The large, sterile, blindingly white room echoed with screams that came from the coffin-like box that was the center of a pile of high tech equipment. The tall, lean, slightly cadaverous looking man who wore a sinister electronic harness that included a dangerous-looking gauntlet and an eyepiece closely studied a rather anachronistic mechanical stopwatch as it counted off the seconds. Stormy, Darcy, Victor and his Vampires, Top Dawg and his Werewolf boys, Raja and his Were-Cat harem, and Tombstone and his fellow ghouls all stood around uncomfortably, switching off between awkwardly not looking at the booth and casting short embarrassed glances at it. None of them really liked Icy; indeed most of them heartily despised the vicious witch. But there were things that you simply didn't wish on anyone. And being in the Punishment Booth headed the list. Icy and the other witches had been favorites of Dr. Macabre's. And he threw her in the punishment booth without blinking an eye. If he could do that to her, then how far could any of the rest of them expect to get away with anything?
"One minute," Dr. Cobb said stopping the watch with a click at 60 seconds precisely. Gottfried immediately switched off the power, and the screams stopped, though many of them though that they heard muffled whimpers. Cobb speared the teen terrors with a telling sweeping glare and said brusquely, "Let her out."
Dugan undid the bolts that kept the 'patient' in the booth, and Icy fell out in a heap. Stormy and Darcy helped her to her feet and got her to a chair. Icy looked like ten miles of bad road. "Well, Samantha," Dr. Cobb said severely, "Was the paltry amount that you stole worth that?"
Then he looked around at the others, as though figuring out which of the next to shove into the punishment booth. "Hey, that was all Icy's idea," Stormy piped up, "None of the rest of us knew anything about that, right until the fu-frickin' alarms started going off. And even Darcy here was ready to rip Icy a new one when we heard about it, but we had bigger fish to fry. Even then, we could have just skipped out when those 'Radical Squad' pinheads showed up, but we all knew that we had to get everything on your list."
Vic cocked an eyebrow in Stormy's direction, not sure whether to appreciate her spreading the absolution around, or be leery of her political savvy. With Icy firmly in the doghouse, the other witches were in a pretty bad place too, and Vic figured that the Vampires would return to their place as the Doctor's favorites. But Stormy could be jockeying to cover her and her sisters' asses by getting in good with the rest of the monsters. And while Stormy was hella easier to get along with than Icy, he did not like the thought of being under the Witches' thumb again. At All.
"The problem is not that you brought back too little," Cobb sneered. "It's that you brought back TOO MUCH!"
"How can you bring back too much?" someone in the back asked bewildered, but was shushed before Dr. Cobb could spot him.
"You put the others at risk to bring back things I didn't ASK for!" Cobb thundered.
"Hey, we brought back everything on the list!" Stormy insisted. "None of us was stupid enough to grab anything that wasn't on the list! Okay, we grabbed the Radical Squids' techno-toys, but that was just to give us an edge on the All-Stars!"
"Yeah!" Artie backed her up, but was silenced by a cuff from Vic.
"I realize that you only brought back things on my list," the Doctor continued. "But there are things on your list that I DIDN'T ASK FOR! That's why I'm upset. Someone added these things to my list, and I want to know WHO and I want to know WHY." He kicked up his glare at the teenagers a couple of notches.
"Hey Doc! Look at the bright side!" Darcy said, trying to soften the very, very tense mood in the room. "Check out the stuff we GOT!" She reached into one of the armored boxes and pulled out a large, human-sized crystal skull. She concentrated for a moment, and wispy ghost-like figures appeared, circling around the skull, moaning. Darcy grinned expectantly at Dr. Macabre.
The doctor glowered at Darcy and sneered, "Yes, the crystal skull of the Gravewarden, a third-tier supervillain. There was a time, some nine YEARS ago, when I thought that that thing held the secret, yes indeed. Then, after years and more bruises and blisters than I want to think about, I finally got and analyzed it. And it taught me NOTHING!" He snarled and slammed fist onto a table. "It taunts me! Even NOW-"
Darcy wilted and froze in the sort of mortal dread that a soldier crossing a minefield feels when he feels a 'click' under the foot that he's just put down. Vic, seeing an opportunity to cement his position as the Doctor's favorite, stepped forward and breezed, "Hey, Doc, so you can't learn anything from the skull... That doesn't mean that we can't USE it, now does it? And the rest of this stuff? Check it out! Fangs?"
Fangs stepped forward, holding up an overbuilt headset with a massive visor. "Hey, I kicked some serious ASS with that vertigo thing, back at the warehouse! This is, like, Vertigo Visor 7.4 or something! Besides the vertigo thing, it also shoots out rays that blind people, or paralyze them, or-"
"Yes, I KNOW," Dr. Cobb growled. "It's the power item of the Green Gorgon, another low-rank supervillain. The problem with letting you idiots use those, is that until you get used to them, you'll be more of a danger to each other than anyone you use them on! And I suppose that I could scare up some credit with the Syndicate for turning them over to return to their owners. But the POINT that I'm trying to dun into your adamantine skulls is that ALL of the extra crates that you brought back with you contain the 'props' of various minor league supervillains. Somehow, you managed to walk off with a none-too-minor fortune in supervillain gimmicks. That says to me that something's going on, something that I don't know about, don't know how it happened, or WHY it happened. And in my line, that's dangerous." His eyes narrowed with suspicion, "DEADLY dangerous."
"So?" Artie piped up, "Those 'Radical Squad' dorks had stuff that was a LOT like this stuff," he held up a box displaying a pair of overbuilt gauntlets. "According to the warning label on the crate, these things are based on the same tech that the electric gloves that Latino guy was using, only more powerful, and they can do magnetic stuff. Maybe the Radical Squids paid off one of the Deputies to put all that stuff in one place, where they could rip it off!"
"Possibly," Cobb muttered, aiming cold eyes in Artie's direction. "Other possibilities suggest themselves." He gathered himself. "Well, get her," he gestured negligently at Icy, "to bed. The rest of you, do whatever it is that you have to do to feed and restore yourselves. Tomorrow, we will acquire the second portion of the Telchines' Astrolabe."
"Ah, Doc," Top Dawg objected, "in case you haven't noticed it- we kinda got SLAMMED today. We gotta-"
"Rest up, feed, do whatever it is you need to do to be in fighting trim!" Macabre hissed through bared teeth. "But we HAVE to acquire that component tomorrow! Hravec will be off-balance, not expecting us to strike! Despite whatever whoever among you is planning, I will NOT miss my chance to gain the missing piece to the ULTIMATE PUZZLE!"
"Okay, what's THIS appearance for?" Katie grumbled as she burrowed into the leather of the Boxter's bucket seat.
"The Ventura County BROWNIES!" Sunburst beamed as she drove into Camarillo. "Troop 621 led a litter pickup drive that cleaned up an entire State Park!"
"Great. I love brownies."
"You DO?" Sunny looked at Kate with surprise.
"Sure! A plate of brownies, a glass of milk and a cheesy horror DVD, and I am a happy camper. Hyperglycemic, but a happy camper. Got to bite the heads off first, though, or you can't hear the movie over the screaming."
The California Crusaders (plus Chiller and Kate) were gathered around the table as 'Miz Biz' walked in. "Well?" Big Dawg asked. "Did those 'Radical Squad' punks roll over on each other?"
Keshawna didn't need to ask what he was asking about, or what all of them were listening in for. "No, they hung together, and their stories were remarkably consistent. They all claim that they are actors who were hired to be in a reality show."
'REALITY SHOW?' was the general response.
"Well, that would explain why they dubbed in all the All-Stars' indicia and observed their trademarks on the podcast," Swashbuckler mused.
"Did anyone take 'making a reality show' in the betting pool?" Daybreak asked.
"No," Kate said sorting through the betting slips, "that possibility never really came up. Gee, it looks like I, being the one who was fronting the pool, keep the pot!" she didn't quite smile, but her pokerface did radiate a certain smug gloating satisfaction.
"According to the DA, besides the stuff that Macabre's teen monsters left at the warehouse, they also made off with a bunch of gimmicks that were being held as evidence in upcoming trials against various C-list supervillains," Miz Biz said. "But, get this: from what he said, there was some back-room maneuvering, and not only is the 'Radical Squad' walking, but that podcast is generating some buzz in the studios."
"So..." Swash murmured with smug satisfaction of his own, "Not only do the Radical Shmucks walk, not only do the All-Stars get their names in the paper- hey, as long as they spell the names right, there's no such thing as bad publicity-, not only does the Sheriff's department finally get those improvements and repairs they've been whining about, but Dr. Macabre will probably give all those power focuses to the Syndicate for credit, and the Syndicate will most likely give the foci back to their owners, who're probably paid up with their insurance with the Syndicate, AND the cases against them will be dropped due to the loss of critical evidence. This could only be the work of... SWIFTY LASER, Superagent to the Supervillains!™" Swash grinned victoriously at Kate. "Just who I said it would be."
Kate scowled at Swash, but the masked man of mystery held his ground- and his hand out for the payoff. Giving a sucking-on-a-lemon pout that her killer glare had failed her again, Kate put the betting pool money in his hand. As Swashbuckler gloatingly counted the money, she grated out, "Swifty Laser... there WILL be justice..."
"Okay, so now Dr. Macabre has his junk back," Chiller said, getting back to business, which said good things about his work ethic, "AND he has a bunch of weird gadgets that he may or may not give back to this Syndicate, whoever they are-"
"There is no Syndicate," Kate droned. "Just ask them."
"-but they just might use them anyway, one way or another," Chiller continued. "So, what do we do now?"
"Chill, there is something very important that I want you to do," Big Dawg said, giving Chiller a fixing glance. Chiller focused, giving his mentor all of this attention. "I want you to work with Miz Biz here, and craft a nice little message of condolence to the All-Stars, something that can be leaked to the Media. Tell the All-Stars not to worry, that the California Crusaders will clean up the mess that they made while they're healing up from the ass-whupping that a bunch of teenagers gave 'em. Only say that in words that won't sound nasty, but will still get across what complete and utter fuckups they are. Think that you can handle that, Chill?"
Chiller paused and set back, surprised. Then the penny dropped, and he gave Big Dawg a knowing smirk and thumbs-up.
"Okay, can we shift out of 'pissy bitch' mode into 'working superhero mode'?" Sunny asked.
"Well, some of us can," Brujah said, shifting a look at Kate, who simply returned the look with one of her glacial stares.
"I got another message this morning from Mr. Magic-"
"Along with a mushy note, which was presented with a *ahem!* 'Romantic Breakfast' in our own breakfast nook," Kate cut in. "Really. 'Romantic Breakfast'. How lame can a man in a tux GET?"
"Lame?" Sunny shot back. "That didn't stop you from tucking in and bogarting all the syrup!"
"Really!" Kate huffed, "Mr. Magic is a magic user! You have no idea what he could have put in that! You should be thankful that I selflessly threw myself on that stack of blueberry pancakes!"
"What-EVER!" Sunny groaned. "Anyway, the note I got said that Dr. Creepshow won't be sending his kids out today, because they need to heal up from the drubbing that Blockbuster-or whoever- gave them. But he doesn't want to waste any time, so he'll be sending them out against that Yavros Hravec guy in Brentwood tonight. AND, they're not only packing the stuff they ripped off from the Bogus Squad, but that pack of higher-level power items that the Sheriff's boys were holding."
"Great!" Swash said chipperly. "Nice of them to arrange their own arrests that way. Pity we can't get more supervillains to do the same."
"Hah?" Chiller bleated.
"Chiller, they may be teenagers with superpowers, but they're still teenagers," Swash explained. "And, more to the point, they're teenagers who have just been given these wonderful toys to use. Toys that they don't really know how they work, just yet. Or, really, how to use them to their best effect. Or even how to avoid the downsides of their gimmicks. They've got cool new weapons, so they are going to use them, no matter what."
"Why?" Chiller asked. "If they don't really know how to use them..."
"It's called 'when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' With those dinguses, those kids are a bigger threat to each other than they are to us." Swash smiled viciously. "And we're going to ram that fact right down their FANGS."
"Tonight?" Brujah said with strangely inappropriate caution in her voice. "But tonight's the night that I'm slated to walk with Las Posada on Olvera Street. You have Nac- er, Katr- er, Katie and I are supposed to escort some kids, and well, if Hravec is the magical player that he's supposed to be, you're going to need a mystic to help you with his defenses."
"Oh, darn it all to heck," Kate droned with patent insincerity, "we can't disappoint all those kids. They're expecting you, you're the big draw. You're the big cultural icon; me? I'm just another Anglo to them. You'll just have to walk down the street alone."
"What a shame," Brujah agreed with just as patent insincerity.
"Not to worry, guys!" Sunny said with a beaming grin that brooked no arguments. "You guys don't have to be there for the stakeout! I mean, if anything, you guys being where the public can see you will probably be better for the stakeout. If Macabre's Teen Terrors know that you're Las Posada-ing down Olvera Street, then they'll be that much more likely to hit Hravec's place, right? And Hravec's defenses are definitely geared to detecting and dealing with sorcerers, so if anything, having you two would put Hravec on his guard and mess everything up! No, no, if anything this works out perfectly! I'm telling you guys, it's a SIGN! This trip of yours down Olvera Street was meant to be!"
As Sunny nattered on, Kate and Brujah flinched in near-perfect unisons of frustration. Not that they got any sympathy from around the table; if anything, there were solid, 'Did you really think you were gonna get away with it?' smirks going down.
While Beverly Hills and Bel-Aire have the big reps for being bastions of wealth, power and privilege, in truth, by the gauge of wealth and power in Los Angeles, they are actually regarded as rather bourgeois. Both enclaves' major industries are the businesses of selling nouveau-riche chumps, mostly in the notoriously unreliable Entertainment Industry (rock stars, TV stars, rap stars, movie stars, hot-shot directors, up-and-coming producers, network and studio executives, like that) the gaudy trappings of wealth (extravagant mansions, luxury cars, yachts, furs, jewelry, designer brand clothing, shiny techno-toys, seats at pretentious restaurants and clubs and such) at bull market prices when the suckers were hot, and then buying that which had resale value back at bear market prices when their bubbles burst.
For generations those with real money, the kind that's attached to actual power, often those involved in the lucrative business of separating 'neon peons' from the burden of too much money in Bel Aire and Beverly Hills, have preferred to keep a lower profile in Brentwood in Santa Monica county. San Vicente Boulevard is as luxurious and posh as Rodeo Drive, but more low-key and decorous. The shops offered goods and services with more of an eye towards long-term value than 'so new and now that it's old and over by the time you get it home', as Rodeo Drive tended to be. The stores had subdued plaques, often with cryptic one-word names that suggested that you should know exactly what the store offered before you even looked in the window. The couple that got out of the limo and walked the ten or so yards to 'Hravec's' were almost precisely the sort of clientele that shopping district targeted: a tall shapely blonde twenty-something trophy wife in Liz Arden and her barrel-shaped, balding fifty-something sug-ah, husband in Armani.
"Look, I don't see why-" the husband said with a whine in his voice that didn't match the hard, beefy set of his face.
"Look, you know what Arturo said-"
The 'Context Coordinator' (Hravec's would never have anything so declasse as a 'salesperson'), looking the requisite balance of bohemian and professional glided up and inserted herself into the conversation, smoothly taking control of it in the process. Or, at least that was the usual procedure. The blonde Trophy Wife wasn't having any of it, and dragged the Context Coordinator all over the showroom, from one exhibit after another, blithely ignoring the saleswoman's attempts to get a decent sales pitch going. "I suppose that this is supposed to be ironic or post-modern or post-ironic or moronic or something?" She waved an imperious hand at a miniature of the Eiffel Tower, which was surrounded by a mobile consisting of rotating brasswork bands imprinted with odd sigils and regular lines in the manner of a ruler, several of which were set inside another in a slide, and a number of hanging posts, also inscribed with sigils and regular lines. In fact, that seemed to be the theme of the gallery, which offered several such items of kinetic art, several of which were built around chotke -ish bits like a model of the Empire State Building, the Sphinx, or St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow (what many people mistake for the Kremlin). "I mean, what is the STATEMENT supposed to be?"
Esprit, the Context Coordinator, opened up her usual avant-garde sales spiel, but the trophy wife slammed the lid shut on it, and dragged them around the gallery. For the better part of an hour, she hauled the Context Coordinator and the walking billfold around the place, taking in every possible exhibit, and only showing the slightest interest in those exhibits that the gallery had absolutely NO desire to part with. Secretly, Esprit despised her clients as loutish nouveau -riche philistines who were more interested in the wrapper than the contents. She particularly loathed the creeps who dumped their wives for pushy gold-diggers like the blonde. But after an hour of putting up with the trophy wife, Esprit actually felt sorry for the husband.
Finally, the trophy wife dismissed the entire gallery with, "Let's go and see if there's a gallery on this overrated strip mall that actually has some taste!" Esprit watched them go, and was actually glad to lose out on a commission.
The trophy wife and the dutiful hubby crossed the street, walked around the block and entered one of the buildings using the entry on the cross street. They walked up three flights of stairs, and entered a space overlooking Hravec's gallery from the corner, which was advertized as being available to rent. As they strode into the office, Sunburst said, "Well, I say that she had it coming. Nobody should be allowed to have a 'tood THAT nasty without at least a BFA!"
"Would her having a BFA made any difference?" Swashbuckler said as he changed out of his 'asshole in midlife crisis' outfit to his superhero suit with a single fluid whirl of his cape.
"YES!" Sunburst insisted, "At least it would have been educated pretentious swill that catered to our intelligence, instead of THAT tripe, which insulted it! She was throwing around terms like 'art nouveau', 'Orphism' and 'Suprematism', NONE of which apply to kinetic art! " she paused. "By the way, I've always meant to ask you: How do you DO that? Change out of one suit so quickly?"
"You practice getting in and out of clothing quickly?"
"Of course! Every day! Right after I practice landing from falling great heights onto hard surfaces, and just before escaping from handcuffs underwater upside down with heavy weights chained to me!"
"How do you have time to DO anything?"
"THAT is my true super power! Effective Time Management skills!"
Sunburst rolled her eyes and turned to the rest of the California Crusaders, who were standing about the bare office in mufti, and Jack Steele and Lacey Fitzgibbons, their liaisons with the Brentwood PD. Steele looked like he was auditioning for a role as 'the sexy, disheveled maverick cop' in an old Action movie, while Fitzgibbons was the picture of trim professionalism. If this had been that Action movie, they'd have had a ton of unresolved sexual tension; but Steele had two kids he doted on, and if there was any sexual tension in the room for Fitzgibbons, it was for the Daybreak/ Nightfall dyad. "So, did you guys figure anything out from the shots we sent you?"
"Yeah," Big Dawg said, fingering his tie, "Little Mary Sunshine here," he jerked a thumb at Kate, "says that there's a damn good chance that those hoop things are probably technomantic-"
"And given the magical resonances around that gallery, I'd say that they're definitely magical," Kate cut in. "What those knickknack things were about, I'm not sure."
"We're googling the images," Daybreak said as she ground out on a laptop. "So far, besides the obvious ones-"
"-the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Sphinx, St. Basil's Cathedral-" Nightfall continued, even as she also typed away at another laptop in near-perfect unison with Daybreak.
"-We've identified the Coliseum, the Great Benten Shrine, a Statue of Ganesha, but the others?" Daybreak resumed.
"I still say that the Tulip stands for Amsterdam," Kate said stolidly. "It's not just a symbol of Holland; it's a symbol of the Dutch Financial industry, as in the infamous Tulip Mania. Besides, Amsterdam is also the center of the European Diamond market. Mages don't really trust paper money, let alone electronic credit; they understand and trust the value of precious metals and stones, on the other hand. And diamonds aren't as prone to speculation fluctuations as precious metals are. Besides there are magical uses for precious stones so-"
"Whoa!" popped Chiller, who'd been scowling at the images over Daybreak's shoulder like he was trying to remember something, "Well, DUH!"
"It's not THAT obvious," Kate huffed.
Chiller got up grinning and pointed at the screen. "Now I know what that bridge thing is supposed to be about."
"Don't keep it to yourself, Chill," Big Dawg said, sliding his sunglasses down his nose to peer at his apprentice.
"It's San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge."
"'Cause that's where the Pacific Stock Exchange is."
Big Dawg snapped his fingers. "FINANCE! Hravec is big into Finance! According to Gloomypus, he acts as a financial adviser and broker to a whole bunch of magicians!"
"So, WHY is he hiding that operation behind a front of being a hoity-toity gallery?" Chiller prompted.
"Because his exhibits are a part of his procedure," Brujah mused. "He needs those 'mobiles' and such, and if it's out in the open as an art exhibit, then nobody thinks about it very hard. Very well... Statue of Liberty means New York, that's obvious..."
"Eiffel Tower means Paris, which is France's financial center," Daybreak pointed out.
"-and St. Basil's means Moscow," Nightfall continued, "and the Great Benten Shrine is in Tokyo, and the statue of Ganesha means somewhere in India, probably Mumbai... But what about THOSE?" she pointed at a pair of carved wooden statues of men.
"Those are Gog and Magog," Sunny said. "They're a pair of statues that stand guard at the entry to the City of London, which is Greater London's- and Great Britain's- financial district."
"Cool!" Chiller said in the tone of someone who's learned an interesting bit of trivia. "But what about THAT?" he pointed at a carved bit of red jade.
"It's Hong Kong," Swashbuckler said sturdily.
"Yeah, okay, I can see that it has dragon heads and it looks kind of Chinesey- but why Hong Kong? Why not Singapore or Seoul?"
"It's a two-headed dragon," Swash explained. "The Chinese name for a two-headed dragon is a Hong, which is also one of their words for 'red'. And the Chinese love visual puns."
"That stone statue of a man on a horse with all the men following is the Monumento as Bandieras," Brujah said. "It's a major source of identification for the people in Sao Paolo, which is the financial center of Brazil, and while the Argentines and Chileans would rather open a vein than admit it, most of that part of South America as well."
"And the Tulip stands for Amsterdam," Kate said with judicial gravitas, "Just like I said."
"Okay..." Skyrider drawled as he looked out the window at Hravec's. "From what Bru's dropped here'n there, most black magic types are more worried about other black magic types than they are about demons or the Cops, 'cause they're always trying to rip off each other's magical power. But Hravec is a financial wizard, as well as the usual kind; he's GOT to do business with other magic types. The only reason he'd be running that art gallery scam instead of a regular brokerage or money laundry is that the mobiles are part of his process somehow. So why's he got his gear out where everyone could see it? Unless... unless some of it's the mojo gear, and some of it's his security system, and some of it's just artsy crap that nobody really gives a shit about... and the way that he's got it rigged, nobody knows what's what, except HIM."
"There may be something to the power outlay of Hravec's building that's at play," Kate said, joining Skyrider at the window. "According to the Hexmaster, Megalesius is using Ormenius' Clock to synchronize it all. His power source is in the building, where he can tap into it no matter where he is, so he can leave and have a life- or whatever it is rich people in Los Angeles have- without worrying about being jumped or anyone breaking in. Actually, kinetic art works very well with various kinds of mystic protection, and with Ormenius' Clock keeping everything in line, he's probably got it rigged so that everything works together, each segment feeding off and regulating the others."
"Which is all guesswork," Big Dawg growled softly. "Good guesswork, but still guesswork. We can't really be sure. And the only way to BE sure is to let someone else go in and set it all off."
Fitzgibbons cleared her throat cautiously and asked, "You CAN keep the collateral damage down, can't you? The insurance premiums on some of the cars parked on the street down there are more than I make in a year!"
"I wouldn't worry," Kate said, still peering at the gallery. "Megalesius' defense scheme is probably geared towards keeping any intruders inside the gallery. I don't see Megalesius having any problems taking down the Monster Squad. Most likely, all we'll have to do is walk up, knock on the door and ask if they have any angsty teenagers they want to give away. The only real problem I see will be in convincing Hravec that he has to surrender that clock of his to us as evidence."
"What's this 'to us' jazz?" Big Dawg sneered. "YOU are going to be doing Las Posadas, remember?" he paused and looked down across the street at the gallery. "But she's right about one thing: getting Hravec to even admit that the clock even exists is gonna be a bear and a half. And if he thinks that he can get that clock, Cobb will stick around LA and keep screwing up kids in that monster machine of his, so he'll have one wave of poor monstrified clueless grunts after another."
"So?" Swashbucker grunted. "We go in before Megalesius' traps squish the punks- we'd have to do it anyway; I doubt that Megalesius is the 'catch and release' kind- and let them take the clock out of the gallery. THEN we bust them, and then we have proof that the clock was stolen, and it becomes prima facie evidence in the Teen Terror's trials. Since it's magical, either the DPA takes over custody or the LA county DA hands it over to a reputable mystic for safekeeping. Either way, the clock is WAY out of Cobb's reach, and he'll probably get himself busted trying to get at it. For once, Cobb's obsessive streak works FOR us."
"That's playing kinda hardball, isn't it?" Fitzgibbon asked.
"Keeping it inside will also contain the fight inside the building," Kate pointed out. "Hravec definitely has the place warded and protected, so any damage done inside will stay inside."
"Sounds like a plan to me!" Steele beamed.
"And best of all, we'll have to wait and let Macabre's monster men take on Megalesius' whatever-he's-gotin-his-shop," Sunny said chipperly. "Which means that not only do we get a chance to see what both sides are packing, but, Kate, Bru, that should give both of you a chance to beam back from Olvera street. Or whatever it is that you do. Just get here when we yell for you, pronto!"
"Really?" Kate said looking uncertainly down at the scene on the street. "Gee, I think it might be better if I stayed here, so there's someone on the spot, so you're not hanging while Brujah gets back here."
"I agree completely," Brujah said. "It's only simple sound tactics."
"Oh, come ON, guys!" Sunny gushed as she wrapped her arms around both Kate and Brujah and gave them crushing hugs. "You both know that you really wanna do this! It'll be FUN!"
"Whoop, whoop," Kate droned as she walked down Olvera street with an eight-year-old Latino boy handing her hand. "Oh yeah, we're really having fun now."
"Don't mind her," Brujah said to the adorable seven-year-old girl wearing what was probably her very best dress, who was holding her hand. And looking warily at Kate. "She's just worried that someone will throw a bucket of water on her."
"Okay, buck up people," Big Dawg said as the vigil wore on. "The gallery closes at Nine, and without the customers to worry about, Megalesius will be able to put his protections up full strength. If Macabre hits tonight, he's gonna do it soon, when he doesn't have civilians complicating his move."
"Whoa," Chiller hooted as he looked down, "Deja vu!" A limo had pulled up in front on Hravec's and a tall, statuesque blonde in furs stepped out, followed by a pudgy young man in good clothes, with a tall, strapping man just behind them. Imperiously the blonde led the two men into Hravec's. "Hey, Sunny! Come here!"
"Storm signs?" Sunny asked as she walked over from where she was doing a sodoku.
"Not sure," Chill admitted. "It could just be yet another Brentwood trophy wife, bent on making her hubby regret leaving the wife who actually liked him. Problem is, 'hubby' was either a 20-something blob in Ross Dress for Less, or a Gym Rat in Armani."
"So? And I resent the notion that an attractive woman in good clothing with a nice car can only have gotten it by marrying for money, and-"
"That is a Cadillac DTS 2006 limo, THE hot party wagon this year," Chiller said with professional certainty. "They do not SELL those things in stretch form to the general public yet. It has to be a rental, but they're leaving it double parked with the engine running in a town whose parking cops are only slightly less feared than the fucking Gestapo, and from how the rear wheels are dipping, I'd say that it's still carrying somewhere between 15 hundred and two thousand pounds in the back seat. Those things are designed to pack a nice-sized little party in the back, so I'd say that there's enough room for 9, maybe 12 good-sized people in there. Point being, who leaves seven people in the back of a limo with the engine running, while you go shopping for fine art?"
Sunburst gave Big Dawg a questioning look. "Hey, normally I'd say that he was braggin' on hisself," Big Dawg admitted. "But he knows about things like this. What're you seeing, Chill?"
"Dunno," Chiller admitted. "I don't have any spidey senses waves comin' out of my head. But that just strikes me as WRONG, and it's just too close to shut-down time."
"Okay, turn on the laser pickup," Steele said. "We won't be able to use anything we hear in Court, but if this gets nasty enough that you guys have to jump in, it won't matter. I just hope that we don't wind up listening in on a payoff..."
'Oh fuck, here comes another one,' Esprit thought to herself as the tall buxom blonde strutted in on her stiletto heels, two very different men trailing along in her wake. 'And only 15 minutes to closing. She'll probably insist on an hour of nattering around and still not buy anything.' Still, it was a testament, that despite a certain taste for 'nose candy', Esprit had the discipline to put on her best professional veiled sneer of disdain and waded into the fray.
