Remembrance

From the Story Arc: Hunting High And Low

Next Story in the Arc: Things Fall Apart by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

(posted Wednesday, August 13, 2008)

HUNTING HIGH AND LOW



Victoria Victrix rubbed her eyes, and shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know how all this happened,” she said unhappily. “But we’ve got no choice. We can’t leave him in Mab’s hands. No more than you could have left me in The Morrigan’s.”

Robin Goodfellow, Liege of Elfhame Silverthorn and Vickie’s sworn overlord, nodded, his face expressionless. “It is not only the principle of the matter,” he said slowly. “And it is not just the lad is mine to protect and defend.”

She nodded wearily. “It’s the politics. She’s baiting you, testing you. She wants to see how far you’ll push the balance of power. She probably wants to try for The Morrigan’s throne, but the only way she’ll get the followers is if she can take down one of the Princes of the Daonae Sidhe.”

Again Robin nodded. “So I cannot move.”

“But I, as a human, can.” Vickie pursed her lips. Elven politics, Underhill politics, were a complex and twisty maze. The Bright Courts and the Dark Courts did not translate out as “Good” and “Evil.” The truth was far more complicated than that. The Bright Courts represented light, summer, the positive emotions, and to an extent, creativity. And the Dark were shadow, winter, the “negative” emotions, and resistance to change.

But…

Summer without winter was rampant, uncontrolled growth, which, as Jim Butcher once said in his Harry Dresden books, was highly desirable if you were Ebola or antibiotic-resistant Staph. Light without shadow? Try sleeping during the day with the sun blazing down on you. Joy unbounded? Ask the Maenads, or better yet, ask someone they tore to bits in their rampages.

And creativity without check got you people like—oh—Crey. Or Lord Recluse. Who just went ahead and tried things without regard for the consequences.

She hadn’t tried to explain all this to Red. Partly it was because she didn’t want to take the shine off Underhill for him. Partly because he did tend to think in terms of hero and villain. Partly because she didn’t quite know how. Funny that. Here she was supposed to be so good with words.

“We have to go at this the smart way,” she murmured. “We have to do something other than any kind of assault. A trade, maybe.”

And that was when she knew it, knew what could be traded. Mab was holding and tormenting one of Robin’s elves, because pain and sorrow were meat and drink to her Court. But Elven pain and sorrow was nothing compared to the feast that a mortal could offer them. “I’ve got it, Robin,” she said, even though her gut wrenched to think about what she was going to do. “I’ll be the one to give them what they want.”

Whatever it was he had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. “But—“ he said with consternation. “I thought—I thought you had reconciled all that. Is it—“

She laughed sadly. “My liege, the life of a mortal is full of pain. I have plenty more recent to offer her.” She stood up. “Call for the escort, my liege. And a healer, for you will surely need one for Gwydion.”

Red was going to kill her for this.

#

Vic’s skin crawled as she walked between the rows of assorted Dark Sidhe and other creatures that populated Mab’s throne room. Mab styled herself as a Queen, although she was technically of the same rank as Robin, a prince of her own domain under the High Queen, The Morrigan. Vickie had to admit that Mab had better taste than The Morrigan. None of her courtiers were bloodspattered or chewing on things that had best not be looked at too closely. In fact, most of her courtiers had the look of Expensive Designer Goth Chic about them. They’d have looked right at home in a club with a fifty dollar cover charge and the word “Shadow” somewhere in the name.

Actually…she was halfway to the throne, and already she’d spotted five or six copies of the same “look.”


You guys need to get Queer Eye for the Undead Guy down here.


Lame internal joke maybe, but she had to at least try. The shadowed realms fed off fear, uncertainty, grief, pain…and damn if she was going to give them anything for free. If they wanted a taste of mortal torment, they were by the gods going to pay for it.


And meanwhile she was going to march to the throne, straight-backed and brave, like the emissary she was. Because if you showed one single sign of weakness, these things would be on you like frat boys on a free keg.

It was utterly silent except for the hollow sound of her footsteps on the black marble (of course, black marble) floor.

