Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): The House That Dripped Cliches

The Nick Of Time
(and other abrasions)
The House That Dripped Cliches

by
Al Bruno III



The following story was originally published by Eden Studios


The wind drove the rain in wave after icy wave. It soaked the frowning man and the teenage girl to the bone as they trudged along the night-shrouded road. Trees bordered the road on either side, rocking in time with the howling gusts. Thunder crackled in the distance, but the accompanying lightning was too faint to have even the slightest effect on the oppressing gloom that hung low in the sky and seeped through the gaps between the trees.

“Jason!” the girl shouted into the downpour, “This has got to be the worst spring break ever!” Mud had spattered up over her clunky-looking boots and onto her faded jeans. Her wet hair was plastered to her face and scalp, she had dyed it burgundy but now the roots were beginning to show. Her makeup was running, so was her nose.

“Lorelei, I know you’re upset but this is not my fault.” Jason Magwier frowned. His leather jacket was zipped op to his chin, his hands were buried deep in his pockets. The rain had pummeled his gray fedora into a shapeless ruin. His eyes were the color of coal, a hurt look lingered in them, “How was I to know it would be such a dark and stormy night?”

Lorelei rounded on him, a mixture of rainwater and spittle flying from her lips, “You knew we were low on gas!”

Magwier shook his hands in the air, “You’re the one who set the roadmap on fire!”

“If you’d gotten the dome light fixed I wouldn’t have had to use my lighter!” she poked him with her finger, “And if we’d have gone to Alliance, Nebraska like I’d wanted to we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Excuse me for trying to broaden your horizons!” With an indignant huff he started walking again.

She waited for the latest clap of thunder to fade before she shouted again, “Catching pneumonia while searching for some dead wizard’s house is not my idea of broadening my horizons!”

“Fine! Fine! The next time you get to pick where we go and if you want to waste your time gawking at a replica of Stonehenge made from old cars that’s fine with me!”

She hurried after him, splashing mud, “What makes you think we’re going anyplace after this mess up? We’re through and I mean it this time I’m not-”

Magwier stopped dead Lorelei collided with him. “Well bless my buttons. There it is.” he whispered, “The house where Sandor Perth died.”

Lorelei grabbed hold of Magwier’s coat to steady herself and then followed his gaze. The house was nothing more than a bloated shadow in the distance, sprawled just beyond the treeline at the end of a crumbling private road. “House?” Lorelei said, “More like a manor.”

“A manor house.” Magwier said with a trace of smugness, “I knew it was here…” He drew closer, a length of chain was strung between to posts. The sign hanging from the chain said NO TRESSPASSING in faded red letters. He lifted it and gestured to her, “After you.”

“Oh no. No way. This is how way too many horror movies and traveling salesman jokes start and I’m not going to end up as part of either.” she took a few steps back, to the relative safety of the street.

“Lorelei…” he tsked, “There’s nothing up there now but memories and old books. I for one find both fascinating. Come on now, we didn’t travel all this way for nothing.”

“Jason…”

“Did we?”

He was using that look, the confident yet strangely timid expression he always used on her when he wanted to get his way. The look he used to get her into bed. “All right.” she said, “At least until we can get dry.”

“Of course.” He smiled after her as she scooted under the chain.

“But hear me on this.” she glared at him, “If when we get there we find people dancing the Time Warp, I will kill you with my bare hands.”

*

The house was further away than it looked and it was pretty much uphill as well. The paving was cracked and uneven, Lorelei could actually feel it disintegrating beneath her feet. With every bout of shivering, she wondered to herself how long it would be before hypothermia set in. She was really starting to have second and third thoughts about this; if the driveway was this shitty, how bad was the house going to look? And all the while Magwier droned on “…in the year nineteen-thirty-eight Sandor Perth became the Grand Pontiff of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues. He was by some accounts, one of the most powerful men on Earth. Of course he was also blind, confined to a wheelchair and prone to fits of uncontrollable drooling. Sad really…”

This was just plain typical of him. Dragging her off with promises of ‘expanding her horizons’ but never really getting around to explaining where they where going and why. It was almost as bad as the Academy, where they spoon-fed you the wisdom of the ages in tiny bite-size pieces.

At times like this she almost wished she’d gone home for her semester break.

Almost.

“… now it goes without saying that at this point accounts of Sandor Perth’s life become at best fragmentary, at worst apocryphal but all accounts do verify that after he was deposed in nineteen seventy two by Bacstair Pravashard he retired here with his nursemaid, wife and children- no wait the children came later didn’t they?”

Lorelei tuned him out again, she’s known about Sandor Perth long before she’d ever hooked up with Jason Magwier. Thanks to her mother she’d spent most of her life growing up in the shadow of the Greater Eastern Council. She had no love for the schemers and egomaniacs that made up the majority of their numbers. The only way to advance in rank was to be a good little mage and wait for someone that outranked you to die. If you didn’t want to wait, there was always assassination or slander and in the end it was slander that had done in poor old Sandor Perth.

They where almost at the house now, it was a huge, almost bloated-looking structure. Rainwater bled from the sagging gambrel roof to spatter onto the half-submerged walkway. Lorelei thought she spied a gargoyle crouched on the rooftop’s edge, but the shifting shadows made her uncertain.

“… I never really had any interest in coming here before.” Magwier explained as he gingerly treaded across the flooded footpath, “But the night before we left the City... I had one of my episodes. I knew we were destined to come here. No sense fighting destiny is there?”

Well, that explains everything. Lorelei thought has she followed him. Her instructors at the Academy would have called her lover ‘Precognizant’. That kind of thinking was one of the reasons why she didn’t hang around for many of their lectures. Magwier didn’t see the future, that ability might be useful. He remembered things that might happen; it made him great at poker and lousy at chess. Ordinarily the visions came to him as a kind of seizure, Lorelei remembered the first time he had one in her presence it had scared her right out of the bed.

They huddled under the arched doorway, sheltered from the rain but still at the mercy of the biting wind. With a theatrical flourish Magwier rapped on the door.

“I don’t think anyone lives here.” Lorelei said slicking her wet hair from her face.

“Nonsense.” he knocked harder, “His widow and his children-”

“-probably aren’t here. Get a clue Jason” She stepped out from under the archway and looked around. A curl of lightning streaked across the sky, thunder rumbled. The heart of the storm was getting closer “There isn’t a light on around here.”

“Perhaps they’ve gone to sleep early.”

