bottle of brandy when 'El Gato' arrived.
   He just about pissed himself when he saw me. "Your girl's out
hunting for her double-crossing henchman," I said. "Figured that'd
give us some alone time... to talk about her double-crossing
   He spun me an excuse about her being broke and him being lonely,
about him piggy-banking her lifestyle to keep her around. Her half of
the bank-job money might've been enough for her to cut herself loose
from him.
   Lucky for him, I didn't care. "Far as I see it, she got the
scapegoat she wanted. You pay me my fifteen percent, and we don't need
to... confuse the matter further." He cut me a cheque then and there.
   Crime closed.

-----------------BEYOND THE FIELDS------------------
---------------------Part 24------------------------
-----------Copyright 2016 Saxon Brenton-------------

   A familiar howl echoed from back out on the street. The Hund.
   Yes, of course the Hund. Marcus fought down the impulse to swear.
   Everything was going completely awry, but if he panicked then he
would probably miss any small opportunity that he might otherwise be
able to take advantage of. To salvage what might otherwise be a
hopeless situation.  Well, that was part of what military training was
for, was it not? To teach you to keep calm under fire?
   He reinforced the darkness that he had placed across the entry
alcove. A stopgap measure at best, but it might buy them some time. He
turned back to the two others saying, "We should leave," only to
discover that Deidre was already picking the lock to the shop's front
door. "Yes," she agreed cheerfully, then frowned as she rattled the
door and found it would not open. "Hmm. Barred from the inside."
   "I meant transporting us away," said Marcus.
   The light in this entryway was dim but not completely absent thanks
to a sliver of magical light that Marcus had created. He saw the women
exchange glances, then the dark haired one said, "Okay. If you can get
us some breathing space, we'll talk."
   "Then follow me." And with that he walked forward through the wall
that marked one side of the shop entry.
   Joan and Deidre followed. A few steps in and it became obvious that
they hadn't simply passed through into the shop space beyond. "Where
are we?" asked Joan.
   "I want to get us away from Berlin. The Hunds are magical
creatures, developed from the research into the cure for werewolves."
Marcus briefly scowled at that. It was another sore point with him.
"They don't just hunt with physical senses, but with psychic senses as
well. East Prussia should be well beyond its range. Their range, if
the Schutzstaffel have deployed more than one."
   "No, I mean where are we, right now?" The place was dark and cold
in a way that even the snowy street at midnight hadn't been.
   "Ah. We're travelling through shadows from one point to another,"
he explained. "Have you ever heard of the idea that shadows aren't
cast by people and animals and objects, but are instead reaching out
to them and come to an end at those things? That if you trace any
shadow back that other way to its source, they'd all meet at the same
   "No, I hadn't," replied Joan in a neutral voice.
   "No reason that you'd need to. It's a pack of lies," Marcus said.
"But this is magic. As long as the idea makes a kind of sense and
isn't incoherent gibberish, then it can be used as a magical symbol."
   "As a template for how you want the world to work, however
briefly," Deidre noted.
   "And then you use it as the focus for your will and make it real,"
agreed Marcus. "Some changes being harder than others, unfortunately.
Here we are," he added.
   They had emerged into natural darkness again, into night time away
where the stars could be seen. Their shoes scrunched on gravel. And
there, glowing slightly in the moonlight was the looming bulk of a
   It was a big castle, Deidre saw as she studied how many turrets and
spires there were. She quickly realised that it was some kind of
Ludwig of Bavaria style fantasy castle, all in white stone rather than
dark granite, and with pennants snapping in the night breeze. The tune
to the title song from Camelot jumped to mind. "Where is everybody?"
she asked.
   "Nobody lives here."
   "The place is lit up for New Year's Eve," Deidre said in
exasperation, waving a hand at the well-lit building before them.
"There must be at least caretakers."
   "No," Marcus disagreed simply, but now he was staring at the castle
with a thoughtful expression on his face.
   A feeling crept over Deidre. It combined awe with an uncomfortable
recollection of the encounter at the troll bridge. She wandered up to
the building, reaching out a hand as if to assure herself of its
solidity. A piece crumbled under her touch, and she rolled it between
her fingers before sniffing it.
   Joan picked up her mood and asked, "What?"
   "It's gingerbread."
   That was a bit much, even for a several millennia old angel like
Joan who had seen a lot of weird crap in her time. And even taking
into account what they'd already encountered during this expedition.
"What, the whole building?"
   "Well, yes, of course," said Marcus.
   They both looked at him. However, he still seemed to be paying more
attention to the castle. Then he asked, "Is this another one of those
strange things where the world doesn't work properly, and I just can't
see it?"
   "I believe it is," Joan said with careful diplomacy.
   Marcus narrowed his eyes and stared at the castle as though it were
some sort of optical illusion that he was having trouble resolving.
After a few seconds he shook his head his head in frustration.
"That's... annoying," he said. "Still, that's a side issue, just at
the moment. Let's get inside. We have a lot to talk about."
   "So, where are we?" asked Deidre as he ushered them around to a
side door, possibly a servants' entrance.
   "Hm? Oh, this is the Castle of Wonder. It's in Masurian woods in
East Prussia," he said. "The town of Rastenburg is about 5 miles back
that way."
   That sounded familiar. Deidre tried to place that using what little
central European history and geography she knew, and hoping it at
least vaguely matched up. "Wasn't that where Adolf Hitler had his
Wolf's Lair military operations bunker?" she asked.
   "The painter?" And Marcus's mood seemed to lighten somewhat at the
thought of the famous artist. "Yes, that's right. When he was carrying
out the great patriotic war against the Soviet Union... Oh."
   "This just keeps getting worse, doesn't it?" said Deidre. "Let me
guess, the Wolfsschanze wasn't *near* here, was it?"
   "No. It was right here," said Marcus, making a pointing gesture at
the ground as he stared up at the castle again. "And before you ask
the obvious question, no, it wasn't built afterwards. The Castle of
Wonder has always been here. Back to before the time of Herman."
   "Herman the German? Arminius?" said Joan. "In that architectural
style?" She was suddenly struck by what first century tribesmen, or
even first century Romans for that matter, would have thought of this
faerie tale cake confection of a castle.
   "I take it back," said Marcus. "This isn't just annoying. This is
flat out terrifying."

