On the night of the winter solstice, if the stars are right, Ullllllu the Warlock emerges from his cave and curses the moon. Life and death become inverted in a twisted exhibition of the decadent souls who would possess the audacity of character to appear. Naturally the Blood Moon Ball is the social event of the season.
Admirers gathered in the corner of the withering heath, like offal sloshing down the sloughs of an abattoir, with the same sickening insistence and helpless gravitation: mistresses of the damned, keepers of the crypt, debutantes of the unhallowed alike, hanging as would a victim from a meathook in the back of that same abattoir upon every word of Lorenzo, the captivating temptster in the buccaneer shirt, the youngest Dreadlord anti-annointed in undead generations (which are very long indeed).
Lorenzo paid the entourage little notice, for he was fascinated by his charming conversation partner, the death blossom in the crushed-velvet gown. He was wrapped around her like a toe tag. The name on that toe tag:
The Black Queen.
The guests had asked her, following her introduction: The Black Queen of the Carcass Altar, did you say? The Black Queen of the Trifold Trepanation? The Black Queen of the Trembling Coffins, perhaps?
Simply The Black Queen, she had said, and all in attendance were breathless. Many of the breathless were quite impressed, as well.
"That's such a coincidence," the Black Queen laughed. "I grew up in the desert, too! Of course, Arizona was much more boring. We had tumbleweeds, for one, instead of tumbleflesh."
As Lorenzo rambled on about his childhood and the various muscular growths therein, the Black Queen tongued awkwardly at her fangs. She reminded herself that the vampirism would fade when she left the light of the blood moon. It was essentially just a masquerade ball, something she had experienced in Venice, LA, and Ibiza. Admittedly, it was a masquerade ball that murders your soul, but so does LA and that turned out alright.
A waiter approached with a bottle and offered the Black Queen a glass.
"No, thank you. I don't drink…" she said, ready to milk the situation for all the fun she could get from it, "…wine."
"This is blood," said the waiter.
"…Oh. Then by all means."
The Black Queen turned to Lorenzo. "So, do we haye an agreement?"
"You're a shrewd negotiator, my little amanita." Lorenzo took a sip. "You provide to me this Grimoire of Gran Noir, and I promise to bring forth the fullness of its necromantic power in an
attack on the Foundation at the prescribed day and hour. I will find the information you need, and I will tear it from their chest like a beating heart."
"Shall we make this a blood oath?"
"I don't see why not."
They clinked glasses.
"I hope you'll understand if I can't stay to dance, Lorenzo."
"Black Queen, you should know better." Lorenzo was so mock-sad that he was almost pouting. It was subtler than it sounds, since he was rather pouty by default. "All who enter here abandon hope."
"Then just live with it."
"You know what I mean." With a smile, she threw on her cloak, dyed as is the custom among the Chaos Insurgents in the blood of Catholics.1 She picked up a present that had been granted by a gracious infernal lich lord, slid through the crowd, found a quiet place, and opened a Way.
She realized, as she stepped through, that part of her actually did wish she could linger for a while. Lorenzo was smarter than he looked, and he was a pleasant person, if you didn't mind that his eyeballs were spiders.
Alison found a seat in the private chamber of the Serpent's Fang and untensed herself. A week had passed since she'd been initiated into an inner echelon of the Hand. The Serpent's Fang was a tight circle of those who had earned the trust of L.S.
In an organization which made its mission the spread of knowledge to all those who honestly seek it, L.S. was one of the few true secrets that remained. No record existed of witnessing L.S., or speaking to them, or hearing such information secondhand. (Lying, in the Hand, is an even greater taboo than hiding information.)
The Serpent's Fang received its information from L.S. indirectly: letters that fade with the sunset, whispers of the wind, the subtle wisdom of synchronicity. Alison had been given a mission by letter: go to the Blood Moon Ball and arrange the exchange of a spellbook with a Dreadlord. This she had accomplished.