“Perhaps you didn’t have a vision after all. Perhaps you’re just after something but don’t want to tell me what.” Cupping her hands Lorelei let the rainwater pool there and then spit into it. She whispered a few well-chosen words from a lost language.

“What are you doing?” Magwier asked. When she didn’t answer he grimaced and banged on door all the harder. “I hate it when you talk to me that way. I am not nearly as duplicitous as you imagine.”

“Chalk it up to experience.” Lorelei said before shoving Magwier aside and turning the doorknob. The hinges squealed as it swung open.

*

“What a dump!”

The sound of her voice jarred Jason back to reality. Sighing with relief he followed her into the shadowed vestibule, “Be careful don’t go blundering about.”

“That’s your specialty.”

The floorboards were warped and thick with dust, the carpets had long ago given away to mildew and rot. There was a cloying, fetid smell in the air. Jason took off his hat and wrung it out. The sound of water spattering on the floor echoed though the house. Slowly his vision adjusted to the murk. Slowly, bit by bit, piece details emerged; the pockmarked walls, the slashed oil paintings the ruined chandeliers. “What I wouldn’t give for a flashlight now.” he said. He remembered that the walls had been eggshell green, he remembered that the canvases that decorated the walls where all of Sandor Perth and his family, he remembered the laughter of children playing and the music from a harpsichord. Jason remembered all this even though he’d never been here before.

“All I need is a candle.” Lorelei replied as they felt their way along the filthy walls.

Pocketing his soggy hat, he drew closer to her. Even when it was subdued by shadows her face still set his heart hammering, he wanted to touch her, but he knew she was still angry with him. Physical contact now would only upset her further, “You need to pace yourself.”

“You need to back off and let me do what I do.”

“The door-”

“For all you know the door was unlocked.” they followed the hallway to the drawing room and navigated cautiously through the clusters of moldering furniture. “Ah!” Lorelei said as she darted forward. Jason Magwier could hear the triumphant smile in her voice.

He ran after her, crying out “Be careful!” only to trip on the leg of a moldering futon. Sprawled on his back and lost in a cloud of dust he flinched as a particularly close bolt of lightning set the house shaking. The momentary flash burned the image of the parlor’s high-arched ceiling into his mind. His light starved eyes found elaborate frescoes with brass trim and layer after layer of thick cobwebs but no monsters, no horrors waiting to pounce on them.

No monsters. Blinded again, he breathed a sigh of relief.

With a groan he covered his ears and clamped his lids shut. Leave me alone. You’re not real. He tried to push the visions away,

Moments like these where the worst, when the premonitions were coming one after the other without any order or context. Futures, histories and possibilities swam through his mind. Lost friends and impending adversaries clamored for attention, leaving him so addled that sometimes he couldn’t even remember where he was, when he was, who he was.

“Hey! The fireplace is full of old clothes! We’ve got kindling!”

He rallied at the sound of her voice. Lorelei. She was his focus, his anchor. I’ve always loved her. I’ve loved her since I first met her - longer even.

“Go find some wood, smash a table or something.”

The sound of her murmuring helped him to push the last of the visions away. He slowly sat up. Lorelei was crouched in front of the fireplace, chanting and gesturing. There was a soft whoosh followed by a sputtering crackle. Flickering light peeled back the shadows revealing a wide room cluttered with decaying furniture and walls caked with lichen and grime. The fireplace was a wide imposing structure of streaked marble, Lorelei warmed her hands before the struggling flames. “Hurry up with that wood.”

With a groan Jason got to his feet and set to work smashing the legs off a nearby chair. If there were anyone living here, this would surely rouse them. When the Windsor chair had been reduced to kindling he brought it over to Lorelei. She had slipped out of her jacket and was now wearing only a pale tank top that had gone clingy with rain. There was a large tattoo of a frog on her left bicep.

“Staring problems?” she pulled the boards from his hands and used them to feed the fire. It snapped hungrily at the wood.

He sat down beside her, “That was probably a valuable antique.”

She smiled at him, her candy-green eyes flashing with mischief, “Takes one to know one.”

They laughed a little “Are we friends again?”

“More than friends.” she pulled him down beside her and kissed him just below the ear.

“This is nice.”

“You think so?” she took his hand and traced her fingers around the cruel-looking scar on the back of his left hand. “This is what happened the last time we were snuggled before a roaring fire.”

“Ah, that.”

“Yeah that.”

“Well,” he said desperately changing the topic, “once we’re warmed up we can-”

“No.”

“No? But there could be anything-”

“That’s why we are going to stay right here until sunup. No wandering around, no getting separated.”

“But-”

“And if we sleep we do it in shifts.”

“Why?”

“Think about it.” She waved a hand at their surroundings, “A thunderstorm. A creepy old house in the middle of nowhere. All we need is a van and a talking dog and we’re all set.”

“I didn’t expect any of this Lorelei, I just wanted to speak to his widow, ask a few questions. Have some tea. Maybe borrow a book.” Tentatively he put his arm around her, “The episode last night got me wondering. I didn't mean for us to get stranded. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

“I love you.”

She shivered and let him draw her in closer, “Let’s not talk for a while. Starting the fire wore me out-”

“I told you-”

Lightning flashed, the howling of the wind grew louder “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You take first watch for an hour or two.”

Jason kissed her forehead and then settled in to listen the sound of her breathing. She was asleep in a matter of minutes. There was a picture of Sandor Perth above the fireplace, an oil painting of exquisite workmanship. Someone had gouged out the eyes and slashed at the mouth. He stared at it for a long while, wondering.

*

Again and again there was a wet smacking sound followed by a dull grinding. Lorelei stirred and glared at Magwier’s sleeping form. Damn but that man could snore. They were lying curled around each other; the fire dwindled to smoldering coals. The storm had passed but it was still night.

So much for being on watch duty. She stifled a yawn, I wonder if I should yell at him now or go to the bathroom and then yell at him?

As always Magwier was scowling in his sleep, that expression always disturbed Lorelei. People were supposed to look peaceful when they were sleeping. She slithered from his arms, Let him rest, I’ll bust his balls later. Now where are the facilities in this rathole?

The bathroom was a right hand turn and seven doors away. It was roughly the size of her dorm room. The floor was peppered with slivers from the shattered full-length mirror and the sink was full of doll heads. That elicited a double take from Lorelei. She relived herself quickly, taking care not to let her posterior actually touch the rancid-looking toilet, and got the Hell out of there.

Doll heads in the sink. Clothes in the fireplace. She mused as she made her way back, What the Hell went on here? Lorelei wondered if perhaps one of Sandor Perth’s children or his wife had been abandoned here. She wondered if they had slowly gone mad alone here in this creepy old house.