------------------- SMILE CURE ---------------------
-----------Copyright 2016 Andrew Perron-------------

For the longest time, I tried to keep my smile.
  (The disappearances had been crossing my desk for months. No real
reason to think they were connected. Except for the little tickle in
the back of my mind that told me they might be, and my ulcer flaring
up when I thought about ignoring it.)
  I was born with this smile. It was strong, and powerful, and it had
the energy of a million firecrackers all going off at once. I figured
there was nothin' it couldn't last thru, my entire life.
  (I hit the streets, pounding the pavement as it baked in the noonday
sun. Follow-up questions for the people who knew the disappeared. New
questions for the people no one had asked - friends, co-workers, deep
acquaintances. I learned a little.)
  But it's hard, y'know? So many good people you can't help. So many
bad people you can't stop. So many tears, flooding the gutters of this
city and washing everything into the sewer.
  (Then I went down into the shadows. The alleyways, the sewers, and
the places they don't replace the bulbs a lot. A lot of good people
there. A lot of bad ones. And everybody keeps an eye open, just in
case. I learned a lot.)
  It didn't fade all at once. It took a lot of hard hits and kept
pushing forward. But slowly, the things that supported my smile were
knocked out from under it, and I fell until I hit bottom.
  (There was a common factor. Some of them had been invited. Some of
them had been taken. But they were all going to the same place.)
  (I got a name: The Company.)
  I lost myself. There was booze, of course - lookin' back on it now,
it was pretty cliche. Waking up in gutters, being an jerk to my
  (It was barely a name at all, but it was a place to start. Days
digging through records. Days casually checking out unmarked doors in
the back of alleyways.)
  But you know what came by and surprised me? The realization that I
didn't have to *stay* down there. It was those same friends - Denise,
Aubrey, Kwame - that showed me. It wasn't anything as big and dramatic
as an intervention. It was just a lot of moments where they cleaned me
up, got me home, dusted off my path. It was me trying to push them
away and them not allowing it. It was being shown, in little ways,
that I was still worth caring about, until the day I decided it was
time to care about myself.
  (Finally, paydirt. A witness had seen a teenager being lead into a
basement door, not long after his last known appearance. Others in
nearby buildings had heard strange noises, and there were little, tiny
hints of arcane phenomena. I had them.)
  So I found where my smile had been, and started building it up
again. I remembered why I was doing this in the first place - to help
people. And I looked back and I saw that, even while I was falling and
fading, I had been helping people; making the world a better place.
And I cleaned the bottles out of my office and I put the sign back up.
  (I made my preparations. Put on my outfit. Holstered my weapons. And
went out through the fire escape, quiet, running in the dark through
alleys I knew by heart.)
  And no mistake - it was still hard, and people still got hurt, and
there were still days where I felt like I'd had the right idea in
giving up. But I kept track, and the days I made people happy
outnumbered the days I made them sad; and I knew I was making a
difference. But it still seemed like something was missing - like
there was something that was supposed to be part of my life, but
  (I knew they'd be watching, so I didn't bother trying stealth. My
boot slammed against the door and it crumpled inward. One leap took me
to the bottom of the stairs, a little concrete foyer where two guards
were smoking along the walls. They took a half-second to gape in
confusion before their hands raised in the air and burst into flame.
The tiny space filled with heat.)
  (But I was already in the air, bouncing off the wall. "SAPPHIRE LOVE
BULLET!" I shouted, and in two puffs of bright blue smoke, they fell
to the ground, magic quelled by strange emotions.)
  ("Who... who the hell are you?" one said, as I floated to the ground.)
  And then, on that awful, glorious day, I found it. When Venus woke
up, so did I. The weird little patch of skin I'd called my 'cutie
mark' since I was seven - it burned, and power and purpose flooded
thru my body.
  And maybe if it'd awoken when I was down in a ditch, it would've
turned out differently. Maybe I'd have turned to the darkness; maybe I
would've come out more powerful, more self-reliant. But I don't think
I would've come out stronger.
  ("Me? Just some dame." I struck a pose, with my glittery gold guns
and my brown leather trenchcoat with the bright pink lining. "Magical
Dame Bubblegum Bootheel!")
  Do you know, for real, the power of someone who's hit bottom and
jumped back up? Someone who made the tough, grueling, necessary choice
to be happy?
  (I touched the door - it was hot. Spinning, I kicked it in. Some
kind of office, in flames. Damn but they were fast.)
  ("CARNELIAN EVIDENTIAL ILLUMINATION!" I shouted. Twin beams of light
poured from my guns, and I swept them through the burning room. There
was a tug, a shape on the ends of my tethers that felt like a Clue.
"VERMILLION WELCOMING RECEPTION!" It flew into my hands, and I stuffed
it in my pocket.
  ("Stick around if you wanna roast, kids," I said to the guards,
grinning. "Else, let's amscray!")
  Now I've got the smile. I've got the power. And I'm gonna use it to
wipe away this city's tears. And no two-bit Illuminati wannabe's gonna
stop me, neither.

