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Season of the Witch
As Toli and Delareux approached the office, rehashing the events in the case so far, they saw Barclay leaning hunched against the door holding a large, cylindrical object with one hand on top and the other on the bottom. Under the spotlight of the buzzing, fluorescent street lamp stood a woman with wild black hair, wearing no shoes. She was wearing a dress that looked as if it was grown and harvested rather than woven into Mother Nature’s mocking critique of Victorian fashion. Small red buds sprouted from vines that twisted and wrapped around her dress, or perhaps were the dress itself. The effect would have been lovely and enchanting if the ends of the vines weren’t swaying and probing. Her eyes peered out from under her helter skelter wavy locks and delivered a message of barely tempered impatience.
“A gallon of rum says that’s Winthrop,” Delareux tapped Toli and motioned toward the woman.
Toli looked up from his shoes and saw the woman tapping her foot, arms akimbo. “Case closed, I guess?”
“Where have you been, Delareux? We only have a few hours,” She barked and pointed to the outsized hourglass Barclay was holding. All the sand had drained into the lower chamber. “It ran out,” she chirped to Barclay. “Flip it over.”
Barclay turned the hourglass.
“If I was keeping better track of that, I could tell you how many hours we had,” she snapped at Toli and Delareux.
“May I introduce,” Barclay croaked, “The Lady Winthrop.”
“Sylvia,” she held out her hand to Toli, “Detective Delareux, I presume.”
“Uh, no, Anatoli Palazzo.”
“I should have guessed the one who slept in his clothes.” She moved her hand to Delareux.
“Sylvia,” Delareux shook her hand.
“Juniper,” Sylvia sniffed, “And Lime.”
“I had gin and tonics for breakfast.”
“And white willow bark.”
“Felt a headache coming on.”
“Barclay tells me you’re probably the only people we can find on short notice that won’t make me dick around too long on explanations. That you’re familiar enough with the situation that a cursory overview will suffice?”
“As far as I know, if you’re standing here, there’s not much left for us to do, which suits me fine. If you wouldn’t mind delivering the peregrine back to the Nocturne. Sturgis has probably rounded up a torch wielding posse or somesuch by now, looking for it.”
“Sturgis?” Sylvia lunged at Delareux halting inches from his face. Her hand was opened like a tortured claw and vines ran from her cuffs, over the back of her hand and twisted down her fingers, extended in a close perimeter around his head. Her eyes wild, “Where is he?”
Delareux put his hand up, like a Catholic saint, between his face and Sylvia’s hand, “Don’t think you can threaten me with that nature stuff.” The vines curled backwards, like the crest of a fountain.
Sylvia pulled away and relaxed. “My apologies, Detective, that’s a grudge forged over a decade in hell.”
“You get a pass for doing time as a banshee.”
“I wasn’t a banshee. I was trapped in a higher dimension so Nocturne could use me to power the peregrine like a battery. The banshee was the part of me that intersected four dimensional space time.”
“Amazing,” Toli droned, mouth agape.
“I think twelve years in banshee land scrambled her eggs,” Delareux leaned to Toli.
“I thought you could handle weird things, Detective,” Sylvia scoffed.
“This is a whole ‘nother category of weird things.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s all the same thing. Science and magick complement each other perfectly. I studied botany for eight years to be able to ‘threaten you with the nature stuff’.”
“Back up a tick,” Toli interjected. “They were using you as a battery for the peregrine? So what of the peregrine?”
“I gave it to the Ghost after I was done with it.”
“You gave it to Cross?” Delareux snapped.
“What? It’s useless.”
“It’s carved from empress jade.”
“No, it’s not. A factory on some planet cranks them out by the thousands. Without power, it’s junk.”
“Well, don’t we need whatever it was to keep Nocturne’s monster at bay? What did Sturgis call it? A ‘shoggoth?” Toli asked.
“I bet Parker wanted to call it that. That guy reads too much dime store trash. It’s just an animal, trapped here in a state of quantum superposition, for reasons I’d like to get to the bottom of. But first, we need to take care of the poor beast. When the field collapses, it’s going to be terrified, angry, and ravenous; a mad dog. It’s going to head straight into town and start gorging itself before leaving.”
“Leaving to where?” Toli asked.
“Outer space,” Sylvia pointed up.
“Astonishing,” Toli gasped.
“I can’t get you to dedicate a shot to Samedi, but you just roll with outer space monsters?” Delareux griped.
“Well, I’ve often wondered about space travel. Anything could exist out there, it’s the great unknown.”
“So is your mind and the reality it creates around it.”
“There’s no hard scientific basis for the mind.”
“There you go with…”
“Detective, Anatoli, you’re both right. Now time is wasting. We can’t let the beast near the city. Take me to Nocturne. They’re going to show me where they’re keeping the poor thing.”