Ugh. How nauseatingly gothic. She thought. Now it was time to wake Magwier and give him the yelling at he so richly deserved for falling asleep on guard duty. Not enough of a reprimand to hurt his feelings, just enough to shame him into a few weeks worth of frozen custard and cunnilingus.

A thick sloshing sound made her pause in mid-step. Somehow it sounded both very far away and very close. It seemed to be coming from the wide chamber to her left- the library. Lorelei cast a glance back to Magwier and the dwindling fire.

Don’t you dare! said the voice of caution. ‘No wandering around, no getting separated.’ Remember that?

I’m just looking, I’m not even twenty feet away from him. Lorelei rarely listened to the voice of caution, it sounded too much like her mother.

You hate it when he does this.

Well, when he does it he gets in trouble. I can handle myself.

Like you handled things at the abandoned brewery?

That did it! She turned on her heel and strode into the library.

The library, like much of the house was a study in the expected. Sagging wooden shelves choked with antiquated-looking books; check. Comfortable looking, high-backed leather chairs; check. Various statues and collectibles arranged around the room, each in its own glass display case; check. Even the brass candelabrums set into the wall where exactly as she imagined them.

But upon closer examination the stereotypes started to come apart. The candelabrums where cleverly disguised electric lights. The treasures under glass where all defaced; the busts of famous mystics were painted like clowns, the ancient parchments where crinkled and smeared. Cartoonish faces had been carved into the backs of the leather chairs and the books where in no kind of order. Lorelei scanned the shelves to find diaries shelved next to fictions, physics treatises shelved next to volumes of erotica. The sloshing sound was louder here. There was a volume of the collected works of Shakespearean on the floor, Lorelei picked it up. The book automatically fell open to Hamlet Act four, Scene three.

Her nose wrinkled in disgust, some kind of fat-looking worm had been crushed between the covers. The pressure of so many pages had caused it to burst, spraying stringy gore across the pages in a star-like pattern. This place is fucked. She thought to herself as she closed the book and set it on the nearest shelf.

The shelf lowered slightly with an audible click and a section of the wall shifted open revealing a stairway. The noises resonated up from below.

“Oh come on!” Lorelei shook her head. She knew that this must be where Sandor Perth stored the most precious of his grimmores, but a secret passage? How utterly insipid; her mother used a simple fireproof safe encrusted with protective runes to store her precious documents. It was simple, portable and to the point. This, Lorelei thought as she peered into the tenebrous passageway, this is just showing off.

What was it Magwier had said? “There’s nothing up there now but memories and old books. I for one find both fascinating...”

Maybe that was what he wanted all along, a crack at Sandor Perth’s library. She wondered what was down there, an autographed copy of The Book of Two Ways? The long lost Memoirs of Aeternitas? A first edition of The King in Yellow? The Carella Manuscript? Or perhaps that hoary old standby The Necromonicon?

A quick look around is all I’ll need. Lorelei decided. She edged her way down the steps, And then for once in this relationship I’ll be the one that knows what’s going on.

The wooden steps creaked underfoot. A cool, foul-smelling breeze chilled her. Clusters of mushrooms nested in the corners, strange graffiti covered the walls. Every step down brought her deeper into darkness but she supposed it was too much to hope for a well lit secret passageway.

Lorelei wondered to herself how well aquatinted Magwier was with the former Grand Master and his family. Well-aquatinted enough that he felt no discomfort at the thought of just dropping in for tea in the middle of the night, but not well-aquatinted enough that they would inform him of a change of address? Something sudden and terrible had happened here, she didn’t need to be precognizant to know that. The sloshing was louder now, there a strange rhythmic quality to it she hadn’t noticed before and there was something else too. A gentle cooing sound, like an animal in the throes of pleasure.

If this had been a movie she’d have been throwing popcorn at the screen, all the while criticizing the scantily clad starlet for her foolishness. But this was real and she wasn’t some silicon enhanced B-grade actress; as an apprentice of the Greater Easter Council of Mystagogues she was more than capable of taking care of herself. Besides, now that she was here she wanted to see, she wanted to understand. What was the point of coming this far if she was only going to give in to the voice caution? She continued to descend the steps. There were ways she could see in blackest of nights if she had to, but for now she would make do with shadows and shapes. All the strange rumors that she’d heard about Sandor Perth were spinning through her head. Some said that he had made a pact with the Monarchs. Others said he’d died trying to set himself among the gods. Matthew Tribune, her occasional stepfather, had told her once that Sandor Perth’s wife had him on display in a glass sarcophagus and expert embalmers had made him look more robust than he had ever been in life. Audra DiMico, her roommate, was of the opinion that Sandor Perth had faked his death as part of a convoluted ploy to steal the Seven Keys to Apotheosis. Lorelei's had instructors told her that Sandor Perth was a good man and everything else was lies and conjecture.

I wonder what Jason- The fifth step down clicked beneath her heel and she had a moment to think Oh, I don’t believe this!

Then the steps gave way beneath her and she was sent plunging into the shifting oblivion.

*

..in the beginning the dream is always the same. It is twilight and I hang from a scaffold, my feet bound and one arm lashed behind my back. The wind rocks me gently and I sway. I trace patterns in the dust with my free hand. My legs ache, my head pounds, my lips are cracked. The scaffold creaks with every movement. With each stroke of my hand the pattern below me evolves into something greater.

“You cannot succeed, the path you have chosen is a doomed one.” A black-booted foot sweeps aside the patterns in the dust and I am forced to look upward.

The man before me wears a drab colorless uniform beneath a ragged ivory-yellow cloak. Caliginous eyes glare at me from behind a sallow mask. The mouthpiece of the mask is distorted and snout like, it alters the Hierophant’s voice, makes it a soft as a prayer. “How many times must this sad little drama play itself out before you finally give in to the truth?”

I ask, “The truth wears a mask?”

“The truth is something many cannot face directly.” he reaches into his uniform’s breast pocket and retrieves a deck of ornate cards. “You have placed the girl in danger again.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You should.”

With a blur of motion he shuffles the cards with practiced ease. I can see the bloodstains along the gilded edges. I force myself to look away and then suggest, “The premonition was valid, there is something terribly wrong here. Even Lorelei senses it.”

“She doesn’t love you. Not really.”

“I- I should be on watch!” I realize, “I need to wake up.”

“But you can’t can you? Perhaps you’re dead and you just don’t know it. Perhaps your sweetheart slit your throat in your sleep.”

