8FOLD: Mancers # 4, "The Old Dark House"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sun Jul 29 23:59:25 PDT 2018

Theirs is the midnight war - theirs, the twilight destiny! Kissed by
Venus, conduits for eldritch forces beyond mortal understanding, are
they the last best hope for the Earth, or the instruments of its

.  .
|\/|.-. .-..-.-,.-..-
'  '`-`-' '`-`'-'  -'
 # 4 [8F-178] [PW-26]


-------------DRAMATIS PERSONAE-------------
MAILE AKAKA, age 19. Aeromancer.
The Company's top field agent and assassin, her memory has been wiped,
and she now believes herself to be the leader of an anti-Company group
of mancers called the secret circle.

LIEKE VAN RIJN, age 26. Doppelmancer.
Split into two autonomous bodies. Members of the secret circle tasked
with gaining Maile's trust.

AZABETH "BETH" COLLINS, age 36. Oneiromancer.
A member of the secret circle, and its true leader.

DAVID COLLINS, age 30. Mnemonomancer.
An agent of The Company. Unbeknownst to him, he is in actuality a
member of the secret circle working deep undercover, and the husband
of Beth Collins.

TRINITY "TRINI" TRAN, age 34. Haematomancer.
A fugitive who works for The Company in return for their protection.
David's live-in girlfriend, unaware of his true history, spying on him
at the behest of Claire Belden.

CLAIRE BELDEN, age 29. Metamancer.
An agent of The Company, tasked with keeping their identity
clandestine, and with rescuing Maile from the secret circle.

LYDIA BLACK, age 45. Paralymancer.
Head of Human Resources for The Company. Claire's lover.

SAMSON DRAKE, age 28. Sciomancer.
Company assassin, and formerly Maile's lover. Recovering from injuries
inflicted by the brainwashed Maile and one of the Liekes.

It's late by the time Lieke takes Maile to her room. "Well, this is you."
   "This is me?" says Maile. She stares in disbelief at the spartan
accommodations. "Where's all my stuff, Leek? My posters, my DVDs; I
had like a bunch of Criterions."
   Lieke shrugs. "Well, you didn't have all that when I met you. I
don't know what happened to you before then. I got the sense that
something did, but you never told any of us about it."
   "And now that I can't remember it, I never will." Convenient.
   "Try to get some sleep," says Lieke. "After all you've been
through, you need it."
   Maile locks the door and gets undressed. She opens the chest of
drawers to search for a chemise or t-shirt to wear to bed. Nothing in
any of the drawers is hers. It's all her size, all something that fits
the contours of her body, but none of it is in her style, nothing that
fits her personality. Not the tops, not even the socks, nothing. It's
not even in the right drawers.
   She has a feeling if she asked Lieke about it, it'd be another case
of "that's just the way it was when I met you." The rest of the
circle, whom she only met in passing (and kept staring at her the
whole time), they would probably say the same thing. (Except Beth, but
that's because she's been in a coma for over a year.) It seems like
every time something doesn't make sense, it can be explained away by
referring to some vague trauma in her past that she never quite opened
up about. Which, if she was trying to brainwash someone, would be
exactly how she'd go about it. Simple. Clean. No story to poke holes
in. Just keep shrugging it off.
   Of course, the outfit she had on in Detroit wasn't really her style
either. Which makes the whole thing a bit more plausible. Lord knows
she went through dramatic changes in fashion (not to mention hair
color) during her first couple years of high school. But it got to a
point where she had finally figured out who she was, and she liked
that version of herself. Why would she change that now?
   As if in reply, her mancer's mark starts to itch and glow. Oh,
right. That. Yes, that would have redefined who she thought she was
pretty radically. So maybe that was it. Or maybe there was something
on top of it, some terrible thing that she couldn't share with anyone
else. Though the only times she held things back from people is when
they were things that she had done, things that she was ashamed of.
And maybe that's it. Maybe it's the persistent shame she feels but
doesn't understand.
   Maybe that's why everything about this feels so wrong.

Claire waves two fingers over Samson's face, swaying them back and
forth an inch away from his skin. He wakes.
   "You've been through the wringer."
   "I was prepared for the whammy, but not for the salt," he says. He
tries to sit up, but moving irritates his scabbed-over mancer's mark.
   "You shouldn't have even been expecting the whammy," says Claire.
"You shouldn't have put yourself in that situation in the first place.
Not in public. You know, given the same set of circumstances, there's
no way Maile would've done it the way you did."
   "It still worked, though," says Samson. "She still got away. And
she's still wondering if she's ours or theirs."
   "She won't be wondering too much longer. She's a smart girl, our
Maile. She was smart long before we got our hands on her. She'll
figure it out sooner than anyone will expect.
   "Yes," continues Claire, perversely satisfied. "I guess in the end
it's all going according to Akaka's plan. Now we've got two vipers in
their nest."

