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The deeper she goes, the colder it gets. Her teeth are on edge, clicking together. The steps are narrow, and the stone is eroding away. Twice she loses her footing because a chunk of stone gives out under her, then slides down the steep stairs, clicking and clacking all the way down. The only light comes from the telescope, which started giving off a glow when the doors closed.
Jaq isn’t sure how long she’s been walking, but her feet hurt. Her arm does, too. The healer-bird’s magic saliva seems to have worn off. Alone, in the dark, her mind turns to memories of upset and anger. She wouldn’t be in all this if not for Curson, and if she weren’t in all this, she’d still have her plane. Or the “King Lobster”, either.
These, and a thousand more little annoyances, fill her thoughts.
There aren’t even carvings to look at. In here, in this hole, there’s just smooth stone walls, and a sickly blue light coming from her telescope.
After what seems like a few forevers, though, she reaches the bottom, where there’s a door. She expects a grand, carved, heavy stone door, but no: it’s a perfectly preserved wooden door with a brass latch, like you’d see in any one of millions of middle-class households across the world.
She tries the latch, and pulls the door open.
Inside is a bedroom. A teenager’s, at a guess, although Jaq has never seen the bedroom of a middle-class American teenager outside of movies. Posters all over the walls, showing musicians of all kinds. Dylan and Bowie, Fitzgerald and Meloy. Actors, too, Marlene Dietrich, Hugh Jackman, Kermit the Frog.
A bed, unmade. A mirror. A dresser, covered with stickers. A lamp by the bed, not throwing anything near enough light. A closet full of pretty dresses and handsome suits.
A window, shuttered. She opens the shutter, but on the other side is stone.
Briefly, Jaq wishes this were the most disjointing thing she had seen this week.
“Do you ever regret that you couldn’t have this?” The figure appears in the corner, sitting in a chair, looking up at Jaq. They wear a long black skirt, with a white shirt and vest. They smile at Jaq.
“Never thought I should. Who are you?”
“A friend. With a message.”
“That’s not very helpful.”
“What would be helpful?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to give you that kind of power.”
Something about this person draws Jaq in. Their voice is warm, almost affectionate, and the figure is looking at her with an earnest curiosity. Compare to: everyone else she’s met lately.
They run fingers through long hair. Jaq notices that the fingernails have been sharpened to points.
“You’ve been caught up in something you shouldn’t ever have come across. For that, I am sorry.”
“Are you at fault?”
“Who are you?”
“That’s such a boring question. Like, really dull. I mean, I know you think it’s important, but I promise it’s not.”
“The thing is,” Jaq says, “I thought I’d taken control. Take a hard left turn, go somewhere they couldn’t expect, whoever ‘they’ are, but now here you are. I wind up on an island full of vodyrazum, and now I’m meeting with...what? Another demon?”
“What are you then?”
“I know you think that’s helpful, but it’s not.”
“I don’t think it was helpful at all.” They stand, and fold their hands over their stomach, tangling the fingers. Jaq isn’t sure they all go in straight lines. “Jaq, what’s a demon?”
“Not interested in games.”
“A demon is an entity from the realm of Hell, yes?”
“What are vodyrazum, then?”
“Something from before Hell.”
“So, what, you’re the next step back? Before the vodyrazum?”
“I think that will work for now. Can we just accept this as fact and move on?”
“Alright, yes. I am exarch of an entity from before the vodyrazum.”
“So I’m not even talking to whoever I’m talking to?”
“You’re talking to me. But I’m here representing another’s will.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Both. Or either, if you prefer.”
Jaq sighs, and sits on the bed. It’s more soft than she expected. She considers standing again, not wanting the exarch to have the higher status afforded by standing, but the bed is very plush, and slightly warm. She has a sudden urge to lay down.
“So what? What do you want?”
“First, I’d like an answer to my question. I’m legitimately curious. Does it hurt that you didn’t get to live in a room like this?”
Jaq shrugs. “No, I guess not”
“What’s to hurt about it? It’s just not what I had. I was usually too busy hiding or stealing or defending. I didn’t have time for hurt, or envy.” Jaq tries to beat back frustration, hoping this gets somewhere fast, and hoping to get away from memories of childhood.
“A lot of your world, including people in the places you frequent, consider this a dream. The ideal life.”
“If I’ve got freedom of movement and enough food to eat, I’ve got a fine life. A fat cigar is nice, but optional.”
The exarch nods, and watches her a moment.
“What should I call you?”
“Is that a name or a title?”
“Either. Or both, if you prefer.”
Jaq rubs her temples and lays back. The bed is obnoxiously comfortable. It takes an effort of will to keep focused and not fall asleep.
“This isn’t what you look like at all, is it?”