“Leave me alone!”

“Shall we draw?” the Hierophant rasps. The cards flash and crackle, “If you win I will let you awaken with more than enough time. If I win... you leave the girl to the nightmare that haunts this house.”

I know I have no choice but I try to sound confident “I want more than that.”

“You always do.”

“The old arrangement. A clue for the first card, a prophecy for the second.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I can wait, it’s my dream isn’t it?”

“A prophesy and a clue...” the Hierophant arranges and re-arranges the cards, “One of yours or mine?”

“Oh please.”

“Very well. I draw first.” Staring into the cards, I watch as the remembrances and divinations fluttering by. He stops shuffling and slips a card from the top; the eighteenth card, THE MOON. A swollen orb hangs low over a landscape of blunted towers and baying wolves. This is the card of sleep and dreams and it grants me a vision of that pivotal night in Sandor Perth’s manor …

…the bloated gibbous orb hung low in the sky, casting its baleful light through the French windows. The lavishly furnished parlor, with its Windsor chairs, elaborate paintings and mahogany tables, it was as good a place for a confrontation as any.

“How could you?” the woman in lavender silk raged, tears of anger glistening on her cheeks. Jason Magwier recognized the regal features of Mara Perth instantly; he remembered watching her dance in a ballroom in Prague on a New Year’s eve decades ago. Or was it just that he thought he remembered? He began to speak but then caught himself, he was just a phantom here, a ghost from the future.

“Silence!” Sandor Perth’s wheelchair was decorated with gems and silver trim. His gnarled, hairless features where hidden beneath luxurious robes and downy quilts. His lips were shiny and wet, his milky eyes were narrowed into angry slits. His nursemaid stood by his side, her doll-like features expressionless.

Mara charged him, grabbing hold of his wheelchair her nails raking the upholstery, “Your own children!”

“You knew my mind.” he sprayed slobber in her face, ”Did you think my ambitions ended with you? Foolish, foolish woman!” His nursemaid dabbed at his mouth with a monogrammed handkerchief.

“They loved you. I loved you.”

“Love is for poets and fools.” he said with a quivering gesture, “I am neither. Now go.”

“No.” she snarled “I won’t let you.”

“Either you go or Akantha will eject you from the room. And she will hardly be gentle.” The nursemaid smiled and bowed at Sandor’s words, her face full of banal menace.

For a long moment Mara glared at her husband, searching his face for some trace of humanity. Then slowly she straightened, “You leave me little choice.”

“Choice merely confuses the weak.” he said, “Now go.”

With slow, steady footsteps Mara left the room, Jason tried to follow her but the vision ended too soon...

...“Terrible.” I gasp, “How terrible. I had no idea. I knew the man, I knew his family. I had no idea.”

The Hierophant let the card flutter to the ground, “Each man kills the thing that he loves. The brave man with a sword, the coward with a kiss- Sandor Perth used a bit of both.”

Gloved fingers deftly manipulate the cards. The memory of Lorelei growing cold in my arms bubbles to the surface of my consciousness. I rail at it, knowing that it merely a phantom of what might happen, a figment of possibility. “Just like you.” I mumble.

“Eh?” the Hierophant glances at me, nearly ready to draw. The sky whorls above us, purple clouds hang heavy and low.

“None of this is real.” I shake my free hand at him. The motion sets me swaying, the scaffolding creaks, “This is a dream and you’re nothing more than a metaphor. And a bad one at that.”

The Hierophant’s cackle is as ragged as the yellow cloak he wears, “How can one so prescient be so very blind?” He proffers the deck to me, with my free hand I draw. I laugh at the sight of the card in my hand; I’ve beaten him again.

THE LOVERS, the sixth card. Six- the number of harmony, the number of days it took to create the world, the number of the wife and the mother. The image of a man and a woman, careless in their nudity, their hands outstretched but not yet touching...

…the gentle pressure of Lorelei’s body resting on his turned Jason’s waking grimace into a smile. All that worrying and thrashing about- for nothing. The only thing his dream-tormentor had managed to do was sidetrack him. So what if his episode had lead him on a wild goosechase? In the end he and Lorelei would laugh about it, and maybe just maybe they’d leave here with a valuable book or three. He shivered slightly, the fire was dwindling. Time to put another chair on the fire. And maybe just maybe, He thought as he gently caressed her damp hair, I can convince this young lady here to help me explore the house. With any luck I can find something interesting to take back home.

I wonder if Sandor Perth had a copy of the Revelations of Tian-gou? That would be-

He tried to ease out from beneath her but she stirred gently and held him in place. Placing a hand on each shoulder he tried to lift her up only to feel a razor’s sting she raked her long nails across his chest, skin and cloth tearing.

But Lorelei didn’t have long nails; she was a habitual fingernail biter.

Akantha the nursemaid raised herself up. With a cry of surprise Jason Magwier tried to kick away from her only to find that his legs had been shackled. Her clothes where filthy and crusted; her face was painted wildly with cosmetics, leaving her looking like a cross between a circus clown and a cartoon whore. With one hand she grabbed him by the throat, with the other she expertly and deftly cuffed his hands. “Silence-” When she spoke her expression and her voice where both devoid of emotion “is golden.”

*

Lorelei landed with a splash, the impact knocked the wind out of her and for a moment all she could do was lie there in the knee-deep water and hiss with pain. The thick viscous fluid that bore only the slightest resemblance to water sloshed lazily around her. Bloated objects floated here and there, bobbing heavily in the foul-smelling mire. Balancing herself against the wall, she raised herself to her feet and fumbled for the stairwell. She cursed under her breath when she found the steps still locked down into sliding board mode. With a hiss and the hidden door slid back into place, sealing her in blackness. This was just great; a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

A house with traps in it. Who in their right minds had a house with traps in it? Now she really had seen everything. Five to one odds that the walls start moving together any minute.

The mewling groaning sound began again. Lorelei started at a movement near the edge of her vision; a fleeting glimpse of something, a skittering shadow against a backdrop of shadows. Acting quickly she bit into both of her thumbs hard enough to draw blood and then used the blood to draw sloppy runes under her eyes. A hasty incantation later and she could see as well as any cat.

This chamber she was in was wide with a low ceiling and was crowded with bookshelves. The bookshelves themselves where impressive enough, they were long, wide structures made from elaborately carved slabs of basalt but what was held upon those shelves set her jaded senses reeling. This was more than just the library of Sandor Perth- this was the Vatican, the Library of Alexandria and at the Athenaeum of Seth the Blinded all rolled into one. The books seemed to go on forever! And the titles! Books thought lost forever, books believed never to have existed, books her mother would have given her remaining hand for!