Esprit needn't have bothered, as she walked up the blonde cut her off with a 'speak to the hand' palm and said, "Don't waste my time. Just bring me the fucking clock."
"Clock?" Esprit asked in for once entirely unaffected confusion.
"Yeah," the blonde grunted, annoyed, "the Armenian-"
"Ormenious'," the chubby one corrected her.
"Whatever! Ormenious' Clock. A 28.5 cm high standing clock made of Chantilly porcelain with gilt edging and blue scrollwork, a 'cello' body, a lacework pattern around the dial and six, not two, black iron hands." The blonde gave Esprit a no-nonsense glare. "Where is it?"
Esprit recognized the clock that Mr. Hravec kept on a shelf behind his desk from the description, but didn't like the bimbo's 'tood. "We don't carry antiques, Miss. We act as intermediaries for only the most-"
"Spare me," the blonde cut her off again. "Okay, I didn't really think that you'd just hand it over, but there are protocols that have to be observed in these things, or people get all upset..." with that, she stuck her fingers in her mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. The big guy reached under his coat and pulled out a Star-Trekish looking gun, while the shmoo went to the door. He opened the door and a stream of somewhere between 20 and 50 lapdog sized canines of varying breed came through in a yapping horde.
"Are you shitting me?" Esprit said, her Van Nuys accent slipping through.
The blonde leaned over and picked up one of the snarling terriers. "Well, if the notion of being nibbled to death doesn't frighten you." She tossed the dog into the far interior corner of the storefront. When it landed, the dog exploded, rattling the entire store and completely destroying two of the mobile art presentations in the blast. "How about that?"
Esprit looked at the blonde, utterly aghast, as the other 'context coordinators' cowered down on the floor, trembling into the snarling faces of the rest of the little dogs.
"What? Was? THAT?" snapped an irritable high-pitched voice, and Mr. Hravec himself came storming out of his office. He stood there, trim as a whippet in his dark gray CornelianiT suit, his eyes glinting in his long narrow angular Slavic features, and then took in the mass of growling demolition dogs. "Puppy bombs," he said in the same chilly tones that he might use when mentioning 'California Wines'.
Then he imperiously turned his attention to Espirt. "Miss Nunez! What is the meaning of this?" he sneered, as though the dogs had only made a puddle on the carpet.
"We have a..." Esprit thought quickly for a decent euphemism, "...prospect... who's being... awkward..."
"Awkward? Then correct her."
"But... the dogs... they explode!" Esprit finished with a squeak.
"They explode..." Hraveck sneered with a disdainful elan that made Esprit swell with admiration, even as she wanted to deck him one. He turned his laser-intense contempt upon Dr. Venus. "I'm sorry Miss, but we have a strict 'No Hookers Allowed' policy."
"Oh, another transplanted New Yorker," Dr. V sneered right back. "Look, I know, you're a big-shot mage, you're all that and a bag of chips, big frickin' deal. I know, you can't afford to back down to anything small time like a pack of puppy bombs; you don't wanna look like a wussy or nothing. So, let me make it easy for you to back down and just hand me the fucking CLOCK, so we can all get on with our lives..." She stuck her fingers in her mouth and let out another ear-rattling whistle.
The puppy bombs gathered around Hravec and started growling. "Please...," Hravec groaned and sketched a pattern in the air. "There. That will prevent the explosive sequence from engaging. Can't have you damaging the exhibits, now can we? So... you brought these things in here, what say we have YOU deal with cleaning up the mess?" He sketched another design in the air, and the puppy bombs paused. Then they started spasming and steaming. "What?" Hravec grunted in surprise.
"Oh, you thought that you'd pull the old 'set them against their mommy' trick?" Dr. Venus sneered. "Sorry Meggy; but you're hardly the first one to think of that trick. By shutting down the high-speed demolitions-force chemical breakdown, you only triggered a slower, hotter, less forceful- but significantly far more TOXIC- breakdown cascade. Honestly, Meggy, did you really think that I'd set off 30 2-kilo demo packets inside an enclosed space that I was still IN?" She gave a guffaw and touched one of the 'charms' on her bracelet; pale sphere of force enveloped both her and her two henchmen. "So, tell me Dumble-dork, how will your little Big Store operation- let alone YOU- survive being splashed with the equivalent of 60 pounds of caustic acid?"
"Americans and their techno-toys," Hravec sneered. He made another gesture, and an ethereal draconic form billowed out from the exhibit with the red jade dragon. The dragon-wraith gave out a roar like a storm beginning to break, and swept all the puppy-bombs up in its coils, crushing them like a python. There were dull thuds from within the dragon-wraith's coils, like small bombs going off. "Let me return your question to YOU," Hravec smirked. "How would YOU survive being splashed with the equivalent of 60 pounds of caustic acid?"
Dr. Venus shifted her protective sphere to a simple wall. "Actually, I'll do a lot better than you, Euro-Trashmaster," she jeered. "I wasn't fool enough to make all the discharges the same compound; I varied the base reservoir so that there are five different bases that would combine to create more caustic compounds. Interesting thing; if all FIVE of the bases are combined, they create the nastiest, blinding, eye-raping, skin blistering aerosol that you could possibly imagine. Funny, I was going nuts, trying to figure out how to combine them on the spot. Nice of you to take care of that for me." On a cue from Dr. V, both the shmoo and the muscle boy slipped on face-protecting breathers. "Is this that 'European Courtesy' that you inbred yahoos are always yammering about?"
"What a pathetic BLUFF," Hravec sneered.
"Of COURSE, I'm bluffing," Dr. V breezed with an evil grin. "You just let that thing of yours give out a big ol' yawn and find out. OR, maybe I'm just finessing you into releasing a toxic cloud that will put you and your merry band of Art Nazis into the hospital for a month. C'mon, Meggy- admit it, you're beat! Just give me the fucking CLOCK, and let's get this over with!" She paused and added, "Or do you just get off on getting the crap beaten out of you by beautiful women? 'Cause I charge extra for that."
"How... Droll..." Hravec concentrated furiously, and the dragon wraith roiled and flashed with lightning inside its stormy whorls.
'He's using the dragon's 'lightning' or whatever to denature the compounds while they're still inside the dragon', Dr. Venus realized. She dropped the shield and gave Hravec a zap, but that was only secondary. "STAGE TWO!" she yelled as loud as she possibly could. Which was damned loud. Her two backup henchmen pulled Star Trek-ish energy weapons from their coats and opened fire on Hravec.
"SHIT!" Steele said as the sounds of Dr. Venus screaming 'STAGE TWO!' almost shattered their eardrums over the pickup. "We have to get down there, NOW!
"But Macabre's forces haven't shown up," Fitzgibbons pointed out, "and we still have no idea where that clock that they're all so het up to get their hands on is."
"Yeah," Steele said, making sure of his large-bore handgun as he called for backup, "but while Hravec's sales geeks may be annoying pretentious art school goons, they're still tax-paying citizens, and Hravec is so concerned about keeping that clock of his that he isn't giving protecting them that much thought. Remember Steele's Third Law, Fitz." He turned to Sunny and snapped, "Anything that we do will just be a distraction until the Brujah and that gloomy kid get here. Get them here NOW!"
Chiller sidled up to Fitzgibbons and muttered, "I know that I'm gonna regret it later but... 'Steele's' Third Law'?"
"Steele's Third Law, goes:" Fitz muttered back, "'The more egregious the slipup, they more likely that it will come back and bite you in the ass; if you try to cover it up, you're only giving it stainless steel teeth. OR, 'Rodney King Happens'."
"What's his First Law?"
"'The more a scumbag deserves to be busted, the better a lawyer he's got."
"And his Second Law?"
"'Never order delivery Mongolian BBQ by phone'." Fitzgibbon paused and added, "Don't Ask."
Kate's group walked up to the next storefront and made the ritual knock at the door. The storekeeper opened the door and the little girl holding Bruja's hand made a brave effort with the first refrain of the traditional posada exchange of songs. As the storekeeper started a decent rendition of the traditional denial, Kate felt the buzzer on her phone buzz, and Bruja allowed an annoyed 'NOW?' expression to flit across her face. As the songs went back and forth, Kate and Brujah held a silence conference with expressions. It was agreed that Kate would skip the celebration inside and 'port directly to Brentwood; Brujah would hold back for appearances sake and catch up once the niceties were observed.
But as Kate looked around for a shadow that would reach all the way to Santa Monica, where she could transfer to another shadow, she felt a tug at her sleeve. Looking down, Eduardo, the young boy she'd led down the street gave her a look that said that her turn was coming up and she shouldn't blow her big moment. Grating her teeth, Kate gave in to the inevitable. She waited for the storekeeper to finish his third refrain, and sang out the next-to-last refrain in a soprano note of surprising crystal clarity,: 'God rewards your charity, My Lords, and thus heaven heaps happiness upon you.'
The grand opera quality rendition took the group off-balance, and the storekeeper had to be nudged into singing the last refrain and inviting the group in. Brujah gave Kate an odd look, but covered for her as Kate slipped off. Kate gave a sigh of relief as she melted into the nearest shadow; people always got so weirded out when they found out that she could sing...
Vic listened for the sound of fighting and then gave Artie his cue. Artie popped the window on the back alley of Hravec's la-di-dah art gallery, and the vamps oozed in through the cramped 10" x 30" vent. Like everything else about the gallery, it was alarmed, but thanks to Dr. Bimbo, the alarms were already going off, and anyone responding would run face first into Dr. V going at it with Hravec. The Graveyard Shift and the Junkyard Dawgs would come in as backup on the off chance that anyone twigged on to what they were pulling. The Bitch Sisters and the Alleycats were respectively a block north and south; if no one rumbled them, the Vamps would just take a bus back to the Storage unit; if not, they'd either pass the clock off to the Alleycats, or they'd run to the Witches, who'd teleport them home, depending on the particulars of the situation. But the best thing about this plan was that it was all Dr. Macabre's; not that that made the plan any more likely to work, but as long as they stuck with the plan, if it went wrong, then the blame all fell on the Doc.
Dr. Venus tapped her toes irritably as Hravec brought forth a lion from the exhibit revolving around the two statuettes and a tiger from the exhibit revolving around the statue with the elephant head. "Oh, PLEASE!" she snapped, "You DO realize that you're just trashing your own damned STORE, don't you?"
"A man of my stature doesn't truckle to the dregs of the gutters," Hravec sneered back.
"FINE! BE like that, then!" Dr V let out another shrill whistle and the door burst in. A man wreathed in 'human torch' flames walked in the door, followed by a scrawny young man wearing an over-built helmet on his head with cables that led to a backpack, and a seriously hypertrophied man wearing some sort of harness, who was lugging a large cylinder of some sort. The 'firebrand' made a motion like pitching a fastball, and sent a fireball at the tiger. The tiger reacted visibly, but didn't stand down; neither did the lion, or Hravec, for that matter. "Oh, by the way," Dr. Venus added with snide nonchalance, "I just upgraded Calvin here this morning, and, well, he hasn't had a lot of chance to practice with his new powers... Y'know, there's a real good chance that he might just burn this place down.. sifting through the ashes for that clock would be a pain in the ass... but if you're gonna be unreasonable like this..."
"And what is in that... garbage can that your Neanderthal dragged in?" Hravec asked, strangely more interested in that than the prospect of his store- or his employees- being burned. "Normally, materialists such as yourself are only too eager to brag about their toys."
"THAT is what we Americans call an 'Ace in the Hole'," Dr. V smirked.
"Oh? You're going to nuke the entire neighborhood?" Hravec smirked back. "After all that IS America's solution to everything these days."
"Whereas YOU seem to be committed to the enlightened idea of solving the world's problems by sneering at them," Dr. V shot back.
"A feeble retort, almost as feeble as your bluff," Hravec gestured producing a swarm of darkling ninjas from the exhibit that revolved around the Great Benten Shrine. "You've already said that you have the miniscule good sense to not blow yourself up with conventional explosives. You'd hardly irradiate yourself on top of that."
"Bluff? You think I'm bluffing, Meggy?" Dr. V grinned. "You'd make a lousy poker player, Megs." Her grin went steely, "Go ahead. CALL my bluff."
"OH WILL YOU TWO JUST GET A ROOM ALREADY?" Esprit screamed, "THAT ASSHOLE IS ON FIRE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! MISTER HRAVEC, WILL YOU JUST GIVE HER THE FUCKING CLOCK?"
"I've GOT it!" the guy with the weird helmet, who'd been just standing there concentrating yelled, "She knows that it's in his office, right behind his desk on an alarmed shelf, behind some glass!"
"Good job, Dunky!" Dr. Venus said with a smirk, "Go get it! Calvin, Lenny, help me keep this overdressed turd and those anime rejects in line while Dunky goes and pays the bills. Boyd, go help Dunky, Hal, stay with me."
"The old 'don't think about polar bears' trick," Hravec grumbled.
"That's right," Dr. V jeered back, "if you can sneer, then you didn't really LOSE. Loooooozzzzeee..." Dr. Venus' glee was cut short as a bolas whipped in through the door and wrapped itself around Calvin. The cylinders at the ends of the bolas sprayed thick green foam which covered him almost entirely. Calvin's sheath of plasma should have immediately melted the foam off of him, but somehow, the fed on the heat and changed into a thick grayish green gel that suffocated the flames. "Oh. Crap."
To a casual or untrained observer, the man looked like a simple, if rather affluent middle-aged blind man, finding his way with his cane; in a city that didn't have the tax base for the kind of police force (and private security) that Brentwood had, he would have been easy pickings for urban predators. As it was, he was reasonably safe, though he'd clearly taken a wrong turn into the alley. Even an alert and trained observer would have missed the faint but unbroken lines that he spread across the entrance of the alley, and again across the threshold of the back door to Hravec's gallery.
But while neither Top Dawg nor Tombstone were trained observers, they were both very much on guard, and they were both floored at how the 'blind man' just waltzed through a door that they were absolutely certain was locked and alarmed. Gesturing for his dogs to not follow, but watch what went down, Top Dawg dropped down from the neighboring rooftop to the alley blacktop. Tombstone did pretty much the same as he pelted across the street. Then Tombstone stopped dead (whoops, bad choice of phrase there) in his tracks, like he'd run face first into an invisible brick wall. Then he keeled over, like someone had punched him in the crotch.
Top Dawg noticed this, but he didn't let it slow him down, not a bit. That stupid piece of paper taped to the door, on the other hand, that slowed him down to where a snail could'a passed by him without raising a sweat. He just stood there, and tried to focus on piece of paper, and see what was written on it. Because, that was all he could do. He couldn't go through the door. He couldn't touch the door. He couldn't go within a foot of it. He couldn't touch the piece of paper. He couldn't even make his eyes focus on the fucking piece of paper. A stupid scrap of paper was keeping him out! Was he supposed to tell Dr. Macabre that he couldn't back Vamps because of a fucking piece of PAPER? Macabre had shoved Icy into that 'punishment booth' without so much as a blink, and he liked the little witch! And the Doc was getting tired of Top Dawg and his pack losing...
Inside Hravec's office, Vic and the Vamps were faced with a similar problem. There was only a pane of glass between them and the fancy clock that Dr. Macabre wanted so badly. But there was something etched into that stupid pane of glass that held them back like some sort of force wall. "I don't BELIEVE this!" Vic railed. "Cobb will stake us ALL if we tell him that we got this close and blew it!"
"Chill, leader-man, chill," Artie said calmingly. "I think that it's some kind of mystic ward that Hravec worked into the glass. BUT, he made the mistake of working the warding rune directly into the glass. If I can find something around this office that has acidic properties, I can splash that onto the glass, changing the composition of the rune thus-"
Fangs picked up one of the armchairs in Hravec's office and threw it at the case. This shattered the glass and several of the glass shelves, ruined the other fragile displays, but left the clock itself inexplicably intact.
"OR, we could do that," Artie admitted with a sigh. "Nice GOING, dorkwad! You just set off every alarm in this place!"
"ah, Artie?" Belle said solicitously, "In case you haven't notice...?" she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the racket being created in the showroom, "nobody's paying any attention to alarms?"
"Yeah, Arturo," Vic said as he carefully picked through the broken glass to retrieve the precious clock, "nobody's gonna come busting in that door, guns drawn, yelling, 'nobody move!'"
Then the door to the office burst open, and a tall, extremely buff, incredibly good looking guy in an Armani suit rushed in, followed by a shorter, much pudgier guy in a cheap suit, and a not-quite as tall as the first guy and thin as a rail, guy wearing a jumpsuit and a very dorky looking helmet in last place. The three men gawped at the vampires, but then the pudgy guy pulled what looked sort of like Star Trek phaser from his jacket and sputtered, "Nobody move!" The big buff guy backed him up with another 'phaser', and the guy with the helmet powered up the backpack.
But Vic didn't assume the position. Rather he looked sternly at Artie and demanded, "How'd you do that?"
Yavros Hravec, alias Megalesius, looked around at the chaos that roared through his gallery. Those idiotic 'Crusaders' were battling his urban totemic manifestations as much as they were Dr. Venereal Disease's thugs. The Lion of London had been dispersed, and that Tiger of Mumbai was tussling with the huge Afrikaner, the Ninjas of Tokyo were keeping the swashbuckler-hero busy, the surfboard flying lout was tangling with the Generic Thugs of New York. The woman in the blue bathing suit was blasting the Sphinx of Cairo. But there was something wrong, something that nagged at him more than the fact that his gallery was being used as a battlefield...
Then it clicked into place. That idiotic 'Dr. Venus' was keeping that trash can of hers safe. She'd managed to finesse Hravec into attacking the Crusaders on pure reflex, before it occurred to him that he was a legitimate businessman who could call on them to deal with her. So, she had more between her ears than bubblegum pop lyrics (though you couldn't tell it to look at her); she said that it was her 'ace in the hole'. But what if it wasn't just another over-complicated bomb or blaster? Obviously the woman was technologically sophisticated, and she had some understanding of tactics and strategy... what if she was pulling a heist on a higher meta-textual level, using shaking him down for the clock as a pretext? What if that canister wasn't an instrument of destruction, but an instrument of electronic theft? While Hravec was unusual among the mystical community for being financially savvy, he shared most mystics antipathy (and more importantly, lack of savvy) regarding high technology. He used computers and the internet, but only because the rest of the financial world did; if he had his way, they'd go back to pen-and-ink information management. THAT he understood. For all he knew, Dr. Venus' entire over-the-top maneuver had been a ploy to get that bucket, which was full of wireless whatever-they-were-called, and it was busily sucking up confidential information about his business moves!
Frantically, Hravec reached out for the exhibit that connected him to the current mindset of Sao Paolo, connected hurriedly to an image, manifested it, and flung it at Dr. Venus. The energy congealed into a line of figures who centered on Dr. Venus and-
-shimmied to a hot samba beat, shaking hips and flaunting flamboyant befeathered and beaded outfits.
"Samba dancers?" Dr. Venus gawped as the fight stopped dead at the sheer improbability of it. "You threw SAMBA DANCERS at me?"
"It's... it's all your own fault!" Hravec gabbled, "Your puerile imaginings of Brazil are fixated on the stereotypical images of Carnivale, despite the fact that not only is Brazil exploding industrially and financially, but the classic Carnivale celebration is in RIO, not Sao Paolo!"
"HOW can this be MY fault?" Dr. V demanded, "_I_ didn't call these things up, YOU did! And how could I know that it had anything to do with Brazil, Rio OR Sao Paolo?"
"ah, YEAH, dude," Skyrider joined in, ignoring the thugs who reacted to his lack of conflicting attention by going out of combat themselves, "she's kinda got ya there. Just fess up and get ON with yer life, hah?"
Hravec paused, mortally humiliated, worse even than the time that he went to San Francisco and asked to go see the hippies on Haight Street. Then he looked around and realized that no one was fighting, not even Dr. Venus. "YOU IDIOTS!" he screamed, "STOP HER! That thing she's guarding is stealing all my financial data! She's going to leave dozens of hideously dangerous Dark Mages BANKRUPT!"
"You say that like it's a BAD thing," Chiller commented calmly.
Not stopping to explain that peeved dark mages make Mafia dons look like Zen masters of compassion and forbearance, Hravec gestured at the exhibit with the model of Saint Basil's Cathedral, and called forth a blizzard of a winter wind that he used to scatter the heroes and henchmen. He raced past the samba-ing figures and the gobstruck combatants to the canister. Ignoring a stunned Dr. Venus, he scrambled at the lid, figured out the latch and readied a massive surge of destructive energy in his off hand. When he had a deadly enough hellbolt prepped, he swung the lid open and thrust it inside the can. Then he was knocked off his feet by the backblast.
"Y'know, Meggy, I wasn't gonna play that card unless I absolutely had to," Dr. Venus drawled drolly. "But if you INSIST..."
Flickers of dark flame rose up out of the canister, and ebony bubbles of oily substance boiled out over the edge, filling the showroom with a draining chill that darkened the scene and produced a sense of hooks in the flesh. A figure of a man, nothing more than a silhouette in darkness stood up in the canister and levitated out into the room. Hravec's mystic senses recognized the energy as ebereal darkness, but knowing that didn't help as his usual disdainful panache abandoned him.
"Belle! BELLE! STOP!" Vic urged his ladylove. "Stop NOW, or you'll KILL him! If you kill him, you LOSE!"
Belle pulled her fangs from the super-hunk's neck and licked it, healing the wound. "Thanks, Vic," she slurred through her fangs. Not giving in to the Hunger, not letting the Beast take over was the only real victory that Dr. Macabre let them have. She wasn't about to give up on that one little shred of control that she had left to her. "How're you? How's Fangs and Drac?"
"Not good," Vic shook his head wearily. "We all took some serious hits from those blasters, and Fangs is still out of it from whatever that guy with the helmet did to him. If Darla had faced him down, that scrawny asshole could'a done a real nasty number on us. Stupid Blasters! Drac and I both took serious hits, we only got these two guys to feed on. And Drac's so logy that I don't think that he could feed without killin' 'em. And howcome YOU didn't get hit?" Vic glared at Artie who was holding onto the clock with both hands.
"So I had the good sense to DUCK instead of just jumping the guys with the GUNS!" Artie snapped. "Hey, at least I was smart enough to use THIS on the helmet guy," Artie tapped the 'gorgon' visor he was wearing, "AND I took out one of the zap gun guys too!"
"NO you didn't!" Darla yelped as she cradled her wounded arm. "_I_ did!"
Darla and Artie yelled at each other for a bit over who deserved the credit for the 'kill', but finally Artie huffed, "And I was the one who came prepared!" He reached into his long draping coat and pulled out a packet of blood. "Hey Drac! Here's a power-up!"
Artie tossed the bag of blood to Drac, but a silver flash came through the air and sliced the bag, splattering Drac with blood without feeding his raging hunger. But at least getting splattered by blood snapped Fangs out of his trance. "Aaawww... MAN!" Drac screeched, "Why'd you do-" then Drac paused as he sighted the Witch Hunter crouched before them in his Puritan hunting costume, sword drawn and ready in one hand, cross presented with the other. "Hey, man, you're late... Thanksgivin' was, like, a month ago."
"Through fog and fire and rain and sleet and darkest night, judgment comes for us all," the man intoned, "though you run through the bowels of the city, hide 'neath the rankest filth, or even crawl down into the very pit of HELL, it will find you! You can run, you can hide, you can burrow, you can crawl, but it has found you! Judgment, worse, JUSTICE has found you at last!"
Belle, Vic, Artie, Darla, and Drac all looked at each other. "I'm spacing," Drac admitted. "Was that in 'The Courtship of Miles Standish'? 'Cause I don't remember Hawthorne being that badass."
The Witch Hunter lunged forward and skewered Drac in the belly. "Aw FUCK!" Drac bellowed, "And I haven't FED!"
"No amount of blood will seal that wound," the Witch Hunter informed them coldly. "This blade and these bullets," he pulled back his cloak to reveal a revolver, "are made with silver, and have been blessed. No infernal arts will save you from divine retribution. And 'The Courtship of Miles Standish' was by Longfellow," he added snippily.
"Hey man, what the fuck do you WANT?" Vic demanded as he and Fangs helped Drac to the floor and Bella tried to staunch the bleeding of his wound.
"Normally, my only concern would be to cleanse your filth from the world," the Witch Hunter snarled. "But for the moment, my quest for my true prey demands that I settle... for that clock that that scrawny little punk is clutching to his chest like his teddy bear."
Artie hung back a little, but Vic and Fangs drew themselves up and brought out the sword and axe that they'd found at the Garou's compound. "Okay, smartass," Vic hissed, "You fergot ONE THING- we don't need vampire powers to rip you apart!"
But what they DID need was melee weapon skills, which both Fangs and Vic sorely lacked. But the Witch Hunter apparently had them in spades. He easily used the two teenagers' clumsy strokes against each other, and disarmed Fangs of his axe. Vic fared a little better, as he had at least some idea of how to fight with a sword, and it was a magical sword. But after a furious but brief fight, skill and discipline won out over speed and fury. The Witch Hunter sent Vic's sword flying and advanced on the young vampire.
"HOLD IT!" Artie snapped. "Don't hurt him!" He stepped forward holding the clock up high. "Hey, it's not like Cobb is PAYING us for this, y'know..."
"ARTIE!" Darla shrieked, "NO! This asshole can only KILL us! Macabre will do WORSE than kill us if we don't come back with that thing!" After all, they'd all seen Cobb shove his pet into the 'Punishment Booth', and to the young death is really just an ugly rumor.
"Darla! Babe!" Artie answered, still stepping forward. "We're beat! Look at Drac! And he just beat the crap out of Vic and Fangs! And that's just with that sword! The bullets in that gun are blessed silver! If he opens up with those, we're DEAD! And with that cross, we can't use our vampire powers!" Then Artie lowered the clock, with a fang-baring grin. The clock had hidden the fact that he was wearing the Green Gorgon's vertigo visor. "But then, that cross doesn't do shit against technological powers, does it?" Artie triggered the vertigo effect, which washed waves of greenish light over the Witch Hunter's face. "Didn't see THAT comin', didja asshole?"
"Actually," *shing!* there was a flash and then darkness as the Witch Hunter slashed across the visor with his sword, ruining it and blindfolding Artie with the now-useless visor, "I did."
Artie heard a scrambling noise as he fell to his feet trying to present a low target as he got the visor off. Then, just as he was getting the visor off, he managed to avoid being dazzled by an overwhelming flash of light. He also caught a whiff of garlic, and instantly recognizing the reek and knowing what it would do to him, he held his breath. He scrambled around feeling for a cloth to hold over his face. As he did so, he heard more scrambling and a lot of thuds and crashes and shattering noises.
Artie finally found a bit of cloth and put it over his mouth and nose. Poking his head up and looking around, he saw that the other Vamps and the Witch Hunter had really torn up the place. He spotted Darla, who was tied up with that power whip that she'd brought along, and Belle was also tied up, with that power lariat. Fangs was sprawled over the top of Hravec's desk. Vic was futilely trying to get to that bogus 'lightsaber' he'd got as a backup for his magic sword. The Witch Hunter himself was standing there, breathing hard. Artie tucked the clock in the crook of his arm like a football and quietly crawled along the floor. As me moved, he came across the body of one of the three guys that they'd fought first. That 'phaser' of his was right there next to him. Artie picked the energy weapon up. "And what do you think you're going to do with THAT?" the Witch Hunter rasped.
Artie went white mind with fear and desperation, and did the only thing that he could think of: he shot the overhead lights out and bolted for the back door. But he hit the door like it was a brick wall. Worse, an electrified fence. Somehow, maybe it was part of Hravec's magical protections, but he couldn't get out! Then he was spot-lit; the Witch Hunter had a fuckin' flashlight! At the sound of the pistol being cocked, Artie ducked out of the spotlight and hid in the darkness as best he could. Settling into the shadows, he regained a little focus. He realized that the Witch Hunter had only six rounds, so he wouldn't waste any of them unless he was sure of a kill shot.
Artie could see the Witch Hunter in the dark by the flare of the flashlight, but after a few minutes, it occurred to him that the Hunter was herding him, maneuvering him into a corner. Artie dashed against the light once, but the Hunter just started the game all over again. It occurred to Artie that playing 'Hide & Seek' in the dark wasn't anywhere near as much fun when the other guy has a fucking .45! Artie tried to get a better sense of how the Hunter was moving by his footsteps, but the noise from that fight in the front room made that impossible. Then the tenor of the noise changed. It was... weird... now.
Well, whatever was going on out there had to be better than being suckered into getting shot. Artie took off for the door to the showroom. A bullet nicked his shoulder as he stopped to open it. He made a note to himself to just bash through the door next time. He opened the door-
-and found a scene out of a Steve Ditko drawing.
