Back in Malibu, ‘Doug’ the Christmas tree was up and ready for trimming. “So…” Sunny mused, “silver tinsel or gold?”
“Decisions, decisions,” Kate droned, “Ostentatious overblown artificiality, or simple, down-home artificiality?”
“You’re right,” Sunny said, “We really shouldn’t make those decisions until we’ve got the rest of our ornaments made!”
* * * * *
“Katie, Christmas Angels do NOT wear black and have bat wings.”
“Maybe not in California, but back in Poland…”
* * * * *
“So, anyway, they were trying to talk me into endorsing this sun block, and every time that I tried to get them to tell me what their ‘special ingredient’ is, they start yammering about ‘confidentiality’ and ‘proprietary technology’.”
“In other words they were blowing you off.”
“Well, that’s not suspicious, not at all…”
“So, after a lot of buck and wing, I tell them no dice. And get THIS! They offer it to Superstar, over with the Hollywood All-Stars! Man, is HER face gonna be red when the class action lawsuits start rolling in!”
“Yep, yep, nothing like a few thousand cases of skin cancer to prove who’s the better superheroine…”
* * * * *
“Katie, we are putting the angel on top of the tree to symbolize peace and hope and goodwill to men! We are NOT giving the angel a fir enema!”
* * * * *
“So, are you still taking those Mystic Arts classes at Whateley?”
“Jeez, you cast ONE little spell to open the Gates of Hell, and you’re branded for life…”
* * * * *
“So, Sunny - what happened with the guy you were hanging around with back in the summer? What was his name?”
“Nnnnrrrggg… Garrick. And it was the same thing that ALWAYS happens…”
“He got kidnapped by a mad scientist, was experimented on, and was turned into slavering monster that tried to rip you apart?”
“WORSE. He got turned into a GIRL! A really CUTE girl! And I think he’s starting to LIKE it! And WORSE, I think that Farley, the other guy that I’ve been seeing, is into him!”
* * * * *
“So, Katie - are you still kicking around with that Jadis Diabolik girl?”
“Well, I have to. She’s such a shy, sweet, timid little thing that I have to be there when the nasty kids try to gang up on her.”
“Yeah, right. Anyway, from what I saw of her when I visited Whateley, she does pretty well for a girl with a terminal case of hatchet-face. You really ought to go to her for some advice on maybe a new hairstyle, maybe go shopping or something?”
Kate snorted. “Right. Someone’s going to pay so that I can go shopping at all the fancy high-end stores in New York. Like THAT’S really gonna happen.”
* * * * *
Sunny sighed, “Yeah, I’d like to get involved with someone, serious, but the dating scene has changed so much since I came here from Chicago with the Crusaders’ expansion team…”
“Yeah, I’ll bet things have really changed since the Bicentennial.”
Sunny smiled with warm nostalgia. “YEAH. Seventy-Six rawked like a house on fire…”
* * * * *
“So, I heard on HeroNet that someone actually invaded Whateley, during Halloween?”
“It was horrible. There were guns, and shooting and explosions and violence and people being MAULED…” *thunk!* Kate did a face-plant on the table. “And I MISSED IT! We got locked in a frickin’ warded basement, and I missed EVERYTHING!”
* * * * *
“Oh LOOK! The TV news is doing a bit on our fight!”
“On YOUR fight,” Kate settled herself down on the couch. “I found a nice civilized, non-violent solution. That’ll teach me.”
[And the skies over Beverly Hills were enflamed by a titanic battle between the supervillainess ‘Dr. Venus’ and local champion Superstar-]
“WHAT?” Sunny yelped, sitting bolt upright. “SUPERSTAR? They think that SUPERSTAR beat Dr. Venus? How could they think THAT?”
“You’re right, it’s outrageous,” Kate agreed in her trademark monotone. “She’s a bubbly, curvy near-fitness model with long blonde hair in a blue bathing suit, who flies and fires beams of light. How could they possibly mistake Superstar for you, Sunscreen… ah, I mean, Sunbeam, er, Sunburst?”
“She has WHITE GLOVES and BOOTS! Long opera gloves and high hooker boots, too!” Sunny sat back took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Not to stress… om mani padme ooommm…. More Zen, less stress… this is NOT important…”
“It’s just your TVQ dropping like a rock,” Kate cut in.
“I am NOT in the superhero biz for the glory, I do it for the Greater Good… om mani padme om… Stress is the enemy of peace, stress is the mind-killer, stress leads to wrinkles…”
“Sunny, this is ONE local TV station,” Kate pointed out. “They WILL correct this, probably later in the same broadcast. If anything, this is great for you because if they don’t catch it, it places the onus on Superstar to correct it, or it’ll look like she’s trying to swipe the credit for your bust. She’ll have to admit, in public, on record that YOU were the real hero.”
“KATIE! You DO care!”
“Let’s not read anything into this that’s not really there. I just didn’t want you keeping me up all night, pacing around, worrying that your career was in the dumper.”
* * * * *
Kate snapped to full awakening at about one thirty in the morning, roused by a familiar, silent call. “Nnnooo…” Kate moaned to herself. She screwed her eyes closed tight, and tried to ignore it. But the call continued. “Just… Go… Away…” she groaned, refusing to acknowledge the call by opening her eyes. It battered away at her for a while, but then went away. But just as Kate was drowsing, the call returned, stronger and more urgent.
Kate buried her head under her pillow, and silently willed the call to go away. The call did eventually go away, only to return an hour later, even closer, stronger and more irresistible. Kate got up with a grunt of frustrated rage, stepped into her fluffy bat slippers and wrapped a shroud of Erebeal darkness around her, traveling along the lines of tellurgic power that invisibly crisscrossed the world. She arrived at a spot about a quarter-mile down the road from the beach-house, a few yards away from a parked Audi.
A tall, slender woman of some forty years or so, with dramatic features and long brown hair, wearing tight-fitting dark clothes (which, to be perfectly honest, would have been far more appropriate on a woman half her age), got out of the car and held up a silver locket. “At last you show yourself, Katrina,” she said in a voice with a cosmopolitan European accent. “I am your mother.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Kate said simply. “What do you want, Mother Dear?”
“What? Such a thing to ask! I am your MOTHER! I want you to be a dutiful child and come with me! There is much to do!”
“Mother Dear, I’m not your ward anymore. The courts awarded custody of me to Sunburst. You must have gotten the notification.”
“PFAUGH! Courts!” Marzena Tvardovski sneered. “I am your MOTHER! I know what is best for you. You will come with me now.”
“Where are you going?”
“WE have a few errands that I need your help with. My funds are depleted, but in durance vile, I learned a few things that will help considerably. I have learned the whereabouts of the Telchines’ Astrolabe. Or, should I say the pieces of the Astrolabe, which are all here in the greater Los Angeles area.”
“Of course,” Kate snorted. “No moronic treasure hunt just has ONE piece of junk to find. How convenient that all the pieces are local.”
“Not really. I need money, you are here, and the pieces are here. That is why I chose it from my list of targets.”
“Gee, and here I thought that you were here out of maternal concern.”
“Such insolence!” Marzena snapped. “This ‘Sunburst’ has been a bad influence on you! You used to be a good and complaisant child! The first item is known as the ‘Mirror of Tanith’ and is the center of worship for one of these foolish cults that Los Angeles is pustular with.”
“The Garou of Ragnarok,” Kate said matter-of-factly.
“How do you know this?”
“Brujah - you, know, the Green Brujah? The super-sorcerer who almost kicked your butt the last time you met?”
“Super-sorcerer… PAH!” Marzena spat. “All power, no finesse,” she grumped with the trademark mix of disdain and envy that ‘legitimate’ mages felt toward ‘super-sorcerers’.
“Yeah, HER. She’s been keeping an eye on the Garou of Ragnarok as potential troublemakers.”
“She told you this? Why?”
“She didn’t. She has computers at the California Crusaders headquarters that periodically display information on various potential troublemakers. According to Brujah’s intelligence, the cult is a scam run by a third-rate sorcerer in Ventura County who calls himself ‘Lycarax’, using the mirror to exploit his followers as he builds up his reserves of essence, money, magical lore, artifacts and protection. His credo is a particularly brain-dead hodgepodge that he apparently lifted wholesale from a role-playing game called ‘Werewolf the Apocalypse’.
“He uses the power of the mirror to convince his followers that they’ve been changed into werewolves, and that only by worshipping the mirror on the full moon can they avoid becoming slavering monsters and ripping people apart. There’s a bunch of crap about vampires, mages, corrupt pollution-spawning corporations directed by demons, and something called ‘The Wyrm’, but that’s just to distract the suckers from the fact that the whole thing is basically a shakedown.”
“This is useful to know. This is why I sent you to Whateley, so that you would know useful things like this.”
“Mother Dear, you don't send me to Whateley. Sunburst does.”
“I send you, and get stupid overblown American superheroine to foot the bill,” Marzena said smugly. “Once I have the Mirror, I will use it to scry the whereabouts of the clockwork ‘computer’ portion of the Astrolabe. My efforts suggest that it is here, in Los Angeles.”