She was so busy ogling the grimmores and tomes that the dead man caught her completely by surprise. With a sound like a sob he lunged from behind one of the stone bookshelves. Gray-skinned fingers clawed at her, yellow teeth snapped. Lorelei tumbled backwards but caught herself at the last moment, somehow managed to turn her fall into a staggering run. She realized now that the swollen things she’d spied drifting in the water had been books. Clusters of them floated here and there, their spines broken, their pages flapping languidly. She fled deeper into the library, the dead man at her back.

*

WHUMP!

WHUMP!

WHUMP!

Akantha’s considerable strength combined with the handcuffs around his wrists and ankles kept Jason Magwier helpless. She dragged him inexorably up the manor’s leaning stairway; whacking the back of his head on every step as they went.

WHUMP!

He stared hard at the ceiling, trying to find a future- any future that might get him out of this but his power had deserted him. “Look there has obviously been some kind of mistake...”

The nursemaid’s voice was an amiable drone, “This is a case of one man’s misfortune being another man’s luck. I was nearly out of ideas but now you’re here and necessity is, as we all know, the mother of invention.”

WHUMP!

“You see Sandor Perth and I go back a ways. I knew him back when he was a Subdean.” Jason studied the handcuffs searching for some way to slip out of them. Houdini had made it look so easy.

“That was the past and the past is a bucket of ashes.”

WHUMP!

“What are you talking about?” he shouted.

“The Lady Perth would rather be right than be reasonable. Took the children, poisoned their father, flooded his library.”

WHUMP!

Jason winced, that last step had left splinters in the back of his head. “But Sandor Perth died decades ago. Why are you doing this?”

“Dead but he hasn’t quite given up the ghost yet. The wyrms preserved him resurrected him. All according to plan. All according to plan.”

WHUMP!

“Worms? Wyrms? Are you talking about soulwyrms?”

“Bingo!”

The worshippers of the dark gods used the otherworldly parasites known as soulwyrms as a tool for interrogation and as a way to preserve the knowledge of their fallen brethren. The unearthly physiology of the creature was unique to this world; they subsisted on a diet of brain neurons and somehow they retained the information encoded in neurons they devoured.

Akantha paused on the stairway, her head cocked, then she began dragging him again. They were almost at the third landing. “The girl is in the library.”

WHUMP!

A chill settled into Jason’s gut “Lorelei? Are you talking about Lorelei? Where is she?”

“She chose what was behind door number one, she never saw what was behind the curtain. She’s with the Sandor Perth now.”

WHUMP!

“No! She’s not dead! I would know...”

The nursemaid laughed blandly “Not dead yet. Neither is the Sandor Perth. He likes to play with his food.”

WHUMP!

They were on the landing. Jason’s scrabbling fingers caught hold of the base of the sagging balustrade and he held fast. “This is insane! Sandor Perth would have known better than to do something like this! You can’t cheat death, no one can.”

“Where there’s a will there’s a way.” she tugged on his legs.

Jason stared into the darkness below him. Lorelei was down there somewhere, in danger again- because of him- again. There was a way out of this, there had to be, but why couldn’t he see it?

Jason shook his head, telling himself That’s not going to happen.

Akantha stood over him “Let go.” she ordered.

“Make me.” he spat.

And with a single kick to his groin she did.

*

Library? Maze was more like it.

Aside from aisle after aisle of juxtaposed basalt shelves, there were also dozens of little alcoves and cul-de-sacs. That was where Lorelei had hidden herself- a narrow antechamber bordered on either side by tall stone shelves. It was furnished with slouching counters stacked high with coils of rusted copper wire and wooden crates brimming with outlandish-looking sprockets and cogs. Dozens of ironstone canopic jars were neatly stacked in the corner.

Somewhere nearby the dead man was splashing through the mire, burbling and moaning as he searched for her. He would pause for long moments, ramble forward, and then pause again. It had made him easy to outrun.

Easy to outrun but not so easy to escape, she was trapped down here. Magwier couldn’t be counted on to come to her rescue- Hell; he was probably in worse trouble than she was.

Actually I find that last bit a little hard to believe. Lorelei thought with a shudder.

She pressed herself into the corner as tightly as she could, the Walking Dead always creeped her out. It didn’t matter if was your garden-variety Corpse-Soldier or one of the Dread Sandors themselves- the very sight of one would set her skin crawling. She wasn’t sure what frightened her more, their inhuman hungers or the subversion of the natural order they represented.

Could she take it down if she had to? There was no way to be sure.

The dead man was getting closer and she had no place left to run. Lorelei crossed her quivering arms over her chest and began to chant. The noise drew the dead man closer but she had no choice, the incantation would cloak her in shadows and silence. For a time anyway. She felt it take effect just as the dead man rounded the corner. He held his arms and head stiffly, like a bad actor trying to play the part of a robot. Now that she got a good long look at him, Lorelei realized the dead man was none other than Sandor Perth.

Great a zombie wizard. They’re the worst kind.

Scuttling like a crab, the dead man made his way into the alcove, his flaking fingers scrabbling at the walls. The white shroud he wore was stained and torn. Ruined books and other flotsam rippled in his wake. Lorelei watched as he drew closer. The urge to run was overwhelming but if she moved now she sacrificed her invisibility. Better to wait, better to let the incantation do its work.

A scurry and a pause found the dead man inches away from her. The body of Sandor Perth was racked with tremors. Lorelei looked up from the dead man’s stained teeth to his eyes. Tiny, reddish-brown coils of flesh were wriggling from his distended tear ducts to ooze lazily down his cheeks and drip from his chin.

Soulwyrms! Lorelei covered her mouth to muffle her gasp of horror.

With a triumphant snarl the dead man grabbed her by the throat and threw her headlong into the pile of ironstone jars on the other side of the room.

*

The nursemaid threw Jason Magwier down onto the wooden table with bonecrushing force. He was still curled into a ball and groaning but when the sparks cleared from his vision and the agony in his testicles had faded to a dull ache he examined his surroundings. Guttering candles revealed walls that were bulging and cracked. paintings hung askew, each one ritually defaced. Stained blankets were draped over the bureaus, and atop those blankets were surgical instruments. Jason’s gaze lingered over them, these weren’t the sterile, keen-edged instruments of a hospital- these were blunt from overuse and encrusted with gore. Scattered among them was a selection of cruel-looking metal spikes. “What-” He asked “- what are you going to do with me?”