Even though she's exhausted, even though the past few days have
amounted to categorically the strangest weekend in her life (that she
can remember, anyway), Maile cannot sleep a wink. It's this strange
bed in this strange room, this bed and this room that's supposed to be
hers but doesn't feel like hers, this strange huge house that, if she
understood Lieke correctly, doesn't exist in normal space but in
somewhere "in-between": the whole thing just gives her the creeps. Her
stomach's flipping like a stack of flapjacks.
   Well, no one said she had to stay in her room all night. And she's
supposed to be the grand poobah of this crazy shindig after all. So
why not wander around the weird magical Gothic mansion? "What kind of
trouble could I possibly get into?" she asks one of the countless cats
milling about the hallway. She half-expects the cat to answer (weirder
things have happened over the last couple of days) but the cat simply
flops onto its side in front of her. "Well, good thing I didn't want
to walk there, sweetie."
   She leaves her door open and steps over the cat. This of course
terrifies the cat, who scampers down the hall at top speed without
making a sound. Maile envies that. Even her lightest steps are heavy
enough to make the old floorboards creak. Well, that won't do. She
doesn't trust any of these folks, except maybe Lieke, and so she
doesn't necessarily want them to know that she's sneaking around. She
lets her fingers dance at her sides, tippy-tapping, and soon enough
there's a nice little midnight rainstorm, loud enough to drown out the
creak of the floorboards. (Hey, she's getting pretty good at this rain
magic thing.)
   The hall isn't super-wide, just enough for two people walking
abreast, but it is super-long. Maile can't tell exactly how long it
is; it just seems to stretch on forever into the splotchy darkness.
It'd be helpful if there was a light switch, but there isn't, just
unlit candles in sconces. There is some very faint light spilling in
from a corridor on the left a little ways down. As she passes it, she
peers down the corridor but can't place the source of the light.
Feeling adventurous, she ignores the corridor for now, and presses on
into the narrow darkness.
   "I'm the one drawing the map," she mumbles to herself. With her
Sunday night campaign group, she was always the one who ended up
etching out the map onto the graph paper, and she always advocated
finding out how far a hallway went, and how many branches there were,
before exploring any of the others. The rest of the party, Kyle
especially, kept pushing to go check out this thing or that one.
Inevitably they'd end up getting turned around, especially as their
regular DM had an irritating habit of mixing up "West" and "East". It
took just one TPK to convince them to be more methodical about it, and
whenever Kyle whined about it, she'd remind him, I'm the one drawing
the map. That was usually enough to overrule his objections.
   Almost all of the doors are closed, so it's a bit of a surprise
when she finds a door that's cracked open. There's a window at the far
end of the room, and so there's just enough moonlight to see that the
room doesn't have an occupant. There's a bed and a dresser, but no
decoration, nothing to personalize it. "Weird. It looks like my room."
And then she sees her clothes waddled on the floor.
   She steps back out of the room, slowly, and then peers down the
hallway. It still seems to stretch on forever in both directions. She
decides to try going back the way she came. Because she's moving in
the opposite direction, it stands to reason that the fork will be on
her right this time. But, nope, it's on her left. This time she turns.
   The faint light disappears the instant she steps into the new
corridor. She turns around: instead of a fork behind her, there is
another endless hallway, endlessly dark. Well, that's mildly
terrifying, to say the least! "Retracing her steps" isn't really an
option, so Maile decides to march down the hall and see where this
thing goes. It's not long before she comes to an open door: her open
   "Probably should have went up, left, down, left," she mutters.
Still. She's arrived at her room again, and so maybe this is enough
exploring for one night? Her aching feet certainly seem to think so.
Maile steps in through the doorway, and into the hall. Wait, what? She
peers back behind her, and on either side of the door, there is,
naturally, a long hallway stretching out into darkness. This is
shaping up like one of Terry's dungeons. She hated Terry's dungeons.
"Gosh flipping darn it, Terry."
   "Are you feeling a little turned around?"
   Maile jumps a little, startled, then turns toward the sound of the
voice. It's that older woman, the one who cooks. "June?"
   June nods. She's carrying a very fat and very pleased-with-himself
cat. "Goliath here told me you were up and about."
   So, apparently the cats do talk. Just not to Maile. Great.
   "Apparently you almost stepped on him?"
   Maile thought the cat looked familiar. "No, I didn't almost step on
