User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active
 

 

 

 

A Whateley Academy Story

Tennyo Goes to Hell

Or

Good morning, and welcome to the lake of fire

by Babs Yerunkle

chapter 2 of 2

(Note: this horror story contains sexual violence, physical violence, and horror. For those that wish to skip that, you may jump to the end of chapter two, which is conveniently labeled “Epilog”.)

This story is darker and bloodier than anything you have ever seen in Whateley canon. In fact, it is darker and more violent than anything you have ever seen in Whateley non-canon, including April Fools' Day stories and fanfic. It contains graphic scenes of violence, rape, sexual violence, bestiality, violence, brutality, violence, raw sexuality, horror, cannibalism, violence, and insanity. Did I mention the violence yet? Okay. This is somewhere around FR21. You have been warned.

That said, this is a great story by a beloved Whateley author, even if some will find it very disturbing. It is not necessary to read it, because all key events will be covered elsewhere. But if you're interested (and in my personal opinion it is well worth reading). Continue reading only if you understand and can legally make the decision to subject yourself to this type of story. If you are under age or experience PTSD/trigger events due to the above things, we recommend you skip this content.


Return to contents

“We’ll begin with the easy part,” Mifruzli decided. “Let’s replace those outlandish ears first.”

Zero was still cutting the bonds as fast as she could. She still had the waist and neck to go. The neck would be toughest, since it was close to where he was working. If he heard, if it caused him to look closer, she’d lose her one chance.

He held up a variety of severed ears. “In the Old World, these would have died and withered. Here… they are a bit withered, but remain viable. Once I’ve stitched them in place, they should take and revive. I’ve determined through extensive experimentation that this connection process actually takes those bits of soul and memory and intertwines them with your own, merging and sharing memories and information about the physical body that’s sometimes quite surprising. It’s astonishing! In this world, I am actually able to stitch and mend the very soul as if it were a garment, or a set of curtains perhaps.”

He leaned closer. “Frankly, there are plenty of animals. It’s the true humans that are rare. I’m always on the lookout for a new one. Then I have to conserve. If I’m careful, I can spread a single man out through three or four animals. And even then, there are leftovers.” He held up several sets of withered ears. “Such as these.” He held the ears up next to the side of her head. “Yes, these will do perfectly. Much better than those grotesque monkey-ears you have now.”

“I like my ears!” Zero protested desperately.

“Well, it’s not about what you like, is it? I’m in charge here, and you should just thank your lucky stars that I’m not in a mood to be creative.”

With that, he set the many ears down on a table and picked through his obsidian scalpels. “This should be good enough. The edge is starting to go, but I’m no longer feeling generous enough to waste my sharpest knife on you.”

She still had to cut the waist and neck restraints. If she broke any of the other bonds too soon, she’d get caught and it would all be for nothing! That meant she couldn’t strain too hard, or writhe in her bonds. While concentrating carefully on maintaining the tiny, spinning saw of grit, she tried to clamp down on her entire body.

Mifruzli approached with his black glass knife, moving to the left side of her head.

“Now, a simple incision here—”

She screamed. The knife sank into her flesh and dragged, catching every so often as a nick or dent in the knife caught the edge of her skin. She remembered every childhood fear of the barber cutting the top of her ear. This was a hundred times worse, since the entire ear was being circumscribed and sliced away from her head. She screamed and screamed and didn’t stop, barely gasping for breath before she screamed again.

Then, it was being pulled from her head. The outer skin was free, but flesh farther inside still held firm. Mifruzli pulled on it, pulling the ear out so that he could slice away at the cartilage that formed the ear canal.

It would have been a perfect time to finish cutting her neck strap, but her mind was completely overwhelmed.

Finally, with a last tug and a tiny rip of her abused flesh, she felt it give way. Mifruzli stood up, her ear in his hand.

“There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” He looked at her fondly, as if he were some benign doctor, curing her of a terrible sickness. “While I’ve never been disturbed by the screams of my patients, I’d advise you to use this as a learning experience. Learn to cope with the pain. Make it your friend. If you don’t, I’m afraid you may find things rather difficult when we begin on your eyes.” He shrugged. “Just a suggestion. It’s all the same to me, either way.”

Zero feverishly tried to gather her wits. She’d dropped the grit, and now she reached out with her “grip” to gather the scattered bits of dust and sand she’d been using. Her power could only reach a few inches from her skin, but it was the best she could do. It was also her only hope. She poured the power out from the skin of her neck and shoulders, using her mind’s eye to watch as the tiny, grinding saw resumed work.

“What?” Even as Mifruzli held it, the oversized ear in his hand was dissolving. “That’s impossible! My research has proven that flesh and soul are equivalent, and the soul – even fragments of it – are eternal. It can’t just vanish!

But in Mifruzli’s hand, the oversized ear seemed to be dissolving into sparkles, that in turn faded into invisibility.

He bent down to peer at her wound. She held the grit-saw still and silent, while he was so close.

“The healing is faster than I’d expect, but…” He thought for a moment. “I’ll repeat the experiment. This time with the proper, shaper scalpel.”

He cut away her right ear this time, but left one small bit of flesh that it to her. The severed ear hung and dangled, but she never noticed any extra pain. It was lost in the wash of agony she was already experiencing.

“That’s about five minutes without appreciable blood flow. The organ seems fine. So now we sever it completely…” He made a swift slice with the scalpel, and moved into sight holding her other ear. “And no problem. It seems fine – wait, there it goes.”

In his fingers, the ear began to dissolve away into nothingness.

“Impossible!”

He began pacing while he ranted to himself. Zero took it as her last great opportunity, as she finished cutting her neck binding and went to work on the thickest root-vine, around her waist.

“Where does the soul go? That doesn’t make any sense at all, unless she’s just a single soul-concept, and her body is nothing but a realistic illusion. But that makes no sense! Unless the ‘molecule’ of her form is so tightly bound that it’s impossible to separate any soul-fragments from her. But then how could I pull off the ear? Could one of my initial assumptions be at fault? No, that makes no sense. What if…” And his mutterings continued, as he paced.

Her grit-saw wasn’t really very good. She spun it with every ounce of willpower she had. Still, the tiny “blade” was only as big around as a button, and it was like trying to saw something with a string coated in dust.

“Time for a real experiment,” Mifruzli suddenly announced.

She couldn’t saw any more frantically. She was already as frantic as she could get.

“Let’s see if connection or distance have a bearing…”

Selecting her left foot, he deftly began to cut off her pinky toe. To Zero’s mind, she was being carved like a turkey. Mifruzli was making the cuts right around the joint, then with a last slice he severed the toe and laid it upon her belly button, where it wouldn’t roll free. Then he proceeded on to the next toe.

This time, he left the toe dangling by one small bit of gristle. Completely severed, but still just barely connected.

“Why are you doing this?” she cried. “What’s the matter with my feet? Aren’t they human enough for you?”

“Oh, your feet were fine. At least, they were. This is for science!” He gave a happy, innocent smile. “Besides, haven’t you ever wanted clawed toes? Think how good you’d be at climbing trees.”

She was sobbing. “I thought your excuse was making me more human, not less!”

“Yes, well as you so rightly point out, it’s mostly just an excuse, isn’t it? I’m actually an artist, and I’ll take any excuse to extend my art. My canvas is the body, my colors are living flesh. When I see a masterpiece like you I can’t help but want to perform a few small edits and changes of my own. In a way, it turns you into my masterpiece, don’t you see?”

When it came time for a third toe, he moved to the pinky toe on her right foot. Once that had been sliced free, he slowly moved it away from her body. A little more than four feet away, it began to dissolve.

“So distance is a factor. The flesh lying on your belly is still intact, though I cut it earlier. And the one that remains attached seems in no danger either. Maybe we’ll just let those be, while I investigate the other side of this oddity. Will tissue transplanted into you, remain?”

He hurried into his back room, humming happily to himself.

“Toes, toes, toes. Tiger toes? I was sure I had some… Jaguar! That’s close enough. Do I have a set of ten? Eight… and the recessive… those don’t really work as big toes, but with some reconstruction… Okay.”

If having a toe sliced away was bad, the poking and fine sutures needed to reattach one was even worse. Every needle and tweezer that prodded a vein or tendon into place, every tiny suture through her abused and mutilated flesh – she felt it all without the benefit of any chemical numbing.

But through her tears, she focused every ounce of her fury into that tiny saw. And her eyes watched like a hawk, the tray that held the volcanic glass scalpels. For this bond, she cut it all the way through.

She knew that her first blow would have to count. At first she wanted to go for his eyes, blinding him. Mifruzli had talked about surgery on her eyes. But if his own were ruined, who was there to heal the doctor? And it seemed like such poetic justice.

Tempting as that was, she quickly realized that it was the wrong target. So long as he could call for his beast men, he would be able to defeat her. But if the eavesdroppers outside only heard more grunts and pants and screams, they would never dare to come in. Her first target had to be the throat, the voice box.

“There. That’s both on the left.”

“You know, maybe I should consider breeding you. You have such fascinating potential. I’d do it myself, but my own spawn naturally share too many of my memories. They’ve always proven a bit too dangerous. On the other hand, if I wanted a lot of spawn to experiment with… gender reassignment isn’t that tough. I’ve done it often enough before. After the healing finishes, your seed would reflect your complete soul and body, rather than simply holding the genetics of your testicle donor, as it would have been in the Old World. Still, while I have such a captive audience, it would be almost a crime not to sample the pleasure you so plainly offer—”

She’d had all she could take. With an inarticulate roar of pure rage, she broke free of the table. Flying straight for him, her fist smashed with all her strength into her torturer’s throat. She felt something crunch, something more than her fingers. Mifruzli crumpled to the ground, caught totally off guard.

Zero turned for the tray of scalpels, but her right hand wasn’t working well at the moment. She spent precious seconds switching hands, then fumbling with her left hand, before settling on a large, black blade. She turned, just as Mifruzli rose back to his feet.

Zero lunged, with more enthusiasm than skill. Now that she’d stopped his voice, now she could go for the eyes. She jabbed, hard, making him flinch back.

But for all her rage, she had no skill in fighting. Her movements were clumsy and wild. Mifruzli, despite gasping, somehow stepped forward and hooked one leg between hers, immobilizing her in a way that was too complex to unravel in the middle of combat. She slashed for his eyes, but his arm wrapped around hers in a way that pinned her in place, and he calmly plucked the scalpel back.

He glared into her eyes then and spoke in the merest whisper – the loudest sound he could make at the moment. “I think someone needs to be punished!

She struggled in his grip, but the position of his arms and legs locked her in place.

And then, when all hope seemed lost, Mifruzli’s eyes went wide.

Zero could see no reason for this, except that the wind had picked up outside. She could tell, because it sang through the cracks in the rude wooden hut they were inside, making soft, discordant whistling noises.

“No! Stay back!” Mifruzli was trying to shout, but it still came out as whispers.

Now she could hear another voice, from outside, louder. It was Mifruzli! After a moment of confusion, she recognized the subtle differences. It was the old Mifruzli, the hunchback.

"Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!"

Shadows crept across the floor, like someone had spilled black ink. They crept across the floor, darkening each stool and bench as if black paint had been sprayed. Mifruzli stared in horror, backing toward the tables that held his living victims of vivisection.

F’tagen!” he desperately whispered. “Naer fmeirich f’tagen!

The shadow wasn’t. The analogy to ink must have been closer to the truth, for now bubbles began to form in the paper-thin layer of blackness. There was a sound like the errant whistling of an out-of-tune pipe organ, and the bubbles burst. The black film pulled back from the tops of the forming bubbles, and as these lids pulled back, a dozen white-rimmed eyes circled around and came to lock their gaze squarely upon Mifruzli.

He began to gesture, his arms swinging and flashing through grand arcs, while his fingers assumed positions that seemed impossible for the bone structure of a normal man.

Ahead of him, the black layer came to a halt. What Mifruzli didn’t see was the blackness oozing in behind him. It rose up the wall, coating that in a layer of oily black. The bubbles formed again, first eyes, then half-burst bubbles that supported a ring of teeth. The tooth-ringed bubbles seemed to drift away from the ebony skin, but Zero realized that they were growing extendible stalks, like prehensile throats. These leech-like appendages suddenly shot forward, latching onto Mifruzli – his back, his arms, even the back of his head. The man gave a hoarse, gasping scream, as he was reeled back toward the evil film that coated the wall behind him.

Suddenly, the door slammed open. Framed in its opening was Mifruzli – the old hunchback.

Kcherach!” he spoke, as if shouting an order. “N’gori koonaf ya-R'lyeh! Ni gathana fu wchoi ch’thon.

Thin black extrusions grew out of the black skin now, wrapping around the young Mifruzli and binding him fast in his present position. The old hunchback stepped to the operating table and selected the sharpest of the blades there. Then he turned to his young doppelganger, and approached.

“I’m sorry it had to come to this, my son,” the old man whispered.

“Spare me your false regrets, old man. Get it over with.”

“Very well.”

The hunchback raised the black knife to the younger man’s neck. Just before he cut, both men spoke something that had the powerful feel of ritual about it.

“I will live on through you, Father.”

“You will live on through me, Son.”

And then the knife sliced deep, severing carotid arteries on both sides, so that blood welled out of the gaping wound and poured down the front of the dying man’s body. Zero watched as the spark of light faded from the younger man’s eyes. They somehow lost their shine. Without moving or changing in any overt way, the eyes of the man faded from being the window to his living soul, to simply filmy dead orbs, as lifeless as the eyes of a fish as it lays upon the butcher’s slab.

“Help me with this!” The old hunchback was in the back room, pulling forth a gigantic ceramic cauldron. Zero stared in shock. For this world, the cauldron represented one of the most advanced constructs she’d seen. And it wasn’t a simple, small bowl, like Mifruzli’s white bowl. This was gigantic – four feet in diameter, four feet high.

The old man piled wood under the cauldron and paused to light it on fire.

“The funeral must be held immediately. It’s a private ritual – I won’t need you except for helping me move the body into this… cremation urn.”

“It looks like a cauldron,” she pointed out. “Are you going to burn him, or boil him?”

“Funeral practices are very different in this world,” he old man snapped back. “You should be thankful enough that I saved you! If you have any gratitude, help me move the body!”

So between the two of them, they managed to lug the sack of dead flesh to the giant pot and drop it inside, while the fire rose to a blaze underneath.

The black film receded and vanished. She had no idea where it went, and Mifruzli didn’t speak.

Finally, he pushed her outside with the beast-men, saying, “The rest is private. Make some friends. Tell them that if any interfere with either of us, they will regret it.”

And that was the last she saw of him for three days.

Gary found her torn and bleeding body, lying there on the forest floor. He felt for a pulse, but there seemed to be nothing. After a minute, though, her chest slowly rose, then fell, in a ragged breath.

“Jade?” he called, softly, desperately. “Can you hear me? Try not to move. I’m going to get water. If you can, you should shift, and heal yourself.”

He came back, bare minutes later, carrying a t-shirt soaked in water. He held it over her open mouth and let the drops flow down and drip into her mouth. After he’d squeezed the last of the moisture out, he bent close to her again.

“Jade? Can you shift? I think that’s the only thing that can save you now.”

Her eyelids rose slightly, and he had to wonder if she really heard him. But after a minute, she began to change. It was slower than normal. He saw the black fur growing on her arm, the limbs changing position and length. Her torso seemed to take the longest. It was hard to see anything from the outside, but several times the girl gave a cry that was midway between the yowl of a cat and the anguished cry of a young girl in agony.

Finally, the process began to speed up and the change finished. A young pantheress lay there, panting.

Gary got more water, but as he approached the large cat it eyed him warily, distrustfully. Finally, it consented and opened its mouth, and he squeezed out his bare shirtful of moisture.

This seemed to exhaust them both, so the pantheress lay on her side again. Gary approached her back, to curl protectively around her. This seemed to disturb the cat, but stroking and speaking calmly to it seemed to eventually settle it down. The tentacles coiled into their beehive lumps once more, and the cat accepted his stroking. She curled up tighter, flexible in a way that humans cannot manage, but which felines seem to have no problem with. She licked herself then, gently stroking abused flesh.

Gary continued petting her, as they rested.

She licked and half dozed, slowly healing and regaining her strength. Her flesh, even after shifting, was swollen and sore. The licking was soothing. Much more important – she could taste him. The sticky, salty fluid that slowly oozed out of her, it was him.

So she carefully licked it away. She felt cleaner with each pass of her tongue. At this rate, she’d be back to normal in about 100 years.

As she dozed, she dreamed and remembered. Luther Schimanski, that was his name. Inherited from his father, and his father in turn. The first Luther had come from the Real World. He’d been a SabreTooth, trained by Deathlist himself. She remembered the agonizing testing, pain resistance, endurance, drills until she thought he would drop. A lifetime or more (it sometimes seemed) of training, and his last living memory had been facing a white-skinned girl with black Goth makeup. She’d lashed out at him faster than his eye could follow – and the next thing he knew, he was pulling himself out of the carcass of some creature near a lake of fire.

Jade was confused by those memories. Luther’s awakening had been very different from hers. But he had emerged as a man, not a creature. And he kept running across twin brothers. Except that he’d never had a twin brother.

After this long in the world, she knew how to sort her memories. She kept an overview of Luther’s life, but threw most of it away. She kept the best of the training, though. She remembered how to use power armor, and knives, and heavy weapons. She remembered those hand-to-hand moves. It wasn’t like learning a martial art, she knew that somehow. The only philosophy was “hit first, hit hard.” And the moves never achieved the blending and perfection of motion that a martial artist seemed to unconsciously possess. But Luther had a quick, almost programmed, set of responses for the most common moves in a fight.

Her memory of his memories was sharp in places, and fuzzy in others. There were holes, and gaps, and some parts were just distant. Other bits were still sharp.

And then, there was the big memory. The one that had driven Luther (the original one) insane. He’d been captured by something. The memory didn’t have clear images. The scene was so burdened by terror that that prevented her from looking at it too closely, even in memory. Luther was chained or tied to some sort of table. An Asian man, with vigorous black hair but the aged white mustache of an elder leaned over him and explained things. They were going to experiment with transferring memories! If it succeeded, Luther would become the most powerful man alive!

Luther liked that part, but it was hard to get any further. It was as if a part of him were in there with her, and what was coming was too stressful to remember.

There was an image. The mustached man held a fork, and on it was a tentacle, like calamari or squid. Except that this thing still writhed, and it was a vile oily black in color.

All Luther had to do was eat it, and he would achieve the power.

Even as he chewed, it evaded his teeth, darting across his mouth like a rat trying to escape its cage. Manfully, Luther swallowed, sending the alien gobbet of flesh down his throat…

Whenever he ate things, in this world, he gained memories from his prey. They were of little consequence. The meager skills and thoughts of an animal meant little to a man. They were a curiosity, little more.

If that’s the case when man consumes animal, what about the reverse? When animal consumes man, what happens when the creature gains a glimmer of reason, of language, and writing, and rational thought? What happens when the regretful wolf learns of the power of the spear and bow and gun, but realizes it will never have hands? What of the vulture, learning something of literature, or the worm, swelling with concepts of politics and economics that will always be infinitely beyond its feeble brain?

So it was with Luther. The alien flesh brought an infinity of new thoughts, ways of thinking, skills, knowledge, and visions of other places. He learned of the cracks in the world, and how to bend his body in order to slip in or out of those cracks. He learned of the predators between. He learned of the infinite masters who would compel into servitude and their various servants. He learned of wars where death was not allowed, but instead the souls of the captured were reconstructed and crafted into weapons for the new masters, and how this cycle could go around and around forever. Throughout, Luther searched desperately for some sign of the benevolent patriarch that he’d been taught was the supreme figure in this universe. But there was no evidence, no sign of such a figure. Meanwhile, he learned that the dark corners and shadowed spaces, which his rational training told him were harmless, were anything but. Every shadow, every angle, every gap that might lead elsewhere, these all became his new phobia, the dominating terror of his waking hours.