While Artie had never seen Hravec's gallery himself, he was absolutely certain that it obeyed the laws of Physics and Gravity. It didn't look like several pocket universes had sort of been lumped together, but not really melding. It didn't have major world landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, or St. Basil's cathedral, or Big Ben, the Golden Gate Bridge or... what was that thing with the big Japanese paper lantern?... all jutting in at odd points, all of it pulsing with surreal bits like eyes and mouths and festering cysts and baobab tree-sized branches and snow-flake studded gusts of wintery wind.
But the most surreal thing (well, aside from the line of samba dancers) was the omni-directional three-way battle going on between the California Crusaders, a bunch of, well, weird people and animals, and a group of slightly less weird people, including this big blonde chick, a guy who looked like he really needed to lay off the steroids, a guy who was on freaking FIRE. But the centerpiece of the mayhem was this guy who was wreathed in some sort of existential black energy, who was pretty much mopping up the place.
Artie hung back for a moment to try and wrap his head around this. But he didn't have that moment, and the Witch Hunter tackled him from behind, knocking both of them into the maelstrom of madness.
Artie's entry into the tempest of schizophrenia changed everything. Suddenly everything centered around him. Literally. The entire scene rearranged itself so that he was at the very center of it all, like he was the Sun and the rest of the system orbited around him. Every eye was suddenly on him, and Artie reflexively curled himself protectively around the clock. This one guy, the most normally dressed of the lot of 'em, seemed to recognize the clock and yelled, pointing at him. The second group all left off rumbling with the Crusaders and the third crew, and moved at Artie like the charge of the Light Brigade.
But neither the Crusaders nor the third crew were gonna let that happen. It became a mad scramble to get at Artie, with liberal applications of various superpowers to trip the others up. The Witch Hunter used the others to get to him first, literally skipping on the backs of various parties to get there. As Artie screamed, the Witch Hunter aimed his pistol at Artie's head and readied to shoot. But Sunburst let out a bolt of light that knocked the cold-blooded Calvinist off his perch and the battle was on again.
Artie lost track of all the insanity, clinging to the clock like a teddy bear. Finally, the guy with the aura of darkness seemed to win the fight and he came roaring up on Artie, with that jazzy blonde chick urging him on. Ignoring the efforts of the others, Black Aura guy came up on Artie and grabbed him by the jacket. When Black Aura guy got his hands on him, Artie felt the deepest cold, like little iron hooks, dig into him and he knew that he was gonna be worse than dead.
Then, impossibly, a calm dry female voice at Black Aura guy's elbow said, "Excuse me, but you have something that belongs to ME." Stunned, both Black Aura guy and Artie looked, and Artie recognized that spooky-ass smart mouthed little chick who'd given them so much grief at the Were-Cult's treasure room.
So did the glitzy blonde who seemed to be in charge of the Third Crew. "HER? Get that little bitch, Cecil! Squish her!" she screamed. Black Aura guy (Artie really couldn't call anyone that terrifying 'Cecil', not even in his own head) pitched a stream of inky darkness at Spooky-chick. The Spookster didn't even flinch. If anything, she caught the stream of darkness in her mouth and munched on it like he's tossed a caramel at her. As she chewed, Spooky mumbled, "Not bad. A little spicy, a little savory, not too sweet- too many sweets around, this time of year-a nice hint of nihilistic funk... all in all a good Erebos..."
Then she sucked in all the darkness from around him, leaving only a very startled scrawy runt of a guy wearing an immersion suit. He looked around fearfully, obviously aware that he wasn't anywhere near the caliber of the room that he'd just dominated. The bossy blonde went 'Gleep!' and did a total 180 in her attitude. Not sparing so much as a thought for the rest of her standing team, she hit the afterburners, flying like a rocket for this little squarish patch off in the distance, that Artie took to be another door...WAY off, where he couldn't get at it.
"YOU!" thundered the Witch Hunter.
The Spooky Chick looked over at him and muttered, "Funny, I don't remember anyone saying 'Send in the clowns'." The Witch Hunter dug into his vest and pulled out a pouch, which he threw at the Spooky Chick. Spooky didn't move, but she used that darkness to haul Artie into the path of the pouch. The pouch exploded into a cloud of powder which stung Artie's eyes. Then the Spooky Chick forcefully pushed Artie well away from her.
Then the zappy blonde in blue with the Crusaders yelled, "KATIE! He's got the CLOCK!" Artie felt every eye on him. Again. It hadn't gotten any better with the repetition.
Then he heard someone yell, "HEY ARTIE!" He heard Spooky (or maybe 'Katie') echo 'Artie', but he looked up at the first voice, and saw a metallic lariat heading toward him. Barely keeping his grip on the clock, Artie grabbed the noose of the lariat and let himself get reeled out of the whole mess.
Vic, Belle, Darla and Fangs hauled Artie out and closed the door. "Let's GO! That whole... whatever... was following you even as pulled you in!" Vic said as they run for the back. "Give me the clock!"
"Did a turnip truck roll by just now?" Artie snarled back. "I'm holding onto this until we get back to the Doc! Hey, where are we going? We can't get out that back door! There's some kinda spell or som'thin' on it!"
"We took care of that!" Darla told him.
"Oh, very mysterious, very mystical... we BLASTED it with the phaser!" As Darla said this, Vic was phoning ahead, telling the Witches that they were on their way out with some very hot smokeys on their tail.
The Vampires pelted through the ruins of the door, where the Junkyard Dawgs were waiting for them. Vic yelled at them to stop anyone who followed, any way they had to, but the Fang Gang didn't even break stride. So, Top Dawg had to yell at them that the end of the alley on the main drag was warded like the door had been, and that the Graveyard Shift was waiting for them at the other end.
Even so, the Weres took a beating keeping the Men in Tights at the door long enough for the Vampires to make it to the end of the alley. The Ghouls stepped in to cover for them and they headed for where the Witches were waiting to gate them the hell out of there.
Then Vic's phone rang, and Icy informed them that there were helicopters and superheroes up in the air on obvious search patterns, and the meeting place was too exposed. For the next ten minutes, the witches ran the Vampires through the back yards and walled estates of Brentwood, setting off a symphony of alarm systems in the process, and gathering up a small enraged army of security guards; the perfect thing to complicate a hot pursuit. But the Witches got too clever, and one by one, Vampires, Werewolves, Werecats and Ghouls either were captured or separated. Finally, Artie found himself all by himself, with no idea where the hell he was. He ducked into a narrow passage between one five million dollar house and its attendant garage, out of sight of anyone searching by air.
"Now that we're alone, I do hope that you're not going to try and get fresh," droned the Spooky Chick, who was suddenly right at his elbow. Artie startled and gawped. Kate intoned, "Fear Not, for I bring tidings of great joy... oh, wait a minute, I've already used that one on you, haven't I?"
"You're Artie, right? Well, your Dad has talked to Sunburst, and she's talked to the DA, and it's a slam-dunk on getting you Immunity from Prosecution, if you turn yourself in and turn State's Evidence. About the whole 'Vampire' thing? Well, they're already working on arranging supplies of human blood for you guys, enough to last you until Macabre's treatment works its way out of your systems."
"My dad?" Artie echoed, "You know my Dad?"
"Yeah, he dropped in on Sunny in the middle of the night, playing 'Rhapsody in Blue' on the piano. He's been playing the 'Dashing Rogue' with everything he's got."
"Huh? But my dad doesn't play the piano."
"Okay, he doesn't play it very WELL, but for a supervillain, he does manage to pull off the 'debonair rake of accomplishment' bit better than most of the yoiks who try it."
"SUPERVILLAIN?" Artie honked, "What the HELL are you TALKING about? My dad isn't a supervillain! He's an Insurance Actuary!"
"And the closest that MY dad has ever come to being debonair is not wearing a tie at the beach!"
Artie's next comment was cut off by a surge of electricity that came out of the darkness and hit him squarely in the back. He was holding onto a standing pipe at the time, so he was perfectly grounded, and the jolt knocked him for a loop. Following the lightning to its source. Namely, Stormy, who was standing there in black jeans and hoodie with a courier pouch over one shoulder. She was carrying an Aladdin-style lamp in one hand. "Chill," Stormy said in a firm but steadying tone. "He's not the dweeb you're looking for," she mimicked Obi Wan Kenobi's 'mesmerizing' gesture from the first Star Wars movie. "*I* am."
"You? Are ARTIE?"
"Actually, we're both named Artie," Stormy admitted. She waved that aside and hastened on, "Look, you said that you were talking with my Pop. 'Mister Magic'? Plays at being a tux-wearing 'stage magician' though nobody, not even real stage magicians, have worn evening clothes onstage in forty-going-on-fifty years? Let's not even start on the turban... He's in his early forties, ruggedly handsome, six-foot-two, maybe 170 pounds, David Niven mustache, and a real smooth talker?"
"I'd say that he was in his early-going-on-mid fifties, he's starting to get a little jowly, closer to five-foot-eleven and maybe 190 pounds, the mustache is starting to gray, and he's more of a slightly restrained Pepe Le Pew," Kate rejoined.
"That's my Pop!" Stormy sighed with a lopsided smile of affectionate filial dismay.
"HOW?" Kate demanded, "I mean, Mr. Magic was very specific about his SON, Artie... And this guy fits the description, right down to not being the slickest burglar around."
"I know," Stormy growled. "That's how I got dragged into this mess in the first place. I was getting in a little B&E practice, when I ran into Icy and Darcy. Or Samantha and Serena, as they were calling themselves then. Anyway, between them, they managed to convince me that they were in big trouble and they needed my manly assistance to get out from under it. Kate gave Stormy a 'gimme a break' glower. "Hey, I knew that it was hinky, but there was just something about them that just called out to me!"
"Artie, they're called 'Boobs'."
"And a peach of an ass," Stormy sighed without the slightest contrition. "Great legs and... well, honest, you wouldn't guess it from the way that she's been acting lately, but back then Samantha could act like the sweetest thing you could imagine. Between her and 'Serena's' Bad Girl act, they had a One-Two punch that even a better man than I am- or at least was- could have resisted. The thing was, back then I was almost a dead ringer for that piece of lunchmeat you're standing next to. Not identical twins or anything, but close enough that people wouldn't have been able to tell us apart until they got close; the idea was that we'd be able to pull all those 'identical twin' stunts that you see on bad TV. But when they threw me into Dr. Macabre's monster-making machine, instead of a male Vampire, I came out as female witch." Stormy indicated her current form with a 'who knew?' shrug.
"Anyway, 'Serena's' real name really IS Darcy, so between that, the lightning powers that I got, and her thing about the Winx Club, Samantha decided that us being the Trix was a preordained thing. She's been getting in touch with her inner screaming bitch ever since."
Kate gave Stormy an odd look. "You're... more competent than I was expecting, given your father's description of you."
"I know," Stormy replied through a rueful curled lip. "My Pop's been telling me to 'find my center'. Wouldn't you know it? My center was about a foot lower than I thought it was. Though having to watch THAT Artie for three weeks might have had something to do with it?"
"The similarities weren't just physical, I take it?"
"Oh GOD No!" Stormy buried her face in her hand. "It was like watching myself on DVD, stumbling around, falling on my face, putting my foot in my mouth, trying to be cool and...yeeessh!" Stormy grimaced and shuddered loudly.
"Well, I've heard weirder things," Kate granted. "Mind you, they usually start with 'It seemed like a good idea at the time'." She gave a resigned sigh. "Okay, let's go. Though, I definitely want to be there- with a camera- when your father finds out."
"Aaahh... Problem. Y'see- uhm, hey what's your NAME anyway? You weren't mentioned on the CC's website, even though that 'Chiller' yutz was, and I can't call you 'Spooky-ass Smart-mouthed Little Bitch'. No matter HOW well it fits," she finished with a snip.
"Drat," Kate shot back, "There goes my entire publicity campaign for when I go Pro."
"Well, it would work on posters, but for anything else, you'd have to initialize it, and SASMLB just doesn't have that TMNT jazz. Anyway, Problem: I didn't go through all that hoo-hah with my blog because I love cloak & dagger spy-spy crap."
"Or at least, not JUST because you love cloak & dagger spy-spy crap," Kate responded with the merest telltale trace of a smile. "My name's Kate. I have another name, but I save that for special occasions."
"Okay, KATE, if it was a matter of just getting away from Macabre, I'd have split weeks ago, and that crabby bastard would have been lucky to find so much as my dust. But he seems to include some sort of loyalty programming into his conversion process, some kind of conditioned reflex-"
"Okay, I'm not seeing a 'blind loyalty' reflex," Kate observed, "so I'm guessing that it's either a freeze reflex or an order-following compulsion." Stormy gave Kate a look of surprised respect. "Hey, you're not the only supervillain's kid running around. It's a mean nasty world, and I didn't get the luxury of not knowing who my mother was."
"Bummer. Anyway, you're right: if Dr. Demento gives us an order, we've GOT to follow it. No choice, nada. I've been able to weasel around some of the gaps in his orders, like he hasn't told ME not to blog and like that. But he's given us very specific direct orders to get that clock to him, and to not bring the police or any heroes. Oh, and he's picked up on some of the gaps in his instructions, and he's filling them in, bit by bit."
"Do you think that if Cobb gets busted and isn't able to renew the orders for a while, that the compulsion will lapse?"
Stormy mulled it over for a bit. "Hard to say. On one hand, Macabre doesn't ACT like he's got us conditioned; either he's scared to death of losing control over us, or he's an even sicker sadistic sack of shit than I thought. But on the other hand, he's very effective at keeping that conditioning going, without seeming like he's doing it. I don't know enough about this Mad Science crap to be sure, so I can't afford to let Macabre know that I've found ways around his orders." Storm seemed to remember something, pulled out a smartphone and viewed something. "Crap."
"What's the matter?"
"Macabre's been even more paranoid than usual. It seems that he's convinced that there's a mole in his operation."
"Old people are SO mistrustful," Kate commiserated.
"I recorded you and Artie talking, so's I could replay it for Macabre, and give Artie to him as his mole- or at least the explanation of Artie, but not the body- so that he'd have a nice explanation, and he'd relax a little and unclench, and maybe let up on the rest of us a little. UNFORTUNATELY, Artie wasn't nice enough to say incriminating things that Boris Karloff Jr. would accept as evidence of foul play."
"Don't you hate it when unwitting dupes won't read their scripts?"
"SO inconsiderate..." Storm agreed with a sigh, as she poked away at the smart phone. "I copied his voice on a few occasions, so I might be able to cut and paste a nice little confession to you of his craven treachery, but... would you mind saying a few things for the microphone that I could build a decent smear around?"
"Hold the phone," Kate said seriously, "you're going BACK to Macabre?"
"Believe me I don't want to, I HAVE to!" Stormy insisted. "There's a shot that Cobb might shove me into that punishment booth of his! Just listening to Icy scream through that is something that I never want to do again; I sure as hell don't want to go through it MYSELF! But if I skip before Macabre's taken out, he'll find some way of getting a message to me that would screw me over seven ways to Sunday! That is, if it doesn't drive me CRAZY first! Honest, I don't want to go back! Icy..." Stormy's eyes went wide and haunted, ...makes me... watch episodes of the 'Winx Club'.... Entire seasons at a time!" she squeaked, "Does that sound like something I'm eager to go BACK to?"
Kate made a sign against Evil. "But you don't have to-"
"Icy knows that I used to be a guy! And she uses that like a CLUB! Can you imagine what Top Dawg or Tombstone or one of other macho types Macabre's monstered out would do if they learned that I was a gender-bender?" Stormy showed true fear.
Kate grimaced in a rare and totally uncharacteristic show of empathy. "Okay, I can see that! If you go back to Macabre without the clock, he'll ask WHY, and you'll have to tell him the truth, if he phrases it right. And that'll screw you right over. But I'm on the spot here too! I called in that I had Artie, and that he had the clock! If I go back with only Artie here and no clock, then there is a very good chance that Bruja will make me take the Oath of Resolute Veracity, a mage's promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing BUT the truth! I can't afford that! I've gotten away with a ton of crap that neither Bruja or Sunn know about! Look, St-er, Ar- ah-"
"Call me Stormy. I'm kind of stuck with it."
"Right. Stormy, one of the problems with having magical power is that you can NOT break an oath! The more powerful you are, the more powerfully you're bound by your word. If I swear to tell them everything, then I tell them EVERYTHING. There are things I'd rather keep secret. Stormy, I'm on very shaky ground with the Crusaders; I NEED to take in something more than this clown and an excuse!"
"How bad could it be?"
"Stormy, my mother's a supervillain, who recently escaped from prison. They have me LO-JACKED!" Kate hiked up a leg and pulled back the cuff of her jeans to show the ankle monitor.
"Oh... kaaayyy... that's pretty shaky ground..." Stormy conceded.
"Hold it! Macabre's waiting for this clock back at his headquarters, right?" Kate asked.
"Nice thought, but no dice," Stormy grumbled, worrying a nail. "Cobb hasn't remained at large this long by being trusting. He had us pack all of the gear in the lab just before he headed out. He and his crew are setting it up at yet another new location. WHERE that location is? Dunno."
"Okay, then how about some real intel on Cobb? Something that will give the Cee-Cees something better to do than grill ME?"
"Gotcha," Stormy smiled, "Okay, Cobb's got four guys who are like his regular crew. He seems to trust and respect them some. Two of them look like tech-types who got tough out of sheer necessity, and the other two strike me as thugs who picked up some tech skills the same way. I think that all four of them have blood on their hands from Macabre's experiments; for better or worse, they're just as stuck with him as the rest of us are. He has two semi rigs with changeable paint jobs and ID for moving from site to site. He recently acquired a new local contact, one who's been feeding him information about where the astrolabe parts are. He kind of, sort of, not really trusts that contact in that weird dysfunctional working paranoid psychopath way of his. Who this contact of his IS? No clue. But they both have an agenda- and a schedule. Cobb's even more on edge than usual.
"As for the monster kids, besides the Witches, there are teams of Vampires, Werewolves, Werecats and Ghouls. That's IT. Tcherlavski, one of the tech goons, mentioned something about 'trolls' and 'goblins', but Cobb's left them behind or phased them out for some reason. There are seven vampires, six now that Artie's been taken out of the game, six werewolves, five werecats, and four ghouls. At least, that's how many there were when we set out. They are using the supervillain gadgets, the stuff that we got off of the Radical Goons. Cobb's got more stuff, but all that I can say about that is that he's got it, and you should watch out for it. Cobb himself usually goes around with this high-tech gauntlet connected by a cable to a backpack. I haven't seen him use it, but given what he works with on a routine basis, I'm betting that the kickass factor is somewhere in the 'Iron Man' league.
"Cobb doesn't have the Mirror, but he acts like he can GET the mirror, and his prep suggests that he's putting ALL his marbles on getting this clock. If Cobb doesn't get this clock, he WILL go postal. I can't be sure of what he'll do, but he's so on edge that if I don't go back with this someone is gonna DIE."
Kate chewed on that for a bit. "It's a little thin, but there's some stuff in there that I should be able to use. And what you said squares both with what the Monster Kids we've captured have told us, and with what I know about Mad Scientist SOP in general."
Kate picked up the clock and gave it to Stormy. "Here. I'll take shit for it, but nowhere near what you would, if you went back empty-handed." They ran through a few phrases for Stormy's frame job. When they finished, Kate asked, "Aren't you being a little casual about taking your time?"
Stormy snickered. "Not with the way that I scattered the troops. With the way that I sent them all every which way, it'll be amazing if even a fraction of them don't get caught." She gave an evil grin, and added, "And the best part? The way I arranged it, if Cobb thinks to check the phone logs, it'll look like Artie here orchestrated the whole thing." She paused for a moment, "But then, for a big shot scientist, Cobb isn't really that tech savvy." She tucked the clock under her arm and straddled her staff. "Well, I'm outta here! Y'know, it's been nice talking to you? It's good to talk to someone intelligent for a change, who wasn't screaming at me, trying to score points against me, or hitting on me."
"Same here," Kate droned. "Curse these siren charms of ours! CURSE them!"
Stormy called ahead, told them that she had the clock and was given a complicated set of approach protocols. She touched down in the football field of a high school in Oxnard a good 35 miles away, and she barely made it there. She touched down and looked around into dark. Taking a few heavy breaths, she called out, "HEY! Is anybody HERE?"
Then suddenly the overhead stadium lights flared for a few seconds, dazzling Stormy. She was tackled from two different directions by two men traveling at blistering speeds. The thudded into her and pounded her into the ground with crushing force, "HEY!" she gasped was firmly as she could while her arm was being levered up behind her back, "I BROUGHT the fucking CLOCK!"
"Yes," came Cobb's dispassionate sneer out of the darkness. "But what ELSE did you bring, Stormy?"
One of Cobb's flunkies came over and waved a sensor wand over first Stormy, and then the clock. "They're both clean, Doc."
Cobb strolled calmly out of the deeper shadows and took the clock. He opened the casement and examined it closely. His deadpan actually dropped for a moment. "This is it. This is the real Ormenious' Clock. How did you get it, Stormy?"
"I took it off of Artie," Stormy grated through her teeth.
"WHAT?" Vic, who Stormy now realized was the one holding her arm behind her back, yelled, "Why'd you jack Artie? He went through fucking HELL getting that clock!" He almost broke her arm for it.
"I wouldn't shed any tears for your little buddy Artie," Stormy managed to say through the pain. "Get my phone. Play my last recorded message."
Dr. Cobb took the phone and played the message. "Artie? Artie was our mole?"
"Why would Artie sell us out?" Belle demanded. "He wants to be cured as much as the rest of us do!"
"Yeah!" Darla piped up, "If anyone would sell the rest of us out, it'd be these fuckin' Witches! The rest of us are fuckin' MONSTERS! They look like normal girls! They don't NEED to drink blood or eat human flesh! They don't WANT to be cured! All that'd do would be cost 'em their powers!"
"According to this, Artie's father is some third-rate jumped-up smash-and-grab artist called 'Mister Mystic' or some such. But if I took the child of a supervillain by mistake, why didn't this 'Mister Mystic' simply alert the Syndicate, as per the usual protocols?" Cobb checked his own smartphone and did a check on 'Mister Magic'. "'known associates'..." then Cobb's eyes darted back and forth, links connecting and an idea visibly forming. "oh. Of course. How predictable. 'Mr. Magic' is a known associate of the Green Gorgon and several of the other third-raters whose power items we *ahem!* 'accidentally' acquired at the County Evidence Locker. Mr. Magic used us to score points with his friends, by liberating their power foci without resorting to assistance by the Syndicate."
"You mean there really IS a supervillain syndicate?" Stormy asked ingenuously.
"Where is Artie NOW?" Cobb asked, ignoring Stormy's gambit.
"Probably in the nearest hospital," Stormy snarled. "If there's any justice in the world, in the nearest morgue. Check the end of the message- I FRIED his ass, the back-stabbing little TURD!"
"Go STORMY!" Icy exulted from the sidelines, where she'd been standing silently up till then.
"Top Dawg, Vic- let her up," Cobb ordered. "She's had two victories tonight: she brought us the clock, and she's exposed our traitor. There's no need to punish good work."
"Hey, we don't know that that video's on the square!" Vic objected.
"Oh?" Cobb asked dryly. "Then WHY did I just find a blog by a daring young teenage thief whose messages suddenly become cryptic? A thief who only names himself... ARTIE?" Stormy let out a quiet breath of relief and silently thanked her father for the suggestion to remove the date stamps on his blog.
Stormy got up and massaged feeling back into her arm. Then she looked around. "Hey, I thought that I was the last one in. Where's everybody else?"
"This IS everybody else," Cobb said dyspeptically. "Someone- probably Artie- misled most of your compeers into the hands of the Police. We're at a fraction of our usual manpower. Still, we will struggle through, as we always have. Come children, it's late. You all need to be rested up and ready. We have what we need, and soon it will be time to take the entire prize. Our final obstacle has been removed, and at last, the end of our long cold night is at hand!"
"Let me get this straight," Brujah said through clenched teeth, "after all that insanity last night, you got your hands on Ormenious' Clock, where you could keep it out of Macabre's hands... and then you GAVE IT TO HIM?"
"I was keeping my priorities straight," Kate said evenly. "Artie couldn't go back without the clock, and the compulsion that Dr. Macabre had implanted would have driven him crazy if I brought him back here with the clock."
"Really? You think so?" Sunburst asked, some of the sting of the Teen Terrors rejection being eased by this answer.
"IF there IS such a compulsion," Brujah sniped.
"Nah, if fits," Skyrider said. "It explains what the creep-kids are goin' through, and let's face it: it's just what a sick fuck like Macabre WOULD do to the people he works on."
"And Artie passed along something which changes the nature of the game."
"Keep talking," Big Dawg said evenly, but eyeing her suspiciously.
"Artie said that Macabre is on some sort of schedule. What that schedule is, I'm not sure. But when an obsessive like Cobb has an important schedule, he will do whatever he has to in order to keep it. That, and another factor that Artie passed along, suggests that we can undermine Cobb's most effective tactic. Also, Artie passed along the exact number of Macabre's forces." Kate reeled off the numbers of Vampires, Werewolves, Werecats, Witches and Ghouls. "Given the reports of the weirdoes that the LAPD, LASD and other police agencies reeled in last night, I'd say that Macabre has four vampires, three werewolves, all three witches, two werecats, and ONE ghoul. Lucky Thirteen. Given how well those 'teams' get along with each other, and their proven level of competence even when they were at full strength, what do you think Dr. Macabre will do with the chance of finally having all of his questions answered?"
"He'd say, 'If you want something done right, do it YOURSELF'," Swashbuckler answered.
"YES!" Sunny piped, "We've finally got a chance of getting that scumbag in a BOX! He's always been too big a coward to go out and do his own dirty work, when he had a mob of teenage werewolves to do it for him! But now, he's got no choice but to put his OWN scrawny ass on the line for a change!"
"But there was no chance that Macabre would do that, if he didn't have the clock," Kate continued. "Artie also said that Cobb was acting as though he already had the mirror, so he has a solid lead on that. With the clock, for all practical purposes, he has two of the three pieces of the Telchine's Astrolabe. If he didn't have the clock, there was a chance that Macabre might blow off his schedule and focus on replenishing his forces; with the clock, he'll go after the Stylus, even if he has to go and get it himself, no matter how dangerous it is. He'll have some nasty surprise up his shroud, but he'll be there."
"And tonight is Christmas Eve," Daybreak pointed out.
"If the Astrolabe really IS mystical, you don't need an oracle to see the mystic significance," Nightfall finished.
"Did Artie set up a contact method?" Brujah asked.
"No, but then he had no way of being sure exactly what sort of situation he was going back into. Making exact arrangements would be asking for Murphy's Law to kick in. As it is, he has room to wing it. Artie's pretty smart for a guy who let himself get suckered into helping a couple of pretty faces."
"Yeah... Well..." Big Dawg, Chiller, Skyrider and Swashbuckler all agreed in near chorus.
"But Dr. Creepyface won't make a move until well after sundown," Chiller pointed out. "That gives both Artie AND us a lot of time. And don't we have a CHRISTMAS PARTY planned?" There was some pleased nodding at that. It was nice to have something that pleasant to cut the Halloweenish gloom that Dr. Macabre had spread over the Yuletide season. "Besides, I want my mom to see where I'm interning," Chiller finished with a grin.
"That's the spirit!" Sunny trumpeted, "C'mon people, we got some halls to deck with holly, so let's get the fa-la-la-lah going! Katie and I will be back to see how you've done, after we're done caroling at the First Congregationalist Methodist church!"
"We?" Kate asked in surprise.
"Sure! You and I have a firm commitment with Reverend Kendrick!"
"But the guys here are gonna need help getting-"
"Don't be silly, Katie! We gotta get there while there's still eggnog!"
As Sunny dragged Kate off, Chiller stopped and said, "What? She dumped all the work off on us AGAIN?"
"She has a real knack for that," Nightfall told him.
"You get used to it," Daybreak continued.
"Eventually," Nightfall finished.
The Methodist church was a brick structure in that paradoxical mixture the realistic and patently artificial that only Los Angeles can get away with. Occasionally. Sunny wore her usual outfit to maintain her credibility, but she respected the modesty expected in church by wearing a long red hooked cloak with white fur trim over her suit. While it was a church this time, the scene was pretty much the same as it had been at the shopping mall. The giddy sense of exaltation by proximity, the hero worship, the parents hiding their own excitement behind indulging their children, the odd looks of 'what's she doing here' at Kate, all of it.
Kate waded through the usual schmoozing (well, Sunny schmoozed; Kate just casually ignored any ill-advised attempts to schmooze her) until the time for the chorale began. As the singers started to take their positions, Kate turned to take a seat, but one of the church ladies took her by the arm and chirped, "No, no, no! We have just the number for you."
"I don't DO carols," Kate said, giving her the 'Gorgon Eyes' treatment.
"Now not to worry," the chubby little hausfrau assured her as she bustled Kate to the vestry. "We won't expect anything very difficult from you."