By the time they arrived at Parker’s house, Sturgis had already formed a posse, but they were currently milling about Parker’s front lawn holding shotguns, torched and drinking beer from a can. Parker was the first to notice Winthrop. He dropped the shotgun he was cradling and ran shrieking behind the house. The shotgun went off and shattered a first-floor window. Sturgis ran out of the house, barking and darting between the men. He quieted when he noticed they were focusing on what was behind him. He turned and a ripple of recognition grew slinking over the surface of his face from somewhere deep. Vines swept across him and wrapped him in a tight net, then lifted him and brought him face to face with Sylvia.
“Where are you keeping it, Verne?” Sylvia said, low and even.
“We don’t have it. Cross took it.” Sturgis gasped.
“Everybody forget about the peregrine. It’s a toy, fun at parties. Unless it’s amped up with a witch battery.” She tightened the vines and yanked him closer.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means you used me to power a party favor to torment a mindless beast. Who gave you the peregrine? Who showed you how to do that to me?”
“Do what? It was just a bomb. Meant to kill you.”
“It wasn’t a bomb. Who gave you that device?”
Sturgis tightened his quivering lips and squeezed his teary eyes. The vines squeaked as they rubbed together, increasing their grip on Sturgis. “I’ll die if I tell you,” he yelped.
“You’ll die if you don’t.”
Parker had reached his limit with the sounds of pained gasping and blurted, “Blaylock.”
“Who’s Blaylock?” Sylvia tossed Sturgis aside and brought her vines close to Parker. One slender tendril swept the bottom lashes of his right eyes.
“Don’t you dare, Parker,” Sturgis hollered.
“C’mon, Verne,” Parker squeaked. “When’s the last time any of us heard from Blaylock?”
“I don’t know, I reckon…”
“Months. He left us with that shoggoth.”
“Asteroeidís dagonii. A comet eater,” Sylvia scolded. “It’s not a bloody shoggoth.”
“Speaking of which,” Toli said. “Isn’t time a factor here?”
“Who is Blaylock?” Sylvia snapped at Parker.
“Alton Blaylock. He gave us the peregrine and the bomb and he brought the shoggoth here.”
“It’s not a shoggoth. Where is Blaylock now?”
“Ms. Winthrop,” Toli said. “It’s not this Mr. Blaylock’s whereabouts we should be concerned about.”
“Where is he?” she pressed.
“That’s what I’m trying to say. He’s gone.”
“Sylvia, focus,” Toli shouted. “Vendettas later.”
Sylvia looked at Toli and smiled. “Right. Still readjusting. But, this may be bigger than a vendetta.” She released Parker and said, “Where’s the shoggoth?”
Parker had taken them to a cave deep in the swamp, carved from a vast clump of a gnarled root system that had fused together over centuries. Towering aspens coated the top and stretched into the sky. The shoggoth was held in a tank fit for a blue whale, at the heart of the cave. It was the visual equivalent of browsing the frequencies on a ham radio at three in the morning: the recognizable bits that pierced through the jagged static, while possessing a rudimentary level of familiarity, were unintelligible and horrifying.
“Try not to stare,” Sylvia murmured.
“Will it get embarrassed?” Delareux asked.
“You might lose your mind.”
Sylvia circled the tank, observing the creature, “It’s stirring. The field is breaking.”
“Let’s burn the cave down,” Parker yammered. “Kill this thing before it has a chance.”
“The death of this creature is a last resort only.”
“Lady, are you nuts?”
“Sylvia,” she corrected Parker. “This thing is a victim. And if it’s a victim of whom I suspect, I’ll mark it up as a personal victory.”
Toli gazed at the beast, his jaw slack. “It’s enormous.”
“This is a small one. Just a baby.”
“I’m sorry, but how do you know about all this?”
“Another time, perhaps.” Sylvia gave a sigh and chuckle.
Everyone in the room became aware of a low humming the instant it stopped. The shoggoth’s form stopped flickering and settled into the mass of eyes and tentacles it was. A dancing array of lights and patterns swirled about the surface of its skin.
“It’s definitely angry,” Sylvia said. “Everyone out of the cave. We’ll engage it on the outside.”
“Do you even have a plan?” Parker begged.
“Yeah, try and shoo it into space?”
“How are we supposed to do that?”
“There’s no ‘we’, Parker. You’re running as far from here as you can.”
“Fine with me.” He dropped his shotgun and skittered out of the cave.
“Okay, but you do have at least a rough outline of a plan?” Toli asked.
“In my day, we always ended up scrapping the plan and winging it. So we stopped making plans.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means wing it.”
“Lady, we’re finally on the same page,” Delareux said.
Once outside the cave, Sylvia waved her arms like Twyla Tharp just told her to pretend she was a tree. The twisted network of trunks grew together and formed a hardened cap over the mouth. The aspens on the crown began moving and leaning away from a central point, forming a funnel.
“Maybe it will punch through the roof and keep going,” she said.
“Maybe is a thin reed, Winthrop,” Delareux said.
“Ma’am, look.” Barclay pointed to Sylvia’s now crumbling handy work.
“What do we have?” Sylvia asked.
“The standard hoodoo,” Delareux replied.
“I have a .32,” Toli offered.
The shoggoth ate its way out of the cave and charged toward them.
“It’ll have to do.”
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