Finally she reached the throne—which was a perfect copy of the White Witch’s throne in the first Narnia movie, except done in black obsidian rather than ice. Probably thought no one would recognize it if she changed the color. But Vickie let no hint of this on her expression as she made a deep bow to the woman clad in scarlet on that throne.

She was, of course, drop dead gorgeous, and that was a very apt description because most people who dealt with her did drop dead sooner or later. If she’d been a mortal she’d have had to have been sewn into that gown of blood-colored velvet, but being Sidhe, she could just magic it into existence without the need for zippers or buttons. Unlike the rest of her court, she was taking her styling cues from the 30s—form-fitting gown, red lips, red nails, flaming scarlet hair done after the style of Veronica Lake.

“The emissary of Robin, Lord of Silverthorn,” a saturnine elf in a black tuxedo announced unctuously. “Sieur Victoria Victrix, Knight-Guardian of Silverthorn.”

Vickie bowed again, a little less deeply.

“You may speak, emissary.” Mab had a voice like oleander honey—sweet and toxic. She leaned on one elbow and rested her manicured fingers along her cheek. “But be aware that the one known as Gwydion Alanel was trespassing on Our lands, and he is rightfully detained by Us to be used at Our pleasure.”

“We do not dispute that, Queen Mab.” Like hell we don’t. “But I have not been sent to protest, but to bargain. A trade. Gwydion for what I have to offer.”

Behind her, Vickie heard the crowd stirring. Mab leaned forward. “And what would that be?” she purred. Unspoken, Vickie could easily read the thought behind her cold green eyes. And it had better be good.

“Something Gwydion cannot give you,” she said. “I offer you, in return for Gwydion’s safe delivery into the hands of my escort, and safe passage of the entire party back to Silverthorn, the remembrance of mortal pain.” She paused. “Mine.”

There was more than just a stir back behind her; if Mab’s look hadn’t quelled them, that mob would have surged forward.

“Until?” Mab prodded.

“Until you are sated. I myself will set the spell.”

Mab’s eyes flared with greed. “An honorable offer indeed. And I accept.”

The court erupted in a roar of echoing greed and approval.
#
Vickie had planned this spell out carefully with the best and oldest mages of Robin’s Court. If there was a loophole in it, none of them could spot it, and neither could Vickie.

Funny thing about memory. The experts would tell you that the human mind doesn’t remember pain for long. That’s not exactly true. The memory is still there, but it’s buried under layers of mental cushioning and denial. Flip the right “switch” and it comes back as strong as ever.

So Vickie had set up this spell to go through certain dreadful events, flip that switch, and let it all rip loose. When Mab and her court were sated, she could stop. She honestly did not want to give them the oldest memories—the ones she had worked through painfully in therapy. Red was too tangled up in most of them—he’d been there when she first ventured out after being a recluse for years, he’d been with her through the self-loathing, through the suicidal depression, through the physical pain of her maimed body, so heavily scarred from neck to soles that it made people sick to look at. First as a friend, then as a lover, he’d gotten her through more than any lover ought to have to endure. And he’d helped her through the weeks and months when her body started to heal itself from within—though she hadn’t known that—and so many toxins dumped into her system that she went just a little crazy.

She stepped into a magic circle she had drawn herself, and closed it behind her. She tried to ignore the Dark Sidhe pressing in on all sides; knelt, clasped her hands on the blade of her bone atheme, and triggered the spell by tightening her grip just enough to cut the skin and let the blood flow.

In moments, she was back in King’s Row, in the CCCP HQ, looking up from her computer with a shock to the heart as klaxons sounded all over the base, and Commissar Bella, missing for days, came bursting through one of the porters.

It was the hour of the first attack of the Second Rikti War.

Fear was the primary emotion of this memory. Vickie was terrified. She hadn’t been a participant in the First War; and within an hour they all knew—this one was different. The Rikti had finally mastered magic, closing the “hole” in their defenses, as everyone had dreaded that they would. Magicians no longer had an advantage.

Magicians were, in fact, a target.

In a moment of hell, Vickie relived the horror, the terror of those first few days of the War; of evacuating the people of KR into the sewers and the base, of the bombs falling, of the UXBs that had to be destroyed, and of the swarms of Rikti teleporting down from the dropships. Of not knowing how to fight them, what tactics worked best. Of not being able to sleep at night, waiting for the warning from Vanguard. Of hitting the porters, chasing the waves from zone to zone to zone, until you were staggering with tiredness.

