Me: “Is…Paul trying to fix the werewolves through…?”
Jason: “…Synergistic Management Solutions, yes.”
ANTIOCH AIRFIELD: RABENHOLZ AND ANSTIS
Rabenholz watches Laerte’s dissolving corpse a moment, then summons flame to char it more, ensuring that all pieces are immediately burned to ash. The wind picks up, scattering the char as Rabenholz turns to walk away. Anstis lingers, confused, but Everton follows after Rabenholz.
“Lord Rabenholz,” Everton says as he catches up, “Are you familiar with the story of Lucius Cornelius Sulla?”
Rabenholz doesn’t pause. “Some, though I am unsure how it relates.”
“Lucius Cornelius Sulla waged a blood feud with his arch enemy, Gaius Marius. When Marius died and Sulla became emperor of Rome in all but name, he arranged to have Marius’s body exhumed from its tomb. Dragged it to a place of dishonor, and burnt it. But as he watched it go up in smoke, he realized he’d made a terrible error. One he could never recover from. For he would never now be certain that wherever he went in his life, or even after his death, some tiny fleck of Marius would not settle upon him.”
Rabenholz stops and turns to face him. “It’s not the ashes I worry about, its what someone with Captain Anstis’s talent might do with them. It seems in recent times one’s foes do not always stay vanquished.”
Everton smirks. “I have heard that rumor.”
Rabenholz’s phone suddenly buzzes with an incoming call. He pulls it out to look at the screen. It’s Scout.
Everton peers slyly at the caller ID on the screen. “Ah, Ms. Scout.”
The phone continues to buzz. “Yes, our local illusionist,” Rabenholz says.
“So you’ve discovered that about her as well, have you?”
“I have, and suspect she has been using it against me for her own ulterior purposes.”
Everton lifts an eyebrow, glancing at the phone again. “And yet you maintain professional contact with her?”
“We shall see.” Rabenholz lifts the phone and answers. “Ms. Scout. How goes your evening?”
“Interesting,” she says coolly. “Regarding current events surrounding the possible end of the world, I was advised to ensure that Tom Lytton made his way to Mt. Diablo. I did the best I could on this front but he has not arrived and it has been some time.”
“Advised by whom?”
“I maintain client confidentiality.”
Rabenholz peers around suspiciously. “Where are you?”
“As I said, I’m trying to stop the end of the world on Mount Diablo.”
Rabenholz continues to scan around him, focusing intently on subtle clues that might indicate someone under obfuscate nearby. “So since you are there and do not know the location of Mr. Lytton, I assume you were unsuccessful in bringing them here. And you felt the need to inform me of this instead of your client?”
“I am calling to see if you have seen Tom Lytton.” She pauses. “I know you and I are not on best terms, but this is an extenuating circumstance, considering aforementioned possible end of the world.”
“I’m afraid the last report I heard on Mr Lytton came from Mr Bell, who told me that in fact it was you who allowed Lytton to escape using…what was it…dirty chimerstry illusions?”
There’s a long silence. “As I said, client confidentiality,” Scout replies finally.
“Well then no, I’m sorry I don’t know where Mr. Lytton is. I of course wish you the best on your search, but I can’t imagine Mr. Lytton saving his own asshole, let alone the world. If you do find him hanging around, though, please send him back. He really tied the room together.”
(Me: *glares daggers across the table* “Does Rabenholz get that reference?”
Chris: “Rabenholz isn’t making that reference, I am.”)
This time, the lingering silence is deafening. “Well,” Scout says finally. “This has been pleasant and professional. Good luck in the coming business year.” She hangs up.
(Me: “I don’t know if Scout has seen Arrested Development, but…fuck it.”
Chris: “I think most of Rabenholz’s exposure to television has been World War 2 documentaries.”)
Rabenholz tucks his phone away. Everton has wandered back toward Anstis, leaving Rabenholz alone on the tarmac. He starts to walk toward them, until a sudden voice echoes in his head: Rabenholz….
Rabenholz stops. “Yes, my master,” he murmurs.
There has been a disturbance. Events have been sent in motion which cannot be undone. You have sworn to serve my interests in this and other things.
“Yes, my master.”