Luther learned too much. As the alien flesh was digested by his body, he was the earthworm biting the rotting flesh of a man. He learned things beyond his station. He learned things that no man was ever meant to know. In that instant, Luther screamed and ceased to be a man.

Though he was still trapped on the table, his body simply melted, like so much loose water. A moment later, he rose up again, reformed and human – in appearance. They tried to stop him, but his arms reached out and took them. The mouths in his hands bit and chewed, savoring the taste of human flesh. He rushed forward in a kiss, pouring himself in through their mouth and down into their gut, where he could enjoy them from the inside out.

Luther regained his senses, for one horrifying moment. The influx of human flesh and human thought had returned him, so very briefly, to his original sense. He woke to find himself in a room painted with gore. The walls were colored everywhere with broad splashes of red, while bits of gore clung to the ceiling, occasionally detaching and dripping down.

Luther stared in horror. Though he had been trained by Deathlist himself, this went so far beyond that. He’d never killed so many before. He’d never stopped to eat them. And he could feel the memories returning, the horror that he knew would soon overwhelm his mind once more.

There were other scenes from Luther’s life, but they were thankfully distant, as if seen second-hand. The ultimate carnivore, his killing spree only paused when there was an opportunity for rape. His body and new skills made him a fluid predator, able to melt away from any blow, attack any weak spot, or simply toughen up and overpower his targets.

And this is where Luther, son of Luther sprang from. He rose, shortly after being born as some sort of pig-creature. Moments after birth he remembered, and his flesh flowed and changed until he was a man. The terrifying memories were more distant, but still enough to rip his new-born sanity into shreds.

And then came Luther after Luther. Each retained the malleable ability of the shoggoth (as they recalled the human name for the consumed alien), but the memories became even more distant.

Until, in the fourth generation, Jade licked the memory-rich fluid from her own battered body, absorbing the mind and genetics that were a faithful reproduction of all that Luther was. But she had many advantages. The fourth-hand memories were dimmed enough that she saw, but fortunately she didn’t have to understand. She experienced the vision, without having to delve into the full implications. Further, she already had a mind of her own, a mind adept at absorbing new memories, merging or eliminating them, and sorting them into place. And she first met Luther’s memories with a surge of fury, which let her block much of them while fighting off the rest.

Thus, in the fourth generation, was achieved what the experimenter had originally sought: a (relatively) sane human, possessing the infinite ductility of the shoggoth.

For three days, Zero lived with the beast-men. They treated her as a new member of their unnatural clan. She had lived in the House of Pain, like them, and then escaped its grasp. Mifruzli was dead, but they took neither comfort nor regret from this.

“Another will come,” lion told her. “He always does. And wasn’t he killed by Mifruzli?”

“I guess,” she tepidly agreed. “It was the black thing that really did it. It held him, while the old man slit his throat.”

When she described the bubbling black mass, the beast-men drew back in fear.

“Shoggoth!” they whispered fearfully to each other.

“What’s a shoggoth?”

“You saw! You saw it! Blackness, without form. A thousand mouths, a thousand eyes. Claw, pierce, slash, smash. It is like trying to harm the river. To bite, to taste its flesh is worse than death.” The beasts on the ground, and in the trees with her, began to mill about in agitation. “A shoggoth, a shoggoth! Run! Flee! Run!”

And they did. Within moments the forest was empty and she had no one to talk to.

The next day they crept back, one by one, fearful and shaking, but apparently unwilling to cower in the jungle alone, away from their fellows. They shared food with her from their stores, and began to show her their spear exercises. They took comfort in that, both in the weight and heft of their weapons, and in Zero’s clumsy use of the weapon. In comparison, they were masters of the spear, and that further calmed them. As if a spear would be any use against a shoggoth.

Over the three days of her stay, Zero’s ears finished growing back, as did the pinky on her right foot. The outer two toes on her left foot regained feeling and sensation, but they were no longer human. For those toes, she could flex them and slide claws out. Mifruzli (the younger) had succeeded in his insane surgery.

Finally, on the third day, her Mifruzli exited the large hut known as the House of Pain. He looked robust and healthy, he stood a bit straighter, and the fine clothes that now clad him were a great improvement over the ragged skins he had previously worn. It was the black slacks, white shirt, and black jacket that the murdered Mifruzli had worn. He even had leather shoes and a belt.

These last items caused some consternation for Zero. She was beginning to understand the rules of this strange new world. It seemed that leather – skin from any creature – never actually died. Was the shoe leather merely dormant? Did it feel? Did it understand, somehow, that it had been stitched into a new form, and was being walked upon?

She tried to dismiss these concerns from her mind.

“What now?” she asked, as her traveling companion approached.

“On to the city,” he ordered. “I don’t think we’ll have any more trouble.”

Around him, the beast-men made no motion, but merely held their heads bowed and their eyes averted.

Zero noticed something. “Is your hair darker? And you seem to be standing straighter.”

“Merely the result of a bath, civilized clothes, and a proper diet,” the man soothed, dismissively. “And look!” He held out a rounded, oblong dish. “Now I have a second bowl!”

She recognized it now, and understood why the bowl was oblong, rather than round. It was the upper section of a human skull.

“Now follow me,” Mifruzli ordered. “We have several days to make up.”

Still in panther form, Jade staggered to her feet.

“Take it easy,” Gary cautioned. “You’re weak still.”

She gave herself a human larynx and tongue. “I need food,” she rasped.

“Okay. We’ll hunt together, like always. I’ll drive it toward you.” He looked really concerned. “I thought you were dead! But, why? Did he try to kill you? And if he did, how did you survive?”

She nodded her panther head. “Yes.” She spared a thought and her body finished its healing. “He wanted me dead. But I’ve been working on fixing my body, on the inside?”

“I remember. Some days, that’s all you’d talk about. ‘Where should I put a second heart? How about a third?’ Frankly, sex is more fun.”

“Those extra hearts saved my life,” she admitted, quietly. “And sex… I don’t think I’ll be able to do that again for a long time.”

“Sorry,” Gary said, quietly, as if ashamed that he’d brought it up. “I mean, I don’t really need it, not like the rest of all you. It’s just, with you I really like it.” He got a sudden thought. “Uh, you might not want to, but the way things are here, are you going to be able to stop yourself?”

Jade shivered. “I don’t even want to think about that right now. Let’s hunt.”

Though they were deep inside the jungle, it had patches of clearing, older trees, and new, young growth. Ahead of them was a dense, older stand. Gary stayed where he was, while she loped around to the far side of the stand, where she settled down to lay in wait.

After a few minutes, she heard the crashing and yelling that was Gary scaring up game. She let the first few small animals run clear. Her appetite demanded something larger.

And now it came. As tall as a man, the first glimpse revealed a shape like a velociraptor – an upright lizard walking on two legs. A predator. This one had chicken-like legs with heavy scale armor, thick fur on its body, and the fanged, venomous mouth of a viper.

As it passed, Jade dropped out of the tree to land on its back. She instantly gave it her favorite move, raking her back claws for massive damage.

The lizard spun and snapped at her, catching a tentacle with its fang and injecting a lethal dose of venom.

She responded by instantly forming a pocket to contain the venom. Her body melted into a sheet, constricting the lizard from every size as she flowed up its neck. With a thought, her body solidified into a scaffold of bone, and she wrenched newly created muscles. The lizard’s neck snapped before it even understood the fluid horror that had engulfed it.

She dropped to the ground in a puddle and was ready to move in and directly digest it, when she remembered that she was supposed to share the kill with her partner.

Oh my God, Gary! What’s he going to think of me?

She unpuddled, shooting upward to take the shape of a naked girl. But her skin still had the oily black sheen of a shoggoth. It took concentration and memory to restore a black semblance of human skin, and more work to restore her normal ‘barely tan’ skin tone. She’d just finished correcting the appearance of her eyeballs and hair (checking with an eye she grew in her palm), when Gary emerged from the forest.

“Jade! Are you okay?” He looked at dinner, lying at her feet. “Nice job, that looked like a tough one. You have any trouble?”

“No, I…” She was afraid to tell him. He was the only other person she’d ever seen in this world. What if he didn’t like this change? “I guess I got lucky.”

They were at the foot of the volcano, and its rough and irregular features indicated a recent genesis, with little time for the smoothing, softening effects of erosion.

The path veered right, as if to circumnavigate the enormous mountain. That’s when Mifruzli left the path and ventured into the untamed jungle.

“Shouldn’t we follow the road?”

“We have reached the mountain Xinchanru. The hidden city lies beneath, but its many entrances are not so obvious as to lie upon a road. Follow me, it’s not far.”

When they arrived, it seemed like a profound anticlimax. One more gap in the mountainside opened to yet another lava tube.

“It’s just another cave,” she protested.

“No. This one is watched.”

Mifruzli pointed to the left and right, into the jungle, but Zero didn’t see anything other than the ordinary animals. Ordinary for this place, at least.

“In addition,” he instructed, “look at the inside. Support structures. You won’t find those in normal caves or lava tubes.”

They stepped through the arched opening, she estimated fifteen feet wide and thirty feet tall. Inside it was like being in a Gothic cathedral. The classical Gothic arch seemed to shape the entire passage. At ten foot intervals, columns of some smooth white stone would rise up in supportive arches, holding back the weight of the mountain’s brown rock.

However, the farther they progressed, the more oppressive the feel became. Soon, Zero was convinced that the supporting arches were not stone at all, but ribs. It was a long ribcage, like a snake’s, but scaled to an enormous size.

The grotesque passageway wound downward, bending and turning with little regard for logic. She would have been thoroughly lost, if not for the fact that there was only this singular passage, with neither doors nor other tunnels leading off from it. As they descended, the air became warmer, and more moist. In this oppressive environment, a scum of reddish fungus seemed to thrive, coating the walls like a fine nap of living velvet. This aided their passage, since the fungus gave off a dim phosphorescence. Far from being grateful, Zero recoiled from the stuff and moved to the center of the passage in an attempt to keep from touching or brushing against the decayed growths.

As they continued further, she became aware of a vibration – in the ground, the walls, the very air. It seemed as if some enormous drum was being pounded, far, far ahead. They couldn’t hear the drum itself, but they felt the vibration of it. There was a single drumbeat every three seconds. Beat… beat… beat. Before long, Zero had conceived the wild idea that it was no drum at all, but a gigantic heart.

On the wall now beside them were carved twists and lines with sharp-ended angles. It was as if an enraged bear had taken his anger out at the wall, clawing and gouging the stone even as he died. The fungus avoided these marks, as it avoided the white columns. Something of the flow and pattern of the scratchings made them look as if they were half melted, or perhaps the arcs and lines had weakened and drooped over the ages, impossible though that may be. It was impossible not to look at them, and after a moment patterns began to emerge. Zero realized that she was looking at some form of alien writing, a script and language she was certain had never come from her world, or indeed, any wholesome place.

“Can you read it?” she demanded of Mifruzli. “What does it say?”

The old man cleared his throat. He avoided looking at the script directly, as if it caused discomfort even to him, a scholar of this place and its works.

“The original words would mean little to you, and I dare not utter them here. A translation would be…

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,

“And with strange aeons even death may die.”

Zero shook her head, disliking intently the images and implications conjured up by the couplet. “But what does it mean?”

“Scholars of such things have been debating that intently, for several hundred years. But come, we are nearly there.”

And then, on the next turn, the tunnel erupted into a cavity. It was a chasm, a huge cavern in the bowels of the great volcano. And at the bottom of it, filling it, was a great, alien city. Zero and Mifruzli stopped for a moment to stare out over the scene.

The cavity was gigantic – perhaps a mile wide and two miles long. It was oval in cross-section, with more of the white arches rising up the side walls to converge in a giant white shield plate, far overhead. Various structures hung down from the ceiling. Light came from globes, gathered like grapes, that hung from cords and sheets of some filmy material. These were translucent and gave off varied colored glows, from the unseen things growing within them. Pale green, a pallorous blue-white, and the red-orange of a bloated boil. The colors mixed to provide something that approximated a white light, on the streets far below.

Creatures congregated on that distant ceiling. They clung to it like bats, and they also seemed to fly on leathery wings. But these were no tiny and harmless bats – they were the size of small dogs. Between the distance and the poor lighting, it was difficult to make out more details.

The city below was low. The buildings were rounded, constructed of some smooth, slick material. Or perhaps they just had a film of moisture over them, it was hard to tell from this distance. In design the city was inhuman. Roads or pathways meandered with little apparent sense. The rounded buildings would be clustered together, with open spaces like parks, except that instead of trees and grass these spaces displayed bubbling pits of vile brown fluid, or pulsing fountains that vomited thick and viscous spurts of crimson or white. Some pits seemed to be filled with wild and starving animals.

And in the center, in a distinctly different style, was a three-sided pyramid. It was a step pyramid, reminiscent of the Aztec stone monoliths, with steep stairs and a temple surmounting it.

Heated by the magma, far below, the warm air of the city wafted upward, and out the passage behind them, forming a gentle breeze. Borne upon it, they couldn’t help inhaling the collected miasma of the place. Overall, it had a sweetish-sickly pungency, like that of road kill. But overlaid on top of that were so many other scents that it became a confusing mélange. There was the delicious purity of fresh-roasted meat, the collected body odor of too many unwashed people, and most surprising of all for a deep cavern, the scent of the seashore.

Waiting at the tunnel entrance had been two guards. They were as still as the rock around them, so that Zero initially took them for statues and devoted her attention to the amazing and bizarre city that loomed before her.

Now, the first guard spoke, even as replacements trudged up the path from the city. All bore only the vaguest relation to the human form – two legs, two arms, and something that passed for a head. They were the height of a man – six feet or so – but with slippery, moist, scaled skin. Their backs were grayish-green in color, though their bellies were white. Their heads resembled nothing so much as a trout. That is, they had no neck, the rounded bulk of the head grew straight out of the body. They had large, rubbery lips; and their eyes were oversized and bulging, but were an unblinking watery grey that conveyed neither intellect nor awareness of any kind.

This might have been acceptable were they mere animals, but these grotesque creatures wore trappings that suggested elements of human culture, despite their otherwise-primitive appearance. They wore clothes, and not just any clothes, but human clothes that had been deliberately tailored for their inhuman bulk. A pair of slacks, belted with a cord of braided seaweed, a Miami Dolphins baseball cap, and a t-shirt that proclaimed, “I visited R'lyeh, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.” In their hands they carried tridents as weapons.

Then one, despite the evidence of his cretinous visage, spoke. His language was a rippling, bubbling thing, with odd reverberations that seemed to surround the listener.

Mifruzli responded, speaking English. “I understand that. But I bring a gift for the Queen. I am confident that after receiving it, not only will my actions be forgiven, but I will restore myself to her good graces.”

The fish thing bubbled at them again, but Mifruzli stood firm. “No. We are to be escorted to the Queen.”

Finally, the lead guard gestured with his trident, and they moved forward under guard. They descended the long ramp and entered the city.

The city was like no city she had ever imagined. The unusual shapes of the buildings were the least issue, but they set a tone that would have been disturbing, even had the city been deserted. Structural members were never simple cylinders or columns. Instead, they had the natural curve of growing things, despite being some sort of stony material. It wasn’t the arch and spread of a tree trunk, so much as the flare of the femur as it rises to join the pelvis. Stretched between these grotesque supporting members were thin films of stone, like tenuous mineral membranes, stretched like the leathery wing of a bat between wide-spread wing bones. The artistry in the medium of rock was astonishing, but the effect was difficult to view for long without feeling an urge to flee.

The city contained large pools at irregular intervals. Round, and slightly larger than the manholes of a human city, these were filled to the rim with stale, dark water. Each hole emitted the shore’s scent of rotting seaweed. From them, several times, she saw more of the walking fish people enter or exit. Apparently the black water gave access to unlit tunnels beneath the city, where the scaled inhabitants conducted their mysterious business in caverns unknown and unknowable to man. She once saw a pair of fish men pulling an old man. Though the man screamed and struggled, he was helpless against the greater strength of the fish. His cries reached a peak as they reached the black pool, then he was in and drawn underwater. In an eyeblink, all three figures were gone and it was quiet once more.

The old man was not the first human she’d seen. There were many people in this city. They huddled inside their grotesque shelters, looking like nothing so much as rats peering through holes in a human house. Occasionally a face would peep out to see if it was safe yet, if the strangers were gone. Their clothes were tattered skins, and they looked like the starving poor you’d expect to see in a Dickens novel. In places, they hid so well they were difficult to see, but there was no missing the stench of their huddled masses.

Zero wondered if these were her people. They were human; she was human, wasn’t she? But they all seemed so… pathetic.

Then she spotted a man dressed in actual clothing. He was tall, muscular, and self-confident, chatting casually with a pair of the fish men. He spoke quietly, but the few syllables that reached to her over-sensitive ears sounded like English. The fish men spoke their bubbling language in return. Everyone seemed to understand everyone else.

The man turned and looked at them, and for a moment she froze. It was his eyes. In appearance, they were completely human. But the eyes are the windows to the soul, in this place perhaps even more than elsewhere. This well-dressed thing ahead of her looked like a human and spoke like a human, but there was nothing human behind those eyes. There was nothing so mild as a simple animal predator there. Instead, just for a second, she could see into depths of deadly insanity, an alien hunger that was more than any mammalian hunter, an uncaring madness that lived only to feel the glorious taste of flesh, newly ripped from living bones.

And a moment later, those eyes were shuttered once again, hiding the horrid secrets held in their depths.

She turned with a sense of relief back to their aquatic guides, whose eyes held no depths at all. There are worse things, I suppose, she told herself.

Moving farther into the city, the inhabitants changed. More people seemed to wear clothes, rather than skins, more were well fed. Most still seemed quiet and cautious, but they were less timid than their poorer cousins. The starving poor were still around, but, like rats, they were only at the periphery – hiding in alleys, peering over rooftops, or looking out the windows of deserted structures. When the normal humans spotted the poor ones, their look seemed to be either pity or guilt.

For the first time she saw children. These were perhaps the most alien creatures of all. Every child carried weapons, which came in a bewildering variety. Ceramic knives, strap-on claws, wooden staves and nunchaku, long needle-like thorns. The children moved as a pack, with wary eyes, quiet movements, and a sense of discipline and awareness that was entirely at odds with their age.

Also present, as they moved farther into the city, were the decorative hangings. Each street corner was celebrated with an intricate lamppost. Every lamp was an individual work of art, though they shared the same theme: a winding stem-like trunk, bowed over at the top, and capped with a petal-ringed bell that glowed with a pale and eerie green luminescence. With such a lamp at every corner, the intersections were well illuminated. Strangely though, the inhabitants scorned this gift, preferring to cling to the darkness. This rule was only broken for the lamps that had been decorated. Some lamps had received colorful hangings – trails of bright red ribbons and decorative orbs. There was plenty of traffic through those intersections, and Zero thought that perhaps it indicated some form of community spirit and solidarity.

There was an abundance of crows and ravens. They would sometimes move in squadrons of three, attacking one of the withered poor lurking on an exposed roof. The crows would dive bomb and painfully peck or claw at their target, as if making certain it was still alive. Or they would find something of interest in the street, and acting with a disturbing coordination, dozens would gather together to bring the treasure to a dark alley, or fly it up to a roof. Then they descended on their find like a swarm of flies, obscuring it completely until they had finished their feast.

Now that the guards had brought them to the more prosperous section of town, Zero saw pets. People walked with animals on leashes, or collared animals roamed free on the city streets. From a distance Zero had thought these to be dogs or cats, but each had a naked, hairless tail, a long, pointed snout, and whiskers. Either the creatures were all combinations – a rat/dog blend, a rat/cat blend, and some even stranger; or else the folk had been engaging in the domestication and deliberate breeding of rats, until their variety spanned from Chihuahua to Great Dane, only in rat breeds. She wasn’t sure which prospect was worse.

