Easter Sunday, 2007
Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Easter Island
The luxurious schooner came out of the thick bank of fog. It pulled up to the access ladder of the motionless cruise liner, and a frazzled looking sailor moored the yacht to the dock. As she regally stepped onto the dock, Lady Jettatura noted the sailor’s state and decided that it might be best if she did something about it. There was always something that you could do with the skull of a borderline psychotic.
The tall, trim, darkly elegant woman made her way up the stairs. Under her expert maquillage, her regal angular face was wan and haggard. She noted with approval the lack of bloodstains or other marks of violence on the decks and in the corridors. She hated sloppy work, and had a deep appreciation of someone who could do foul work neatly. Then her well-honed mystic senses detected a faint but profound empathic note of fear, tinged with degradation, over a foundation of profound anguish.
Well, SOMEONE was having a party! It would be a shame to miss it. She followed the anguish to the Cabaret room, which had a marquee that boasted a genuine Las Vegas revue. There was no audience, but there was a rather lively show under way on the stage. There was a mound of female bodies all heaped together. They were moaning, but it wasn’t an orgy, they were keening out raw pain. Almost drowned out by the moaning, there was a sort of juicy sucking sound from the center of the mass.
Then the very top of the mound began to quiver. An outstretched hand reached out of the mass of flesh, somehow partaking of the skin and sinew, even as it separated from it. The moaning grew more agonized, and another hand reached up. The two hands managed to purchase some leverage, and a figure of a trim woman with a generous bust and café au lait skin pulled herself out of the heap. She was lovely. Or, at least, she would have been, if her face hadn’t looked like it had been flayed from her head.
Lady Jettatura cleared her throat. “Am I interrupting something?”
The figure peered at her with lidless eyes. She began to say something, but realized that she didn’t have lips. She held up a finger, as if to say ‘just a moment’. She slid from the top of the pile. And walked over to where another trim young African ethnic woman lay, wearing a Las Vegas showgirl outfit, complete with a peacock-like feathered ‘tail’. The figure took a scalpel from a table, and with the combination of speed and skill that only comes from years of practice, neatly excised the girl’s face and scalp. She carefully peeled the face and long curling hair from the head, and applied to her own, as if it were a plastic mask from a cheap Hollywood spy movie. She touched the edges of the new face with other instruments from the table, working the features of the face, as if it were a sweater that she was trying to get to fit right.
When the visage moved to her satisfaction, she turned to Lady Jettatura and smiled. “Lady Jettatura. How good of you to let me get my face on.”
“Yes, very nice, Abigail,” Lady Jettatura said politely. “But do you think that Nimbus will like it?”
“Of course, he will” Abigail said as she slipped a draping apricot colored cloth around her in a manner that suggested a Roman toga. “Nimbus loves a bit of variety. And, well, it will conform to my regular features all in good time. Besides, she had really good hair.”
Lady Jettatura looked at the heap of mangled bodies. “I thought that you renewed yourself last St. George’s Eve.”
“I did, but when I saw the floor show, I just couldn’t pass it up. Forget athletes, dancers offer the very best material, and there are so many of them! Well, you just wouldn’t believe!” Abigail’s good humor slipped a bit. Small talk time was over. “Well, is it ready?”
“Yes, but there are a few things that I’d like to discuss with him directly.”
“He’s is in the middle of a very complex working.” Abigail insisted.
“Directly,” Lady Jettatura was just as insistent. “Where?”
Abigail sniffed and led the dark sorceress out of the cabaret. She led the way to the large open area on the aft deck. As they walked, Lady Jettatura asked, “Should I call him by ‘Nimbus’?”
“That IS how he is registered with the Grand Hall, these days.” Abigail replied.
On the deck, bodies of all different ages, physical conditions and states of dress and undress were piled about in a rough circle. But Lady Jettatura could tell that the piles were far from sloppy or random. They were precisely stacked in the proper way, and they were precisely aligned in the proper directions. A passing glance told her that each body had been branded on the proper spot: the brow, the throat, the chest, the stomach, or the groin. The people weren’t dead, and they weren’t in pain; they were in a form of stasis, a perfect solution for this very difficult working.