I command you. The Pirate and the Ravnos will try to stop what comes from the mountain. They must not. Silence them.
He glances at Anstis, now crouched near one of the sheds at the edge of the airfield, well out of even Auspex-enhanced hearing. “Yes, my master. Do you wish the werewolves destroyed, my master?”
No. not yet. They must complete their work. Let them burn it all. The presence in Rabenholz’s head leaves suddenly as it came.
Rabenholz straightens his cloak and strides toward Anstis.
(Me: “Wait, I still don’t understand. Are you working for Perpenna or against him?”
Chris: “That is correct, you do not understand.”)
Moments before, as Rabenholz and Everton walked away, movement in the shadows of a nearby shed catches Anstis’s eye. A small figure peers back at him. Noah.
“Noah!” Anstis hurries closer. “Where have you been?”
The young Malkavian stares up at him with wide eyes. “He is coming.”
Ansits kneels down. “Who is coming?”
“The man. The man he works for….” Noah stares over Anstis’s shoulder at Rabenholz in the distance.
Anstis looks at the dead ashes behind them. “Aye, The King Laertes. He came, and was defeated.”
“No…the one he doesn’t run from. He is angry, and will spread the fire.”
Anstis frowns. “Who? Who does Rabenholz work for?”
Noah falls silent. After a moment, he inhales a long breath into his small lungs, puffs his cheeks, and slowly blows it out.
Anstis tenses. “You mean the Man of W–?”
“Captain Anstis,” Rabenholz says suddenly from right behind him.
Anstis stands and turns to face him in one fluid movement. “Aye?”
Rabenholz watches him, wind tugging at his cloak, the heavy cloth twisting back to reveal Glitch hung at his hip. “Captain, time is of the essence and there is something very important I need from you.”
Instinctively, Anstis looks away, avoiding Rabenholz’s stare. Behind him, Noah has disappeared. “Aye, name it.”
“It is generally considered polite, Captain, to look at whom you are speaking to.”
Silence falls. Anstis stares off into the dark, hands flexing at his sides as if ready to snap into claws. Rabenholz watches him, motionlessly.
Then they both move at once.
Rabenholz steps forward, forcing himself into Anstis’s line-of-sight and summoning forth the force of Dominate. Before he can open his mouth, though, Anstis dissolves into a shimmering mist.
(Jim: “Can’t stare into my eyes if I don’t have any!”)
The mist holds a moment, then lets itself be carried off into the wind. Rabenholz watches it disappear into the darkness, lips pursed, then turns away.
Everton watches from nearby, his face unreadable.
“Go back to the city,” Rabenholz tells him smoothly. “Tell everyone Anstis is dead. It will be better for him that way.”
Before Everton can respond, Rabenholz levitates himself into the air and sails off into the sky in the direction the mist was heading.
South, toward Mount Diablo.
MOUNT DIABLO: GAVRIL
The root of the tree crashes down on Gavril with widowmaker force. Gavril–surging with werewolf-enhanced strength–stumbles only briefly under its weight, then hoists back to his feet, throwing the wood off. The tree wobbles unsteadily, then falls, crashing and flailing against the dirt. Gavril grins.
Three sets of werewolf-talons suddenly grab his shoulders, digging into his flesh and hauling him off his feet. Gavril snarls and twists against them, gathering his will to summon his Zulo form–
–Until a heavy club cracks against his skull, fracturing bone and knocking him senseless.
Pouring effort into healing instead, Gavril feels himself being dragged higher up the mountain, toward the bonfire. His captors drop him onto bloodsoaked dirt, buffeted by smoke and heat from the flames. He heals his face and looks up to see the massive theurge werewolf looking down at him, holding a chalice, a dagger, and wearing a cloak made of flayed human faces.
Gavril stares at the cloak as he climbs to his feet. “Is not bad work, this craftsmanship.”
The werewolf’s jaws part in a snarl. “Who are you, leech?”
He bows. “Gavril.”
The werewolf suddenly grabs his face in one massive, taloned paw, holding him up to examine in the firelight. It growls again. “A changing leech….”
Gavril peers at his surroundings through the massive fingers clutching his face. Stinking corpses are piled around the fire and dark shapes lurk beyond the firelight, watching him with bright eyes. “What brings so many werewolves to this place?”
