I'll be there.
It has been a while since we conversed. I know we've had our differences (as all great minds do), but I would appreciate it if you gave me an opportunity to try and smooth things out. I would like you to come down to the estate and have dinner. I will provide food. You will provide the company.
She… no… Solomon Kidd… looked at Her… at his… reflection in the mirror and smiled. It was amazing how much difference a haircut and a change of clothes made. Not that it had been easy finding a good set of clothes in Sol's closet: the man's tastes ran to colors so eye-searing that Picasso and Warhol would have told him to take things down a notch.
"Sol" took a deep breath and looked around the dining room one more time. Lights low: check. Roses on the table: check. Subtle hints of perfume here and there: check. Low, romantic, violin music: check. Whoever this "Midnight" was, she was going to be charmed like she'd never been charmed before.
She did indulge Herself in one regard: the main dish.
Based on the emails She'd pulled from Sol's computer, She'd determined a few things about the mysterious Midnight: Midnight was apparently an occultist of some renown, and a hedge mage of some power. Her relationship with Sol was rocky, and involved some philosophical disagreements. She was associated with a Library of some sort: the word was always capitalized. She liked cats.
"Sol" closed "his" eyes and tried to form an image in his head of the person he'd soon be meeting: probably young or middle-aged. An intellectual. Attractive? Probably not: he detected no tension there in the past emails. But there was definitely respect. That was an in. That was something he could play off of.
The doorbell rang, and "Sol" started in surprise. He had not sensed any hint of intrusion onto his grounds: the occasional animal, but no humans. Clearly, this Midnight was a much more capable mage than he had anticipated. He straightened his lapels, gave himself one last look in the mirror, then sauntered to the door and threw it open with Sol's practiced flair.
There was no one there.
And then "Sol" realized he'd made a critical error, as he saw a cat sitting on the doormat. American Shorthair. Black fur. Golden eyes mirroring her own. Small. Sleek-bodied. Seven toes on each foot… and a rising of the hackles that slowly subsided into a posture of suspicion laced with fear.
"So," Midnight said. "Should I say nihao, konichiwa, or anyeung-ha-sae-yo?"
A few minutes later, they were sitting at either end of the dining room table, staring at each other from across the long expanse of polished mahogany. She had dropped the pretense of Sol's disguise, and had resumed a female form, although she retained Sol's clothing. Midnight was perched on a couple of phone books on the other chair, which She had thoughtfully provided for her.
Midnight broke the silence by clearing her throat. "I smell long pork," she said.
"Main dish," She replied.
"He was no longer useful to me, so I made use of him in other ways."
"And you were going to serve him to me as dinner?"
She smiled. "It amused me."
"I'm sure it did."
A long, drawn out silence. This time, it was She who broke it.
"Why did you not run when you realized what I was?"
"What would have been the point? I would have just died tired. Why didn't you kill me when you realized I knew?"
"It would not have served my purpose," She said.
"So I'm useful to you?"
The grandfather clock in the main hall rang out the hour.
Midnight rubbed her forehead with one paw. "I have a headache," she complained. "I see human but smell fox. Could I ask you to…"
There was a crack, like thunder, and the woman at the other end of the table vanished, to be replaced by… well. It looked like a fox, but a fox out of the nightmares of small rodents everywhere. It was twice the size of your usual fox: almost as large as a dog. It was lean and starved, with a hungry, evil look in its yellow eyes, and nine long tails emerging from its hindquarters. "Is this better?" She asked.
"Much," Midnight said, her voice raspy with fear.
"Then let us negotiate," She said. "You know something I want to know. I could try to take it, but such methods are unpleasant and messy. Out of respect for another creature of Myth, I will allow you to ask me for a boon in return for what you know of these… Ways."
"The Ways… I should have known." Midnight nodded and relaxed. "And if I tell you what I know of these Ways… I have your word on your pride in your own wit that I will leave unharmed?"
"You have it," She said.
"Then I ask this in payment," Midnight said. "Tell me what Sol was planning… no. What the Teacher is planning."
"You know of the Teacher?" She asked, raising one furry ridged brow questioningly.
"I know he's screwed things for all of us," Midnight said, real anger seeping into her words. "Unlike him, the Serpent's Hand doesn't want a war. God's on the side with the biggest guns, and most of us don't even have peashooters. I mean… I know a kid who can change the color of paint. That's not very much use against bullets."
"I see," She said. "Then let me tell you of our plans."
She laid them out for Midnight. It took over an hour. By the time it was over, the food had gotten cold, and so had Midnight's heart.
"… it could work," the black cat had to admit. "But the casualties…"
"Will be heavy. That's the nature of war. But in the end, we will be victorious."
"I see," Midnight said. She nodded gravely and jumped down from the chair. "In that case, I suppose I had better show you my end of the bargain."
"I'm just saying that maybe you could stand to relax a bit, Shank," Percival said, sipping from his thermos of soup. "You're always so tense."
