Story no. 48. This one is rapidly becoming far more involved than I intended. Drat. Whatever, I’m running with it.
Astute fans and observers will notice that I have not yet put up the podcast episode for this week (yes, I know, shame on me, shame shame shame.) That is because I wanted to read this story, such that the podcast listeners can have a continuous experience! So look for that recording later today or tomorrow.
As always: If you’d like to support this project, I have a Patreon! $1/month gets you art process posts; $3/month gets you extra stories and illustrations.
The valley grew colder and damper as we followed Aunt Thompson down the path. The gables and spires of the houses in the valley rose ever higher over our heads. I tried to work out if it was just the change in perspective that was making them look like that, or if the houses were actually growing. (That’s the kind of bullshit that houses in Lathustra get up to, anyway.)
The stony path turned into a stony road and then into a slippery cobblestone street that cut its way between dense rows of houses. Down this low, the bricks were blackened with soot or mud or something else equally unpleasant. Bill’s not terribly good with regular physics, and he couldn’t keep his claws beneath him on the slick paving. After he’d fallen for the sixth time, Aunt Thompson picked him up and stuffed him under her arm.
I was very melty with all the water hanging in the air and wished strongly we could climb back up the mountain to the light and warmth. People peered out the windows of the houses at us, and their eyes in their went wide as Aunt Thompson strode past. They seemed to be humanish, so this world had to be closer to the Blue Earth than the Yellow. I heard bells jangling inside one house and then the next and the next. Either this was the sort of place with a telephone network or the sort with a lot of servants to run messages down back alleys.
At the next intersection, we walked straight into a crowd of people dressed in dark cloaks buttoned tight up to their necks and pointed hats.
The gathering turned almost as a single body to stare at us. They looked like uncomfortably close cousins, with the same chalky faces, aquiline noses, and glowering brows over dark eyes. Red and black were the only hair colors in evidence.
While there are certain freedoms in occupying pocket realities, this is one of the drawbacks. The Blue Earth has got its genetic bottlenecks, sure, but the increasing prevalence of modern transportation technology has made most of them semi-voluntary.
(Lathustra doesn’t have genetics, strictly speaking—which should be obvious, looking at Aunt Thompson and Bill.)
One of the people closest to us withdrew a bony hand from its cloak and gestured malevolently in our direction. I thought the human was just sharing an opinion of wizened old men and small wrinkly schoolboys, until whatever magic it cast grabbed me and Bill by the ankles and hauled us into the air.
“Well, fuck,” I said.
I twisted around, stretching my neck to see what the magician and Aunt Thompson were doing. Unsurprisingly, the pick-me-up spell had not touched her, but she was pawing furiously at her muzzle. The deerish bits of her had gone all hoary, as though she’d just come in from a hard frost, and the house dress that had appeared at the border of this world suddenly looked very wrinkled and worn.
I am not much inclined toward terror myself—Lathustra more or less knocks that out of you—but I felt an unsettling seething in my right elbow (which is where my stomach likes to migrate when I’m sleeping). It doesn’t take that much magic to send Bill (or, if I’m honest, me) tumbling around like a mobile phone in a dryer, but it takes quite a bit of magic indeed to inconvenience Aunt Thompson.
The magician spread his arms in what it no doubt thought was a very grand posture and boomed several words. It looked a bit like a fledgling crow dressed in trash bags.
Aunt Thompson was suddenly not there anymore. Where she’d been standing, a gray coil of nothing tensed, before slashing forward at the crowd.
Much as they looked like inbred yokels playing at pilgrims, the magician’s two dozen nearest relations had the sense to scream and scatter. The coil bunched itself and lunged again, this time aiming straight at the magician.
Just because I’m describing this to you, don’t think that means I wasn’t pissing myself at the time. I’d never seen someone take a Fae down to our elemental stuff before. I wasn’t even sure if that’s what the human had done—maybe it had shoved Aunt Thompson sideways into another world and let something else entirely in through the hole that had made. The coil felt like her, but I’m no sorcerer. Either way, I was half-melted with a dislocated spine from being tossed around in the air, and Bill was—
It was about this moment when I realized that Bill wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I’d been so busy watching the gray element duck and dodge and try to rip the magician’s face off that I hadn’t noticed that Bill had somehow slipped right out of the spell holding me.
The invisible hand gripping my ankles suddenly bounced me in the air and took hold of my head-end. The fingers tightened around my skull, exerting enough pressure to explode a very large watermelon or a very small ostrich egg.
I hung there, limp, hoping the magician would think the spell had killed me. Head trauma is positively the worst way to kill a hobknob. My brains may live in my ribcage for a little while, but other than a bit of extra heartburn, it’s no bother to me. But this asshole didn’t seem to know what it was dealing with.
As if to prove my point, a few minutes later the invisible hand dropped me to the pavement. Both of my legs broke on impact, so I lay there for a while, trying not to move my eyes, while the bony bits reformed themselves.
The gray nothingness had expanded until it filled the entire intersection in a suffocating fog. Was the magician trying to dilute Aunt Thompson out of existence? I wondered. It wouldn’t do much for the structural integrity of this pocket world to have that much personified magic injected into it, but maybe the magician didn’t know that. The nothing kept trying to coalesce into a strangling knot around it, but it kept batting the cloud away from itself with spidery hands.
I used one of these interludes as a distraction to crawl into the nearest alleyway. I stood up and winced; my legs had gone even bandier than normal. I felt my skull and wished I hadn’t; I had the imprint of a large hand and five large fingers across the back of my cranium.
The alley ended in a blank wall, so I scrambled up the drainpipe of the closest house and into the second-floor window. When you’re as wiggly as I am, it’s not much of a challenge to work a finger in under the latch.
I briefly reflected that if I’d actually meant to kill my old boss, I probably would have done a pretty good job of it.
The room I appeared in was a parlor filled with dark furniture. It was unoccupied for the moment, but I sat back on my haunches and sniffed the air for any humans who might be hanging about in the hallway.
It was then, of course, that the I smelled the cousins who had murdered my boss. It wasn’t an overwhelming odor, but it was recent, and it was nearby.
I scratched my nose. I couldn’t help Aunt Thompson at the moment; I didn’t know where Bill was; I sure as shit couldn’t get back to Lathustra on my own. I might as well follow the trail a bit farther.
It led me across the parlor, past a chair upholstered in black silk, under a table supporting a little chessboard, around the edge of the fireplace, and behind a desk, where I found a very small door in the dense floral wallpaper. I ran my claws around the seam it made with the wall. I had a funny feeling that most people couldn’t see this door at all.
I jabbed my little finger into the lock and jiggled it around until I heard a faint pop. I pulled open the door and ducked inside.