Ahead of her, a man saw their party and moved fearfully away. Without realizing, he stepped directly into the glow of one of the streetlights. Instantly, it snapped to life, the bell widening and plunging down to engulf his head and upper body. The legs kicked futilely for a moment, while muffled screams rang out. Then the body went limp, and the bell of the lamp writhed in an unforgettable imitation of chewing. The rest of the body was slowly sucked in, and the entrails ejected, to hang like some grisly decoration from the bell of the thing, which straightened once more into its streetlamp configuration.

They crossed hurriedly down that street and past another hole of black water. Then, ahead of them, rose the great pyramid, larger by far than it had seemed from the tunnel, halfway up the wall of the cavern. Surrounding the pyramid was a tremendous wall, and from within came the sounds of wild celebration and revelry. The scent that reached them was both sweet and succulent, the finest barbecue promising the richest flavors.

The guards turned to head directly for the arena’s entrance, and Zero should have been happy. Didn’t she hear sounds of joy and celebration from ahead?

But instead of happiness, she felt nothing but mounting dread. Everything within her screamed to flee this place, as fast as possible! But she already knew that there was no escape. She needed answers, and she would have to face this sooner or later. She decided that it might as well be sooner, and forced herself to march forward, with the rest.

The need had driven Jade to Gary’s side, once more. At first, she couldn’t bear the thought of penetration. Instead, he used touches and caresses to bring relief to her. He wasn’t perhaps as gentle as he might have been, but need and lust and adolescent enthusiasm on both their parts had been more than enough.

Her pleasure was tempered by fear. At first, the memories of her experience loomed with each touch. She wondered if perhaps she could reject those memories in the same way she’d rejected the memories of creatures she digested. It seemed like a possibility, but she never tried it. She was trying to recover memories of her future life that were somehow blocked. It seemed wrong to take these memories, which were becoming part of her new self, and erase them.

She saw it as a test. She needed to overcome the experience, to grow beyond it. Erasing the memory, if it was even possible, would be failing the test. She instinctively knew that this solution to her problem would inevitably lead to an endless downward spiral.

Even as she began to face that issue, there was another problem, nearly as large.

There were times, when Gary was touching her, or when they were kissing, that Jade just wanted to wrap around him. He’d caress her chest, and she’d want to swell into his hand. In a thousand ways, her body wanted to arch, or rise, or open for him. And with her new understanding of shifting, that could happen instinctively. But how would Gary react once he learned she had become, for all practical purposes, a human mind in a shoggoth’s body?

She could see her body on the inside. She could sense every organ, every cell, moving them, changing them, and manipulating them. Growing teeth inside her stomach to better digest her food – this took no more than an errant thought.

But this understated the difference. She no longer had a brain. One of the secrets of the shoggoth was that awareness was spread through every cell of the body. And much of her internal shifting was automatic. It occurred without conscious awareness. When her stomach wasn’t being used, it was recycled, becoming something more important. An extension of the liver, or kidneys, or simply a pool of the caustic liquid that now flowed through her like blood. Call it ichor. When she needed strength, she grew new, stronger bones. When she needed to eat and digest, it was a challenge to remember to put her food into a single mouth, rather than growing dozen, or simply engulfing the food wholesale and secreting acid from her entire skin.

The discipline of holding to a single form, not just for an hour, but for a day, was more difficult than she had imagined. It required a mental clarity and focus that she had never been pushed to achieve. And it was most difficult of all when she brought her most intimate and sensitive nerves to the surface, allowing Gary to stroke her body until she wanted nothing more than to dissolve into a puddle. At times she wanted to flow over him like a skintight suit, so that he was completely inside her, and she could stroke and lick and rub every inch of him at once. What need would he have of his green defensive powers, when he could wear a skin of her? She could be his armor and claws and a thousand variations of thorns and teeth and poison-tipped tentacles.

But he didn’t need that, and it seemed likely that he wouldn’t want it, either. So she kept herself to a single shape on the outside, a single skin of the same boring color. And she struggled for the fortitude to maintain that guise.

They progressed toward the mountain and the hidden city that seemed to be the destination of the cyan-haired girl that Jade continued to track.

Jade’s downfall came, not in the throes of passion, but in the instant reaction to a threat.

Ahead of them lay a blight. There was nothing but bare soil, save for those sections covered by a thin, steaming film of slime. Gary walked without concern, the slime flaring green under his feet and vaporizing. She stepped on some by accident and found it to be an intensely corrosive acid, before she adapted the soles of her feat, almost without thought, to withstand the chemical attack. After that, she tried to pick her way more carefully so as not to expose her advantage.

“What is this?” she wondered aloud.

“The mucous comes from slurgs,” Gary announced. “But they’re usually solitary. This had to have been dozens of them. What would bring so many together?”

They continued on. There was bare soil and rock. The trees had been stripped of bark, eaten down to a bare silver wood that looked like it had been bleached in the sun for centuries. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. Around them, a mile in diameter, the forest started abruptly, like a wall. Here in the blight, though, all was dead.

“It was recent,” Gary decided, “whatever it was. The slurgs aren’t long gone.”

“Did they do this?”

“They finished it,” he confirmed. “That’s part of the reason they don’t congregate. They’re too destructive. But they didn’t start it.”

Then they spotted movement ahead, at the far edge of the blight.

“That’s it! Come on, Jade, let’s see what it is!”

She followed, with mounting concern. Gary was invulnerable, so he’d be prone to curiosity. She kept a distance behind him, as they drew nearer the writhing mess.

Ringing the disturbance was a hundred creatures the size of walruses. Each had the blubbery, wrinkled face of an old man or woman. Their entire bodies were a pale greenish-brown that was almost translucent, and every inch of them was covered with a thick layer of slime that steamed and hissed in the air. Instead of a walrus’s fins, they had huge blubbery arms and far-too-human hands. They wriggled and writhed in apparent sexual ecstasy, as they plunged their entire heads inside the orifices at the hind end of their neighbors. Both would shake in either agony or delight, it was hard to tell which, before turning to another partner and repeating the process.

“I think it’s… an orgy,” Jade finally admitted, distasteful as the scene was.

“I think so,” the boy agreed. “But what brought them all together?”

He, with Jade following, edged up to where he was practically touching the bloated beasts.

“Something red,” Jared began, climbing up a dead and denuded tree. He edged out on a branch. “Yes! I can see clearly. But I don’t understand. It looks like—”

At that moment, the branch collapsed, dumping Gary into the center of a acid slug creatures. He gave a startled cry and tumbled further inward.

Instantly, Jade was scrambling after him, ignoring the corrosive slime even as she scrambled over the writhing mound of slurgs. Ringed within and completely contained were hundred of thousands of red creatures like centipedes. They swarmed over Gary, attacking. Jade flowed as well, her body melting into a tower of black liquid that flowed forward like a tsunami. Her surface was stomach, dissolving and digesting the things, even as she cleared them away from Gary.

Except that it hadn’t been necessary. Green flared around him, and the reddish bugs fell away, crisping as they contacted the energy of the green barrier.

Shamed and terrified of seeing Gary’s reaction, Jade oozed across the ground, flowing under and into her tunic. When she resumed her shape, she was clothed.

Around them, waves of centipedes attacked. They came apart as they did so, each segment separating into a pea-sized bug with tiny legs and oversized jaws.

Gary ignored them, his aura flaring a foot away, as the creatures burned away.

Jade likewise ignored them, except for an inky spot beneath her, almost like a shadow, that would lick out and engulf the things, constricting until their shells cracked like nuts, and then absorbing the nutrients of their bodies.

“I… I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid…”

“The rape.” he accused.

She nodded, fearfully, on the edge of tears.

“Are you even her?” he demanded. “Or did you just steal her shape, her memories? Is this just some new ploy to get close to me and find some weakness?”

“No, Gary, it’s me! I swear! That first night, when I was hurt, I tried to lick the hurt away. Some of him… it was there inside of me. I got some, his memories, everything he knew.”

He nodded. “Sperm, eggs, they partially duplicate our souls, our memories. And unlike the flesh of your body, the true soul, seed is only half-formed. If it doesn’t take root, it dissipates. That’s why the shoggoth men kill their mates. Children who share their knowledge and power would eventually mean competition. And with that much of his seed inside you, you could have accessed all his memories and all his powers. A plausible story.”

Her hand drifted down to her belly. “So if I got pregnant…”

“The child would have been a mix of Jade and the SabreTooth. Half the mind, soul, memories, and abilities of each.”

He continued. “There is no death in this world. No death, no childhood, and no escape.” Finally, with a disgusted look around him, he snapped out, “Let’s get out of here. This is no place to talk.”

Zero’s last sleep had been in the jungle, before the volcano’s foothills. They’d traveled far, and this oppressive city had added a further burden. The effort of needing to understand, trying to make sense of it all, the workout given to her emotions – all of these left her dragging along at a fraction of her normal capacity, desperate for sleep. She felt her head nodding, and struggled not to give away any signs of weakness. She could feel the city watching her, waiting for the time to strike. She didn’t dare falter in this alien place.

So she soldiered on, floating after the marching fish men. (Frog marching! she thought, trying to suppress the sleep-deprived giggles.) She’d hoped the march would help keep her awake, but it wasn’t helping. She wasn’t actually marching, she was floating, and that was a smooth, effortless glide. It was so effortless that she could float through her sleep, tethered to a tree. It made for the smoothest mattress imaginable, laying down on a cloud. So she wafted after the fish men, and she knew that if she keeled over here she wouldn’t even bump herself on the ground, she’d just tip over until she was horizontal and drift into restful slumber…

The fish men ahead of her faded to black, before she grabbed hold of herself and clawed her way back to wakefulness. She hadn’t closed her eyes, her vision had simply grayed out. She forced herself down to the ground, walking, marching with the rest of them. Perhaps the exercise would wake her up.

“Where are we going?” she asked, hoping the conversation would make her more alert. “Are we headed for that stadium thing?”

Ahead of them, a bell was tolling.

“Not the arena,” Mifruzli said. “But next to it. Listen for the bell That is our destination.”

The buildings were taller here. Not skyscrapers, but larger and taller misshapen lumps. She forced herself through another intersection, steering clear of the predatory lanterns at the street corners.

They turned the last corner and saw, a block ahead, the way was open. There was cleared land, the width of a city block. In the center was the stadium – a step pyramid rising above a four-story wall that ringed it. From their angle she could see a wide thoroughfare, two blocks to their left. It lead to the main gates of the stadium. All manner of people and things surged forward along that thoroughfare, pushing desperately forward as the bell rang.

For a moment she feared that the stadium was their true destination after all. There would be no way to travel with that frantic, pulsating crowd without being overwhelmed. She spotted humans of various animal demeanors – apparently the beast men outside weren’t fulfilling their mission so well as they thought. There were also plenty of the loathsome fish creatures. But these barely scratched the surface of that strange throng. Beasts with four legs, and a few with six. In this place there was no way to know whether the creatures were pets or citizens in their own right. The variety defied imagination and her ability to catalog. But alongside the most alien and bestial walked normal humans dressed in fine cloth and robes.

Shuddering once more, Zero turned to their destination. She estimated the wall ringing the stadium was four stories tall. Set against it was another building, much smaller, ringed by walls barely two stories tall. Compared to the towering edifice, those smaller walls seemed almost friendly, despite being topped with thorns and twists of bramble that blocked it off as securely as razorwire. Inside the modest wall was a cozy rectangular building, stoutly constructed and of completely square construction, unlike most of the city. It looked so incongruously ordinary and human that it stuck out as an absurdity in this underground city of twilight. But to Zero’s sleep-fogged brain, it seemed to offer the promise of rest and peace. Their was even a bright light burning cheerily over the entrance, pushing away the gloom as it shimmered in welcome.

Now they cleared the last of the buildings, and Zero could see the entirety of the open space. Previously, she had obtained tunnel-vision glimpses of the refuge ahead. The open spaces were gardens, ornamental hedges, neatly trimmed to maintain crisp rectangular edges. Perhaps their foliage was brown, rather than green, perhaps they sometimes writhed in an unseen wind, but they were almost ordinary.

However, as they passed the last building and viewed the gardens fully, the scene was more disturbing. The hedges lined the main paths and roads, the space between them planted in flowers. Or—as Zero peered closer—the fungal equivalent of flowers. Huge spore pods had burst open to display the astonishing colors of their interior.

Farther away were row upon row of what seemed to be tomatoes – orbs of rich crimson that occasionally pulsed with vegetative vitality. That they were not tomatoes as Zero knew them was clear. What plant could survive in this sunless twilight realm? But the red orbs certainly seemed to be excellent imitations of the crimson fruit. The “grapes” in the next field over were less convincing, partly due to their fluorescent green color, partly due to their luminescence.

The “gardeners” were also visible now. Each was a stiff-legged tripod, three stories tall. The body above that stand was like the underside of some gigantic beetle. In back, a dozen legs clicked and thrashed, busy with work that was unintelligible to Zero. At the sides were articulated stick-like arms, long enough to reach the ground. In front, there was no face at all, merely a tangled beard that hung down a dozen feet. Something like large bugs scuttled about within the matted beard.

As she watched, the tripod snatched up one of those bugs. It was a man! He writhed and screamed in impotent terror, as he was lifted high in the air and then dropped in the middle of the beetle’s back. She couldn’t see what happened up there, but a moment later he was lifted out again. There was neither sound nor struggle this time. Despite the fact that he was now dripping with some kind of moisture, the man seemed as withered and desiccated as a raisin.

The tripod gardener proceeded to attach the passive human to a gardening frame, and then plant a series of seeds near his feet.

Swallowing convulsively, Zero focused on the destination ahead, the one spot of normality in this increasingly intolerable nightmare.

The front door, dark oak with a rounded top, opened slowly. Framed in that opening, their hostess appeared. Even at this distance, Zero could tell that the woman was perfectly beautiful. She wore an actual gown, a light airy garment that wafted weightlessly every time the girl moved, and clung to each curve when she stopped.

They approached the open gates and the building beyond, and Zero suddenly realized there were carvings over the arch of the gateway. “L’hôtel,” it proclaimed. The carvings were English! Or close enough. Not alien script or weird, incomprehensible glyphs, but actual human writing!

Her mind told her that she’d found refuge at last! Her heart… her heart remained suspicious, fearing that somehow it was just the opposite. But fatigue drowned out that pessimistic whisper, and she was halfway across the courtyard to the welcome door, before she realized that she was alone.

She looked around, turning backward to see Mifruzli and the guards standing just outside the gateway.

“Aren’t you coming in?”

Mifruzli shook his head sadly. “I dare not. Although the hotel was the place of my birth, and likewise where my father spent his last days, I dare not set foot inside again. Instead, I must see the queen. I will tell her of you, and she will come to visit. Until then…” He seemed to struggle for the words. “…keep to your own values.”

“But…” She took a step back toward him, but the huge wooden doors of the gate swung closed and slammed with a dull thud.

“Come.” The beautiful blonde stepped forward, her diaphanous gown billowing about her like a cloud. “You are welcome here. The outside world will not trouble us in here. We have a room prepared, and you may rest.”

She reached for Zero’s hand, but a flare of red sparked her.

“Oh!” Then, recovering, she smiled, and said, “You’re not the only one here with unusual powers. We all have them, to some extent. The guests, that is. Not the staff.”

As they stepped inside, the immaculate hallway glowed from the many candles. Men and young boys stood at attention, wearing not only fine clothes, but uniforms like tuxedoes, trimmed in red and gold.

“These are the staff. That’s the captain, there, with the epaulets. The night man will take over for him shortly. Any requests you have, any at all, you must tell them immediately. If the service is lacking in any way, I will have them slain for you.”

Zero blinked, and then blinked again at hearing that. Surely she couldn’t have heard right? But the woman was leading her upstairs, to the first room at the top of the stairs.

Zero gratefully entered, noticed the bar on the inside, and locked the door before toppling toward the bed, fast asleep.

Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets. “So,” he spat out “how do I even know you’re her? Maybe you’re that stupid SabreTooth, trying to catch me by surprise. With my pants down, as you say.”

“Gary,” she said earnestly, “you may not have to eat, but the rest of us do. And the rest of us absorb flesh and memories every day. Who we are is always in flux. Just because I remember details of our time together, you’re guaranteed that some of me is Jade Sinclair. But because of what I can do, you’re also guaranteed that at least a teeny part is Luther Schimanski, former SabreTooth.”

“You’re not doing a good sell-job here.”

“All of that is unimportant next to the shoggoth,” she doggedly continued. “His name was…” she paused to make a minor-key whistling “…something like that. It translates roughly as 76559143. Because shoggoth are so incredibly different from us that they aren’t even close to following the same rules. That name means that it was the third bud from shoggoth 7655914, which was the fourth bud of 765591. And all of them share memories that go back to old number ‘7’, who started the entire line.”

He stared at her skeptically. “Shoggoth reproduce by budding?”

“More of a fission,” she said.

Could she do it? It didn’t seem like it would be that tough – not as hard as pulling Jinn out of her. She moved everything to the sides, duplicating everything important. Then the stretched apart and … cut the connection.

As Gary watched she stretched sideways, and suddenly there were two of her.

“Like this,” she said in unison. “This is how shoggoth reproduce.” She moved to each side of him, each of her cuddling an arm.

“And you can do this again and again?”

“We—” The two girls stopped and looked at each other. Suddenly their hands flashed out. “Jan ken pon!

The left one held her flat hand up. “Paper… I lost.”

The other held her extended fingers up, waving them like a “peace” sign.

“We could do it again and again,” the ‘scissors’ girl said, “but we get smaller each time. Right now both of us are a bit hollow. Can’t tell, though, can you? We’re just that good!” She gave a ‘go ahead’ hand gesture to her twin.

“Each of us is really only half of Jade, I suppose. Exactly as you explained it to me – instead of one eight-by-ten, you could get two five-by-eights. Either would look like the complete picture, but maybe some of the finest details would be missing in the smaller prints. But they’d look like the complete picture.”

Gary looked back and forth between the twins. “I want to believe, but I’m afraid to. You’ve already admitted that you have some of what’s-his-name’s mind in you. That’s pretty creepy.”

Jade-left slumped in exaggerated defeat. “Duh! Look around, dummy! Creepshow central, right here! I mean, did you see those things crawling on the tree we just passed? Those beetle-faced squirrels with the human voices? Ew.”

That tag-teamed to Jade-right, who jumped in with, “And the rest of us have to eat. Every day I’m sucking down some new animal and getting all its skills and memories and stuff. Since they’re animals, it’s almost always just more of the same, but you have to learn to deal with that stuff.”

“I know!” Jade-left said. “Maybe you could, you know, give me some attention? Maybe a stiff lecture?”

“Brilliant!” Jade-right agreed. “There’s one thing about guys like the SabreTooths. They’re all kinda nervous about their masculinity. I mean, they love to use girls, but the idea of being a girl, especially the idea of some boy coming inside them—”

“It’s like the scariest thing in the world to them!”

“Instead of the hottest.”

“So even if there is some of Luther left inside us,”

“the best thing you could ever do to Jade,”

“and the worst thing you could do to Luther,”

“would be to have your way with us!”

“Slam yourself inside me and use me till I’m screaming,” Jade-left said, shivering.

Jade-right shivered in response. “Squeeze my breasts, spread my legs, and take full advantage of me!”

“Whoa, whoa!” Gary ordered, trying to take his arms back. “I think I believe you. Now, this boner becomes completely unbearable, explain to me how I’m supposed to have the energy to do both of you.”