“I already know where it is.”
“How? Is this Broo-Hah also keeping an eye on it?”
“No. Nephandus, that is, Jean-Armand, the Hexmaster’s son, goes to Whateley with me. We hang out in a group called ‘the Bad Seeds’. Jay-Arm has a habit of rambling on about his various projects, and of bragging about some of the scams that his father’s working on. According to Jay-Arm, the astrolabe was broken up, so that such a powerful item wouldn’t attract too much attention. Some time in the 18th Century, in order to keep the delicate mechanism of the astrolabe from being damaged, its owner, who called himself ‘Ormenius’ or something like that, incorporated it into a clock, and turned the magical power of the mechanism into a sort of regulator that keeps various magical workings cooperating harmoniously. It’s currently in the possession of a local mage in Brentwood known as Megalesius, who uses it to keep a variety of magical effects working at once.”
“If the Hexmaster knows about the Clock, WHY hasn’t he seized it for himself?”
“Megalesius’ day job is he’s a Financial Consultant and Investment Manager. He has a very lucrative sideline in coordinating various transactions here in Los Angeles between the sorcerous communities of Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. Ormenious’ Clock is a big part of what makes Megalesius’ operation work. The Hexmaster is one of Megalesius’ clients. Even if the Hexmaster could get through Megalesius’ security, he’d wind up not only losing a big chunk of his own money as Megalesius’ operations crashed, but he’d succeed in pissing off both Megalesius and the rest of his clientele. It’s too risky, for too little payoff, and the results are too expensive.”
“This Megalesius… he is a member of the Grand Hall?”
“No,” Kate said decisively. “He’s studiously gray. He doesn’t care much where the money comes from, but he avoids getting his hands dirty.”
“Excellent,” Marzena purred. “Then we’ll hit Megalesius first. If he’s half as sharp as you say he is, the only way that we’ll be able to handle him is if we hit him fast and hard; no subtlety, no finesse, just break down the walls with a runaway TRUCK or something, grab the clock and be gone.”
“Finding the clock shouldn’t be that hard - by its very definition, it should be in the very center of all those workings. We will use the chaos caused by ripping the clock from the rest of Megalesius’ workings to escape. With any luck, the chaos in the greater Los Angeles area will confuse this ‘Liquorax’-”
“Lycarax,” Kate corrected her. “Mother, there’s a problem-”
“Whatever. From what you tell me, Liquorax needs to hold his moon-ritual no matter what, or his followers will start to get wise to his scam. So, he’ll have his ceremony, regardless, and we can-”
“MOTHER! I Can’t! Do it!”
“What? You defy me? I am your MOTHER!” Marzena held up the locket significantly.
Kate gave her a glower that was uncannily matched by the kitten-face on her black sleeping jersey. “I can’t oppose you, you know that. You’re my mother. NO, I mean THIS,” she stuck her leg high up in the air to show off the monitoring anklet.
“So? You shame me, Katrina! Just take it off!”
“Oh, WHY didn’tI think of that? I can’t! This is a Whateley monitor. I can’t get it off without alerting the California Crusaders, the West Coast League, the LA Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, the Federal Marshals, and the MCO. And those are the ones that I know about! I’ve TRIED! It’s magically warded seven ways to Sunday! Do you honestly think that I LIKE living in Barbie’s Dream House? Do you think that I LIKE playing Sunburst’s inane reindeer games? She’s been driving me NUTS!” Kate went glacial. “Mother, she put me in festive holiday sweaters. Festive Sweaters.”
“This is not a problem. We’ll simply take out Sunburst and force the unlocking sequence from her.”
“Oh, like that worked SO WELL last time! Remember? We had fought Brujah to a standstill, so they sent in Sunburst, and she mopped up the place with us! Or should I say, with ME. Dynamorphs are innately incompatible with magic, and Sunburst’s energies seem to synch with solar energy in a way that rips my Erebeal magics to shreds. Mother, you’re making the same mistake that everyone else does: you take in her looks and her Malibu beach bunny persona, and you think that she’s an airhead. She’s NOT; it’s a ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ act. Check this out: she takes in hundreds of thousands a year for endorsements, personal appearances and things like that, but she doesn’t OWN anything. She arranges it so that she lives in elegant housing, drives top-end cars, dines at the big name restaurants, and goes to all the A-list parties; but none of it costs her a CENT. She has no real secret identity, so there aren’t any handles on her. Yet, for all that, she isn’t regarded as a mooch. Everyone’s always glad to have her around.
“On a tactical level, that skimpy little outfit she wears? It’s better armored and equipped than some SWAT power armor, with armor reinforcement, force field augmentation, flight and steering boosters, attack refinements, and tactical updates. And it’s all so sleek and compact that it just looks like a bathing suit! I’m reasonably certain that she has at least three power gems that she uses to boost her power, but she’s savvy enough to not display them. Besides Skyrider, she has tech-geeks at UCLA, CalTech and UC-Berkeley working on new refinements - FOR FREE. Hell, she’s getting Tax Breaks for assisting California’s institutions of higher education.
“Mother? When I first came to live with Sunburst, I didn’t want to go to Whateley. But after a summer living with her, I was begging to go! It wasn’t until I came back for the next summer that I realized how totally I’d been had! She let drop that she’d a part of the Chicago Crusaders ‘expansion team’ that came to Los Angeles - that was in 1976! And she’d been a superheroine for at least fifteen years before that! She’s been a superheroine for at least forty years! Forty YEARS. In that time, she’s had dozens if not hundreds of dynamorph challenges; by this time, she’s probably got one of the most powerful dynamorphs in the world. And in all that time, she’s never been the acknowledged leader of the California Crusaders. BUT, she’s always the ‘elder statesman’, the one that everyone listens to, the one with the final say.
“Mother, Sunburst is DANGEROUS! The only reason that a woman like that would allow herself to be disregarded as a giddy bimbo is that that was exactly how she wanted to be seen! She is underestimated, which means that she can get away with murder when she wants to. During that first summer, I was constantly trying to get away, and I could never pull it off, yet it always, ALWAYS looked like a pure fluke, and I could never quite be sure whether it was just bad luck or not. Most of the chessplayers who could pull something off like that have an ego that needs to rub their sucker’s face in exactly how badly they’ve been played. Sunny doesn’t have that.”
“How terrifying,” Marzena said flatly. “What’s your point?”
“WHY would a woman like that make herself the guardian of a supervillain’s kid, let alone one with MY disposition?”
Marzena’s face fell a bit. “You… may have a point there, Katrina.”
“Maybe… she’s using me as bait? For… my father?”
Marzena threw back her head and barked out a laugh. “Please! Katrina, that was pathetic! All these years, and you still want to know who your father was? I am your mother, and that’s all that’s important. ‘oh, daddy, daddy, I want my daddy!’” Marzena mocked in a faux-little girl voice.
Katrina withdrew into bitter silence, but Marzena reconsidered. “Well, since it seems that you can’t be any assistance under the given circumstances, let me offer you a bargain, to motivate you: if you can find some way of acquiring all the pieces of the astrolabe, I will tell you some things about your father.”
“Deal,” Kate said with a terseness that didn’t quite conceal her interest.
Marzena turned towards the Audi. Hating herself for it, Kate stopped Marzena with, “Mother?” Marzena stopped, and Kate walked up to her and wrapped her arms around her in a hug.
“Katrina?” Marzena said stiffly, “Precisely WHAT is the point of this?”
Katrina disengaged and said, “Just finding out what it was like. You promise?”
“Of course I promise, what a thing to ask. Remember, tell no one any of this.” With that, she got into the Audi and drove off.
As Marzena drove off, Kate droned, “Gee, great to see YOU too, Mom.”
* * * * *
“I don’t see why WE have to do this,” Cubby groaned as they rolled up the gate on the loading dock.
“Because the Doc told us to,” Shep said gruffly as he stepped under the gate into the warehouse.
“Okay, what I really meant was, why do I have to do the heavy hauling?” Cubby grunted as he shoved through the warehouse gate the cart loaded with weighty equipment, far more than a slender youth normally should be able to push, even with a cart.
“Because you’re the Noob, and I’m the Top Dog,” Top Dawg growled into his face. “And I say you push. Or maybe YOU wanna be Top Dog, huh?”
“Aw, c’MON, gimme a break here! Can’t we at least take off these stupid clothes?” he pulled the knit cap from his head. “Or at least the masks?” he tugged at the ‘life-like’ latex mask that covered his features, trying to vent hot air out of the holes. It was obviously artificial anywhere close up, but it would let him pass a casual observation at a distance. But it didn’t breathe worth a damn, and he was panting with damn-near heat stroke. He’d always thought that he’d understood what his dog, Sparky, had been going through on hot days. Now, he realized that he hadn’t known shit.
“Don’t take off the mask!” Lon snapped as he wheeled in another cart from the truck.
“Chill out…” Cubby said.
“Don’t say that!” Jake hissed. Cubby started to ask ‘why?’ when a snowball hit him squarely in the face, which was immediately followed by a cackle of feminine laughter. “THAT’S why.”