Of starting to run short of everything; food, medical supplies, ammunition. Of wondering if it was ever going to end.

When the moment was over, when she had stopped shaking, she looked slowly up. The expressions her “audience” wore told her: this was delicious, and not enough. She would have to give them more.

Her heart clenched; but there was no hope for it. She would have to give them what they demanded.

Time to get personal.
#

Rage.

Almost everyone was out on patrol that day; the CCCP base was manned only by a skeleton crew. There was a small contingent of the youngest taking lessons from Professor Tempest, a single person manning the soup kitchen, Petro banging around in his workshop. All this, Vickie vaguely had in the back of her mind as she was working at home, on a book.

As usual, she had the police scanner on, set to KR, and she had a second computer set up tied into the CCCP mainframe. Sometimes things went down on a day like today, with almost everyone else out in other zones, and Vickie would need to pop over, help the KRPD clean it up, and get back to work.

But she was not prepared when the radio virtually erupted with All-Points screams for help.

"All units! All units! Report to King's Row PD! Council sighted assaulting CCC--" "This is Car 17, Council assaulting the Yell---" "---Unit 21! Firefight with Council at Skyw--"

"Unit 21--Skyway tunnel taken, retreating to PD HQ!"

"Council holding Yellow line station, returning to base!"


Shock held her rigid in her chair and did not let go until her own comm. let loose with the Red Alert blat and Bella’s voice rang over it. "Attention, all members of the CCCP. This is Commissar Belladonna Aura. This channel is now encrypted and secure. Do not reply until ordered. CCCP HQ has been overrun by Council. They have issued a kill-order, therefore all CCCP members are ordered to take extreme caution and not approach Council unless and until specifically ordered, except to save another life. There are four known casualties. Iron Curtain, Free Radical, Grandmaster Te and Heavy Brother. There is one missing, presumed dead; Commie Cowgirl. Remain where you are. Do not attempt to rally until ordered. Now, sound off, roll call and location in alphabetical order. Report."

Then the call out started. Vickie had a chance to shake free of her shock and fumble her comm. on with fingers that seemed slow and horribly clumsy while the others called in. “Vickie—Victoria Victrix, Atlas Park.”

Then the silence. Silence while her shock turned to anger, and anger to a red-hot rage. Not just at the Council, but at the former Commissar, Red Saviour. Because until that day when Althea Nagy had been rescued from the Council, until Red Saviour herself had issued a kill-order on the Council, both sides had, more or less, played by an unspoken rule. You don’t kill us, we don’t kill you.

Red Saviour had changed all that. And now the proverbial chicken had come home to roost, and it had mutated into a T-rex.

She was so angry she could not have uttered a coherent word, so it was just as well that Djinni was busy handling the frantic calls from AoC members and didn’t try to talk to her in those first moments, for she had never been so angry in her entire life. And if she could have gotten either Red Saviour or the Council Archon’s necks in her hands….

To hell with the no-kill rule.

#

Had anyone been able to see inside Vickie’s hands—which they couldn’t—they would have seen that each time she triggered a memory, she did so by slicing across the life-lines of her palms.

But she hadn’t counted on the effect of her own emotions on her; she was shaking so hard with rage that she cut before she meant to, cut too deep, cut too early….

Betrayal…

Something was wrong. Really, really wrong. Red wouldn’t look at her.

“Something wrong?” she asked, feeling her heart drop. “You look like someone shoved a poker up your spine.”

For far too long he didn’t reply. Then, still without looking at her, he sighed, and mumbled “Gotta tell you somethin'.”

She steeled herself. “Do I need to sit down?”

He still wouldn’t look at her. “Dunno.” Then he sighed, and launched into it. “Remember that night I didn't come home? I found out yesterday where I'd been.”

She blinked. She hadn’t expected that. That was…not good. “.....you didn't know....”

He shook his head.

She swallowed. Hard. This could be so many colors of bad….”Before you tell me where—tell me why you didn't know.”

“Someone made me forget.”

Down in the darker end of bad. “Friend or foe?”

