Jim: “I’m debating grabbing Rabenholz in bird form and flying over to the other ships. But can bird-form carry him with fifteen strength…?”
Me: “Maybe if you grip it by the husk.”
Jim: “It’s not a question of where I grip it, it’s a question of weight ratios! A three-pound bird cannot carry a 150-pound Rabenholz!”
ADMIRAL FLOWERS’S SHIP
Deep in the empty hold of Admiral Flower’s cargo ship…the Kraken is in the way.
Anstis, bloated on the Thaumaturgical power temporarily lowering his generation to second, is gorging on blood. Massive arms whip across the deck, pulling Flowers’s guards screaming into his maw, shredding and sucking as automatic gunfire explodes around him. He ignores it, calmly reaching another arm for one of the gunmen as bullets thud uselessly against his flesh.
As Flowers’s men move out of reach, he casts one wet eye toward the open hatch overhead, almost three stories above. He pulls in his tentacles, coils, then launches into the air, deforming the steel deck underneath him and rocking the entire ship a few feet to the side before re-stabilizing.
(Jim: “I got the ship to move?”
Jason: “FIFTEEN Strength, sir! You could punch through it!”)
Kraken-Anstis smashes against the wall just feet from the top, bending the steel. Razor-tipped suckers latch to the metal and pull him wetly up toward open sky. The surviving men gather below, shouting, and launch another assault against him, this time with rockets–
(Jason: “What’s your Dex?”
–But the gunfire and explosions pepper harmlessly around him as he snakes up the wall and pulls himself over the edge.
(Jason: “What’s your Stamina?”
Jason: “…Where did you get this much blood?”
Chris: “You gave him 100 blood last time.”
Jason: “…I did do that.”
Me: “Why did you do that?”)
Meanwhile, on the floor of the hold, Rabenholz observes this entire show from his chair, hands folded elegantly over his cane. He watches Anstis disappear, then–while the rest of the gunmen are distracted–slips away through a bulkhead door leading into the ship.
(Chris: “I’m looking for magical artifacts, interesting people to diablerize, or signs that this is all an illusion.”
Jason: “Well, you’re not sure if it’s a real ship, but if it’s not a real ship, then this guy is pretty fucking good.”
Chris: “He did have the scuttle instructions in the fake submarine. That’s pretty good.”
Jim: “But there weren’t other people there.”
Chris: “That’s true….”)
Rabenholz glances back at the cluster of men in the hold, shouting and bolting for other bulkheads, then continues deeper into the ship.
Salt air whips Anstis as he hauls out onto the deck. The dark bulk of an island break the horizon, speckled with glittering lights echoing the million stars shining overhead. More men run around the deck of the ship, shouting and dashing close lob grenades. He snatches the closest man and idly shoves him into his beak as he scans the situation. The cargo deck is flat, but a conning tower rises against the sky toward the stern. Anstis tosses away the remains of his snack and pulls his way across the deck toward it.
Reaching the tower, he climbs up toward the dark bridge windows near the top and peers in with his cephalopod eye. A man inside stares back, captain’s bars on his hat and shirt, a radio held loosely next to his mouth. Anstis grabs the glass with pulsing suckers and, in one movement, tears the window out like the pop-top of a tuna can. He tosses the glass away and pours himself inside the bridge, finally constricting and solidifying back down into pirate form.
Anstis smooths at his coat while the captain stares at him, open-mouthed, then swaggers forward and plucks the radio from his unresisting fingers. “I be the captain now,” Anstis growls. The man nods wordlessly.
Anstis scans the room. Despite having stations for a crew of six at least, it is currently empty. “Where be the admiral?”
“I don’ know,” the man says in a thick pidgin accent.
“Is this his ship?”
The man nods.
“Does he have others in the area?”
He nods again.
“Where are they?”
The man groans. “I don’ know!” He starts babbling in a mixture of Tagalog and Cantonese, but Anstis is able to pick out a few words, most referencing “evil spirit.”
Anstis claps a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I will put an end to this evil spirit.” The man winces at the contact but says nothing.
Anstis steps away to cast his stone ritual on Flowers:
On the bridge of his flagship
He turns to the man. “Where is his flagship?”
The man shakes his head, bewildered.
Anstis taps at the radio. “Do you know how to reach him?”
The man gropes for words. “He…comes when wishes.”
Anstis grumbles and scans the horizon, but not much is visible besides the lights of the island. After a moment, though, his smile turns coy. He turns back to the man and meets his eyes. “Crash this ship full-force into the harbor.”
Instantly the man runs to the wheel and throws his weight against it. The ship leans hard to starboard, then accelerates.
Inside the ship, Rabenholz steadies himself as the whole hallway sways with the turn. More men suddenly appear, shouting and running past, oblivious of him or too terrified to care. Rabenholz fights his way upstream, eventually finding a staircase leading up toward the bridge. He ascends, stepping out into a darkened room. A single terrified man huddles at the helm, glancing at Rabenholz with wide eyes. In front of him, Anstis stands in front of the torn-out window, hands braced proudly against his sides as he surveys the approaching lights of land.
Anstis turns at Rabenholz’s footsteps. “Ah, Rabenholz. Do you have a means of tracking Flowers?”
“Perhaps.” Rabenholz glances at the shivering captain and the control panels with equal disinterest. “If he was real. I am still not convinced this isn’t all an illusion. An elaborate plot to convince you to reveal all your powers at once.”
Suddenly the captain stiffens at the helm and his expression turns wooden. He unclicks the radio from its creche and holds it out. Anstis frowns, then strides over to take it.
“Anstis….” Flowers chuckles. “Do you think yourself clever, boy?”
“Are you afraid to come meet me?” Anstis runs a hand along one of the control screens. “Tis a pretty ship you got here. Hate for something to happen to it.”
“My thoughts exactly, Anstis. Look off your port bow.”
Anstis turns to the windows. Straight ahead, the lights of the approaching island glitter in the warm night. He scans his gaze left, eventually spotting dark shapes in the distance, toward the horizon, and low in the water. As he watches, there’s a crackle of bright, silent flashes.
Rabenholz turns back toward the stairs. “Time to go.”
Moments later, a rising shriek echoes across the bridge, followed by a deafening BOOM as an explosion blooms across the deck before them, swaying the ship sickeningly to the side. Everyone stumbles, then cowers as a second explosion follows, casting sparks and burning debris into the open bridge.
Rabenholz stands first, skin dotted with minor burns. He scowls, grabs the human from the wheel and drinks him dry. The burns heal as he drops the dead man to the deck. “Captain this ship will founder soon. What is your plan?”
Anstis glares at the dark shapes on the horizon.
(Jim: “I’m debating grabbing Rabenholz in bird form and flying over to the other ships. But can bird-form carry him with fifteen strength….”
Me: “Maybe if you grip it by the husk.”
Jim: “It’s not a question of where I grip it, it’s a question of weight ratios! A three-pound bird cannot carry a 150 pound Rabenholz!”)
Settling his coat, Anstis drops into parrot form and lifts one foot toward Rabenholz. “Want a ride?” he squawks.
Rabenholz stares down distastefully as the ship rocks from another assault, closes his eyes with a pained expression on his face, then leans down to accept the clawed foot.