---------------- EMPRESS OF PAGES ------------------
----------------------Part 10-----------------------
-----------Copyright 2016 Colin Stokes--------------

Redecoration began with an eerie, slightly gritty ringing sound as the
Librarian's wires sheared through granite slabs, as effortlessly as
sticking a straw into a milkshake. Delicately lifting the cut sections
and depositing them several feet away, she leaned over the hole she
had created to take a look.
   There was definitely a pathway of sorts, a circular shaft with
precariously thin steps - little more than footholds, partially
covered with moss - spiraling down into the darkness. The steps didn't
reach the top, though; apparently she had made a hole in the ceiling
of whatever this area of the energy collector used to be.
   -Some form of access tunnel, it seems,- the Library mused in
response to her unasked question, the Librarian extending eight wires
and sliding them into the small footholds in turn, carrying herself
down spiderlike. -This may have had an observation deck on top, but if
it did, it certainly no longer serves as one.-
   "And the rest of the facility?" the Librarian asked, folding her
arms in front of her chest and - with a thought - making her wires
glimmer with a gentle silvery-golden light to banish the darkness of
her descent. "Even if the core of the network is inoperable, is it
still usable?"
   -That remains to be seen,- came the reply as the Librarian touched
down at the bottom of the shaft, slicing a pile of shattered stone
bricks to dust in moments to reveal the path to the center, just as
the Library had promised.  Barely three feet wide, its walls bore a
series of curious grooves in triplicate; like cabling, but without the
cables. The rest of the passage's walls were smooth and featureless,
save for the occasional recessed sconce she passed - for lighting,
most likely - as she made her way forward, pulverizing rocky obstacles
without slowing or stopping.
   Eventually the hallway opened up into a much wider chamber, and the
Librarian filled the air with her luminous wires, casting gently
undulating shadows as she walked to the pedestal in the center. The
room was cylindrical, with a domed ceiling perhaps twenty feet or more
up - out of the reach of her wires, possibly - and a ledge, or maybe a
counter of some sort, running waist-high around the room. Unbroken,
except for the way she had come in, and a second exit opposite it.
More sconces dotted the walls, with more of the triple-grooves around
them, a little more densely packed than the hallway had been and
running out through other, smaller openings. The pedestal, she saw as
she approached, looked as though it was missing something in the
center; some orb or other spherical object would fit nicely in that
depression, which had numerous triple-grooves heading away from it.
   "Do you feel anything?" she asked the air, and her ever-present
companion. "Because I don't. Not apprehension, not a shadow, nothing.
It's as soulless a place as I've ever come across, and that's saying
quite a lot, isn't it?"
   -There is nothing /to/ feel,- the Library confirmed, sounding...
disappointed.  -This facility is so old, even its ghosts have left for
their final rest.-
   "Given what we're going to do to it, that's probably for the best,"
she mused, placing her hand in the depression and delicately touching
the stone curvature with her fingertips, stroking its smooth surface.
"But I'm not above taking what has been abandoned. After all, I'm not
above much of /anything/ when it comes to reclaiming my magic. I think
I've proven that well enough already."
   The Library held her silence at her host's dark tone, and simply
began her work as a host of wires issued forth from the brunette's
palm and sang as they drilled their way into the stone. The light
faded from the room as the Librarian retracted the rest of her wires
and focused on these new ones, closing her eyes and letting her mind
sink into that mechanistic state, empty of sensation and full of
   The numbers here were interesting, at least. The Librarian... shifted a few.
   Instantly, light poured out from between her fingertips, a cold and
piercing silvery thing, filling the depression before racing down the
triplicate grooves in every direction with a soft hum. The brunette
opened her eyes, still seeing the numbers in her vision as the Library
continued exploring the network, and looked up to see intricate
designs of the silvery light covering the chamber walls and the
ceiling. Not just designs, either; a map of the facility, if she read
it right.
   -I can tell you are starting to like it here already,- the Library
murmured, sounding amused. -Which is good. This will make a fine base
of operations once we have a better power source, seeing as you are
not a particularly good battery.-
   The Librarian smiled wryly at that one. "We've always needed
something external for power, it's true. The crystals, the darksteel
capacitors, the runic matrix; anything to avoid straining this body
more than we already do.  May our efforts bear fruit, and our victory
come sooner rather than later."
   -I suspect Fn'ordh is helping us the best he can,- the Library
mused, tactfully.
   "True enough," the brunette murmured thoughtfully. "I wonder how
he's doing..."

