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Avenger Assembled

(IC) Pop Quiz: Or Are You Deceived?

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January 2, 2018 

Ashton and Grenville 

 

The advertisement at the music store had been well-presented enough - musicians wanted for a Holiday Concert at Club G4118. They were paying in both cash and exposure, with promises of out-of-town label agents in the audience. That sort of thing was a little outside of Fred and Matt's scope these days, but the money was nice, as was the opportunity to perform before a crowd that didn't involve anybody they knew. They were a little new to this public performance thing, after all. And so on the evening of January 2, 2018, they were making their way to Club G4118, a private club built into a converted home on the edge of Ashton. They were at the extreme edge of the neighborhood here, so far to one side that on the other side of the street was a vacant lot that itself segued into Wharton State Forest. 


It was a cold evening, with a light coating of snow on the ground, as they surveyed a neighborhood that looked like light suburban commercial development - a strip mall here, a chain restaurant there, and the looming shape of Club G4118 nearby. It looked to have been an older house before its conversion, perhaps one of the 19th century homes that had stood on this spot when Ashton was technically an independent town. Before consolidation had meant the murder of much of the town's history in the name of progress. From somewhere, distant Christmas music played, probably a tune from one of the stores in the stripmall. But Christmas was over now too - this was the last day of their last Christmas holiday. 

 

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It was a rare occasion when Matthew Rivera chose to dress up, but a potential gig was one of those times - nothing ostentatious, of course, and none of the designer labels that would be well and truly outside of his budget, but something simple and flattering. Black slacks and well-fitted suit jacket over a white button-up and a thin black tie gave him a casual look somewhere at the intersection of "cute mortician's son", "indie rocker", and "blues singer"...the latter helped somewhat by eyes rendered just dark enough to turn brown eyes soulful in contrast.

 

Fang liked it, anyway, but she'd also liked his ghost-wrangling outfit, and he was rethinking that. She was trotting down the sidewalk at his heels, happy to be sniffing and watching a part of the city she hadn't been in much.

 

"Just let me know if you feel like you need to back out," he was saying as they walked down the street. He could have driven, but for all that it was January it was pretty nice out, and the walk was always good for wearing the edge off the jitters. "Figure that goes for anyone anybody plays with, but we haven't committed 'til we've committed, y'know?"

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"For my many faults failing to make the attempt has infrequently been among them," Winifred hummed while adjusting the strap of her instrument's case over her shoulder. Taking her cue from Matthew's fashion sense she'd also picked out a pair of black slacks and a white dress shirt, though her narrow neck tie was framed by a snug black vest rather than a jacket. What had become semi-regular outings to the local second-hand shops had turned up a pair of black riding boots as well. Her jet black pixie cut and dark cosmetics lent her a slightly more imperious version of his rakish aesthetic, which suited her just fine. "Crowds of strangers don't worry me overmuch. So long as no one begins throwing things at the stage I imagine I'll be perfectly alright." She gave Matthew a prim deadpan look but tossed a wink in Fang's direction when he turned back to look where they were walking.

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"At a holiday thing?" Matt had slung his guitar case across his back on its strap, the better to shove both hands into his jacket pockets; the base of it bumped against his right leg every time he took a step, but he either didn't notice or didn't mind. "Nah, not likely. Holiday cheer and all that, y'know? Besides, we've got a backup plan for that stuff."

 

Fang returned Winifred's wink with a toothy white grin, trotting a couple of feet closer from where she'd been briefly sniffing at a trail on the sidewalk. "We shall be nearby," she confirmed, "as we always are. If any are foolish enough to throw things onto stage, we shall catch them, and they shall be ours." 'They' could have been the thrown or the thower, and one imagined the ambiguity was done with purpose. "We are very well trained."

 

Matt made a snorting noise. "Sure, okay."