Akantha patted his shoulder amiably and walked over to the other side of the room. Jason uncurled to watch her. That was when he noticed the corpses. There were seven of them, in varying states of decay, strewn about the room like a child’s abandoned toys. The top of each corpse’s skull was missing and the brain case was empty “I’ve got a lot of hungry mouths to feed.”

“Yes.” Jason whispered, “Of course. You need to keep them fed don’t you? Otherwise they begin to feed on each other... worse than sea monkeys...”

There was a glass coffin on a raised dais but Sandor Perth's body wasn’t in it. Instead it was seething with soulwyrms; there were hundreds of the bloated, slime-covered parasites. The sound they made as they crawled over each other was maddening. The creatures reproduced by means of asexual division and they only reproduced if there was a steady food supply- Jason shuddered at the thought.

“Smarty-pants. You must think you’re pretty darn clever.”

“I can’t believe Sandor Perth would agree to something like this. He hasn’t cheated death, he’s just prolonged his dying.”

She examined the scalpels, retractors and spikes, searching for the appropriate tool, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

The first step to utilizing soulwyrm is to allow one to nest in the cerebrum of the intended subject and let them feed, reproduce and feed until one has become a handful. Once they have become bloated and lethargic from gorging themselves on the subject’s gray matter, and the information they contain are ready to be harvested. When swallowed the still-living parasites will work their way into the space between the corpus callosum and the cerebellum and become dormant. Once this has happened the experiences, knowledge and some would say the very soul of the subject would become assessable to the utilizer as simple memories. Of course that leaves the utilizer with souwyrms in his brain and inevitably they become hungry again. The only way to keep them from making the utilizer can keep them dormant is to begin regularly feeding on gray matter. Certain enzymes absorbed into the bloodstream will keep the parasites in their dormant state.

There are other ways to deal with the infection but there is a cost, Jason thought with a frown, such a terrible cost.

Akantha hadn’t even bothered to fasten his manacles to the table. Apparently she didn’t think he had much chance of escaping or overpowering her. Was she right? He wondered how far he could hop before she caught him.

Not far enough. He realized he had to keep her talking until he figured a way out of this mess,

“A woman’s work is never done.”

“Must not be easy though. Living in seclusion as you do lonely busy work. I’d feel sorry for you... if you were human.”

She paused, “What makes you say that?”

“Your breath.” “It smells like ashes and motor oil. Always does with a homunculus.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so.” she selected a bone saw and switched it on.

Jason started hyperventilating at the high-pitched shriek of the spinning blade

She strode towards him. “Now this won’t hurt a bit.”

“Wait!” he tried to roll off the table but she caught him, held him in place.

“One line, no waiting.”

“One last thing.”

“No bargains no lies. Just death.” she smiled down at him.

“There’s something you should know.”

“Your pleas fall on deaf ears.” the breeze from the spinning blade tousled Jason’s hair.

“Lorelei has magic, powerful magic!”

“Nice try.”

“When she gets finished with your master all that will be left is a pile of fine gray powder!” He shouted to be heard above the bone saw’s whine, “Do you hear me? Fine gray powder!”

“Liar, liar pants on fire.”

“Didn’t you notice? The girl fairly radiates magic.”

The bone saw wound down. “Sandor Perth’s feelings about women and magic-”

“Were a widely acknowledged blind spot. Are you willing to take that chance? Not now surely, not now when things must be so very precarious for the both of you.”

“Damn you.” the bone saw slipped from her hands. She stood there for a moment, her fists pressed to her temples, “Damn you.”

“Not really up to this are you? You were built for cleaning bedpans and droolcups.”

“I’m full of surprises.” Akantha said as she strode over to one of the bureaus and grabbed a particularly long metal spike.

At the sight of it Jason tried to pitch himself off the table again only to be caught and rolled onto his back. Akantha raised the metal spike high over her head and brought it stabbing down. The sharpened point tore through flesh and muscle pinning him to the table. The pain took his breath away.

“Now just you wait here,” she said as she left the room, "I'll be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

*

The dead man was laughing, a warble that vacillated somewhere between being a madman’s giggle and a death rattle. He ground his teeth together in anticipation as he watched Lorelei drag herself to her knees and then up to her feet. Shattered pottery and mummified organs bobbed in the fetid water around her. “Run girl.” he rasped, “Run.”

Toying with her, he was toying with her. Lorelei imagined he liked to get his meals good and hysterical before he finished them off. Well not me. She thought, He’s going to have to work a little harder for this Tender Vittle.

The incantation came easily, it was one of the first ones her mother had ever taught her. When the final syllable left her lips the slivers and shards of the ruined canopic cars leapt up and attacked the dead man, swarming around him, their jagged tips gouging his moldering skin.

Lorelei was about to gloat when she heard him whisper the counterspell. The chips of pottery fell from the air or remained half buried in his leathery skin.

Great.

The dead man snorted “Another trifling spell? Better to attack me with a child’s toy or with your soft white hands.”

The next incantation she chose was a bit more obscure, a bit more draining. It lifted the dead man a few inches off the ground and then set him shaking with deadly vigor. Lorelei watched as rotted flesh and soulwyrms were flung against the walls and ceiling. This invocation will leave an ordinary man dead of a brain hemorrhage in under a minute, it should at least get the late great Sandor Perth out of my hair for the time being.

The dead man screamed, a drawn-out alien sounding cry and with each moment the sound continued the vibration dwindled until he was standing triumphantly before her. His pale yellow eyes had burst, soulwyrms writhed from the gaps in the schelera; his scalp was hanging in loose flaps. The dead man grinned.

Goddess! All I managed to do was make him uglier!

“You wish to play at sorcery with me? My sorcery has toppled nations.” the dead man hissed before casting an invocation of his own.

The counterspell died on Lorelei’s lips as she felt her lungs filling with fluid. She choked and swayed on her feet, a black syrup-like substance spilling from her mouth with every cough.

The dead man closed in, cooing with the predator’s ecstasy.

With unsteady hands Lorelei willed the last of her energies into a final invocation.

*

The pain had brought on visions aplenty but Jason Magwier didn’t need them now. He had Akantha right where he wanted her. All he had to do now was get free.

Reaching for the metal spike with his manacled hands made the torment worse. Muscle and bone cried in protest.

He grabbed hold of the spike and tried to pull it free. Within moments he’s gasping and trembling.

With a cry of frustration of scrabbled at the spike again, his fingers slick with blood. This couldn’t be how it ended for him, not like this. He’d have seen it coming; he’d have felt it coming.