him," she says, mostly to the cat. He stares at her, then licks one of
his paws. "And, yes, I am a little turned around."
   "The house does that. To confuse and entrap our enemies."
   "Well, I'm not an enemy."
   "It thinks you are, because you think you are."
   "The house is sentient?"
   "No," says June, making a sour face. "It's not like, 'the setting
is a character'." She rolls her eyes. "It's just some spells, some
warding spells. It senses when you're afraid, or hostile, or unsure,
or alien. So, you basically self-identify. Once you ease back into
things, you won't have this problem."
   "And until then?"
   "Well," says June, setting Goliath down and taking hold of Maile's
arm, "I can get you where you need to go. When you heading to the
bathroom? The kitchen?"
   "Just wandering, really," says Maile. For some reason she trusts
June immediately. Maybe even trusts her more than she trusts Lieke. "I
can't sleep. But kitchen sounds nice."
   June smiles. "I'm sure it does. Follow me."
   As June leads her down the hall, it seems lighter somehow, and
shorter, with more forks. It's not long before they're in the kitchen,
which is crawling with cats. June starts rummaging through the fridge,
attracting intense and vocal attention.
   "Oh, I know, my precious," says June. "You're all so hungry, yes.
You haven't eaten in, oh, four or five hours. My cruelty is exquisite.
You nearly starved to death. Well, you'll have to starve a little
longer. It's not time to eat yet. You'll have to wait until the
morning. Your disapproval has been noted. I hear, but I do not obey."
She closes the fridge, having pulled out some cheddar, an apple, and a
pear. She grabs a paring knife and gets to work.
   "You really like cats," says Maile.
   "You don't?"
   "No, I like them, it's just, there are a lot of cats."
   "Well," says June, "it makes sense. With me being an Ailuromancer."
   "Which means cat magic!" facepalms Maile.
   "That makes more sense now," says Maile. "I thought Leek has said
Allure-o-mancer. Like, sexy magic."
   "Nope," says June. "Cat magic."
   "Is sexy magic a thing?"
   "I don't see why not. Just not my thing."
   "So, you talk to cats?"
   "I communicate with them," corrects June. "I understand them. They
understand me. And I know the things they know. I'm the Director of
your CIA. The Cat Intelligence Agency." It's clear that this is not
the first time she's made this joke, nor will it be the last. "Cats
all around the world are acting as our field agents right this
   "So, like, they do what you tell them to do?"
   "Of course not," says June. "They're cats. They do what they want.
But more often than not, I'm lucky and it aligns with what I want them
to do." She hands Maile a tiny plate of cheese and fruit. "With what
you want them to do."
   Maile nods. "I'll keep that in mind. Not much use in a fight, are they?"
   "They're nature's perfect killing machines," says June. "But no.
They're not really combat troops."
   "Who is? Combat troops, I mean. You have the cat magic. Good for
intel, like you said. Beth is dream magic. Good for coordination,
communication, probably confusion. The husband Leek told me about...
   "David," says Maile. She knew that; for some reason, she remembers
David's name more clearly than anyone else's, even though she's never
met him. That seems like it should mean something. "David's useful for
interrogation, and apparently infiltration. Trevor's good for
sabotage. The Leeks are good for misdirection."
   "You are good," says June, emphasis on the "are".
   "You sound surprised," says Maile.
   "Oh," says June, a bit flustered. "No, it's just. Well. I'm fairly
new here, actually. We only met briefly before you disappeared. But
this just confirms what the others have been saying. You've been back
for a few minutes and already you got a good read on everyone's
   "I think that's the problem," says Maile. "Everyone's a specialist,
very good at their one specific thing."
   "And that's a problem?"
   "Look at this way," says Maile. "You're the cook."
   "I am."
   "You're a good cook. Best cook here, hands-down. A specialist."
   June shrugs and smiles. The shrug disturbs the cat cradled in her
arm; the cat bats her nose in retaliation.
   "So, what happens when you're not here? What happens when Leek cooks?"
   "Oh, no, we don't let Lieke cook." She gets very solemn, very
serious. "We made that mistake. Once."
   "But what if Leek needs to cook?"
   "What if Lieke needs to talk to cats?" says June. "What if I need
to have a second one of me? We each have our gifts. Our strengths. We
play to them. What else can we do?"
   "Okay, new metaphor. You're a ladle."
   "I'm a ladle?"
   "Just go with it. You're a ladle."
   "I'm a ladle."
   "Leek is a pair of salad tongs."
   "Works for me."
   "I'm not saying we're going to need to serve soup with salad tongs,
or that we're going to toss a salad with a ladle. That would be silly.
A ladle does its thing, salad tongs do their thing. That's great;
that's what they're there for. When I need a ladle, I grab a ladle.