“Is that cool enough for you, puppydog?” the slinky blonde in trendy denims jeered as she and her two partners walked in.
“Yeah, it is, now that you mention it,” Cubby said, rubbing the slush over his mask, cooling himself. “Thanks, Samantha.”
“Don’t call me ‘Samantha’ anymore,” she growled. She copped a stance, setting her sleek black staff onto the ground, throwing her shoulders back, held her head high, gave a toss of her high ponytail and grinned, “Call me ICY!”
“Hey, hit me with a cool blast of air,” Cubby said, unzipping his Rams™ parka, “and I’ll call you Queen of the World!”
The other two girls laughed, and Icy sneered and called for the truck to back up. The semi-trailer backed up to the dock and the hatch rolled up, revealing five more people in heavy coats and latex masks, only these uniformly wore sunglasses. “It’s about TIME,” the large one of the group grated through his mask. “We’re fucking COOKING in here!”
Icy gave a martyred sigh, extended her hands and a spray of frigid mist swept across the five. “There!” she snapped, “All better? Now haul ass. Get that stuff in place. We need to have this stuff in place, in case the doctor shows up.” With that, Icy opened up a laptop and stared typing on it. The other two witches joined her, watching over her shoulder.
“Why aren’t Victor and his crew here, doing this?” the one female of the second crew asked in a husky voice as she helped one of her friends wrestle one of the crates into position.
“It’s a little bright for them,” Icy said, not looking up from the laptop.
“Oh, and it’s not for US? And why aren’t you three helping?”
“We’re the brains of this operation. You’re the brawn. So get to work.”
The big guy of the second crew stepped away from his crate and gave the three girls a challenging look. But Top Dawg stepped up beside him and said, “Chill out, Tombstone. They may be pains, but they carry their weight and then some.”
Tombstone squared off against Top Dawg, and for a moment, it looked like there was going to be a fight. But then a voice from inside called out, “Hey! Who’s there?”
They all stopped dead in their tracks as a pudgy, middle-aged man in BDUs with a nylon jacket over them, both with private security company patches on them, trudged towards them, his hand on the pistol at his hip. “What are you doing here?”
The second crew shrank back, especially the girl, who was hiding her face, and the first crew sort of gathered together around Top Dawg. But the three girls left the laptop and strode over to intercept the guard before he got a good look at the others. “Handle this, Darcy,” Icy muttered, hanging back a bit.
Darcy took the lead and met the guard with a confident smile and a stage-setting preen of putting her long dark brown hair in place. “Good morning,” she said silkily, “who are you and what are you doing here?”
“That’s MY question!” the guard growled through his bristling mustache. “What are you kids doing here? Trying to rip off MY warehouse?”
“What are you talking about? Our boss rented this place, and we’re moving stuff in! See? Our stuff is still on the carts, if we were stealing stuff, why would we be bringing stuff IN? Your head office should have informed you that we were coming.”
“You all are mighty young to be doing warehouse work,” the guard said suspiciously, peering over Darcy’s shoulder at the others. “And what are those masks all about?”
“They’re safety precautions!” Darcy snapped, obstructing his view as best she could. “Why are you being so… oh, of course…” a knowing smirk crossed over her face. “How could I be so dense… there ARE protocols to be observed, aren’t there?” She pulled her purse up, opened it and pulled out several slips of green paper. Not money, but paper that was roughly the same size, shape and color as money.
Darcy was making a production of counting out ‘money’, when the smirk ran off her face like cheap paint in the rain. “Oh Crap!” she snapped, throwing the paper in the guard’s face and pulling her staff out from under her arm. “He’s not a guard! Get him! Get him NOW!”
Top Dawg’s pack let out a collective roar and charged at the guard as Tombstone’s set moved more cautiously to surround him. The three girls brought up their rods, but the one with the jazzy short dark cut asked, “Isn’t this kind of… overkill?”
“He’s NOT a security guard, Stormy,” Darcy snarled. “And he knew we were here.”
“That makes him dangerous,” Icy finished.
As Top Dawg’s crew got up to speed, the guard reached into a pocket and threw a handful of peas onto the floor in front of them. As they stepped on the ‘peas’, the tiny memory plastic balls popped into their full size, roughly that of ping-pong balls, causing the young men to slip, and they fell all over themselves. Lon, the big guy of the crew, struggled to his feet and tore his annoying latex mask from his face, revealing an animal-like visage that uncomfortably resembled the classic Universal Studio’s ‘Wolf Man’. As Lon snarled at the guard, the rest of that crew tore off their masks, revealing similar wolfish features. Tombstone’s crew took advantage of the excuse to tear off their masks as well, revealing shrunken, desiccated faces that looked like they’d been dead for weeks, even the girl, who looked like something out of a necrophiliac’s wet dream. They opened their mouths, which were full of dagger-like teeth and moved to surround the guard.
“What’s this?” You’re NOT what you seem! But then,” his voice changed, taking on a deeper timbre, “NEITHER AM I!” With a flourish of cloth, the stocky middle-aged man disappeared and a lithe, athletic man in a white shirt, leather long vest, high boots, and gauntlets, with a red cape and scarf mask was in his place. “Ha-HAH!” he exulted.
“What?” Darcy demanded, “How? How could you hide all that under that guard’s uniform? Let alone change that quickly?”
“The same way that you get to Carnegie Hall!” Swashbuckler said as he produced a three-piece black wooden staff and flicked it into its single-piece fighting configuration with a fluid motion, “Practice, practice, practice!”
Swashbuckler knew that the Weres, being wolfish in nature, would wait for their leader to make the first move. The Ghouls on the other hand, weren’t as predictable. He figured that they would hold back and let the Weres take the initiative while they continued to encircle him. Not bad tactics for teenagers. Still, they were teenagers, and as such probably didn’t have much in the way of patience. And whatever Macabre did to them probably didn’t do much for their discipline. So, it was a matter of taking control of the fight. But then, it always was.
Swashbuckler feinted with his staff, startling Top Dawg into making his leap before he was ready. Swash ducked under his jump and used his momentum to throw him into Romero, the ghoul who seemed to be hyperventilating. They landed with a thud and Romero let out the breath he’d been building up, letting out a cloud of the most nauseating, lung-raping, eye-watering stink you could imagine. Swash was protected by the nose-filters and eye-shields in his scarf-mask, but the Weres were, if anything caught totally flat-footed. They stood there, stock-still, for a moment, their eyes popped open wide. Then, in almost perfect coordination, they clapped their hands over their noses and let out squeals of disgust and pain. Swash cut into them with his staff, beating them about the head and shoulders, tripping them, and throwing them into the ghouls, making utter fools out of them.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the plan.
His folding fighting staff was made of blackthorn, a very hard wood known for being effective against various kinds of undead, and it was worked with runes of silver, and the whole mess had been enchanted by Brujah to have virtue against those who gained power from unclean spirits. Which seemed to be working very well; the kids were definitely feeling it. The problem being that they were looking like they were about to head for the door, and he didn’t want that just yet.
But then, one of the ‘witches’ waved her hand, and a gust of wind cleared the air. The Werewolves shook their heads clear and the ghouls disentangled themselves. Okay, they were kids and they’d just been humiliated by a single man. The only thing to do was to rub their noses in it. “Oh, this is pathetic! You’re supposed to be monsters! You’re supposed to be fearsome! Tell you what…” he tossed his staff at one of the boys, the youngest looking one. Then he made the ‘come and get it’ gesture. They looked at him, slightly spooked. “What?” he asked in his snottiest tones, “You want me to close my eyes, or something?”
Well, what teenage boy could resist that, especially with a wolf howling in their blood? They charged at him en masse, and as Swash planned, they only got in each other’s way. He threaded his way through them, using years of experience in such situations, and they never laid a claw on him. He led them over to one of the stacks of boxes, and paused. As they reached for him, Swashbuckler grabbed boxes and shoved them into the waiting hands. As they reacted to having their hands full, Swashbuckler kipped up on top of the boxes and literally walked out over their heads.
“Oh, this is embarrassing…” Darcy groaned.
“Agreed,” Icy snarled.
Icy raised her hands, but Darcy stopped her. “No, you don’t have enough focus; you’ll just hit the boys.”
“So? They’re tough!”
“They’re on OUR side! We don’t wanna hurt ‘em!””
“Not even Jake?”
Darcy sighed, “Stormy, you take it.”
“Okay…” Stormy sighed back.
She idly raised one hand, finger extended and started to aim. But Icy stopped her. “No! You gotta build up, like this. aaarrrr…” Icy growled, hunched over slightly, arms bowed outward.
“Because it’ll be cool!”
Stormy shrugged, mimed out making a big effort of gathering power, and let fly with a bolt of lightning. But while it may have been cool, Stormy’s build-up had tipped off Swashbuckler. He grabbed Jake and pulled him into the path of the lightning bolt. As Jake spasmed, Stormy went “Eeep!”
“Oh well, it was only Jake,” Darcy sniped.