The Jades looked down with a sly grin. “I think—” they began together, before looking at each other and letting the left one speak. “I think I’ve mastered a trick that the shoggoth never learned,” she said. “I mean, it should work, but we’ve never tested it.”

“What’s that?”

“This!”

The two Jades embraced, flowed together, and then took shape as one. The single girl shook her head, as if checking to see if anything rattled.

“Okay, that was a little different, but still okay. Next time will be smoother.”

Gary stared in shock. “You can come back together.”

She nodded, over enthusiastically. “I always could, even before I came down here. I told you about Jinn, and splitting my spirit.”

“But… I’ve never heard of shoggoth doing that.”

Jade tapped a finger on her chin, searching her memories. “They can talk together, but if they try to merge it’s usually a battle to the death or something.”

“Don’t they have to come together to mate?”

She looked at him in exasperation. “I just told you how they reproduce. Remember? Two of me? Shoggoth don’t mate, they split.”

“But you mate…”

She sighed in exasperation. “Well I’m trying!” With apparently no effort, her clothes transformed into a tiny pink bikini, and then her breasts swelled three sizes larger. “Gary, honey?” she asked, bouncing on her toes. “Does this give me enough support?”

He stared at her jiggling form for another three seconds before noticing the insistent pressure from his pants.

“I am such an idiot,” he finally admitted, shucking his pants.

“Oooo, Gary! For me?”

And with that, they fell into the bushes to the sounds of giggles, soon replaced by screams of pleasure and delight.

Jade, who still had a terrible fear of exactly this event, put on the act and the joy and the giggles for Gary, hoping that the physical distraction would keep him from the deeper questions. Because the idea of being with a man, even Gary, still scared her to death.

But as he moved with her, tenderly, some of her act became real. Not only did the act convince Gary, but in some strange way it began to convince her, too.

She didn’t know if she’d ever be completely over it. But with this, she made another significant step in her healing.

Zero woke, feeling more refreshed than she had in weeks. It had been months, perhaps, although time was difficult to judge in a land that had neither days nor seasons.

This room would have fit in well at any human resort. There was a hacienda style to it, wooden floors, and white adobe walls with western-style fittings and candle sconces. The candles burning in the room were nearly down to the bottom, so she assumed she had been sleeping for some time now.

She recalled rousing briefly, as a crowd had marched down the hallway outside her door. They’d been chanting something strange, it certainly wasn’t English. But they’d passed on by and she’d fallen asleep once more.

She explored her suite further, peeking through an arch to find a completely human bathroom. There were porcelain fixtures, a mirror (small though it was), a porcelain tub and toilet. The handles and cabinet knobs all seemed to be wood or ceramic, but it was very impressive, particularly for this world. She peered closer at the mirror, wondering about the silvering. But up close, the mirror had a gold tint, rather than silver, and it seemed to be an irregular patchwork of mirrored flecks.

Mica? she wondered. But it’s faced with glass. And they have the skill to make ceramic and porcelain.

She didn’t use the toilet. Unless she ate or drank, she didn’t pass anything on, either. Instead, she ran her fingers through the dirty strands of her hair and grimaced at the jungle-girl image she presented. Her hair wasn’t tangled – each strand came free and floated in its own proper place, but it wasn’t as clean as she liked.

There was a basket of soaps and other supplies, so she indulged in her first hot bath in… forever. In living memory.

Afterward, drying with a soft, fluffy towel (which was far better than drip-drying after a rainstorm) she found that her dresser had already been supplied with both dresses and lingerie. Under other circumstances she might have raised an eyebrow at the thong. But after months of wearing leather underwear it seemed the height of civilization. The bra though – the half cups were scooped low, so she’d have no nipple protection at all.

What’s the point here? she wondered. Support or display?

The answer was obvious. She decided that she’d go along with it. After all, she had a tremendous body, and didn’t feel the least be self-conscious about displaying it.

But no one touches, she thought, clenching her fist.

There was only a single outfit hung in her closet, a white gown. Nervously she slipped it on.

The thing was half lace. The bodice was barely decent, showing an awful lot of flesh, but the sleeves were long and elegant. It was full length, with slits on both sides that came up nearly to the hips.

Weird fashions to go with a weird world, she decided. No fighting value at all, but still…

She posed in front of the small mirror, looking at the elegant and sexy girl in the mirror. It embarrassed her, but at the same time something inside her was happy. She’d never felt like this before, and for the moment it felt like she had truly found the place where she belonged.

She had a choice of white slippers or high heels, for footwear. She thought it over and decided to take the heels. She was determined to try to fit in and be as normal as she could, which meant no floating.

Slipping the shoe on, the smallest two toes on her left foot felt cramped. She knew what it would take to free them – just a little flex, to let her two tiny toe-claws out. But it seemed a shame to ruin the shoe. Instead, she lifted until her total weight on her feet couldn’t be more than a pound or two. She was still on the ground, just very, very light.

Between the gown and her light-footed walk in heels, she felt like the very embodiment of grace and beauty. It was fulfilling a need that she hadn’t even been aware of. If that were true, she didn’t understand it. Surely, in the Old World, she had engaged in similar activities. She might not remember them, but surely… However, this felt like a first to her.

Outside her room, she looked down the hallway, but that seemed only to hold more rooms like hers. Instead, she strolled carelessly down the grand staircase, marveling at how easy it was to walk in heels.

Heck, she thought with a giggle, I walk like I’m practically weightless.

There were liveried servants downstairs, but she was interested in investigating on her own. Her oversized ears picked up the sounds of music – a waltz? She walked delicately in that direction.

The instruments and play didn’t seem quite up to standard. Of course, they’d probably had to make their own instruments. The city was small by the standards of human cities. Did it include instrument makers? People who could craft cellos and violins? She had no way of knowing. The musicians, also, seemed a bit rough. At her most polite she’d call the musicians “ambitious.” But the song was definitely a waltz.

Quietly, she opened the door and slipped in.

The people were divided into multiple categories. The musicians were dressed in “Sunday best.” They sat on a raised platform on the far side of the room, struggling away with their limited instruments.

Servants wore their livery. Upon looking around, she spotted only maids, dressed in their crisp whites and short black skirts. Each was dancing.

The third category of people were elegantly dressed men, wearing fine suits. Each of them was as clean and suave as a movie star in a 1940’s dance scene. Their dancing, in contrast, was not so good, but they seemed to be doing their best.

And the one woman dancing wore a white gown similar to Zero’s. She was in the middle of the dance floor being gracefully spun about, but the smile on her face seemed artificial.

There were fourteen men, with only seven women, including the white-gowned lady – the same lady who had greeted her the night before. Four of the remaining men stood to the side and watched. The other three danced on their own, spinning and turning like mad Sufis seeking enlightenment.

Initially, she was taken up by the beauty. Here in this wild, crazy land, people still remembered the culture of home. They were doing their best to struggle back toward the civilization they’d lost, maintaining the arts and pleasures of refined society. But the longer she watched, the more unsettled she got. The musicians weren’t valiantly working to overcome a handicap. There was neither inspiration nor joy in their effort. Instead, they were madly sawing away at a tune that would drive the devil himself mad, given enough time.

And the dancers – the men danced with a desperate, predatory hunger, spinning their partners like so many cats prepared to pounce on their prey. The servant girls seemed to echo that desperation, resigned to their conquest and becoming more and more impatient as the music continued.

The lady, however, was more complex. She was the most beautiful, without a doubt. Her face never faltered in its picture-perfect smile. One wondered whether she was even capable of any other expression. But her eyes displayed the look of a prisoner in a cage, a prisoner bracing for approaching calamity.

The spinning Sufi dancers had their own issues. Two of them openly wept, clenching their eyes and spinning all the more madly. The third had an empty expression, dancing and spinning as if he was reaching for the unattainable.

And the quartet of watching men – each held a predatory look combined with a hungry desperation. The youngest of them had the desperate look of starvation, and something about him gave the impression of looming despair.

The music ended and partners switched. The Sufi spinners continued on, oblivious. Three of the waiting men swapped in, but some maintained their position. The desperate young man was left out once more.

Not understanding the drama she wasn’t eager to butt in, but Zero felt she had little choice. If this was her world now she needed to learn its rules. Boldly, she approached the young and desperate fellow.

“Are you available for this dance?” she asked boldly.

The men turned to face her with shock, never having noticed that there was another woman nearby.

“I—I—you’re new!” the young fellow stuttered out.

“I arrived last night,” she told him. “I don’t remember whether I know how to waltz, but if you’ll lead me through the steps…”

With a look of growing relief, he took her hand and lead her to the floor. She discovered that she didn’t know how to waltz, but the basic steps were simple and she was light on her feet.

“Burkillman,” he said, introducing himself.

“Zero.”

“Oh, thank the queen!” he breathed. “I was next on the block. My number was up. Now its Hanz, look at the stupid bugger sweat. You haven’t dipped yet this day?”

That flummoxed her, so she decided to bluff her way through it. “Do you people normally dip so early in the day?”

“Just wondering if you already carried other seed,” he mentioned nonchalantly.

Is he talking about what I think he’s talking about?

She concentrated on keeping to the steps of the dance, while trying to ask him casually. “It’s important that it be your seed?”

He smiled in a way he probably assumed was charming. “Not so much to you, I guess. But to me, hell yeah.” He tipped his head, indicating one pair of dancers. “That girl, the brunette? She’s my daughter. I have two other get kicking around. None of ‘em with a spot of power.”

“And you’ve got more than a spot?” She tried to smile demurely, even as she grew more disgusted with his attitude.

“Hell, yeah.” He tapped his temple. “Telepathy. For example, right now you’re thinking…” He tipped his head. “That’s odd.” Now he squinted his eyes and seemed to concentrate. “I’m not getting anything. Either there’s something wrong with you, or you’ve got the world’s best shield.” He laughed, dismissing that last as an absurdity.

Clearly embarrassed by his failure, his mouth continued to run on. He spun Zero out to the end of his arm, then reeled her back in. “But trust me, it’s good. It’s just – I haven’t been able to pass it on yet. And the Queen’s so hung up on her power breeding that… you know.”

His eyes were suddenly wary, as if only just realizing that he’d said too much.

“No, I don’t know. Perhaps you’d better tell me.”

Frightened, he shook his head.

So she applied some pressure. So demure, so feminine, she moved a hand up to his collar, holding him more intimately as they swayed together. But her power reached out to grab the material of his tie. It began to tighten on him.

“I shouldn’t – ack – can’t breathe!”

“You should try talking,” she suggested. “I’m sure the collar will loosen, as quickly as your tongue does. If not…” the choke hold tightened significantly “…well, lucky for me there are other available dance partners.”

“Okay, okay! We’ve only given so much time to start breeding. If we can’t pass on the power, then it’s either the arena or being used to test the queen’s latest theory.”

Zero had seen the arena. Obviously it was a “bread and circuses” thing, where they probably fought to the death. She’d even bet that the survivor got special privileges.

“The queen’s latest theory?” she asked, deceptively. “Tell me.”

He seemed to think better of it, before she pulled his tie tighter. “The queen,” he croaked out, “she thinks that the mother is more likely to pass it on than the father. Something about maternal instincts, the environment of the womb, and breastfeeding. So if we can’t breed as men, we get sent to the cutters.”

Zero’s cyan hair already stood on end, so it couldn’t really stick out any sharper. “The… cutters?” Her mind was filled with her brief time in the House of Pain.

Twisting to ease the pressure on his neck, Burkillman tipped his head toward where the lady was dancing.

“He had, has a lot of power, but none of his children did. So he was taken away and she came back. We call her ‘The Lady’ these days. She couldn’t deal with it. For some people, it’s no big deal. For others, it’s hell. She was driven, every day, just like we all are. But she wouldn’t give in. It drove her mad I think. They took her away again. Now she’s like clockwork. Every day we trade off on who dips her. And she smiles and comes with us. She’s crazy in the sack, though. Thrashes like a madwoman. It’s a wild ride, but you really have to wonder what happened when they took her away that second time? ‘Cause she bucks like you wouldn’t believe, and if you look in her eyes – it’s more hell than any of the rest of this place.”

Zero had no response to that. She let her power ease on the tie, loosening it a bit. But she didn’t let go.

“That’s why I’m doing you such a favor,” the man pleaded. “There’s penalties for all of us if we don’t do our part, you know? I’m not such a bad guy, and you’ve obviously got the power.”

The music ended and Zero moved away from him.

“No thanks, sleazeball.”

Even without music, the Sufi dancers continued their twirls. There was a sheen of sweat on all of their faces, but two of them at least seemed to have found the sweet solace of oblivion.

The Lady came toward them, smiling a wide grin that went nowhere near her eyes.

“Burkillman, it’s time!” she practically sang the words. “Let me give you your last dance.”

The musicians started up and he was dragged toward the dance floor.

“No, you’ve got it wrong! The new girl – she asked me to dance. She’ll redeem me! I don’t have to go!” he was crying openly.

“Good news,” she almost sang the words, “I’ve saved you from the cutters!”

Burkillman showed a momentary hopeful look.

“It’s straight to the arena for you!”

At that, the man’s mood crashed worse than before, until he was almost paralyzed in his devastation.

The lady tipped her head toward his. “You should try to enjoy this as much as I’m enjoying it.”

The music rose, and Zero could hear no more from them, aside from the occasional sound of Burkillman’s sobs.

Now the men were clustered around her, ignoring the terror of their fellow.

“—the next dance?” “No, with me!” “I was here first!”

She took a hand at random, allowing herself to be led onto the floor. “I’m Zero,” she offered.

“Collins Burkavery,” the muscular man responded. “You’re newly arrived, then?”

“I just got in last night,” she confessed. “What is this place?”

“We call it simply, l’hôtel. In this world, l’hôtel is a refuge. There is always food, as much as you can eat. The finest clothes in the city. And while the entertainment isn’t much, over time we’re improving. Servants cater to your every whim. They must. Serving here is paradise, compared to life outside.”

“How did we come to deserve this?” she asked. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch? Simply that the queen values power. Our only labor is that of love. We must pass our gifts on to offspring. As many as possible.”

She nodded. “So everyone with power is brought here. It’s the queen’s breeding ranch.”

He gave her a wry smile. “If you must. We’re here for eternity. There is no death, no escape. Why shouldn’t we parlay our luck into a few moments of pleasure?”

She tossed her head in the direction of the lady and her former dance partner, who was still weeping. “I might argue the point about the pleasures of this place.”

“He was useless. This place is for those with power. He was a fool!”

“And you’re completely different from him? What’s your power?”

“Telepathy,” he stated, coolly. “A touch of it, combined with being able to read emotions. I must say, you’re very well shielded. I can’t get a thing off of you.”

“Telepathy? I thought Burkillman said he couldn’t pass anything on.”

Her partner seemed offended. “I’m not his son!” he insisted, indignantly. “I’m his uncle!

“Oh,” she said, stunned. “I see.” But she didn’t see. Not at all.

Jade woke to the feel of Gary playing with her left breast. He hadn’t touched the nipple, but his circling caress was bringing that spot to firm attention. She couldn’t help turning a little, to give him easier access.

She writhed happily in the ferns that made their bed. “Already? Isn’t this how we fell asleep?”

“I think I want you on top,” he decided. “So that I can play with your tits.”

“Okay!”

She gave a genuine, honest smile. Lately she’d been acting just a bit like a bimbo, a sex-mad fool. It was an act, but it was more for her than for Gary. She needed her innocence back, and this was how she was gaining it. And if it made them both happy, then it was just that much better, wasn’t it?

She squirmed around until he was on his back. Then, kneeling, she held herself just above his stiffness.

“Wanna see a vanishing trick?” she asked. She could feel her lips just touching him, just embracing the tip of him, as she held herself in place.

He moved his hips, pushing up just an inch or so.

Jade breathed out shakily, in appreciative shivers, while feeling him just at the ring of her, spreading her open. She appreciated the wonderful size of him – large and smooth, but never too large. And never with blade or any joy in her pain. She allowed herself to believe in her lover, and to trust him. She lowered herself slowly. “Now you see him,” and then she lowered herself all the way down “now you don’t. Now you – ha – see him…”

“I never get tired of that view,” he admitted, “watching you swallow me up like that.”

“Heh, swallow. I don’t get why girls give blow jobs,” she admitted. “I mean, sure, you deserve some nice attention and I wouldn’t be disgusted or anything, but there are much better places you could put that organ.”

He began to stroke her breasts, occasionally giving a passing tickle to her quite-stiff nipples.

She shuddered, atop him. “That’s one,” she admitted. “Just a little one, but really really good.”

“Let’s see if I can give you another!” He thrust up hard, while clutching at her full breasts.

“God! I think I felt that in my diaphragm!” She looked down at Gary and gave a smile of pure gratitude. “You know what? I think you’ve saved me. After the rape I was so afraid.”

“It’s fading?”

“Yes. No. Not exactly, but it’s been overshadowed by better, more important memories.”

“Memories of me fucking your brains out?”

“Can’t talk any more,” she admitted. “The feeling of you – oh, that tickle on my belly button made all my muscles clench – I think this one will be bigger and I can’t say anything more because, ah, oh, ohmygod, ohmygod, Oh My God!”

He watched, entranced, the way her head was thrown back, the curve of her neck down to the pendulous swell of her breasts. Right at the moment she came, her nipples always got rock hard, and he brushed his fingertips across both of them. That made her give a little side-to-side thrash that gripped him by the root and pulled it right out of him. He grabbed her by the waist and buried himself within her, pushing to the hilt and farther, if he could.

For her part, his warmth came just as her waves were passing. The warmth of him inside her, filling her, was the perfect dessert to her pleasure, and she lay down atop him to hug him with her arms as well as her insides. She loved the feel of him inside her, and the feel of her breasts pressed into his hard chest. She began to kiss him all over.

“Tell me again how this is hell, and not heaven?” she wondered.

“Must be heaven,” he agreed. “It’s got angels in it.”

“I love your sappy lines.” She continued to kiss him.

After a while, he slipped out of her and rolled aside, standing up.

“Clothes,” he commanded, and jeans and a t-shirt materialized on him. A moment later, shoes followed.

“You’ve gotten very good at that,” she murmured, languidly. Slowly, sensually, contentedly, she rose to her feet. “How do you want me today? Naked? Not?” In imitation of his tone, she commanded, “Clothes!” and suddenly seemed to be wearing t-shirt and jeans, to match his.

To be sure, her t-shirt was tight at her slim waist and even tighter above, where she clearly wore no bra. And her jeans were practically painted on. Of course, they weren’t really fabric, but a sublime demonstration of shapeshifter versatility.

“Hmmm,” he considered. “Another makeup day, I think.”

Jade just smiled, content with the entire world. “I am your slate, maestro.”

Gary rubbed his chin, walking around her. “Pamela Anderson, I think.”

Jade scrunched her face up, then grew nearly a foot taller. Her hair changed from black to blonde, and her figure got much more extreme in every dimension.

“No,” Gary commented, “fuller lips. Change the nose … no … no …. There! That’s got it. The hair’s a little more sun-bleached, more streaky, you know?” He worked on her for a while longer, then turned his attention to her clothes. “Okay, how about a pink shirt. Uh, a half-shirt or whatever you call it. It only comes down to here.”

When the two of them finished, his girlfriend was a twenty-something blonde who was taller than he was and had an arresting outfit and figure.

“Ooo, where to now, Gary?” she asked in a slightly dim sex-kitten voice.

“We’re close. I think we can make it to the city today.”

“When we get there, who should I be?” she wondered, breathlessly. “This person, or me?”

“I’m thinking we should be our normal selves, but the queen is tricky. Tricky and vindictive. Let me think on it.”

They walked, holding hands. The jungle no longer held any danger for either of them. Gary was protected by the screen of God Herself, a green barrier that acted against any threat, whether he was aware of it or not. Jade possessed whatever capability she desired, claw or fang, strength or stinger. And harming her was as difficult as cutting the river.