“This?” Exarch touches at their vest. “No, sorry. In true form, I’m more of an amorphous coloration.”
“Yes. This is generally easier for someone like you to interact with.”
“I can see why.” She sits back up, the bed is too comfortable. Supernaturally, maybe, or maybe it’s just been too long since she was in a real bed. Either way, this kind of comfort is usually a trap. Her whole torso protests, reminding her that she’s suffered too many bumps and bruises of late.
“You said you had a message,” she says. “What is it?”
“You need to go north. To the ice. That’s where they’re coming from. You have to stop them.”
“Where the statue’s base is? This isn’t strictly news.”
“You know where you need to go, but you must understand why.”
“Because if you don’t, your world is going to end.”
“That went high stakes real fast. Last I checked it was a handful of brains ripping down an island, and war in hell. When did Earth get put on the table?”
The exarch opens their mouth to answer, but they double over. There’s no noise, but they seem to be in pain. Jaq gets to her feet, comes close, but something stops her. A sensation at the back of her mind, telling her not to interfere.
The exarch stands.
“I can only sustain here for a little while. We must hurry.”
“So quit being cryptic and tell me.”
They acquiesce. “For some reason, we don’t know why, Zloveschiy wants to release the vodyrazum on your world, to destroy it. You have to stop them.”
“There is a portal in the ice. Close it.”
The exarch fades, like a low-budget movie special effect. They’re there, right in front of Jaq, then they’re insubstantial. Then, back again, doubled over in pain. They drop to the floor and lean on the wall, looking up at Jaq.
“The box,” they say. “I’m sorry. I wanted more time with you.” Jaq looks around. “On the bed. The box.”
Jaq finds it, picks it up. A small wooden box, identical to the one she found in the canyon after her home crashed.
“That was you?”
“Jaq, you have to close the portal. It has to be you.”
“Why does it have to be me? I mean, I’ll do it, it’s not like I have a hot date to get to. But why does it have to be me?”
The exarch fades again, almost disappearing totally. The look on their face is of terrible pain, but they don’t let out a sound, except when they speak.
“You’ll understand later, Jaq. No time now. Take the box, and remember what I told you in the letter.”
Then, they’re gone. The exarch disappears. The room does too, or at least the fake one does. She’s standing in a stone room. A hole in the ceiling lets the sun shine down.
“To win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” She says this to herself, remembering the letter. It wasn’t that hard to commit to memory.
She looks in the box the exarch gave her, lets out a small smile, then heads up the stairs.
“...and you will obey me,” says the statue of Kuda Zloveschiy, watching a green nectar glow gently in Curson’s arcane veins. The poison took hold quickly. A surprisingly simple concoction that rendered any hellion pliant.
“I will obey you,” Curson says, his eyes unfocused.
She gives him his instructions, then removes the sword from his chest cavity. He sits there, silent, waits for input.
That done, she goes to raise some hell of her own.
She’s worked with Broadleaf, so it doesn’t take too long to figure out where the real work is being done. The group has very rigid formulae to which they adhere. The main camp is a certain distance away from the research area, which is a certain distance away from the access area. In this case, the landing strip is the only clear access area, so she heads along the only road until she gets to the Broadleaf base.
She circles around, and keeps going.
The plan is reasonably simple. The French girl with the curls—Jaq, was it?—is a threat. Zloveschiy doesn’t understand why yet, but the girl doesn’t scan right.
The statue is incredibly adept at figuring people out. It doesn’t matter whether you call it bleeding-edge science, or simple magic, the thing has a lot of tricks up its alloyed sleeve. Right now, she can see the vodyrazum all around her, in the trees, attached to animals.
They’re not approaching. She wants to think it’s because they respect her, but she knows it’s because they don’t even notice the statue. Another benefit.
Zloveschiy actually prefers the statues to real life. When the project was at its height, she’d spend days without leaving her office, only using the statue network to communicate.
The girl, though. Jaq. She doesn’t show up. Kuda can see her, manually, with her eyes, but the statue doesn’t pick her up at all otherwise. The other one (what was his name? Something Roman.) The other one it picks up easily, and Curson easily. Red glow for human, blue glow for demon. But not the girl. She thought the soldier was alone until she got to the offices and saw both of them.
In another time, she would have thought that was interesting, and she would ask questions. But right now, different means threat. And she’s come too far to fail because of blondie.
She reaches the clearing, sees the obelisk, the rain, the scientists. The soldier talking to some Broadleaf officer.
An alarm starts going off somewhere, but she ignores it. If there’s something else for them to stress about, all the better.
She gets down on one knee and puts her hand to the ground. The armor begins to glow, runes appearing in a rainbow of colors.
The vodyrazum may not obey her, exactly, but she’s learned what strings to pull.