Swashbuckler kipped up to the very top of a high stack of crates, but both the Weres and the Ghouls were right after him. They had him surrounded at the very top and they were climbing up after him. At the very last second, a line shot from one of the gemstones on the back of his gauntlets. Swashbuckler kicked off from the stack, sending the crates (and the creeps) crashing down. He swooped down right at the witches. Before Stormy could react, he swung by, scooped her up and carried her up and over to the top of another stack of crates. He held her there for a moment, paused and lowered his lips, as though for a kiss. Stormy was completely taken aback, though not as taken aback as she was when he rushed off without giving her a kiss. “What? I’m not GOOD enough for you, OLD MAN?” she yelled after him.
Swashbuckler swung down again at Icy and Darcy, and tried to sweep Darcy off her feet as he had Stormy. But instead, he just crashed right into her, as though she was a brick wall. As he crumpled down to the floor, ‘Darcy’ wavered as though a mirage and came back into clear focus as Tombstone. Looking up and noting the gambit, Swash groaned, “Good One,” with no trace of his ‘Ronald Colman’ accent.
Tombstone raised both fists over his head and brought them down with enough force to shatter the concrete. But not Swashbuckler; he’d kipped out of the way at the very last minute. More Weres swarmed all around him, and Swash barely had time to notice that there were a LOT more of them than there had been before. His impeccably timed ‘iron broom’ trip whipped through one Were’s leg like it wasn’t there. Because it wasn’t. This threw off his timing badly, and suddenly the Weres’ lack of coordination paid off for them as Swash was anticipating attacks that weren’t there. The Weres simply ignored that and started pummeling Swash as best they could.
“Multiple Illusions,” Stormy murmured as she rode her staff over to the other two ‘witches’. “Nice one, Darcy. But why didn’t you just hypnotize him?”
“I did. It didn’t take. That’s how I figured out that he wasn’t just a rent-a-cop.”
“Whoops,” Icy sneered as the Weres exploded back from around Swashbuckler. Swash was holding his black fighting stick on high and had disengaged his cloak from his shoulders. “Hmph. He got his clobber-stick back.” Swashbuckler goaded the Weres with his cape like a bullfighter, but wrapped it around one of them and used him as a shield as he lit into the rest of them. “Looks like he’s through farting around.”
That didn’t seem to sit well with Stormy. She beetled her brow and then said, “You’re right! He IS farting around! Why?”
“You call THIS farting around?” Icy said as Swashbuckler allowed the ghouls to join in, and started cracking skulls. “And how can he DO that with Darcy’s illusions mixing everything up?”
“YES, he’s farting around!” Stormy insisted. “He’s blind-fighting, using the illusions against them. Look, he obviously knows what he’s doing, he obviously has tons of experience in fighting crowds like that - BUT he’s not doing anything! He’s not taking anyone out of the fight, he’s not whittling down their numbers, or anything! If anything, he’s stretching it out, by needling them. LOOK! He’s letting those guys take breathers! Why isn’t he doing anything to end this fight?” Stormy paused and racked her brains. “The only reason that he’d do that… is that he’s waiting for backup… but why would he show himself? He’d just lay low until… unless…” Stormy’s eyes popped open wide. “Oh. Crap. Icy! Check the street! Darcy, check those windows!”
“Aren’t you a little junior to be giving orders?” Icy asked frostily.
“JUST! DO! IT!” Stormy shoved her at the door, as she straddled her staff up to one of the skylights.
Icy made the floor slippery and slid over to the loading dock gate. “SHIT! There’s a solid wall of darkness out there!” She hit the wall with her fist. “And I DO mean solid!”
Darcy created two duplicates of herself who ran to side doors. Opening one, Darcy and her duplicates said in unison, “There’s a wall of LIGHT out there!”
Looking through the skylight, Stormy saw Sunburst, Skyrider and the Green Brujah hovering in midair, as though waiting for a signal. “Oh… crap…” she dropped down and yelled, “We got superheroes up top!”
Icy skated over near the fracas and created an ice slick that sent the entire mass of combatants skidding to the floor. “STOP IT! You IDIOTS!” Icy shrilled, “He’s just playing you for FOOLS!”
“Yes, but you make that sound like such an accomplishment,” Swash replied urbanely.
Icy replied by wrapping him in chains of ice and snarling, “I should have done that at the very beginning.”
Then one of the side doors came crashing in, knocked off its hinges and thrown a good ten feet. A large, very muscular man in a brown utility vest with large armored shoulder pads, trousers and boots with special expansion pleats, and a heavy studded dog collar around his neck, stomped through. “Woof, Woof,” Big Dawg said in a clearly enunciated - though very intimidating - tone.
Darcy sent a wave of illusory Weres at Big Dawg, which was closely followed by the real Weres. But, unlike Swashbuckler, who was evasion-oriented, Big Dawg just plowed into the mob of accursed teenagers. The illusions kept him from focusing on one particular target, so he just trudged through them, ignoring their attempts to stop him. Finally, when there were so many hanging on him that it affected his ability to keep his balance, he simply shrugged them off. “So? Any a’ you mutts think you got what it takes to take down the Big Dawg?”
“Big Dog?” Cubby echoed puckishly. “Oh… Top Dawg! I think that this one’s for YOU.”
Cubby snickered as Top Dawg stepped up warily. “Top… DOG?” Big Dawg growled (literally) raising one lip in a classic junkyard stare-down. Still, while smaller, Top Dawg not only held his ground, but actually growled back with some intimidation value of his own. Well, Big Dawg couldn’t just stand there growling at the punk. So, growling loudly, he grew, almost doubling his height, but possibly tripling his mass. His outfit - the pants, the belt, the boots, the vest, and the collar - all were designed to give slightly under the pressure, expanding to match his new volume.
Big Dawg, already an impressive sight, was now a massive slab of muscle. Top Dawg flinched badly, which was why he reacted so instantly when Icy yelled, “JUMP!” T.D. jumped to the side, just in time for a conjoined bolt of magical energies to blast Big Dawg squarely in the chest when he wasn’t ready for it. Big Dawg reeled back and fell to the ground. “Pick him up!” Icy yelled, “Before he comes to!”
Top Dawg and Lon struggled, but they were able to lift Top Dawg high up over them to where he couldn’t reach them, turning his muscle-bound state against him. “Okay,” Top Dawg grunted, “NOW what?”
“We’re… still working on that one,” Icy admitted sheepishly.
“Woo!” Big Dawg hooted, “That’s a relief! You actually had me worried there for a second. Hah!”
“Hey, what about the ‘Ring around the Rosie’?” Cubby suggested.
“Aaahhh… NO,” Darcy said definitively.
“Aaahh… Yeah,” Big Dawg agreed. “You kids are already in enough trouble. You really don’t want to make things worse by going ‘Ring around the Rosie’.”
“Shut up,” Top Dawg snarled.
“Bee-Dee!” a young voice bleated. Chiller slid into the warehouse on a sheet of ice carrying a super-soaker water cannon with a hose to a jerry can on his back. He sprayed the ground under Lon and T.D.’s feet with water, creating a slick. “Just CHILL OUT!”
Lon and T.D. started to slip, but Cubby, Shep and Jake grabbed the big man and managed to keep him aloft. Then Chiller was hit by a flurry of ice. Icy started at him, and they traded blows of ice for a bit. Then a circle of fire erupted around Chiller. As he reacted, Icy threw a ball of fire at him, knocking him for a loop.
“What?” Cubby yelped, “I thought that you only did ice!”
“It’s called being versatile, dimwit!” Icy snarled. The ghouls surrounded Chiller. Penny, the girl of the group, grabbed his water cannon, and it degraded right in her hand. Seeing that he was well under control, Icy sneered, “’Chill Out’?”
“He’s, ah, NEW at this,” Big Dawg said from where he was being held.
“WHAT?” Chiller yelped, “Everyone can do cold puns but ME?”
“Wait a minute,” Stormy said, looking around her suspiciously, “WHY are they only coming in one at a time?”
“I think that we should do ‘Ring around the Rosie’,” Darcy said, picking up on Stormy’s point.
“No, no, you do NOT want to do ‘Ring around the Rosie’,” Big Dawg urged them.
“Why don’t you want them to do ‘Ring around the Rosie’?” Chiller asked.
“I’ve lasted long in this game enough to not like the sound of anything that ends, ‘All Fall Down’.”
“OH SHIT!” Stormy snapped, pieces obviously coming together for her, “They’re fencing us in! They’ve got their energy guys building come kind of WALL or something that will fucking FRY us if we try to get out!”
“LOOK, we don’t want to hurt you!” Big Dawg insisted, even as he struggled furiously (if futilely) to get himself up off his back, “We know that you’re just kids, and that Macabre did this to you! We want to HELP you!”
“You don’t know shit, JACK!” Lon snarled.
“Ring around the Rosie!” Icy shrieked as she wrapped Chiller in a jacket of ice. She beat feet over to Darcy and Stormy and they touched the tips of their staves together and started a moaning chant as they closed their eyes in concentration.