So it was no cause for worry when they came upon the road and the tribe of beast-men. They could have arrived days earlier, but they’d detoured to recover from Jade’s “incident.”

They could hear the murmur carried from the trees. “The Holy One! The Holy One approaches.”

“No, a false Holy One.”

“Test him.”

“Test him!”

A spear flashed out of the foliage, aimed at Gary’s heart. It stopped a foot away from him, impacting and rebounding from the thin, green wall that snapped into existence.

There was a rustling, then several creatures dropped into the path ahead of them. They sank to one knee, their heads bowed.

“Rise,” Gary commanded, patiently.

The beast-man had the butt of his spear planted in the ground, but he didn’t press upon it as he rose from the ground. He wore a loincloth of crude skin and was covered in short fur, spotted with a jaguar-like pattern. Jade’s discerning shapeshifter’s eyes noted the retractable claws in his fingertips. It provided a useful weapon, but his hands wouldn’t have nearly the dexterity of human fingertips. He had a human nose, but other features that suggested the feline.

Beside him stood a pig-man and a skunk-girl.

“The House of Pain is closed, Holy One. Mifruzli is gone.”

Gary nodded at that, undisturbed. “How did he go?”

“He was killed. An older Mifruzli came, with a blue-haired girl. When she was taken to the House of Pain, the two Mifruzlis fought. The older one used words of power. He summoned a shoggoth, and his enemy was slain. We wait here, for the next Mifruzli.”

“A shoggoth!” Gary looked at Jade, a question in his eyes.

“How should I know?” she replied.

Thinking further on it, she closed her eyes, searching the faded and most-purged memories of Luther Schimanski. But there was nothing in it about beast-men, or anyone named Mifruzli.

She opened her eyes. “It wasn’t Luther.”

“Is there another copy of him out there? But if Mifruzli summoned it, it was probably the true shoggoth. So far as I know, this hell has only one of them. There are secrets to calling them, speaking in their language.”

Jade nodded, knowing the language and even some ways of making the call. “Luther always avoided it. It was one of the few things he feared.”

“But did you hear?” Gary pointed out. “A blue-haired girl! We’re still on the right track!”

“On to the city, then,” she agreed. “Your guess must be correct.”

The both began to walk forward, but the beast-men took up their spears and dropped them, crossed, in front of Jade.

“You are free, Holy One, but this one must be examined. It is the Law.” The jaguar-man was implacable.

“There is no more House of Pain,” Gary pointed out. “What would you do with her if she failed your test?”

“A Mifruzli will come. One always does. Until then, she will bear kits.”

“Sorry,” Jade said, with a tight smile. “Not that the fur isn’t handsome, but no one takes me unless I want it. Never again!”

Her extra-sensitive ears detected a body dropping to the ground behind her. At the same time, a loop of vine dropped from the trees and settled around her arms and torso. In a smoothly coordinated move, the creature behind her slammed her in the back of the head with something that felt like a sledgehammer.

“Perhaps you misunderstood me,” Jade suggested, adding an edge to her voice. Exuding a mild acid, the vine dissolved and fell away in smoking pieces. “What part of NO didn’t you understand?”

With a cry, the beast-men jumped back one step and leveled their spears at her.

Jade decided to add an eye in the back of her head, to keep track of the one back there. He gave a second cry, and jumped back farther.

“I think they may need a demonstration,” Gary proposed.

“Oooookay,” she agreed, thinking. “Here’s the thing, guys. You were talking about that shoggoth, earlier?”

The beast-men whimpered, but stood their ground.

“Well, I suspect that was grandpa.” With that, her skin and clothes vanished. Instead, she displayed the slick, slightly oily blackness that was a shoggoth’s natural flesh. Eyes of all different size and orientation bubbled up from the liquid morass of her body, and equally at random mouths formed, gnashing their pointed teeth. A few dozen pencil-thick tentacles shot out from her body, reaching out six feet, then they writhed madly, clacking the ivory pinchers at their ends. She spoke in the whistling language of the shoggoth, composing an extemporaneous poem on the sublime beauty of live food. And just for good measure, she formed a large tympanic membrane that she used to send a subsonic rumble rolling toward them.

As one, the beast-men fled. The dropped their spears where they stood and moved in a straight radial line leading directly away from her in the fastest manner possible.

“That seemed effective,” Gary noted. He tried not to look in Jade’s direction. “Uh… could you put that away?”

“Hmph. You wouldn’t complain if all these eyes were tits.”

“Yeah. I would.”

“Oh, very well.” A moment later, she looked like a stacked blonde once more. “I’m glad I didn’t look like myself when I did that. Remember, now you know what’s under Pamela Anderson’s skin.”

Gary shuddered. “Ugg. That thought’s enough to put me off sex for an hour.”

And so they continued on their way, unimpeded.

Zero eventually danced with all the men. Their powers ran the gamut from telepathy through empathy and psychometry. She wasn’t one to talk – she had no real memory of the Old World, but while they all had powers, those powers seemed hardly as impressive as her telekinetic lifting. She could lift her own weight and more. Or her touch-vision, where she could see all around any object she took in her telekinetic grasp. Even ignoring her other oddities, with these gifts she should be queen of this place.

But she finally got a clue to the lady who seemed to rule the dance, and perhaps l’hôtel. The last man she danced with was more of a boy, a teenager.

“What’s your power?” the boy demanded, bluntly.

She had long since concocted a demonstration. It was true, but only revealed the tip of the iceberg. “I can touch things and see inside. Give me a lock and I’ll pick it.”

“Hmph. Another ESP variant. Still, that’s more than these idiots can manage. Telepathy, empathy, psychometry. Not even a touch of precog.”

“And you?” she asked, only a trifle softer than his rude demand.

“Astral projection,” he admitted. “It’s my only escape. I’ve refined it to the point where I can project, even while waking. It helps to be outside my… body… as much as possible.”

“Is your body so horrible?” She’d seen some gruesome combinations in this world. Compared to that, his body seemed completely ordinary. “There are many who’d love to look like that.”

“This is my projection,” he said, as if speaking to an idiot. “I’m the only one here with real powers. That stupid SabreTooth Burke had telepathy, but nothing compared to my power.”

“Burkillman? But if he was the only one with power, why did they risk him by taking him away?”

“Not Burkillman, you stupid bimbo. Burke. His grandfather, or some such. Probably his grandfather from both sides. The inbreeding gets pretty bad here. Obviously.”

She could feel her power begin to react against him. She’d learned that she could prevent the red sparks if she were in a pleasant, receptive mood. A threat or danger triggered a response, and her power flared up to protect her. She took several deep breaths and got herself back under control, before asking, “And what is your situation that you find it so necessary to share your pain with all of us?”

He spread a hand, indicating the lady in white, as they passed on the dance floor. “They did that to me. Made me into that smiling whore. Every damn night I’m forced to spread for them, as these cretins piss themselves into my body. And they forced me to smile! Smile like I’m happy to be in this hell! That’s when I learned how to escape. When they forced the smile.”

“That’s… you? Right now?”

It wasn’t the horror of the situation that struck her. It was admiration. He was in two places at once? He split a spirit off his body, and that spirit ventured out on its own. Her vanished memories vibrated in an almost déjà vu. She couldn’t remember, but if she could, she knew it was something just like this.

“I tried to kill her, you know? On the outside, in the Old World. I tried to kill the demon. The Kellith. The thing that runs this place. That’s how I got here. She killed me instead. Ate me. We’re in the belly of the demon.” His eyes were wild. “That’s the only thing that keeps me sane. My friends are still out there, still trying. One day, they’ll slay the monster. Either I’ll go to my just reward, or else oblivion. Either one would be a blessing at this point.”

They danced on, while he slowly tried his clumsy best to seduce her. He explained how this might be her only chance to ‘make it’ with a being of pure spirit. And rather than sympathizing with Zero’s looming plight, if she was compelled to couple with people they both found completely repulsive, the boy seemed to be looking forward to watching her share his pain.

Through the rest of the dance she held her voice, concentrating instead on not frying him with her red sparks.

And when the dance ended, the captain of the servants rapped a mallet on a small gong. Zero was surprised, turning to see the metal instrument. Instead. It was some form of lacquered wood.

“Ah, the good part.” The boy smiled, and then vanished.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, as the dancers began to file out through the back door.

“A feast,” one said.

“Dinner.” “Eat up!”

The spinning men remained behind, oblivious, or trying to be.

The Lady laid her hand on Zero’s arm. “As I said, it’s the good part. You are invited to a wake. We’ll be remembering Burkillman.” She took particular enjoyment in telling that. “He fucked me, you know.” Her tone cut like a knife. “Not that I’m one to wish ill of the dead, but, well you can’t really die here, can you?”

Zero followed them all down the hallway to a grand set of rooms. Large, rounded doors swung open to reveal a seating room set with a long table. On a dais above and back from the chamber was a gigantic bed. Zero found it odd to set a bed and dining room in the same chamber, but it was minor compared to the other oddities of this place.

“Where are we?” she whispered to one of the men beside her.

“The master’s chambers,” he called back fearfully. “Is the queen coming tonight?”

One of the other men snickered. “Tonight and every night. But here? No. She won’t be gracing us with her presence. Didn’t you hear? She has a new toy.”

They sat down around the table, with The Lady taking the place at the head of the table. She gestured for Zero to sit opposite from her, at the other end of the long banquet table. The men seated themselves on the long edges, five to a side.

Zero considered not eating. She didn’t need to. She’d had some meals early on with Mifruzli, but those had given her strange nightmares, and she’d simply given up the habit. But she was trying to look normal to everyone, at least until she had a better idea of what was going on, and normal people ate.

The servants brought out bowls of side dishes first. There were bowls of button mushrooms, large round slabs like portobello, and warty little things covered with cheese sauce. There were bowls of steaming greens – it looked like seaweed. And finally, the waiter appeared carrying a platter with a large ham. The meat had a honey glaze on it, and seemed cooked to perfection.

A second waiter appeared, bearing two plates. Zero’s French wasn’t very good, but she understood him when he said, “As an entrée for the ladies, the specialty of the house, coq au vin.” And he set before her a plate that would have been at home in any four-star restaurant. Delicately arranged on a ring of rice were diced portions of – mushroom, she assumed – surrounded by cubes of meat simmered in a wine sauce and seasoned with savory herbs. A wine was poured into a crystal goblet for her, as the head waiter began to carve the ham.

Around the table, everyone bowed their head and chanted in unison: “Iä! Iä Kellith! Dakeit-cthoagna’nachahazoiz’wlli! Iä!”

Then The Lady, at the head of the table, gave the benediction. “As you know, our supper usually consists of lower fare, though expertly produced. Tonight’s wake would normally bring the queen to dine with us, but she suddenly has other concerns. Tonight we remember one of our own, and if she can’t be bothered to come, I say to Hell with her. To Hell with all of us. It’s time to remember Burkillman.” With that, she jabbed her fork into the meal and began to eat.

The other guests apparently saw nothing odd about this, as they began to sample the various dishes.

“I remember,” one man began, “back in the Old World, SabreTooth training. One day Deathlist didn’t like the way one of the other trainees had done on an obstacle course. So he handed him a sword and they dueled. Deathlist was a master. He’d slice away a bit at a time, never enough to kill the man, but enough to whittle him away bit by bit. The guy didn’t die until he was missing his entire left arm below the elbow, both ears, one eye, and half his nose.”

Zero paused, put off by the sickening description. To her left, the man leaned forward.

“If you’re not hungry, there’s no need to force yourself. We get the first pick and the best cuts, but whatever we can’t finish here goes to feed the hungry.”

She breathed deeply, calmed again. For a moment she thought this place lacking in any normal human sentiment. But now Zero proceeded to eat. The flavor was delicious, and the chef had done a fine job. Some of the chunks were clearly mushrooms, others were strongly-flavored ham. And still other pieces might have been either. Perhaps it was the wine. She glanced at the bottle, left near her seat, and read, “Tantalus Winery.” Did they brew grapes here, or something else?

“I remember,” another said, “his mother. Whenever he disappointed her, she’d be ready with her knitting needle. Always in a spot the teachers wouldn’t see.”

“No, that’s Gillman. We should be concentrating on the most recent, Burkillman.”

“I remember,” The Lady began, “how it was my very first time. They’d just given me the smile. I begged him not to. I reminded him that we’d become friends, of a sort. I pleaded and cried. And now I remember what he thought of it. Nothing made him as excited as hearing me beg like that. It took four of you to hold my arms and legs, remember? Even after The Smile. And when he was as hard as an iron bar, he shafted me, absolutely loving every second of the girl’s humiliation, as he watched the knowledge grow in her eyes – what she had become, what she’d be forevermore.” She paused to take a bite, chewing thoughtfully. “I remember him far too well. But you all know what’s to become of him. He will be harvested for every ounce of value, and when we’re done with him, he can feed the tomatoes.”

Seeing that Zero had nearly finished, the man to her right served her a slice of ham.

Perhaps it was the wine or some stronger magic, but the words began to weave their spell. With each narrative, Zero gained an imaginary image of what must have happened. As the words flowed, the images became more and more real. She could see the mother, almost feeling the pain herself as another pin pierced her scalp, hidden from sight under a mop of his brown hair.

She saw the training crew, and felt her bowels grow loose as Deathlist dueled the failed student. She watched in perfect fidelity as The Lady, formerly known simply as “Nobody,” screamed and begged, up until the moment when he plunged inside her thrashing, terrified body.

She remembered so many things about him. Advanced training for his meager gift. Learning how to shield against other telepaths. Learning how to aim a rocket propelled grenade. Learning how to properly rape, when time was of the essence.

The man was loathsome. Men, she realized. She was recalling scenes that must have happened to several different men. All of them were so sickening, so revolting, that she needed another bath to cleanse her soul. The barest remembrance of their history left her feeling soiled in a way that tainted her entire soul.

“I think it’s time for the second course,” The Lady said. “The buffet. You’ll want to bring your silverware, so that you can serve yourself.” She snapped her fingers at the waiter, who disappeared through a side door.

Zero glanced at her eating utensils. Not metal, as she might have thought. Bone? Ceramic? Probably ceramic, but the clever glaze gave them a metallic shine, like stainless steel or highly polished silver. She gathered her fork and knife atop her plate and rose, following the example of her companions.

And then the waiter returned, wheeling horror in upon them. It was plainly lettuce, she remembered thinking. Where had they gotten ordinary lettuce? It was decoratively used as a garnish, both around and under him.

His arms and legs had been severed, and prepared in a variety of styles. The left thigh and buttock were missing, but the shin bone had been barbecued with a dark sauce that smelled of garlic. The entire right leg (thinly sliced, but artistically reconstructed) had simmered in the wine sauce. Everywhere she looked, there was something worse. An arm, deboned and laid open in thin strips. Fingers, snipped clean and prepared around a dipping sauce. His entrails pulled out, pickled, and returned to the body cavity. An arm diced, then reassembled with toothpicks to serve on.

And by far, the absolute worst, tipped up so that he could oversee it all, was his still-living head. As she stared, her plate fallen and smashed on the floor, his heart beat and his grey lungs inflated under a topping of shell pasta.

“My lady,” a waiter said, solicitously at her elbow, “did you not enjoy your cock au vin?” He bent to collect the wreckage of her plate.

“Every one of you,” the head wheezed out, “every one of you will be in my place someday. Remember that, you bastards!”

Zero was on her hands and knees, choking, gagging, violently sick. But her stomach hoarded its last meal. Nothing at all would come back up.

“Life everlasting,” The Lady said happily, the ever-present smile gracing her features. “Such a blessing. Gentlemen, who can help me? We won’t have to listen to this bore any longer, if someone could just let the air out of those lungs.”

The ten men approached the buffet and raised their knives as one. The steely instruments flashed down, piercing again and again. Then they moved aside and Zero saw it all, with her wide unblinking eyes. The heart and lungs had been mutilated beyond hope. But the head still lived, weakly, painfully attempting to speak. The lips moved but no air or sound came out. The Lady reached in with her fork to spear an eyeball, like some especially good delicacy. The head’s mouth rounded in a scream, but still no sound came.

Zero was never sure what happened after that. She remembered the doors slamming behind her. She blinked again, and in that moment when blackness was the only image, her mind’s eye projected a scene that was too horrible to accept, but too burned-in to escape. She fled from it all the same, fleeing the banquet, the people, and everything about this place that looked so normal but was actually unspeakably worse than the impartial cruelty of the jungle outside.

She met the hotel’s front door without slowing, slamming it open as she literally flew down the hallway. Outside was a modest courtyard, with a barred gate and a two-story wall topped with the thorny equivalent to razorwire.

She never paused. Ignoring gravity, she leapt up, soaring over the top of the wall easily, before sailing down to the streets below.

She ran like one of the damned, as if her soul itself were on fire.

After one final lovemaking (to fortify themselves), Jade resumed her normal form, while Gary dressed and slipped on his black leather jacket. Then she and Gary entered the long tunnel and descended to the city. At the far end of the tunnel, they looked out over the immense cavern, and the alien city held within.

“Definitely shoggoth construction,” Jade noted. “They can’t make a straight line or square corner to save their lives. Their thinking is all about vacuoles and pneumatic membranes and stuff.”

Gary sighed. “It’s so hard to find good slave labor these days.”

She turned to him in surprise. “You knew about that?”

“Hey, I’ve been around this place for a few years. You pick up a little history.”

At that point, the guards made themselves known, bubbling at them in their hideous aquatic language.

“Guys?” Gary begged, “Can you try that in English? I don’t speak fish.”

Jade nudged him hard. “Be nice! Don’t insult the guard!”

“What! What did I say?”

For their parts, the guards gestured with their spears and motioned for the two to follow. With a shrug, Gary fell in behind them, and Jade walked beside him.

Gary tried not to get too intimidated by the oppressive gloom or the alien architecture. For her part, Jade was looking around and remembering. Or rather, recalling memories of a being far removed from her.

“I could do that,” she decided aloud.

“Hmmm?” was Gary’s articulate response.

“Buildings and stuff, out of rock. There’s this special digestive acid. The trick is a set of enzymes that recycle it, and the lining that protects you from your own acid. I remember it all, from…er…‘grandpa.’ I think I could do this. You get really hungry, though.”

“I’ll let you know if I want a nice stone cabin or something,” Gary promised.

“Yeah, that’s right!” she recalled. “Whenever you want to hole up for a while, it’s just burrow out a pocket in the stone, then settle in. And the stuff lets you tunnel like mad.” She swooped her hand forward, like a jet plane. “Whoosh! Right through solid rock!”

“Like that rock eater, on the old Star Trek,” Gary offered. “What was it called? It had all those silicon football-eggs.”

“The horta! That’s right. I wonder if it was inspired by, er, you know? Anyway, the eggs were round, not football-shaped.”

Gary gave her a scathing look. “We’ve shared something special. Don’t ruin that by being all American.”

“What are you talking about?”

The two of them chattered away happily, still buoyed by their lovemaking and unfolding relationship. Secure in their invincibility, they paid little heed to the oppressive cavern, deep within the bowels of the earth. They offered little more than art critique to the ancient city crafted by intelligences that were neither human nor benevolent. And they were nearly contemptuous of their scaled guides, who betrayed no thoughts behind their vacant, watery eyes. Of the two of them, only Gary carried some hint of apprehension. But Jade’s jocular mood lit the encroaching gloom like a searchlight, and he dismissed his concerns.

The path they followed did not lead them to the giant pyramid they’d seen from the tunnels end. Rather, they headed for the lowest spot in the city. While the city was mostly flat, they were headed downhill.

“Expect to stop seeing those holes,” Gary noted, as they passed one of the water-filled manholes used by the fish men.

“How come?”

“Well, we’re headed downhill, aren’t we? Water seeks its own level. If they had pipes down there, the whole place would fill up. More important, it would drain off all those smelly manhole things.”

