1985, Paris, France...
The bar smelled of beer and whiskey, and of Dandy Lion cigarettes, and faintly of machine oil. Few things tickled Eclair's pallete like machine oil--it reminded her of her father. She tuned up her sense of smell and cozied up against her nook.
As to be expected, the Beauty That Lasts Forever was dimly lit, and even then lit with candles. In the dark shuffled forms of men and women, mostly men, and though there seemed to be more women then men almost all the women were attached to almost all the men. They were not truly women, of course, just as Eclair wasn't. The new generation looked more like women than ever before, though.
She found the new look a great loss. Eclair was fond of how personal touches could outshine even the most crude custom jobs on the gynoids of old.
And now the stage lights cued, and ethereal music strummed through the lounge; Mondale, the bar's owner, was a connsumate auromancer, and his bar was equal parts slightly-dingy 'chene chiere and finely-tuned instrument. A young woman in a traditional puppeteer's uniform carried an old gynoid onto the stage.
She was a beautiful one, but of an older age, well-maintained. She had exaggerated curls (French curls, of course), skin that shined under the lumimoss spotlights, an old chorus-girl's outfit. Offline she had the placid expression of a content child in repose.
The puppeteer stood the old doll in the center of the small stage, withdrew a silver key--a genuine Randolph Carter-style silver key, the last being made before his disappearence back in '32. She clicked the device between the gynoid's shoulders, invisible to the viewers.
She made a show of winding her. The slow scritching reverberated like a bee singing a hymn. The onlookers tingled, and after a tempting few minutes, the puppeteer withdrew the key and stepped back; though lovely, she was all flesh. The real show was beginning.
The doll flushed with life, slowly; her shoulders quivered as though she were cold, and the chill swept over her limbs. Eclair could hear a faint rattling from the lass. The shiver went through her body and came at last to her head. She shook a little and stopped, her cheeks now flush with steam-magic. Her eyes popped open; the irises were inset emerald. Supposedly they were taken from the eyes of a forgotten goddess's shrine.
The music returned--it had hushed for her awakening--and waltzed into the easy, looping melody of "When I'm 64." The doll launched into a dance, a simple gynoid's dance, one that made use of ambidextrous limbs and rotating waists. She executed it with such grace she made damselflies seem clumsy.
"When I get older, losing my edge, many years from now... Will you still be sending me a valentine, Birthday greetings, bottle of wine? If I've been out til quarter-to-three, would you lock the door? Will you still need me, will you still heed me, when I'm 64? You'll be older, too... And if you say the word, I could stay with you."
Her voice was an extention of the song, a cheerful and bright instrument. Though not a student of musical science, Eclair could feel the waves of gentle auromancy radiating from the doll's orichalcum throat.
"I could be handy mending a fuse when your lights have gone. You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more? Will you still need me, whill you still heed me, when I'm 64?"
Patrons were swaying to the song, too enthralled to add claps or join in its singing. She had them by the strings.
"Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view Indicate precicely what you mean to say You're sincerely wasting away Give me your answer, fill in a form, yours forever more Will you still need me, will you still heed me, when I'm 64?"
The song wound down and the applause was deafening. Eclair gave a standing ovation, feeling refreshed. If she had a way to know, she'd have compared it to waking from a pleasant sleep.
She was Iris la Pucelle, the first French gynoid; booking her was like booking Shakespear.
Eclair made arrangements to see Iris after the show, but the wait was worth it. Iris performed and danced to a number of Beatles tunes--"Lovely Rita" was cute, "She's Leaving Home" sorrowful. She danced to an instrumental from the latest album, "Sunlight Through Stained Glass," and one could feel the warmth of the dawn even as the clocks silently announced midnight.
Midway through the final ovation Iris "wound down," an unnecessary but quaint action. The puppeteer silently escorted-read-carried the "sleeping" Iris offstage.
Eclair slid backstage, her clicking footprints hidden by catcalls and improvised encores. She conjured a tiny Tunguska Blast; it was less than a micron wide and lit the dim backstage like a Halogen's cap. She followed the winding path to the Green Room, knocked twice, and snaked in.
The Green Room was aptly named, green wallpaper matched with ivy and absinthe. The puppeteer sipped a glass, fanning herself with her cap. Iris sat in a coquettish pose, smiling vacantly.
"Oh!" she said. "Hello, Miss Tesla."
"Iris la Pucelle," Eclair said. "Pleased to meet you, Your performance was exemplary."
"Thank you so much." She offered gear-shift courtesy.
"It's not your music I'm here to see, though," Eclair said, pulling up a chair for her own. "It's about Aquamarine Tangent."
"What?" This from the puppeteer.
"Please step out," Eclair requested. "This concerns sensitive topics of international importance."