The letter had an inscription upon it: "Around and back, in the wind and the rain." Alison had asked what it meant; Amanda, her 'handler' of sorts, told her that it was an invocation of protection, and any of the Fang who was in danger could recite it, and harm would just tumble around them. It was a bit of good luck that one could keep in one's pocket. Alison didn't share her initial thought, which was that she didn't know that that little nursery rhyme she liked as a kid was from something. She always thought her dad had made it up.
Now that the musk of the grave had lifted, Alison felt comfortable opening the gift from her pyroclastic admirer. The box was soot-black and felt like the material those astronaut blankets were made from. She pulled off the bow and lifted the lid. A dim orange glow issued forth, and a grumbling.
Alison felt warmth from deep inside the box. It grew too hot for her to hold near her face, so she drew it back. The source of the light and sound and heat was an amorphous slimy shape that began to shift within the box. It raised up and began to slither out. Alison dropped the box before the glowing-hot tendril scorched her hand.
The mass that was her present oozed forth, dripping molten matter. The grumbling grew louder, and Alison could discern words.
Alison picked up the box before it was melted in the creature's path. There was a label inside. "Enjoy the blasphemy slug! Happy Holidays!"
"Who would give this to someone!?" The blasphemy slug left a charred path of bubbling rock as it scaled the door. So much for the means of exit.
Alison surveyed her options. The docents would eventually dispose of the blasphemy slug in the usual manner, whatever that might be. After all, there was no way that the Library wouldn't have a procedure for fire elementals who stumble inside. What mattered, in the meantime, was personal safety. So Alison used the tool at her immediate disposal.
"Around and back, in the wind and the rain…" Alison felt invisible wards surround her. She'd warded herself in ritual settings before, but those were bars of stone, and these were bars of steel. Alison thought of the last time she had felt this safe. She'd been a child, playing with her toy steam engine, reciting that little rhyme…
"…clickety-clack go the wheels on the train." Without thinking about it, she muttered the rest of the couplet. Everything spun without moving until Alison was somewhere else.
The chamber had been precision-engineered. It had no doors or windows leading out, but a soft breeze flowed in, apparently through a fine golden mesh. The air smelled of fresh sheets and baking bread, although no linens could be— no, wait, there was a bedroom hidden on the other side of a closet. And the bread in the box had clearly been there for a while. Still, the chamber had been precision-engineered to feel like home.
Alison explored. There was a lighted mirror above a set of drawers, a hat rack, a lot of shelves. Alison opened a cupboard to find various tools, neatly arranged, each one labeled. And they were the serious, can't-fall-into-the-wrong-hands sort of tools. It was more than a little disconcerting to see relics of fallen god-kings alphebetized in a row like spices.
Alison scanned the shelves and picked up something that seemed like it would come in handy. She glanced at the hat rack. An arrow hung on the wall that pointed to it, so clearly it was important. It held a variety of different styles of headwear hung from it. Alison checked a porkpie hat and found an inscription. "The Garden is the Serpent's place." She put it on and checked the mirror.
A stranger looked back at her. Alison was startled and afraid she was being watched, so she tossed the hat away, then looked back up and saw a normal mirror. Alison added two and two.
She closely examined how her features looked in the hat. Her nose was indistinct, her mouth was… a mouth, her eyes could be best described as… there. yes, this would come in handy. Alison spoke the magic words again. Success—she was back where she'd left, and it seemed like no time had passed. The slug hadn't changed positions, and the wooden door was still mostly a door.
Alison grasped the object she'd retrieved from the secret room. It was a doll made from a thick, translucent, tan material, sort of like rice paper. The label had called it "My First Hungry Ghost". It taught kids about mythology and fed upon their lifeforce for endless fun. She pulled the string and set it on the ground.
The doll began a jerking mechanical walk toward the blasphemy slug. A canned recording played. "Give me a big hug!" As it talked, the toy's gaping mouth moved up and down, and its stringy neck craned forward and back.
The hungry ghost doll climbed up the door's paneling toward the slug.