Anstis beats his wings once with a powerful clap, jerking them both off the bridge and out into the burning night air.
Tentacles of twisted iron descend toward Scout from the walls of the alley. Scout eyes then, taking a step back. Thrace snorts disdainfully and turns to walk away.
There’s a rush of breeze as Scout blurs and reappears in front of him in the space of a breath.
Thrace stops. “Was that supposed to impress me?”
“No, but this might.” Scout reaches into her shirt and pulls something out: an engraved key on a simple chain, made of heavy, worn brass engraved with symbols. Thaumaturgical symbols.
Thrace’s sneer doesn’t falter, but his body suddenly tenses. “Where did you get that?
Scout plays the chain around her fingers. “From Vannevar Hughes’s corpse.”
Thrace’s eyes narrow. “Then he is dead. One can never be sure. What were you planning to do with that?”
“Vannevar Hughes and I had an agreement. He died before he could make good on it.”
“An agreement? With a Caitiff girl?” Thrace snorts. “And what, you expect me to be bound by his agreements?”
She taps the key. “No, but I still need a Tremere, and when I am through, I won’t need this anymore.”
Thrace eyes her down his nose. “I see. And what was it precisely that Vannevar Hughes was supposed to do?”
“That is something perhaps better discussed in private.” Scout’s gaze flicks to Xia, waiting patiently behind Thrace. She smiles back coyly and shrugs.
“I’m afraid the situation isn’t that simple,” Thrace says, folding his arms. “If you have a proposal to make, make it now.”
Metal groans in the silence. Scouts eyes dart between them–and the rusted rods undulating overhead–then takes a breath and lays out her proposal.
(Which is still secret at this time!)
Once she finishes, Thrace eyes her a long moment. “That may be a heavier request than you think. And why should I deign to negotiate with you at all? Why shouldn’t I simply take what is right before me?” He nods toward the key in her fingers. “Afterall, there’s nothing but a Caitiff with a stolen knife to stand in my way.”
A humorless smile passes across Scout’s face. She kneels to pick up her knife from the ground at Thrace’s feet. “Because,” she says as she stands, measuring her words slowly, “The person who gave me this blade does not like to share his toys.”
Doubt suddenly flickers across Thrace’s face. Still eyeing her, he reaches a hand toward the knife. Scout holds it up, watching carefully as his fingers make contact and his vision softens into a deeper-sight.
And watches his face as the little color left in it drains.
Thrace removes his hand slowly. “I see,” he mutters. “Well then. This is a more complex situation than…anyone realized.” He eyes her a long moment, then nods. “You have a deal.”
He looks to Xia. She stares back flatly, but the twisted metal overhead peels away, retreating to the walls with screeches of frustration.
Scout nods graciously. “Shall I contact you when I have an opportunity to arrange our transaction?”
“Do so,” Thrace says as the walls enclosing each end of the alley suddenly vanish. “I will be watching. I have been watching. And beware, the city is dangerous these nights. More so than Hong Kong.”
Scout tucks her knife back in its place at the small of her back. “It got more dangerous the night I got here.”
Thrace straightens his coat. “We will see about that.”
He and Xia disappear. A moment later, Scout does as well.
Cold rain beats at Georgia’s face. She opens her eyes, blinking at the onslaught, then sits up. A muddy field surrounds her, under a drizzling night sky. A storm-wind moans through the trees, sucking away any hint of warmth.
She peers around. Far off through the trees, down a long slope, firelight flickers, but something about it seems flat and colorless, even to her Auspex-enhanced sight.
Scrambling to her feet, she grabs for her phone–
(Jason: “Your bag is not with you.”
Kara: “Nooo! My inventory!!!”)
With a sigh, she smooths uselessly at the mud caking the base of her robes, then sets out to trudge toward the lights.
She eventually reaches the edge of a wide mud plain. A cluster of huddled mud-and-stone huts crouches a safe distance from the edge of the woods, circled around a slightly larger building that might be called a hall, if for nothing else but to be polite. Firelight glints through pane-less windows but there’s no sign of movement anywhere. She slogs up to the nearest hut and peers inside–
–Then immediately ducks away as a pitchfork is shoved through the window. “Oh! Excuse me!” she says.
Shouts echo through the window. The language sounds almost German, though more gutteral. Still, she picks out enough of the shape of the words to sense that the cries are a prayer against demons.
“I’m not a demon! I’ve lost my way!” she calls back in High German. There’s a clatter from inside the house, then someone bolts out the door, running splashing into the night.
Georgia watches him disappear then peers through the open door. A fire pit lies in the heart of the house, surrounded by fur-covered ledges built into the walls, but besides that it’s featureless. Georgia ducks in and sees an old woman crouched in the corner, muttering to herself.
Georgia curtsies to her. “Excuse me? Can I come in?”
The woman shrinks back, babbling in the same archaic German dialect and making warding gestures. Georgia shrugs and leaves the hut to move on.
As she trudges through the village, she catches more whispers and glimpses of faces pulled hurriedly away from windows. She finally stops in front of the hall, waiting with as much patience as she can muster. Finally, a large man steps out of one of the nearby huts and approaches her, carrying a polearm and eying her apprehensively.
Georgia smiles at him. “Excuse me, I’ve lost my way.”
“Go back to hell,” he rumbles in broken, guttural High German, lowering his polearm.
Georgia peers at his aura, identifying him as human. “Where are we? What is this town called?”
The man shrugs, still watching her intently.
“Who is your king?” she asks.
(Jim: “It’s an anarcho-syndicalist commune.”)
“Who is your lord, then?”
The man hefts the polearm. “I am the thane.”
Georgia glances at the huts. “What do you call your people?”
Georgia considers this, then nods. “That makes sense.”
The thane glares and takes a step forward. “You are demon-touched. You carry the evil eyes. You make the children sicken and die, you give the oxen moraine and the sheep pox.”
Georgia flutters a hand dismissively. “Oh that’s not my purview at all. I’m more with the trees burning and the rivers running backwards.”
The thane jabs the air with his weapon. “Begone, demon! Go with the other!”
Georgia frowns. “Which other?”
“The other demon. The one from the woods. He too had the mark. We drove him out.”
Georgia looks around eagerly. “Which way did he go?”
“We sent him back.” He gestures towards the woods.
Georgia eyes the dark depths just beyond the village, then nods. “Alright. For your cooperation, I will not harm your crops this coming season. Thank you.” She curtsies, then leaves.
Georgia reenters the woods in the direction the thane pointed. A trail of recently-broken brush and muddy footprints pierces the trees. She follows its meandering path deep into the dark for what seems like hours. Finally, she steps out into a small clearing with a dilapidated hut slouched in the middle, even more primitive than the hovels in the village.
The entrance is low, lacking a solid door, and no firelight leaks out. She crouches down and peers in. Rotting furs are piled in the center. Even in the dim light, she can see them slowly rise and fall from someone’s breath underneath. The aura radiating from it is human, but dim, and clearly despondent.
“…Hello?” She crawls inside. The figure under the furs groans wordlessly. “Hello?” she says again as she lifts the furs aside to reveal the person underneath.