The puppeteer seemed leery, but obliged.
"Now," Eclair said, leaning in to the doll. "The Soul of Steel... how did you come to acquire it?"
Iris blinked--processing memory. She wasn't lying. "Well, it was in Cairo two weeks ago. An old-style concert, you know the kind. I go to my dressing room and there's a little stone on my briefcase. I touch it and it just... flows into me. It feels like a memory loop doing something I can't interpret."
"Hmm... you've heard what that can do, right?"
"No, m'am. Just the name, some legends. And I've seen that movie."
"Ah... good, but not entirely accurate. There are parties interested in using it to perfect a ritual that grossly violates a number of statutes and humane laws."
"Specifically, transubstantiation of flesh to metal, nonconsensual."
"Oh..." It was impossible for Iris to grow pale, but seemed to nonetheless.
"We'll have to take you in--study and protection, mind. Your current tour is finished, right? We have powerful transmuters, they can extract the Soul easily. It is escape that's the difficult part... and speaking of which, we should really get going." She stood, grasped Iris's hand.
"They won't harm her," Eclair said, pulling the nightengale behind her.
At least not permanently, she thought.
The puppeteer finished her absinthe and tossed the glass. Working with Iris was... well, it wasn't infuriating. She was paid well for light work. She got a spiffy costume, even. It was the insignificance of her role, though. She decided she was going to write a book; "Touring With the Mona Lisa" came to mind as the title. Maybe a fantasy. A wicked little plot was unravelling in her mind: What if it really had come to blows in Vetnam?
She heard the distinctive clanking of heavy mecha. She turned to the sound and saw the faint outline of a few gynoids. They were carrying something strange--they didn't quite look like guns...
Against her better judgement she leaned forward. One raised its limb--the launcher was built into its forearm--and a wet pumping noise was her sole warning. A blast of polymer, a thick green gunk, washed across her chest and hardened to a rubbery consistency. Two more jets joined and she was soon on the floor, struggling against a cuccon.
"What the hell?! What the hell?! Lemmie--" A heavy foot stamped near her face, and a glob of the polymer shut her mouth. She panicked, struggling against the confines.
The gynoid was a featureless dummy, the right limb ending in a gun and the left in a smashfist. It only pressed against the door and it snapped off its hinges. It flowed in, along with five--five?!--companions. There were more, and some carried limp gynoids or polymer-glued girls.
They were silent, save for the shuffling of feet, the hum of CPU, and the grind of joints struggling to carry heavy weapons.
Eclair saw the back door was locked. She conjured a Tunguska blast, and the door was smashed out into the streets.
Iris could barely keep up. Eclair hefted the antique and turned to the cooridor, preparing her next blast.
There were twelve mass-produced gynoids filling the hall. Shoddy-looking, they were, and oddly equipped, and awkward, lacking even basic grace. Best to leave something for the forensics teams, she thought, and called an EMP into the hallway. The wave rippled through the mass-produced units, bowling them over into twitching, jolting piles. There were more behind the fallen, ones with better grace. Whoever was coordinating this attack had a lot of resources. Or...
She triggered the calling thought, wondering if Selest was in range. She realized the streets of Paris were oddly vacant at this time of night in this season.
She heard the stomping footprints of a CDAG--a Coquielle Debout d'Assault de Guerrier. A Standing Warrior Assault Shell, no doubt bristling with massive weapons. In the distance she saw flickering lights, and exchanges of gunfire and missile-spells.
She could not see Selest anywhere in the clear sky.
"Hold on," she told Iris, and could find no assurance that didn't ring false.
To be continued...
"So what are we going to do?" asked Iris.
"Go up. Buy me some time..."
"What?!" She followed, barely, as Eclair dragged her through the alleys. They had passed unconscious men and children, sent to sleep or wracked with paralysis, some in piles. There were a few homely women as well.
"They're going to convert everybody that can be converted. So, we'll have to get in the air to keep from being inducted. Their magic is obviously powerful, so we just keep out of range."
"But..." They stopped in a wide, relatively clear section of alley. She could hear the tromping of the CDAGs from a few blocks away, but no weapons fire.
"You're a dancer, not a fighter, I know." Eclair dug into her trenchcoat pockets and pulled out a key. "Try this." Iris squinted at the key, amplifying her vision; it looked like her Randolph Carter key, but there were subtle differences in the composition of the metal. She could hear something, too, like singing in the distance.
"A martial key?"
"Made by Randalph Carter... -after- he was lost in the Dreamlands."
The key was in her neck before she could realize Eclair had slid behind her. There was a pleasant shock of the key's entry, and the warm pleasure of being wound... and memories filled her. Vast fields of grain, strange cities, strange things, and a martial artist practicing alone.