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Though both of them were new to this scene, what followed inside the club seemed normal enough. They were met inside by Abel, their contact - a slim young man with a shaved head and lanky build. The club's venue was inside what had once been the mansion's large dining room, with the stage built just inside two big French doors adorned with heavy wrought iron metalwork on the lower half and stained-glass scenes from the Book of Genesis on the top. "Sorry," said Abel with a grin, "I didn't do the decorating on this old place." Inside, the club was adorned with cheerful Christmas decorations that suggested an eclectic artist's eye if not a tycoon's budget. A tasteful pine tree decorated with red and green ornaments sat in one corner of the big room, while a small bar sat in the other. Along the walls were taxidermied animal heads with a winter theme; moose and bear and reindeer, while from the ceiling hung an impressive chandelier. 

 

"The crowd will start arriving in about half an hour," said Abel, "right now it's just us staff setting up." They could see others of Abel's like working around the club floor as they went, cleaning up and polishing the glasses behind the bar, arranging chairs and tables, and stringing festive Christmas lights. The club's employees seemed to have a common 'look' inside bounds of age - young and slender, with short hair or shaved heads, and comfortable black stagehand's gear as they did their work. "The AV hookup you asked for is in place, and so are the machines - we'll make sure you give tonight's crowd a show nobody forgets." 

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"We'll get set up," Matt said, nodding, "and we'll give you a shout if we need anything. Half an hour's a little tight, but it shouldn't be too bad for getting stuff ready - sorry about any weird squeals as we plug in."

 

He flashed a smile and disengaged, leading Winifred to the stage - Fang had not disappeared when they hit the building, for once, and by the time they hit the mic stands she'd been joined by another in what must have been some kind of magical dog mitosis. "Looks like we'll mostly just have to tune up and make sure the sound covers the room," Matt mused, looking out over the bustle of a pre-party setup and trying to get a feel for how everything had been laid out. He shrugged his guitar off his shoulder, his second dog helpfully trotting off to gently grab the ends of a couple instrument cables and awkwardly dragging them downstage.

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Winifred gave the stained glass window a long, dubious look before following Matt to the stage. "Well, I'm certainly glad I packed my cane in my instrument bag," she noted dryly as she unpacked, the delivery of which was undercut by the way she looked from her bandmate to the hounds expectantly. "Because his name is Abel? And the window-- It's wordplay, Fang, really." Grumbling she continued to set up, careful not to jostle the other supplies tucked into her bag. She didn't expect she'd need any of them that night but after the 'Winterfold' debacle she'd made it policy not to visit unfamiliar locations without bringing some alchemical essentials, just in case. "I suppose the poor fellow's already heard all the jokes. Have we decided on a finalized set list yet?"

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Matt was chuckling, glancing back at the dogs who were trying to look helpful without actually contributing much. "She got it," he said, plugging a cable into the tail end of his guitar and giving it an investigatory strum. The sound over the speakers was good; he needed to tune a little, but it was promising. "She had a pun for you too, but I'm going to be mean and not share it. Sky, back of the room for a sound check, please?"

 

He pointed to one of the dogs and then to the back wall of the open room; the dog dutifully trotted down off the stage, weaving around the party-preppers. Matt plucked a couple of strings, and the dog boofed - he frowned, and adjusted something on his guitar. "Couldn't do a really formal set without getting a feel for the place, and I wasn't, uh, quite expecting the Biblical stained glass. Better keep it clean until we know how seriously a guy named Abel takes his Christmas. Start with something pretty safe - our version of Christmas Nights In Blue, maybe?" That had taken some doing to convert to a duo on guitar, but it had been a lot of fun to puzzle out the bass with Fred, and he'd been looking forward to putting that into practice. "Not too hard to go harder or slower after, depending on how the crowd's feeling it, and at a party we ought to have time to talk for a minute between songs or runs. I still like working our toward a good New Year's song at the end, too."