Again, a long, long pause. “Right now, I'm not sure.”

Well…that was…less than helpful. She sat down, and so did he, and now he would look at her. But not directly. “No.....immediate threat then....”

He shook his head. “No, no... Furry's in a... i don't know... a coma i guess...I heard Furry needed help, so i show up, Sera takes me into her mind, and then...” He looked away.

Her throat closed. “This is going to hurt, isn't it?”

“I hope not,” he began, then shook his head. “Probably, yeah.” He went at the rest of it in a rush. “So... when I go in, I'm not sure what to expect. And at first, I'm a little dazed, I will never get used to this mental stuff. And you know I'm fairly susceptible to mental attacks. Anyway... I see myself, and Furry, come out of a portal. I recognize it, mission we did last week, that night I... didn't come home. I watch... they don't see me, which seemed odd at the time, but makes perfect sense now. I was only there to observe the past, perhaps do something... never really got the chance. Because soon things got weird. Except I don't remember any of what happened later...so I don't know if it was a memory.” He snuck a look at her. “But I think it was. Because when I showed up at Furry's place yesterday to help... I couldn't shake the feeling it all looked familiar.”

She closed her eyes. “Okay.”

“I watched us talking in some slummy bar. The first shot I pounded back, I could've sworn I saw something fall in my drink. It... it cut to her bedroom. I looked pretty out of it but it was clear that we'd been there a while, and that I was... um... I was... naked.”

She tried to suppress her reaction, but couldn’t help it. It felt like a knife in her gut and a slap in her face combined.

“I didn't look too happy waking up there, and bolted. And that's when I, the watcher I, left too. Couldn't stand it. I sorta remember Sera asking me what I saw. I just... left.”

Silence heavy between them.

He exhaled. “That's it. That's what I know. What I had to tell you.”

“You, and Infurno—“ She left the sentence incomplete.

“I don't know. It... sure looked like we did. Would I do that? Of course not. Did I? ... I... I don't know.”

Her eyes were closed very tightly. She kept her voice very, very controlled, almost a monotone. “I have...the intellectual reaction. And the emotional one.”

She sensed him waiting, braced for her reaction. “This fight in Infurno's head....it's against another mage. I guess she's been in there a while. From all I know of Infurno, she....wouldn't even consider moving on someone else's .....friend.....without making sure it was OK first. And....that means it has to be the mage. and....nobody in this city knows the power of a glamourie like I do. Wouldn't even need a date-rape drug with a powerful enough glamourie. So. That's the intellectual reaction.”

She tensed up, bracing herself, because what she was saying, and what she was feeling were two very different things. Because at this moment, she hated, not him, but herself. Loathed herself. Loathed the hideous thing that she was, with every centimeter of skin so scarred she couldn’t even show her hands without making people look away.

“And....you're clearly not happy about what happened, but you haven't told me why. So I'll hold off on my emotional reaction until you tell me that.”

More silence. “I really HAVE to?”

She was shaking now, it was so hard to hold herself back from—from what, she wasn’t certain. Throwing herself out a window, maybe. “Please.”

He sounded angry and puzzled. “I was drugged, used, maybe even abused, and if it was just me that'd be one thing, but the only person besides me to get hurt by this just happens to be the most important person in my world. And I feel like I failed you.”

She let out her breath, slowly, as tears crept out from under her eyelids. This was it. Betrayal. Betrayed by herself. She’d never be able to give him what he needed, what they both needed. And how could she blame him for going elsewhere. “I....am very, very sorry that....that the person you care about.....is a deformed monster.”

She scarcely heard his startled reply. “What?”

Her throat was closing and she choked on the words. “I wish I was....pretty I wish I was....normal. I can't blame you for....you're a normal guy....healthy….”

His tone was soft, his voice almost a whisper. “You think any of that's important? And for the record, you're gorgeous.”

Her hand closed on the sleeve of her short, and with a convulsive, violent motion she ripped it off, exposing the knotted, twisted flesh, the scars, in all its horror-movie hideousness. She tossed the sleeve across the room, and rasped out her reply.

”…this....is not...gorgeous.”

She buried her face in her hands.

#

She was crying, sobbing silently, when the memory was over. That had been the worst and the best day of her life, but they didn’t want the best—they wanted the pain, and pain there had been in plenty.