Fn'ordh was not doing well.
   At least part of the mission was going well, the daemon thought to
himself, but that was the only bright spot here. He had managed to get
three true names - those of Byrus, Bellegorn, and Vanatherez, who
would all be excellent warriors and had always chafed under the yoke
of the damned Throne - but three was a paltry offering to the
golden-eyed lady, and more importantly, a paltry force compared with
the might of the Underworld's loyalist guards.
   Fn'ordh cursed said guards again as he hid in the darkest shadows
of the outer terrace and tried to put together a decent infiltration
plan. There were very few items actually worth protecting in the
daemon realm; the Wellspring was first to mind, of course, but Fn'ordh
knew it was beyond his reach for the moment. His sights were set
instead on the Tome of Royal Lineage, which was said to hold the name
of every daemon in the realm and how they were descended from the
original denizens - whatever that meant. Of course, Fn'ordh had never
actually read the Tome, nor had anyone else he knew, but it seemed the
best shot at getting a large number of true names. Even if it wasn't
entirely accurate, surely the Librarian could put it to use in her
   Anything involving the Tome, of course, was contingent on Fn'ordh's
success. The Lesser had never been as much of a fighter as his
contemporaries, and so had honed his stealth, deception, and general
trickery skills instead. Not that he couldn't have fought, but this
wasn't the time or place for the direct method.
   The daemon's form shifted, mercurial, into the stuff of nightmares
- no longer humanoid, but a shapeless mass of viscous semiliquid
filled with countless tiny black barbs and a single dull red eye. He
hated using this form, truth be told; it was physically weak, it could
only 'hear' through the vibrations of objects it was touching, and it
was an aesthetic disaster. But on the other hand, it was very quiet,
difficult to see, and surprisingly fast when the need arose.
   Fn'ordh oozed up against the blackstone wall of the terrace and
then continued straight up the glittering expanse, his barbs easily
finding purchase on the irregular surface. Some daemons said
blackstone might have been obsidian at some point, but countless ages
of exposure to the Underworld had made it something more, drenched
with the energy that suffused everything else in the realm.
   A visiting human might have found it interesting, if any ever
visited.  Fn'ordh despised blackstone for the same reason he despised
everything else about the Underworld: it never changed. Someone had
presumably built the structures of the Underworld at some point, but
no one could remember when, or how; and since they would regenerate
even incidental damage, like the scratches from his barbs digging in,
everything stayed the same and would continue to do so interminably.
   But then here was a chance to change all that, Fn'ordh mused as he
curled over the top, bringing his eye to the front for a view of the
inner terrace before surging forward across the rocky terrain and
using the pillars to keep out of sight of the guards. If this world
couldn't be changed, he'd just escape - hopefully permanently - to a
world full of change and chaos and new experiences, the world that
every daemon desired. Well, almost every daemon, anyway. Cursed
   Fn'ordh reached the edge of the building itself - open-air, like
most structures were - and slid onto the much smoother tiled floor,
the sound of his barbs still muffled by the rest of his gelatinous
body. He could feel the guards patrolling now, their heavy steps slow
and even, and if he'd had a pulse in this form it would have quickened
as he realized how close he was to his goal. Darting through an
archway and shifting his bulk as much into the shadows as possible, he
glanced around at the building's interior, seeing more pillars and a
flight of stairs descending into what he knew was the vault itself.
His prize rested down there somewhere, but he had to exercise even
more caution now; the guards here might have their attention turned
outwards, but there was no telling what awaited him below.
   Freezing momentarily as a guard passed in front of the archway
opposite him, Fn'ordh finally slid from the shadows and dashed across
the tiles to the stairwell, curling over the edge and attaching
himself tightly to the ceiling. He couldn't stay there too long; being
directly above the stairs, eyes would naturally be drawn to the
position. The view it afforded, however, was well worth the risk.
   The spiral staircase ended in the center of the vault's floor,
which bore arcs and angles of burning crimson energy constructing a
barrier no one could cross on foot. But the ceiling held no