“Yeah? Then what’s that, smart guy?” Jade pointed at another manhole.

As if sensing their interest, a fish-head poked up out of it, before vanishing back down into the black water once more.

“Er, we are going downhill aren’t we?” Gary asked.

“Of course!”

“Then why aren’t the fish-holes flat?

And it was true. The meniscus of the water-filled holes was level with the ground around them; ground which sloped downward. Which meant that the surface of the still water also sloped downward – a clear impossibility.

“There’s something strange about this place,” Gary observed.

“What was your first clue? Hey Gary, can you breathe water?”

“I don’t really need to breathe. It’s like food and stuff. I can do it, but if I have to go without for a few years, it’s no big deal. And you?”

“Gills are easy. Not that I’m planning on a swim, it’s just that…”

“Yeah.”

Although it didn’t become any damper, the farther downhill they traveled, the fewer humans they saw. Conversely, the number of the white-bellied fish people grew in numbers, until it seemed that they walked through the city of deep, with reef-like houses around them. The fish had apparently taken to draping fresh seaweed over the stone architecture, perhaps to soften the alien lines and give them a more familiar feel. To surface senses, however, the effect was anything but calming. The stench of seaweed was profound, like a thousand salty bodies laid in the sun to rot.

Footing became more treacherous, as layers of slime and decaying weed clogged the stone walkways. What light existed was now filtered, more and more, through wavering curtains of green algae.

“They must be taking us to the palace,” Gary reasoned. “I’ve never actually been there before. I always saw the arena instead.”

Indeed, before them lay a disturbing site. At the lowest point in this fish-inhabited hollow of the city, in the very deepest section, a gigantic panel was set into the ground, like an enormous trap door. It was carved with a hideous image. The carved head drew attention first – something like a cuttlefish, but with a sense of intelligence about it. That grotesque head was mounted atop a writhing body that most resembled a python, but this ophidian bore only passing resemblance to its earthly counterpart. The twists of its limber body were such that even a master constrictor would have trouble duplicating them. Finally, there were the wings – three sets, spread as if a trio of dragonflies had alighted on its back. The impression of the entire image was one of intelligence, purpose, and implacable will.

“Nice carving,” Gary commented nervously. “Really sets off the door.”

“Yeah. I love what they’ve done with the place. Now it’s just so…”

“Fishy?”

“Yeah.”

Their fishman guards prompted them forward, not quite jabbing them with their tridents, but gesturing emphatically forward. They stepped forward toward the trapdoor, but as they walked forward it seemed less and less like a trap door, and more like a gigantic gate set in the side of a wall. At their approach it gave a sharp crack as it separated from the stone around it, then, with a woosh of air it swung forward.

The trapped gases of aeons rushed out at them, a stench of rot and decay that was overpowering. The portal thus revealed was tremendous in size. Godzilla could have walked in without bowing. The air and light within held a strange quality. Such light as there was came from the upper corners of the room. There, creatures like spineless blowfish seemed to be caught within a tangle of weeds and algae. Their bloated, distended bodies glowed from within with an evil luminescence. Occasionally, one of the fish would thrash or kick its tail, indicating that it still lived, despite its unnatural state. The light thus cast was wavering and ever changing, like sunlight penetrating a murky lake, to shimmer and dance upon the murky floor. But where sunlight oft seemed a natural source of hope and courage, the effect here was almost exactly the opposite. For it wasn’t the light which played in shimmering beams, rather it was a living, visible darkness that radiated from hidden corners, casting ebon shadows that flowed and swallowed all that was light and living.

Within, the fishmen that guarded them suddenly rose into the air, as if swimming. Buoyed by unknowable forces, they now moved and swam with the grace of aquatic creatures, though there seemed to be no water.

The tunnel into the throne room echoed the approach to the city, a long tunnel leading to a bubble-like chamber. Here, liquid rock rolled aside like the sphincter in a throat pulling open before the stomach. Within, columns rose with little rhyme or reason. They resembled the biological more than the architectural, for all that they were hewn from cold rock.

As if to soften the rocky surroundings, there were a plentitude of curtains, rugs, and tapestries. The curtains were hanging green films of algae. The rest were skins. Like bear rugs or animal hides, each had a full head with the flattened and preserved hide of the creature. But each and every one of these decorations had been formed from a human being, or something close. They made not a move nor a sound, but the eyes of each of the “decorations” moved to follow the two newcomers.

The throne itself was a single human skeleton, rearranged into the form of a chair, with the open pelvis for a seat, ribs pulled wide into a generous backrest, arms and curled fingers for the sides. The skull served as a footrest. And the Queen herself apparently had no need of a cushion, for she floated a good six inches above the throne, buoyed by soft cushions of air. Hanging from the ceiling, a long, tendon-like cord hung, ending in a tassel (or a fray of ripped sinew) just beyond her left hand.

Jade recognized the girl immediately as being the “Sara” of her glimpsed memory. The white skin, dark lips and nails, and red eyes were more than distinctive. But while the Sara of her vision had been a beautiful teen, this woman was something else entirely. Her dress was a snakeskin sheath, still retaining the original scales. Her skin was the pallor of a shark’s belly, dead white and rough enough to scrape flesh from bone if you dared touch her. Her lips, mouth, and tongue were a uniform black, wrapping over pointed white teeth. These were not the teeth of a cat or any mammalian predator, but the ripping needles of a piranha. And her eyes were the protruding orbs of a fish, except for the iris and pupil. There, a demonic heritage shone through clearly. The windows to her soul were a crimson, luminescent red, with slitted pupils like a cat.

As those loathsome orbs swiveled and fastened upon her, Jade almost fell to her knees. Raw need struck her like an emotional tsunami. She wanted to spread herself wide and rub herself on anything that might offer satisfaction – Gary, a pillar, one of the fish guard, but most especially the queen. Despite the queen’s clearly feminine aspect, Jade knew that a night with her would satisfy in ways that would brand the mind and soul forever.

Gary, apparently unaffected, stepped forward calmly. “I greet you, she who once was.”

“I am the queen here,” the woman replied, in a voice like honey. “I am the Kellith.”

“Before she arrived,” Gary stated in contradiction, “you were the Kellith-to-be. You were the pre-Kellith, who once might have been. Pure potential, an image of a timeline to come. But she has arrived. It is finished, and you are no more. You’re the fading echo of a sound that never was.”

“Time is mutable beyond your understanding, little boy. I was once might-be and I remain may-yet-become. I was never born, so how can I die? Particularly as queen of a land where death does not exist.”

Her protuberant eyes moved independently, but now they swiveled to focus together upon Gary.

“A thief has stolen my keys, entered my house, and sits in my chair. Do not imagine that she is lord and master of all that she surveys. When the true master returns, the thief shall pay for her temerity with an ocean of regret.”

The queen paused in consideration before her form suddenly shifted. In moments, she was the spitting image of the girl from Jade’s vision. The girl named Sara. A moment later her skin changed to a human complexion – a lightly tanned form of surpassing beauty.

“I’ve already won,” she admitted. “I’ve seen bits of your memories. I know the Trojan War occurred in your world. That was the crucial difference. Originally there was no war, not before my travels. Back then I looked like this, when I fell through into the past.” She paused dramatically. “You see, I was Sara of Troy! It was my intervention that caused the war. Unwitting, at the time, but crucial. And what was, must be, unstoppably.”

Gary and Jade looked at each other in consternation.

“Uh…” Gary began tentatively, “the Trojan War was fought over Helen of Troy.”

“What?” the queen shrieked. “Helen? Helen was a bimbo!

With a growl of fury she resumed her pale-skinned, fish-eyed, needle-toothed visage. “No matter.” A knife was suddenly in her hands. “All I need is the proper portal and Helen’s face will terrify her own mother.”

“Look,” Gary began, unconvincingly. “Maybe I was wrong about the ‘Helen’ thing. I was never that good with history. The point is, I have no conflict with you. We’re following a blue-haired girl. She entered the city.”

The Kellith leaned back in her air. “I’m aware of her. She interests me. Why do you seek her?”

“I think she’s the key to unlocking my memories!” Jade blurted out.

Gary stared at her with a look of dismay, and Jade realized that perhaps she’d said too much.

The queen’s two eyes swiveled to focus exclusively on the well-developed teen. “So you’re her memories! That explains much.” She gave a single, sharp clap of her hands.

An algae curtain to the side rustled, and a man moved out from behind it. He was an oriental man of middle age, dressed in robes of red and white. His most distinctive feature was a thin black mustache that flowed over his upper lip and hung down the sides, like water spilling over a ledge.

“Mifruzli!” Gary exclaimed.

The man clasped his hands behind his back and sauntered up to Jade, walking around her in a circle as he inspected her.

“So… you seek the blue-haired girl. A girl with no name. You have a name?”

“Of course I do! I’m…” She glanced at Gary, who simply shrugged. “…I’m Jade.”

“And I suppose you’ve felt virtually compelled to pursue this ‘blue-haired girl.’ Am I correct?”

“Well… she was the only other person I’d seen.”

“But now you’ve met me, the queen, of course you’ve been traveling with our friend Gary. Why do you still purse this mysterious girl?”

“Well, I… I’m just curious, that’s all!”

The queen’s tongue seemed to almost unroll from her mouth. It writhed in the air in delight, before slithering back into her mouth. “Tell her!” she ordered.

Mifruzli raised an eyebrow, and turned to face Jade.

“What you seek is nothing more than the living remains of a demon mark,” he coldly revealed.

“What?”

Jade was stunned. From the brief glimpse she’d had, the girl had seemed bewildered, but perhaps kind. Not demonic in any way.

“When a demon chooses to ‘mark’ one of their servants they create an indelible stain on every strand of the being’s soul. My language must, of necessity, be lax here. To be truly accurate, I would have to differentiate between lesser demons, greater demons, old ones, and a host of other creatures such as daemon and devils. No matter. The greater beings fought among themselves for aeons before our planet had even begun to cool. They created their own private laboratories, such as this hell of flesh, protected and sealed from the spies of their brethren. They waged war with souls and magics empowered by souls. It was a technology that they mastered the way our people have mastered electronics. One of the many culminations of that was the demon mark. It was a special connection between the master and his chosen servants, allowing communication, sharing of power, and much, much more. And the servant was altered, so that they could never betray the master’s secrets. Their memories and the structure of their souls were changed. The strands of soul and memory could be teased apart, but once beyond the influence of the mark, they were indecipherable.

“The blue-haired girl you seek is a living, walking demon mark. But she had no memories of her own. And most importantly – the mark was not granted by the Kellith.”

Jade was trying to figure it out. “But you said the memories wouldn’t work if they were taken away from the mark. And she is the mark. So why can’t she remember?”

Gary gently explained. “Her memories aren’t blocked, Jade. They’re absent. It’s your memories that are blocked.”

Mifruzli smiled. “Exactly as I predicted. She walked out of the lake of fire. Most beings have their souls shredded. They wash ashore as nothing more than individual strands. Most reassemble themselves in time. But this girl was whole – human. Much had been washed away from her, but a solid core remained. A core centered around the demon mark and the form she wears. I immediately saw the value, if we were to secure the mark before it could reintegrate with its memories. I knew the parts would seek to become whole.”

The queen’s lips pulled wide, displaying a truly terrifying needle-toothed smile. “Delivery complete, Mifruzli. Welcome back, my priest. You are absolved of all previous crimes.”

The man faced the white thing, then bowed and genuflected. “My queen. My goddess.”

“So…” Jade began hopefully, “all that’s left is for me to reunite with the blue-haired girl, right? How are we supposed to do things?”

The queen ran her tongue over her sharp teeth, feeling each one in turn. “Normally, one of you would need to slay the other. It’s traditional. But I’m afraid that’s not quite what we had in mind.”

“Slay… each other?” When Jade had seen the other girl, she hadn’t hated her. She’d adored her. She was supposed to kill that person?

“You see,” Mifruzli patiently explained, “the other girl is an alien mark – protected from the powers of this realm. Not as completely as Gary here, of course, but still protected. She represents both power and threat. We need to learn as much as possible from her. At the same time, she must be turned, to become our ally. Or at the very least, our tool.”

My tool,” the queen stressed.

“Of course, my queen.” Mifruzli genuflected once again.

The queen returned her awful gaze to Jade. “And you, sweet little memories, will be the tool that does the job for us. We shall feed you to her, bit by tiny bit, giving her only the merest wisp of recollection each time. And that, disguised by so much other meat, to confuse the issue. We’ll tell her that we’re working great spells to help her, and she’ll have to believe. After all, aren’t wisps of memory returning?”

“The secrets guarded by the demon mark may not be extracted through soul-magic or psychic snooping,” Mifruzli revealed, “but simple trickery – ah, that can still work wonders. Conversation and innocent questions have served me very well indeed.”

“And when she remembers this encounter?”

“By then,” Mifruzli gloated, “she will be long since confirmed as our tool. I suspect that she’ll actually admire our planning and dedication.”

“If we even let you!” Gary shouted.

He threw his arms back and ignited in a blaze of green so brilliant it hurt to look at him. He began to run full-tilt, straight for the queen.

“I have some revenge of my own, right here!” he continued.

The queen merely reached for her hanging cord. She considered for a moment, then pulled it.

A gigantic portion of the floor dropped away. The hatch was easily thirty feet square. And Gary had raced forward until he was almost in the center of it. With a sudden look of despair, he plummeted away. He refused to scream, though.

“I wonder how badly he’ll be hurt?” the queen mused. “It’s a half mile down, you know. He won’t die, of course, but will every bone shatter? Or will her blessing protect him from even that? Still, best to be away, and soon.”

With a cry, Jade raced for the hole to leap in after him.

Fetch your kin, hound.

Even as she ran, Jade was confused by the queen’s last words. They hadn’t been in English, they’d been… in a haunting language of whistles, like the wind of a storm rushing through the hollow passages of a cave. From the edge of the pit ahead of her a fluid blackness reared up, towering and amorphous, a quivering blob of liquid flesh. Jade turned to rush around it, even as the eyes opened. A hundred eyes burst from its skin like white bubbles, and mouths formed, like the ringed mouths of leeches.

Jade’s flesh was already transforming as she paused to fight the thing.

Welcome, great-grandchild. The flesh of kin always tastes best, don’t you agree?

For every move she made, it moved first. It was larger than her, faster than her, and when it closed with her, she discovered that it was stronger than her. In moments it had engulfed her, squeezing her back into a shape that mimicked her human form.

And now, offspring, we merge.

STOP!

There was some tone of command in the queen’s voice that brought Jade to a complete halt. Likewise, the black shape that surrounded ceased its movement. After a moment, Jade felt herself pushed up until her head emerged from the tar-like liquid creature.

The queen floated off her throne and strolled forward languidly.

“You made so many mistakes, child. The first was thinking that the power of the shoggoth was the ultimate in shapeshifting.”

The queen reached out with a hand. As Jade stared, the hand seemed to split apart. First there were four fingers and a thumb, then eight fingers, then a dozen. Then the flesh split into strands like a severed rope, except that each hair-fine filament was a living, writhing tentacle. The fibers rebraided themselves into a trio of ropy flesh sprouting from the end of the queen’s arm. The central rope shot forward to pierce her cheek.

“Liquid flesh is versatile for a servant, but there are other forms that are faster, stronger, and better in every way.”

A moment later, the wriggling worms that were the end of the queen’s arm coiled and came apart, then rewove into a human-looking hand.

“You see? The shoggoth were entirely artificial, designed by my kind to be the perfect labor. Would we give our menials greater power than we ourselves held?”

Now the queen’s mouth inflated like that of a frog. Quickly following, her face and mouth stretched impossibly wide. Something round moved up her throat and out her mouth. It was a silver hoop, nearly five inches in diameter.

“Your last mistake,” the queen pronounced, “was to assume that we had no way to discipline our servants.”

She set the hoop upon Jade’s head and spoke a word of power: “F’takhlacknath.”

An unimaginable pain shot through the girl. With that first touch of the hoop, every cell of her body was simultaneously pierced with some unknown form of energy. Not pierced – harpooned! Speared and pinned in place. Jade would have screamed, had not every cell been held perfectly still.

Still, she was aware enough to notice the behavior of her tarry black captor. As the hoop had approached, it peeled away from her like water flowing down a mountain. It wanted nothing to do with the artifact.

The queen stepped back.

You may fully release her now. She can no longer escape.” she pronounced, with a voice like a dying gasp drifting past a pipe organ.

I caught her! I deserve a taste!

You will have what I choose to give. Bones and leftovers, you may have those.

It will suffice.

Jade slowly found herself able to move again, but her fingers, arms, and legs moved strictly normally. Like any normal human. She couldn’t shapeshift at all!

As the huge trapdoor swung closed beside her, Jade felt her arms grabbed. She looked up in confusion to see two of the fishman guards.

The queen’s expression was immensely satisfied. “Take her to the kitchen.”

Zero was concealed within the crowd, as all of them pushed forward down the wide thoroughfare in their attempt to press into the stadium. Calling it a crowd was generous. Unlike the first time she’d seen this road, the current group was sparse and apathetic. Only a few of them looked human, and none of those had clothing even half so fine as the lace dress she wore.

Her mind was screaming at her. The people and things that jostled her recoiled in fear as her skin erupted in crimson bolts of rage. Still, she shambled into the arena with the rest of them. All manner of monstrous forms surrounded her, naked or clad in the meanest of rags. They were nothing like the perfect people in their perfect clothes that resided in the hotel. She hoped these creatures were nothing like those monsters in human skin.

The bell atop the hotel began to ring, and the crowd around her gave a spontaneous roar of approval. They were transformed from apathy into obsession, and they pressed forward with desperate strength. Looking back, Zero saw crowds coming from the city, pouring into the avenue and racing in their direction.

Still nearly paralyzed by her experiences, Zero allowed herself to be swept forward with the crowd. Floating, sometimes not even touching the ground, she was propelled by those around her. As they passed through the archway that opened onto the stadium, she saw the inside for the first time.

Dominating all was the tremendous pyramid in the center: a step pyramid of almost Aztec design. At the front of the pyramid, unbelievably steep steps rose up to a stone dais and throne. Above that throne, hovering a foot higher in the air, was a creature – a woman – of unearthly beauty. Her skin was as white as any geisha. Her lips and nails were black, and her eyes red. These features could be discerned even at this distance. She wore a haughty smile and a snakeskin sheath dress that seemed designed for cruelty. Her hair was ebony, contrasting with the white of her face. And she looked down at the crowd as if she owned each and every one of them.

The milling mass entered and then, save for Zero, they staggered as if struck by a hammer’s blow. Suddenly overcome with an undeniable compulsion, many of them ran for the soft grass at the base of the pyramid, where they immediately disrobed and found the closest partner to couple with.

Others marched solemnly to a balcony that ringed the great arena. They found an empty place, and joined the chant that already filled the stadium like an omnipresent rumble:

“Iä! Iä Kellith! Dakeit-cthoagna’nachahazoiz’wlli! Iä!”

But a minority fought through their other compulsions and headed for the main attraction: chefs now wheeled out dozens of tables prepared exactly like the grisly feast from the hotel, with still-living victims laid out to survey the torture, mutilation, and consumption of their mortal frames.

Zero had thought these creatures better than the human-shaped monsters of the hotel. Instead, it was more of the same. The only difference was that these slavering beasts didn’t hide their nature behind a cultured façade. That, and they feasted on strangers, rather than their closest friends.

She couldn’t bear to look at the collected horror, nor upon those who raced in to partake of this feast upon their neighbors. And there wasn’t even any mercy she could think to offer the flayed and suffering victims.

And at the far left, the worst of all, she recognized the body of Burkillman, picked over and sampled, but still with plenty of good meat on him. What had the man at the feast said?