She had not ever intended to give them that particular pain, however. The shock of doing so actually steadied her. She would not make that mistake again. Back to the regularly scheduled program.

She moved the knife fractionally between her palms and pressed.


#

Anguish—

Everyone loved Zach Marlowe. Just by walking in a room he had a way of filling it with laughter. If he had an enemy in Paragon City, that enemy kept his head down and his mouth shut, all too aware of how many people loved him.

Most of all his fellow Commissar, Belladonna Aura.

That very charisma made him the best pick to lobby for all metahumans in Washington, and even though he hated how it kept him away from his beloved Blue Bell, he knew how much good he could do all of them. And besides, every so often some supervillain nutjob would decide to be really suicidal and attack the Capitol, and Bestial Boy would get to strut his stuff.

Like today.

All of CCCP that was in the base was clustered around the television in the recreation room. That included Vickie. “…five metahuman crimanls in the Pentagon parking lot,” the CNN newsman was saying as Vickie squeezed in next to Crimson Tao. “So far, there are a half dozen casualties, all Pentagon personnel. On scene are Bestial Boy, the lobbyist for metahumans from Paragon City, and Kremlin Gremlin, both of the organization CCCP.”

They watched, but not as if it was some kind of sports match, although there was some shouting at the television as if Zach and KG could hear, and some cheers or groans. No, eyes were watching everywhere, the camera showed, looking for civilians in harm’s way and hoping there were none. Vickie hugged herself, tense, one eye on Bella, who was as taut as a banjo string.

The fight moved—because Zach moved it—to a runway at Dulles. There he could really let loose without worrying about the civvies. Vickie’s jaw clenched. It looked like an even match. The two men might have been trained by the same people, gifted with the same mutations. She was beginning to get a bad feeling about this.

The orbiting cameras caught every bit of dialogue. Petrograd hissed when the perp who was calling himself Weaponized called Bella a bitch and leered about what he was going to do to her.

Then she saw it, at the same time that the others did. Zach got him. She knew it the instant before the microphones picked up the snap of a broken arm. Now there were cheers--

Until she heard what Weaponized snarled in the next moment. "If I'm goin', you're comin' along--"

Her heart stopped even as the cheering built. Involuntarily Bella reached out to the screen.

Which whited out in a blinding flash of light.




"---absolutely horrifying events here in D.C. today, Karen. Two unidentified metas, signified as Weaponized and 'Mr. Xerox' attacked Pentagon personnel. Two heroes arrived on the scene to control the situation, Coalition of Communist Crusaders for the Proletariat's Commissar Bestial Boy and Kremlin Gremlin. After engaging the rogue metahumans, Kremlin Gremlin was able to subdue his opponent. Tragically, Commissar Zachary "Bestial Boy" Marlowe was killed in the final confrontation between himself and the meta 'Weaponized', when a terrible blast rocked the runways at Washington Dulles International Airport. Longbow liaisons within the capitol have lent their best Psychometricists to determine the cause of the blast; initially, reports are coming in that the blast originated from a plasma bomb of some sort implanted within the last rogue meta. The concussive force combined with the overwhelming heat of the blast was enough to vitrify the crater left after the detonation. So far as can be established, both men were vaporized instantly. Only the most resilient of metahumans could have had a hope to survive such a blast. Today is a day of mourning for our entire nation---"

Seraphic Flame reached out quietly and turned off the broadcast.

#

Tears fell on her closed hands, stinging in the cuts. She felt too tired even to hold up her head, but she lifted it just enough to gauge her audience.

Not yet.

She wanted to curse. This one was so new…still raw. She hadn’t been able to talk it out with anyone yet. It would only have reminded Bella of her own loss, Sera’s family was still recovering from their ordeal. The one person she might have—Red—she couldn’t, daren’t say a word to. Not only would it make him feel like a heel, it came dreadfully close to asking the forbidden questions.

But this was for the life and sanity of a foolish young elf who was far too like the person she’d been, and she didn’t want anyone to go through what she had for the stupid mistake of a youngster. That was too high a price to pay.

And it was her duty. Above all things, it was her duty.