Eclair left the key. Iris stumbled, woozy and giddy. She could hear her gears grind and the steam engine in her chest heated.
"Flight takes a while... really, anything that doesn't involve exploding something takes a while. So keep an eye out." Eclair walked to the center of the crossing of alleys, and prepared.
June (that being Iris's escort) lay in a dark closet. The kidnapper-gynoids had placed many they had captured in here, but took them out one by one as they were needed (she guessed). Now it was just her, still cuccooned, weaving between terror and anger.
Right now it was anger.
The door creaked open. In the candlelight from beyond the door she could see it was the last one taken from the room, a gynoid. She was silent, save for the faint wheeze of gears, as she hefted June over her shoulder.
She hadn't been paying attention when she had been brought in. The place was beautiful--a broad walkway lit by the moon, winding up the side of a building in the distance, ominous. She felt like the last woman alive.
She heard chanting the further up she went. She tried to place where she was--what was the biggest thing in France beyond Eiffel's Testament? That'd be the Hall of Sanity, of course. They turned the Hall of Sanity, aptly, into what sounded like a lich's coven.
The gynoid reached the top of the Hall, and it looked like a lich's coven, sans the rotting mage. Lumimoss and candles formed a pentacle around the roof. There were only machine women here, some glistening with a faint rime of polymer.
Two and two made four, and her heart froze.
She was deposited at the center of the pentacle. It was warm, and she felt the goo melt off of her.
A voice, purring, said "I would reccomend you not move--too broad a deviation from the spell's parameters and you will likely perish."
Like she needed to be told.
"You're special, childe"--said "chilled"--"and such latent power as yours is not to be let to waste..." The owner of the voice stepped into view. June, despite her position, was awed.
The gynoid sorcereress must have been ancient. Her extremities were wood, but what tree gave wood of such a pure golden color? Her body was green jade. Her beauty was a genius of design; she wondered what ancient secrets went into the gynoid's creation.
Her eyes were part of her masklike face, and she stared emotionlessly at her. Not entirely without emotion; she could detect a haughty disdain in those blank eyes.
"Touched by arcana. In proximity to she who carries the Final Piece. Bearer of a Carter key. A mind opened to other, crueller vistas of reality. And locked within that prison of flesh."
June felt something within her, like gentle fingers preening her organs. Measuring her. The gynoids chanted, cooing prayers to whatever strange deity heeded their call.
The masterpiece cooed two syllables. For a terrible instant she felt every part of her scream. There was a horrible buzzing in her ears.
She blinked, more out of habit now than necessity. She had never seen the stars so clearly. She could name all the stars she had memorized as a little girl for an astrology course... and new ones. Hali. Formalhaut.
She stood up. Rather, she felt her feet switchto a standing position. The rest of her now levitated a few centimeters off the ground. Her shin went into standing position next. The stars stayed as far as they ever were. Then her legs snapped into position. Hips. Stomach. Chest. And her head snapped up, staring at the masterpiece.
Her joints should have screamed in agony, buckled out from beneath her. But her body... rather, her new body... didn't suffer from such incogruities. She met the Masterpiece's glare, and concidered herself.
She had no heartbeat. She supposed she didn't really feel it when she was (human? living? no, a meatbag), save when she was scared or tired, but it was gone now. Only now she realized how much she hated that little sack. Hated when it pounded in her ears, how it kept her from pushing herself harder. What was in her?
She felt magic inside of her. She had heard it, dreamed it, had been hit by it once in a one-sided schoolyard brawl. She had been healed by it after. But now it was all through her. She felt more alive than when she had, scientifically, been alive.
She should have laughed. She willed herself to, and her voice was lower than she remembered it, and buzzing. Cool.
She looked at her hands, coated lightly in grime but mostly visible. Her fingers were silver on the palm and black plastic on the top (chimed a pleasant and informitive voice in her head). She peered under her shirt.
"Huh. My breasts are great." Smile, she thought, and she did. "Thanks."
The Masterpiece remained unexpressive.
"So, why do you want me?"
"Imagine that you want to control every move and thought I have."
She did. Her fingers tingled and she saw fine white threads hiss from her fingertips and rush at the Masterpiece. They stopped when they were but inches away, blocked by... well, something.
"Try her," the Masterpiece said, motioning towards another turned gynoid.
The threads redirected. One went wrapped around the gynoid's neck, the others around her wrists and ankles. She motioned, and the gynoid followed; she made her dance.
"As a gladius. Now..." She took June by the hand. Her sense of touch was in place and the stroke of her wooden hands was... something else entirely. She wouldn't mind holding the Masterpiece's hand until her arms rusted off. The little voice in her head informed her she would not rust, but applauded her comparison.