"Give me a big hug!" My First Hungry Ghost latched onto the blasphemy slug. The lever controlling its mouth went into spasm as the slug's light dimmed… and finally went out, with a meager
A face with ten arms cracked the door open and swept away the formerly-heretical pile of ash. It pulled something from somewhere and sprayed a cooling jet of air onto the hungry ghost doll, which itself was glowing with heat from the neck up. Then it withdrew with utmost discretion.
Now, Alison was back where she was two realtime minutes ago — trying to relax and take inventory of thy situation on a comfortable chair. The sole difference was that she'd gotten a hat, a toy, and an escape device, and traded away her party favor and the condition of the room. She'd made worse bargains before.
In a moment of consideration, Alison decided she should take back the borrowed artifact. It had lost all its stored energy, and a gap in one's collection is usually the easiest possible thing to notice. So she vanished into the secret chamber once more.
Alison tucked My Little Hungry Ghost back into its resting spot. The hat… she hesitated. There were six to eight hats here, all near as identical, except for color and shape and probably function, she wasn't going to check. How would the owner miss one?
The owner. Alison had a guess who the room belonged to, but she needed confirmation. So she rooted in drawers a bit until she found it, underneath a desk. Sunset paper. Blank. Watermarked with a little motto and the initials L.S.
Alison was going to like it here.
There's a major axiom in the ways of magicians (one might call it a gilded rule) which covers an endless variety of situations and which, if properly understood, is a major revelation about the nature of magic itself. That rule is: fake it 'til you make it.
Normally, the bounds of this concept stop, clearly marked, at the border between the magical community at large and the Serpent's Hand, because self-deception is still deception. Honest and communicative is the way of the Hand.
But L.S. was no ordinary Hand member, were they? The rules didn't seem to quite apply to them. And Alison had the papers, the room, the key to the room… the power and secrecy of L.S., in short. All she had to do was use them, and she would become L.S., with all the privileges thereof. Alison decided it was the only responsible thing to do.
An missive went out from L.S. to a certain scribe, requesting that certain books be located and excerpts transcribed. Another reached a Foundation informant, requesting containment documents from a certain site. Both specified the same delivery point in the Library. Then a third went to a telepath favored by L.S., asking that the right information reach the right entities before the deadline. Thus it was ensured that the Armed Containment Area would face a battle on two fronts: from the empowered Insurgents, and from its enlightened captives.
Alison had always been running, redirecting force in one direction or another from the front lines. The Black Queen went all over the board. Now she had entire cells of the Serpent's Hand ready to fulfill her requests. It did cross her mind, as L.S., that the title wasn't hers until a week ago, and that with that L.S.'s plans about to come to fruition, that that L.S. would not be gone for much longer. But it didn't fully register with her until the time came.
Alison spoke the incantation and appeared in the L.S. room. She brushed past the attendant and set to work on a scrying spell, so that she could watch the events unfold. But Alison realized, to her dismay, that she had forgotten the powdered silver. So she opened cupboard after cupboard, hoping some would be around.
"Second shelf, third from the right," said the attendant, in a way that made Alison realize that the room didn't have an attendant.
"I knew this day would come." Alison began to mix her ingredients differently: the scrying spell would become a sending spell. "I need this, and I hope you understand."
"I do," said the attendant. "I understand better than you could know."
"Great, so you won't mind if I do this." Alison tossed the dust in an arc. The breeze blew it to the side, and a mirror was sent reeling into the Attic Dimensions.
"Was I ever this young?" The stranger removed her cap, and her face came into view. It was the same experience Alison had found looking into the mirror wearing her cap, except that the mirror had been teleported beyond the reach of thought or gravity, so this was clearly something else. "you're a driven woman. you're always a driven woman. Did you think that here, in the realm of those dissatisfied with the knowledge of a single universe, you wouldn't run into yourself sooner or later?
"No," said the other Alison, "and neither am I. This has all been built by us, for each other, with signs only we would see. I knew you'd find a way in.
"There's so much more for you to learn, Little Sister."