“If you’re not hungry, there’s no need to force yourself. We get the first pick and the best cuts, but whatever we can’t finish here goes to feed the hungry.”

She involuntarily recoiled from that single most personal tragedy. Recoiling, she let the pressure of the crowd push her in the other direction, to the far right, until she reached the last victim, whom she recognized as Jade.

Zero stopped, in shock. One more shock on top of hundreds, thousands of horrors, both great and small. And here, at the worst possible time and place, was her first real memory since … since ever. Since she’d woken in that accursed lake.

But it wasn’t a memory so much as a recognition. She knew this girl! She knew her name, her face! She knew her like she knew her own… her own… and there was only a blankness.

The girl, laid out on what was little more than an oversized wooden serving trencher, had simultaneously spotted her.

“You!” they said as one, spotting each other.

Reluctantly, tragically, a weeping Zero forced herself to approach the table, knowing that she was already too late.

“The only person I’ve ever recognized in this world, and I meet you only to lose you like this?”

The other girl held the spark that she lacked. Even dying and dismembered, she was still filled with fire.

“I’m not dead yet! If you can get this giant ring off my skull I can fix all this!”

Zero approached the table and reached forward fearfully to touch the still-living head.

“Oh, get over it! I didn’t track you every step of the way from the caldera just to fail here!”

“You were at the caldera? The lake of fire?” Zero couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t I see you? All I could find was the hunchback, Mifruzli.”

“I didn’t look so human then. Mifruzli? He’s the one who planned all this! He said I’d never unlock my memories – not unless I joined with you!”

“And I have no memories at all,” Zero tragically admitted.

“Wrong! I am your memories! We got separated at the lake of fire! It was all part of Mifruzli’s plan! But you weren’t supposed to be here! What happened? They were planning to trick you.”

Zero shuddered, not wanting to think of l’hôtel. Not wanting to look at the dying girl in front of her. “How can you claim to be my memories?” she softly asked. “Since I first woke here, I’ve never had anything of my own. Not even memories. Nothing except…”

She closed her eyes and bowed her head, focusing on the mark. Quietly at first, the ground began to shake. The mark on her chest glowed a crimson red, a dot, with a long triangle below it, like a stylized, lower-case letter “i”.

“The mark,” Jade breathed in wonder. “My memories, all my later life are locked away. I need to join with the mark. But I’m slain here. The queen…”

“I’ll avenge you,” Zero promised. “I don’t know how—”

“Fuck that,” the gruesome girl said. It had been explained, but finally she understood. “Half of my memories are missing, locked. Locked by you! Locked by the mark. I am your memories, you are my key.”

The flayed girl looked incongruously fierce. “Listen to me! We have to join. You’re like … my other half! No, then we could just merge. You’re like the key that will unlock me. That’s why I needed to find you! And to join, they said… that usually that means that one of us must kill the other.” realization dawned. “You have to eat me.”

Zero looked at her sadly, knowing the girl had gone insane.

“I’m serious, get going! One of us has to consume the other, and it’s not like I’m in any shape to eat you! You won’t have much time, and you need to get everything – all of me! Anything you miss means that some part of our soul gets trapped out there inside those disgusting vermin.”

Zero shook her head wildly, realizing the girl was serious. “I… can’t.” It was worse than her worst nightmare.

“YOU HAVE TO! This is my life, our life, our soul! Start eating and I’ll explain.”

Driven by regret, by horror, by the need to do something in reaction to this hideous cruelty, Zero closed her eyes and gathered her will. Prodded on by the imprecations of the dying, butchered girl, she forced herself to act.

She stretched a hand toward the grisly display, selecting a skewer with some roasted meat upon it. It appeared to be something you might find at a fair, a treat from a food stand. There was nothing to connect it to the horrid scene that she refused to look at, it was simply a piece of meat.

Zero forced herself to take a bite, to chew and swallow.

“Eat faster! Listen, here’s what I’ve learned. In this world, DNA, flesh, soul, they are all the same thing. Your ‘soul’ is composed of a trillion threads, all woven into a whole. The lake of fire breaks that up, unweaves it, and the separate strands wash ashore. I began to wake up there. Animals ate the stuff on the shore and suddenly I woke up, inside their body. You know the old saying, ‘you are what you eat’? That’s literally true here. The soul and memories of the food you eat become part of you. And as the animals ate the strands of my soul, I merged with them. But a person overwhelms an animal. I ‘came awake’ in an animal body, not understanding what had happened.

“But you were different! You came out as one piece, unblemished. The demon mark resisted the powers of this world.” She blinked, realizing that it finally made sense. “And that’s why I subconsciously recognized you. That’s why I had to follow you! Eat faster!

The head on the table spoke faster, her lungs inflating and deflating in an obscene manner, as if they were self-powered and didn’t need the musculature of a rib cage. “I only came partially awake as an animal before I was killed and eaten again. But don’t you see? There is no death here. Eating a creature doesn’t kill it, it brings the soul fragments and memories into you. So once again, my human mind took over the animal. I woke up in a new body, just as we’ll wake up together inside your body! So eat faster!”

Zero understood now, and as the nutrition in her stomach flowed out through her body, she began to remember. It didn’t come in any order, but the earliest memories were easiest to understand, so they came first. She remembered her mother and father, being Jared, the accident.

“Why am I a girl?” she asked. “I was…”

“Keep eating! You’ll get it faster that way!”

One distinct memory stood out: her silvery spirit wearing a pair of boxing gloves. She knocked her father out. “My telekinesis! That’s where it came from!”

She stretched her hand out, and bits of cooked flesh rose into the air and floated toward her.

“That’s where it went!” Jade whispered. “The power was with you!”

There were disturbances coming throughout the arena now. A green glow was growing near the entrance, as if some mystic battle was taking place.

In a more mundane threat, the crowd was pressing farther into the stadium, and other people and creatures approached the banquet that Zero had been hoarding for herself.

Tasting her memories, her past, her soul, Zero knew enough to recognize that no others held any right to what lay on the table. As other hungry predators approached, her hands clutched out at her sides. Her fingers clenched like claws, holding barely visible orbs of spinning power. She lifted off the ground and began to glow with crimson energies.

“MINE!” she thundered. The ground shook in echo.

The beggars that approached knew enough about this world to recognize power. They fled, knowing that even worse was sure to follow. Zero returned to the feast, gobbling now as fast as she could.

“One last thing,” the girl on the table said, “Way back when, we were wrong about our powers. We weren’t a spirit-thing, we were supposed to be a shapeshifter. Something went wrong, but being in this world fixed it. I’ve learned to change shape. That’s why I’m a girl, too. If you can, look into our memory. Look for the secret of the shoggoth. It hurts your head, but you’ll need it! If you can do that, you can get all of me in one shot. And you need to get everything you can! Every piece of me is part of our soul, part of us. Don’t leave any behind, please!”

Now, up at the top of the pyramid, the queen was receiving a visitor. She turned and spoke in a rage to a man that wore the livery of the hotel, the captain of all servants. Her cry of rage drew the attention of everyone below. The queen backhanded the man, knocking him past the edge of her platform, so that he tumbled down the steep stone steps to lie broken and still at the bottom.

Her face turned until she faced directly toward Zero.

“You! You will stop immediately!”

Bolts of violet lightning seemed to condense out of the air, soaking into the queen’s body. She thrust an arm out, her finger jabbing in Zero’s direction. From it, a gigantic bolt of violent lightning launched forward.

Zero watched her doom approach, her last moment drawn out in horrid anticipation of the agony to come, the ending just before she finally got the answers she needed.

“NO!”

At first, all she saw was the black leather jacket. Then she stepped back, recognizing Gary.

Where do I know him from? she wondered.

In the same way that Zero wore a crimson outline, the queen was now highlighted in a writhing purple light, and Gary glowed with a solid green force field, which hovered a foot out from his skin. He stood his ground in front of Zero and the violet lightning struck the green barrier, only to rebound, careening into the crowd.

As Gary posed there, untouched, he shouted the words.

“The woman standing up there is not our queen! She is not the true Kellith! She is the fallen, false, dark reflection of Kellith! Don’t give her your power! Stop the chanting!”

The growing crowd cringed back. Even more than the lightning, they feared the power of the boy’s blasphemy.

“Silence!” the queen commanded. She launched another lightning bolt, as ineffective as the first. “I may have granted you a Boon of Protection, but that is no excuse to speak against your queen and god!

“You are no queen of mine, and no god to anyone! The true queen is my mother, as you know full well, deceiver!”

The crowd began to murmur.

“The son of god?” “The queen lies?”

Zero’s memories focused on Gary. Seeing him triggered a flood of associations, as she remembered his aura and other times he’d used it. Once she was afraid that he’d use it against her, because she… she…

And with that clue, she plunged straight into the great secret of the shoggoth. Shapeshifting came in many levels, from the slow growth that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly, to the boneless drive of an octopus as it squeezes through a tiny hole. Lycanthropes added a mystic dimension, exchanging a hard-boned human form for a mystically enhanced animal shape. And a few powerful mutants took the alteration to even higher levels, speeding the change, or increasing the number of forms.

One species in all the galaxies had been created with complete mastery over their form. They had been designed and constructed with that skill in mind. The shoggoth. Little more than beasts of burden initially, over time they learned to shift the construction of their minds as well, gaining an unfathomable alien intelligence and eventually turning on their masters. And all of it so very long ago, before humans, before the humans’ planet.

The secret of their ability was too much for a merely human mind to cope with. But someone who already knew how to shift shapes, an incredibly adaptable shapeshifter, a shapeshifter blessed with existence in a world where memory and physical ability were identical, and a shapeshifter with the ability to sort through memories at will, discarding that which might harm her sanity – this was a recipe for prying loose the secrets of that ancient race. And Zero had just remembered them, ingesting memories and abilities as her system reabsorbed the soul it had once held.

“Get away from that table!” the queen ordered, throwing another bolt.

Gary moved in front, shielding the immobile girl pinned there. Zero though, melted. She melted into something like black tar. She was a living tar, and flowed forward over the table, consuming everything there as she grew a thousand mouths and emitted digestive acids for a thousand glands. For one long moment she lay there, stretched out over the banquet table, before she withdrew in a sequence of rubbery movements. On the table, no flesh remained, nor even bone.

Only a shiny rune-inscribed circlet that had once graced Jade’s skull.

Slowly she resumed human form. For a moment, she was Zero, with her gravity-defying hair and strange ears and eyes. Then she flowed into Jade, looking normal except for a pair of leopard toes on her left foot. With a last thought, the toes turned to human toes, the knowledge of their construction and use just one more tiny fact in a mind that already contained hundreds of beasts and their abilities.

Her form was naked, her skin a shiny black. With a thought, clothes sprung out over her body – jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket to match Gary’s. Her skin turned white, then a human tan.

“You’ve lost, impostor,” Jade said. “You’ve lost your shoggoth, lost the demon mark, lost everything.”

“Not if I blast you to powder, first,” the queen promised.

Jade’s memories were still integrating together. Zero’s memories began to fit in. Normally, such a burst of knowledge would knock her out for a day or longer, while her unconscious mind sorted and integrated. Maybe it was the desperation, but she wasn’t sleepy yet. What she was, was confused. On the one hand, she was Jared, become Jade, shifted into a proper form. She was also Zero, holding nothing more than the secret of her master’s form, Billie’s body from the BIT-slicer, when she’d been accepted by Scary Face and they had made their deal – Jade to offer her loyalty forever, and Scary Face (and Billie) to accept and be there for them always. The mark was given to them then, seared into every single strand of their soul, guarding and protecting all knowledge that might endanger the mistress.

And she had perfect cellular knowledge of Billie’s body – that was a grave danger. So Billie’s body and her knowledge of it was sealed behind the demon mark. All Jade’s memories of Billie were locked to the demon mark. So long as she was herself, so long as she was whole, the soul and the key were together and her mind opened. Even as Jinn, even in spirit form, her soul carried her key – the mark – everywhere she went.

Jade looked down at her chest, seeing the oversized mark blazing away with crimson power. A thin triangle topped by something like a dot. It was like a stylized letter “i”. Or perhaps a stylized… Jade recognized it and laughed in delight, loving her master all the more. Even as Scary Face, Billie had a sense of humor.

“It’s a carrot! Oh my God, it’s a carrot!

No one else in the world would ever understand – no one but a fan of Tenchi Muyo! But Billie and Jade would always know. It was a symbol of their relationship, and Jade would treasure it, quite literally forever. In the cartoon that had become the template and inspiration for Billie’s current shape, the powerful but vulnerable space pirate had traveled with a single companion – an artificial construct that could warp its form as easily as it could warp space. It was a crystalline vessel, the self-piloted living starship of the dread space pirate Ryoko. Or, warping its body in some inexplicable fashion, the huge ship-creature could assume the form of a small furry cat-rabbit – the famous cabbit, Ryoko’s pet. Or it could become a young girl – cute but a tad furry. The relationship between master and pet was interesting. The cabbit was clearly pet, companion, conveyance, and tool, but she wasn’t a slave or a creature helpless to her master’s whim. She sometimes drove Ryoko nuts (such as when she made a play for Ryoko’s boyfriend). Despite all that, clearly one was the master and one the vassal, and they were linked for all time.

“YES!”

Jade funneled the full force of her emotion through the mark, causing it to erupt in incandescent power. The tremors around them increased to full-blown quakes, and a mile overhead the ceiling began to shake loose stalactites.

Inside the bowl of the arena, the chanting had stopped. Everything had stopped, save for the mad scramble toward the exit. In times of earthquake, a cave city is a very unhealthy place to be. The denizens inside scrambled for safety, not thinking that any place in a cave was as dangerous as any other, when an earthquake strikes. Still, they all seemed to agree that remaining next to the glowing god-creatures was even more dangerous than the quake, so they were climbing over each other in their haste to escape.

At the apex of the pyramid, the queen flung wide her arms and channeled a bolt of eldritch fury. Like a foot-wide laser, the bolt lashed out from her cupped hands straight for Jade. But Gary stepped into the path, taking the beam in his own face. The leather-jacketed boy never even flinched. The bolt splashed impotently against a green wall.

“Have you forgotten?” he asked, dryly. “The true queen protected me. There’s nothing you can do to overpower that. And isn’t bolt-lobbing a little…tacky? I thought you wanted a tool. And secrets. And there was something about ‘yadda yadda, I’m so clever.’”

The queen screamed in fury. “If she isn’t my tool, she won’t be anybody’s tool! But you want to see real power? Let’s see how this grabs you!”

The queen swept her hands up dramatically and shadowed circles appeared on the ground surrounding Gary and Jade. Black shapes rose up from those circles, like shadow creatures rising up an elevator shaft, then, at the surface, the cloaking blackness drained away to reveal living creatures from the jungles beyond. A trio of turbotooths, a gigantic tree, and a man-sized pile of swarming centipedes.

Jade flowed downward as her body changed to a black, tarry liquid. Like a miniature tsunami, she flowed over the mound of writhing centipedes, engulfing them before they could skitter away. The tree lashed at Gary, but its branches slammed impotently at his unyielding emerald force field. The turbotooth pack advanced on Jade, but she was flat to the ground. Until, that is, one of the predators stepped onto her shadowy form. First it was paralyzed by a crackling red energy. Then sharp-toothed mouths rose from the tar, clenching simultaneously over its four legs, snapping the bones and pulling the creature to its knees. It struggled, with a keening like shifting gears, but a thousand mouths rose up like lips on flexible straws. They bit and chewed, stripping the predator of flesh faster than a school of piranha. A moment later there was nothing but bones, quickly spit aside. The tar rose up into a black turbotooth shape, larger than either of the two that faced it. They fled, but it lashed out with tentacles that sprung from its shoulder blades. Though they kicked and struggled, it drew them into its merciless maw.

For his part, Gary stuck his hands in his pockets and casually walked toward the tree. As the surface of his emerald field contacted it, the tree began to smoke and disintegrate. Gary pushed his way through the trunk then walked back and forth over the site, leaving no trace on the ground, disintegrating all that he contacted.

The queen screamed again, and a huge circle formed. This time, one of the megafauna rose up, a nightmarish mixture of octopus and insect. Each of the many muscular arms was backed by chitinous plates of armor. The tangles of armored tentacle sprouted from the top of a mantis body, while six gigantic armored legs clicked forward in sequence, shaking the ground with every step.

Jade reformed beside Gary. The rumbling ground had given her an idea.

“That force field of yours, think it can withstand a cave in?”

He shrugged. “I trust Mom. Everything in here is Her world.”

“I noticed something earlier. Let’s show this bitch!”

She flung her arms back, exposing her somewhat oversized chest, and the crimson mark blazing there. A moment later, a matching field of brilliant red outlined her, growing in power.

Around them, tremors began, increasing in intensity. It was becoming difficult to stand upright. To the left, the wall of the stadium collapsed, cracking and then showering down in huge chunks. Rocky spears began to fall, as the ceiling began to break free.

The tentacle-faced mantis panicked, scrambling to remain upright, but it lost its footing in the shaking ground and fell as another section of wall came down upon it.

“Stop it! Stop it!” the queen yelled.

But Jade was lost to the call of the link. Like a radio, or perhaps a laser, the signal had so far to reach. But with a tighter focus, proper direction, and plenty of power… She’d called on the power before, but never pushed it like she was doing now. She suddenly knew that if she pushed with all her might, she could make contact. And so she poured the entirety of her life force into it. Unconsciously reverting to a more shoggoth-like form, tentacles of black fluid lashed out to the bodies around her – the few remains of the centipedes, shredded scraps of the final two turbotooths, and the tremendous corpse of the megafauna mantis to the side. The tentacles thickened and began to pump and pulse, digestive juices flowing along the strange vessels, vomiting out of distant mouths to dissolve what flesh they touched. Other extended lips greedily sucked in the meaty slurry, extracting every gram of nutrition in the quickest manner possible. Her ebony form swelled, blazing with the crimson symbol that branded it.

“STOP IT!” the queen begged, as the pyramid beneath her began to collapse.

Even Gary stepped back in cautious awe.

Then, a flash of energy came in response. The entire city flashed in emerald light, before that light narrowed to focus on the arena.

“NO, I WON’T LET YOU!” the queen screamed in fury. “You won’t escape me!”

The black shoggoth form condensed into an ebony image of Jade once more, eight feet tall after her feeding. “I think this is my call home,” she said in wonder.

The queen flew through the air, palm outraised and glowing with violet energies too bright for the eye to look upon.

“I will miss you,” was all Gary had to say.

Jade concentrated a moment, forming a sphere of black the size of a baseball. “Give this to her once I’m gone. Memories of Whateley, sanitized.”

Like a spotlight narrowing its focus, the sourceless green glow focused down to surround the ebony giant that Jade had become. As if the ground had turned to quicksand, she began to be sucked downward. For a moment, she resisted the pull.

“You know,” she said to Gary, “this place could really use some new management.”

And in that moment, the enraged queen flew in to collide with her, slammed her empowered palm into the black girl, hitting so hard that her hand penetrated to the very center of the malleable girl.

“I CURSE YOU!” the queen yelled in fury. “Sundered from your body, never rejoining the mother of your soul! I CURSE YOU! To live like a succubus, feeding on the fruit of life! I CURSE YOU! Shifting, but denied those forms you seek – the form of your birth, any form with seed, any form –”

And at that moment, the green energy rose to an intolerable intensity and Jade was snapped through the floor of the world, to be flung into the outer stars, spiraling wildly through the cosmos. For a moment, it seemed that galaxies passed in her wake, comets and nebulae rushing past as she was drawn to one single point, like a helpless speck caught in a vortex. And at the bottom of that vortex was a familiar blue-green world…

EPILOG

Sara retched again, dry heaving as if she’d turn her stomach inside out. Which was odd, since she no longer had a stomach. Not in the human sense.