It’s Dr. von Natsi.
He’s alive, but thin, dressed in threadbare clothes underneath a stained labcoat patched with furs. Something vaguely goggle-shaped is tied to his head, but made out of bent twigs and leather straps. Most worrisome, though, is his gaze, which seems to stare right through her.
Georgia carefully touches his shoulder. “Doctor, can you hear me? Are you…in there?” She moves more furs and finds a rusty sword nestled against him. She moves it aside and examines him. There’s no wounds, from the sword or otherwise, but he still seems unexpectedly frail. After some hesitation, she bites at her wrist to give him a small dose of blood, hoping it can restore strength to him like it does to ghouls.
But no blood comes out.
“Huh….” She tries the other wrist. Still nothing. She bites deeper and flicks her wrist in different directions, but no vitae flows.
Suddenly Dr. von Natsi groans and tries to shove himself upright, skin radiating with fever. She carefully steadies him, then coaxes him back down, piling the furs back on. Once he’s relaxed again, she tries to draw a circle–
(Jason: “With what? You can’t draw blood.”)
Frowning, she goes outside to draw a circle in the mud–
(Jason: “The rain washes it away.”)
Georgia sighs and stares at the soaking, sticky ground.
(Kara: “…This place sucks.”)
Suddenly, Dr. von Natsi sits up again, shouting in German. She rushes back in to force him back under the furs as he babbles in her ear.
(Kara: “Do I recognize what he’s saying?”
Jason: “Some of it. It’s a very ancient form of German, more gothic. But…it sounds like a poem.”)
“Dr. von Natsi, what poem are you reciting?” she asks.
His eyes whirl, barely focusing on her. “Nein…Nein….” he mumbles.
“Do you recognize me?”
“Do you like cabbages?”
He tenses. “…Cabbages?” His eyes focus for a moment, then blur again. “Nein…no cabbages…no goggles….” He grabs her robes, pulling himself halfway up and her close. “NO SCIENCE!!!” he roars, before falling back into bed.
Georgia watches until his breaths fall into the regular rhythm of sleep, then steps out of the hut to stare into the cold, drizzling rain, arms folded, thinking.
“Now you begin to understand….” says a voice from right behind her. “Understand…The Way.”
(Me: “Ahh, sonofabitch–”)
Georgia turns. “Oh! Fancy seeing you here!”
Indeed, standing behind her in the doorway of the hovel, in a print-polyester shirt and fringed suede vest, is the Way Dude, looking high-fashion against the bleak landscape. His aging-hippy face smiles beatifically over his rose-glasses. “I am not here. You are not here. There is no here.”
Georgia nods sagely. “That’s useful. And also not useful.”
The Way Dude’s grin widens. “Yes. Why did you come to the place where there is nothing?”
Georgia gestures into the hut behind them. “I was looking for this man.”
The Way Dude peers through the doorway. “This man is not here. He does not exist.”
“But I found him!”
“You cannot find him if you cannot find yourself.”
Georgia sighs and tries futilely to wipe the rain out of her face. “What is the name of this place to which I have not come?”
The Way Dude raises a finger. “It has many names. Names are not a reflection of reality. They are facets of The Way. Do not seek the name, seek the not-name underlying the non-existence.”
Rain patters around them as Georgia stares and the Way Dude smiles. “If I were here with the doctor,” Georgia finally says carefully, “which I may or may not be, it’s conceivable he could be ailing….”
The Way Dude peers at von Natsi again and nods, this time sadly. “He has lost the way. But only one may find his own way.”
“I see. Well, I guess there’s nothing we can do then, is there?”
The Way Dude’s smile glitters back to life. “And everything.”
(Jason: “Quick question: which one do you want to slap more, The Way Dude, or me?”
Kara: “You. The Way Dude can’t help himself.”
The Way Dude folds his arms, eyeing her seriously. “Why did you not come?”
“To rescue him.”
“Can you rescue a man from the way?”
Georgia stares out at the primeval forest a moment. “Maybe, but as you said, he’s not on the way. And whether one can be rescued or not is irrelevant to whether one’s friends should try.”
“Then you must find the way. It is hidden. You must seek it.”
She glances into the hut again. “Do you think it’s under these furs?”
“It is everywhere. And nowhere. All things are possible on…the way.” The Way Dude smiles again, then–in a puff of suspiciously-herbal smoke–disappears.
Georgia clenches her fists in frustration, then stops. Something is in her hand. She looks down. It’s a plain, gold ring, untarnished and unmarked.
(Me: *mumbles around a mouthful of icecream* “Cast it into the fire.”)
She peers at it from all sides, then holds it up to her ear.
(Kara: “Is it…ringing?”
Jason: *very long glare* “No. But you do hear something.”)
Whispering somehow echoes from the metal, in the same cadence as the poem Dr. von Natsi was chanting, but still not quite discernable. She puts on the ring. Nothing happens. After a moment, she takes it off, ducks back into the hut, and slides it onto von Natsi’s chilled finger instead.
Instantly his eyes snap open. He mutters more lines from the poem, reaching weakly for the rusted sword and trying to stand up.
She pulls the ring off his hand, shocked. He falls back to the furs, quiet again, but this time she heard enough of the words to finally recognize the source. It’s not just a poem, it’s an epic poem.
(Jason: “Now, I may be a history nerd but I’m sorry, I cannot recite Beowulf in the original Germanic.”
Jim: “God, Jason, step it up!”)
JAVA SEA, INDONESIA
Flowers’s cargo ship lies burning and sinking into the water as Anstis soars away, Rabenholz dangling from his talons. His powerful wingbeats drive them through the oily smoke and steer them toward the cluster of ships in the distance, still firing salvos in their direction.
(Jim: “I am willing to spend preposterous amounts of blood to get myself there faster.”
Jason: “It won’t help.”
Chris: “Not even if he uses Celerity?”
Jim: “I don’t have Celerity.”
Chris: “Oh. I figured you had everything by this point.”)
Anstis concentrates, racing as fast as he can through the night air, finally reaching the source of the attacks–
–And there’s nothing there.
Anstis circles high over the water. No ships, no wreckage, nothing floats on the waves below.
(Jim: “Hmm. How close are we to shore?”
Jason: “…What shore?”
Jim: “……There is no shore, is there?”)
Anstis banks around. The looming shape of the island is gone. No lights but starlight stretch to the horizon. The cargo ship is still in the distance, but now it’s sitting high in the water, no longer on fire.
(Jason: “How long was your generation-drop ritual supposed to last?”
Jim: “Um, about an hour. Has it been an hour?”
Instantly the parrot–and Rabenholz below him–plummet toward the sea.
(Chris: “Movement of the Mind!”)
Rabenholz halts mid-air, cloak billowing around him. Anstis stabilizes and circles around to land on his shoulder.
“Captain, do you have any suggestions?” Rabenholz asks, patting at his clothes to check that none of his items fell.
“Back to the ship?” Anstis squawks.
Rabenholz rotates them toward Flowers’s cargo ship, floating suspiciously peaceful. “But is it there…?” Rabenholz mutters.
Anstis flutters his wings in a feathery shrug.