Tongs, I grab the tongs, right?"
   "Right," says June, her patience perhaps wearing a little thin.
   "What if I need a spoon?" says Maile. "Not some special, specific
utensil with a specific purpose. Something that can be used in all
sorts of ways without it being ad hoc. Just a simple, ordinary spoon?"
   "Then you get a spoon," says June.
   "Exactly," says Maile. "So where are my spoons? I'm fighting a war.
We're fighting a war. And to do that, you need spies. You need
saboteurs. You need quartermasters and medics and mechanics. You need
all those things. I have all those things. The only thing I'm missing
are people to do the actual fighting. My soldiers."
   "Your spoons."
   "My spoons," agrees Maile. "General purpose bad asses. I'm not
saying you all need to multi-class the next time you level up. But I
am saying that the second we get into an encounter, it's a TPK, and
that's because we have a lot of artificers and shardminds and zero
honest-to-goodness actual murderhobos." She stops and looks at June,
dumbfounded. "Why did I say that? I never go full-on nerd unless I
know the person I'm talking to is also full-on nerd."
   June smiles. "Why can't you taste the cheese?"
   Maile looks at the tiny plate in her hands. "Why can't...?" She looks up.
   Beth smiles at her, and there's some invisible thing pressing
against Maile's chest, pushing the air out of her lungs. Maile opens
her eyes, and in the dark of her bedroom, she sees Goliath's yellow
eyes. The huge cat is standing on her chest, staring at her.
   "It was a dream?" she asks him.
   He leaps off her chest, hard, using her as a springboard, and
scampers to the floor.
   It was a dream. She couldn't taste the cheese. But it was also
real, because she can taste it now, salty and sweet. It was a dream,
and it was real; it was June, and it was Beth. This is trippy. This is
new. All this magic stuff is trippy and new, and disorienting, and
maybe that's it. Maybe that's the thing that's making her doubt this
whole enterprise; everything's wobbly, and the logical part of her
brain doesn't want to accept it, and so of course there are holes in
every part of the story, and of course everything feels wrong.
   Or maybe everything about this feels wrong because it is wrong.
Maybe the weirdness is turned up to eleven so she'll latch onto that
as an explanation, maybe they're keeping her disoriented so she'll
question her own judgment, her own feelings. Maybe they're gaslighting
   Probably they're gaslighting her. Because maybe she got rid of her
DVDs, or cut off her friends and family, or went through a dramatic
fashion shift. She supposes all those things are plausible given the
right circumstances. But if she was really the leader of this group,
in this desperate struggle against The Company for the fate of the
world? She would darn well have spoons, and plenty of them. There's no
way she would run some kind of half-assed resistance for any length of
time with no muscle. Whatever things she might have given up over the
summer, her brain wasn't one of them.
   Probably that's what got their attention in the first place. And
The Company's, for that matter. So maybe the secret circle has been
losing this midnight war for a long time, and someone gets the bright
idea that they need someone smart, like The Company's star aeromancer,
the one that's been running around with Samson. (They must have slept
together, Maile decides; when he looked at her, his eyes were familiar
with her geography, knew exactly where and how to look, and how that
would make her feel.) So then maybe someone says, not just "like" The
Company's aeromancer, but her, exactly. What if we get her to flip?
   But then she's not just smart, or clever. For the circle to go
after her, she must have exhibited other qualities, qualities they
think they need, that The Company had, so that they could fight fire
with fire. Samson had said that compassion was a new look for Maile.
So maybe she was ruthless, merciless, unyielding. She wants to say
that that's not who she is, or who she was, but there were times in
the past, there were moments, when she was those things, and if that
was the crowd she was running around with, she could very easily see
her falling back on that, becoming hard and cold.
   And so the question becomes, why was she running around with Samson
and The Company in the first place? They're clearly not the good guys
here. She's not sure if the circle is, either, since they wiped her
damn memory and kidnapped her and are trying to make her think she's
crazy. But Samson? Guy's a psychopath. And no matter how turned around
she might get in the wrong company, she can't imagine herself doing
anything like that.
   And maybe that's something else the circle saw in her. That she had
control. Purpose. Precision. That she was someone who could be
flipped, and could be trusted and relied on, in ways a bastard like
Samson never could.
   So. Samson was right. They're lying. They're gaslighting her.
   Now what?



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