The first creature to slam into the fence is a crocodile. Or is it an alligator? The one where you can see the teeth. Whichever it is, it has the distinction of being about forty feet long, ten tall, and with a pink and perfect vodyrazum sitting on its noggin.
It slams up against the fence, and then jumps off, showered with sparks. The generators start to groan, complaining about the sudden discharge.
A second one appears, near the first, and they launch together at the fence.
“What do we do?” Septimus asks Steele.
“First, we see if that fence is going to hold, or if we really need to panic.”
A third might-as-well-be-a-dinosaur slams against the fence. They all throw themselves at the wires. Septimus goes for his gun, knowing it won’t do any good against the monsters. The feel of the weapon in his hands gives him some hint of control. This is washed away, though, when the fence posts begin to fall, and the crocogators start to make their way in. They’re slow for their size, but their size is huge.
“Okay, they’re in. Now what? Skip to step two.”
“Step two?” Steele asks, drawing his own weapon.
“I’m sure step one is panic, and panic’s going to get us killed. So what’s step two?”
Steele smiles. “I like you, kid. Step two is stay out of the line of fire.”
Machine gun emplacements scattered around whir to life, and begin firing on the crocogators. Instead of bullets, they fire lances of crackling white light which begin ripping into the vodyrazum. Septimus starts to smile. It almost gets to full-on grin status, except that as the first vodyrazum fades, its crocogator doesn’t stop charging for the scientists.
Then, more crocogators show up.
Septimus’ not-smile turns into a furrowed brow and a frown when the machine guns stop firing. They fold up and return to neutral status.
“We’re not supposed to need a step three. We’ve only got a couple of manual lancers, we need to get those machine guns back online. C’mon.”
Steele and Septimus charge across the field. Septimus fails to ignore the sound of screaming scientists. There is blood, and crunching bone. He doesn’t ask why blood splashes across his sleeves. From above.
Steele slides down next to one of the guns, and pries off the covering. Inside is bad news.
The mechanisms are intact, but hovering in the air over them, as if by magic, are colored shapes like letters. So, definitely magic.
“I’ve seen these,” Septimus says, then stands and looks around the field, which has gone from placid isle to Lake Placid. Running and shouting and machine guns, and giant monsters. Fun for the whole research team.
“Where? When?” Steele tries to reach the mechanisms of the gun, but there’s a bright flash and he grunts in pain. “Whatever they are, they’re strong. I can’t fix this.”
“I saw ones just like them knock a demon to the ground.”
Septimus doesn’t answer, instead surveys the field. There’s someone out there, stopping the guns from working. It’s not a huge leap to guess that they’re also causing the attack. But he can’t spot them. Could it be the statue woman?
“New plan,” Steele says, cutting through Septimus’ thoughts. “Evacuation. See those jeeps?”
Steele points to a few jeeps, parked haphazardly.
“Cram as many wounded men into one as you can, and get out. We don’t have enough lancers to rip these things down, but there are more back at the base.”
Septimus doesn’t wait for more to start running for a jeep. Steele keeps up, but his breathing is heavier than it should be. Before long, he slows down. Septimus turns, sees him, and moves to help him.
“Go!” Steele shouts. “I’ll catch up, go on.”
“Not a chance. Now come on.”
“Save scientists, they’re actually important! I’ll catch up, just go!”
The ground is starting to shake. Together, the two men turn toward the carnage, to find a grinning crocogator, complete with vodyrazum pilot, bearing down. It’s moving slowly, but the tremendous legs cover a lot of ground.
“Go.” Steele says.
They run again, together. Scientists and officers are starting to reach the jeeps. Two are firing beam weapons, but there are too many crocogators, with more coming.
They nearly fall when the ground shakes like an earthquake.
“The hell was that?”
“No idea. Go!”
An explosion, at the other end of the clearing.
“Generators!” Steele shouts. “Son of a charlatan!”
They reach a jeep, the crocogator still following them. The tentacles and arms on the vodyrazum are flailing and rippling out, trying to reach them.
There’s only one jeep left, they both jump in.
“New new plan!” Steele gets into the passenger seat. “You get us back to base. We have to evacuate.”
“What about the wounded?”
Septimus answers his own question by looking around the battlefield. They’re the only two moving humans left. The creatures, however, are very mobile, and are all bearing down on them from across the field.
Steele pulls a radio from the jeep, and starts trying to signal the base. Septimus presses the button to start the jeep (no key; he thanks whoever made that decision). Nothing happens.
He presses again.
Nothing, apart from another quake in the ground.
“Scowling patron of a failed martinizing business!” he shouts, and keeps pressing the button.
A crackling voice comes over the radio. Septimus only picks up a few words over the advancing noise, but Steele has a grave look on his face. He closes his eyes, and a wave of regret passes over his face before he speaks two words: “Bug out.”