Rabenholz sighs. “Why not.” In an instant, he gathers his will and launches them toward the ship like a canon, cloak flapping behind. Anstis squawks in surprise, then crouches low on his shoulder to streamline into the headwind.
As they soar, a voice suddenly whispers in Anstis’s feathery brain, “Aaaanstis….”
Anstis’s beady eyes glower.
“Chasing me phantoms down, are ye? Careful, boy. You wouldn’t want to get lost.”
“I’m going to find you,” Anstis projects back at him in his mind.
“You couldn’t find your own eye! You’re no match for me, Thomas, not even with all your tricks. I’m smarter than ye, richer than ye, mightier than ye.”
“And more arrogant.”
“Arrogance is earned, boy. I’m an admiral, you’re nothing but a scavenger.”
Anstis’s beak remains stiff on his face, but inwardly, a smirk crawls across his mind. “And ye still maintain your rank of admiral? Or has it too been lost to the annals of history? I noticed you didn’t have a Wikipedia page.”
(Jason: “…Wow. I’m rolling self-control.”)
The faint presence within his mind grows noticeably colder. “Is that what you’ve come to, Thomas!?” Flowers snaps. “The internet?”
“I made my mark on history and you did not.”
“You made nothing but a bloody smear across the seas!”
“History begs to differ.”
“Your history is a lie!” Flowers’s anger trembles along his nerves. “I am the lord of the seas, and ye will kneel and acknowledge it before we’re through!”
“How? By running us around all night chasing your phantoms?”
The anger ceases. After a moment, a chuckle rolls through Anstis’s mind. “Phantoms? I’ll show ye phantoms….”
Something moves under the dark water below, pacing them. An enormous shadow, larger than a whale, rising steadily toward the surface. Anstis watches it warily, gripping Rabenholz’s shoulder hard until he looks down as well. A streamlined shape coalesces under the waves, then the shadow lurches up and the water breaks, belching long lines of welded steel into the clear air.
But it’s not a submarine. It’s a ship.
(Jason: “You have seen mighty vessels. You have seen all the wonders of the modern world incarnated. This…is something else. Something of war. You’ve seen Morgan’s ship, but this ship dwarfs the Revenge. Same rough shape and layout, but twice the size at least, a wall of metal a sixth of a mile long.”)
Water cascades down the flanks and decks as the superstructure rises higher, pouring around the guns. The ship is absolutely studded with them, the largest a full sixteen-inches in diameter.
(Jim: “Iowa class?”
Jason: “Oh no….”)
Rabenholz slows, circling once to examine it. The ship’s paint has been eroded by rust and age, but they can just make out a red and black logo of a swastika painted across the deck.
(Jim: *clicking through Wikipedia, realization sets in* “…The Bismarck.”)
The ship has barely stabilized at the surface when a forest of guns swivel to life up and down its length, all aiming toward the small figures zooming overhead.
(Chris: “Celerity 3, and…parry?”)
The tropical night air turns into Hell. Shells, flares, and tracer fire erupt around them, battering them with light and sound, concussive waves knocking Anstis off Rabenholz’s shoulder. Rabenholz grabs the parrot from the air, tucks him under his arm, and dives toward the ship, dodging and swerving as fast as his heightened senses will allow. A few blasts land too close, licking them with sparks and flame, but they plunge on.
“The bridge!” Anstis squawks as the ship looms closer. Rabenholz adjusts his course toward a line of dark windows glaring out from deep within the superstructure. The assault slows as they reach the ship’s airspace. Anstis tears himself out of Rabenholz’s arms and dives ahead, barrelling toward the bridge. A door to the outside catwalk stands open and he plunges through, shifting back to pirate mid-air, claws already extended to tear Flowers apart–
The bridge is abandoned.
An eerie silence falls, more deafening than the chaos of the attack. Rabenholz alights gracefully on the catwalk and joins Anstis inside. There’s no movement on the bridge or any of the outside decks, the only noise the low drone of the engine.
Anstis slashes at a control panel and growls. “I assume this is another illusion.”
Rabenholz peruses the screens carefully. “It would seem reasonable. In general, warships like this cannot submerge and re-emerge from the ocean.” He turns to Anstis. “No, likely one of two things have happened. Either we are still on your submarine, Captain, and we have been bewitched there this whole time. Or Flowers did successfully redirect your circle, and we could be anywhere.” He checks his pocketwatch. “For all we know, we could be outside and he is merely waiting for the sun to rise.”
“Anstis….” Flowers’s voice whispers around them, sourceless and ubiquitous.
Anstis glares around the bridge, hands on his hips. “What now, Flowers?”
“Have you been enjoying yourself, boy?”
“I’ll admit ye have some skill.”
“Some skill? You don’t know the half of it, son. But I’ll let you think about that. You haven’t got much else to do, after all….”
Laughter slides around then like dark water, then fades. As it does, the bridge of the ship disappears, as does the rest of the ship around them. Rabenholz and Anstis find themselves in an office room, next to a teleportation circle.
The Pyramid teleportation circle, the one they supposedly went through to get to the Twilight’s Fortune.
Rabenholz and Anstis stare around and at each other, momentarily too shocked to even register that all their fire damage has disappeared. They both jump, though, as a light knock echoes on the door and a ghoul sticks her head in. “Um, Mr. Rabenholz sir? One hour till sunrise.”
Rabenholz looks at his pocketwatch again, still in his hand. “Ah. Yes. Very good, thank you.”
The ghoul nods and leaves.
Antis stands frozen, eye glaring toward infinity. “…I hate Flowers.”
As Georgia grapples with the meaning of this literary revelation, ringing suddenly echoes through the hut. She instinctively checks for her missing phone, then realizes the ringing is coming from her hand. From the ring.
She puts the ring on, then cups her hand and holds it up to her ear. “Hello?”
“Ms. Johnson?” a female voice greets her.
“Who is this?”
(Me: “God, I haven’t interacted directly with Georgia in, like…ever, maybe….”)
“My name is Scout,” the voice says. “I believe we’ve met. I’ve been working with Lord Rabenholz, assisting with some of his business around the city.”
Georgia processes this. “Ah. Yes. Good for you.”
“With the recent unfortunate expiring of Mr. Vannevar Hughes, I assume you are going to be reclaiming your position as Regent of the city?”
“Uh…maybe. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you seem to be an ally of our Lord Rabenholz and I wanted to offer you any assistance you may need in securing your property.”
Georgia smiles into her cupped hand. “Oh, thank you. It’s so helpful to make friends. They just come with more and more friends.”
“Excellent. Do you have need of my assistance this evening?”
“Absolutely. Can you send a car to get me?”
“Where are you?”
“No idea. Hold on, let me see if this thing can send you my location.” Georgia twists the ring around her finger a couple times. “Any luck?”
There’s a pause. “I don’t think so…. Can you drop a pin on your location?”
“Absolutely.” Georgia looks around the hut. “I don’t seem to have a pin.”
“I mean on your phone. There may be an app or–”
“Oh, I don’t have a phone.”
Scout is silent a moment. “…Then how are we speaking?”
“With our voices.”
(Me: “And now I realize why I haven’t interacted directly with Georgia.”)
Scout’s sigh caries clearly through the connection. “Look around you, can you see something to tell you where you are?”