She positioned the knife with the greatest of care, and closed her hands on it for what, she hoped, would be the final time.

Despair—

She shut off the computer completely. The silence sounded like death. And it was death; the death of hope.

Red was gone. Although she had not known it at the time, he had disappeared the same day, nearly the same hour, as Sera, JJ, Aedan, Astra and Ratt Murdock. He’d only told her he had something critical to take care of, and he might be out of touch for a day or two. She hadn’t worried then; this was Red, he could take care of himself. He was often gone, out of touch, for a day or two when he took on special Portal jumps.

But then the Murdocks vanished in the explosion at Portal Corps, and for a time she hadn’t even thought about Red, in the frantic search through the wreckage, in the even more frantic search to retrieve the records of the world they had gone to, and then in a magical search for them, watching while John went mad with grief and loss.

And it was only when she had done as much as she could do that she had looked at the time, then at the calendar, with a shock to the heart, and had realized that it was not a day or two, but a week since the explosion.

Since Red had left on his “special job.”

And now she began the same sort of search all over again, this time in her own state of panic.

Now it was over.

There were no records at Portal Corps; a cowed Tina MacIntyre, haggard with exhaustion and bowed down with her own guilt, had revealed that it had been a very special jump indeed, and that the records had been intentionally erased as soon as the travelers had passed through. Travelers—one of which was Red. She would not say who the others were.

But at least it hadn’t been the same Portal that had been sabotaged. So Vickie’d had some sort of hope.

But one by one her leads petered out to nothing. One by one the people she could beg, cajole or threaten could only shrug and look at her with sympathy.

She tried magic. They were bound, they were married, there was a tie there that was unique to married couples, for marriage was a magical ceremony, fraught with symbology that dated back almost as far as there had been people to couple up, and meant a great deal magically.

Nothing. It was as if Red had dropped into the same black hole that had swallowed up the Murdocks. She could not even get an echo of him.

Then, last resort; she moved on to black-hat hacking, bribes, blackmail, and information theft. She performed deeds, or had deeds done for her, that would have sent her to the Zig for white-color crime if anyone had caught her.

The last of those had checked in today.

With nothing.

It was the end of all trails. And now…he had been gone not days, not weeks, but two months.

He…was…gone. Her love, her life. Gone. Without a trace.

Numbly she got up, turned out the lights, and closed the office door behind her. Numbly, she closed herself into the bedroom, locking Grey out. She put up shields, she put up soundproofing, she walled herself in with everything she had, until nothing, nothing would leak from this room and nothing would get in.

She fumbled at the clothes-hamper and pulled out a shirt. His. One of his favorites, worn soft with use.

She collapsed onto the bed curled herself into a tight ball around it, around the pain, the pain that blossomed inside her like a black blight, opened her mouth—

And screamed.

She screamed until she had no voice left. She sobbed until her eyes were raw and so swollen she could scarcely see out of them. She beat her fists bloody on the headboard in her grief and loss and utter, blackest despair, and then she healed herself so she could do it all again.

And again.

And again….


#

Once again, her throat was raw, her eyes were swollen, her hands bloody. She looked up—

Around her, collapsed on the floor of this room in a state of satiation to the point of unconsciousness, were the Unseleighe. It looked like the aftermath of a party devoted to binge-drinking and drugging.

She turned her head. There was Mab, and even she looked…stoned. But the Queen was conscious enough to see her looking, and raised her head from her arms.

“Is the bargain filled?” Vickie croaked.

“The bargain…is filled,” Mab said, and dropped her head back down onto her arms again.

Vickie dismissed her circle with an effort, and crawled to her feet. She staggered out of the room, out into the now-empty corridors and of Mab’s Palace, feeling stoned and stunned herself with exhaustion both physical and emotional. She tripped on the stairs going down into the courtyard and literally fell into the arms of the escort—felt one of her knights pick her up bodily and heave her into the saddle of her Elvensteed.

“Would you go back to Silverthorne, Captain?” he asked, as she managed to shove her feet into her stirrups, and felt a trickle of strength coming back into her, sent by her ‘steed.

“No,” she croaked, with only one thing she wanted to see now. Well two. Red, and bed. “Take me home.”


END PART ONE.