“SUNNY! SKY! BRU! GET DOWN HERE, NOW!” Big Dawg yelled as the Weres tossed him aside. They ran and formed a ring around the witches, along with the ghouls. Suddenly, there were two solid rings of them surrounding the three girls.
Skyrider came crashing through the skylight, with Sunburst and Brujah following behind them. “What happened, Brah?” Sky asked.
“I dunno,” B.D. admitted as he shattered the ice jacket around the shivering Chiller. “They were just yammering something about ‘ring around the rosie’, and I just HATE the sound of how that nursery rhyme ends.”
“So, let’s just put an end to it!” Sunny lit up and threw a blinding burst at the grouping. The Weres flinched and were dazed, but the ghouls screamed as though they were on fire. A few of the ghouls broke away from the ring and ran for the cover of shadows, but several of them burst into flames or melted like hot wax. “OMIGAWD!” Sunny gleeped, “OhIdidntmeanforthattohappenIamSOSORRY!”
“I think that it’s just an illusion,” Skyrider opined. “At least, I hope it is… I don’t see any mess on the ground… Bru? Can you stop whatever they’re doing?”
“Not without knowing what it is,” Brujah admitted. “If I messed with their working, I might make it even worse!”
“Then get down to the ground and put up a defensive wall!” Kate snapped from down on the ground, near Swashbuckler. She erected a wall of darkness by way of example. Sunburst and Skyrider dropped behind Nacht’s wall, and Brujah dropped down near Big Dawg and Chiller, and then created a wall of patterns of emerald green light. As the keening chant rose, a wall of flickering mist appeared around the circle. It started to sparkle, and the chant rose to a screaming crescendo. And then-
-and then the mist drifted away, revealing an empty space where the collected teenagers had been.
* * * * *
At a pre-arranged place a good twenty miles away, Tombstone, Digger and the Weres all appeared in a twisting coruscation of darkness and light. Cubby staggered out of formation and promptly lost his lunch. The others didn’t look much better. “MAN! Couldn’t you have made it easier?” he squawked.
“NO. They couldn’t,” Top Dawg said, looking down at the center of the formation. Icy, Darcy and Stormy were all laying in an utterly exhausted heap, clearly totally unconscious from the strain. “Like I said: they’re pains, but they carry their weight. And then some.”
* * * * *
Kate dropped her wall. “Oh. So it was just some emergency evacuation drill. ‘Ring around the Rosie’ must just have been the cue to gather around the witches so they could be carried along.”
Skyrider blasted Swashbuckler free of the ice coffin. “Why didn’t you get him free?” he asked Kate.
“Why? He looked so comfortable.”
Brujah dropped her wall and snapped at Kate, “Why are you here?”
“Because Macaulay Culkin wouldn’t let me stay with him at the Plaza Hotel.” Kate looked around her. “Werewolves, zombies, witches, superpowered fights, melting bodies - so, THIS is the real meaning of Christmas?”
“You were supposed to be reinforcing Nightfall’s barrier,” Brujah growled accusingly.”
“It was holding up just fine,” Kate replied in her usual monotone. “She didn’t need me. Besides, there was something in here that I had to get.”
“Which WAS?” Brujah asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.
“This.” Kate produced an open laptop computer. “I couldn’t let this be trashed in the fight.”
“How’d you know that they had a computer?”
“Hey, that’s very high-end equipment. Macabre would have probably wanted it arranged and set up properly, before he even set foot in the place. They’d need instruction in how to do that, and a computer would be the most likely instrument for Macabre to do that. Besides, they may be werewolves, witches and zombies, but they’re still American teenagers; I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t blogging about this, somewhere on the Net.”
“So, Bru,” Skyrider said checking out the scene where Macabre’s minions had just left, “any chance that you can magically trace them? I mean, something like that has to leave some kind of magical trail or something.”
“No,’ Brujah said with a sigh. “Ironically, the barriers that we put up to keep them in prevent me from following them. They punched a hole right through them, and the, ah, rubble, for want of a better word, makes it impossible to pick out the trail.” She let out a snarl of frustration. “If only we had an idea as to what he was up to, we’d have a better chance of dealing with him. And getting any straight answers out of them,” she cocked her head in the direction of the three unconscious ghouls, “will be like pulling alligator’s teeth.”
“Actually, I have an idea as to what Macabre’s up to,” Kate said flatly.
“You found something on Macabre’s computer already?”
“I was going through it while Swashbuckler was mixing it up with the fuzzy-wuzzies.”
“You sat still through all that?” Swash asked.
“Sure. Why not? You looked like you were having a good time.”
“What did you find?”
“Nothing conclusive,” Kate admitted. “Just a few suggestive mentions and addresses that mean nothing by themselves, but do take on a certain significance in light of some of the things that I spotted here, and some things that I picked up at Whateley.”
“You heard something?”
“I heard many things,” Kate said evasively. “But, to put it in perspective…” she walked over to one of the crates, which had a large, clunky, rather antique-ish looking device in it. “This is a Klein-Rogge Generator. That over there is a Davros Transtator. And that’s a Sivana Orgone Assimilator. And that’s a Rothul Interossitor. These are all examples of vintage ‘weird technology’, borderline designs that have since been discarded for more modern and effective methods of raping the laws of physics. Yet, despite the fact that Dr. Macabre is about as sentimental as a black widow spider, he’s hauling all this old junk around and setting it up in one of his labs.”
“And maybe he’s just broke, and can’t afford the new gear,” Chiller offered.
“In that crate is a GizTech GizMonitor232. And that’s a Goodkind Biomedical Labs Scanner. And there is other, top-shelf, just-got-issued stuff in those crates. And none of it is cheap.”
“So? Maybe he’s just using this stuff because it’s around and while it doesn’t do the job as well as the more modern stuff, it still does the job,” Skyrider suggested. “Hey, he’s got to economize somewhere.”
“That was my first reaction,” Kate admitted. “That Macabre was just being cheap. But, consider this - he’s managed to create three ‘witches’ - that is, natural, instinctive non-mutant Mages, who use magic out of pure innate ability, rather than the usual intensive study. Now, here’s my point: at its heart, what Dr. Cobb is trying to do is Technomancy.”
“Techno-WHAT?” Chiller bleated.
Kate sighed. “Okay, here goes - one place where Harry Potter gets it right is that Magic and Technology really don’t get along very well. Magic is really about imposing your will directly on the Universe, while Technology is firmly set within exploiting the rules of Physics. Getting them to get along can be done; it’s done all the time. It can even be very effective - when you manage to pull it off. BUT it’s hard, and the more advanced the magic and tech get, the harder it gets. Technomancy is the perfect blending of technology and magic. True Technomancy would allow magical workings with no actual input from the user beyond pushing a button; it would all be in the device, and it could be mass manufactured.”
“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Chiller said, something clearly clicking. “You said that this Macabre guy was trying to find a scientific reason for spooky shit like vampires, werewolves and-”
“He’s trying to find out how witches work… which is…”
“Technomancy,” Kate finished for him. “There have been several instances of crude, erratic, unreliable devices that might have been technomantic in nature, in all history, there is only ONE reliably documented case of dependable technomancy: the Telchines’ Astrolabe.
“Exactly who or what the Telchines were is still very fuzzy. They’ve been described as a nation, a race, a dynasty, a family of demigods, an order of metalsmithing mystics who may or may not have been connected to the Artificers, or a variety of Chthonic spirits like the Cyclopes or the Cabiri. The Pre-Hellenes weren’t exactly famous for writing things down, and the Hellenes themselves may have loved the Truth, but they had a fine disdain for checking facts. What we DO know about them is that they were the first natives of the island of Rhodes-”
“That’s an island in the Mediterranean,” Brujah said aside to Chiller, “NOT the state, Rhode Island.” Chiller just flipped a sneer back at her.
“-and that they were famous metal-smiths and artificers. They’re credited with forging Poseidon’s trident among other wonders of the ancient world. And, thirdly, that they did something to really piss off the Gods, and at least one of them - it’s rumored that it was all three of the biggies: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, in concert - destroyed them all. All except for ONE, a female whose name is in dispute. But, it’s agreed that while the Gods destroyed all the Telchines’ works, this sole survivor carried with her a small sample of their work, a contraption that roughly resembles an astrolabe, though that isn’t its function. No one knows what this ‘astrolabe’ is supposed to do, or what its powers really are. But it’s somehow supposed to contain the essence, the core dynamic, the basic wisdom of the Telchines, the key to uncovering their secrets. It apparently has some other power as well, though given the Astrolabe’s reputation you have to wonder why people want it so much. It pops up every so often in mentions in various chronicles, usually as a side note to some great development that later goes disastrously wrong.
“So, there’s some great mystical secret that inscribed on this astrolabe thingie?” Sunny asked.
“That’s the generally accepted wisdom, that there’s some hidden message, or some code that’s spelled out by the astrolabe. As a matter of fact there are several very strange books that are supposed to decipher the astrolabe’s markings. But I go to school with Jean-Armand St. Michel-DuChantraine, who’s the son of the Hexmaster, a supervillain who happens to also be a major dealer in the black market in magical items-”
“Supervillains have their own schools for their kids?”