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It wasn't quite a full house by the time Fred and Matt were ready to perform - but it was close. There was a big crowd of young people out there in the audience dressed to the nines in the latest fashions, so diverse that they might have stepped out of Central Casting for Freedom City. There were dark faces and pale ones, groups and couples of all sorts, all of them looking like they were having a very good time despite the fact that a good number of them had the same no-alcohol bracelets that Fred and Matt were both wearing. The duo had found the equipment and plugins they needed for their show without too much trouble, the big industrial-sized outlets looking freshly installed in the old mansion's walls. 

 

The dogs, in their exploration, had found that most of the mansion was empty - beyond the small staff in the kitchen and working the floor, most of the doors to the rest of the place were locked down and the slipcovers still on most of the furniture - even inside the locked rooms the dogs had uncovered. It was well dark outside by now, thanks to short winter days, the French doors behind them opaque even in their transparent spots unless you peered directly through them from close range. The perfect backdrop! 

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It wouldn't have been accurate to say that Winifred enjoyed performing in front of an audience. After a few attempts there was still a distinct ribbon of anxiety wrapped around her stomach, one she suspected would never entirely go away but that wasn't enough to spoil the steadying feeling of picking out the rhythm on her bass, the sense of trust and collaboration of playing with someone else. In some ways the thrum of the amplifiers so close by and the energy of the crowd added to that feeling but that was just proverbial icing. This was a way in which she could overcome her negative feelings and create something rather than destroy and that alone might as well have been the secret of transmutation itself.

 

Adjusting her mic stand one last time more to give her hands something to do than for any real need she looked to Matthew with a small nod, ready to launch into the opening bass line of Christmas Nights in Blue on his signal.

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Matt filed away his dogs' findings before calling them back, most of them simply disappearing unseen and the final two flanking each side of their stage, tails thumping against the flooring as they awaited the music they loved. They weren't an imposing presence - and they were taking care to keep out of peoples' way - but they had the calmness and presence of bouncers, not bystanders. Their message was clear: the stage was for performers.

 

The boy was almost famously apathetic, moving through his non-ghost-dealing life with a laid-back low-energy attitude that was probably fed by some level of depression that he explicitly chose to not think about, but this...this got him going. The crowd, the lights, the sound when the speakers picked up on tiny movements on his strings; there was energy here, something he could almost reach out and grab, and that was real. That was alive. And thus, so was he.

 

He bounced on the balls of his feet a bit, flexing his hand before nodding to Fred. No preamble, no hello to the crowd, no putting his band name out there - just strum of a guitar slowly building volume over the crowd, Fred's bass backing him up like a physical force, and a voice carrying more passion than he could summon up for most whole weeks. "Just another night in Freedom City; snow comes down, looks real pretty - don't know how, but suddenly there you are...."

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The hell of it was, when all was said and done and there was time to think about it afterwards, it was a good concert. The audience was both attentive and appreciative throughout, applauding at the applaud moments, cheering when they were supposed to be cheering, giving every sign that they loved what Fred and Matt were bringing to the stage. When they got up to dance for the fast dancing songs, the audience moved with an uninhibited rhythm like men and women without a care in the world other than losing themselves in the music and in each other. When Fred and Matt took a break halfway through, there were pitchers of agua fresca waiting for them just off-stage, and everything seemed to be going fine. 

 

At their return, they found Abel waiting for them on-stage, a big smile on his face and a whistle around his neck like the one a high school track coach might have carried. "Hello, everyone! I hope everyone here is grateful to our band for giving us the performance of a lifetime! Give it up!" The crowd cheered, they whistled, they stood - smiling, sweating faces of young people having the time of their lives. "Thank you so much," he added to Fred and Matt under the noise of the crowd, his mouth away from the mic. "You guys really could have a future in this." With a smile, he turned back to the audience and said, "Okay, it's time for my little part of tonight's festivities. I hope everyone has their earplugs in!" He laughed, showing white teeth, a perfect master of ceremonies. 

 

The sheer mundanity of the moment, and the ripple of laughter that went through the crowd as they reached into their pockets for red foam earplugs, cut any tension as Abel stood before the big standing microphone and raised the whistle to his lips. And then he blew. 