"I said, 'I don't DO carols'," Kate repeated, locking her 'Eyes of Doom' with the obnoxious harridan's own eyes.
"And it's good to know that, Katrina," the woman said with a pronounced Polish accent and held up a familiar locket. "I am your mother, Katrina."
Kate looked carefully at the stocky woman, who was somehow taller than she'd seemed. "Mom? I thought that you couldn't step across the threshold of a church."
"Church? What church? These are Methodists! They're halfway to being Unitarians, which is halfway to being Jews, which is halfway to being Atheists! I could walk in and out of here with a brass band!" Marzena Tvardovski gave her daughter a stern look through all the makeup and padding. "There are things that I must ask of you: First, how do the Crusaders' efforts against Dr. Macabre fare?"
"Mixed, Mother Dearest," Kate admitted, not taking her eyes off the locket. "On one hand, Cobb has Ormenius' Clock, and he seems to be confident of getting the Mirror. HOW he thinks he'll get the Mirror, I have no idea. On the other hand, we had a mole in Macabre's ranks feeding us information. He's been blown, and he's in Intensive Care, but he's given us enough information that we have a much better idea of Macabre's forces, and where he stands. Over half of his monsters are either in jail or the hospital, and those that are left are divided into five groups that have enough friction between them to start a fire. And they weren't that competent when he had enough of them to keep them in discrete groups. And he's on some sort of schedule, so the Crusaders are thinking that he'll finally put himself at risk to get the Stylus. The Crusaders will probably focus on bagging Macabre; the remaining 'monsters' are just kids, so they'll probably break and run once Macabre isn't there to pull their strings. Rounding them up afterwards shouldn't be that hard; odds are, once they calm down, they'll turn themselves in on the off chance that we can cure them. Brujah managed to get sidetracked before the first two fights, so I'm betting that she'll make sure that she can get in and be the deciding force in the next fight. She has major power-" Marzena made a dismissive noise. "-and her essentially Celestial mystic orientation should be very effective against the energies that the Monster Kids use. If Brujah gets her mitts on Macabre, he's as good as in the bag."
"Excellent," Marzena purred. "Next, did you bring your magical instruction books from that fancy school that Sunblot is sending you to? Good. I've been keeping track of what they've been teaching you, so I know that you're studying Intermediate Conjuring techniques at the moment. Does your textbook include Athenagoras' Threefold Defense of the Innocent? Excellent. A mediocre working, but what it lacks in elegance, it more than makes up for in effectiveness. Make up a charm slip of that and keep it on you at all times. Second, that volume should also have a reference for the Mahasuran Refutation; make a charm for that as well, and attach it somehow to her.
"Next, Katrina?" Marzena's voice went playful as she held up a medallion, a dark black translucent stone surrounded by eight bits of feldspar within a frame of raw copper. "Do you remember Wisconsin? The Fellowship of Mimir's Well?" She dangled the medallion in front of Kate. "You did so love those fools when you were little..."
Kate reached up to take the medallion, but Marzena jerked it back playfully. But then she draped it around Kate's neck and killed her cheek coyly. "I know that you'll keep it on you at all times. Maybe when this is all over, we can go and found another cult around you. I hear that Washington State is very good for that sort of thing these days. Lots of nice isolated areas, lots of volcanic activity, lots of naive college students eager to shed the restraints of their bourgeois upbringing... won't that be nice? Oh, and while you're working on those charms, tie all three aspects of Athenagoras' Defense to this, would you? Oh, and try not to eat any sugar. There's so much of it around, this time of year, and you know how too much sugar makes you..."
"Mother Dearest?" Kate asked timidly. "Who was my father? I've done everything you've asked of me; I deserve something?"
Marzena glowered at Kate sourly. "Again, Katrina, do I have the Telchine's Astrolabe? No! And again, I tell you: when I have the Astrolabe, THEN I will tell you ALL ABOUT your precious father..."
"Yes, yes, I promise!" Kate wrapped her arms around Marzena in a big hug. "Katrina? Is this going to be a regular thing with you from now on? Am I going to have to put up with you wrapping yourself around me like an octopus, all the time?"
With a huff, Kate disentangled herself from her mother and put on the choir robe. "One minute," Marzena stopped her. Kate stopped dead, and for a moment her habitual frost thawed, hoping, though she hated herself for hoping, "before you go rumpa-pum-pumming, would you be so good enough to fill this?" she held out a crystal phial with a lead stopper.
Kate took the phial, stuck on finger in the top and filled it with a thick syrupy black liquid that was as cold as Antarctica. Kate stuck the lead stopper in, and snarked, "Well, anything else I can do in the spirit of this festive Holiday Season? Wipe your windshield, kick your tires, check your batteries, wash the coal dust out of your stocking?"
"No, no, Katrina, this will do nicely," Marzena said absently, holding the phial on its side and watching the tar. "Go, do this silly Christmas thing, enjoy, enjoy... Just be ready to move when I tell you to." Kate went out with the other carolers, and was so upset that she didn't think to hide the fact that she could sing. She wound up looking at the sheet music for her solo at the very last minute, and by accident gave a rendition of 'Silent Night' that would have left Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr weeping silent tears of joy. Sunny went on and on about it all the way back to the Crusaders' HQ
"Ah the Christmas Party," Kate sighed, looking around at the holly boughs draped artfully over the sleek modernistic furnishings, and the incongruous placements of ribbons and ornaments on SOTA equipment. "What a wonderful idea, to blend the culturally mandated stress and forced gaiety of the Christmas season with the career- wrecking potentials of the Office party."
"Why did you go directly to your room and spend a couple of hours doing homework?" Sunny asked. Sunburst was still wearing the red cloak with the fur lining, clearly seeing it as more seasonally correct than just her built-up swim suit. "I mean, it's CHRISTMAS EVE!"
"I needed something to get the taste of gingerbread and sugarplums out of my mouth."
"Yo, Big Dawg! A word in yer fuzzy ear? Dude, yer heavy into the whole Finance thing, and all- so what's the skinny on this 'AJG Consolidated' thing? Why? Well, the word from my peeps in the Hi Tech chat rooms is that this AJG outfit is crunching some serious numbers in a takeover of Marvel comics, and my netfriends tell me that there is some serious, I DO mean SERIOUS Venture Capital players backing it. Thing is, nobody knows anything about this 'AJG Consolidated' crew. I mean, nothing, nada, ZIPPO, total mystery men here. Yeah, so what I wanna know is, do you have any info on them? 'Cause, I mean, seriously! A chance to own a piece of MARVEL COMICS? Hell, maybe if I OWN a piece of Marvel, I can get their freakin' lawyers to LAY OFF about the board, Man!"
"Hello, SPFX? This is Swashbuckler, from the Crusaders? Yeah, I just got a look at that 'conciliatory note' that Big Dawg sent your team about that rather unfortunate affair in Wayside two days ago. That was... uncalled for. Especially with what I hear you're going through with Major Gravity. No, not everyone's talking about it. But in the spirit of the Holidays, I thought that I'd offer an olive branch, and show you a little good companionship on his lonely holiday..."
"Hey, Bubbles... Sunny tells me that you're tight with the daughter of Dr. frickin' Diabolik? Hey, I'm not judging... buuutt... would you just happen to have any idea, any clue, any notion as to where he might hit next? No, I'm not thinking of rushing in to save the day, or making any phone calls... Hey, I'm not asking for a date, I just need a locale... Why? Well, there's this thing called 'Diabolik Roulette'... basically, it's selling short on various enterprises in those target regions that might get hit. Of course, if you hold these short sell options for too long without the good doctor showing up, you could lose serious coin. So, I'm not asking you to violate any confidences, but... you wouldn't happen to have any inside tips, wouldja?"
"I have this on very good authority from a certain Knight Commander over at Greater LA Knights of Purity whose name I can't use, that the whole thing about Trevor Goodkind being in an accident and being medevaced to Switzerland is a complete smokescreen. What my guy passed along to me was that little Trevor was *ahem!* 'Jumped' and someone- and I quote: 'DID things to him' -unquote. And it seems that back in September, the Goodkinds had a mysterious passenger that traveled to the LAX secure cargo holding area, and was held there for several hours before being picked up by an unmarked car. And in the past few months, Herb Goodkind has been spending a lot of time and money in Cincinnati. I'm sure that you're all aware that Cincinnati has been the center of a lot of 'black lab' R&D over the past few years. And Goodkind's been running a lot of his best Lances in and out of Cincy in the past month or so. My contact says that his unit's been training extra hard, and they are- and I quote: 'hard and hungry, and itching to kick some ass'- unquote."
"Well, Ashante, you're still looking mighty good."
"Thank you, Big Dawg. Ooohhh! Chateau Moet! You remembered!"
"How could I forget?"
"Still, I do want to thank you for looking out for Tyrell, and getting him out of that GTA mess that he cooked up for himself."
"Thank You, but I do have to say that Chiller here shaped up right pronto, and he's been more than pulling his own weight. As a matter of fact, yesterday, he helped us out of a very nasty situation. We'd pulled a raid over in Brentwood, and unfortunately, the guy who owned the joint knew a lot of movers and shakers. He was threatening to throw his own Dream Team of lawyers at us. But Chill here remembered that under considerable stress, Hravec, the sleazebag in question, let drop that he was handling funds for several very nasty dark wizards. Tyrell took a snoop around Hravec's office-"
"What there was left of it-"
"And found documents tying Hravec to several dark wizards who just happen to be considered Supervillains by the State of California."
"Aren't Supervillains covered by the same statues as Organized Crime under the state's RICO laws?"
"Exactly my point, Mom. Just at the moment, Mr. Hravec's lawyers have their hands too full keeping his assets out of the wringer, to give the California Crusaders any sh-er, grief."
"So, if Tyrell manages to keep his grades up when school starts up again in January, I think that I'll have no problems in keeping him on as my apprentice, at least until he starts college. And by that time, he should have put together a big enough nest egg that he won't be going to any rinky-dink community college."
"Which suits my aching finances right down to the ground, Beauregard."
"Beauregard? Your real name is BEAUREGARD?"
"Why do you think I call myself 'Big Dawg'?"
"Oh, sure, Quetzalcoatl never accepted human sacrifices... that's what she says NOW..."
"Yo, SPFX? This is Skyrider, y'know, from the Crusaders? Yeah, the Big Dawg just told me about this really harsh, really condescending letter that he had sent to yer team. Way harsh, babe, harsh to the MAX. You deserve better, 'specially with how I hears that the Maje is makin' 'I'm outta here' noises. You deserve better, Babe, especially on Christmas Eve. Now, I happen to know this great little place in Ensenada, where-"
"I wouldn't be too worried. My friend, Jadis, her father shares a Time-Share down in Karedonia with Baron Blitzen. And she says that the Baron's finding it harder and harder to find sponsors and recruits. There just isn't the money in being a Nazi that there used to be."
"Yeah, working for Big Dawg has been... interesting... but I think that I'm ready to get out on my own. I have an old Law School acquaintance who's working in New York now, and she's hooked up with Bernie Madoff. I've got a good 300 K that I'm going to invest with Madoff. When I get that back, I'm going to show Big Dawg how REAL wheeling and dealing is done!"
The apple-red Dodge ViperT screeched into the loading dock. "HEY!" one of the men using the forklift to load one of the semis, "Move that thing! You're blocking us!"
"Yeah!" yelled the dramatic blonde who got out of the car. "I can tell that! Get Cobb out here, I don't have a lot of time to waste."
The blonde cross the distance from the ground up to the loading dock with a single fluid spring, and had the loader up off the ground with one hand. She held him by his collar with one hand, and didn't even strain. One of the other hands on the dock reached for a gun, but it sprang out of his hand, and flew the twelve-or-so feet across the dock to her hand. The woman gave him an annoyed glower and said pointedly. "Go. Get. Cobb. You. DICKHEAD."
The hand scuttled off, as the first assistant dangled helplessly, three inches off the ground. A few minutes later, Dr. Cobb came stomp out onto the dock. "Dr. Venus. To what do I owe the pleasure," he ground out in a way that suggested he found it hard to imagine anything less pleasurable. "Can you make this brief? As you can see, we're very busy."
"Yeah," Dr. Venus grunted. "I can see that. You're busy moving AGAIN. I'm here for the money you owe me."
"You seem to be mistaking me for Santa Claus," Macabre sneered. "You failed in your brief. I owe you nothing. Now GO, I'm on a tight schedule."
"WRONG, Cobb!" Dr. Venus held her ground. "I SAW one of your weaselly little vampires with the clock in his hot little hands, just before everything went to shit at Hravec's. And according to the Syndicate's contact in the LAPD, that clock is being listed as a 'Possibly Dangerous Missing Artifact of Unknown Provenance and Abilities' on their 'Stolen Items'. That means that you have the clock, and you were using me and my boys as distractions while your monsterlings got it! That means that I fulfilled my contract, and you owe me 40 Grand! So stop pissing around and cough up!"
"Let me re-word this for someone of your obvious limited mental capacity- GET LOST!"
"Y'know, Cobb... Nobody LIKES you," Dr. Venus said severely.
"Oh, boo-hoo," Cobb drawled, "now I'll have to throw myself on my bed and cry myself to sleep."
"Oh, ANOTHER wiseass who thinks that if he sneers at something, he wins," Dr. Venus sneered. "Well, just scratch that big brain of yours and remember this: we didn't just shake on this deal. NO. We signed a Syndicated backed contract. If I make a complaint to the Syndicate's Dispute Mediation Court, they WILL side with me.
"WHY? Because, Cobb, like I said, Nobody Likes You. And it's not just that snotty attitude of yours, though God knows that doesn't help. Cobb, the Syndicate is a bunch of professional crooks, thieves, spies, assassins and mad scientists- AND YOU'RE STILL A FUCKING EMBARRASSMENT! The rest of us do horrible, illegal things... but YOU? You experiment on KIDS! I get a lot of grief for what I do to my stud-muffins, but at least I give them a fucking choice! They volunteer for what I do to them. You? You grab kids off the street and shove them literally kicking and screaming into that Monster Chamber of yours! You turn them into fucking monsters! That's sick, Cobb, SICK! Cobb, if this goes to a contract mediation, you will LOSE! Hell, you'll be lucky if you're not expelled from the Syndicate!
"And Cobb? After 'Thou Shalt Not Rat Out the Syndicate', the Syndicate's major rule is: 'Thou Shalt Honor Thy Contracts'. It's the major reason why the Syndicate was created in the first place, to avoid stupid little rip-offs like this! Cobb, you go through these temporary lairs like Burt Reynolds going through a box of condoms; how do you find them? You don't; you just call your Syndicate rep and have him do the dirty work. If you tried to, you'd be in the Jug within a week! The only reason that you're still at large after all these years is because you're a dues-paying member in good standing in the Syndicate! Without the Syndicate, you're not even a bad joke!
"If I lodge a Contract Grievance against you, I can request a Suspension of your Syndicate services, and make it stick! You will be out on your ear, and nobody, and I DO mean NOBODY will lift a finger to help you! It'll be 'good riddance to bad rubbish!' That's why you should care that nobody likes you."
Cobb gave a 'sucking on a lemon' scowl and reached behind his back, under his lab coat. There was a series of metallic clicks and an electronic whine, and when Cobb pulled his hand back out, it was covered by a technological gauntlet that pulsed with power.
"Oh, Please," Dr. Venus tisked. "First of all, I'm not afraid of that thing, OR your piss-ant team of wet-behind-the-ears wonders. Second, I'm covered. Third, I told my Syndicate rep that I was coming here to get my money. If you kill me, the Syndicate will send a squad of Tiger Guard to wipe up the place with you and your kids." Cobb ramped up a glowing sphere of energy around the gauntlet. "And fourth, I have information that you need. And I DO mean NEED."
"Information?" Cobb paused. "What kind of information?"
Dr. Venus relaxed and smirked, "You're going after the Telchine's Astrolabe."
"What makes you think that?"
"You wanted Ormenious' Clock. What else could it be?"
Dr. Venus sighed. "Ormenious' Clock has power in of itself, but its primary value is the 'computer' or bits of ancient not-quite-bronze clockwork inside it. Combined with a not-bronze platen generally known as the Aegean Mirror, and a stylus or 'clock arms' for the unsophisticated, the three units form the Telchine's Astrolabe. The Telchine's Astrolabe is an artifact that is thousands of years older than recorded Human History, and is supposed to be the masterpiece of the beings that forged Saturn's sickle and Neptune's trident." She finished with arms folded and a smug 'gee, aren't I smart?' grin.
Cobb shut down his gauntlet. "What do you know?"
"Nah-ah; First things first. You owe me money. Pay up, or go after the third bit not knowing what I know."
Cobb made another 'sucking on a lemon' moue but reached behind his lab coat and pulled out a Kevlar trucker's wallet. He fished out eight travelers checks in denominations of $5,000 each, and handed them to Dr. Venus. "Ah, American Express, the supervillain's best friend," she sighed.
"Well?" Dr Cobb asked archly. Dr. Venus merely raised one eyebrow and looked significantly at the wallet. Dr. Cobb sighed and pulled out another travelers' check. Dr. Venus coaxed another check out of him. "WELL?"
"The Astrolabe is dangerous."
"Dangerous? How?" Dr. Venus raised her eyebrow again and looked at the wallet. Dr. Cobb added another check. "How do you know this?" he asked skeptically.
"My mentor in the Mad Science biz was Dr. Veritas."
"That explains SO MUCH about you," Macabre jeered.
"Hey, before she started going soft between the ears, Veritas was hella sharp and hella tough. Anyway, back when I was apprenticing under Doc Veritas, I wanted to research various magical phenomena, pretty much as you did. But Veritas told me about what happened with the Astrolabe. I was dubious at first, but I did some research, and what I found out scared me off all of that oogie-boogie crap for good!"
"Aaanndd exactly WHAT did you find?" Another check was added to the wad.
"Okay, first of all, you have to understand that my mentor wasn't the first Dr. Veritas. That was HER mentor, the original Dr. Veritas."
"Ah, yes, now I recall..." Macabre sighed. "A very formidable man, the original Dr. Veritas, a renaissance man of weird science... and weren't there rumors that he was murdered by his successor?" Cobb raised an eyebrow back at Dr. Venus.
"Good, then you have a rough idea as to what was going on back then. And YES, that IS a part of my story. Back then my mentor, 'Sophia' as she was calling herself then, was Dr. Veritas' Number One, in more ways than one. She was his lab assistant, his general manager, his bookkeeper, his bodyguard, his enforcer, his driver, his cook, his general liaison, his femme fatale, his chief intelligence officer, and yes, his bed warmer. She was your basic pre-Fem Lib tough chick, who didn't think that the world owed her a damned thing, but she was out to get as much of whatever she could.
"Anyway, after his latest tangle with one idiot Man of Action or another- I mean, let's face it, back then, those rock-jawed assholes were all alike; it was like they churned them out with a cookie cutter!- the original Dr. Veritas took it into his head to master the powers of wizardry. He found out about the Telchine's Astrolabe somehow, and fast-forwarding through a lot of pointless daring-do, he managed to get all three pieces and put them together."
"Then... how did the 'computer' get back into Ormenious' clock?" Cobb objected.
"I have NO idea, and I don't really care," Dr. Venus admitted. "So, despite several rather cryptic warnings, Dr. Veritas decided to personally examine the workings of the Astrolabe under certain rather... odd... conditions. Sophia was in the lab with him, but well protected in an armored glass booth, reading the instrumentation, which was pretty primitive by today's standards, but was SOTA back in 19... 65? 66? 67? Whenever.
"Anyway, Dr. Veritas was observing the Astrolabe in action, and he was reeling off figures and observations and like all that, and then his speech starts to get... odd... and then he starts talking in complete gibberish. And the instrumentation that Sophia's watching is going completely berserk, totally haywire. When she looked up to look at Dr. Veritas, to ask him what the hell was going on, she saw that he was literally frying with some kind of weird energy. She tried to go help him, but the energy kept the door of her cage forced shut. When the energy finally died down, and she could get to him, Dr. Veritas was just standing there.
"She tried to talk to him, but he didn't hear her. Or react. To anything. He just stared forward, blankly. He wouldn't even swallow when she tried to feed him. She even had to clean him up, like a baby, after he, y'know... soiled... himself. For two weeks, she tried everything that she could think of to get him to snap out of it. Finally, she gave up, and put a bullet in his head. But it wasn't murder, Cobb. Sophia was Veritas' assistant, and back then it was pretty common for female assistants, nurses, secretaries and like that to fall in love with their bosses; hey, it was one of the ways they managed to find husbands. Sophia loved Dr. Veritas, and when she killed him, it was out of love. She simply couldn't stand to see him like that anymore."
"How tragic," Cobb droned without sympathy. "But his ending was simply one of the professional hazards of our mutual vocation. Why should this frighten you off my field of research?"
"I did my research and checked the autopsy report on the original Dr. Veritas," Dr. Venus stated firmly, "because, well, you know what it's like! You never know what someone else might have overlooked! When the ME opened up Veritas' skull, aside from the bullet entry and exit trauma, the surface of his cerebrum was as smooth and unwrinkled as a brand-new bowling ball. No sign of crenellation what-so-fucking-ever. Cobb, Veritas was one of the last of the WWII era renegade scientists, before everything went nuclear; he had doctorates in medicine, chemistry, and engineering, and the equivalent of that in a dozen other fields, he spoke six languages, and he was an expert in covert operations with over twenty years in the field. But when Sophia put that bullet in his head, he didn't even know how to scratch his nose! Cobb, if you don't believe me, check out the FBI report on him! You can access it through the FOIA. The file's listed as Hudlar Krizenec, it's five inches thick, and the autopsy report runs for over sixty pages."
Cobb regarded her warily. "Is there any chance that being exposed to the Astrolabe, even so remotely, might be the cause of the current Dr. Vertias', ah... state?"
Venus shook her head sadly. "Nope, and I checked. It's classic Lab Rat Dementia, endemic neural damage caused by decades of exposure to strange chemicals and wierd energies- oh, and smoking and drinking and very near encounters with death. She was talking about doing a rejuve the hard way, by cloning up a new body and downloading her mind into it. But the neural damage is too pervasive; she'd just wind up copying the mistakes into the clone's cerebrum, and the result would be even crazier than she is now. But I don't blame you for suspecting that the Astrolabe might be responsible."
"Well, when all of this went down, the only formal education that Sophia had was an immediate post-WWII high school diploma. The rest she basically picked up by working for Krizenec. But she told me that when she was reading the input from all those, somehow it all flowed together and clicked inside her head, and finally understood what Krizenec had been yapping at her about all those years. Hey, that's WHY she was able to become the next Dr. Veritas and make it stick! She bought a few bogus degrees from a diploma mill, for credibility's sake, but it was her own skill that put her over."
"And this is your valuable information?"
"COBB, that thing is fucking dangerous! The ancient Greeks thought that the Gods themselves struck down the Telchines; I think it was that 'Astrolabe' thing run amok. The Telchines had been using that thing for centuries; they thought they knew what they were doing with it, but it still destroyed them!"
"Your concern is touching," Cobb said frostily, clearly thinking furiously, turning this input over in his mind.
"NO, I'm not saying that I'm worried about you," Dr. Venus groused. "You're a textbook example of an asshole. But I need the money, and I'm trying to provide value here."
Then something visibly clicked for Dr. Macabre, and he settled. With the merest smile, he said, "And you have provided value, Dr. Venus. Valuable information, for a question that has been bothering me of late. Well done." With that, he produced a pen and signed the travelers' checks over to Dr. Venus' cover name. With that done, neither scientist saw any need for hypocritical pleasantries, and Dr. Venus drove off.
A good ten miles away, Dr. Venus checked to see if her car was being monitored in any way. When her status was 'green', she pulled out her cell phone, hit the scramble option, and said with a grin, "Hey. It's me. He fell for it, Hook, Line and Sucker!"
Back at the party
"Yo, Katie... Swash here was sayin' that that 'Martian Invasion' that blew through Corona back in '53 was a big put-up job, like the history books say, but I say that the Military is covering up all the nifty Martian tech that they got from the wreckage."
"Sky, we know that Mars isn't capable of sustaining life, so anyone coming to Earth would have to come from outside the Solar System. WHY would a race capable of interstellar travel come all that way, and not to their homework about basic stuff like... oh... could they LIVE here?"
"So their leadership had an epic brain fart. It happens! Or maybe they had an anti-infection method, but it went belly up on 'em. That happens too. Anyways, Bright Eyes, if there's any place that would have the skinny on whether there's aliens out there or not, it's that Whateley place you go to. I hear that it's, like, Weirdness Central! So, you run into any aliens at school?"
"I'm sorry, but I've promised High Auditor Zyrnoflerx upon the All Seeing Eye of Snooperificousness not to reveal the secret."
"Well, you can't expect her to break a promise made on the All Seeing Eye of Snooperficosity!"
"Snooperficousness." Silently, Kate fumed as she felt a familiar call. 'Not NOW, Mom!'
"Are you okay, Hon?"
"This is Daybreak-"
"From the Crusaders."
"We just heard about Major Gravity just dumping all over you!"
"EVERYBODY is talking about it."
"What can we say?"
"Men are pigs."
"You don't deserve that."
"Not on Christmas Eve of all nights?"
"Anyway, we were thinking that what you needed was a little good testosterone-free Christmas cheer..."
"Ah, NO Mom! I mean, I just met the girl! There's nothing going on with me and Spoo-er, Katrina!"
"Oh, THANK you JESUS!"
"Nah, nah, nah, Chill, that isn't what's goin' on. Y'see after the Challenger disaster back in '86, there was like this HYooojjj backlash against 'exotic technologies', especially in space flight. Congress passed a bunch of laws saying that the FAA can only okay 'verified and standardized propulsion methods'- whatever the hell that means- for commercial and government flights. We superheroes can use whatever we want as long as we register them as 'experimental prototypes', 'cause, like, we're weirdoes and who cares if we blow ourselves up? Of course, with NASA operating on the shoestring that it's got these days, that means that we got this Catch-22 of we can't develop better systems unless the FAA okays new radical designs for real world testing, but the FAA won't okay them for testing because they're not 'verified and standardized propulsion methods'. So that means we got assholes like Dr. Diabolik dropping out of orbit to raid entire cities, and then getting away using Lift Beacon technology, while we're still piddling around with LOX rockets. Y'know, sometimes I think he does that just to piss us off?"
"Yo, Beaur-er, Big Dawg, how do you know my mom?"
"Well, you may not believe this, but back in the day, your mother was quite the wheeler-dealer."
"Damn skippy I was! And I made a nice little packet for myself!" "And then YOUR FATHER came along and pissed it all away in a Dot.com pipe dream!"
"Actually, Chill, it was a lot more involved than that, but that's her story, and she's sticking to it."
"Sure Daybreak, I guess that I could try another look. But can you imagine how hard it would be to find a black girl my age who looks almost exactly like me, who's willing to wear nothing but white?" (not NOW, Mom!)
"Of course there's no big NSA conspiracy to monitor superhumans. And remember to speak directly into the micr- er, glass and enunciate!"
"Lost cities of Aztecs? These days? Please, don't be ridiculous! On the other hand, hidden valleys of cocaine growers? Now that's a whole other thing!"
"Yo, Swash, I'm tellin' you- losing the secret identity is the best thing that ever happened to me. Hey, I haven't gotten tagged ONCE for jury duty since I came out!"
"Another glass of champagne? Dawg, you tryin' to get my mother drunk?"
"Keep it down, Chiller. Quite the contrary. If there is one thing that I have always admired about your mother- besides a right hook that could drop a mule- it's that she knows when she's had enough to drink and it's time to go home. And as fond as we both are of your mother, I think we'll both agree that she might be a little awkward out on the town later with these three ladies." < holds up a smartphone with a picture showing >
"DAWG! For ME?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Chiller. They're too old for you. They're MY dates for tonight. Buuuttt... they each just happen to have a younger sister who're all simply thrilled at the idea of making the rounds with a superhero their age." < switches picture to another shot >
"Ah, Mom? Care for another glass of Chateau Moet?"
"Oh, hey BRU!" Sunny called Brujah over. "You should have heard Katie at the First Congregationalists'! She totally ROCKED 'Silent Night'!"
"You're making a big deal out of nothing," Kate insisted sturdily. "Now, if I'd sung it in Polish, the way it's supposed to be sung-"
"I thought that 'Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht' was originally written in German," Brujah said in the tones of correction.
"It was," Kate admitted, "and German's such a coarse, harsh tongue that the song couldn't help but be improved when translated to the delicate fluid loveliness of Polsku."
"You speak Polish?" Brujah asked, one eyebrow arched.
"Do you speak Spanish?" Kate shot back. "Or, for that matter, Nahuatl?"
"Yes," Brujah almost hissed.
"Well, there you are," Kate allowed a note of satisfaction to creep into her voice. She peered at Brujah's headdress with pointed curiosity. "By the way, I've always meant to ask you: are those real quetzal feathers? Or did you just die some turkey feathers?"