Squatting in the center of the circle, with a lit censer on either side, was a figure draped in a flowing red robe, his face completely obscured by a featureless hemispherical gold mask. A sort of gold metal sunburst (or ‘nimbus’, if you would) was strapped to his back, providing a setting for his blank visage. Lady Jettatura walked up to the figure and looked around her. “Well, Nimbus, it’s good to see that you didn’t loose your touch, during your long hiatus. Quality craftsmanship is always rare, in any age.”
*Lady Jettatura. Is it arranged?*
The Lady sighed, “As arranged as it CAN be. The context is established, the parameters set, the protocols are in place and the stars are right.”
*Then why are you here?*
Lady Jettatura looked over the bodies. “The Grand Hall has arranged so that all of these passengers will be listed as disembarking where they should have, and false paper trails for all of them leading in different directions. Their identities and credit ratings will be sold to various criminal networks who will exploit them, furthering the illusion that they’re still alive, at least until the trail leading investigators to this cruise fades. The crew will be listed as working a few more cruises, until they walk away, one at a time. The ship itself will be listed as going into dry dock for repairs, and from there, it will simply disappear.”
*Very professional, very thorough. What do you want?*
Lady Jettatura turned her gaze forward, to where flashes of lightning glowed in a nearly solid bank of fog and cloud. “The protocols for a working of this level are very exact. Why did you choose to do it here, and not in New Hampshire?”
*A complication that shouldn’t have happened, a mistake by someone who really should have known better. My resource in Dunwich was compromised. This was the best that I could do, given my schedule.*
“Then you will need precise and exact vectors for the encounter.”
*I arranged all of this through the Grand Hall. Are you trying to coerce more out of me for these services?*
“Oh, no, no, NO!” Lady Jettatura said coquettishly. “However, I DO have a minor bit of business that I’d like to do with you, before you complete this working.”
There was an audible sigh through the helmet. *As I said before, what do you want?*
“Oh, I’m not trying to withhold the entry parameters from you, Nimbus,” Lady Jettatura assured him. “I come offering a fair exchange.” She placed a large dark walnut-wood box in front of Nimbus, and opened the two hinged lids. Nestled inside on a bed of green felt, was an elaborate clockwork construct of measured bands of brass, and moving arrangements of spheres, long pipe whistles and eight silver bells.
Abigail gasped, “Pater Tempus’ Synchronic Infindibulator!”
“I think that you’ll find that this increases your chances of success with your upcoming endeavor significantly,” Lady Jettatura smirked.
*Does Pater Tempus know about this?*
“After that debacle in New York last Christmas, Pater Tempus isn’t in a position to raise a stink about anything, except maybe his diapers.”
*Really? I think that you underestimate Pater Tempus. He may be playing a longer, more subtle hand*
“That’s what I thought, as well. And he WAS exactly the sort to pull such a gambit. But no, I’m afraid that The Anti-Paladin’s report on Pater Tempus’ activities shows all-too-well that the dear Pater has, indeed, lost it.”
*And speaking of the New York incident?*
“You always were quick on the uptake, Nimbus. Yes, it does involve that. But not directly. Rather, in pursuit of that, I have managed to insert my own special agent into Whateley.”
*The ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ is a prime prize, Lady Jettatura. You ask much for this trinket*
“Oh, I’m not asking for the Angel herself!” Jettatura assured him, “Indeed, my agent won’t affect the Angel at all, if my scheme goes as planned. You can have her, or give her to whoever you so wish. All that I want for this,” she indicated the Synchronic Infindibulator, “is your written, signed and sealed agreement that when the Whateley Project concludes, my agent will remain my agent, to do with as I please.”
Nimbus tilted his helmet. *That is… reasonable… You have no other interests in the Whateley Project?*
“By no means! I am QUITE interested in your project! It promises to be one of the great events of this millenium! But, for any future involvement in it, all that I want is more or less the same equal share that is offered to your other partners, with negotiations to come for special considerations as they arise.”
Nimbus nodded through his helmet. *I think that we have a deal, Lady Jettatura. Indeed, this is what the Grand Hall was created to do- to allow the Wise to operate without tripping over each other. It is good to see that the Hall still abides by the simple good sense of its founders, even if some of those founders no longer have any sense themselves*
Jettatura handed Abigail a clipboard with some parchments. She read them aloud to Nimbus, who nodded his agreement, and then took the lancet that Abigail placed in his hand. He pierced the palm of his left and drew a bead of blood into the lancet, which he then used it as a pen to sign his name. He finished by smearing his thumbprint onto the parchment, and handed the clipboard back.