 

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

 

It was a terrible, ear-splitting scream that seemed to cut directly into Fred and Matt's souls, almost immediately driving them to the ground with hands clapped futilely to their ears as waves of agonized numbness shot through them again and again, until paralysis and rapidly-rising unconsciousness seemed a more palatable alternative than standing before that terrible, awful sound.

 

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

 

There was an instant's pause when Abel paused for breath-

 

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

 

In the last minute before Abel reached down to close their paralyzed eyes for them, Fred and Matt can still see - and feel.

 

From Matt's position at the front of the stage, he can see the crowd - he can't hear them, but he can make out their lips as they chant - "We shall repay! We shall repay!" with the fervent enthusiasm of groupies - or cultists. He can see some of them stripping, exposing skin covered in tattoos marked with bloody stones and eldritch symbols of murder and death. He can still feel the dogs but they feel far away -  not as if the whistle drove them off but as if the sound pushed them into some deeper realm where they just can't reach him in time. 

 

Fred is in the back, where she can't see the stage at first. Until she feels something bump into her back - the French doors are opening! Something steps over her - then bends down and turns her over. She stares up into the thing's face. The lack of hair makes it ambiguous at first until she realizes the woman leaning over her is a woman - a woman with her own face. Except her teeth have been sharpened into a predator's smile and her eyes - her eyes are yellow. Suddenly, with a jerking motion, she seems to be pulled away, frowning. And she drops Fred, the latter's head turning to see her counterpart walk towards the edge of the stage with a slow, mechanical stride. 

 

There are wires in her back, driven into flesh and bone, an arrangement of metal that vaguely resembles an umbrella's framework but thicker and denser - wires who seem to be driving the forward motion of her limbs, blood visible at the insertion sites only partially covered by the bodice and harness she's wearing. When she reaches the edge of the stage, she stares at the ecstatic crowd before her before giving a howl - and it's the Alkahest, eyes wide and Feral, body still shackled with steel, who leaps into the crowd below. And as Abel closes his eyes for him, Matt can feel death. Death death death death death - 

 

One last blow of the whistle turns paralysis into unconsciousness. Maybe that's for the best. 

 

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Fred opened her eyes to the sound of a baby crying. She lay on a cold metal floor, still dressed in the outfit she wore to the concert, and in front of her there was a bassinet with a baby in it. The baby, wearing nothing but a disposable diaper, doesn't look very happy. The rest of the room, a cell whose grey walls were marked with squares about thirty-six inches on the diagonal, was empty except for what looked like a basic chemistry set (if they still made chemistry sets, anyway) up against the far wall. 


One side of her prison was transparent - letting her see next door where another Fred lay on its stomach, covered in gore, metal wires protruding from its back. The other Fred, no longer the Alkahest, was sleeping. 

 

From overhead, came a voice. "Good! You're awake!" 

 

-

 

Matt woke up surrounded by death. 

 

Well not in so many words but the sheer sensation of it. Death death death death. Not the shocks of it he'd felt back at the concert, but a building, inevitable tide at the back of his mind. He could feel these deaths playing like Muzak in an elevator, Muzak that was only getting louder. These were deaths of terror and pain, deaths that weren't happening anywhere in this  cell whose grey walls were marked with squares about thirty-six inches on the diagonal, deaths of accident and violence, like those he'd feel at the site of a serious auto accident - but they went on and on and on, ticking away in the psychic noise of this room and getting louder and louder. 

 

From overhead, came a voice. "Good! You're awake!" 

 

 

 

 

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Pushing herself into a sitting position with a pained groan Winifred looked about her cell blearily, struggling to orient herself. The wailing pulled at her already frayed nerves, making it difficult to concentrate or make sense of where she was. She focused on the tiles on the walls first, piecing together what had happened at the show. They'd been incapacitated and she was being held prisoner. Matthew wasn't there with her, she needed to find him. Who's baby was that? Why was there a baby in the cell? What had that horrible whistle done, how that worked? All those people at the club...!