"They are TRUE tail feathers of the sacred Resplendent Quetzal!" Brujah snapped.
"All of them?" Kate murmured, amused. "You DO know that the Resplendent Quetzal is on the 'Nearly Threatened' list, don't you?" she peered closer. "Is it even legal to OWN those feathers?"
"As a matter of fact, YES!" Brujah said jerking her headdress away from Kate's hand. "Yes," she allowed," some of them ARE dyed feathers from other birds, but the important ones are Resplendent Quetzal plumes. I know the curator of the aviaries at the San Diego zoo, and he lets me have replacement feathers when I lose a few."
"Well then, you'd better get on the phone quick, 'cause it looks like you're starting to molt." Kate held up three feathers, which Brujah promptly snatched back.
Kate spilled her coke on herself as though Brujah had joggled her arm. "Don't mention it; the warmth of your gratitude is payment enough," she droned as she wiped at her dress.
As Sunny made apologies to Brujah, Kate made her way to the Ladies' powder room. Once she was sure that no one else was inside, she pulled out the Brooch of the Asa-Gythi of the Fellowship of Mimir's Well out from under her dress and laid it bare. Then she switched off the light. 'C'mon, c'mon, Mom! Oh, simply classic! She's been nagging at me for over an hour, and how that I'm finally ready, she's not picking up the phone!'
Then, finally, just when Kate was getting worried that she'd have to explain to the next woman who came into the john why she was hanging around in the dark, she heard the call. Using her connection through the Asa-Gythi's Brooch, Kate reached through the shadows and travelled along the underways. Sliding down the silky smooth arteries of night, she entered into another darkness surrounded by a circle of lit candles. "Okay, what do you w-"
An ethereal griffon came screaming out of the darkness. Kate barely managed to cage it in tendrils of shadow, but that only left her open for the hailstorm that battered her from another direction. Kate wrapped herself up in a cocoon of darkness, which spared her further cubing, but almost got her diced as one of Macabre's vampires slashed at it with a sword that cut right through it. However the other vampires kept him from killing her, if only because they got in his way by beating the crap out of her. Kate was getting her focus back as the werecat got her arm behind her back. But Kate couldn't get the cat off her back, because she had to focus on getting a shield up quickly enough to stop that stupid magic sword from parting her hair all the way down to her nose. The sword totally destroyed the shield, and Vic was raising the sword for a second killing strike, when they were all stopped short by, "STOP! What do you think you're DOING?"
"Are you KIDDING?" Vic snapped, keeping the sword cocked to bring down again. "That's that spooky-ass chick who almost handed us our asses at that Werewolf place! She's one of the California Crusaders! We gotta get outta here, before the rest of 'em bust down the doors!"
"That's my Daughter, Katrina!" Marzena said, strutting out of the shadows wearing a dark red ceremonial robe, with Dr. Macabre by her side. "She's the one we've been waiting for over an hour for!"
"Gee, if I'd known that I was going to get such a warm welcome, I would have left the party early," Kate snarked as she pulled herself free of the less-than-trusting Vampire and Werewolf.
'Ah, so THIS is your cunning plan, should your strange powers fail you,' Kate heard Ito-sensei's voice in her mind, 'you rely on your MOTHER to save you!'
'Oh shut up,' she silently told the figment of her hypercritical imagination, 'I said that I was going to take BMA II.'
"She's your daughter?" Icy demanded. "But she beat the crap out of us at the Crypt, and stole the Mirror! She's with the fuckin' CRUSADERS!"
"Katrina and I were captured by the Crusaders a few years back," Marzena explained. "I was sent to prison, but for some reason, that cheap, over-developed blonde, Sunball, or something, decided that she was going to reform Katrina somehow. Don't ask me why, the superhero mentality is a total mystery to me. But Katrina knows who her mother is. She is a good, obedient daughter, and she comes to me when she is called." Marzena negligently swung the locket as it dangled from one hand. "At least, eventually she does."
"Well excuse me for thinking that you'd call me at NIGHT," Kate sniped. "By the way, it's only 4 in the afternoon- how can those Vampires be walking around so freely? Where IS this, anyway? And what's with the darkness?"
"Well, of course, darling!" Marzena breezed in her best cosmopolitan sophisticate's manner. "Everyone's expecting the good doctor's forces to operate at night. So, what better time to infiltrate this hidden chapel within the *ahem!* 'Temple' of the Golden West chapter of the Freemasons? A chapter which just happens to be a front for a particularly tedious group of goody-goody mystics. Among their efforts is fielding a team of murderous occult vigilantes known as 'the Midnight Wardens'." She jerked a finger at a group of six figures, four men and two women, who were all furiously struggling to free themselves from near-mummy shrouds of duct tape. Near them were three more people, two women and a man, bound with handcuff and duct tape over their mouths. "So, I sprinkled a little concoction made from that Erebeal distillation that you so kindly provided me, on the four cardinal points of the outside of this building and at the very center of the inside. Now, not only is this building shrouded in darkness, allowing these children the freedom to act, but for the three and a half hours, this place is, for all mystical purposes, at True Midnight. Well, we would have three and a half hours to do this ritual, if you had come when you were called," she finished sharply, glowering at Kate.
"You told me to place a Mahasuran Refutation on Brujah," Kate defended herself. "Tagging her wasn't easy; Brujah doesn't trust me."
"Gee, I wonder WHY?" Darcy sneered.
Kate ignored the crack. "I had to wade through most of that inane Christmas party to get close enough to tag her with it."
"YES. And I also grabbed these," Kate held up two long gloriously green feathers. "Resplendent Quetzal tail feathers from her headdress."
Marzena took the feathers. "The Resplendent Quetzal is the sacred bird of Quetzalcoatl, the Green Broo-hah's patron spirit, AND these are from her ritual headdress?" Kate nodded. "I can do things with these."
But Dr. Macabre was studying Kate closely. "This is the girl I overheard telling the Crusaders about the Telchine's Astrolabe. I'd had no idea that the Astrolabe existed until she spelled it out for me."
"Of course!" Marzena breezed. "I'd told Katrina to keep an eye out of the piece of the Astrolabe, and to give Katrina her due, she took advantage of the Crusaders' complete ignorance of the occult black market to set them on its trail. What better way to pry the Mirror out of Lycarax's paws than to have the Crusaders to the prying? And what better way to set the Crusaders off on a hunt for the Astrolabe than tell them that the menacing Dr. Macabre was tearing up the greater Los Angeles area looking for it? We were as surprised as anyone, Fitz, when your... people... showed up at Lycarax's compound, looking for the mirror..."
"Fitz?" Kate echoed, "Mom? You KNOW him?"
"Oh, Fitz here and I are old, intimate friends," Marzena replied with a cat that's been at the cream purr.
Kate gave Cobb a stricken gawp and squeaked out, "...daddy?"
With sadistic relish, Cobb answered crushingly, "NO."
"OH THANK YOU GOD! You DO have Mercy!" Kate gushed, hands clasped in prayer, eyes cast heavenward.
"Wait a minute," Stormy argued, stepping forward, "SHE was the one that RAT Artie went to with the Clock!"
"I didn't know that Mom had hooked up with Dr. Macabre," Kate droned, staring Stormy straight in the eye with undisguised hostility. "I was trying to get the clock from him."
"And what happened to that back stabbing runt, Artie?" Stormy demanded.
"He's in intensive care," Kate replied, not showing the least concern. "That blast of yours almost killed him!"
"Go Stormy," the remaining female werecat murmured.
The conversation, as tense as it was, was cut short when a metallic playing card flew out of the darkness and embedded itself in the hardwood floor. There was the briefest pause, just long enough for everyone to look directly at the card out of sheer reflex, and then the card erupted in a flare of blinding light. As the assembled reacted, blinded, a figure darted out among them. Icy found herself wrapped up in a cocoon of red ribbon that held like steel. Tombstone, the lone remaining ghoul had a card slapped on his forehead, which seemed to rob him of his wits. Top Dawg and the two remaining werewolves were covered in a cloud of a noxious, reeking mist that covered them and sent their very sensitive noses into open rebellion, sending them to their hands and knees retching. Raja and Shanga, the two remaining werecats were revolted by the stench that got their way, but weren't overwhelmed by it. But the cigarette-lighter sized shrieker units that the figure dropped did overwhelm them (didn't do the werewolves any good, either). The figure then took advantage of the Teen Terrors' tendency to cluster together in discrete groups by throwing a packet of powdered garlic at them, with more or less the same result as the mist had had on the werewolves. The man- they could tell that it was a man in a flowing cape now- rushed at one of Macabre's henchmen, grabbed the shotgun the man was holding did a flip and used the man's grip on the shotgun to throw him, disarming him and throwing him into another one of the henchmen.
During all of this, Kate just stood there stoically, barely bothering to so much as just follow this with her eyes with disinterest.
Vic staggered out of the cloud of garlic dust, his magic sword in hand, trying gallantly to find whoever was attacking them. The man produced a long staff, and laid into him, relieving him of the magic sword. Dr. Macabre powered up his 'discipline' gauntlet, but something went badly wrong, and it started sparking. "Don't just STAND there, you fools!" he snapped, realizing that he was voicing the tritest of cliches even as he spoke, "DO something!"
"KATRINA!" Marzena snarled, "You heard him! Take care of this fool!"
"How about a strongly worded letter of protest to the LA Times?" Kate suggested, not moving an inch.
"CAPTURE HIM!" Marzena shrieked as she took cover.
"Okay," Kate sighed as she raised a hand and made a gesture, "but you're just perpetuating the violence." Kate's shadow reached forward and lunged at the man, as quick, silent and deadly as a cobra. But the mystery man ducked and weaved, using the Teen Terrors and the reeling henchmen, and even Dr. Macabre for cover. On those times when Kate's shadow-snake did catch up with him, he sliced it to shreds before it could coil itself around him. He sent a flight of cards that glowed with power at Kate. She easily blocked them with a shield of darkness, but that cost her power from her 'snake'. The man used that opening to bolt from where Kate was herding, across the length of the room, to a table that had a collection of odd items on it. He snatched up a glassine skull, which he held high as he kept his face shielded with his cloak. Wispy spectral figures appeared spiraling around the skull for a moment. Then the entire room was filled with ghostly wraiths that wailed like a legion of lost souls.
"Katrina!" Mazena snarled, "DO something!"
"Hey, I've seen 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'; I know better than to mess with this!"
"Just... DO IT!" She held up the locket and shook it at Kate significantly.
"Okaaayyy... but this is the part of the movie where it gets really cool!" Kate sent out tendrils of darkness out into the swarm of specters, but the wraiths interfered with her efforts somehow.
By this time, Darcy and Stormy had managed to get Icy free of the strange silken bonds, and they quickly formed a triad with their Staff, Chalice and Athame. They gathered up power and dismissed the wraiths. But the man bolted through the mist as the wraiths dispersed, tackled Stormy and vaulted up to the mezzanine with her, telescoping his staff to reach there. He slammed her midsection into the banister, knocking the wind out of her. Then he grabbed her by the nape of her hair and pulled her back. Then he drew the magic sword back and posed for a killing strike. "POP!" Stormy barely managed to get out. "Don't! It's ME! Artie!"
"What?" the man paused, "That's PATHETIC! First you KILL my Son-"
"MISTER MAGIC!" Kate screamed, "She's telling the truth!" That silenced the room. In her usual- if still carrying register- she continued, "That's Artie!"
The man paused, giving Dr. Macabre an opening to shout with malicious glee, "She's quite right, MR. MAGIC! That lovely young thing is your own SON, Arthur!"
Mr. Magic pulled the blank black mask from his face, revealing a face of shock, dismay and parental horror. "I'm sorry, Pop..." Stormy said weakly, "I... tried to do what I thought you'd do..."
"Gimme a break," he said without the conviction that remark needs. Stormy leaned over to him and whispered something in his ear. "Oh my God..." Mr. Magic gasped, reeling on the very brink. "Artie, what did he DO to you, Son?"
"It was quite remarkable," Cobb continued with obvious gratification, "I shoved him into my Attunement Chamber, expecting him to come out as just another vampire. You could imagine my surprise when SHE came out as my third witch, completing the triad."
"MACABRE, YOU UNCANNY SON OF BITCH FREAK!" Mr. Magic thundered over the banister, "You change him back NOW!"
"Oh, don't play the outraged patriarch with me," Cobb snarled. "You suspected that I had your son; all that you had to do was contact me through the Syndicate, and a neutral third party would have mediated a reasonable settlement."
"Like I'd let the Syndicate know that I have a son!"
"They already knew," Cobb replied with a cold smirk. "No, the only reason that you wouldn't simply contact me to get your son back is that you were willing to risk your own child in a blatant attempt to manipulate me into recovering the impounded power items of your wretched criminal scum colleges. You risked his life, just to cheat the Syndicate out of their rightful recovery fees."
"Sneer all you want," Mr. Magic growled, snarling over the banister, "but that's not gonna stop me from shoving YOU into that monstrifying thing of yours and setting it on DEEP FRY!"
"Oh, I'm being threatened," Cobb said calmly, "I'm SO frightened of a third string Las Vegas lounge act. Besides, you don't really have any excuse for such outrage. That is unless your daughter never saw fit to tell you that she wasn't your son."
"Really... you never bothered to find out what SEX your child really is?" Macabre sneered. "Such a negligent parent hardly has any room for such righteous indignation."
"Artie?" Mr. Magic goggled at his child.
"Weeelll..." Stormy whined, cringing with embarrasment, "You thought that I was a boy, and you were so amped on having a SON..."
"Enough cheap comedy." Macabre touched a stud on his gauntlet, and Stormy/Artie spasmed and let out a yip. Mr. Magic reflexively grabbed her by the arms to help his child, and was shocked when Stormy let out a burst of magical lightning.
"POP!" Stormy shrieked as Mr. Magic jerked and fell. Then she let out another scream and folded.
"So much for that," Cobb muttered coldly. He noticed the odd looks his followers were giving him, so he gave an annoyed tisk and explained, "Unlike some people, I do my research. I used the ID that Artie- the vampire Artie, who's probably in jail, rather than in a hospital- had on him to track his antecedents, in case his parents might be useful to me in some way. His father is an Actuary for a large insurance company, NOT a mysterious supervillain burglar. So, obviously, Stormy's story was a lie, and she was our mole. So, I included an inductive response trigger in the 'protective amulet' that I gave her, just in case. She should have known better than to tell me a lie. Still, it was an artful lie." He shot a nasty glare at Kate. "A lie that you actively assisted."
"Yes. And your point IS?"
"Do you know what I do to TRAITORS?" he snarled as he powered up his gauntlet again.
"What traitor?" Kate asked with sere unconcern. "I don't work for you. I didn't know that Mom had hooked up with you when I helped Stormy."
"And now, I still don't work for you."
"You know, I'm very good at getting mouthy little girls to mind their manners."
"Please. I see tougher guys than you get wedgied in line for lunch."
"Oh dearie-dear..." Kate said in a stilted, bad-high-school-play-acting voice, "I am surrounded by big bad evil ugly monster kids. I will run away and hide under my bed."
Kate started to wrap herself up in darkness, when Marzena cut her off. "KATRINA! Behave yourself!"
"But MOM! The big bad scary man is making mean noises at me! I must hide under my bed! Do you remember where my wubbie is?"
Marzena gave Cobb a weary look. "I know, I know- you try living with that for 16 years..." She waved the Teen Terrors off their mark and said, "Still, she knows to obey her mama. You! Ugly Walking Dead Boy!" she tore the card from Tombstone's forehead. "Go up there and get those two down here. Don't hurt the girl. We'll need her. And don't hurt the old man in the Zorro costume... too badly. I need him mostly alive- for the moment."
"Ah... Ma'am?" Darcy asked Marzena as Tombstone lugged the two down the spiral staircase, "not to question your expertise or nothin'... but exactly WHY do you need this guy?"
"Well, this working will be very tricky, even with the power of the Astrolabe," Marzena explained as she looked over the chapel. "Ah! There! Perfect!" she pointed at a table laden with ritual gear. "Indeed, the power of the assembled Astrolabe could easily go wrong, so we must make the conditions as salubrious- that means good, sweetlings- as possible. We must consecrate this chapel to our purpose."
"But... it's a chapel..." Darcy pointed out. "Isn't it already consecrated?"
"Yes," Marzena said as she picked through the various odds and ends that Macabre's crew had taken from Lycarax's treasure room, "but it's consecrated to someone else's purpose. SO, we have to make measures to insure our success." She selected one of the black obsidian daggers. "This will do. Lay him out on the table." They did so, and Marzena opened his shirt, and then cussed a little as she had to remove some body armor. Then she painted a mystic sigil on his chest. By this time, Mr. Magic was coming around. "You two big ones! Hold his arms! You two little girls! Put these cloves of garlic in his hands and keep his hands around the cloves!!" Once they had Mr. Magic securely held, Marzena took the obsidian dagger and held it high over his chest, poised to plunge it into his heart.
"THIS is how you're going to consecrate this place?" Icy asked, aghast from where she was helping Darcy keep a frantically struggling Stormy under control.
"Consecrate, Desecrate..." Marzena grumbled, "English has too many words... Katrina, do NOT interfere," she added as Kate had started to hover over Marzena's shoulder.
< ah, Mom? > Kate asked Marzena in Polish, worry cracking even her frosty reticence < Human sacrifice? Isn't that a little hard core, even for US? >
< If you want a thing done right, you do what you have to, > Marzena replied in the same language.
< But MOM, you always said that anything you have to buy with another's life blood is usually something that you really don't want! >
< Katrina! I'm flattered that you remember that! >
< Of course I remember it! I remember, because it was the only thing you ever said that made any SENSE! >
"Enough of this..." Marzena took the obsidian dagger in both hands and prepared to get bloody.
"POP!" Stormy screamed, struggling in a near frenzy in Icy and Darcy's grips.
"Maaawwwmmm," Kate whined, fidgeting as though she was fighting some bitter internal struggle between obedience and action, "don't DO this... It's WRONG..."
"STOP!" A lambent green-and-red feathered serpent undulated through one of the darkened windows, spread its wings and gave a hissing roar. Brujah appeared standing on its wings, her staff held high. "You DARE stain this holiest of days with a blood sacrifice? And not even to honor gods or to fuel the workings of the world, but simply to increase your own corrupt power? Whatever crimes this man has committed, he is sinless and righteous next to your own!"
"You're absolutely right," Kate droned. "I should be ashamed of myself. I'm going straight to my room and think long and hard about what I've done."
"KATRINA!" Marzena snarled, "Stop being snide and DO something!"
"Fine, fine," Kate grumbled, "What a way to spend my Christmas vacation..." she trudged over to where Brujah was standing, looked up into the taller woman's face and said calmly, "Brujah, I just want you to know that my mother is making me do this. The fact that I've wanted to clean your clock ever since I first met you has nothing to do with this." Then she lightly bopped Brujah on the nose.
"WHAT?" Marzena yelped.
"You said, 'Do something'. That's something."
Brujah didn't wait for Kate and her mother to stop bickering. She reared up on her coatl manifestation, held her staff up high, and the room was filled with bright sunlight. Most of the Teen Terrors reeled from the light, and Brujah then sent two lesser feathered serpent manifestations at Belle and Darla, the two vampires holding Mr. Magic. Mr. Magic managed to completely free himself from the bonds that had strapped him to the altar, and gave Marzena a vicious kick. Raja and Shanga, the two remaining werecats, jumped at Mr. Magic. But Mr. Magic used that move to mash the two cloves of garlic into their snouts. Werecats aren't as repulsed by garlic as vampires are, but the potent reek, combined with the blows to their very sensitive noses, sent them reeling. Mr. Magic stretched forth his hand to call his staff back to him, but the character that Marzena had painted on his chest burned him when he channeled his magical power.
"Shit!" he cursed under his breath. He scrambled for the obsidian knife, beating Marzena to the blade by inches. Then he kipped back to his feet and darted over to where the Midnight Wardens were watching the fight from the floor. "When outnumbered, seek allies," he said quietly as he sliced the duct tape, freeing them. Okay, they were also handcuffed under the duct tape, but he got rid of those so quickly that it took longer to type it.
The Midnight Wardens took a moment to take in the situation and get the circulation back into their limbs. Then with the merest nod from the team leader, they exploded into action, tackling Dr. Macabre and his more conventional (but experienced and disciplined, and therefore dangerous) henchmen. Mr. Magic himself looked around and spotted the Gravewarden's power skull. He made a dash for it, but just as he was there, it floated out of his grasp. It wafted over into Icy's hand, who was using one hand to keep Stormy in check, along with Darcy at the other end. "Looking for THIS?" Icy grinned archly, holding the skull up high. Hey, Darce, let's see what a turbo-boost of magic energy will do for this hunk of glass. God knows, Artie here isn't giving us any real problems."
Stormy stopped struggling, and gave out a loud moan of defeat. She sagged to one knee. Then, sensing Icy shifting the balance of her feet, Stormy reversed the grip that Icy hand on her arm and used the leverage to throw Icy to the ground. Darcy wasn't expecting that, and Stormy used that to 'Iron Broom' her off her feet. Then Stormy grabbed the crystal skull and threw it to Mr. Magic with a yell of "Heads Up, Pop!"
"Artie!" Mr. Magic exclaimed, bursting with paternal pride, "You've found your center! That's my... whatever!" Then the room went dim again, as Kate's darkness reached up and swallowed Brujah's mock sun. "Ooohhh... Craaap..." Stormy and Mr. Magic said as one.
The Vampires, who had been cowering in whatever shadows would hide them, came screaming out, looking for blood (figuratively). Tombstone charged at the Midnight Wardens, scattering them, letting Macabre's henchmen get their pins and go for their weapons. Darcy used the chaos to head for the 'junk table', and get the Gryphon's Egg. She concentrated on the egg, and the ethereal gryphon appeared with a shriek like the sound of metal rending. But she didn't send it at Stormy; she sent the gryphon at the main threat: the Green Brujah. Brujah was mixing it up with Kate's darkness and more than holding her own. She was able to fend off the gryphon, but now she was on the defensive.
"At last," Marzena grumbled. She crawled out from behind the case that she was hiding behind and held up a slip of paper, along with two long iridescent green feathers. She shouted, "Nie! Nie chce sie z zielona personel klejnotami wladzy! Nie daj mi to! Trzymaj go mocno w swoje i nigdy nie pozwol mu wejsc w moje!"
"You're using a Mahasuran Refutation on me?" Brujah jeered. "That could really HURT! Pity for you that I caught your sneaky little girl pinning that on me, and I prepared a Geotic Reversal Charm, just for that!"
"Ah, Brujah?" Kate peeped, "While it's not my habit to point out where someone who's trying to kill me is going wrong- that's more Jadis' neurosis- but what my mother just enchanted was NOT a Mahasuran Refutation."
But Brujah (rather understandably) ignored that and completed the Goetic Reversal. At the end of which, her power staff leapt out of her hand into Marzena's. Marzena spun the staff around and said, "How GENEROUS of you, Green Broo-Hah... Now what WILL you do? KATRINA! Finish this nonsense now!"
"Yes, Mother Dearest," Kate droned and resumed her attack. Which was a lot more effective this time, even with Darcy calling the gryphon back. Now Brujah was completely on the defensive, and she had the mien of someone who'd just barely mastered juggling three balls, who had four balls in the air. While experiencing an incredible need to scratch her nose. She called forth more feathered serpents and used them well enough, but they weren't as large or as visibly powerful as they'd been before. And Brujah used them... gingerly, with visible care. Which isn't the best way to handle a weapon, even an ethereal coatl. Kate acted with more initiative and daring, and to make a short nasty fight even shorter and nastier, Kate soon had Brujah wrapped up in tendrils of force. "Okay, Mom, I hope that you have something planned, because I can't hold her like this forever. And if I let her go, she's so mad that she might just let fly, and screw the consequences."
"Not to worry, Katrina," Marzena said primly. "Yet again, Mama comes to your rescue." She draped a necklace with a triangular black iron pendant dangling from it over Brujah's neck. "There! That IS a Mahasuran Refutation charm, Brujah. And it won't come off unless someone removes it for you."
Even as Kate was still wrapping up Brujah, Stormy and her father had their hands full. Mr. Magic had gotten his staff back and was in fine form, but the Midnight Wardens weren't as much help as he thought they'd be. Not when the giggling little blonde pixie of the Vampires, Darla, was using the Mad Puppeteer's String Controller like a video game handset, playing the Wardens like sprites in a video game against him. "Hah! Jab! Thrust! Special Combo!"
Stormy on the other hand, was doing a very good job of turning the Teen Terror's weapons against them. She'd nearly fried Vic by using his magic sword as a lightning rod, then done pretty much the same to Tombstone's dyna-hammer and the lightsaber that Belle was using. The less said about Shep trying to use Thunderjolt's Electrobracers against her, the better. She was applying a deft blend of Dragon-style Shao-lin kung fu, acrobatics and her magical lightning in keeping the werewolves and were-cats at bay. Then Shanga, the female remaining werecat tried to use Snap's electrolash on Stormy. MAJOR brainfart, that resulted in Stormy using Shanga as a flail to bludgeon the entire crew. "Hey!" Vic barked as he climbed back to his feet, "How'd YOU get so badass?"
"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Stormy jeered back, giving him a nasty crack with the whip. "I've been training up for this for years!"
"What?" Icy demanded from the sidelines. "But you were never this good with US!"
"Yeah, but now I'm not carrying YOUR dead weight, Icy!"
Icy gave a squeal of outraged disrespect, latched onto Darcy and pointed her staff at Stormy. Icy and Darcy combined their power and dragged Stormy to them, out of the ring of nonplussed weres and vampires. "ICE!" Icy barked, "COFFIN!" Just as she was in range, Icy formed the frigid geode of ice around Stormy. "Hah!" she exulted, "'Oh, Iceee... that trick NEVER works!'" she jeered at the chunk of ice.
"Ah, Icy..." Darcy said with dread as she looked at the way her chalice was shimmering with power, "That might not have been your brightest idea... She's part of our power setup, remember?"
Icy's grin of triumph dropped like a hot rock, but not quick enough as the ice coffin exploded with the force of three sticks of dynamite. Icy and Darcy rolled with the force and both sprang on Stormy like tigresses, grabbing her by her arms again. "Y'know, Samantha?" Stormy said calmly into Icy's face, "I don't know WHY I ever thought that you were cute."
"And I don't know why I ever thought that you were a GIRL, Artie," Icy sneered back. "You STILL look like a guy!"
"Ah? Samantha? It just occurred to me. You DO realize that you're holding onto a live wire, don't you?" Icy and Darcy had just enough time to share a look of shocked realization before a jolt of electricity powerful enough to stun a bull elephant coursed through them. Both girls drooped, and Stormy relieved them of the staff and chalice in a single fluid movement. Running mystic fire through the chalice and staff into her athame, and from that into the vajra, she fired a bolt of lightning that caught Darla completely flat-footed. She dropped, the Mad Puppeteer's controller dropped, and the Midnight Wardens sagged, exhausted. Mr. Magic was still on guard and watching the Wardens, but he took advantage of the respite to catch his breath.
"Enough of this crap," Stormy muttered to herself. "It's time to end this." Charging herself up so that a surging aura of electricity covered her, Stormy charged at Dr. Macabre, figuring that if she took him out, that was half the battle.
Dr. Cobb watched her approach with dyspeptic unconcern."WHY is it," he asked rhetorically, "that they only get competent when they're in open rebellion?" He touched that stud on his gauntlet. Stormy gave out a shriek of surprise and pain and dropped.
"ARTIE!" Mr. Magic shouted. Dr. Macabre took advantage of the man's distraction to hit him with a 'punishment beam'. Mr. Magic spasmed and fell. Dr. Macabre kept the beam on him, and then widened the effect to include the Midnight Wardens, who were just beginning to react.
"So much for that," Cobb said with finality. "Handcuff and secure them all. Then, maybe we can finally get down to business."
"Maybe," Fangs huffed as he trudged up to Stormy, who was just beginning to shake out being stunned, "but first things first!" He grabbed her by her hair, put his knee into the small of her back and pulled her head back. He raised his jade-bladed axe to strike.
"STOP!" Marzena shouted the order with a whip-crack in her voice. "We need her," she continued in a level voice.
"WHY?" Cobb asked tersely. "For once, the boy has the right idea and the right attitude, and I agree entirely with his solution. Why spoil that?"
"The procedure that I had planned called for all three witches," Marzena explained. "I understand your position: discipline must be maintained, and dealing with traitors is a prime priority. But I choreographed a very specific arrangement, with the three witches acting in concert, each using the ritual instruments that they have chosen. They each will know instinctively what to do, but if one of them is dead, then the other two will be overworked and un- coordinated. And putting one of your other proteges in to fill for her simply will not work."