Georgia peers out the hut door. “Oh, well, it’s dark, and I’m in a shack. In a forest.”
“You’re outside the city? Can you see maybe the glow of the city in the distance?”
“No. I think I might be in ancient Germany.” Georgia pauses a moment. “There’s a thane,” she adds helpfully, “but I don’t think he has a phone.”
Another moment as Scout parses this. “Did…you go to the renaissance fair?”
“Oh no, I think this is pre-Renaissance.”
“…Okay. How did you get to where you are?”
Georgia beams, back on familiar ground. “Ah! There was a dial that said don’t turn to the right, and I turned it to the right.”
“…Did it go to eleven?”
Georgia frowns. “No, there weren’t any numbers on it.”
“Where was this dial?”
“In Sutro Tower, in a secret room in the lab.”
“Where we found the possibly-dead mage?”
“Yes! Dr. von Natsi! He’s not dead, actually, he’s here.” She glances down at him. “But he’s not healthy.”
“…Do you think he turned the same dial to get to where you are?”
“Probably, yeah.” She cocks her head. “Though I’m not sure why he did after he put the note on it not to do it. Or how he put the note on it after he did it. But it was definitely his handwriting.”
There’s a sound of Scout taking a slow breath. “So you don’t have a phone with you, even though I’m able to speak with you, which means I assume you’re not able to call out?”
“Would you like me to pass any messages along?”
“Yes! Can you ask Lord Rabenholz to come get me, please?”
“I will do my best.”
Georgia kneels down to adjust von Natsi’s furs tighter around him. “Thank you. Oh! Also, do you know Victoria Lovelace?”
“Well you should contact her and tell her what I told you.”
“…Do you have her number?”
There’s a long pause. “…Do you have it on you?” Scout prompts.
“Ah, no. But there’s a rolodex on my desk in the Chantry Regent’s office, her card should be there. And I have no wards, so you can just walk right in.”
“…That seems convenient,” Scout says carefully. “I will pass your message along to Lord Rabenholz and see what we can do about returning you to…not the past.”
“Great! Thank you! In the meantime, let’s just both keep moving forward in time, shall we?”
“Pardon me,” a new voice suddenly says in their inexplicable connection, “I need to interrupt this conversation a moment.”
Georgia looks around the hut, but no one else is there. “Oh hello, who’s this?”
“No one in particular,” the voice says. “I just wanted to inform you I had to interrupt you now.”
(Me: “Can we both hear this?
Kara: “Is it a voice I recognize?”
Jason: “No. The voice sounds as though…okay, so, picture the most hideous alien voice you can imagine, from a low-grade horror movie.”
Me: “With like a theremin and shit in the background?”
Jason: “Yeah. It sounds like horrifying theremin shit. And yet, the voice is endeavouring to use the most calming tone possible. It’s as if Smaug was trying to talk like Woody Allen.”)
“Will you have to interrupt us again?” Georgia asks.
“I should think not,” the alien voice says.
“Will we have to interrupt you?”
“I should think not.”
“So this is just a one-time thing?”
“I should think so.”
“Is there anything further you wish to convey?”
There’s a pause. “What is it?” Georgia prompts.
“I do not think it prudent to speak on that subject at this moment,” the voice says flatly.
Georgia considers this, then nods. “Makes sense.”
“Who are you?” Scout chimes in finally, the only one in the connection with any hint of nervousness in the voice.
“Oh, me?” the voice replies after a moment. “I am a metaphorical allegory for pre-Christian lack of enlightenment.”
Scout considers this a moment. “Georgia, did you fall into a liberal arts conference?”
(Jason: “In a very real sense, you all have.”)
“What do you want from us?” Scout asks.
“To shatter your wills and grind them into paste beneath my booted feet,” the voice says frankly.
“Oh, I’d rather you didn’t do that,” Georgia replies. “I’m using my will.”
“That is unfortunate,” the voice says. “And no, you aren’t.”
Georgia blinks. “Could you maybe wait a long time before you do that?”
“That’s…inconvenient for me.”
“Yes. We apologize for the inconvenience. “
“Is that the royal ‘we,’ or is someone else there?” Georgia asks suspiciously.
(Me: “Oh my god, it’s like fighting Georgia with Georgia.”)
“In any event,” the voice says, “it was very nice to talk to you.” With that the entire connection ends.
Georgia twists the ring. “Hello? Hello??”
“I’m right here,” says the same unearthly voice, this time right behind her. Georgia freezes, then turns slowly to see a humanoid figure step from the shadows of the hut….
…Revealing the most average-looking human man she has ever seen. Average grey suit, average black shoes, and a painfully average face, as if a picture of every person on Earth was run through a photoshop amalgam program.
(Jason: “Something about him is so symmetrical he’s almost alien.”
Me: “Or super handsome…?”
Jason: “Kinda both.”
Chris: “Well, he’s radially symmetric, so….”)
Georgia curtsies. “Hello. How are you?”
The bland man stares at her without blinking. “Reasonably alright. I am in agonizing pain.”
“Oh. Is there anything I can do about that?”
He cocks his head. “Can you alleviate the meaninglessness of existence?”
“No. Can you?”
“No. No one can.”
“I didn’t think so.” Georgia gestures at von Natsi. “He’s suffering from other things. Can you help him?”
The man eyes the mage. “Yes.”
“Will you help him?”
He turns back to her. “No.”
Georgia stiffens. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?”
“Ah, but there is a possibility?”
“Well, anything is possible in a quantum universe.”
Dr. von Natsi suddenly groans on the floor. Georgia and the man glance at him, then back to each other.
“Can I get you anything?” Georgia offers, looking around. “A fur, maybe? Or…dirt?”
A thin smile plays across his average face. “Your will.”
Georgia tenses slightly. “Oh, I’ve already told you I can’t give that to you.”
“Because I have to grind it out of you.”
“Because that is what I have to do.”
Georgia stares. “What happens after that?”
“You remain in a state of existential despair for the rest of eternity.”
“I’d…like to avoid that.
He smiles. “That’s unfortunate.”
Georgia grins and raises a finger. “But possible!”
“Everything is possible. Just highly improbable.”
Georgia’s grin fades. “What information are you willing to give me?”
The bland man considers a moment. “That your existence is meaningless.”
“Well, I know that.”
“No, you don’t. But you will.”
Silence falls in the hut, no sound but the drip of rain from the leaking thatch. “What information about Dr. von Natsi are you willing to give me?” Georgia asks finally.
The bland man nods eagerly. “Ah, his existence is also meaningless. But he’s understood that. You see, science doesn’t work.”
Georgia stares at him a long moment. “No, I don’t see.”
“Really? Science is illusionary. It’s an attempt on the part of a finite mind to encompass the infinite, through the means of helpful fictional analogues.”
Georgia parses this. “So your argument is that it’s imperfect?”
“No, my argument is that it’s useless.” His grey gaze flicks over her. “You’re a walking corpse. Is that possible per the dictates of science? Don’t you violate the second law of thermodynamics by your very existence?”
Georgia considers this a long moment. “…No?”
The man grins. “I think you might.”
“Science isn’t about agreement. Your opinion is irrelevant.”