inscriptions, so Fn'ordh carefully picked his way across it and into
the dark shadows between the shelves and bookcases on the wall.
   His prize was here, he was sure of it. But finding the Tome was one
matter - and not an easy one - and retrieving it, and /leaving/ with
it, another entirely...

--------------SEVEN 'GAINST THEBES------------------
---------------------Part 23------------------------
------------Copyright 2016 Tom Russell--------------

   Skin of Snake's right hand groped at his neck, the blood seeping
thinly through his fingers. He opened his mouth to speak, but before
any sound could come out, the knife flashed again. He threw up his
left hand, catching the blade against his palm just before he toppled
   Celine was on top of him in an instant, straddling his chest so
that each of her legs immobilized one of his arms. One hand closed
about his wet throat, and the other raised the knife high, aimed
between his eyes.
   He opened his mouth again: nothing. Nothing but the dry heaving
gasp of a fish on land. Just trying to talk threw more kindling on the
fire in his throat.
   He had no recourse but to plead for his life with his eyes, and he
hoped that would be enough.
   It was. "You ain't Jack Peake," said Celine. She relaxed her grip
on the knife, but didn't stop pointing it at him neither. "If you was
Jack Peake, I'd be dead by now; even I ain't faster than Jack Peake."
Her voice was warm and sweet, like mother's milk.
   She let him up, and immediately he began clawing at his throat,
pulling the skin away from his neck and his face. His fingers touched
the new skin underneath, and he was duly surprised to find a scar
where the knife had found him. There had never been a scar before. Of
course, he had never borrowed so many faces in a single day before
either. It could have been that.
   Or it could have been the girl. "You're one of those Indian
shape-changers Adams was on about, ain't you?"
   He tried to speak again. The pain weren't the same as before, but
it was still pain, and he was still silent. So he nodded, then he held
up one finger.
   "One? You're the same Indian shape-changer," said Celine. "Same one
that got shot in the face, yeah? Well, I must say that you're looking
much better now. So, you came to rescue me? You and Adams?"
   He nodded.
   "And Hank is dead," she said flatly. "Killed by Peake."
   He nodded.
   "I wish you had been Peake," she said. "Even if he killed me, if I
could have slit his throat, I'd die happy knowing he was bleeding out
beside me." She laughed; a muffled little thing, sounded like a little
bell, heard far-off. "That ain't true. No one ever did anyone any good
by dying for them. You look surprised. You think Hank would have
married some pretty little thing, some pretty little stupid thing that
couldn't take care of herself? If you think that, you didn't know Hank
at all."
   He wanted to say that he knew Hank only briefly, less than a few
hours, but that in that time he had gotten a pretty good sense of his
character, Hank being someone who made an immediate impression.
Instead he just rubbed at the scar about his throat.
   "I have use for you, Indian," Celine announced, and all at once her
dress was falling to the floor. He turned away. "No, you need to
look," she said sharply. "You need to look good and hard and long.
Don't be shy, now. You need to capture my likeness exactly, and while
I ain't a vain woman, I am vain enough where I expect to be
   Skin of Snake studied her, nodded, and then pulled off his skin.
The air struck against his new skin like his whole body was an open
wound. How many times had he done this today? Was this the seventh, or
the eighth? Too many times...
   "Not bad, not bad at all; I see what Hank saw in me. Ah, but
there's a blemish, the scar at your throat. I guess that's on me. Now,
we'll have that one off, too, but take care; all in one piece, if you
   He stared at her with her own eyes, pleading.
   If she understood him, she didn't care. "I said to do it now. Don't
make me say it again."
   He found a little pull of skin at the hairline, and pulled at it
like a loose bit of string, then let it go slack, repeating the
procedure until Celine's skin hung around him like a loose sack. With
some difficulty, he slid out of it. His skin underneath was wet, red,
and blistering.
   "You don't look so well, sir," said Celine carelessly. She scooped
up the pile of skin and stretched it out on the bed so that it
resembled herself. Then she grabbed hold of her dress in both hands,
gave it a good rip right down the center, and tossed it violently on
the floor. "Come along now," she said. "If they find you here, it will
ruin the whole thing."
   That was when everything went black.