"So WHAT?" Fangs snapped, fangs bared, not letting go of Stormy's hair. "We gotta get OUT of here, the Crusaders are on their way! It's a miracle that they're not already here!"
"Don't tell me my business, you hyperthyroidal oaf!" Marzena snarled at him. "Before we began, I enscribed a Circle of Concealment around this building; the California Crusaders won't even be able to find it! The only reason that the Broo-Hah here was able to, was that she was following the trail through the shadows that Katrina created through the circle when she traveled directly here. Exactly as I planned," she purred smugly.
"You planned for the Brujah to find us?"
"How else was I supposed to gain THIS?" Marzena spun the Brujah's power staff in her hand.
"The staff is important enough to this working to risk bringing the Brujah here?" Dr. Cobb demanded.
"Yes," Marzena said confidently. "This staff acts both as a 'lens', focusing the Brujah's power into more coherent forms, and, more to my point, it functions as what I think you might term a 'power regulator'. The Broo-hah is so powerful because she acts as a priestess for Quetzalcoatl, a potent Mexica sun deity of days gone by. But the problem that Quetzalcoatl has with his priests is that it takes years, decades even, of diligent practice and exposure for the human body to withstand such energies; far too long for the warrior that he needs to advance his interests in Los Angeles. By the time that the priest was ready, he'd be too old to act as the Brujah does. So he gifted her with this 'regulator', which controls how much power she draws from her patron, and it also bypasses much of that power so that she does not have to suffer as much stress. So, yes it IS important enough to take a calculated risk."
Cobb nodded sourly. "Yes, I will concede that. But your plan has a fatal flaw: namely, how do we trust that Stormy will perform as instructed? She could simply stop contributing at a crucial moment and sabotage our project, hoping to escape in whatever chaos her sabotage unleashed?" he grumped, "That sort of thing HAS happened before."
"Hey, Doc," one of his henchmen piped up, "you're over-thinking it. In my experience, a parent will do damn near anything if you have a gun at their kid's head." He chambered a round into his shotgun and pointed the barrel straight at Mr. Magic's head. "I've also noticed that it cuts both ways."
"Very GOOD, Alvarez!" Cobb said with atypical cheer. "A good, simple, straightforward, practical solution. It's nice that there's someone that I can rely on."
Under Marzena's direction, Macabre's crew re-secured the Midnight Wardens and trussed Mr. Magic up like a turkey, and then set out arranging the chapel in a configuration that Marzena claimed was the proper setting for her working, which involved one inscribed triangle-within-a-circle that was the very center, with three circles around it: a large inscribed circle with a triangle of circles, an inscribed triangular diagram between them, a circle with an inset pentagram, a circle with a 'magic square' in it flanking the other side, an inscribed triangle around that and then a circle of twelve circles surrounding that.
After Marzena was satisfied, Cobb promptly complicated things by integrating his monitoring equipment into the arrangement, including a sensor monitoring booth made of armored glass. Then when they'd done that, Marzena had to re-arrange everything all over again, to get it right once more.
When all the fiddly stuff was done, Dr. Macabre had Tombstone bring out a large secure box bound in black iron. He opened up the box and brought out Ormenious' Clock. "There. My proof that I'm holding up my end of our deal. And I think that you'll agree that THAT," he swept a hand, indicating one table laden with most of the things that the Teen Terrors had looted from Lycarax's swag room, all the mystical treasures and a hernia's worth of simple old-fashioned gold, "is payment for your... instruction... and continued possession of the Astrolabe for continued examination and research, after you've finished your... project?"
Marzena was gazing at the table of goodies with a magpie glitter in her eye, and snapped out of her greed-gasm with a visible start. "Oh! Yes, yes, very generous, very generous indeed! If only more Men of Science were like yourself, Fitz, then maybe we of The Craft might be more willing to share our lore with you. Of course, you start off vastly better than your fellows, in that you admit that our lore has value in the first place."
Dr. Cobb gave her an arch smile which even a three-year-old would have known meant 'let's get ON with it already! Polite chit-chat NOT my forte, and I'm way out of my personal comfort zone!' "And where is the REST of the Astrolabe?"
"Of course," Marzena purred. She clipped over to the table where her hat and coat were, and picked up her velvet sack purse. She reached into the bag and first pulled out a leather bound book the size of a medieval church bible, which shouldn't have even fit in the bag, let alone leave it hanging limp and loose. Darla watched this with round eyes that threatened to bug out of her head. "Don't hurt your head trying to figure it out, dear," Marzena muttered, "it's magic." Then she reached in again and dragged out the bronze mirror that Lycarax had called 'the Mirror of Tanith' and the Hofburg Museum had called 'the Aegean Mirror'. She held up the mirror for Cobb's approval.
He closely examined it with a loupe and spotted the identifying mark made by the Hofburg Museum, and nodded curtly. "Yes. This is the Aegean Mirror. How did you come into possession of it?"
"Let's not dwell on irrelevancies, shall we, Fitz?" she purred coyly.
"Good enough," he agreed. "Very well. Where is the Stylus?"
"WHAT?" Cobb thundered, "You don't HAVE it?"
"It's HERE," Marzena said primly, "here in this room. I'm just not entirely sure WHERE."
"Aaannnddd... now the Fun and Games really begin," Kate sighed.
"Fitz, as I told you," Marzena said as she picked up the mirror, "I used the Mirror to scry the location of the Stylus. I know that it's here. BUT, the Masons of this lodge used the stylus to create the definitions of this lodge's wards. The very nature of the Stylus prevents me from finding it- at least from the outside. And given the suspicious nature of the lodge's staff, I could hardly ask to come inside and look around, no? But now that I am inside... with the mirror... all that I really have to do is Look..." Marzena sketched out designs on the mirror with her finger, but the weight of the polished bronze slab gave her problems. "This is no good. You! Big ugly stupid undead boy! Carry this mirror, while I do the hard work."
Tombstone gave her a look of barely restrained insulted outrage. He was about to give Marzena a piece of his mind, but Dr. Macabre silenced him with a single glacial glare. With a martyred look, Tombstone lugged the mirror around as Marzena fluttered her fingers over its surface, and tilted it around to reflect this bit or that. Finally, Marzena stopped and looked at one of the moldings on the wall. It was a rendition of the lodge's own version of the Freemason's classic 'compass and square' seal. Marzena stopped dead and looked at it nonplussed. "Well," she said finally. "SOMEONE'S been reading Edgar Allen Poe." With that, she reached over and calmly disengaged the compass from the design. She peeled a layer of latex paint from it and held it up. "The Stylus," she said primly.
They brought the mirror, the clock and the stylus together on one of the tables. "Now, this is very important: the three components must be assembled without the use of human hands, nor my mechanical instrument, but rather by force of will," Marzena stated, opening that large book to a page and pointing at a passage handwritten in Polish. "Fortunately, Katrina can do this easily."
"In that case Mother Dearest," Kate opened, stepping forward, "there's something that we have to finish before we get to that."
"And what is that, Katrina?" Marzena asked wearily.
"Who is my father, Mother Dearest?"
"Not NOW, Katrina!"
"Yes NOW, Mother!" Kate snapped. "We had a DEAL! I got you the Telchnine's Astrolabe, and here it is! I gave Doctor Moviemonster here the clues that allowed him to get the Clock, AND I extracted the Mirror to where you could get your claws on it- and don't insult my intelligence by saying that you weren't the one who sandbagged me with Moly at Lycarax's compound; you were the only in Southern California who knew where to find Sacred Moly, let alone knew that I had that reaction to it. Now, are you going to tell me who my father is, or NOT?"
"NOT," Marzena said with chilly finality. "I am your mother; I will tell you when the time is right." She gave Kate a wary look. "You're not going to give me another hug, are you?"
"Not to worry, Mother Dearest. No more hugs for you."
"Good. They were becoming very tedious."
"Wow," Vic muttered, "That's cold, even for this crew."
"I'm getting sympathy from a refugee from 'The Lost Boys'," Kate grumbled. "I am now officially pathetic." Cobb gave a mocking snicker, to which Kate snarled, "And I'll be just as amused when she sinks the knife into YOUR back, Cobb!"
Cobb's amusement melted away. "She and I have a deal."
"Just like I did with mom," Kate pointed out, "and she broke that without so much as blinking an eye. But then, Mom's a big fan of Film Noir; y'know those old crime movies, where everyone's always trying to put one over one everyone else? Well, this is the point in the movie where the prize in on the table and everyone's jockeying around for position to stab everyone else in the back, pointing out who killed who and who already betrayed someone else, everyone trying to outsmart the others, getting them to trust them and not the other guy, talking rings around each other, looking to see who's gonna walk away with the black bird, who's going to be left holding the bag, who's going to jail, and who's gonna die bleeding on the rug. We've been through a LOT of these scenarios, haven't we, Mother Dearest? Mind you, she's usually the one left holding the bag, but she can backstab with the best of 'em, can't ya, Ma?"
"Shut UP, Katrina!" Marzena hissed, holding that locket up high.
"I thought that a witch couldn't break her word," Cobb said with steely neutrality, watching Marzena carefully.
Marzena started to answer consolingly, but Macabre waved her silent, and pointed to Kate. With a smirk, Kate answered, "That's a mistake that a lot of amateurs in The Craft make," she answered with a dig at Cobb. "Witches and other practitioners can lie, cheat, and double-deal just like anyone else, as she's so aptly proved. What a Mage CAN'T do is break a Sorcerer's Contract. Think your basic 'Devil and Dan'l Webster' deal with a silver-tongued devil. Classically, it involves a written contract written in blood, but in practice all it really requires is a willing agreement and the mage in question touching the other party as she casts the spell. You can even do it without the other party being aware of it. But once it's sealed, the very Threads of Fate itself will work to enforce the wording of the pact, in the most effective way possible. Bad luck will dog the steps of the breakoath, making working even the simplest of charms possibly lethal." Kate finished with a cold smile at Marzena that sent creeps down the spines of the creeps.
Cobb gave Marzena a cold glare. "I think we need a Sorcerer's Contract." He turned a slightly less frigid eye to Kate. "Young lady, can I trust you to tell me that what your mother is casting IS indeed the spell for a Contract, and not some other hex?"
"Cobb, today must be your lucky day: for possibly the only time in our lives, I'm actually on your side. Make it simple: agree to uphold both the Spirit and the Letter of the agreement that you came to earlier."
Marzena sniffed, "I only cheat cheaters; I play the game as it is being played. If they dealt fairly with me, I dealt fairly with them." To which Kate merely rolled her eyes.
With an aggrieved sigh, Marzena held out her hand and agreed to honor the terms that she and Dr. Cobb had agreed on. Dr. Cobb laid his hand on hers and did likewise. Marzena asked Kate, "Would you seal the pact, dear?"
"Do your own damn dirty work for a change." Marzena gave Kate a muted snarl and twiddled her fingers. Dr. Cobb cast a silent question at Kate, who simply nodded.
"Well, now that we have that distasteful triviality taken care of," Marzena huffed. "Let us proceed to the main piece of business, shall we? First, I shall explain exactly what we are about to do."
"Do we have to?" Dr. Macabre groaned, "It's not like we're characters in a comic book, and there's an invisible audience that needs to be informed of the particulars. I never explain things to the subjects I'm about to experiment on; you never know who's listening in."
"And you call yourself a mad scientist," Kate sniped.
"Most of the mad scientists I know of who play that game are either in jail or in the hospital," Cobb growled back.
"Yes, yes, an admirable precaution, Fitz," Marzena purred, all amiability, "but this is a complex working that will require most, if not all of your people to participate, if only by holding a position; I find that it helps if the participants understand what it is that they're to do."
"Participate?" Cobb asked uncertainly. "Will *I* have to participate?"
"Of course, Fitz! How are you to understand the workings of the Astrolabe, if you don't personally experience them by operating the Astrolabe during the working?"
"Very well," Cobb said, clearly working something through. "Proceed with your explanation."
Marzena stepped onto the diagram, and walked to the triangle in the very center, clapping her hands for attention. "Your attention please! First, a bit of foundation, for those of you without a classical education- which is to say not quite all of you- here is a sacred mystery, a universal truth which conventional science conveniently ignores: deep within the earth, there is a pool of darkness and cold which is not merely a lack of light and heat, but is a substance unto itself, with powers and properties all its own. WHY geologists know nothing of it, I neither know nor care. I know of it as the Erebos, but it has some name, some reference in almost every culture of the Earth. The Greeks called it Erebos, the Chinese called it the Bottomless Pool of Ultimate Darkness, the Arabs called it 'Tiamat', the Japanese call it 'Mikaboshi' and I assume that the Aztecs had some gobbledygook name for it as well.," she added with a snook at Brujah. "The Erebos is a place of profound magical power. Some called it a Titan of Primordial Darkness, others the Father of Night, others a nation of spirits of darkness, and others simply label it a font of primal Chthonic essence.
"When Katrina here was less than a year old, I found a passage to the Erebos, and dipped her into the inky depths, like Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the river Styx."
Kate's eyes snapped wide open, and her face was a blank mask of 'Say WHAT?'
"WHOA," Darcy woofed, "And I thought MY mom was harsh!"
"To my surprise, Katrina not only survived, but she gained an intimate mystic connection to, and power over the Erebos. Even as a two year old, she could wrap herself around with a protective shroud of darkness, and the night held no terrors for her. Even now, at a mere 16 years of age, she is one of the most powerful and accomplished wielders of Erebeal magic in the world. There are others more powerful, but they are vastly old."
"When Katrina was Six, we traveled to Wisconsin and found a well with remarkable Ebereal properties, and founded the Fellowship of the Well of Mimir, a group devoted to the study of the Well of Evergreen Blood."
"Don't you mean a CULT?" Brujah asked archly.
"And YOU are one to judge?" Marzena snipped back. "We learned much at the Well of Evergreen Blood, but that is neither here nor there. While studying, I fashioned the Brooch of the Asa-Gythi, or 'high priestess' if you must. The purpose of the Brooch was to focus the essence of the worshippers as they adored my little girl, and pass it onto the Asa-Gythi... who was, of course, ME. Katrina? Would you hand me the brooch?"
Kate walked over and reluctantly handed over the brooch. Marzena held it up for all to see. "Katrina is still a child, but she is coming of age, and I can no longer expect her to come when I call. But she is my primary source of magical power, without whom I am little more than a skilled yet not truly accomplished thaumaturge. The working that we will perform today will build on this, so that this amulet will allow me to access and manipulate the Erebos as Katrina does.
"Katrina will stand here," Marzena pointed with Brujah power staff at the circle with the pentagram, which was next to the triangle she was standing on, "and she will draw Erebos up from the center of the Earth through HERE," she pointed down at the central triangle, "and direct the substance through the Brooch.
"I will be standing here," she pointed at the circle with the magic square in it, directing the working, using Quetzalcoatl's staff to withstand the strain.
"Your three witches will stand there," she pointed at the circle with three lesser circles within it. "They will draw Celestial energy from the Green Brujah, who will stand there," she pointed at one of the twelve circles that surrounded circumference. "They will feed that Celestial Aether to the Astrolabe.
"Fitz, you will stand THERE," she pointed at the central triangle, "with the Astrolabe and manipulate it as I so order you. The Astrolabe will instruct you. The Olympian and Chthonic energies will conflict, as they always do, and the Olympian, as focused by the Astrolabe and this staff, will subdue the Chthonic, binding it to this Brooch, thus sublimating it to the will of the wielder of the brooch. I will instruct you as how to inscribe glyphs of power into the eight bits of feldspar taken from the Well of Evergreen Blood that were worked into the Brooch, cementing that control into the very being of the talisman. Fitz, you will be an integral part of the process, and you will understand, truly comprehend how the Astrolabe works.
"Of your people, six males and six females- we can't exactly call them Men and Women, now can we?- will stand in the twelve surrounding circles, providing definition to the entire operation. Or, at least ten of them will; the Broo-hah and 'Mister Magic' will be in those special circles, which are enchanted so they won't be able to get up to any mischief. Still, it must be five males and five females. Balance is crucial in such a working, where raw primal forces come into conflict. Oh? And... Artie? Stormy? Whatever? Please remember that while that circle may contain your father... it won't stop the pellets from Senor Alvarez's shotgun in the least. I warn you, your father's sudden death during the ritual won't hurt US in the slightest, or even stop the ritual."
Stormy squeezed her lips tight and glared flaming daggers of raw hatred at Marzena, but she nodded.
"Very good," Marzena purred. "So? Any questions, Fitz?"
Cobb was walking across the diagram, bent over studying the figures, chin in hand. "Hm? Oh, give me a moment, I'm working it out in my head. Go ahead, have your daughter assemble the complete Astrolabe. I should have everything framed by the time she's done."
Marzena nodded uncertainly, and waved at Kate to get started. With a teenage sigh of aggrieved teenage martyrdom, Kate set to work. First, she levitated the Mirror, which she spun around to display the back. The pre-Dorian knotwork on the back reacted to her Ebereal energy by twisting into new patterns, now forming concentric circles and arcs and tangents and secants from the right-angle hole in the center. Keeping the mirror aloft, Kate then levitated Ormenious' Clock, opening it up and extracting the clockwork bits from the very back. The clockwork reacted to the energy by expanding, and becoming not only clockwork, but also scaling arcs. The computer fit into the platen as though it had been made for it only yesterday. Next she lifted up the Stylus, which telescoped and unfolded into six distinct arms of varying lengths. The realized stylus clicked into the computer and the whole thing spun around a few times on its own power.
And, once again, after who knows how long, the Telchine's Astrolabe was whole and functional.
"Fitz?" Marzena called, "Fitz? Dr. Cobb? The Astrolabe is complete. Now, you were saying that you had questions?"
Dr. Cobb looked up from his meditations with a touch of surprise, looking far more like a distracted academic than a vicious criminal. "Questions?" he hooted. He thought carefully for a moment, getting his mental train back on its tracks. "Oh. Quite. Yes, there is a problem-"
"Problem?" Marzena grunted, surprised, puzzled and slightly dismayed. "What problem?"
"Yes, a fundamental problem. BUT I have applied myself to the problem, and I think that I've come up with a suitable solution."
"Solution? To what problem?" Marzena peered at him with concern.
"A fundamental one, that stems the very basic differences in our procedures, my dear," Cobb said more affably than most of the Teen Terrors could ever remember having seen him. "As a mystic, your procedure is based almost entirely on Subjective input, admittedly bolstered and confirmed by objective analysis. But I am a Scientist, no matter how odd my field or methods, and my procedure is still firmly based in Objectivity and Empirical Rigor. I can't be an immediate part of the process! There's no objectivity in it! My place is THERE-" he pointed at the booth, "monitoring the process from the sidelines." He finished smiling benignly.
"But.. Fitz..." Marzena gabbled, "The Process... the Astrolabe doesn't have THAT kind of computer! It won't work on automatic! It needs someone operating it to function!"
"Yes, yes, I know that," Cobb smiled pleasantly. "You were very clear on that point. That's what I've been working out. The solution is quite simple: I'll stay behind the glass running the equipment, and we'll just bring in someone else to operate the Astrolabe."
"But... but who could we get..." "Ah, but that's the BEST THING! We have the perfect person to do it! Your daughter! We'll simply move her from that circle to the triangle, and move the Green Brujah to replace her. She's magically active, she's familiar with the astrolabe already, and, best of all, she's expendable..." Cobb finished with a drawling evil grin, and suddenly the genial academic was gone, and he was Dr. Macabre again, the man who really could throw his favorite into a pain induction chamber without hesitation or remorse. "And you do realize that you ARE obligated to go through with the ritual now or be forsworn by your own oath, don't you?" He gave Marzena a wide grin that communicated that he knew exactly that she had been planning to allow him to kill himself operating the Astrolabe, and that he had every intention of making her pay for it in blood. Or at least, in Katrina's blood, which would leave her powerless.
Kate looked around the suddenly very hostile room, and didn't find a lot of support, aside from Stormy, Mr. Magic, and Brujah, and all they could give was sympathy. "Hey, I'd do something," Stormy said apologetically, "but I'm not in the greatest position myself right at the moment."
"Katrina!" Marzena snapped, waving the locket in her face, "Take your position!" Kate mulishly obeyed.
"Remember the First Rule of the Gentleman Thief:" Mr. Magic said, whether to Kate or his daughter wasn't clear, "Survive. If you survive, then you have options. Only the Dead have no options."
"How profound," Cobb sneered. "Remind me to put that on a bumper sticker. Well, Miss Tvardovski, what are you waiting for? Pick up the Astrolabe and take your position." He finished with a grin that said, 'Didn't I tell you that I had ways of making mouthy little girls mind their manners?' "The rest of you- drag those three into their positions and take your own marks as well. And Stormy? Remember, just do as you're told, or your father will cease to be the head of your family."
"Gee," Icy jeered quietly, "It looks like someone else is due for a session in the punishment booth, hah, Artie?"
Stormy looked Icy square in the eye and said in a firm voice, "Samantha, I'd rather be locked in Cobb's punishment for a year at full blast, than sit through another episode of the 'Winx Club' with YOU."
Icy gave a muffled squeak of outrage, but the rest of the preparation went off without a hitch. The Teen Terrors filled all of the twelve circles save for the one holding Mr. Magic, Dr. Cobb and his two technicians booted up their equipment, and ran the final tests, and at last it was Green Light.
It went off more or less as Marzena had described. Kate called up a gout of crude petroleum thick darkness and forced it through the Astrolabe, which sent its hands whirring around like a runaway clock, and began to emit concentric circles in the air around it and Kate. Kate carefully fed energy into the Asa-Gythi's Brooch, which rose up into the air and grew by a factor of 27. Marzena held up another spell slip, along with those three green Quetzal feathers, and demanded power of Brujah. Brujah fought as best she could, but without her staff, she couldn't control the power enough to refuse the demand. Raw Celestial power flowed out of her, and Marzena foisted the risk of managing that power off on the Three Witches, who may have been raw and untrained, but had the mystically redeeming virtue of all being virgins (though Darcy would have hedged on that point). Stormy caught the power in her chalice, fed it to Darcy restrained it with the staff, and handed it over to Icy, who shot it through her athame directly at the Asa-Gythi's Brooch, hitting it directly into the large black gem, which looked like an abyssal whirlpool. The Celestial magic entered the Brooch, and a primordial war between the two planes broke out. Quetzalcoatl's power took the form of a deific eagle, while the Chthonic energy took the form of a darkling serpent, recapitulating the Aztec's most holy symbol, which is also Mexico's national symbol. As the two meta-beings fought, Marzena called out the name of eight symbols of power one by one, and those glyphs appeared on the eight bits of feldspar surrounding the black stone, turning the homely bits into precious gems.
Dr. Cobb was drinking in all of this through his remote monitors and Kirlian Analyzers. So much explained, so many isolated bits that he'd never really taken seriously before but couldn't dismiss, all coming together in new, suggestive patterns! Just looking at it blew away entire blocs of concepts that he'd held as bedrock to his procedure, and cleared the way to entire new vistas of possibility!
Then the cold hard voice in his head that had kept him going through so many hard times, when he would have given it all up as lost, hissed in his ear. Cobb looked up from his screens to watch the ritual with his own eyes, and they almost dropped out of his head. The girl, Tvardovski's annoying little daughter, was still in the center of the ritual, but she was no longer this pale little thing; now she was a glorious darkling goddess levitating in the center of the arrangement, her pale skin now the purest ivory, her dark hair flowing like a nebula, a circle of pale silver balls of flames danced around her head like a crown, and her simple dress a torrent of star-studded night. Her eyes were two black holes that took in everything, even light, but showed absolutely NO signs of humanity. Her hands were gesturing casually, weaving Mobius strips of power between her hands that built up, crested and fell like waves. Celestial power was streaming from the Three Witches into her; that Brooch amulet that Tvardovski made so much ado about was many times larger than before, and it acted as some sort of conduit for the energy into the girl, helping to integrate it into her somehow, helping to make her greater, make her more.
Thunderstruck, Cobb hit the loudspeaker, [What the HELL is going ON here?]
"Ah, Doc?" Gannon, Alvarez' partner, asked, "Y'know how I been tellin' you for years that someday you was gonna bite off more'n you could chew? Well, t'day's that day, and it don't gratify me a bit t'say it!"
[Samantha! What do you think you're doing? Cut that off NOW!]
"Ah, Doctor Cobb?" Icy sobbed, her eyes wide and teary with fear, "I'd love to, really I would, but I don't know HOW! The power, it's just coming and coming and coming, and if we let go of it, it's gonna wipe us OUT!"
[MARZENA!] Cobb thundered, [What are you up to?]
Tvardovski was avidly watching that huge leather-bound book of hers as it floated, open wide before her. Flickering flame-like patterns of energy that mimicked the ones that the younger Tvardovski was 'writing' in the air burned just above the exposed pages. Every so often, the 'flames' died down for a moment, the pages flipped, and then the flames rose again. "Oh?" Tvardovski murmured, never taking her sparkling eyes from the pages of the book, "Nothing, nothing to worry about, Fitz. Everything is going according to plan."
[What happened to your daughter? And what's going on with that BOOK?]
"What do you mean, Fitz? It should be obvious? What do you do when you have a demigod on tap? You have her enchant a potent talisman, and you have her write a book!"
"Of COURSE, Fitz! Didn't I mention that? The crucial element in this entire operation is the elevation of the prime operator- that's the person operating the Astrolabe- to a higher state of awareness and power, a near-deific status from where they can affect all the changes that you desire. In the state she is in, Katrina has access and comprehension of various matters that I have had questions about for many years; I'm having her explain these matters to me in as plain terms as possible in my Book of Shadows. I could have sworn that I mentioned that. But then, it should have been obvious! That could have been YOU, Fitz... if you hadn't been such a stickler for objectivity and Empiricism..." she broke off her concentration from the Book of Shadows and grinned evilly at Cobb, as to say, 'What? You thought you had the monopoly on being clever?'
[You're trying to goad me into attacking you,] Cobb grated out through clenched teeth, obviously only refraining from doing just that out of sheer cussed refusal to oblige her.
*Well, DOY!* jeered the darkling demigoddess in a resonating voice that was more apropos of delivering divine revelations than snide mockery.
"Men!" Marzena muttered disgustedly, "Always so STUPID when you need them to be smart, but always so bloody clever when you need them to be dumb! Still," she smiled as the celestial energy stopped flowing into the brooch, and the talisman shrank and floated into her hand, "it's not like we really NEED him anymore... ah," she sighed as the flames stopped flickering over the book and the book shut, "One hundred and forty-four theses, finished, and not a moment too soon... KATRINA!" she held the locket up high, "Neutralize these idiots."
< But Mother Dearest > Demigod Nacht objected in Polish, < We are bound by the wording of the pact as much as Cobb is! If we break the oath at this point, with this much power at work, the results could be catastrophic! >
< Do not worry, Katrina, > Marzena purred, holding the locket high, < Mother knows best. DO IT > Demigod Nacht made the merest gesture, and the current of celestial energy that the Witches were controlling jumped out of their hands and into Nacht's. She gathered it together, and it became a pack of lambent beasts, vaguely feline, vaguely ferret-like, which were lean and athirst, and bounded at the Teen Terrors. As the Monster Kids tried to deal with the beastlings, three of the manifestations headed straight at Dr. Cobb. Cobb was barely able to get his gauntlet harness on and powered up before the three things managed to crash through the bulletproof glass. He managed to blast one of the beastlings before the other two were on him.
"Is THIS the best you can do, Katrina?" Marzena sneered.
*I'm keeping it simple, Mother Dearest,* Nacht droned *I have to keep the complexity low, or risk the penalty of breaking the vow kick in*
"Do not worry, Katrina, I know exactly what I'm doing... Show them EVERYTHING..." Demigod Nacht laced her fingers before her, and a squidlike eminence of shadow congealed around her, sending inky tentacles out in an explosion of action, entangling everyone in the room, except for Nacht and Marzena. The beastlings changed into skeletal cages that reinforced the bindings of the Teen Terrors. "Much better," Marzena said. She produced yet another spell slip and tossed it into the air and held up the Asa-Gythi's Brooch. "Next, enact Athenagoras' Threefold Defense of the Innocent, using the brooch as a focus."
Nacht created a cartouche out of darkness and sketched out a character in the silver energy upon it. Silvery fire raced down the thread-thin cables connecting the demigoddess and her captives. Dr. Macabre and this Teen Terrors all heaved and spasmed, and then things erupted bloodlessly out of their chests, ripping the snares as they exited, and hovered in front of the captives. A vile black snake with seven burning red eyes hissed in front of Dr. Cobb, held captive by the burning thread. More similar snakes came out of Vic and the three other vampires, and merged with the snake in front of Cobb. Three black ravens came out of the Witches and joined together into a three-in-one form, merged but still distinct, all on a leash. A large lupine form crouched in front of Top Dawg, drew two smaller wolf-things into it, and snarled trying to fight the merest ribbon that kept it prisoner. Two hissing feline forms came out of Raja and Shanga, and merged into one, and it also fought its restraint. And a mass of fetid maggots erupted out of Tombstone and pulsed in a heap.