Wouldn’t he?

And what about Lorelei?

With a grunt and a hiss he tried to sit up, pushing against the spike with all his might; he felt it give a little, then he swooned back down onto the table.

Bracing his manacled feet against the hard wood of the table he tired to rise up once more. All it would take was a simple sit-up and he would be able to rescue Lorelei. She needed him.

With a sob of frustration he collapsed back on the table.

It was moments like this that set him wondering. If he died here and now, would to world really go on without him? Would the Cause go on without him? Would someone else finally give the Monarchs their comeuppance? Would Lorelei find someone else?

“No!” he shouted, “No!”

With agonizing slowness he raised himself up, pulling the spike out of the table. Then he tore the spike from his shoulder. Blood soaked his shirt and jacket, but there was no time to worry.

Gripping the metal spike, Jason hopped from the table. Walking as best he could with his manacled feet he made his way to the landing. Akantha was halfway down the stairway. He’d taken too long. Hobbled as he was, there was no way he could catch up to her.

Or was there?

*

Akantha lived by four simple directives.

Obey Sandor Perth.

Protect Sandor Perth.

Care for Sandor Perth’s every need.

Destroy anyone that would cause harm to Sandor Perth.

She strode down the stairs, plotting out possible courses of action. The soulwyrms had put Sandor Perth beyond death, but he could still be damaged, he could still be ruined beyond repair; so could she. The nursemaid didn’t like to think what something like that would mean.

For eighteen years she had complied with Sandor Perth’s tenets, laboring day in and day out in the increasingly dysfunctional Perth household. Her existence had been idyllic at first; Sandor Perth, cowed by defeat, had been the easiest of charges and Mara had been grateful for the assistance. When the children had come they had brought delight to the household - so tiny and tender! Each one a little semblance of Sandor Perth’s glory. Of course they had never really taken to Akantha, her immutable exterior and her absent emotions disturbed them. They didn’t understand that in many ways she was a child too.

In the early years of his exile Sandor Perth received many guests; mystagogues, leaders and prophets all came to him for advice. Even the Regent visited once, but didn’t stay for dinner. But as the decade wore on, those visitors became rarer and rarer. The worlds of politics and magic had moved on and Sandor Perth was no longer relevant to them.

It was also around that time that the tenor of Sandor Perth’s experiments began to change. Why? It wasn’t her place to question; perhaps he had learned all he could learn from forces of Essence, perhaps he knew, as she did, that the condition that had left him blind and weak would soon kill him or perhaps he was simply going mad. Mad or not Akantha observed her directives; Sandor Perth needed her steady hands and her clear eyesight. She as always there to clean the vials and philters he was finished and was there to protect him when his experiments went awry.

She was there when he bargained with Nogar-Dalleon for a single egg. The emotion of fear was alien to her but when she beheld that leering monstrosity she still felt a coldness in her chest.

The egg had been tiny, the size of a pebble and rough to the touch. The parasite was sleeping inside it, hibernating. They could hibernate for centuries, only hatching when they were immersed in cranial-spinal fluid.

In his genius Sandor Perth had decided that he could breed a new genius of soulwyrm- vermis-animus he’d called it. This wyrm would be free of its cousin’s vile appetites and terrible side effects. Sandor Perth ordered her to keep his growing colony fed, first she used small animals, then the brains of primates and finally, inevitably she found herself preying on the inhabitants of the nearby town. Akantha knew that his grand experiment would have succeeded if not for his wife.

The nursemaid remembered coming home from one of her forays into town to find the children gone, the septic tank flooded back into the library and Sandor Perth slumped over in his wheelchair, his lips turning blue.

For a time, perhaps it was a minute, perhaps it was an hour, she stood perfectly still, pondering his body and the implications. To have so utterly failed in her directives, to be without direction and purpose- freedom was a luxury for others, not her. She lived to serve the Sandor Perth, she could conceive of nothing else.

There was a danger in using the soulwyrms to resurrect the Sandor Perth but it was a danger she knew he would be willing to risk. Unharvested soulwyrms not only devour and procreate in the host brain, leaving their victim dead, they in a strange way become the host. Somehow they adapt and imitate the actions of the neurons and neuralgia they devour, animating the corpse of their victim. Thus revived the host/victim becomes a mobile nest for the parasites, memories and personality intact but driven by a maddening hunger.

Reverently she laid his body out on the same workbench he’d used to produce conceive her. When he awoke he was ravenously hungry but there were three meals waiting for him- Mara and her children. Despite his craving he took his time feeding, glorying in his vengeance. Over a period of forty-eight hours he devoured his children, saving Mara for last. Akantha made sure the betrayer watched and heard every bite. When Sandor Perth came for his wife, she didn’t struggle; she surrendered willingly.

The slapdash resurrection had left Sandor Perth stronger than he had been in life, with working eyes and strong limbs. For time things settled back into a kind of routine; working experimenting, studying and trying to salvage what they could of his library. She had faith that he would find a way to bring himself back to life, all they needed was time.

Keeping Sandor Perth and the soulwyrms fed fast became a burden, Akantha was forced to go foraging further away, day trips to the city became common. It seemed that each time she came back to find Sandor Perth and his house in a further state of degeneration. One day she found him cutting the heads off his daughter’s dolls, whispering to them all the while. Another time she found him masturbating into his books, ejaculating wryms over the yellowed pages. Such actions had no effect on her directives.

Now this girl, this girl might very well be a turning point for the Sandor Perth, if she had magic- powerful magic- her wisdom could be added to Sandor Perth’s own. Perhaps that could aid him, help him to find a way to-

A rapid series of thuds stirred her from the calculations. The nursemaid turned to see her other captive, the man, curled into a ball and rolling down the stairs. He was headed straight for her.

*

Halfway through the spell she dropped to her knees, coughing uncontrollably. Globs of ichor coated her fist and ran down her clothes. She was gasping like a fish, struggling to cast one last spell. The dead man was a few feet away, almost within grabbing distance. He sneered “Is this what they teach for magic now? Pathetic.”

It was a simple spell really, a channeling of force, it could be enough force to move a pencil or enough force to shatter a stone wall. It all depended on the skill of the caster.

Lorelei’s hand began to glow with light, she forced herself to stand.

“Again? All right, one last spell, then...” the dead man paused.

A ball of radiance launched itself from Lorelei’s quivering hand and rocketed past the dead man to impact the stone bookshelf behind him.

The dead man began to laugh hysterically. Lorelei bolted past him, throwing herself out of the alcove. A heavy creaking sound filled the air. The dead man was so busy shambling after her that he never even saw the basalt bookcase come crashing down on him.