His captor sneers. “You do, leech, you and all your ilk.” It drops Gavril back to the dirt and shifts down into human form….
Revealing an old woman, her hair pulled back into a long, grey braid, slightly stooped under the weight of the skin-mantle, but strength radiates from her nevertheless.
(Me: “Oh, it’s that bitch.”)
The woman turns toward the fire, brandishing the dagger and chalice again. “Too many of your kind wander here tonight, but it is no matter. The moon will rise and rage will descend on this festering boil of a monkey-land city, consigning it to the deeps. It and all the leeches that suck the blood from it.”
“And how do you plan to complete this great work?” Gavril asks, ignoring the eyes watching him from the darkness.
“I don’t plan to do anything. I leave it to the spirits. And the spirits, leech, are very, very angry.”
Gavril gestures to the darkened sky. “Is that why the lights are out?”
She glares at him. “That wasn’t us. That was your kind. Cutting the world from the sun so you could walk in the day.” She smirks. “A great leech, thought he could control us to his bidding. But he will be consumed like all the rest.”
“And what makes you think you can stop someone so powerful?”
She stretches her arms, spreading the faces into macabre grins. “Because I have powerful friends.”
“And you think to bring them here?”
“No. I have everything I need underneath your feet.”
She turns away then, not toward the fire, but toward the west. Raising the dagger and chalice high she begins muttering.
Gavril frowns. “When do the fireworks begin?”
“At the end of your life,” she replies calmly, barely breaking her chant.
“And how much longer will that be?”
“Not long. Not long at all.”
Werewolf hands grab Gavril again. This time, though, they shove him down to the earth. He catches a brief glimpse of a stake held in one fist.
Then everything goes black.
WEREWOLF HELL: TOM
The giant three-headed werewolf monster stalks off across the landscape, Sophia in its talons. Without another glance at Norton, I scramble down the cracked-earth slope and start running after. Its ground-eating steps carry them further and further away, but then it slows, approaching one of the massive silver pools. Heat radiates from the liquid as I approach and it shimmers with a subtle skin like molten metal–
Oh my god, I realize, it’s molten silver.
(Me: “Liquid Silver!! Ha, we need to watch Tank Girl.”
Jason: “…What? What the hell does that have to do with Tank Girl?”
Me: “Liquid Silver is the name of that club they go to to find Tank Girl’s little sister after she’s kidnapped.”
Jason: “…The…one where they have the Cole Porter song-and-dance number?”
Me: “Yes!!! OMG I love that movie so much.”
The creature stops in front of the pool. “Hey!!!” I shout as I approach. It ignores me. Without breaking stride, I stoop to pick up a rock and chuck it at him. “She’s not the one you want, asshole!”
One of its heads turns to look at me, staring with lupine intensity down its long muzzle. Another head stares towards the unseen heavens, eyes closed, while the last one looks down at Sophia in its hand. Just as I arrive, it extends its hand, opens it….
…And lets Sophia fall toward the burning metal below.
I don’t even have time to curse before I’m pouring energy into a run, covering the last few feet in a heartbeat and hurling myself through the air. I tackle Sophia as she falls, carrying her to the other side of the pool and crashing to the burnt ground. We’ve barely skidded to a stop before I’m checking on her: she’s alive. Breathing, but unconscious.
Before I can think, I scramble to my feet, scoop her into my arms, and turn to run–
The monster is there, towering in front of us, arms folded and all three sets of eyes aglow with flame. I turn the other way but the pool has expanded, encircling us like a moat. I hesitate, estimating the distance across, deciding how much of my reserves I can dump into another leaping effort, but as I watch the surface of the metal buckles and boils. Skeletal werewolf shapes rise from it, chattering at us in anger and pain. Clutching Sophia close, I back away.
Then she stirs. Her eyes flutter open, focusing on me…then on the massive three-headed monster looming above us.
Instantly, she shifts into her crinos-form, her sudden weight hauling us both back down to the dirt. “Dammit! Girl, no–”
But she stares up at the monster, jaws wide and panting in panic. After a moment, she shrinks back down to human form, as if trying to hide under her overlarge jacket.