“I suppose that’s true….” She shrugs. “So, I exist–”
“No, you don’t,” he interrupts.
Georgia stares at him a long moment, then kicks his shins. He smiles back in the most irritating way possible.
Georgia stands back over the pile of furs and folds her arms authoritatively. “I would like to take Dr. vonNatsi home now.”
The bland man eyes the furs dispassionately. “Oh, he can’t go home.”
Georgia bristles. “Why not?”
“Because he violated causality.”
“By doing what?”
“Magic.” The man steps carefully across the hut to approach her. “Why did you lie before? To the other person.”
“You said it was good to have friends.”
“It is good to have friends.”
He cocks his head. “How would you know?”
Georgia stiffens. “I have friends–”
“No, you don’t. You had. You don’t have them anymore.”
“Yes I do!”
“No, you don’t. You ate them. Why?”
Georgia falls still. “It was necessary.”
“Really. Necessary for what?”
“To proceed with the agreement we made. That I would become a mage and fix the Tremere clan.”
The bland man shakes his head. “But the Tremere clan can’t be fixed. You’re going to destroy the Tremere clan.”
Silence lingers in the hut. “Yes,” Georgia says finally, softly.
Georgia takes a breath. “Then…it will be all better.”
“No, then the clan will be destroyed.”
“Then I’ll make a new one that’s better.”
He smiles. “No. You won’t.”
“Well, I’ll try.”
“No. You won’t.”
Georgia glares, then gestures dismissively. “Then maybe I’ll just study.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then what will I do?”
He takes a slow breath. “Terrible things,” he says calmly.
Georgia eyes him a moment. “We all do terrible things.”
The man smiles thinly. “No. Some of us just say that to make ourselves feel better.”
(Jason: “Is this character annoying?”
Jason: “I’m sorry.”
Kara: “No. You’re not.”)
After the connection cuts, Scout immediately tries calling Georgia back, but it shunts right to voicemail each time. Eventually she gives up and calls Rabenholz instead. She leans against a wall and stares at the sparse late-night traffic of Columbus Avenue as it connects.
“Ms. Scout,” he greets her.
“Lord Rabenholz. I have a message for you from Ms. Johnson. She appears to be stuck in the past, in Germany.”
The buzz of traffic fills her other ear in the silence that follows. “…That is unusual,” Rabenholz says finally.
“Yes. She also claims to have found the dead mage, who apparently isn’t dead, just badly injured in some way. Since they have no way back she asked to be rescued.”
“…Did she explain how she got to the past?”
Scout waits for a drunken couple to pass on the sidewalk before continuing. “Yes, something about a secret room in the mage’s lab where she turned a dial to the right.”
“Hmm.” Rabenholz falls silent a moment. “Thank you very much for the information.”
“You’re welcome. How has your evening been going?”
“…Intriguing,” Rabenholz says finally. “Captain Anstis keeps unusual company.”
“Yes. That is what I’ve heard,” she says grimly. “Should you need my assistance, let me know.”
“Actually I might. I have a man working for me by the name of Ben Smith. He should still be awaiting the return of Captain Anstis and Marcus Sertorius at Candlestick Park. In any case, Captain Anstis has returned by other means and I have other uses for Mr. Smith. If you would find him, instruct him to meet me at my penthouse at the Westin St. Francis I would be much obliged.”
Scout hesitates a moment, then nods. “I shall handle it before the end of this evening.”
“Very good.” Rabenholz hangs up. Scout watches the late-night neighborhood a long moment, thinking.
(Jason: “Do you go to Candlestick Park?”
Me: “No. I go back to the Chantry.”)
After hanging up the call with Scout, Rabenholz and Anstis exit the Pyramid, via foot this time. “Captain, what are you preparing to do now?” Rabenholz asks as they reach the street.
Anstis glowers. “Uncertain. I need to learn more about Ravnos.”
Rabenholz nods vaguely, scanning the street for the driver Rhona hired. “I’ve met them before, but never one so…obnoxious.”
Just then, Anstis’s phone rings. Both men tense and stare at his pocket. After a few more rings, Anstis pulls it out to answer.”…Yes?”
“Captain,” a lightly-accented voice answers. “This is Xiang Li Wong. Might we speak?”
Anstis’s relief at the call not being from Flowers evaporates as he realizes a Giovanni is asking to speak with him. “…Certainly.”
“Come to the Temple of Eternal Brotherhood.”
“I’ll be there shortly.” Anstis hangs up.
Rabenholz eyes him. “Captain is there anything you need to complete your preparations for my party tomorrow evening?”
Anstis smooths at his coat. “I’d like to walk the building one more time to make sure no more traps have appeared.”
“Very good. Remember, I am entrusting the security of my event to you. If something goes wrong, Mr. Lytton is on the line for you. As is our future relationship.”
Anstis nods to him, then drops into parrot-form and launches into the air, toward Chinatown.
Scout returns to the front of the Chantry and hoists open the heavy wood doors. She steps through into the darkness of the foyer, unobfuscated this time–
–Then stops as a figure holding a knife appears in front of her. A small, middle-aged man, in ghoul robes and glasses stares up at her, the knife in his hands shaking.
Scout closes the doors behind her. “I assume you work for the Regent.”
“Yes,” he replies with a slight squeak. “I’m Bob. Head ghoul.”
Scout approaches him, straightening her suit jacket. “Regent Johnson sent me to collect some information for her.”
“Yes. She seems to be stuck in the past and I need to contact someone. The information I need is only available in her office.”
“Oh…” Bob lowers the knife, then suddenly tenses and jerks it back up again. “Wait, how do I know?!”
Scout eyes him down the length of his trembling knife. “I asked her if she had the phone number and she said yes. Then I asked her if she had it on her and she said no.”
The knife droops again. “That…sounds like the Regent…. Who are you?”
“My name is Scout.”
Bob looks her over. “Are you Tremere?”
He glances over his shoulder, down the long hall behind him. “I’m not supposed to let you in.”
Scout gives him a long, flat stare. Bob takes a step back. She follows, glancing over his shoulder. “Is anyone else home, Bob?”
His head bobs rapidly. “Yes.”
Suddenly a massive, cold grip engulfs Scout’s shoulder, wrenching her off her feet and dragging her down the hall. She shouts and flails, twisting around to see the form of gargoyle stomping along ahead of her.
“You are not Tremere,” the gargoyle growls. “You are a trespasser and must be slain.”
“Should I contact your mistress to clear up–” She’s cut off as he shifts his grip to her throat. Sputtering, she gropes at her pocket for her phone.
The gargoyle throws open a door and storms into a parlor room, dragging her behind, then lifts her one-handed and throws her into a wooden chair in the middle. Scout coughs, healing her crushed throat, while the gargoyle grabs chains and starts strapping her down. She struggles against them, lifting the hand holding the phone as high as she can–
(Me: “Georgia’s voice comes out of my phone.”
Jason: *smiles and nods in approval* “What does it say?”)
“Stop what you’re doing!” Georgia’s voice suddenly echoes from the phone.
(Chris: “Wait, is this ventriloquism?”
Jason: “Of a sort.”
Chris: “…Oh my god, it’s more Ravnos bullshit!”)