“-anyway, Jay-Arm is a devisor - that’s sort of the mutant version of a Schimmelhorn Engineer - and he’s very in touch with his father’s business. He has a theory that the secret of the Telchines isn’t inscribed onto the astrolabe, it’s implicit in the astrolabe’s very workings, that something about that artifact employs the distilled dynamics that made the Telchines so effective that the Olympian gods themselves were nervous. Macabre can use a Klein-Rogge Generator, a Davros Transtator, a Sivana Orgone Assimilator, and a Rothul Interossitor, which are all prime examples of Weird Science; if he can do that, then there’s a chance that he could figure out the secret of the Astrolabe. And if he can do that, it gets real nasty, real quick.”
“And this Astrolabe is here in Los Angeles?” Brujah asked with an arched eyebrow.
Kate waggled her hand and groaned with uncertainty. “Yes, No, Maybe, Kinda-sorta. The problem with having a major item like the Astrolabe - besides its history of disaster dogging its trail - is that if people know that you’ve got it, things get very sticky. The reason why there are all those stories about great quests to bring all the scattered pieces of the maguffin together is that for safety’s sake, mages tend to break up really powerful magical items, and, if they can, incorporate the components, which have power of their own, into other, less powerful items. So, you can use them without bringing every mystical predator and opportunist on the scene down on you, while still having them around in case you need them. Jay-Arm says that his father thinks that that’s what’s happened with the Astrolabe.
“According to Jay-Arm’s dad, the platen has been given a frame and is being called ‘the Mirror of Tanith’ by some bozo local cult called ‘the Wolves of Winter’.”
“Or the ‘Garou of Ragnarok’?” Brujah said suspiciously.
“Maybe,” Kate shrugged. “I wasn’t paying that much attention. Jay-Arm has this annoying habit of assuming that everyone else thinks that everything he’s talking about is interesting, no matter how much you pound him on the head. The computer - that is, the clockwork part - was made the main component of some magical clock by some guy called Armenus or something, which is in the possession of someone named Mega-somethingerother.”
“And there’s a third piece?”
“I think so. I wasn’t really paying that much attention.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I think that it’s the armature, the part of the astrolabe that’s moved to keep track of things.”
“And you’re sure about this?”
“Not really. Jay-Arm has a tendency to magical thinking. And not the useful sort.”
“What did they turn this armature into? And who has it now?”
Kate shrugged again. “I don’t know. Jay-Arm didn’t say. Maybe he didn’t know. Either that, or he did, and I just had better things to think about. Like dandruff.”
“And you think that this is what Macabre’s here for?” Brujah kept at her.
“Look, the only reason that I remember this at all is that while Jay-Arm’s family is pretty much a loss as a functioning family, they just happen to be very good at the mystic relics trade; they know what they’re doing. The Hexmaster thinks that all three pieces of the Astrolabe showed up recently in the general Los Angeles area. Then Dr. Macabre shows up here. And, as I said, I found several addresses and mentions that are suggestive. So, it’s a possibility. Macabre could just be in town to pick up a few new guinea pigs, or maybe to make some operating capital, neither of which would be particularly good. Or maybe he decided to take the kids to Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. But if he’s here to find the Astrolabe, it gets very nasty. Dr. Cobb is a genius; he just might figure the Astrolabe out.”
* * * * *
Several hours later, at LAPD’s Rampart division station, Kate was crammed into a dark narrow booth with Sunny, Brujah, Chiller, Big Dawg (who, gratefully, was not in his enlarged state)and a Supervillain Squad lieutenant, staring through a two-way mirror into a LAPD ‘interview room’. In the brightly lit room, the girl, the only female among the captured ghouls, was seated at the table, face down on the table, her hands covering her head. But she wasn’t crying. Every so often, she’d raise her head, peer around through squinting eyes, let out a grunt of annoyance, maybe say something about turning down the damned LIGHTS, and then put her head back down.
“What I don’t get,” Chiller said, peering over everyone’s shoulder from the back, “is why she’s keeping still. I mean, look at what he did to her! You can tell that she used to be smokin’ hawt… well, she’s still sort of good-lookin’… in a disinterred kind of way…”
The lieutenant gave Chiller a ‘and exactly WHO are YOU?’ look. “He’s, ah, with me,” Big Dawg said with a pained grin. “He’s new.”
“I mean, not to be tellin’ someone to be a snitch, but if anyone messed with ME the way that that Macabre asshole messed with HER, I’d be after him with a crowbar, not working for him!”
The lieutenant gave a grunt and said, “Yeah, well, we run into this more often than we’d really like with those fuckin’ ‘Mad Scientist’ types. They grab someone, more often than not kids, ‘cause they have a better chance of surviving, and do whatever it is they do to ‘em. Then, if the poor chump survives, the nutjob tells ‘em that they have to work for him, ‘cause he’s the only one who knows how to undo it. He runs this line of Bee-Ess past ‘em, where the entire point of what he’s doing is to figure out how the trick works, and if he can figure out how to undo it, then he’s proved his entire point, so it’s in their best interests to help him figure it all out. So, not only do they get cheap test subjects, but they sucker their victims into becoming unpaid goons for them.”
“Do they ever come across?”
“I’ve heard of maybe three or four cases in the last fifty years.”
“With Weird Science, the kink works its own way off more often than not,” Big Dawg said. “It just slowly wears off. That is, if it doesn’t get a lot worse and kill the victim.”
“This Macabre asshole has a major ass-kicking coming his way,” Chiller snarled.
“I didn’t hear that,” the lieutenant said, “I agree with you, but I still didn’t hear it.” He hitched up his pants. “Well, I think that she’ll be the easiest to talk to. For what that’s worth. I think that she’s stewed long enough.” With that, he exited the dark room for the corridor, and from there, walked into the interview room.
* * * * *
With some subjects, the Police have to use devious, sometimes rather questionable interrogation methods. But all that ‘Pretty Penny’, the girl ghoul, needed was a little simple human kindness. After he gave her a pair of sunglasses, Penny told him what little she knew, but that was all. “Look, I can’t leave Macabre. I hate the fuck, I hate what he’s done to me… but I can’t leave him. The second that I can, I’ll escape and get back to him.”
“Look, he takes care of us. Not GOOD care of us, but he makes sure that we get what we need.”
Noticing the girl’s tension and nervous tics, the lieutenant offered, “Look, we can get you some methadone or something else to help you cope-”
“LOOK, I’m NOT a fucking JUNKIE!” she snapped, “I don’t need speed or coke or anything! I need Meat!”
“Ah, exactly what kind of meat are we talking about?” the lieutenant hedged.
“You KNOW what kind of meat!” she snarled, baring her needle-sharp fangs. “HUMAN meat! It has to be human! I’ve tried… beef, RAW beef, pork, everything! But if it isn’t human… It just doesn’t satisfy the hunger! And I’m always hungry, it’s always gnawing away at me… You don’t know… you don’t know how hard it is… Looking at people… and thinking how good they’d taste…” She broke down crying, which was creepy, because even crying she looked like a dangerous thing that crawled out of her grave. “I… I didn’t want any of this!” she gasped. “I just wanted to go to a Backstreet Boys concert! I was in line, and this really cool guy said that he knew some of the Security guys and could get us backstage, and they grabbed me, and… and that asshole shoved me in that fucking machine and did THIS to me!” she sobbed for a moment. “I didn’t even get to see the concert! And I had TICKETS!”
“Look,” the lieutenant said carefully, wanting to comfort the girl, but hating the fact that his flesh crawled when he touched her, “it’s not that bad… I’ll… talk to the DA, and find out what the regulations on, um, ah, cannibalism are. There’s got to be a clause about necessity or something. Look… Penny… will you at least tell me your real name? So that we can contact your parents?”
“NO!” Penny gasped, “No, no, no, you can’t! My father… Please, I can’t let my father see me like this! I can’t let him see what I’ve become…” She broke down sobbing again.
The lieutenant gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder and left the interview room. The Crusaders met him at the door. The lieutenant rubbed his face for a moment, and said, “Kid - when you get around to doing that thing that I didn’t hear… give him one for me.”
* * * * *
“Werewolves, zombies, vicious combat, ancient demigods, the tragic despoiling of youth, futility, despair, mortal anguish…” Kate sighed as she and Sunny sped down Sepulveda Blvd., “And then you had to go and spoil a perfectly lovely Christmas.” The car skidded to a stop in front of a shopping mall in fully Christmas regalia.
“Oh, this isn’t about shopping, Katie! This is about the Kids!”
“They’re having a two-for-one special on kids?”
“Come on!” Sunny said as she got out of the car, “It will do you good to be around someone who doesn’t care about money or power or pushing people around.”
“You mean… we’re going to meet… the Dalai Lama?”
“I meant the kids.”
“It HAS been a while since you were on the playground, hasn’t it, Sunny?”