I tug at her arm. “Girl, come on, we gotta keep moving–”
Sophia falls to her knees. Not in panic, though. Grovelling.
I stop. “Heeeeeeell no, girl–”
“Tom,” she hisses at me, face pressed against the dead black dirt.
“Fuck no! Don’t kneel to that thing. It was going to kill you, it doesn’t deserve the time of day!” I try to grab her arm to pull her to her feet, but she flinches away.
Above us, the monster suddenly growls, a strange sound echoing out of three throats. I recognize the cadence of the werewolf language, even though I don’t understand it. At its words, Sophia abandons her kow-towing and pulls herself into a ball, whimpering.
At the same time, something in me snaps. Primal fear shocks my muscles, driving me down to the dirt next to Sophia. After a moment, I push the panic back, but my body still quivers too much to stand.
“Tom…” Sophia whispers from the depths of her jacket-cocoon. “…Am I dead?
“No more than I am,” I mutter back, forcing my head up to look around. “Where are we?”
“Erebus, Tom!” she hisses. “This is where we go to get judged. But why are you here? you shouldn’t be allowed in!”
I stare up at the creature looming over us. “Maybe I got called for jury duty?”
The monster’s eyes narrow. It speaks in werewolf again, its voice rolling like thunder across the landscape.
I turn to Sophia, who has finally stopped shaking enough to sit upright again. “What’d it say?”
She closes her eyes. “He is Cerberus, Tom. He says you’re not here as a juror, or even a witness. You’re here as evidence.”
“What!? How the hell am I evidence against you? You didn’t make me.”
“No, but I also didn’t kill you.” She looks away. “And I helped you.”
Wet, slurping sounds echo behind us and I turn to see a shape emerging from the liquid silver pool. It’s a map, or rather a three-dimensional one. Most of it is hillsides rolling down to a wide bay but I can make out the details of tiny buildings scattered in clusters, shining like chrome. It’s not just a map, it’s a perfect model. Of Monterey.
The last of the fear within me melts, replaced by something colder. “You didn’t have anything to do with that,” I murmur.
Cerberus growls again. Sophia winces. “He says that by helping you, I caused it to happen.”
I stare at her a moment, processing this. “…So, what, by that logic if I fail to hit someone with my car and they go on to commit mass-murder, it’s somehow my fault? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Sophia looks down at her lap. “You’re not a werewolf. It makes perfect sense to us.”
“Then ya’ll are idiots.” I force myself back up to my feet. “Look, I don’t know legal shit or nothing, but I know two things. ONE, I did not kill Karl Sutro. And TWO, you’re not responsible for any of my actions–”
I hesitate, glancing up at Cerberus. “…One of which…may have been killing Karl Sutro….”
One of Cerberus’s heads barks an echoing cry like a jackal, it’s eyes flaring.
Sophia finally pulls herself to her feet. “Tom you don’t understand. I’m supposed to kill vampires or die in the attempt.”
“Okay, well there are vampires unfortunately like myself who are currently trying to end the planet, so the longer we hang out here the more time we’re wasting.” I turn to stare up at the god, fighting the lingering waves of panic looking into his eyes sends through me. “So, big picture here, let us go so we can go deal with the assholes who are actually a threat to the world!”
The heads glance at each other, then look back to me and growl.
At the sound, Sophia casts her eyes down again, but this time remains on her feet. “Tom this is Cerberus, he doesn’t care about the big picture.”
“But isn’t that what a judge is supposed to do? Weigh things in the context of the larger situation!?”
“He’s supposed to judge me. Nothing more.”
Cerberus growls again, the sound low enough to be more felt than heard.
Sophia looks away. For the first time, I see tears in her eyes. “He wants to know if you think I’m a coward.”
I gape at her. “What? No! Jesus! Look at all the shit we’ve fought together! Hellbeasts and shadow-monsters and Red Talons–”
Sophia suddenly winces.
I stop. “–What?”
(Jason: “You just told Cerberus that Sophia helped you kill other werewolves.”
My mind races as the realization his. “–I mean, they were trying to kill you first so of course we fought them–”
“They were trying to kill US, Tom,” Sophia suddenly snaps. “Because I was with you.”