 

The teenager reared up, shooting unsteadily to her feet and nearly toppling over again, stumbling until she found her balance. She recognized the twisted reflection in the adjacent cell now, bloody and feral. "Oh, Lord. 'Feral,'" she gasped with a shudder, retreating until her back was pressed against the far wall. She thought back to seeing Smith side by side with his double, the same face having lived a different life, thought back to Mrs. Faretti's class explaining the nature of parallel worlds. She remembered the muttered fragments of information her friend had shared about where he'd come from and the sort of creatures he'd trained to fight. "Woodsman's world. That's the me from... No no no!"

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Matt was dreaming. Matt had to be dreaming, right?

 

Death death death death.

 

He sat up, slowly, trying to get his bearings as the drumbeat in his head told him that this wasn't an unconscious fiction. It ate at him, as it always did, but too much, too frequent. The stage.... Matt's stomach turned over, snapping his head around as he tried to find a way OUT. He had to stop that death. He had to deal with the aftermath of that death. He had to--

 

"Fang?" he called, but there wasn't an answer. She was there, but she wasn't, and he could feel her distress. All of their distress. "Moon? Sky? Hunter? I can't...."

 

He tried to stand up, and actually managed it by try two, one hand on the tiled wall as he tried to get his bearings. He was about two seconds from panic, and was desperately trying to remember that panic wouldn't solve anything. "Don't...don't leave me alone...."

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"She's quite the specimen, isn't she?" said the voice overhead in Fred's cell, conversational despite the appalling horrors of the day. "I don't mind telling you - we had quite a bit of trouble capturing her, much less putting in Control afterwards." The other Fred - the Fred-thing if Riley's stories could be trusted, shifted slightly in its sleep, looking a bit like a satiated predator after a big meal. "Of course, she has reason to be so angry. You're familiar with the Hunting Ground - you know what must have happened to her there. Can you imagine what it must have been like before the Change, roaming that dead city, feeling the madness draining her soul away?" The baby was crying louder now,  the red-faced wailing of a child in obvious distress. 

 

-

 

"I'm afraid your friends won't be visiting us until I'm sure you can be trusted not to send them against us," came the voice overhead in Matt's cell - the cavalcade of death growing stronger and faster, albeit muted by a strange distance Matt couldn't immediately put his finger on, like listening to a low-fidelity Youtube video instead of a live concert. The deaths were coming again and again now, far more than could have been present at that concert - deaths of fear and grief, deaths of terror and rage, and something else - a death of the mind no less horrific for that, as if the very soul had been scooped out and replaced out, again and again and again, the psychic ghosts of a mortal violation of the soul ringing outward again and again - and was that the distant sound of a crying baby?

 

"The living can't be saved, psychopomp. Your teachers, your friends - they've lied to you. This is a multiverse of Murder - and I'm going to show it to you." 

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"Of course they can't be saved!" Matt was holding his head in both hands, trying to shut out the death like it was some kind of headache; something was wrong with it. Something was wrong with him? Even at his worst he'd never had an avalanche of death like this, even at his most sensitive and in the midst of the largest disaster. It was too much, an assembly line of mortality - or an echo chamber. A recording, or a transmission? He could have done it with sound, but who would know how to do it to death?

 

He needed his dogs. What was he supposed to do without his dogs.

 

"You save one or two and ten more die and I clean up the mess," he said between clenched teeth, trying to look around the room for any sign of egress. A door to kick in, bars to teleport through, something to orient against. The baby? That was weird, but hard to focus on with a head full of doom. "I don't get to save anyone. I get to break the news when nobody saves them. That's how it works. That's how it always works."

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If she had simply been left in silence Winifred suspected she would have continued in her terrified spiral but the voice over the intercom, implied threats and blatant psychological jabs coated in a thin veneer of amiable civility, was something she was more familiar with than the speaker might have known. It gave her something to focus on and as always the mounting fear was joined by a blistering coal of anger. 