Lady Jettatura took the documents, and turned. “Well, good luck on your endeavor, Nimbus…” she paused. “By the way- completely out of professional curiosity, is that helmet absolutely necessary?”
Nimbus nodded. *The presence that I must enter does not bear close scrutiny. Nor do I wish this visage to be seen by other presences that might be in attendance*
Jettatura nodded, and then realized that Nimbus couldn’t see the gesture. “Quite wise. Well, Nimbus, fare well where you fare. I don’t envy you the journey you are about to make. Just opening the door was something that I’ll have to take at least a month recovering from.” On a second thought, Jettatura was about to ask Abigail what she was going to do, but saw an exquisite golden mask fashioned in the visage of a gorgeous female face - without eyeholes. She fleetingly wondered if Abigail was arrogant enough to actually be named ‘Abigail’; it was a question, as she knew that the English sometimes used ‘Abigail’ as a generic term for a maid. Then she dismissed the thought as irrelevant, and left.
Abigail escorted Lady Jettatura back to her schooner. When the Fate Witch was well away, Abigail used a cell phone to give the ship’s computer the exact entry vectors and start the engines. As the ship started moving towards the flashes of eerie lightning among the lowering clouds, Abigail walked back to Nimbus on the aft deck. Nimbus was dropping the stasis, and the people stacked around them started to bleed and moan. Abigail took the Synchronic Infindibulator out of its case and set it about a foot in front of Nimbus. She gave it a few minute adjustments for the date, time, longitude and latitude, and then set it in motion. The spheres whirled about within the framework of bands, the whistles gave off a monotonous piping, and the bells’ metered tinkling were strangely reminiscent of the chirrup of locusts in the empty halls of Irem.
Abigail placed the eyeless mask over her face, and then shed her apricot robe. Blindly groping, she removed Nimbus’ cloak, but not the framework attached to his back. Then, she just began blindly groping.
*Abigail… You don’t have to do this… there are other ways…*
“Oh, but Master! You know how being among the Dead and Dying affects me! Now enough of that…” She initiated coitus in the ninth position of the Kama Sutra, ‘Chakrabandha, the Wheel’. As they howled the N’thargo Chant in unison to their coupling, and their victims moaned, and the Synchronic Infindibulator tinkled and droned, the ship slipped into the solid wall of flashing mist, and disappeared from the sight of Lady Jettatura’s yacht.
Reality itself rippled and wavered. A tear in the very fabric of time and space opened up, and iridescent spheres which would have enraptured any normal mortal mind before rendering it asunder, encircled the liner.
Sensing the lines and waves and crests of temporal power with senses that had nothing to do with sight or sound, Nimbus split his attention between rutting with Abigail and adjusting the Synchronic Infindibulator. At Nimbus’ manipulation of the brasswork contraption, a single sphere detached itself from the throng, flew off through space that had little to do with the four dimensions that simple Man knows, and deposited itself in the desired location. That location corresponded in width, breadth and length to a place in rural New Hampshire, USA. It corresponded in time just a year or so in the future. That area in time and space was guarded by the power of that which was both the Gate and the Key. No seer or precognitive would be able to foresee into that time and place, nor would they see the consequences. During that time, no attempt to scry into the area would succeed. It was sealed from all, what happened there would be a mystery to all, save those who were directly there.
After years of preparation, the first great piece was in place.
The deed done, the price was then paid. The moaning bodies began to scream as they floated off the deck and into the maw of chaos. Nimbus and Abigail finished their rutting, and prepared their own exit. Fumbling about blindly, Abigail stopped the Infindibulator and placed it in its case. Nimbus had found the cord, and led Abigail to the warded lifeboat. As they set the lifeboat free, the liner began to rip itself apart, sending bits and pieces of itself into the selfsame maw that had devoured the sacrifices.
The lifeboat powered out of the bank of clouds, which were beginning to lift. All the preliminaries had been taken care of. Now the game began in earnest.