The thought shuts me up faster than the monster’s growls. All the time we’ve spent together over the last few months, all the enemies we’ve fought…. Yes, she had been pulled into some of my bullshit, but I’d assumed that it’d been balanced out by me being pulled into hers. It had never occured to me that being around me was what was causing her bullshit in the first place.
I feel Cerberus’s gaze bore into me as I stare at her, trying to process a response. “…So…essentially the summary I’m getting here is that there are rules that cannot be broken, except when you guys break them all the time.”
Sophia scowls. “Yeah kinda.”
“Then I don’t see why I’m the crazy one here.”
She plays with the zipper of the jacket. “I don’t think you are.”
A silence lingers. After a moment, Cerberus growls again.
“He wants to know if you have anything pertinent to say,” Sophia says.
I fight back a groan. Clearly the situation calls for bargaining and subtle debate, which really isn’t my specialty, but, when in Hell….
I look up at Cerberus. “So…it seems like the point of your species is to protect the world, and believe it or not, that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do. And I know the ends don’t justify the means, but if this is something that needs to be dealt with, certainly it can wait until we deal with the more pressing issues.”
Cerberus’s three sets of eyes narrow. “Your machinations are not our concern,” he says in sudden, ground-rumbling English.
My tenuous veneer of political decorum vanishes. “MY machinations!?” I yell, stepping forward. “Did you not just hear me? Vampires are working with werewolves to trying to destroy the world, right now!”
All three heads sneer. “Leeches work with traitors to do the Wyrm’s bidding.”
“So if you’re hunting Wyrm-people why aren’t you stopping them instead of bullying one teenage girl!?”
The lupine chins lift. “Judgement is final. It cannot be evaded.”
I choke back a curse. “Is there bail? What do you want for bail?” I start digging around my pockets and the thin remains of my wallet. “I’ve got…my driver’s license, and…eight bucks, and…a key to an apartment I don’t have anymore.” I consider the key a moment before I hold it out. “But it is rent controlled!”
Cerberus watches me coldly. “You may bribe, and steal, and cajole, and lie. But this is not a place of Wyrm corruption. You have damaged Gaia. You are a corpse infested by banes that dances as a puppet to the whim of destruction. You cannot be held responsible for you do not exist.” One massive talon lifts to point at Sophia like the sword of Damocles. “But this one is a servant of Gaia’s.” He looks me over. “And has fornicated with the Wyrm.”
Rage–human rage–suddenly flares, hot as the molten pools. “HEY!!!” I shout, stepping between Sophia and his gaze. “You shut that shit right now–”
Before I can go further, though, Sophia lays a warning hand on my arm, bringing me back to the reality of the situation.
“–Sir,” I finish lamely.
Cerebus continues to stare coldly. “She is responsible for all you have wrought, and you have wrought ruin, and misery, and death. Do you deny it?”
Behind me, Sophia watches with wide eyes, practically shaking under her jacket. Behind her, the molten model of Monterey glistens in the dim red light. I stare at both of them sadly a moment. So much for bargaining. Any attempts to escape the situation have only pulled me in further. And I’m out of ideas. Except one.
I turn back to the god. “I don’t deny my actions.”
For the first time, a hint of a vicious smile appears on Cerberus’s long muzzles.
“But I do deny her responsibility for them,” I continue. “And if this is going to be a trial on that point, then you need the full weight of evidence. If her crimes of fraternizing with vampires are real, you need to examine all of them in order to levy a fair judgement.”
Sophia eyes me worriedly. I take a slow breath, gathering strength for what I’m about to do.
“I summon to the stand…Paul Stewart.”
(Jason: “…You know, normally that wouldn’t work, but right now Paul is in the Umbra.”
Jason: “The Digital Web is part of the Umbra. So…let’s talk about Paul….”)
THE DIGITAL WEB: PAUL
The spider races along the track, with only a few uncharacteristic jolts slowing its progress. Sometimes, though, it stops and backtracks to avoid certain webs that seem dimmer than the rest. As Paul and Marcus ride, they pass many massive zigurat constructions embedded in the web, representing different companies and technological entities Many of them are dark.
“This must have something to do with the shroud covering the Bay Area,” Paul says as they pass another one. “We couldn’t access much of the internet while we were there. Maybe these companies have their main data centers somewhere outside it, like in Oregon, or Nevada.”