 

"And you put her in a corset, which says an awful lot about you," she snapped back, teeth clacking against each other as she bit off the words. The hot anger felt good against the cold pit of anxiety and looking through the transparent wall at the metal 'Control' embedded in her doppelgänger's back she began to make more connections. "You would be the person or persons we have to thank for Mr. Archer's ordeal, then?" Remembering the holographic exam gone wrong, the looks on her friends' faces, Winifred felt her right arm spasm slightly but the tunnel darkening around the edges of her vision was interrupted by another wail from the baby.

 

There was a certain simplicity she nearly had to admire. "The child is a hostage against the Alkahest. Less expensive than impervium, I suppose." There was a snarl in her voice but inwardly the alchemist began reciting her exercises. She could not afford to have an episode, not now, for either of their sakes. She was steady enough at least to straighten and stand without leaning against the wall, looking about for signs of a camera. "The supplies imply that you wish me to make something for you. Given the lengths you went to to acquire a version of me with a markedly narrower skill set I assume you're looking to replicate my serum. Am I warm?"

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"Poor boy. You still think something is listening." 

 

Deathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeath-a city?-deathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeath-a nation?-deathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeath-A world? 

 

"Men die. Realms fall. Gods perish. The purity of death claims all. You bathe in holiness, child, and I would see you know its smell. Do you feel the death around you? This is a single day!" The voice above was laughing, half not-believing its own words. "A single day, in a single place. Oh, you're going to love it there. For twenty years they've bathed in murder and it sticks to their very skins. Will your dogs still love you through the stink of it?"

 

---

 

"There's my girl," came the sound of amused pleasure from above. "Just remember, no one is coming to save you. Everyone knows what the Alkahest did last night. And if you fail me, that infant isn't a trap for the Alkahest. It's her dinner." 

 

Winifred?

 

Looking out the glass revealed that the other Winifred was awake. And smiling. It pressed two bloodied hands flat against the glass, then its face, looking for all the world like a child peering through a candy store window. Rheumy yellow eyes fixed themselves directly on Reagent as it drummed fingers on the glass, one after the other, then faster, loud enough to get her attention. 

 

Winifred.

 

It traced a finger down the glass, slowly, leaving a faint trail of gore -  and suddenly threw back its head and laughed and laughed, whole body shaking with mirth, a hysterical childish Hee hee hee! 

 

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"Charming." One unforeseen advantage of her night terrors turned out to be that seeing a maddened, monstrous version of herself had lost some of its shock value. Her stomach did churn at the thought of the horrors left in the club being attached to her alter-ego, even if the truth could be brought to light. It was one thing for people to infer the sort of damage the Alkahest might wrought, it was another to have an example to point toward.

 

Still, she couldn't afford to fall into that spiral of thinking now. She pressed her lips into a thin line both in derision and to keep her expression stiff. "I cannot imagine why anyone might feel compelled to locate a provably dangerous murderer in a timely manner, no," she shot back at the voice sarcastically, making a show of keeping her shoulders squared as she walked over to the chemistry set and began to take stock. "I've not illusions about a 'rescue mission' but let's not pretend you haven't placed yourself on a timeline. As for the child, you may have overestimated my maternal instinct." She wasn't sure how believable this was going to be but she tried to keep her voice cool. "I'm from the eighteen hundreds. I don't want it to die but infant mortality is what it is. Besides, you'd either need to let my lovely neighbour in here or else incapacitate me while the child was retrieved and now that I know to expect it I have to wonder how well your facility would withstand two Alkahests."

 

She looked up from the supplies again. "Which isn't to say I'm unwilling to bargain, only that I find myself underwhelmed by your jejune attempts at theatre. I suppose the biblical references should have been telling; Milton you are not." She clapped her hands and suppressed a gag as she caught another look at the bloody finger-painting out of the corner of her eye. "So. You shan't see a drop until I know what's been done with my colleague."