"One o' these days, I'll cut you ta pieces an' pluck those eyes outta yor skull," replied the tall, animate scarecrow. It ran a wickedly curved sickle along its "throat," in a slow, smooth gesture. "Those baby blues'll look good in me stash. Gotta place for 'em right here."
"You'll have to take 'em first," Percival said, resting a hand on the hilt of the massive bastard sword resting against the library table. "I'll see your ten and raise you thirty any day."
"If you boys are done with your dickwaving contest, can we please get on with it?" Ana asked exasperatedly. "We're going to be here forever."
"Fine, then, love. Fold," said the scarecrow, throwing his cards onto the table.
"You FOLD!? All that nonsense about 'raising the stakes,' and you FOLD!?" Percy complained.
"S'called bluffin', mm? Lyin'. Deception. A lil' pecan pie, if ya catch me meanin'. Somethin' a ponce like you wouldn't get."
"Fine, Chainshank folds," Ana interjected, interrupting the brewing argument. "Azi?"
The filthy little boy looked up and grinned happily. "Lookit my pictures!" he said. "I fixed this man!" He displayed the Jack of Hearts, now beautifully rendered in oil paints on the thin pasteboard stock.
"… and Azi has decided to draw all over his cards. Fantastic. This is wonderful. You guys are awesome," Ana Hita sighed. She threw her hand of cards into the center of the table and got up. "I'm going home."
"Well," Percy sighed. "That was a bit of a wash. What do we do now?"
"Ya tired already? Need a nice rest, mm? 'M good at helpin people sleep." Chainshank sneers.
"How about no. How's it going, Meimei?" Percy asked.
A yeti-woman covered in reddish-brown fur looked up from her book and nodded. "It goes well."
"Whatcha got there?"
"The autobiography of Bruce Lee. His insights are fascinating."
"You keep on with that, lil' sis," Percy said.
Meanwhile, Azi had crawled under a nearby table and was chewing on the bloody leg of some unidentifiable horrible something that he'd killed earlier. There was a sound of snapping bone and crunching marrow.
Percy looked down from the balcony and raised an eyebrow. "Well," he said, "That's interesting."
"Whazzat?" Chainshank asked.
"Miss Kitty is here," Percy said. "And she brought a… friend…"
Percy's voice trailed off, and he rubbed the back of his neck. Chainshank frowned, his pumpkin head's spirit glow dimming suspiciously. "Spider sense tingling, mm?"
"Yeah," Percy said. "Definitely tingling."
"That young man is watching me," She said. "I don't like that."
"He's a paladin," Midnight said. "Lives in a homeless shelter. Claims to talk to God."
"He seems to think so. Are you scared?" Midnight asked.
"Certainly not. I have nothing to fear from a child like that. I can have his guts out in an instant, if I liked."
Currently, She had chosen a new form: that of a young woman with large, horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in a motley array of coats and scarves. She had a large purse over one shoulder, and exuded a look of dismay mixed with confusion. The body was that of a graduate student in occult studies, long dead, who had tried to find Her lair in one of Her brief moments of freedom before being recaptured by the Foundation. She licked her lips at the memory of that hunt, of the taste of fear She had savored on that cold night. The scent of prey in this place was nearly overwhelming.
Midnight shook her head. "I wouldn't if I were you. The guardians here don't like violence."
"I am not afraid of any guardians."
"You should be. They have a manticore. They caught it themselves."
She looked around the room and nodded. "A perfect prison. I understand why you brought me here first," she said.
"I don't think you do understand," Midnight said. "If I wanted to get rid of you, I would have just sent you somewhere where you could never come back from. Say, the End of Time and Space, or the heart of a newborn star."
"You see," the black cat continued, "this place is more than just a safe haven. It's also a repository of knowledge. There's a copy of every book that has ever been written… or will be written… in its stacks. It's also a nexus: a place where the Ways come together. That's why we call it the Wanderer's Library." She looked up at the fox with an expression of grim satisfaction on her face. "If you can't see the potential in a Library with every book that's ever been written, that serves as a neutral ground for everyone, and that you can use to go to and from literally anywhere in the world, you might as well go back to the Jailers."
Midnight saw from the expression on Her face that She did understand. "Let me tell you about the rules here," Midnight said. "Don't steal the books. Don't disturb or hurt the patrons. Don't damage the library. Keep that in mind and you should do fine."
The fox just nodded. "Very well, then," She said. "Our bargain is concluded."
She strode away down the stacks, her movement purposeful, her stride almost seductive with anticipation. She ran a hand down the spines of the books lined up on the racks with all the sensuality of a lover's caress. Then She turned the corner and was gone.
"Midnight," a low, baritone voice said.
"Percival," Midnight replied.
Percy emerged from the shadows, adjusting the lapels of his ratty overcoat. His scabbarded and peace-bonded sword rested on one shoulder like a slugger's baseball bat. "What was that all about?" he asked.
"I think I just made a deal with the Devil to save Heaven," Midnight said.
Subject: Class is in session.
To: Snakes and Ladders (ten.srerednaw|nomeadliam#ten.srerednaw|nomeadliam)
Recess is over, the Teacher's calling roll. I think I'm calling in sick today.