Dr. Cobb picked himself up off the floor heaving, and gawped at the serpent. "What?" he gasped, goggle-eyed, "What IS that thing? What ARE those things?"
"Oh that?" Marzena asked mockingly, "THAT is what you've really been doing all these years, Fitz. That's the true face of Dr. Macabre," she sneered. "Your Monster Machine doesn't re-create the conditions that result in various monstrous life-forms, as that serpent of wisdom and deceit has been telling you; no, you simply created a new context for various unclean spirits to possess the people you shoved into that thing. It took me a while to figure it out, but once I had enough information, it was really rather simple. You just managed to fall into a gap between Science and Sorcery; none of the scientists could figure it out because it was really magic, and none of the wizards bothered, because they thought that it was science."
"WHAT?" Tombstone demanded glaring at her from a crouch, studiously not looking at the mass of corruption that had recently been a driving part of him, "And you didn't SAY anything? You let us go through that? You let people DIE because you didn't say anything?"
"Why would I say anything?" Marzena asked with blithe incomprehension, "There wasn't anything in it for me, and Fitz would only have gotten all upset."
"WHAT?" Icy shrilled on her hands and knees, "Give me BACK my power, you BITCH!"
"Oh, you miss it, don't you little girl?" Marzena cooed snidely. "I'm not surprised. After all, that Raven Witch spirit was all that made you anything, wasn't it? Before that, you were a chubby little nothing, weren't you?"
"GIVE ME BACK MY POWER!"
"No." Marzena held up the amulet. "I have other plans for those spirits. KATRINA! Pull those spirits into the Brooch one at a time," she tossed the Asa-Gythi's Brooch back into the middle of things, where it floated and grew large again, "Begin with the freaky snake, and immolate it with celestial fire."
"NO!" screamed Dr. Cobb.
"The Snake is the 'Master Spirit. Like many spiritual ploys, 'Vampirism' and other such curses are essentially Pyramid Schemes-"
*Mother Dearest, I don't think that anybody asked*
"The more spirits that the Master Spirit has subordinate to it, the more powerful it is;" Marzena continued, not heeding Nacht's remark, "It can either bud itself off, or it can bring another spirit into, as this snake has with the vampire, werewolf, ghoul and raven witch spirits. Of course, the subordinates will try to make subordinates of their own as to gain power from them in the same way, but the Master partakes of that power as well, so this tactic is supported, as long as it doesn't interfere with the spirits' hunting."
*Oh Fnark, she's in full 'Listening to Myself Talk' mode. We might as well call out for some pizza; we're going to be here for a while. So, who wants pepperoni, or pineapple or anchovies?*
"Separating the Master from rest of the hierarchy is very important, as disrupting the reciprocal connection between the Master and sub-leaders will depower the entire hierarchy. Begin with the Snake, take them one at a time, make sure that each one is completely immolated... and finish with the Raven Witch," she finished with a vindictive sneer at Icy.
*Ah, Mom, I can tell that you're taking time during this stressful event for a little therapeutic sadism, but why waste time doing it one at a time, if you're just going to destroy those spirits? Why not just throw them all in at once, and get it over with?*
"Ah," Marzena sighed self-indulgently, "so young, so talented, so gifted, and yet there are still things that your Mama has to teach you. The point of all this is not merely to create this admittedly powerful talisman, or to scribe this unique text of arcane lore- No, my darling daughter, the TRUE reason for all this is not to simply destroy these unclean spirits. It is to cleanse them, and FUSE them, and SMELT them into... A Force."
*A... FORCE? As in 'The Champion Force'? Or the Magus Force?*
"Or the Fred Force," Marzena nodded, "the only one of the Forces that what not born from a fragment of the Champion Force. Using the Asa-Gythi's Brooch as a crucible, the mixture of Olympian and Chthonic energies should result in some form of Force. And if not, according to my intelligence on experiments of this sort, the result should be some new, powerful form of spirit, the possession of which will be well worth the effort."
*Ah, Mother Dearest?*
"And whether Force or Proto-Spirit, we will then re-bind that result into all of them, especially Mister Magic. Precisely what sort of 'Monster' will result, I'm not sure. We will have to experiment, of course. We'll start with the snotty little blonde. She's expendable."
The Broo-hah we will have to keep in some sort of restraint of course. But the rest of them will provide the nucleus of our new CULT! Do you remember Waterford Falls in Wisconsin, Katrina the Fellowship of the Well of Mimir? We had twenty-four people who practically LIVED to provide everything that we wanted! Good Times, GOOD TIMES! And this time, we do it RIGHT! This time, we deal from a position of STRENGTH! This time, when we set up in Arborlon, we go in with an ARMY already formed, and take over completely! Once we've indoctrinated these, and the Shirazis (we really do need their money, Katrina; you have no idea how quickly you get used to the very best!), we'll track down those of Lycarax's followers and bring them to heel. With that many, we'll have a force that should be able to hold Arborlon without drawing too much attention. And THEN we turn our sights on suborning the California Crusaders..."
*MOM! WE CAN'T DO IT!*
"What? Of course we can!"
*Mother Dearest, who's the nigh-omniscient demigoddess right at the moment? I have powers and insights that I have no skill in using, and this state is so unstable that there's no chance that I'll actually master this state before it lapses! But I can tell that trying this Force experiment would be hideously risky at the best of times. And, in case you've forgotten, thanks entirely to YOU, we have broken a Sorcerer's Contract! And the more exalted your mystical condition, the more inescapably you're bound by Threads of Fate, so I'm even more susceptible than you are! The Threads of Fate are already looking for a way to screw us over, and you're handing them a loaded gun on a silver plate! I'd say that we have a PROBLEM here, Mom!*
Marzena gave an evil lopsided grin. "No, Katrina. YOU have the problem."
"YOU broke the Sorcerer's Contract, not me. YOU attacked Cobb and his fiends, breaking the pact. And, as you said, being the more elevated, more aethereal being than I, the Threads of Fate will twine around YOUR neck, not mine. But losing you is a price that I'm willing to pay for gaining all this. After all, you are 16, and no longer a child. Already, Sunburst has managed to wean away your affections from me. How much longer can I expect you to heed your mother's words? As I have it arranged, I might even inherit the full attunement with the Erebos that you enjoy. After all, I DO deserve something for risking my life going down into the Underworld to dip you into the Erebos, don't I?"
"MAN," Fangs grunted, "if I live through this, I am SO hugging my Mom and telling her that I'm sorry for, like, Everything!"
*There is NO WAY that I'm doing this!*
Marzena raised the locket yet again with a vile smirk. "As you said, Exalted beings such as yourself are bound even more fastly by the Threads of Fate. What chance to you have, bearing the burden of Oathbreaking as you do, of escaping your filial obligation? If you try to refuse me, what will the Threads do? After all, Fate cares little about Justice, and less about mortals, no?" The smirk slipped, replaced by a tyrant's scowl. "Now GET TO WORK!" From under her crimson robes, Marzena pulled out an Intratec TEC-DC9 machine pistol, and chambered in a round. "Case any of you gets any ideas."
Demigoddess of Night Nacht gave a petulant scowl and reached out with an arm that's reach far exceeded its span, and grabbed the snake. The snake writhed furious, and bit her hand furiously, but it was far the worse for the bite than she was. Nacht crammed the snake into the Brooch, snagged one handful of Celestial lightning, another of primordial darkness and brought them together inside the 'oven' of the Brooch. The Wolf, the Cat, the Raven/s and the Maggots all writhed furiously as the Master burned in Heaven's Own Fire. Dr. Cobb huddled on the floor and sobbed.
"Hey, what's YOUR problem, Cobb?" Tombstone (or whatever the boy's real name was, not that he wasn't a ghoul anymore) demanded from where he stood. "It's finally OVER! I'm not exactly thrilled about what's comin' down the road at us, but at least it's OVER."
"I just lost my only real friend," Cobb ground out through clenched teeth.
"That... THING... was your best friend?" Tombstone asked aghast.
"It made me stronger, smarter," Cobb snarled. "It gave me POWER. Don't tell me that you didn't enjoy the strength, the invulnerability! Without your... friend, you'd have been dead a dozen times by now!"
"That... pile of SHIT there made me do things that I may never be able to forget! No matter how hard I try! I haven't felt clean since you crammed it down my throat! Hey! Hey, Ghost Lady!" Tombstone called out to Nacht, "Take the maggots NEXT! I won't really feel clean until they're ASHES!"
Nacht nodded and shifted her attention, as though she was going to oblige the former ghoul. But then she stopped and she shifted her hands about, like she was trying to shuffle some dishes she was carrying around to get a hand free.* Well, this is embarrassing... Hey MA! Mother Dearest, in keeping with sacred tradition, for the want of a nail, my personal ass may be lost!*
"Demigods don't blither," Marzena said with oppressive hauteur, "so why are you blithering?"
*Look- I can keep this Celestial Energy going, and I can keep the Erebos flowing, and I can mix them together the right way, and I can keep the Snake spirit from completely evaporating, and I can keep the integration of all that into a harmonious synergy and form a core matrix. BUT I can't do all that AND wrangle those critters over there*
"And this is MY problem exactly How?" Marzena asked with regal disdain.
*Mother Dearest, I doubt that even YOUR magnificent sense of entitlement would presume that the magical equivalent of a 20 megaton blast that could reduce Culver City to a lake of cursed red sand would destroy this entire building, the surrounding ten mile radius and everyone in that radius- EXCEPT YOU. I have to keep this delicately balanced, and if I over-extend my focus... well, let's just say that I'm feeling the Threads of Fate wrapping around my neck, and if I go, I'm taking YOU with me!*
Marzena glowered at her daughter. "And what do you expect ME to do?"
*Just grab a handful of those cords and get those things over here and into the pot. We have an order for Maggots, so you can start with those.*
Marzena scowled for a bit, and sullenly watching those members of Cobb's crew who weren't ensnared anymore she clumsily slung the TEC-DC9 over her shoulder by the strap, where she could unsling it quickly. Using Brujah's power staff, she reached out and snagged one of the cords that were binding the spirits and tried to manipulate it. However, the maggots were difficult to control. "Katrina! Couldn't you have secured these filthy things in a way that was easier to control?"
*Cut me an onion, and I'll cry a tear for you. Apply yourself. I only have six hands. I'm busy right at the moment!*
It was awkward, especially with the hostile crowd watching, but Marzena managed to gather up all the spirits at once, and she started feeding them into the crucible of the Brooch. "YES!" she yawped with triumph.
*Well, the good news and bad news, Mother Dearest*
*The good news is that the reaction seems to be stable, and the maggots are alloying smoothly into the plasma left by the Apepith (that would the snake), the unclean taint is burning away and the core matrix is adapting nicely. The bad news is that I'm not seeing anything that suggests the creation of a 'Force'. Not that I've ever seen a 'Force' in action*
"Finally!" Marzena shoveled the snarling Wolf Garou into the crucible and relished its howl as it was smelted into the mass. "Finally, no more scrambling around after the crumbs that others leave behind! No more crawling around in the wainscoting of the Occult Community! No more being a third rater in the Grand Lodge!" She rammed the spitting cat-devil into the furnace. "No more creeping around, hoping that that Witch Hunter won't find me! Soon, I'll have the power to take on the world, and set my own terms! SOON, I WILL BE INVINCIBLE!"
With that as her battle cry, Marzena reached out to snag the Raven Witch. But Stormy, who had been watching this on hands and knees, catching her breath and taking it all in, reached out suddenly and grabbed the Raven Witch in one hand. "No y'don't, BITCH!" she snarled through clenched teeth. "That bird and I have unfinished business!"
"What?" Marzena gawped. "You DARE? Katrina, SMASH this impudent little boy-girl-THING!"
*I'm a little busy at the moment? Keeping this thing stable?*
Marzena wrestled with Stormy for a moment, and then remembered that she had a gun when it slammed against her ribs. But as she unslung the DC9, Stormy snatched up her chalice and waved at the older woman. One of those wispy blue 'djinns' appeared and grappled the gun away from her.
"WHAT?" Icy yelled, "How come you can do magic without the bird, and I CAN'T?"
"So I haven't told you everything, SAMANTHA," Stormy snarled. "This is news HOW?"
Marzena did something that dismissed the 'djinn' in a haze of mist, and got control of her machine pistol. But as she took it in both hands, there was a crashing of glass, and a cloaked figure leapt into the room in a shower of shards of broken glass, and landed in the center of the room.
*You DO know that that window opened, didn't you?*
"This VILENESS ends NOW!" the Witch Hunter thundered as he advanced on Marzena, pistol drawn and sword ready. Marzena gawped at him with a 'Lady of Shallot' look of abject horror. She gave a terrified scream and scrambled away from him, despite the fact that she outgunned him. Taking full advantage of her disarray, the Witch Hunter stabbed her in the right shoulder. That single stroke was all it took to send her down, clutching her shoulder screaming and sobbing in fear.
"It's about TIME you showed up!" Brujah trumpeted. "Get me out of this, and hand me my staff! Hurry! If we work together, we might be able to put her down before she finishes whatever it is she's cooking up!"
"WHY would I do that?" the Witch Hunter asked as he bent over the cowering form of the sobbing Marzena. "I said that this vileness ends now, and I intend for ALL of the witchcraft here to end- including YOURS, Brujah!"
"What?" Brujah honked, "But I brought you into this in the first place!"
"Do you think you're the first so-called 'white witch' who's tried to sweet-talk me into doing her dirty work for her?"
*Wow* Nacht droned, *Good Guys play the backstab game too. Who knew?*
"I intend to cleanse this place of all the foul sorcery that infests it," the Witch Hunter continued, "including these so-called 'monster hunters' and their foul Masonic patrons, and YOU! Truly it is written, 'Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Life'! And I have the perfect tool to work the cleansing with." He held Marzena's locket up high.
"Hey!" Top Dawg yelled, "What about US? We didn't ask for any of this!"
"THAT is the true tragedy of Witchcraft..." the Witch Hunter intoned sorrowfully, "even the innocent are tarred by its touch, and they must be cleansed as well. And the best cleansing is with FIRE!" he glared at Stormy. "And since THIS one seems to have Arts beyond those that foul buzzard gave her..." the Witch Hunter leveled his six-shooter at Stormy. Stormy, never letting go of the Raven Witch, let out a dazzling burst, ducked under the shot and tumbled past the Hunter. But she didn't zap the Hunter; rather, she blasted at the snare that was wrapped around her father.
The snare dissolved, and Mr. Magic, (who, to give him his due had been working on getting out of the handcuffs and duct tape, and erasing that stupid mark on his chest since the second they finished wrapping him up) got out of it quicker than it took to say it. He did a duck and roll, and retrieved Alvarez's shotgun, but only to throw it far away from the man. He reached into one of his utility compartments, and pulled out a small canister. "If she ever finds out that this was actually useful, she'll never let me hear the end of it," he muttered. He charged up the can with magical power and sprayed it over the Midnight Wardens and the Freemasons. Unfortunately, he couldn't keep the spray off of Alvarez or Gannon, or Cobb's two tech goons.
Once they were free, and before the Wardens could take in the situation, Cobb's men hustled over to him, looking for orders. Cobb only took a second to come to a decision. "Cover me!" he barked, as he sprinted in the general direction of his workstation. Gannon, who still had his shotgun handy, covered the rest as they followed their leader.
"Mad Scientist, heading for equipment?" the Warden leader said, "NOT a good thing! STOP HIM!"
The Wardens pelted after Cobb's crew, taking down Gannon in less time than it takes to write it. The others held off the Warden long enough for Cobb to get to an unmarked metal box. Cobb simply opened the box, revealing a large red slap button. He duly slapped the button, and a perfectly reflective sphere instantly formed around him. A few moments later, the sphere faded, and there was no sign of Dr. Cobb. "GOD DAMMIT!" yelled one of the techs, "The mutha-fukkin' basturd left us hanging!"
As all that was going on, the male former Teen Terrors had jumped the Witch Hunter en masse. Unfortunately, without their previous supernatural strength, speed, agility and toughness, they were just a bunch of teenage boys whose reactions were sadly off. The Witchhunter showed them exactly why jumping a man with a sword who knows how to use it is a BAD idea.
Then he broke off "Enough of this folderol!"
*I agree completely. A little folderol goes a long way.*
Brandishing his gun at the now-wary teenagers, the Witch Hunter backed his way towards the Chthonic demigoddess, and plucked the Asa-Gythi's Brooch out of midair. *Excuse me? I was working on that?*
"There are more IMPORTANT things at hand," he said tucking away the brooch and shoving the locket at her.
*Oh? For ME?* Nacht reached out and took the locket from his hand. *Oh and here I didn't get YOU anything for Christmas...*
"WHAT?" he goggled with stunned horror.
*You made a common mistake that people make with magic items. You assume that if you hold the leash, you control the dog. That's not a leash, and you only wish that I was only a vicious dog*
The Witch Hunter drew out a pouch and threw it at Nacht. She simply caught the pouch and calmly dispersed the powder when it burst from the pouch. "WHAT? But... that's MOLY! And Moly is your Bane!" the Witch Hunter gabbled.
*Yes and No* Nacht admitted. *Yes, sacred Moly is a bane to everyone who is attuned to the Erebos. But that's not sacred Moly. Just because a gardening supply store calls a plant Moly, doesn't make it sacred Moly. You can find sacred Moly, but it's difficult*
*Do you REALLY expect me to tell you that?*
The Witch Hunter reflexively hacked at Nacht with his sword. Nacht beat him to the draw, giving him the merest flick of a finger, that sent him flying to the side of the room, leaving an idiot shaped crack in the wall.
*Okay, before we do anything else, are there any MORE last second interruptions? Sunny? Green Gorgon? Big Dawg? Gravewarden? Swashbuckler? Dr. Arcturus? ...Lady Nocturne? ...Midnight Wardens? ...Golden Mandarin? ...White Witch? ...Jadis? ... Bueller?*
"KATRINA!" Marzena shrilled as she struggled to her foot, left hand clutching her bleeding shoulder. "Katrina!" she ordered in the Voice of Undisputed Parental Authority, "Give that locket back to me NOW!"
Nacht gave Marzena a totally uncharacteristic big bright smile and answered, *Or you'll send me to dinner with no desert? Or you'll make me go to bed before Santa arrives? Or I won't get any Christmas presents? Mother Dearest, I have waited half my LIFE to say this to you: NO* she paused and gave a wide-eyed smirk of surprise. *You know, that IS a lot of fun to say!*
"Katrina! Give me the locket!" Marzena insisted, pulling out an amulet dominated by a small golden mirror with a sunburst design on the pane. "I knew that eventually you would try to betray me, so I took a precaution: at that insipid Protestant chorale, I tagged Sunburst with a power tap charm. With this amulet, I can tap into her power for a while, and wield it as my own. And we both know how badly Sunburst's energy hurt you and disrupt your Erebeal energy; and at the moment, all that you ARE is Erebeal energy, aren't you? Give me the locket, or I'll tear you to shreds!"
*You don't have the Nards*
"You shouldn't have said that Katrina! I don't NEED you anymore!" Marzena let off a blast that filled the area with eye-searing light and hit Nacht in the section where the Telchine's Astrolabe still floated spinning madly. Nacht stood there, smiling beatifically. Marzena blasted again and again, until the light that came from the amulet faded, and then stopped coming at all.
*Come on, try again. Maybe there's a little more*
"What? But HOW? You told me..."
With a wide mocking grin, Nacht explained, I LIED. Sunburst's blasts don't hurt me any more than any other light based attack. Oh, and don't bother with that sack of Moly; I got rid of it earlier. I've been trying to get away from you ever since Waterford Falls. When I faced off against Sunburst two years ago, you made me take her on all by myself, so you could see if you could get the jump on Brujah. I had her on the ropes, and offered her a deal: I'd throw the fight, you'd go to jail and she'd find me a decent home. I thought that she'd just lean on Child Services and keep me away from the MCO. Instead, she testified on my behalf in court, and pushed through a ton of red tape to become my guardian. It hasn't been a moonlight picnic in the graveyard, and don't get me started on her taste in clothes, but it's been lightyears better than living with YOU!*
"Katrina," Marzena held on tough, "give me the locket! As you well know, there are things that a being of your exalted status dare not transgress against. And you've already broken a Sorcerer's Contract. This, losing that locket after you've wanted it for so long, is obviously Fate's price for breaking the contract."
The darkling goddess actually laughed, something that would ring in the nightmares of those who heard it. *WRONG, Mother Dreariest! The reason, the real reason that you're perennially in the Lonely Losers' section, is not because you're being cheated... it's because you're an Epic FLAKE! Like this whole entire over-complicated power grab for all the marbles. You want too much, and your idea of winning is getting other people to pay for it! That first night when we met, I KNEW that you would never tell me who my father is, no matter what I did. Getting you to 'fess up is like trying to get Rush Limbaugh to admit that he's full of shit! So, every time that I hugged you, I tagged you with a Sorcerer's Contract, just after you promised to tell! You were too smug about my loyalty to you to notice. You promised three times, I sealed the contract three times, and you BROKE that contract three times! Also, on the issue of you being an epic DORK, there is the simple matter that YOU were the one who decided to break the pact with Cobb, not ME. You were the motivator; I was merely the instrument. And let me tell you as a being of greater comprehension and vantage... You are the one stuck for breaking Cobb's contract. You're the one who has to worry about the Threads of Fate, not me! And if you need an elegant, truly irrefutable proof, consider this: your worst nightmare has just come TRUE, hasn't it?* With a broad Cheshire Cat grin splitting her face and the Devil's Own Fire dancing in her eyes, Nacht advanced on Marzena.
Marzena fell and scrambled back, making noises like a trapped mouse facing the housecat from Hell. "Katrina! Katrina, I'm your MOTHER!" she grasped around for anything, and played the only card she had left. "I love you," she squeaked in a tiny dreadful voice.
"MAN, and I thought MY family was fucked up," Darcy said in a low voice.
*You love me? YOU LOVE ME? You DARE say that?* Nacht roared with the cold relentless fury of a winter storm. *You say that you're my mother, but you're only my mother when you want me to do something stupid for you! You dropped me into the Erebos! I REMEMBER that! I remember being safe and warm in my mother's arms, and then... then I was cold and dark and afraid and surrounded by the whispers of the dead and smell of the bowels of the Earth... and it never went away... I'm not afraid anymore, but I'm always COLD... Sunburst drives me crazy sometimes, but... but there's more genuine love and warmth and humanity in a single one of her hugs than I ever knew from YOU! And thanks to the mindfuck you've done on me, I can't even TELL her how much that means! And the ONE TIME that we ever settled down long enough to make friends, in Waterford Falls, with the Fellowship, it was all a LIE! I thought those people LOVED me! But they were just under the effect of the Well! I tried going back there, but they were all scared to DEATH of me! It was all just one of your stinking SCAMS! All through my childhood, I wanted only your love. But the only thing that ever made me feel any love or warmth... was this...* with a look of tender affection that really doesn't belong on the face of a demigoddess of terror, Nacht looked at the locket and opened it for the first time. Inside were small photographs, one of a baby, the other was a younger Marzena. Yet again, Nacht felt that inexplicable, near addictive sense of love, acceptance, safety and warmth. Then she started and looked more closely at Marzena's cameo.
*What... is... THIS?* With a finger, she scraped at the tiny photograph. Under Marzena's photo was another picture, of a woman who was in no way Marzena, who was smiling a mother's tender smile of maternal love. An expression that Kate had never seen on Marzena's face. That... that FACE! I know that FACE! I remember... way back... before the darkness... she was the one... who made everything safe and warm and... dear god, of course... she's my MOTHER! She's my REAL mother, isn't she Marzena? But how could even you take another woman's child and dunk her in the EREBOS? No, wait, what am I saying? Of course you could. It's right up your alley!*
Nacht reached down, picked up the sobbing Marzena and held her up to her face. *Well, I must have been a very good little girl this year. Santa's brought me three of the very bestest presents EVER! He brought me this locket, which I've wanted, like, FOREVER, and he brought me freedom from having to obey YOU, and best of all, he brought me a MOTHER. And she's not YOU. So, in the giving spirit of the Holiday season, I'm going to give you a gift: I'm never going to ask you who my father is, ever again. NOW, my question is,* her level voice went as cold and hard and sharp as a refrigerated razor, *WHO IS MY MOTHER?*
"I... I... I can't say!" Marzena sobbed.
*Hmmm...* Nacht mused as she sent probes of shadow into Marzena's head, *You're right... there's a part of your mind that's been very effectively warded. Very sturdy ward, very sound, airtight, no loopholes or defects... somebody else must have done it for you. Well, here's no way to weasel around it... so I'll just have to BASH it in, and let the chips- or scraps of what's left of your mind- fall where they may*
"Katrina!" Brujah shouted, "No! You can't!"
*By the way, have I ever mentioned that I really HATE the name 'Katrina'?*
"Katie, Kate, Nacht...Whatever...! You can't DO that! You'll destroy her mind!"
*AND? Hello? I'm a demigoddess of darkness, desolation, despair and other nasty things that start with 'D'. Of course I can destroy her mind! It's in my job description, right along with scaring little kids in their beds! I have to, or I'll get in trouble with the Union!*
"But... you'll reduce her to a mindless vegetable!"
*And this is a problem HOW?* Nacht asked, fingers poised on Marzena's brow.
Bruja obviously thought frantically, grasping for any straw that might help. "Sunburst! What would Sunny think if you crushed the mind of the woman that you thought was your own mother?"
Nacht paused. Then she let Marzena drop, sobbing with her near escape from a magical lobotomy. *Well Played, Brujah. Score one for Four-Color Morality. I could never do that to Sunny.* Nacht kicked her power staff over to Brujah. Then she looked down at the devastated Marzena. *As for YOU, when they take you to Azkaban, or whatever is the proper name of that jail they stash you in, you'll STAY there. And if you have the massive stupidity to escape, you'll stay well away from Sunny and me. Because, if you EVER stick your nose into my affairs, or the affairs of anybody I even know about, then your Solar Pons is my meat, and 4-Color Morality be damned!*
Marzena nodded frantically and scrambled away, until she back into the legs of the Midnight Wardens, who scowled down at her.
Nacht looked around at the room and said, *Well, let's get down to it.*
"Get down to what?"
*What? You don't watch cheesy Christmas movies? What kind of sappy Hollywood happy ending would this be, with these kids stuck as monsters? Sure, they've have the unclean spirits removed from them, but their bodies have adapted to their monstrous form, without any of the powers that would let them survive! And there are all the other monster kids, who you can probably exorcise, no problem, now that you know it's a form of possession; but they're in the same fix! What sort of family friendly resolution is that? What would the Sponsors say? What would the boys at the Network say? What would the people at the Hallmark Channel™ say?*
*Look, the plucky young heroine (that would be me) has just defeated the vile, ugly old witch (that would be Marzena), and heeded the sage advice of the wrinkled elderly wise woman (that would be-*
"Don't press your luck."
*To forsake vengeance in the spirit of the Holiday Season, and let the witch live with her brains unscrambled. CLEARLY this is the point in the movie where they pull a totally gratuitous Deus ex Machina cure out of their joint asses to heal the kids' bodies so they can be reunited with their families without totally grossing out said families, for a Very Disney happy ending.*
"You watch 'Moonlighting'?"
*Do Bees Be? Do Bears Bear? What sort of spiritually exalted higher intelligence wouldn't?*
"God, I hated that show," Brujah groused. "It was SO glib and cute and self-consciously hip."
"But seriously... do you think we can actually DO that?"
*What's the point of being a mystically exalted being with an elevated perspective on reality and an awareness expanded far beyond the norm, if you can't make a trite pop culture trope a reality?*
"Yes," Brujah drawled suspiciously, giving Nacht the eye. "And what's the point of having an awareness expanded far beyond the norm, if you can't use it to weasel out of the fact that you've egregiously violated your PAROLE?"
*Or spot the next trifecta winner at Santa Antia Park?*
"A specific part of your parole is that you not associate with known felons!"
*I was being coerced! Everyone here clearly saw that Marzena used this locket to influence me and- HEY!* Nacht's abyssal eyes went wide with realization as her expanded awareness brought something into her notice, *You've been busting my chops because you had a BET with Sunny that I'd violate my parole and be incarcerated before the end of vacation?*
"But now we really should focus on doing as much as we can for these poor unfortunate souls," Brujah backpedalled. "Even if you can figure out the formula for such a cure with that 'expanded awareness' you were bragging about, how can we get the ingredients that we'll need in time?"
*Brujah, we're in a chapel of a mystical lodge of the Freemasons,* Nacht pointed out. *I happen to know that the only ingredient that we'll have any problem in locating in some isopropyl alcohol.*
"Isopropyl alcohol? Why would that be any problem? They sell it at almost every drug store!"