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Matt made a growling noise, pulling at his own hair to try to block out the static of it, the awful insistent noise of the ceaseless death of a billion mortal souls. He had to find a way to get out, he had to get his dogs back, he had to find Fred, if she was in this awful place too (he really hoped she wasn't), he had to--

 

And then the voice insulted his dogs.

 

He stopped. He had something to latch onto, now, something to block out the noise. He had anger, and the anger was clarity. "See," he said, still wincing, but more sure of his motions - he pulled off his jacket long enough to remove his shirt, re-donning the former over a naked torso while he tore the latter into crude strips. "See, I thought you got it. I thought you knew, too, but you don't know nothin'." Deathdeathdeathdeath - he paused, collected himself, and wrapped the strips around his hands. "They all die. You can't save 'em because they all die. Nobody beats the reaper, and I get to play janitor, but murder? Murder's another game, man. Murder's not pure. Murder takes 'em before their time. You can't always beat the murder, but you can always give it a shot. Buy some years. Postpone the death, even if you can't stop it. Even when it doesn't matter."

 

He turned his hands over to inspect his work, frowning up at the voice. He was grimacing, like trying to fight of the world's worst headache, but he had his focus back. "Especially when it doesn't matter. They taught me that, see. They taught me a lot of things. And they'd love me no matter what."

 

Black smoke was leaking out of his bandages, crawling through the air like ink through water as he drove one fist into the window. It didn't break outright, but long cracks started to spider out across its surface. "They're good dogs."

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"The breaking glass earned Matt laughter. "Good! Very good, young psychopomp. Break the bonds I give you, even as you break all others. But be wary - you might not like what you find!" Suddenly a door opened in the cell behind Matt, one of the panels sliding away entirely. Through the newly-created opening, which led into a sterile, brightly-lit tunnel lined with the same panels as his cell, he could hear things - distant screams and babbling voices in too many languages to make out, unholy growling and chewing. 

 

"I give you a riddle. There is a door. A door to murder - and a door to safety. One has been opened; one can be opened. What do you do?"

 

---------------

 

"I'm afraid he's no longer your colleague. If you want to see him again, you need to give me something better than this." A faint electronic click as the signal was cut. 

 

Across the hall, Winifred's counterpart abruptly stopped laughing - and began slamming its fists against the glass and calling her name, its shouts growing in definition and dropping in pitch, until the last bellow was a good octave lower than Fred could have shouted comfortably. 

 

Winifred! 

 

Winifred! 

 

WINIFRED! 

 

It stared balefully at Fred - then turned and began moving back to the seat on the far side of the cell. Watching closely, Winifred could see that her other 'self' wasn't moving of its own accord. The metal and plastic driven into inhuman flesh was moving her like a puppet with no strings, pulling her first backwards into the cell, then down into her seat. Fred herself would have transformed under that kind of stress - but perhaps the largest of the flexible spines, the one driven directly into the back of the other Fred's skull, had something to do with that. 

 

The infant in her cell wailed still - and her equipment awaited. 

 

 

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Winifred stood silently in the cell for a long minute, waiting to see if the voice continued. Once she was certain the conversation was finished with she let out a long breath and massaged her temples. Her captors seemed to be placing an awful lot of faith in her ability to manage her condition in far from ideal circumstances and for the sake of Matthew and the so-far unnamed infant she didn't seem to have much choice.

 

She stepped over to inspect the crying baby, not really sure what she was meant to be looking for apart from ensuring there wasn't anything in the crib upon which they might injure themselves. "If it's any consolation I don't believe any of us are any more content with the situation than you," she muttered, leaving them where they were rather than risk failing to support the head or whatever one was meant to do while holding such a tiny creature. She hadn't been entirely exaggerating about her ill developed maternal instincts and this didn't really seem the time to learn by trial and error.