“Copy,” says the voice on the other side.
“Get us back to the base.”
“Jeep won’t start.”
“Wait, you’re giving up the island?”
“The vody are pulling it apart. Literally. At the edges of the island, the big guys, the truck-sized vody, are ripping chunks of the island off.”
The ground quakes again.
“How will you get away?”
“We have helicopters.”
The crocogators are getting closer.
“Now get us going!”
“Did you not hear me? The jeep won’t start?”
Steele’s eyes widen, just a little. Enough to show that he feels fear, but doesn’t want you to know it. Once they’ve been that way long enough to register, his brow furrows, his expression moves from fear to anger.
“I do not. Want to die. Here.”
“We might not have a choice.”
He jumps from the jeep and runs, breaking for the forest. It isn’t the right direction to get back to base, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Whatever puts space between Steele and the crocogators is a good thing.
Septimus climbs out, since there isn’t really another option. He thinks about running, but, where would he run?
He looks in the back of the jeep, just in case, but there’s nothing. No cases that might hold one of the special guns. And he never even got to learn how those guns worked.
Some of the crocogators split off to follow Steele. Some of them surround Septimus. He’s enclosed in a tight circle now. One steps on the jeep.
He wants to run, but he can’t.
He wants to be afraid, but he can’t manage that either. Somehow, after the week he’s had, getting eaten by monster crocodile-gator-things actually seems like a good way to go out.
The crocogators seem to be debating who gets to take the first bite.
“Come on guys,” he says. “Don’t have all day.”
He closes his eyes. The ground shakes again, harder. The island must be ripping itself apart. Somewhere, a tree falls. Something wet drips on his torso, another bit on his leg.
“Gross,” he says. “What is taking you so long?”
The ground shakes harder, then stops. He hears nothing.
Like, nothing. Nothing-nothing. Not even the breath of the crocogators.
He opens his eyes, and he’s alone. The jeep is there, but the crocogators are all walking away. The ground shakes a little with each step, but nothing like the earthquakes of a second ago.
The obelisk has changed, though. The rain has stopped, and an orange glow has changed the thing’s color.
His eyes track down the obelisk. The carvings are still there, but they’ve stopped dancing around. Apart from the glow, it looks more like a standard creepy artifact of ancient history.
At the bottom, Jaq is waving at him, smoking a fat cigar.
They catch up while walking. Steele is nowhere to be seen, and there are no working vehicles, so they hike back to the base. Occasionally, a helicopter buzzes overhead.
Jaq tells her story, including the weird person and the teenager’s bedroom, and the box with another present. Septimus tells his story, with the crocogators.
“But what happened? Did you send the crocogators away?”
Jaq smiles. “I did, yes.”
She holds up her hand. She has a gold bracelet tight around her wrist, just below the hand. Strands of chain connect to another bracelet, wrapped around the palm. On this one are several small stones.
“A gift from the exarch. A bit of a deus ex machina, sure, but it’s about time we got some kind of proper advantage.”
She flexes her hand, and glowing runes appear about the bracelet. She relaxes, and the fade away.
“What do we do next though?”
Jaq turns dour.
“This is it, Septimus. Last step. We have to shut down Zloveschiy’s operation, and close the portal that’s letting the vodyrazum though.”
“So, we’re heading to the arctic.”
“Exactly where they wanted us to go.”
“You have a plan for taking them by surprise, I hope? Other than the bracelet?”
“What is it?”
“Okay, well, it’s not a fully formed plan. But it will be by the time we get there.”
“What about Steele?”
“We have a tradition where we never say goodbye. It makes sure we have to see each other again. They’ll find him. The obelisk transmits the power of the bracelet, apparently, so all the creatures on the island should be pretty calm for a while.” The implication is that Steele will be fine, but Septimus thinks there might be some concern behind Jaq’s eyes. He considers bringing it up.
Instead, he says “Man, how did you still have a weirder day than me?”
The next stretch of time has little in the way of interruptions. They get to the base, where evacuation is underway. They take a jeep, get back to the airstrip, get back on the plane.
Zloveschiy is gone, but neither of them are really surprised.
“Ten cents says she set the creatures to attack you,” Jaq guesses.
“No bet. Curson, I expected you to run without your warden.”
“Still recovering,” he says. He’s sweating, and his skin has a greenish tinge to it. So do his eyes. “I’m not sure how much use I’ll be to you.”
“Rest up,” Jaq tells him. “You too, muscles. We’ve got a long flight ahead.”
They settle in. Once they’re in the air, Jaq sets the autopilot, leans back, and meditates, listening to the engines. Tomorrow’s going to be a day and a half, isn’t it.