Sunny just gave Kate a big confident smile and took to the air. After all, anyone could just walk in wearing a superhero costume, now couldn’t they? Kate slumped back in the seat and grumped for a bit. But the only thing lamer than slogging through a stupid suburban mall in full X-mas X-cess was sitting in the car in the stupid parking lot of a stupid suburban mall at any time of the year. She got out of the Boxster and schlumped into the mall. As she feared, the entire place was decked with boughs of holly (what the fah-la-la-la- la-la- la-la-lah), with tinsel and fake snow and Santa everywhere - it was incredible that the floors weren’t slick with vomit.
Being Sunny, it wasn’t just a community meet-and-greet. No, there was something about a bunch of grade-schoolers who’d done something charitable and gone to all sorts of trouble to get clothing for the less fortunate, blah, blah, blah, and Sunny being there was some sort of reward for the kids rummaging around their parent’s closets without permission and cribbing the thrift shops’ action. And, of course, you couldn’t just have a superhero at a big thing about giving stuff away at Christmastime. No, there he was, as inevitable and inescapable as a hungry lawyer at a car crash: Santa Claus.
Then Kate heard something that cut through the pre-recorded carols like a hot knife through soft butter: “This blows.”
At last! Someone with the proper Christmas spirit!
Kate followed the blunt, slightly husky voice to a group of four boys of maybe eleven or twelve years of age. They were slouched together with the surly resentment of kids being forced to endure ‘kid stuff’ that they used to enjoy but had just outgrown. “I mean… Santa Claus?” one of the original speaker’s compadres sneered. “Everybody knows that he’s not real.”
“Yeah,” one of the other boys agreed. “The fukkin’ toy and candy companies made him up.”
“Not strictly speaking true,” Kate cut in. “Yes, the current bland Americanized version of him is completely bogus. But the real Santa Claus, the one that started all the legends, was one of the nastiest beings around: Odin.”
“Odin?” One of the boys hooted. “Like in Thor™ comics?”
“NO, not like in Thor Comics. The real Odin wasn’t a jolly bearded grampa-guy. He was DEATH. He was the master of the Aes, the runes of power, and he demanded human sacrifices that were hung from an oak tree and jabbed with spears while still alive, so that they could bleed to death as they strangled on the noose. He was a bunch of other things, but what he really was, was the personification of Winter. And not the nice-nice winter that they peddle here in Southern California. No, I’m talking about the hard, grinding, bone-numbing blizzard-ridden winters that you get in Scandinavia and Russia. The kind of frigid winters with nights so long that you wonder if the sun has died and gone to an icy hell. During these Winters, Odin would leave Asgard and travel the world with a pair of ravens that would eat the eyes of corpses to learn the secrets of the Dead, and a pair of wolves named ‘Hunger’ and ‘Starvation’. He rode an eight-legged horse named ‘Sleipnir’ that was actually a coffin being carried by four men. He rode at the head of a company of screaming spirits that was called the Wild Hunt, which still occasionally goes tearing through the skies of Northern Europe every so often, Christianity or no Christianity. The Wild Hunt is the embodiment of the kind of storms that don’t make you worry for your life - they make you worry for your SOUL. He sent special spirits to seek out warrior souls to feast in his hall. I’m sure that you’ve heard of the Valkyries? Well, the Valkyries weren’t big busty blonde warrior maidens - no, they were corpse-spirits that took the forms of ravens that pecked at the eyes and flesh of the fallen.
“And that special Christmas trip where he traveled around to reward all the good boys and girls? That’s really the dead of Winter. Odin doesn’t care if you were nice to your sister or did your homework. When Odin comes a-visiting, he’s only interested in one thing: whether or not you’re fit to live. If you are, then he gives you the greatest gift of all: you get to bury those dead of hunger, and not be buried yourself. Sleipnir became a goat that Father Yule rode, and then the sleigh pulled by reindeer. The wolves eventually became a horrible creature called the Krampus that traveled along with Father Yule and devoured bad children. In time, that became ‘Black Peter’ a guy who traveled with Father Nöel with a bag of switches that were used for spanking bad children. That’s what’s really behind all the ‘Ho-ho-ho’.”
The boys were listening to her raptly, and they responded with a hushed, “Keewwlll…”
* * * * *
The Witch Hunter watched his target carefully. The witch-girl was talking to the boys, but his exquisitely trained ears must be deceiving him. Why would an agent of darkness try to tempt innocents to their doom by reciting Poe’s ‘Lenore’? And from there… was that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’? And from there, she recited ‘The Black Cat’ and then ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ from memory, with a verve that did not bode well for the souls of the four young lads. It had to be some form of foul witchcraft; only the darkest magics could make four American ten-year olds sit still through a recitation of classic poetry and prose.
The boys listened to her recital with rapt attention. She was just starting up on ‘The Raven’, when one of the boys’ mother came up and broke it up, no doubt saving what souls as the little scapegraces still had. The frigid-faced succubus showed as little regret at losing her prey as she did shame in enticing them in broad daylight. Instead, she went into one of the stores, and began browsing. The Witch Hunter saw his chance. He had no more qualms about using magic against witches than he would have had in using a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight to bring down a man-eating tiger; it was a matter of what was the best tool for the dangerous job at hand. If he could pass the slip of paper with the Prayer to the Patron Angel of Hunters, Detectives and Certified Public Accountants onto her without her knowing it, he could follow her no matter where she went, no matter what transit methods she used, no matter what evasions, gambits or charms she used to lose him. And if she wasn’t aware of the charm when he passed it to her, then the magic wouldn’t allow her to find it, and she wouldn’t even know that he was there.
As always, timing was everything. He picked up a selection of various ‘purchases’, positioned himself in her meandering path, and seemed to lose himself in the bland, overpriced selections. At precisely the right time, he ‘remembered’ something, turned suddenly and lightly collided with her. He dropped his armful of trash, and used the clattering fall to cover his deft insertion of the slip into her purse. He apologized profusely as he scrambled to pick up the boxes, but the girl simply glared at him with icy indifference and walked on without saying a thing or lifting a finger to help. He intentionally made a shambles of getting the packages together, which only seemed to make her walk on more quickly. Just as planned.
He waited until the girl finished her rambling pass through the store. Then he quietly ditched his ‘shopping’ and calmly headed for the exit. But the door wouldn’t open for him. Then he noticed the flashing amber light by the door. Two uniformed security guards came up to him in a calm, non-threatening, yet very intimidating manner. “SIR, it appears that something on you has activated our Inventory Control system.” Which was the politically correct way of saying, ‘We caught you shoplifting’.
The guards had the Witch Hunter ‘assume the position’, and they frisked him. Referring to the various bits of esoteric equipment that he had on him, he offered, “I can explain-”
“I can’t wait to hear it,” said one of the guards, dangling a wispy pink lace panty - with a store tag still attached - from one finger.
* * * * *
Back at the Warehouse
A figure that seemed to be made of shadows flowed through one of the windows and crawled down the wall. Keeping to the shadows, he crept around the crates and wreckage of the fight, carefully examining each crate in turn. Finally, he found something tucked away in a niche in one of the crates. The figure seemed to grow more solid, and he tucked whatever it was into his jacket. Then a powerful spotlight fixed him from above, and a voice that was oddly reminiscent of Ronald Colman said jovially, “THANK YOU! I was wondering if I was going to have to tear the place apart by myself!”
In the unforgiving glare of the spotlight, the intruder turned out to be a lithe male figure in a black swallowtail evening suit with an opera cape that had a lining matching his silvery cummerbund, a white turban with a large deep blue oval-cut ‘jewel’ as the pin, and a black walking stick with an oversized red ‘jewel’ as the head.
Looking up, cupping a hand over his eyes to cut the glare, the man looked up and said in a deep, rich, baritone voice, “Swashbuckler? Is that you, old man?”
“Mister MAGIC?” Swash answered from his position just behind the spotlight. “What? Dr. Macabre couldn’t get Snickers the Crime Clown to come and get back whatever his monster movie rejects left behind?”
“What? Me? Work for Dr. Macabre?” Mr. Magic snapped indignantly, “Really! I just come here to conduct a bit of dishonest business, and I’m insulted! Really!”
Swashbuckler swooped down on a line to within ten feet of Mr. Magic. “I don’t suppose that you’d be reasonable, and just hand over whatever it is that was you tucked way?”
“Would you?” Mr. Magic riposted, as he flourished his cane, which extended into a fighting staff with a fluid snap. “I mean, I DO have my reputation to consider.”
“Then why are you here?” Swash responded, unfolding his own combat staff (not the blackthorn one, but rather his usual, with all the built-in extras) “Let alone how you know that all this was here in the first place?”
Mr. Magic smiled broadly and idly spun his staff in one hand, nonchalantly steadying himself on his feet. “What can I say? I can just smell a good score.”
Swash started with a few tentative taps with his staff. “By the way,” he gave a few good honest raps that his opponent countered easily, “I’ve always wondered… do you get any grief about being a ‘Mephisto’ wannabe?”
“Not really,” he responded with a sweep at Swash’s feet that the hero evaded with a simple back-flip, “most people have never even heard of Mephisto the Mentalist, and let’s be honest, the ‘stage magician’ shtick is simply too good to let lie around unused, just because some people have no appreciation for a classic look. YOU, of all people should appreciate that. You know, you COULD just let me go - I’m going to get away, no matter what you do.”