 

Instead she walked over to the chemistry set, making disapproving tutting sounds under her breath at the subpar equipment. It would have to do. She glanced up to see her staring double and grimaced. "I expect I'm going to have to put you out of your misery before you attempt to return the favour, dear." The alchemist studied the other woman's face for some sign of understanding. "If there's any of, well, me left in you that would be really helpful so feel free to chime in with something apart from shouting and maniacal laughter. No rush, we don't seem to be going anywhere." They'd taken some fairly effective precautions against the Alkahest after all, she acknowledged as she picked up a beaker. Unfortunately for them they'd failed to properly account for Winifred Wei.

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Matt faltered for a moment at the noise - that was something he should have looked into. That wasn't something he could trust, but he could at least send one of his dogs to-- He scowled again, grinding his fist into the cracking glass. "Oh yeah? Murder 'n safety, huh? Man you're dumb. You've screwed up like twice now and you haven't even figured out how yet."

 

He drew back, glaring into the glass before driving a smoking fist forward again - and this time, it yielded, the undamaged remainder sliding open and betraying...well, it was better than a cell, probably. "You kidnapped an alchemist and a psychopomp, man," he said, shaking bits of glass out of his make-shift glove and stepping out into...freedom? There was a sound in the distance, one that stood out from the rest. Too subtle, too real. That'd do as well as anything else in a pinch, and he set off. "You gave up 'safety' a long time ago if you thought this was a good idea. I'm gonna go find Fred, if she hasn't already gotten herself free, and then dogs or no dogs we're blowing this place."

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Time passed. Minutes? More? The baby eventually stopped weeping, though from Fred's occasional looks it did not look very happy. 

 

As Fred worked, the 'glass' that fronted her cell darkened noticeably. It wasn't enough to cast her into darkness as such, more like the polarization effects she'd seen demonstrated in scientific demonstrations. Outside she could see her counterpart's cell notably brightening, her counterpart rising to her feet and taking her marionetted steps forward to stand just inside the glass door of her cell. She wasn't talking now, and from the position of her body, Fred couldn't see her face. After a few more minutes, her counterpart was joined by a face she knew well enough - Abel, still wearing his whistle, now changed into a black labcoat as he walked in front of her cell to take a clipboard that had been secured next to the other Winifred's cell. Without looking at, or responding to Fred, he began making notes on the clipboard he held. 

 

Outside, Matt's reconaissance revealed that he was in a corridor with four cells in it, his the only one occupied - and the first corridor he found had an elevator at one end - and a corridor with more cells! When he turned the corner of the cellblock, he came across a clearly-visible, brightly-lit cell with Fred inside! His friend looked grim, with torturous devices fitted to her neck, back, and arms like long, flexible tubes. The bastards had dressed her up, too, putting her in a bodice and harness, and shaved her pretty black hair entirely. She was standing at the front of her cell, face cast down to the ground, her head bowed. Outside her cell, Abel was standing there with his back to Matt, looking at an old-fashioned paper clipboard. There was no sign of anyone else in the three cells he could see down this corridor - though one of the cell doors looked opaque rather than transparent. 

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The loss of his dogs had Matt already running on raw nerves, that awful feeling of distance in the back of his head setting his teeth on edge, the odd habits of reaching for a canine companion that wasn't there or couldn't answer throwing off everything he did. Matt was mad, and Matt was distressed, and seeing what had been done to his friend was absolutely the last straw.

 

The sound he made was almost a word, but almost a bark, launching himself down the corridor and into an unprepared Abel as fast as his feet would go - a shoulder-check into the man's chest pivoted into a right hook directly into his face, and he barely had the presence of mind to grab at the whistle as Abel dropped; he wasn't too gentle yanking it free of a falling, unconscious body, but he wasn't really in a gentle mood. He had half a mind to do worse, really, but...priorities.

 

He turned to rap a fist against the glass of the cell, concern written all over his face. "Fred? Fred! What'd they...how long have they had us here? I'll get you out, gimme a sec to figure out how these things work. We've gotta get out of here."

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