Next to him, Marcus continues staring wordlessly at the surreal landscape.
Finally, the spider approaches the polydimensional shape of the Digital Web’s Tesseract headquarters. This time, though, the beams of light that flooded its walls before have been extinguished.
(Chris: “Oh, this does not make me happy. This makes me counter-happy.”)
Paul slides off the spider as soon as it comes to a stop and rushes inside. The main doors are open and nothing protests his approach. He rushes through the wide, sweeping halls–all equally gloomy–until he reaches his office. “Tesseract!” he calls to the room. Nothing responds. He rushes to his desk, tapping hopefully at the computer. Nothing activates.
After a few minutes of trying he gives up. Realizing Marcus is no longer with him, he searches the building. The rooms are all equally cold and empty, so finally Paul finds a way to the roof. Like his office, this part of the building seems to be a literal representation of the real-world Tesseract headquarters, perfectly modelling the rooftop garden he and Marcus once sat in there.
And just as before, Marcus is here, sitting on the edge of the roof, looking out over the LED landscape.Paul walks up to him, sharing the view.
“What is this place, Paul?” Marcus asks without turning around. “I mean really.”
“Best I can tell, it’s the internet.”
“Yes, you’ve said that,” Marcus snaps, “But that doesn’t help when I still don’t really understand what the internet is.”
Paul considers this a moment. “Do you understand plumbing?”
Marcus glances at him in a scowl. “We invented plumbing.”
“Then you understand the internet. Moving information instead of water.” Paul hesitates. “…Though there’s a certain amount of crap in each….” He considers this a moment, then continues, gesturing out at the webbed landscape. “The best I’ve figure out, this…realm…is sort of a metaphor for the internet. Not an actual representation of a thing but an idealized version of it. Kind of like modern movies made about ancient Rome–we can’t actually film it, so we just represent it.” Paul hesitates again, frowning as something occurs to him. “What is it like for you, watching those movies?”
Marcus is silent a moment. “Like a dream of a place I remember. Everything is simplified, but also exaggerated at the same time. The clothes are right, but wrong. The architecture is somehow even more so than it was in life. Everyone speaks English with British accents and all the buildings are decorated with unpainted statues.”
Paul nods silently. They’re both quiet a moment, lost in thought as they watch the distant spiders.
Paul’s the first to break the silence. “So, I checked the whole…structure. The Spirit of Tesseract seems to be missing from here too. Which means we’re going to need another way out of here.”
Marcus doesn’t respond.
Paul clears his throat. “So…I don’t really know how it works, but I was thinking, maybe you could try the shadow…step thing you do?”
“I have tried, Paul,” Marcus says. “Multiple times. I can’t seem to reach the Abyss from here.”
Paul deflates. “Ah.”
“The Abyss makes sense,” Marcus suddenly continues, still staring out at the landscape. “There’s nothing to it. Literally.”
A shadow crosses Paul’s face, remembering the time Marcus locked him in it. “That’s my least favorite part of it.”
“It’s my most,” Marcus says.
After another awkward silence, Paul continues. “Well. If I can’t access my company, and you can’t access the Abyss, then that leaves only one option for getting out of here….”
(Chris: “Paul sits down. He thinks of nothing, and everything, simultaneously.”
Me: “…Oh no….”
Chris: “He thinks that peace and violence are the same thing. He knows that being lost is being the same thing as knowing exactly where you are. And right now, he knows exactly where he is.”
Jason: “….I am so tempted….”
Jim: “Sometimes the GM dangles things in front of the player, and sometimes the players dangle things in front of the GM.”
As the two sit on the roof, an amiable, drawling voice suddenly echos around them: “That…is the Waaaaay….”
Paul looks around. The Way Dude isn’t visible, but a subtle scent of patchouli and vintage polyester confirms his presence nonetheless.
“Have you come to understand the Way?” the mage’s voice continues.
Paul smiles. “Yes. And no,” he says to the air, ignoring Marcus’s nonplussed stare.
Warm approval tinges the Way Dude’s voice as he continues. “The way lies between Yes and No. The One…and the Zero. To understand the way, you must become the Way. Look inside the Way…to see….”