*

Tangled together they tumbled down the steps, an avalanche of flailing limbs and shouts that bounced over the last step and crashed through the slouching banisters to thud onto the dusty wooden floor.

The manacles on Jason Magwier’s wrists and ankles rattled, his jaws ached from gripping the stained metal spike in his teeth and his shoulder had gone numb.

The visions where coalescing now, becoming more uniform. That meant he had no time for reason or deceit. Akantha was next to him, she raised herself to her hands and knees and cocked her head to stare coolly at him. “I’ve had just about all I can take of you.”

Jason hopped up and straddled the nursemaid’s back, slipping his manacled arms over her head and around her throat. He pulled back with all his might. She was a good three inches taller than he was and when she stood it lifted him off his feet. The wrenching of his wounded shoulder was enough to elicit a sob Jason, he nearly dropped the metal spike from his teeth. She swung him around, and smashed herself backward into the wall. The plaster shattered around him.

The nursemaid’s hands rose up to the rusted chain of the manacles and with a sudden and swift motion snapped it. Jason fell to the floor with a grunt. He had just enough time to spit the metal spike into his just-freed hands before Akantha rounded on him, her fingers hooked into talons.

He jabbed upwards, sinking the metal spike dead center into her chest. A small, startled whimper escaped the nursemaid’s lips. Blood and shreds of copper wire exuded from the wound, the metal of the spike scraped against something hard. Jason pushed again, not stopping until he heard a familiar small crack and felt the cool rain of ashes over his hands.

*

Ripples of dust and water washed over Lorelei as she danced around the collapsed bookcase, gesturing wildly with the middle finger from each of her ‘soft white hands’. She couldn’t believe it; she had beaten Sandor Perth! The Sandor Perth. Dead or alive that was an accomplishment to rival anything her frigging mother had ever done. It flew in he face of everything her instructors said about her. Undisciplined? Without focus? Obstinate?

Maybe, but I won, I won when all they would have been able to do is roll over and die.

In the middle of a kick-step she doubled over, retching up the last remnants of the dead wizard’s spell. If not for that she might never have seen the frothing darkness bleeding out from under the shattered slabs of basalt.

The soulwyrms flowed out of Sandor Perth’s pulped skull and broken limbs. They zeroed in on Lorelei, smelling her heat through the putrid, ankle deep water. Desperate for a new host, the parasites moved as one, gushing forward.

Lorelei turned and ran, slogging through the slimy water. Another menace, another retreat. So much for my victory dance. She thought as she quickly found herself panting. The invocations had left her drained, she didn’t have enough left in her to obliterate an insect much less a horde of parasites.

They dogged her as she ran. The stomach-turning slithering they made sounded like mocking whispers at her back. She could almost hear Sandor Perth’s smug voice in that morass of sound.

“Run girl. Run.”

Her wild flight led her back to where she had started, the foot of the booby-trapped stairway. The steps where still withdrawn, the door was still closed.

An obscene gurgling filled her ears and she turned to see the mass of parasites spilling over one another in their greed.

What will it feel like? She wondered in what she knew would be her last moments, To be so utterly consumed?

The hidden door rumbled open, the steps clicked back into place. Jason Magwier’s shadow filled the top of the stairway. He was holding a torch of all things. He was shouting her name and holding the door open.

Lorelei threw herself up the up the stone stairway, running on all fours. The soulwyrms boiled after her, slopping over the steps in a grimy wave. A few feet from the exit her hand slid across something sharp but she ignored it, forced herself to move faster.

Fifth step! Watch out for the fifth step!

She sprung over the last few steps into Magwier’s arms, her weight nearly driving him to his knees, She didn’t notice his wounds or the thick smoke filling the room; all she noticed in her exhaustion was that his torch was a flaming table leg.

The sputtering torch kept the amorphous mass of parasites at bay, the oozed up around the edges of the hidden doorway like glistening moss but advanced no further.

“Lorelei.” Magwier whispered, “Do you feel well enough to run?”

“I will never... drink tequila... again...”

“The fire is holding them at bay, but I don’t know for how long.”

She took in a deep shuddering breath, “I can run you and those things into the ground.”

“All right.” he straightened, pulling her to her feet as well, “Now when I say run-”

*

It was still raining but at least they had the comfort of daylight. They huddled together on the side of the road watching Sandor Perth’s manor burn. Lorelei had slipped out of her shirt and used it to fashion a makeshift bandage for Magwier’s shoulder. That left her with just his jacket and her bra; the leather felt clammy against her bare skin. “How long before someone sees the smoke and sends the fire company?”

He shrugged, “Perhaps never. The residents of the town have a habit of ignoring strange goings-on.”

Coils of flame licked out of the broken windows to singe the smoldering gambrel roof. “Guess we’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”

“I’m sorry Lorelei.” he frowned, his dark eyes churning, “I’m sorry for all of this.”

“You didn’t know.” she shot him a glance, “Did you?”

“Trust me, none of my clever plans ever involves stabbing and blood loss for myself or the ones I love.” Smoke billowed out of the arched doorway and rose slowly to the cloudy sky. “Next time you pick where we spend our vacation.”

A thousand brutal retorts occurred to her but she thought better of it. She just held him a little closer. “How about your apartment, your black and white TV and take out food?”

“Sounds heavenly-” he said, then his brow creased. He reached around to the back of her shoulder, “Hold still.”

“What’s-” she nearly screamed at the sight of the soulwyrm he had plucked off her. Leaping to her feet she shuddered with revulsion, running her hands over herself to see if there were any more. There weren’t but she still felt soiled; she wanted to tear off her clothes and a layer of skin to be safe, “How many escaped? We have to-”

“It’s all right.” Magwier held the struggling parasite pinched between his thumb and index finger. It twisted and coiled in his grip, “It can’t do anything. Without its brothers it’s no more dangerous than an evil thought.”

Lorelei watched as Magwier squashed the parasite’s back half, it swelled like and overripe boil and burst audibly. “They taught us in the academy that Sandor Perth was a good man.”

The walls of Sandor Perth’s manor were beginning to weaken and bend. Smiling with grim satisfaction Jason Magwier dropped the tiny carcass and stood “He was once, before avarice and politics twisted him into something unrecognizable. I suppose there’s a moral there but I’m too damn tired and we’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”

He offered Lorelei his hand and she took it “That’s ok, I wouldn’t have ignored it anyway.”

“That’s my girl.” they limped back the way they had come.

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