Around her, in the security of the Lovecraft Room, The Pack gathered in close.

“An aftereffect of the wound?” Hippolyta asked in helpless need.

“She should be healed by now,” Donna told them. “She looked healed. She said she was healed.”

As Jade had predicted long before, the attack that incapacitated Sara had struck hard against those she marked. On the other hand, they all knew she was in trouble and came as quickly as they were able. And once Sara had risen again, they’d been able to help her into a safer and more secure location.

Sara coughed, doubling over. “It’s like indigestion,” she admitted, between coughing bouts. “I had some spots of irritation earlier, but not like this. I feel like – oh, urgggg.”

“Indigestion?” Page asked in puzzlement. “But she doesn’t eat—”

“Jet!” Hippolyta realized. “The last thing she ‘ate’ was Jet!”

Erin rushed in, as if trying to keep in physical contact with all of them. “You don’t think?”

“Blargggg!”

Sara jackknifed forward and opened her mouth wide. Out of that orifice poured a smoky black ectoplasm that hung in the air like a cloud, boiling with internal energies. After a moment, a pair of eyes within the cloud opened and blinked.

Gypsy dryly commented, “You know, Miss Grimes would give her left arm to watch a demon barfing up dead people.”

The cloud boiled harder, apparently attempting to stretch out part of itself. Its inability seemed to frustrate it, judging from the scowl shown by the eyes.

“It’s Jet,” Jamie said in quiet surprise, looking at the cloud.

“Yeah,” Sara said weakly, “I feel much better now.” She blinked, looking around. “Jet? How—why aren’t you flowing back to Jade?”

The cloud eyes rolled, conveying an impression of sarcasm.

“Bring the cloth over,” Sara ordered. “Maybe she still retains an affinity for it.”

Hippy and Gypsy grabbed a large sack, pulling it over to the floor under the cloud.

Sara moved her hands toward the cloud. “Can you move?”

Screwing up its eyes in concentration, the cloud drifted toward the bag. Once the smoky cloud contacted a patch of ebony fabric, it was drawn inside as if magnetized. The bag writhed for a moment, before a girl’s voice called out.

“What the hell? Why am I all filled with dirt and grass?”

While Paige pulled the bag off her, Hippy helped lift the naked ebony girl up and onto the bed.

“So weak,” Jet managed. “Hey, you’re all still here! Same room and everything. Has it only been a year?”

“A year?” Donna blinked. “It’s only been an hour. We were trying to figure out how we were going to explain things to Jade.”

“We thought Sara ate you,” Gypsy admitted.

Jet blinked, and it was plain to see that she would be some time dealing with the information they’d revealed.

Finally, she responded with, “Uh, yeah. I told her to eat me. That’s where I’ve been.” She added quietly, “In the Hell of Flesh.”

Paige poked Hippolyta. “You’re off the hook. You don’t have to be the one to tell Jade.”

Hippolyta nodded. “Praise Allah! Tennyo is so overprotective it isn’t even funny!”

Erin looked at the black girl-shape on the bed. “But why didn’t she go back?” She scowled at Sara. “You didn’t break her, did you?”

“How should I know?” the demon asked. “Nothing I ate ever came back up before.”

On the bed, too weak to rise, Jet chuckled. “Good thing, too. Between the SabreTooths and the centipede swarms, it could get fairly ugly. By the way, Gary sends his love.”

Sara looked fairly disturbed by this last comment, no longer doubting that Jet had been exactly where she’d claimed to be.

Jamie was still bothered, though. “Why didn’t you flow back to Jade? And how can you be tired? I thought you never got tired.”

“Give me a break. I’ve been to hell and back. It’s been like a year for me. As for the other thing…” she looked troubled “I guess the curse worked.”

“Curse?” Gypsy yelled.

“I, uh, I was ‘sundered from my body.’ Some other stuff, too.”

Sara, feeling physically better but progressively more disturbed mentally, rose and went to her bookshelf, drawing out several tomes. “I’ll need to examine her, to discover what long-term affects her journey has had. I think the two of us should be alone for that. The rest of you – get Jade. Probably all the Kimbas will need to come. And it’s better for us to gather them, rather than waiting until they work up the anger to come to us.”

The others knew that wasn’t a request, so they filed out and closed the door behind them.

In the hallway of Hawthorne, the door to the Lovecraft Room closed and sealed with an almost hermetic tightness.

“Back to Poe,” Hippolyta sighed. “Come on, Erin. It’s your dorm too, you aren’t getting out of this. Jamie, you get to tell Hank.”

“What did I do?” Erin moaned.

“Better Hank than Billie,” Jamie decided.

Paige turned to head back to her room. “Come get me, when…”

Gypsy nodded. “I think I’ll wait upstairs. Come on, Donna.”

The crowd was a little uneasy, waiting outside the door of the Lovecraft room. Jade looked worried; Shroud was impossible to read. Billie was frustrated, wanting to do something. She kept glancing over at Hippolyta. Fey seemed to be the voice of restraint, telling everyone that they needed to hear what had happened before anyone made any assumptions. Chou projected no emotions. She was serenity itself, but not a peaceful serenity. Rather, she was the serenity that watched all, evaluating. That scared everyone.

Finally the door opened, and the dozen people waiting filed into the suddenly-large-enough room.

Sara appeared to be perspiring, ever so slightly. Jet, in contrast, was overflowing with energy, practically bouncing on her toes. She wore her “Men in Black” suit, complete with crisp white shirt and sunglasses. She immediately moved to hug Jade.

“Hi, Sis!”

“Sis?” Jade held out a hand. “Charge?” she offered.

“Can’t. Jann okay, but nope.”

For a moment, Jade looked flummoxed. Then she announced, “I can’t touch her! Telepathically, I mean. Jann tried to link with her, and we couldn’t touch her!”

“Sit down, everyone,” Sara commanded. “A lot has happened.” She drew in a breath, simply for effect, and launched into it. “A little more than an hour ago, I was ambushed…”

So she told the story, again, and watched people’s eyes grow wide. “I’m not sure what would have happened to me if my physical body had faded there. I didn’t get a chance to find out. Jet was there, and she told me that she had the energy I needed to survive. She told me to eat her.”

Billie was furious. “And you DID?

Immediately, Jet was in Billie’s face. “I didn’t give her a choice, oneesan! She’s our friend! Besides, it was just part of me.”

Chou was still impartially serene. She sat just on the edge of her seat, as she carefully said, “She is an admitted demon. You were consigning yourself, the part that was you, to hell. Considering everything, few would have made that offer.”

Jade was angry. “NO! That’s why I had to do it! Don’t you guys get it? Yeah, everyone calls her a demon. They keep trying to push us apart and push her away from all of us. And they’re always saying, ‘Don’t you get it? She’s a demon! They’re evil! We’d be better off if she was dead!’ But they say the exact same thing about mutants, too. And it’s true, some mutants are bad! And some demons are bad! But Sara isn’t. She’s our friend!”

Nikki spoke up, but it was Aunghadhail’s voice. “The assumption of her evil becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more she is treated as a threat, the more likely she is to become one.” She nodded toward Jet. “And the converse is also true. Acts of friendship and loyalty strengthen the bonds between us, if we can find the strength within ourselves to be generous with our hearts, which is the only currency that truly matters.”

“Exactly!” Jade confirmed. “It’s just like in Santa Claus is Coming to Town! There’s the evil Winter Warlock, but when Santa gives him a toy, his heart melts and he turns good. I’ll bet that’s what I was thinking about!”

Jet nodded to her other self.

Phase rubbed her temples, trying not to believe it. “You gave your soul to a demon because of something you saw on Santa Claus is Coming to Town?”

“It’s a classic,” Jet agreed. “Like Shakespeare.”

“No!” Billie yelled. “No Shakespeare arguments!” But clearly her fury was fading. “What happened when she ate you? What was it like? How’d you escape?”

“Well…” Jet looked to Sara, who held a hand out cautiously. “It was pretty strange. I mean, it’s like another world. I kind of got split into separate parts. One of them was that image of Billie I got, you know, from the BIT-slicer? That had me pretty confused for a while. The other was me… the way I used to dress, before Whateley.”

As Sara had done, Jet also took a theatrical breath. “I was a guy, okay? And the whole world was like being near Sara. I mean, the whole world, all the time. For everyone and everything.”

“Wait, wait,” Toni insisted. “You mean like the slam-your-knees-together moisture problem?”

While most of the girls blushed furiously, Jet looked momentarily befuddled. “Ah, not initially. I was a guy, remember?”

“Not initially?” Billie demanded.

“Let her tell the story!” Ayla hissed.

“Look, I’m going to cut to the chase,” Jet admitted. “For every creature there, it’s pretty much eat, sleep, and fuck. I did all three. I’m not going to go into details, but I was a predator, just like every other animal. I killed, and I was killed. But it’s the Hell of Flesh. There’s no death, you just change forms and evolve and stuff. Eventually I discovered my powers.” She stared at Jade. “And my powers are not making copies of myself. We’re a shapeshifter. After some practice and other stuff, we’re a really good shapeshifter. I’d be willing to have a go against Jimmy T. That good.”

For the first time, Jade had a haunted look to her eye. “A shapeshifter? I wish that were true.”

Jet sighed. “Yeah. Once I figured that out, I changed right away and never went back. It was a boy that pointed it out to me.” She looked at Sara. “Gary. It was really sweet of him, and I really shouldn’t blame him for being a guy.”

“He didn’t… take advantage of you?” Ayla asked uncomfortably.

“Huh? Oh, that. Quite the opposite. The…uh… ‘Sara effect’. Well, it affected me, but he was protected. I… kinda took advantage of him. Even so, all men are pigs.”

“Not to disagree,” Hippolyta said, “but how, exactly?”

“Well, there I am discovering my shifting powers, returning to my true and proper form, finally becoming me again, and all he could say was, ‘Can you make them bigger?’”

All the girls, which included everyone in the room accept for Ayla, Hank, Jamie, sort-of Paige, and ironically Jade, had a good laugh at that. For a moment, the tension was broken.

“So it wasn’t such a bad place?” Billie asked, hopefully.

“Yes and no,” Jet admitted. “I lived in fear for a while, I was killed more than once, there were mental and physical things that I’m not ready to deal with yet. But I gained powers and a confidence in myself, I met an excellent friend… perhaps more. I learned amazing things about myself.” For that last bit, she stared intently at Billie. “There was evil there, but mostly because of the people that got sent there, and what those people are like. Sara killed some SabreTooths. They weren’t the best influence. There’s a high priest named Mifruzli down there. Nasty guy. But I finally understand why Hell must exist.”

“Huh?” Donna was confused. “How does that follow?”

Jet looked straight at her. “Do you believe that the soul is indestructible and eternal?”

“Well… sure. We’re mutants – we’ve seen evidence for it, right?”

“I think I now know more about the soul than anyone else here,” Jet said authoritatively. Then she glanced at Sara, and then Fey. “Well, more than most of us. It is eternal and indestructible, but things are just a bit more complex than that. I don’t want to get into it right now, but if that assumption is true, it brings up the question: what do you do with Hitler? Or anyone who is truly evil? In this world, we either execute them or imprison them. In a metaphysical sense, they can’t be executed. They are eternal and indestructible. So where do you imprison them? Wherever it is, it better be a place they can’t get back out of. And, largely because they’re there, and trapped, that place eventually becomes hell.”

Several of them paused at that, thinking it over.

“So,” Billie said, “a place you can’t get out of. How did you get out?”

“It’s because of you, oneesan,” Jet revealed. “Remember the BIT-slicer? It gave me your body? It also gave us a connection. The thread of that connection was dangling down Sara’s throat like a fishing line. It eventually irritated her so much that she coughed me back up.”

“That explains those weird feelings I’ve been having,” Billie mused.

“You’re leaving things out,” Chou accused.

“Yep. And I’m going to keep leaving them out. For now at least.”

“So why can’t you come back?” Jade whined.

“I think I need to answer that part,” Sara decided. “Since it’s my fault. I recently became The Kellith, which is the title of my post. Before I existed, the me-that-might-have-been filled that role. She never was, and now that I’m here, she’ll never be. But before I was she might have been.”

“Gee,” Toni groused, “thank you so much for clearing that up.”

Sara gave the black girl a superior smirk. “Go check out a copy of Incongruity. It’s all about time travel. Souls are not constrained to the three-dimensional world.”

“Ah, no offense,” Ayla offered, “but wasn’t the science fiction in Incongruity kind of… trite?”

For a moment, the demon princess’s eyes blazed red. “So, the truth emerges at last!” Her voice was so low that it rumbled. “Of all the threats I might face, my two greatest dangers share a single room! The Handmaiden of the Tao, and…” She shuddered, barely able to speak the blasphemy “… a literary critic!

Jet smacked the demon in the back of the head. “Knock it off!”

Meanwhile, Billie rounded on Ayla. “I warned you once about that Shakespeare stuff!”

“I’ll be good,” both girls promised.

“I wanna know why you can’t come back!” Jade reminded.

“Right,” Sara reaffirmed. She started to count on her fingers. “Where was I? Time travel, multi-dimensional nature of the soul, evil parallel self, Dark Kellith. Right.”

“Do all mutants have an evil ‘Dark Phoenix’ counterpart?” Toni wondered.

“Of course not,” Nikki answered. “Only the girls. Don’t you know anything? Now shush.”

“Dark Kellith,” Sara continued. “Exiled to hell – I mean, where else was I supposed to stick her? – and as Jet was escaping, she sort of cursed her.”

“Cursed me,” Jade repeated, flatly.

“Yes.”

How, exactly?”

“Well… first, while Jet is a shapeshifter par excellance, there are several forms she cannot assume.”

“The same way I can’t take a gargoyle shape?”

“Very much so. She cannot assume ‘the form of her birth’ – specifically, your male body – she cannot assume any male form. Technically, that’s ‘any form with seed.’ That injunction was going to continue further, but it was interrupted as she escaped.”

“Doesn’t sound so bad,” Jade admitted.

“Next, she can never rejoin you, the ‘mother of her soul,’ until some very specific and impossible conditions are met.”

“I’m waiting,” Jade prompted.

Sara fidgeted. “My counterpart knew you were physically male. So the conditions are that Jet must take your maiden’s blood, specifically, break your hymen and take your virginity, and she must be the first to release seed into your womb.”

“Uh huh. I see. So my first time, I’ve got to make it with myself. Lovely.”

Paige saw the flaw immediately. “Except that Jet can’t assume male form, or any form with seed.”

Sara tried to soothe things. “It’s really not so bad as curse restrictions go. It shouldn’t be too hard…”

Jade was entering one of her grumpy moods. “Anything else?” Her tone made it clear that she knew there was something else.

“Er, just one last detail,” Sara admitted. “Jet now ‘feeds like a succubus.’”

“Meaning?”

“I get recharged by sex!” Jet admitted, happily.

“Who doesn’t?” Toni asked.

“Pfft. Like you would know!” Nikki returned.

“I haven’t clocked it exactly, but we think it’s over fourteen hours per orgasm. Fortunately, I seldom have just one.”

Billie slapped her hands over her ears. “I so don’t want to hear this!”

“Is that like miles per gallon?” Jamie wondered.

“You can’t feel anything!” Jade accused, sounding deeply cheated.

“Um, that’s not true any more,” Jet admitted. “Just… when the energies begin to flow, you know?”

The implications of the matter slowly sank into Team Kimba.

“Waitaminute,” Toni said. “You mean the first one — the girl to lose it — the most active… is JADE?

“What part of ‘recharged by sex’ did you not understand?” Nikki wondered.

“But… JADE?

The little girl crossed her arms. “Yeah, and I don’t even get to enjoy it.”

“Oh yes I do,” disagreed Jet. “Just think of it as ‘making memories.’ Anyway, I think I’ll have to be staying over here for a while. Everyone talks about how hot Team Kimba is, but frankly… I’d starve to death.”

Ayla pointed an accusing finger at Sara. “I knew it! I knew it all along! A harem! I thought so!”

For a moment Sara said nothing. Then she made her one and only comment on the subject. “Since I can’t help feeling somewhat responsible, I apologize completely… for the difficulty you’ll have walking home tonight.”

Ayla blushed deeply and attempted to cross his legs.

“Well, I think I’ve heard enough,” Hank stated, rising. “It’s time to beat a hasty retreat, before we’re further embarrassed.”

Billie went to hug Jet. “Are you really okay with this?”

“Yes, oneesan. I’ll miss seeing you every day, but someone has to keep an eye on Sara, right?”

Billie’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You don’t mean—” She looked around to see who might have overheard.

Jet hugged again. “Oh, pfft. She’s a genius. It’s not like she didn’t figure it out.”

And popping in suddenly, Sara draped an arm around both of them. “After all, the best spy is the one that ensures you’ll never need a spy, right?”

“Exactly!” Jet chirped back.

Then they broke up, and Jade hugged Jet, who shrank down to match her other self’s size.

“I am so jealous,” Jade admitted.

“Don’t worry, sister-me. Your time will come.” She snickered. “And I’ll be there! By the way, being a girl isn’t as wonderful as you always dreamed it would be. It’s better.”

“Now you’re making dirty jokes, just like everyone else.” Jade was trying to hold back the tears.

“Uh, they aren’t always jokes.”

“There you go again!”

Eventually, though, the teams parted, Team Kimba returning to Poe, while The Pack (even those who lived in Poe) gathering around their still-recovering leader, joined by their newest member, Jet.

At the moment, said girl was sidling closer to the furry form of Paige. “Did I mention that I’m completely immune to electricity? Also, I’ve hear that your nickname is Mr. Big?”

The werecat’s ears merely perked up, very high.

Hippolyta slammed a fist into the opposite palm. “Hot damn, that went a ton better than I expected. Now for the important stuff. Jobe and Gore.”

“No one touches Jobe,” Sara announced. “I have my reasons. As for Gore, I have plans for him. First we send him to hell, then we’ll have a feast in his honor.”

No one understood that last reference. No one but Jet, and she shivered. She wondered if she should pray for him, and if so, to whom?

Gary stared across the jungle with a melancholy mix of emotions. He knew the secret city would be rebuilt, but everything would be different now.

“We’re far enough away,” he said. “You can come out now.”

His black leather jacket flowed off him and assumed the shape of a very well-endowed Japanese girl.

“You’re sorry to see her go, aren’t you?” she asked.

He placed a hand under her chin and tipped her head up. “Aren’t you sorry? She’s your other half. The demon mark is gone. You’ll never recover those memories. You have no way to escape now.”

She shrugged. “Not my other half. It’s more like we were both eighths or tenths. It’s complicated. And she handed over the memories before she left. The memories of Whateley explained a lot, but they’re no longer my memories. Once I ‘sanitized’ them, they felt like they were third hand or something. It was like watching them on TV.”

“Once she sanitized them.”

“She, I, we’re both me.”

He smiled. “Fragments of soul. No wonder you adapted so well to this place. Are you still serious about your idea?”

“New management?” A crafty grin lit up her face. “You bet! Let’s offer this world something good to compete with Nasty-pants’ evil empire. That city of hers wasn’t built by the people in it. It was built by shoggoths. That’s what they were for – construction and labor. And now we’ve got our own workforce.”

To demonstrate, she split into two of herself.

Gary grinned. “Every man dreams of twins.” He wrapped an arm around each of them. “What the hell. Let’s make our own empire. We can refine fighting techniques and run breeding experiments and all that. That’s what Mom wants. But who says it has to be a bad place?”

The girl nodded happily. “Do we even have to start with a city? Whateley Academy might be a good model to start from.”

Gary sighed contentedly. “I’m really glad you stayed. Or, I guess, that some slice of you stayed.”

She merged her selves back together and smiled an enigmatic smile. “I had to stay.” She moved a hand down to her lower abdomen. “After all, I couldn’t abandon your child, could I?”

The End


Return to contents