The sense of a sudden shift in the universe makes them turn around. A door is now standing in the middle of the rooftop garden.
Marcus stares in disbelief as he pushes himself to his feet. “Paul, do you really trust this?”
“I trust that it’s the best option we have right now.” Paul gets up to and goes to open the door. Darkness lies beyond.
After a quick glance at each other, Paul and Marcus step through.
“I call to the stand…Paul Stewart.”
Cerberus’s gazes stare down at me an eternal moment, then he nods. “So be it.”
One arm gestures across the rocky plain. Two figures are suddenly standing there. One I recognize instantly as the turtleneck-and-jeans silhouette of Paul. The person standing next to him, though, is very small.
Sophia and I trade a panicked glance. “Ooooooooh shit….” I mutter.
Paul walks over, waving jauntily. “Hey Tom! Hey Sophia!”
I force a grin. “Heeeeyyyywhy is Boss here?”
“I found him. We were in the Digital Web. Then that very insightful Mage of the Way opened a door for us.”
Marcus, stumbling after Paul, is staring up at Cerebus in disbelief. “Where are we? And what is that?!”
“We’re in some sort of werewolf purgatory, Boss,” I say hurriedly, “And from what I understand, that’s Cerberus.”
Marcus closes his mouth slowly, face suddenly paler than it was before.
Paul frowns. “I was trying to get back to the Bay Area. Why are we here?”
I rub my head. “Yeah, so, I may have somehow summoned you here because Sophia is on trial.”
“Apparently because she didn’t kill you and I when she had the chance.”
Paul considers this a moment. “Huh. Well, that’s a silly thing to be on trial for.”
“Right? Anyway, I need somebody with actual litigation skills to argue this against a god.” I risk a glance up at Cerberus. “Cause I’m not doing very well at it.”
“Hmm.” Paul follows my gaze up and examines his faces a moment. “…Well, alright.”
Paul swaggers toward the massive creature. “Good afternoon. I am Paul Stewart, and I understand I’ve been summoned here.” He looks at all three of the heads in turn. “Very nice to meet…everyone.”
“You are not Paul Stewart,” Cerberus rumbles. “Paul Stewart is dead.”
Paul frowns. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
“You are of the Wyrm. You are a vampire.”
Paul folds his arms. “I don’t really identify as a vampire and I prefer you not assume me as such.”
Cerberus’s eyes narrow. “…So noted. But you are of the Wyrm. And this one here,” he gestures to Sophia, now huddled against me, “has forgotten her duties.”
“Which are what?” Paul asks.
“To fight for Gaia. To oppose the Wyrm. To kill the banes who infest the world. She did none of these things. And through her inaction she caused death and loss and pain.”
Sophia begins to tremble again. I wrap one arm around her, glaring back up at the monstrous thing. Paul, though, eyes us thoughtfully, then paces a moment, thinking. The ground crunches like cinders beneath his feet.
Finally, he turns to face Cerberus. “I’m afraid the werewolf Triad is somewhat out of my element, and I hope you will pardon my ignorance, but as I understand it, the Wyld is associated with Chaos.” He gestures to me. “And I can assure you Tom Lytton is Chaos incarnate and nothing else.”
(Jason: “…That is not the worst argument I’ve ever heard.”
“For example,” Paul continues, “At one point, Sophia here was opposing the schemes of a vampire mage and wound up being captured by Nazis. And those Nazis in the course of hoping to dissect her were foiled by Tom Lytton and myself. And to prove that Tom Lytton is an agent of Chaos, during our escape he destroyed our very means of escape by plunging a magic sword through it.”
Sophia winces. Marcus, though, turns slowly to stare at me incredulously.
I avoid his gaze. “Yeah, uh, I may have forgotten to tell you about that, Boss….”
“So Sophia has fought evil,” Paul continues, drawing all eyes back to him, “And the Wyrm, but she has not through inaction allowed the Wyrm to succeed. If anything, she was assisting the Wyld.”
Cerebrus’s heads tilt back skeptically, nostrils flaring. “And what of this….” At his gesture, the model of Monterey appears again in the pool, then melts back to slag. “Such destruction is evidence for an agent of the Wyrm. It is the Wyrm’s nature. She is pledged to slay the Wyrm, and she did not.”