He felt the wind on his blistered skin, and the warmth of the
campfire, before he opened his eyes and saw Celine, naked, blood caked
thick on her body like clay. She noisily sucked on a roasted sausage.
   "Had some trouble getting out of there," she said with a shrug.
"Some of Peake's boys put up an awful fight, and it wouldn't do to
leave witnesses." Then, she smiled; there was something terrifying
about her smile. "You boys did all that to try and rescue me, and
turns out I had to rescue myself, and you besides. Seems like that's
always the way. As I told you before, there's a reason why a man like
Hank chose a woman like me. Do you want a sausage?"
   He shook his head.
   "Well, I'll leave you some," she said. "For services rendered. I
would have gotten myself out of there, no doubt, but if you hadn't
come along, I never would have thought of leaving a decoy. Now they're
not like to come looking for me. Which suits me. I'm free to become
someone else now.
   "I had done it once before. That was on account of Hank. Hank and I
go way back, before he was Hank and before I was Celine. We were in a
bad place, the two of us; a miserable place. And one day, Hank decided
that he didn't live in that place any more, and that he had never
lived in that place. That he was a man, and his name was Hank. Or
rather, it weren't that he decided at all, but that he discovered that
that had always been the case.
   "I fell in love with Hank then. Because it had never occurred to me
before then that my story could be what I wanted it to be, instead of
what had happened to me, or what everyone thought I was. People called
me the daughter of a Chinaman, but it was my mother that was Chinese.
My father was a white man, most like. Someone my mother met when...
conducting her business. When they decided I was old enough, I worked
alongside her. That was my mother's story, and it was my story too,
until Hank.
   "After Hank, I decided that I wasn't a Chinese, and that I hadn't
ever lived in that place. I was a Frenchwoman, a beautiful and
sophisticated French courtesan named Celine, with a proper parlor and
everything, painters and poets and the like trading smart remarks and
listening to dainty music. Hank came visiting from America, and I was
drawn to him, and I ran off with him, leaving all the stuff in Paris
behind. I still miss the painters and the poets, but it ain't really
love if you don't give nothing up for it.
   "And now that Hank's dead, and his story's over, Celine's done,
too, skinned alive by Jack Peake, just like poor Hattie. Which leaves
me free to tell a new story. Maybe I'll be a rich widow. Would suit
me." She grimaced. "He made me watch, with Hattie. Thought it would
break me. But I don't never break. My mother broke." She spat in the
fire. Then she stood up.
   "There's some water in the canteen, and some sausages, like I said.
You'll need to roast them first. Take care of yourself, Indian. No one
else is going to."
   The sun was coming up now. He watched her disappear into it, then
fell asleep.

-----------------SEE YOU NEXT MONTH-----------------

All stories are the copyright of their authors.

The Company created by Tom Russell.

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