The gargoyle stops. “Second Master?”
“I sent this woman to get some information for me. Let her find what she needs.”
“But I was going to slay your enemies, Second Master.”
Scout frowns. “She is not your enemy!”
“Oh. Shall I not show her the film, Second Master?” He turns to stare forlornly at a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall.
“Ah, no. Not right now.”
The gargoyle’s wings droop. “Yes, Second Master.”
He unwinds the chains from Scout’s chair, then twists them nervously in his hands. “…May I play the film anyway, Second Master?”
Scout stares, then holds the phone up again. “…Yes, you may watch the film. Do not leave until you finish watching the film.”
A grin like the sun breaks across his face. He dumps the chains in the corner, then rushes to grab a remote. As the Disney logo boots up on the screen, he sits down heavily in a cross-legged pose, the DVD case for Up clutched eagerly in his hands.
Scout puts her phone away and gets out of the chair, stretching her bruised shoulder and eyeing the gargoyle oddly. She turns to see Bob lurking in the doorway. “Did you hear what the Regent said?” she asks.
Bob nods eagerly. “Y-yes! I would never question!”
“Good. Why don’t you stay here and watch the video.”
Bob tenses. “Are…are you going to tell the Regent….”
Scout approaches him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “That you’ve done a good job? Yes.”
Bob falls to his knees in front of her. “Oh thank you, thank you….”
Scout pries her pants out of his grip, carefully steps over him, then heads down the hall.
She reaches the office rapidly, remembering its location from her survey of the building earlier. She scans the room once, taking in the blood-red velvets and hardwood furnishings, then walks to the desk. The rolodex is clearly visible on top, but at the moment a bright yellow cat is sitting on top of it. Scout tries to shoo it away, but it just blinks back at her. She sighs and moves to lift it–
–Then stumbles at the surprising weight of the animal.
Scout lets go and steps back, perplexed. The cat hasn’t moved an inch and the rolodex is still cleanly pinned underneath it. Her fingers drum against the wood.
(Me: “…Whatever. That’s not what I came for anyway.”)
Scout sits in the desk chair, pulling out her phone and placing a call. She leans back as it rings.
“Yes?” Thrace answers.
“I’m in the Chantry office.”
“…So soon. Impressive. How did you bypass the guards?”
Scout smiles thinly. “Let’s just say I have experience with these sorts of people.”
(Jim: “They got caught Up.”)
“I understand,” Thrace replies grimly. “Can you acquire what you need?”
“I can, but I need you to meet me.”
“Some affairs have come up and I am some time away. An hour at most. Non-negotiable.”
Scout frowns, but nods. “I can wait. Ms. Johnson is apparently stuck in the past and Lord Rabenholz is on his way to meet her. So things will be quiet around here for some time.”
Thrace is silent a moment as he considers this. “I seriously doubt that, but they may be quieter than otherwise. I will see you when I arrive. Take care to ensure I am received properly.” He hangs up.
Scout tucks her phone away, noticing then that the cat is staring at her.
Jason: “It’s a cat.”
Me: “So yes.”)
Suddenly the cat stands up off the rolodex, stretches, drops off the desk, and strides from the room. Scout picks up the deck and idly flips through, eventually reaching the card of Victoria Lovelace, hard to miss with its elegant script and embossed motifs of gears gilding the corners. Gears which are slowly moving.
Scout’s fingers hover over it, then pull it off the roll.
(Jason: “Do you call Victoria Lovelace?”
Me: “I don’t know, do I? …I mean, I guess there’s no reason not to, and it might be kind of interesting, so…sure, why not.”)
Scout pulls her phone out again and dials. After a moment, a recorded-sounding voice comes on, “This is the answering machine of Victoria Lovelace, please leave a message.”
Scout clears her throat and falls into voicemail-cadence, “Hello Ms. Lovelace, my name is Scout–”
Scout’s professional rhythm falters. “…Is…this still the voicemail?”
“Of course, this is a recording, perfectly calibrated to respond to the statements you are going to make.”
(Me: *face in hands* “Oh my god, there is so much mage bullshit happening today, you guys….”)
Scout considers this a moment, then moves on. “I am calling on behalf of Ms. Georgia Johnson. She appears to be stuck in the past and claimed you would be one of the few people actually able to help retrieve her.”
“That’s a very interesting conundrum.”
“She also said she found the other missing mage.Mr. von Natsi.”
The recorded voice falls silent a moment. “I see…did she indicate how she came to be in this predicament?”
“She said something about a dial in a box in the lab in the tower.”
“Oh dear. And she indicated she entered the past?”
“Yes, she said ancient Germany. Oh, and someone interrupted our conversation. Someone rather…strange. He called himself…a metaphorical allegory–”
“--for pre-Christian lack of enlightenment,” the recording finishes for her. “Yes, I’m afraid that makes sense. Thank you for this information. When Ms. Lovelace retrieves this message I’m sure she will be happy to hear it.”
“I’m glad to be of help.”
“No, I’m not sure where one would find a kumquat that size.”
Scout hangs up, then goes back to the parlor room to check on Bob and the gargoyle, both sitting on the floor staring up at the screen in awe.
(Jason: “It’s been just long enough to reach the saddest part.”
Me: “What? No! That’s in the very beginning–”
Jason: “You haven’t been gone for that long.”
Me: “But Scout hasn’t seen it, she has no story context for whats happe–
Jason: “Self control roll.”)
Scout watches the movie over their shoulders a few minutes. As she feels her eyes misting red, though, she clears her throat and steps forward. “Gentlemen.”
The gargoyle pauses the movie and they both turn to her.
“Bob, and…I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
The gargoyle taps the DVD case in his hand, pointing out the dog printed on the front. “I am called Dug.”
Scout stares flatly. “…Right. The Regent has a visitor coming soon. Be sure to let him in and treat him with great respect.”
Bob’s eyes narrow. “Is he…Tremere?”
“As a matter of fact he is.”
Dug nods sagely. “Third Master. I will not slay him, Non-Master.”
Scout watches them a long moment, glancing once more at the cartoon paused on the screen. “Actually…I recommend you simply stay out of his way. Both of you.” She hesitates. “Please.”
Before they can respond, she leaves to go back to the office. And wait.
Georgia is sitting next to von Natsi’s pile of furs, occupying herself by trying to fix the leather strap of his twig-rimmed goggles, when suddenly the ring rings again. Georgia carefully twists it.
“Ms. Johnson?” a soft British voice echoes from her finger. “This is Victoria Lovelace.”
Georgia puts down the goggles and makes an attempt at brushing the mud off her robes. “Ah, lovely to hear from you.”
“Am I correct in that you’re are in a rather strange location?”
“Can you describe it in any way?”
“Yes!” Georgia says brightly.
(Kara: “She goes on to describe it.”
Jim: “…Who are you and what have you done with Georgia?”
Kara: “You know, she does actually cooperate. Most of the time.”
Me: “When she realizes that if she doesn’t, something bad could happen.”
Kara: “Well, yeah. Do you cooperate unless you realize it’s in your best interest?”
“I’m afraid a primeval forest is not the most particular of locales,” Lovelace replies, “but you did discover Dr vonNatsi?”