“But where’s the fun in THAT?” Swash pushed his offense with a flurry of spinning blows designed to rattle Mr. Magic.
“Are you doing this just because I scored with Heller, and she hasn’t given you a tumble?”
Swashbuckler stopped. “You bedded Heller?” Mr. M. just looked nonchalant. Swash leaned forward and leered, “How was she?”
Mr. M leered back. “Magical. Simply Magical.” They shared a comradely ‘we’re all guys here’ chuckle, and simultaneously sandbagged each other with a sneak blow with their staves.
They both rolled back onto their feet and their guard. Mr. Magic produced a fan of cards, which burned with energy. “Oh,” Swashbucker said with a note of disappointed disdain in his voice, “you’re ripping off Gambit from the X-Men™. How original.”
Mister Magic arched a cross eyebrow. “You have the gall to stand there, in that Errol Flynn retread outfit, with a Green Arrow surplus phony beard, and call ME derivative?” Instead of throwing the cards, a flurry of spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds erupted from them, followed by four ‘kings’ ‘queens’ and ‘jacks’ each, one from each suit.
“So, instead, you rip off ‘Card Captor Sakura’,” Swash sneered as he produced an energy blade from the gem on the back of his right hand and disrupted the four energy manifestations.
“Card Captor Sakura?” Mr. Magic bleated in non-comprehension as he back-flipped up to a catwalk above.
Swash quickly followed and lunged with his staff. “Sure! Y’know? The anime? With the girl with the magic deck of cards that she brings critters out of? She goes around hunting down rogue cards and captures them in her deck?”
“You watch cartoons?” Mr. Magic riposted (in more ways than one). “About a little girl? And you’re giving ME grief?”
“HEY, it’s a Classic Cartoon!” Swash countered Mr. M’s riposte, grappled and threw him.
“Tell you what,” Mr. Magic said smoothly as he deftly landed on his feet, “If you let me go, I’ll let this be just between US. Nobody has to know.”
“NOW, I’m insulted,” Swash snarled as he lit into Mr. Magic. “Not that you’re harshing my viewing habits, but that you think that I’m chump enough to actually go for that!” They clashed for a bit, and the battle ranged across the warehouse. “I WAS going to start off a bit of badinage with ‘I see that you’ve studied your Agrippa’, but I hate to see what sort of slur you’d turn THAT into!”
“Look, Swash, I love a good rollicking melee as much as you do, but honestly, I’m here on serious business.”
“So, tell me about it,” Swash said, slightly swaying on his feet. “Maybe I’ll believe you. And, maybe you’ll tell me something in the same county as the truth.”
Mr. Magic disengaged and pulled back, offended. “WHAT? Look, I’m-”
Mr. M’s explanation was cut short by the shattering of glass as a figure came crashing through one of the windows. “HEY SWASH!” Skyrider yelled out as he flew to the center of the warehouse on his board, “Your backup is HERE!”
Skyrider magnetically manipulated pieces of equipment, throwing them at Mr. Magic, forcing him to evade them, and eventually herding him to a clear space on the floor.
“SKY!” Swashbuckler yelped, “NO! I had him talking! I was getting information!”
“So? We’ll get more info when he’s under wraps!” With a wave of his hand, Skyrider caused the pieces of scientific equipment to box in Mr. Magic.
“NO!” Swashbuckler yelled, “You can’t DO that! I had my eyes on him every second! You can’t take your eyes off of him! If you ever lose sight of him, he’s as good as GONE!”
Swashbuckler tore the cage of gear apart. Mr. Magic was nowhere in sight.
“Hey, where’d the bad guy go?” Skyrider asked hollowly. Swash scowled at Sky venomously. “Whut?”
* * * * *
Kate hugged her pillow to her head, trying to keep the call out of her mind. “Mmmaaawwwmmm…” Kate snarled, “Can’t you just get a page on Facebook, like everyone else?” Finally, she sat bolt upright and crawled out of bed. “Why can’t I have a mother who has no idea of what I’m up to, like normal people?” she fumed as she stomped down the stairs. She stalked past the Douglas Fir Christmas tree, sparing a moment to look disgustedly at the hopelessly tacky homemade ornaments on the tree. Then she went out the sliding glass door onto the patio that overlooked the beach.
She stood at the railing, and tried to get an idea which direction the call was coming from. She looked north and south, but the call wasn’t coming from those directions. Then, following the sense of the call, she looked westward, across the water. She could just barely make out the lights of a boat, far out on the ocean, well offshore, but close enough to make out a vague silhouette. With another growl of annoyance, Kate wrapped herself in Erebeal darkness and slid through the shadows to the boat. And promptly clapped her hand to her mouth to keep from voiding her gullet.
“So. Katrina. Finally you arrive,” Marzena said sternly as she strode imperiously to where Kate had arrived. “I was beginning to worry.”
“WHY did you have to have this meeting on a stupid BOAT?” Kate snarled through bared teeth, “You KNOW that I don’t do well on water, and moving over water is worse than trying to skateboard during an earthquake for me!”
“Of course I know that,” Marzena said without a shred of concern or regret. “That’s why I chose a boat. No one who knew you would suspect that I could call you from one.”
“Well, THIS is certainly a step up from your usual digs at Motel 6.” Kate looked around. The yacht qualified as a ‘super-yacht’, being roughly a hundred feet long, with two full decks and a flying bridge. The boat gleamed white, and shined with the sheen of steady maintenance. “Should we expect a hurried visit from the Coast Guard? Or maybe Aquaman?”
“I doubt that we’ll be disturbed,” Marzena purred smugly. “The Shirazis, the people who own this boat, are completely under my power. Besides giving me full use of this yacht, they’re letting me stay at their mansion in Brentwood, giving me full use of their membership at their spa and country club, why… everything…”
“Including the use of their credit cards?” Kate muttered, taking in the designer label leather jacket and skirt that her mother was wearing.
“Of course,” Marzena smiled wolfishly, “I don’t know WHY I didn’t think of this before…”
‘Maybe you simply didn’t see someone do it on a Lifetime™ TV movie before,’ Kate thought to herself. “Well, when you get used to the Big Boy Breakfast at Denny’s™, it’s hard to settle for anything else.”
“So! Enough chit-chat! Katrina! What do you have to report?” Kate just walked forward and wrapped her arms around her mother in a hug. There was an awkward moment, then Marzena looked down at her daughter and asked, “Katrina? Exactly what are you doing?”
“Just seeing if it might have worked the second time, Mother Dear. So, do you promise to tell me something important about my father if I come up with something?”
“Didn’t I say that I would?”
“That’s not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
“Yes, of course, I promise,” Marzena said with an exasperated sigh. “What news do you have?”
Kate spelled out what had happened that morning at the warehouse with Dr. Macabre’s crew. “So, you really think that Dr. Cobb is planning to take the Telchines’ Astrolabe?” Marzena asked carefully. “And where did he get that ridiculous idea about the Astrolabe?”
“From me,” Kate said. “The laptop that girl was using was in contact with Dr. Macabre. She was getting instructions as how to set up the gear properly from the man himself. When I was allegedly checking the laptop’s records, I found that there was a connection and checked it. I saw Dr. Macabre through his laptop’s webcam. I doubt that he knows as much about computers as he thinks that he does; he didn’t notice that I’d patched into his unit, he was so busy trying to watch what was going on behind me. I spun that whole story about the Astrolabe, just for him.”
“And what makes you think that he’ll obligingly fall for your little fairy tale?”
“Cobb is an obsessive. He’s wouldn’t have been plugging away at this for twenty-odd years, and killed over 500 people if he wasn’t. Besides, he’s killed over 500 people trying to find this secret. He NEEDS to find the answer to justify all that; otherwise he has to admit to the world - and more importantly, to himself - that all those people died for nothing, for a pipe dream. He’s going to jump on any new thread of research like a starving man on a Big Mac. And since he knows that the Crusaders not only know about the Mirror of Tanith, but are familiar with the Garou of Ragnarok, and suspect that he’s interested in the mirror-”
“He’ll move as soon as possible against Lycarax’s cult, as to get the mirror before they can,” Marzena finished for her. “Of course, since the Mirror of Tanith is the legal property of the Hofburg Museum of Ethnology in Vienna - it was stolen sometime in the 1920s, as I recall - Lycarax is legally in possession of stolen property, no?”
“I’ll make sure to drop that in Sunny’s ear.”
“You do that. Now, go back before you’re missed.” And that seemed to be it for the night.
“What? You’re not going to tell me something about my father?”
“Do I have all three pieces of the Astrolabe in my hands? No! Do I have even ONE piece of it? No!” Marzena turned and started walking away.
“Couldn’t you at least lower a dinghy or a life raft or SOMETHING?” But Marzena had gone into one of the cabins, with nary a look back. Kate concentrated, and with effort, moved herself through shadows back to the beach. But she didn’t land well, and found herself face-down in the sand. “That does it: no ‘Best Mom in the World’ mug for you.”
to be continued