*Yes, but it's Christmas Eve; all the stores are closed.* Nacht looked around. *Stormy, we'll need that Chalice of yours. Stormy? Artie? Where did she get to?*
"Weeelll..." Darcy drawled, picking at her memory, "The last I remember, that Witch Hunter asshole was threatening her and she let out a big blast of light that blinded us. How'd she DO that?"
*Odds are that Stormy was a latent mutant, and Cobb's process activated her latent traits.* Nacht explained. *They synched with the Raven Witch's possession, and that possession probably influenced the manifestations of those traits.*
"Okay, after my eyes went back online, I saw her stuff that witchbird into that lamp she used. Then she headed off that way," Darcy pointed over to the table where a bunch of the loot was.
"Wait a minute," Brujah said in the tone of unhappy realization, "if your awareness so damned expanded, WHY can't you find her? Or that sneaky father of hers, for that matter? Where IS he? Why would he be HIDING, except for... CRAP!" she rushed over to the table where Cobb had placed all the treasures that he was offering to pay to Marzena for her part in the deal. "These aren't the things that were here before! Where's that agate egg? Where's that silver winged statuette? Where's the gold mask?"
"Yeah!" Vic demanded, "And where's my magic sword? It's not around here anywhere?" "Your magic sword?" Icy sneered, "What about my magic staff? Hell BOTH of 'em are gone, the one we got from the treasure room, and the one we took off of Lycarax! And that horn of his gone!"
"Icy!" Darcy gasped, "Where's your power jewelry? The ring, the necklace and the bracelet! They're all gone!"
"And the GOLD!" Tombstone complained, "Remember all that gold we herniated ourselves hauling out of that room?"
"The gold that Cobb wouldn't let us hock," Icy grumbled. "So, what happened to it?"
"What do you think happened to it?" Brujah grumbled herself, arms folded. "A super-powered master thief with a David Copperfield fetish, and his equally super-powered apprentice both mysteriously went missing at the same time that a none-too-minor fortune in gold and magical items disappeared. Real major mystery there. Well, Katr- er, Nacht, what do you think of your buddy Stormy now? Nacht?"
Kate was bending over the still-unconscious form of the Witch Hunter. *The Asa-Gythi's Brooch. Hopkins here pocketed it, just before I sent him into the plaster. But it's not here. Neither are Hopkins' utility vest and belts, and most non-super powered men of daring like Hopkins here would rather go out without their pants than their utility belts.*
"So, in other words, Stormy and her father stole THAT as well! Well, what do you think of your friend Stormy now?"
*What do I think? I think that not only did they manage to carry off a little more than a TON of gold and artifacts between the two of them,, but they also managed to snaffle all of the Supervillain gadgets that Cobb had here, AND they did all of that under the nose of team of trained monster hunters, a group of enraged werewolves and vampires and witches, a super-sorceress AND an Awareness Expanded demigoddess! I am damned impressed with those two!*
Brujah gave Nacht a withering scowl. *What? I was raised as the child of a supervillain! I APPRECIATE high-end sneakiness!*
Between the two of them and the *ahem!* 'curators' of the Masons' chapel, Brujah and Nacht managed to gather the ingredients for Nacht's potion, which Brujah and Nacht empowered by another orchestrated conflict of Olympian and Chthonic energies. Darcy and Samantha watched as first Tombstone and then the werewolves, werecats and then vampires drank deeply of the quaff and drifted off to sleep.
"Yknow, they're still gonna have to spend like years in therapy," Darcy pointed out. "I mean, they hadda eat human flesh and drink blood. Even with the creepy things in 'em, they was hella stressed out. Well, except for Jake- he was a creep from the get-go."
*Not to worry,* Nacht assured her, *part of the recipe is a hefty jot of Lethe, the Hadean waters that remove memory. Just a jot; enough to let them let go of the pain. If anything, they might wake up a little less angsty and neurotic.*
"And we made enough for those, ah, 'transformees' that are in custody," Brujah added.
"We, ah, don't have to drink that, do we?" Samantha asked. "I mean, Darcy and I didn't have to do any of that attacking people or drinking blood crap, and well, I don't really wanna go back to looking like I did! I mean, I lost 40 pounds and nose from a 'before' picture, and my eyesight fixed itself and my complexion finally cleared up! I was a MESS! And Darcy wasn't nearly as bad, but she got a definite upgrade cuteness-wise! I don't wanna go back to that!" Darcy backed up Samantha with vigorous nods.
"Girls, you shouldn't be so fixated on physical attractiveness!" Brujah advised them with big sisterly concern. "You should let people see the real you! If they can't like you for who you really are, are they really worth being friends with?"
*It's... been a while since 'Miss Latina-America' here was in high school,* Nacht confided to the two girls.
Darcy and Samantha passed. So, Nacht turned to Brujah. *Well, it's Christmas Eve, so let me give you your present. Next time you speak with him, tell Quetzalcoatl: 'The Jade Mouse dances on fields of broken glass to the music of a single drum and a brass flute under a weeping moon'. I'm not entirely sure how he'll take that. But at the best, I may have given him a clue to a mystery that he's been pondering for a while, and at the very worst, he'll get a good laugh out of it. And primordial sun deities always can use a good laugh.* With that, Nacht pulled the Telchine's Astrolabe and disassembled it. *As for you, Brujah, I gift you with the Platen. Return Ormenious' Clock to Megalesius; he may be a sleaze, but he has the best legal claim to it. And of course, return the Stylus to the Masons. It's best if the Astrolabe doesn't get reassembled for a while. This thing is dangerous.*
"You... don't want the Astrolabe? With it, you could return to this state whenever you wanted."
*I'm not really ready for this state. I won't be for many lifetimes. Just because you have power and insights doesn't mean that you know how to use them properly. And I'm not advanced enough to maintain this state artificially. Doing so would literally be more trouble, both to myself and others, than the exaltation was worth. Only a fool like Marzena would be willing to cause the damage that returning to this state over and over again would require.* With that Nacht picked up Marzena's Book of Shadows and turned to go.
"And where do you think you're going?" Brujah demanded.
*Why to drink in the despair of a man who's realized that his life's work is worthless, the terror of a man plagued by otherworldly spirits, the anguish of a child abandoned by his parents, and the loss caused by an inhuman housebreaker.* she grinned. *You know, Christmas stuff.*
With that, she departed through the lanes of shadow, where Brujah couldn't follow.
"Jeeze Louise, will you CHILL, Bru?" Sunburst told Brujah over the cell phone as she landed. "Katie's lojack is still broadcasting, and she's right here at the beach house in Malibu! And Bru? We win, you lose, so pony up." Brujah gave an annoyed grunt of agreement, and hung up. Sunny gave a smirk of triumph, closed her phone and tucked it away. Careful of her boots on the sand, she walked up the stairs to the patio, slid open the glass door and peeked in. "Katie?"
The living room was an eclectic mess. 'Doug' the Christmas tree was ablaze with small corpse lights that burned in its boughs. Strewn around the room were open books and texts and newspapers, many of which were flipping their pages by themselves. An abacus and an orrey and an astrolabe clattered and spun by their own power. A Rubik's Cube flipped through various combinations by itself. Kate, still in her darkling demigoddess form, sat on the couch with Marzena's Book of Shadows open on her lap. Gathered around her were notebooks and legal pads and loose-leaf binders that had flickering flames dancing over the surfaces. Kate's Whateley laptop computer was open and on, and there was something really weird, even for computer graphics, going on with the monitor.
Kate was eating Ben & Jerry's™ Chunky Monkey® right from the gallon bucket with a spoon as she watched Jimmy Stewart, clutching to the railing of the Bedford Falls bridge contemplating jumping, on the TV.
Sunny took all this in and sat down next to Kate. After an awkward silence, Sunny asked, "So... what's it like? I mean, being a demigod and all?"
*To be honest? It's rather annoying.*
"Annoying? Being vastly powerful and nigh-omniscient is annoying?"
*No, being vastly powerful and nigh-omniscient and only having a few hours of it is annoying. Actually, what's really annoying is comprehending how little you really understand. Sunny, I'm not ready for this level of awareness. I simply don't have the skills to really interpret all of what I'm seeing and perceiving. Every second, I'm picking up this heaping handfuls of input and their coming together, and then I lose them, they just fall through my fingers, because I lack the skills to keep track of all of it. Every minute, this train of connections and references and extrapolations runs off to places unknown, and I can't catch the train. I know that eventually, I'll get used to this, that I'll learn how to handle all of this- but that will take YEARS, and this is going to last for a few hours! I've got all these wonderful, tantalizing clues... that I'll never be able to follow up on. The only reason that my brains aren't dripping out of my ears, is that I've been coping with magical power on some level, all of my life.*
"Wow," Sunny said, draping a comforting arm over Kate's shoulder. "Bummer. And you thought that your own mother dropped you into a cold lake of black creepiosity. It's amazing that you're as chipper as you are."
*Yes, I am pretty damned bubbly and vivacious, aren't I?*
"Katie... I'm sorry that you lost your Mom. I mean, you've always wanted to know your father, and now you don't even have a mother, even a total loss like Marzena. Now... you got nothing..." Sunburst was uncharacteristic sober about that.
*Don't be. I'm free of her. I can leave Marzena behind in my heart, like I have in my life. Like I told her, today I got the very best Christmas present ever: a mother who's not HER. Now I have someone who I can love with my whole heart, without all of Marzena's crap mucking it up. I don't even have to know who she is; I can love her anyway*
"Kewl!" Sunny peeped, bucked up. Then Sunny gave Kate an askance look. "You... didn't really run that whole big scam on someone you still thought was your own mother, didja?"
*No. Just the bit with the Sorcerer's Contract. And that was to get out from under her thumb. The rest was pretty much winging it, using what those bozos gave me. And, Deus knows, they gave me a lot to work with.*
"Still, from what Bru told me, that was pretty slick."
*It's a measure of Marzena's hubris- not to mention, her flakiness- that she thought that she could create a being of transcendent awareness and still run a scam on her. Once I had the Astrolabe up and running, my only problem was not hurting the other people involved at the moment. Trampling little kids is tacky.*
Sunny absorbed that for a moment. Then looking around her at the books and instruments, which appeared to be busily operating themselves, she asked, "You're doing homework? On Christmas Eve?"
*I'm annotating my 144 Theses, so they'll be more comprehensible. The problem with being exalted without a proper comprehensive foundation is that you forget the perspective that those who'll be reading the text have. The reason that most Sybils are so cryptic isn't that they enjoy being mysterious-*
"Don't give me that. You dig the hell out of being enigmatic."
*Okay, so it isn't JUST that they enjoy being mysterious; it's just that we're being very plain spoken and straightforward- FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE. A perspective that the people who'll be reading the text have no context for. It's like trying to explain International Finance to a class of kindergartners in technical Economists' terms. As these entries are written, even CHEESE would get a nasty case of Lovecraftian Brain-Melt if he tried to understand them. And that little weirdo scares even ME. If I don't dumb these things down, I could be responsible for hundreds of cases of Schizophrenia, Bipolar Dementia, and possible conversions to Randian Objectivism. And, heck, even I will probably have a hard time remembering what point I was getting to, after I come down from all of this. And I'm already coming down a bit, so right now I'm in the butter zone where I can get both points of perspective. Oh, and yes, I am getting my Holiday homework out of the way, while I'm on a roll. But I may be writing the only American History report to be locked away in the Vatican Special Archives. Anyway, Marzena ordered me to answer 666 questions, but I pared it down to 144.*
"Oh, you cut it down to 144, because the questions she asked were too dangerous?"
*No, too stupid. Marzena pretty much summoned up Jesodoth, the Angel of Wisdom and Knowledge and asked it if Bo and Hope on 'Days of Our Lives' were going to get back together.*
"Well? Are they?"
*And ruin your viewing pleasure?*
Sunny looked at the DVD cases next to the sofa. "'It's a Wonderful Life'? 'A Christmas Carol'? 'Home Alone'? 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas'?"
*Well, watching those movies IS supposed to be a Christmas tradition, isn't it? And I figure that this is the only state that I'll ever be in, where I can watch these and not go comatose from Hyperglycemic Overload.*
"And the Ben & Jerry's™?"
*You mean eating Chunky Monkey® while watching holiday movies ISN'T a Christmas tradition?* Kate handed Sunny a tablespoon. *If it isn't, then it should be.*
Sunny took the spoon, and dug into the gallon barrel of banana-and-chocolate goodness. She took a big spoonful, savored it, and settled back on the couch. "You're right, Katie. Definite Christmas tradition."
Dr. Fitzroy Cobb was furiously busy and existentially torn. On one hand, he had to move as much gear from his base as he possibly could, all by himself. His desperate ploy back at the Masons' Chapel had meant losing all of his supporters, even four good men who had been with him for years. He was all on his own again. On his own. He was ALL on his own. He looked at the Vis Attunement Chamber with the fervid desperation of a junkie looking at a loaded needle. He didn't have TIME. If he took the time to Reattune himself, he WOULD be caught. But he was so confused, so distracted! But that voice... that... snake... have given him such focus, such drive, such strength! If he didn't have that cold, clear lucid conviction, he might get caught as well. And worst of all was the way that the conflict between those two pragmatisms was slowing him down.
Then one of the crates that he'd stacked fell over, adding to the mess and confusion. Cobb gave a martyred growl and bent over to lift up the heavy crate. Just as he was at that most awkward position where he thought his back was going to give out, when something hit him on the back of the head, hard. He went pitching forward, when something kicked him in the ass, sending him sprawling. Cobb's reflexes were off but still keen and he managed to not sprawl, but get back up on his guard. He got his bearings just in time to see the rather surreal sight of a man in evening dress, complete with an opera cape, turban and domino mask advance on him, brandishing a jeweled magician's baton that was blazing with energy. "Good Evening, Doctor!" the man said with a snarl that belied the civility of his words. "I do regret any inconvenience, but I'm afraid that I've a bit of a difference of opinion regarding your treatment of my little GIRL!"
Mr. Magic lashed out with the cane and caught Cobb on the jaw, not quite breaking the bone. But Cobb still had some reflexes left. "And yet, for all your righteous rage, you took the time to change clothes before you came here!"
Mr. Magic paused and said in more collected voice, "That was pathetic. You're really not yourself without that fucking snake, are you Cobb? Or maybe it's that you finally ARE yourself, and that self is a nebbishly little loser?" Cobb raged and charged at Mr. Magic.
Mr. Magic effortlessly evaded, caught Cobb in mid-charge and threw him into another stack of crates. "Loser," Mr. Magic decided, "Definitely loser."
"I... Am... A SCIENTIST!" Cobb raged from the floor, "I will be judged by HISTORY! I will NOT be judged by some posturing jumped up petty sneak thief!"
Mr. Magic ignored that. Instead, he was looking at the Attunement Chamber. "That's your Monster Maker, isn't it? You're packing it up to move it! You KNOW what it does! And you're not hacking it to bits with an axe?"
"I have to keep going!" Cobb thundered. "I HAVE to find the secret! There MUST be a secret! If I don't find it, then all those people..."
"All those children," Mr. Magic corrected him with dangerous calm.
"They will all have died for nothing," Cobb continued. "I have to go on! For their sake!"
"They ALREADY died for nothing!" Mr. Magic shouted, as he lashed out again. "This is a Dead End! It was a dead end from the very beginning! You've learned nothing! You've only fed innocent children to that fucking SNAKE that you love so much!"
"NO! No, I've finally made that one breakthrough that I've been working towards, all these years!" Cobb insisted. "The data I got... It made sense! I can do SO MUCH MORE now!"
Mr. Magic gained a steely calm. "Thank You, Doctor. You're making this very easy for me. Y'know, Doc... It's one thing to have a son. After all, a man knows that his boy has to grow up and become a man, and he has to face all the dangers and hardships that come with being a man. But I find with only a few hours experience, that it's a vastly different thing with having a girl. Protecting her is now the most important thing in my life. It's odd; I regard myself as a civilized, refined man of the world, a man who knows how things work. It's a dog eat dog world, and it's best to be the one doing the chewing. And yet, despite the fact that she's almost grown, I find what you've done to her absolutely unacceptable." He lashed out with his cane again, pummeling Dr. Cobb into the concrete of the floor. "I'm no hero, no do-gooder," Mr. Magic continued, "but I can't let you go on. I can't do that to Artie." *Thwack!* I can't do that to those other poor KIDS you screwed over!" *crack!* "I can't do that to their PARENTS, who've been going CRAZY worrying about them!" *Thud!* "And, on top of all that, there IS something that I've promised myself..."
By this time, Dr. Cobb was quite unconscious, and even with a cursory glance, Mr. Magic could tell that he'd done the man some serious damage. But even so, when he strapped Dr. Cobb into 'the Monster Maker', he didn't bother with the mouth guard or any of Cobb's other measures to keep subjects from injuring themselves during the process. Still, he secured Dr. Cobb tightly and then shut the hatch of the Attuner. He powered up the machine, and then looked at the control panel. "Hmmm... Let's see... Where's the button for 'Deep Fry'?"
December 25th, Christmas
"Kaayyy-teee!" Sunburst sang through the closed door, "It's CHRISTMAS!"
Several minutes later, a very fuzzy looking Kate opened her door in her black kitten sleeping jersey. "I feel like eight tiny reindeer danced on my tongue."
"You're still a little bleh from that Post-Exaltation come-down?"
"No, I think it's a Chunky Monkey hangover."
"Well, I TOLD you not to be so free with that strawberry syrup! You should know better than to mix your sweets!"
"You're one to talk. You're the one who went hog wild and mixed caramel and crushed walnuts!"
"Come ON!" Sunny trilled, "Let's see what Santa left for us!"
"Sunny, I don't remember everything that I did last night. And considering what I DO remember from last night, you might want to call in the Fire Department- and maybe the Ghostbusters- before we go down there."
Sunny hurried Kate down the stairs, to find the rest of the California Crusaders waiting for them, with a mass of presents waiting to be exchanged. "We decided that a living room on Christmas morning was the perfect time and place to exchange presents, and this house causes the least problems," Sunny explained as she slipped on a Santa cap. Okay but first of all, I just gotta know... whose idea of a Christmas present was that?" Sunny indicated the 'present' that dominated (and sort of spoiled the cheery effect of) the room: a large man dangled face down from a portable derrick, the sort used to hoist automobile engine blocks. He was wrapped up in a Kevlar (not canvas, but Kevlar) straight jacked, and he was suspended from the derrick by a hook that attached to the small of the back of the straightjacket. His head was encased in a hood that blindfolded him and had a tube to breathe through, but otherwise completely encased his head. His legs were kept separate by two thick shackles kept apart by a stout metal bar. "Who IS that guy? And who's he supposed to be a present FOR?"
"I don't know," Swashbuckler said. "He was here when I came in to set up. But the card says that he's for YOU, Sunny." Sunny took the card. "It's Doctor Macabre!"
"Oh, Crap!" Big Dawg said, "What? He grabbed one of your boyfriends and did THIS to him? Why? What did you do to piss off Dr. Macabre? Is he safe to let out of those restraints?"
"Hey, we can't just leave the poor asshole up there!" Chiller insisted, "Not after all he's been through!" He went for the lever to lower the prisoner from the hoist.
"NO!" Sunny stopped Chiller. "I mean, THAT'S Dr. Macabre!"
"Y'mean, THAT'S the asshole who's been changing kids into zombies and werewolves?" Chiller asked, "Well then FUCK him! My only problem with leaving him there is he has an ass kicking coming to him!"
"Who caught him?" Nightfall asked. "And why'd they leave him HERE?" Daybreak continued.
"According to this card, it was Mister Magic," Sunny said looking at the card. "He says that he 'caught up with the doctor and gave him a big dose of his own medicine'. He also says that Dr. Cobb is still a paid-up member in good standing with the Syndicate, so they're obligated to break him out. But he says further that Dr. Cobb doesn't have a lot of friends in the Syndicate, so they'll take their time honoring that commitment; it sounds like they agree with you about him needing his ass kicked, Chill."
"It seems that Mr. Magic is being pretty generous, this year," Miz Biz commented. "He also left you this," she handed Sunny a bottle of Champagne.
"oooh!" Sunny squealed, "Taittingers! Mister Magic doesn't just have good taste in turbans!"
"So, if we bust open this pinata," Chiller asked, icing up a baseball bat as he spoke, "what drops out?"
"A reprimand for Unnecessary Force," Big Dawg said, taking the ice-bat away. "As superheroes, we're expected to maintain a higher standard and all that junk." Still, he looked at Macabre dangling there and gave the figure a poke. "Of course," he continued drolly, "if Cobb's been changed by his own monster machine, then he might be actively dangerous to KeShawna here. We'll just have to wait until the proper authorities show up to let him down. Of course... Kesh, who WOULD be the proper authorities?"
This was a topic of some merry debate, which lasted well into the afternoon. The merriness of the debate was helped along by exchanging gifts and a breakfast buffet. During the leisurely exchange, Swashbuckler asked Kate, "When I was called to the Great Western Lodge to help with dealing with the former monster kids, I noticed that your moth-, er, Marzena was frightened to death of that Witch Hunter chap, Hopkins. What on Earth was that all about?"
"His name's Jacob Hopkins," Kate answered, "and he says that he's a direct descendant of Matthew Hopkins, the 'Witchfinder General' of the English Civil War, despite the fact that Hopkins died young, and there's no record of him having any issue. For some reason, I'm not sure, and I don't care enough to ask, Hopkins holds magic-users in general a vicious grudge, and he's become a vigilante specializing in 'Witches'. Eight years ago in Waterford Falls, Wisconsin, he managed to track down the Fellowship of the Well of Mimir, that cult that Marzena had formed around me and a minor source of magic. Being that sort, Marzena asked the Well what fate the Witch Hunter held for her. She should know better; prophecies are nothing but trouble, and they can bind you to whatever fate they show. Being Eight, and going through a puckish phase, I showed Marzena the most horrible fate possible at the hands of the Witch Hunter. As a result, Marzena developed a phobic obsession with Hopkins. She's convinced that she's fated to die horribly at his hands. On the other hand, it relieves her of any worry that she'll die any way else, since she's fated to die at his hands."
"The old 'I can't be shot; I was born to be hanged' bit," Swash mused.
As Swash went over to flirt with Nightfall, Kate noticed a small white package with a large red bow that she hadn't noticed before. While she might be immune to several things, Kate was not immune to curiosity. She sidled up to the table where the package was, and was pleasantly surprised to see her name on the card. Checking to see that no one was watching, so there wouldn't be an awkward fuss about it, Kate picked up the packet and looked at the card. It read:
Dear Kate, The second rule of the Gentleman Burlgar is that he never steals anything Needed or Loved. And I can tell that this has a lot of Love connected to it for you. It sort of got swept up with the rest of the swag, so I'm returning this to you. I would have given it to you at the Chapel, but I didn't want to give Brujah an excuse to confiscate it 'for your own good'. Love, Gwen.
PS, thanks for not ratting Pop and me out to Brujah
Gingerly, Kate opened the pale-blue snowflake patterned paper of the present. Inside a Tiffany™ box was a small medallion on a bed of red felt, made of a strange black stone surrounded by bits of homely feldspar set in copper, a crude bit of work done years ago by an inexpert Eight-year-old hand under great duress. Kate could sense a strange new power pulsing within the central stone, but for her the strongest power was the bittersweet memories attached to it. A 16-year-old shouldn't have bittersweet memories.
Then Sunny walked up and Kate quickly put the amulet away. "Katie! Where are your gifts? Didn't you get anyone anything?"
"As a matter of fact," Kate reached under her nightgown and pulled out a tray full of small gift-wrapped bundles, "last night I made something for everyone. Okay, they're a little rough, but they're hand-made."
The Crusaders (and friends) gathered around and picked up the small lumps. "Okay," Chiller said, picking one up and pulling down his sunglasses to peer at it, "since nobody else will, I'll ask: what ARE they?"
"Clues? Clues to what?"
"They don't have anything to be a clue to, yet," Kate explained. "Some day you'll be completely stumped about something. There'll be a solution, but for the life of you, you won't be able to see it. So, you think about what's baffling you, you unwrap this packet, and suddenly, you'll break through to whatever answer you have a context for. I've noticed that when you need a clue, you really NEED a clue."
"Yer kiddin' me," Skyrider scoffed. "You can DO that?"
"Not NOW, no," Kate admitted. "But last night? Piece of cake! Okay, I admit, I figured that you'd be skeptical, so I made up an extra one. Skyrider, take one."
He did so and held it in the palm of his hand. "AND?"
"Think about some problem that's been bugging you, and pull open the packet."
"Okay... but I still think yer buggin'" Sky tugged at the ribbon holding the packet together, and his face dropped. His eyes went wide for a moment, and then he slapped his forehead. "Oh MAN! Of COURSE! How could I have not SEEN that! 'Scuze me guys, but I gotta get to the LAB!" He bolted through the door to the beach and was on his board and winging his way south-by-southeast. The others all looked at Kate goggle eyed and started to reach for the tray. She jerked it away. "Please understand, these are clues, not Revelations or Epiphanies. Those take a lot longer to make. These work with simple immediate problems, not larger societal issues like world peace, ending hunger, or getting men to put the seat down after they're done. I was going to make Breaks or Second Chances, but those tend to cause more problems than they're worth. Take these and hold onto them for when you really NEED a clue."
The Crusaders took the tiny packets and looked at them. Swashbuckler took two. "This one's for Sky. And let's face it-he really needs to get a clue."
"Hold on, Katie," Sunny said, picking up what looked like a dark red card on the tray, "What's this?"
Kate peered at it. "Funny. I don't remember making that."
Sunny looked at it closely. "There's a card. It's for you, Katie. From you." Sunny handed Kate the card.
Kate peered at the card. "It says, 'Do Not Open Until Zulu'. 'ZULU'?"
There was an awkward moment, which lasted until Sunny bulldozed over it. "Okay, and now MY gift for YOU, Katie!" Beaming, Sunny handed Kate a large electric blue package wrapped with red satin ribbon. Kate eagerly tore open the present to find: "FESTIVE SWEATERS!"
A few hours later, the party had wrapped up, Sunny and Kate were in the Boxter and on their way to Tahoe. "You DO know that I go to school in a place where the snow is three feet deep now, don't you?"
"Maybe," Sunny hedged, "but do they have ski lodges with roaring fireplaces and studly ski instructors in tight sweaters?"
"So, who did you put the touch on, to get the use of this ski lodge for the next week?"
"Brujah. What do you think the bet between the two of us was for? The winner got the use of this lodge for the next week!" Then Sunny gave Kate a sneaky look. "And, speaking of Bru... when are you going to tell her about that amulet that you got as a Christmas present?"
Clutching at the amulet hidden under her coat, Kate hunched over slightly and asked, "Can we... not tell anybody about this? I mean, by best friend at Whateley is Jadis Diabolik, and well, Jadis is great, but the drama's always got to be about HER. And if she heard that I'd turned into a Demigod and created a talisman of great power, then SHE'D have to create a talisman of great power, and it would get really sticky real quickly." "Yeah," Sunny smirked, "I've noticed that you Mystical types can get pretty competitive and possessive and territorial..."
Kate followed Sunny into the lodge after an afternoon of skiboarding where they'd started off at Olympic levels of boarding and dared, and double-dared, and double-dog-dared each other into ever increasing levels of face-plant. Woo-HOO!" Sunny exulted. "And all that without using super powers!"
"Yeah, yeah, that's what YOU say," Kate humphed.
"Heat us up some hot chocolate, will you Katie? I gotta check my messages."
Kate had two very large cups in the microwave, when Sunny called, "KATIE! Brujah left me a message! She said that they've captured the Headhunter! She says that KTLA-5 has a podcast about it!"
"Well, that's all holiday season-y," Kate grumped, but she hurried into the living room, where Sunny was firing up the desktop.
The podcast showed a scene that looked more like a war zone than a Los Angeles area event center. The on-site reporter said that the Headhunter had turned out to be some sort of 'alleged inhuman monster that was occupying human bodies for periods of time'. The alleged monster had trapped the entire contingent of a teenage beauty pageant, hoping to do 'things that we are not happy discussing on open broadcasts' to the girls.
"It's looking for virgin sacrifices, so it goes to a beauty contest?" Kate wondered. "It looks like Humanity isn't alone in wishful thinking."
[While reports are scattered and unconfirmed at this time, this reporter has been told that this unidentified girl was instrumental in putting down the abomination] the camera focused for a long moment on a beautiful slender young girl, maybe 15 or 16 years old, with short black hair, a perfect oval face, and large, amazing emerald green eyes that looked panicked into the camera for a moment. Kate peered at the image for a second. There was something... then recognition clicked in.
It was the eyes...
and Kate smiled an evil smile...