Georgia looks sadly at the furs. “Yes, though he does seem to be in need of medical attention.”
“Oh dear….” There’s a slight quaver to Lovelace’s voice. “Tell me, did you recently visit the doctor’s lab?”
“Did you happen to turn a certain dial to the right despite explicit instructions not to?”
A pause. “…Oh dear.”
“I turned it to the left first,” Georgia adds helpfully.
“Well, turning it to the left would have had no effect, but by turning it to the right, you have activated Dr. von Natsi’s golem.”
Georgia’s eyes widen. “Oh!” she blurts, then hesitates. “…I mean, oh no, how do I deactivate it?”
“I’m afraid it already has been deactivated. By the universe.”
“Well, that’s good,” Georgia says, clearly not believing it.
“Yes, except I’m afraid the universe is not very happy with you at the moment.” Lovelace hesitates a long moment. “This is a bit of an impertinent question, but…do you happen to be awakened?”
Georgia falls still. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re in a paradox realm. And that is…rather strictly and tautologically impossible, unless you happen to possess an awakened avatar.”
“I see. Well, that’s curious, isn’t it?” Georgia laughs awkwardly.
“Rather. Do you possess an awakened avatar?”
Georgia’s laugh dies. “Will the answer change whether or not I’m able to get out of this realm?”
Lovelace considers this a moment, “No, I suppose it would not.”
“Then I suggest we move forward with the rescue operation, since Dr. von Natsi is not looking well at all.”
Lovelace sighs. “No, he has been subjected to a very powerful, very persistent paradox realm. One that I suspect has been infested with a paradox spirit.”
Georgia blinks, then stares at the corner the bland man disappeared into. “Ah, is that what I spoke to?”
“I believe so.”
“Hmm.” Georgia climbs awkwardly to her feet. “How do I get us out?”
“Well that’s a rather tricky question. See, a paradox realm operates by its own rules, and those rules are rather arbitrarily enforced. Do you understand what paradox is?”
Georgia’s hand twitches instinctively for her bag of books, then stops as she remembers it’s missing. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I do.”
“If one should attempt a minor miracle, water to wine and the like, one might be punished by paradox in having one’s eyeglasses turned to lead, or one’s watch to spin backwards. If one was to perform a rather public and messy miracle, such as hurling fireballs down the street or levitating cars, one might be punished by paradox with a rather poor physical strike to the sternum, or having one’s brain addled for the next three weeks.” Lovelace takes a breath. “What Dr. von Natsi–and subsequently yourself–did was sufficient to cause paradox to remove him and then you from reality and entrap you in a nihilistic allegorical domain conjured out of pure reason. From which there does not seem to be a temporal escape.”
Georgia stares at the mud walls. “Well that’s unfortunate.”
“It is. Tell me, this allegorical space you’ve inhabited? Have you had any hints about where you are?”
Georgia glances down at von Natsi, muttering lines from the poem in his sleep once again. “I might be in a Beowulf poem…?”
Lovelace is silent a long moment. “…Oh, dear….”
“I still don’t understand how that’s possible.”
“Almost anything is possible in a paradox realm. Which does raise the question again, how in the world did you manage to enter one? I appreciate, of course, you practice blood sorcery and in a sense you are a mage, but you are not a willworker.”
Georgia fidgets with the piping on her robes. “Well…I’m rather a more proper mage than last time we met.”
This time, Lovelace’s silence has a chilly edge to it. “…You’re what?”
Georgia sighs. “It’s been an interesting week.”
“If I might clarify…are you saying you have undergone a metaphysical transformation the likes of which should be didactically impossible, in this or any other of the many worlds, or that you have acquired a pointy hat?”
“More the first one,” Georgia says calmly. “I am still lacking a good hat. If you know of any reputable haberdashers open at night–”
“Ms. Johnson,” Lovelace interrupts sharply, “Are you capable of true magic?”
Georgia falters. “Well…a little bit. Not a lot. Yet.”
“I’m afraid it’s something of a binary question.”
“Magic,” Georgia says brightly.
The rain outside thunders in the lingering silence. “…Of course,” Lovelace mutters finally.
“The world really is more mutable than it first appears, you know.”
“At some point we should have tea and discuss it. Assuming, of course, you don’t use it as a pretense to murder me.”
“I am not planning it at all, I am just rather mystified. I would have thought the universe itself would have murdered you.”
“Perhaps that’s why I’m in the paradox realm?”
“My understanding is you’re in the paradox realm because you attempted to follow in the footsteps of Dr. vonNatsi by activating the golem,” Lovelace says.
Georgia scans the hut disdainfully again. “Well, I have two questions: can you help me out of it, and what is the nature of the golem?”
“Well…. On the second question, I’m not certain. You see, the only way for me to determine that experimentally is to activate it, and then I would be in a paradox realm as well. As for helping you out of it…I imagine this is your first encounter with a paradox realm?”
“Yes. Unless you count Pluto.”
“Pluto wasn’t a paradox realm, it was a shard realm.”
Georgia rolls her eyes. “How do you people keep all these realms straight?”
“We attend university.”
Georgia gasps and clasps her hands together. “…Can I??”
“Under normal circumstances I would say no, but…well, I’m not sure anymore.” Lovelace sighs. “Anyway, the difficulty in a paradox realm is that your attempts to escape run contrary to the nature of the realm. Forcing your way out is simply impossible. And for me to join you would require more energy than is output by most of the galaxy.”
“I see. So I have to get out of here on my own.”
“Yes. Now, fortunately, a paradox realm must contain an escape, it’s a uniform requirement. Sort of a memetic thermodynamic law. The difficulty is, you do have to play along with the realm to do so. It operates along certain immutable logical rules and once you understand them, you can escape. But those rules are often set up contrary to the intentions–and often beliefs–of those imprisoned within them. So the thing to keep in mind is this realm was not created for you, but for Dr. von Natsi. Which is why I imagine you have encountered swords and trees and not science and technology.”
“Ahh.” Georgia nods and pats von Natsi’s furs comfortingly.
“So if this is Beowulf, you should need, I expect, to confront Grendel. And most likely his mother. And probably a dragon as well. As to how you might go about confronting them, well, you do have a sword, but it’s rarely that simple. It may require something else.” Lovelace hesitates. “One thing I will point out, in the saga of Beowulf, Grendel is not slain with a sword. He is wrestled to death.”
“Oh goodness. Well, alright then.” Georgia moves to a corner of the hut and starts doing some stretches.
“Look for a hall, perhaps. And…do take care of Dr. vonNatsi. He is…a most valued colleague.”
Something lingers under Lovelace’s words, an insinuation as subtle as her magic, but Georgia–heart long dead–doesn’t notice. “I’m sure he would be cheered to hear that,” she says brightly, moving into a series of squats.
“Is he in a position to speak?”
Georgia checks on the furs. “Not coherently, no.”
“…Very well. You may require some luck with this. I wish it to you.”
The connection through the ring ends. Georgia finishes her warmup, tucks the rusted sword through the belt of her robes, carefully gathers von Natsi up in the heaviest of the furs, then–cradling him to her chest–ducks back out of the hut and into the rain.
END OF NIGHT