Paul shakes his head sadly. “I don’t think she could have. And I don’t think you can slay him either.”
All eyes–including mine–snap to him. “Paul, what–”
Ignoring my protest, Paul steps forward. “Tom Lytton is too primeval a force of nature to be slain.”
I glance between Paul and the Cerberus’s fiery gaze. “Paul, thank you, but I don’t think I need to–”
“This man is not immortal because of some curse,” Paul continues firmly. “He is immortal because he is a fundamental part of the universe, like an electron. He is conserved. He can change forms, but you can’t destroy or create him. He’s just Tom. So frankly this girl cannot be held accountable for not killing him. Way more destructive forces than her have tried and failed spectacularly.”
I close my eyes. “Thanks, Paul.”
When I open them again, it’s into Cerberus’s piercing glare. “Even if she did not destroy him,” he says, “She had ample opportunity to destroy others during the course of her association. Of these, this servant of Gaia failed at this charge.”
Sophia huddles closer. I pour all my concentration into meeting the monster’s gaze and not looking at Marcus next to us.
Paul’s taps his chin. “Do you have many servants of Gaia who succeed?”
Cerberus’s eyes narrow. A rumble builds in his throats, low enough to shake the ground. “If we did, you would not exist.”
“That’s what I thought. So were the other failed agents of Gaia judged inadequate and destroyed?”
“They were punished. Gaia is not a force of entropy.”
“What was their punishment?”
Cerberus gestures toward the pool again. Shapes suddenly emerge from it again, misshapen werewolf figures coated in burning metal bubbling to the surface, shrieking and howling in agony before being pulled back down into the molten depths.
The four of us stare in shock, even after the pool stills again. Paul is the first to break the silence. “…I see part of your problem here. Your incentive structure isn’t aligned with good results.”
Cerberus’s heads turn slowly to face him.
Paul paces the cracked ground as calmly as a boardroom floor. “You want your servants to take risks. Not wild risks, and you want them operating at their best in order to do that, but fear isn’t the way to do that. They need to be working with competent other employees. The best only want to work with the best. And they need to not be afraid to fail. They need to try their hardest so they can succeed greatly.” He gestures to the pool. “And plunging them into a pit of molten silver–I assume for eternity–is too punitive. They’re not going to take the risks that pay off, they’re going to do the minimum necessary to avoid punishment, and thus fail in so doing.”
Me: “Is…Paul trying to fix the werewolves through…?”
Jason: “…Synergistic Management Solutions, yes.”)
A long silence falls, the only sound the whisper of suffering eternity stretching to the horizon. “This is not your board of directors, Silken Wyrm,” Cerberus growls finally. “This is judgement and will not be denied. Through this one’s inaction, the machinations of the Wyrm have unfolded further upon the world.”
Paul steps forward, gesturing emphatically. “Yes they have! As a matter of fact, we were first sent here by a servant of the Wyrm. A man named Jeremiah Flagg, who most likely in his deviousness thought to send Sophia before you, knowing you would do this and thus remove one of his obstacles for him!”
Cerberus–already a monolith–suddenly stills further. For a brief moment, I get a sense of a new emotion flickering across his long faces: uncertainty.
“Is that so?” Cerberus asks, voice dangerously low.
Paul nods. “Sophia may be a servant of Gaia and may be obligated to kill servants of the Wyrm, but I claim that we cannot judge whether or not she has failed because it is not her time to be judged yet. Her quest isn’t done.” He pauses a moment. “And, more to the point, we’ve established that you judge the dead. But Sophia isn’t dead. So why dont you send her back to finish what she–what we–began and hold off on judging her until she is?”
The moment drags. Paul stares up at Cerberus, hands clasped patiently in front of him. I pull Sophia closer against my side. On my other side, Marcus’s hand lingers closer to his sword.
Then, in the span of a breath, Sophia is gone.
Paul smiles and inclines his head. “Thank you.”
“I would not be so quick to thank me, Silken Wyrm,” Cerberus says, looming over us like the Colossus of Rhodes. “As you say, I judge the dead. And while Sophia is not yet dead, you three….” his gaze passes over each of us in turn, “…Are.”
END OF NIGHT