"Eclair Tesla and Iris la Pucelle. They are most dear to me, and they are hidden here. You can sense where they are, can't you?"
V (as she dubbed the voice) said "yes" and pointed out an alley not too far from here. "Yeah. I can point her out if you want."
"Not now... but soon. The rite must be prepared." She took June's other hand. Two hands now. Astonishing. She leaned over, and the Masterpiece completed the distance. Lips of soft plastic touched cool marble; every sense went aflame.
"Anything you want, Masterpiece."
"My little puppeteer..."
Eclair wove the Tunguska energy into an arc of power. It took her a few minutes, but it was almost complete.
The CDAG crunched through the alleyway. It was a city model, tall but not too broad, and crawled on four legs. It had no weapons to speak of, but it didn't need them. She imagined it could tear her apart with ease.
Iris cracked her knuckles, like she had seen in movies, and the key whispered of Ilutea and how she slew the gug. She lept.
To Be Continued....
The CDAG thrust its massive foreclaw at the darting wind-up; Iris felt the breeze from its near-miss. Her steam engine was at full boil, her skin now bearing a ruddy cast. But how fast she was boiling through her fuel was furthest from her mind.
It was like someone had turned down the speed on the world's projector. The war machine had lost balance in its furious blow, was now stumbling, and she had the oppertunity to go for its tiny head. She piroetted midair, lined her leg with the sensor array, and felt her limb whirl in its socket like an egg beater.
She landed a glancing blow, blinding one eye and tearing a gouge through its armor. The CDAG couldn't reach her now... at least not with its strikers. Maintinice limbs popped from its side and groped for her.
Iris didn't bother tearing herself free; she spun in place, grappling limbs and tearing them off, delirious over the flood of strategy the key was feeding her. Hadn't she just wrapped up an hour ago? Wasn't she supposed to be shut down, asleep in her trunk, by now?
What the hell. She was dismantling government property and feeling high as a kite. The last arm was ripped out and discarded; now for the CPU... Her leg was stuck harder than she thought, so she...
She popped her own leg off. She paused, having terrified herself, and set back to her task. The CDAG hefted itself up, ready to smash her against the alley's floor. She clambored around the war machine's midsection, safe on the under-now-upside of the creature as it smashed onto its back. She tore through layers of armor, scrambling to get to the CPU before it swatted her. She saw its great talons rise at the edge of her sight...
Just as she punched through the soft plastic of the CPU case. The hulk fell limp.
She took a deep breath (a bad habit she'd picked up) and took a moment to realize the full breadth of her situation. Had she not been lifted into the air she would have screamed; as it was she went "Gaah!" and saved herself some dignity.
She looked over her shoulder and saw Eclair seated on a nest of energy that flitted like a swarm of fireflies. Some now whirled around the antique machine.
"You're missing a leg," Eclair said.
"Yeah... uh... it's in that." She pointed at the CDAG. "Like, the other side of it. I did that. Holy shit. I just swore! Holy shit! I just--I just--I just--I just--"
She repeated "I just" for a few minutes, twitching after each time she said it. She finally broke out of the feedback loop looking exhausted.
"It's cold," she said.
Eclair nodded, manouvering herself over the machine. She cut out a portion of the CDAG with surgical Tunguska blasts, lifted the core, and shook the leg out. She extended more unseen energy tendrils to catch the leg and snap it back into place.
"Can I... get... a... drink?" she said. From the sound of it she was winding down, low on water to boil.
"Of course. Hold on, we're headed to Eiffel's Testament."
Eiffel's Testament thrummed with protective magery. It had spent a lot these evening, and the few that had made it into the monolith's enchanted spires congregated near the top, where the abjurative flow was strongest. Eclair carried Iris on her shoulder piggyback style; the antique was asleep, in a fashion, cooling down from the fight. Her belly sloshed with each step. She wondered if anyone had acan'teen...
She reached the top step.
Selest lay between a terrified couple and a sleeping child. She clutched her spellbook in her good hand, the other arm bearing hefty damage. Her light plastic-and-steel frame was scratched; a blob of polymer was stuck to her right breast.
"Like you wouldn't believe."
Eclair slid Iris off her shoulders and onto the cool obsidian floor, resting the antique's head in her lap. "She's fine," Eclair said, "but exhausted. She needs water--got any?"
"I can call some," Selest said, scooting over to Eclair. "But my spellbook's packed with war-magic. It'll be a slow cast."
"We've got time. How's the backup coming?"
"There's none." She wove the spell with her good hand. "Whatever's orchestrating this attack slapped a whammy of an illusion over Paris. Nothing's going out, nothing's coming in, and nobody on the outside seems to know." A stream of cool water appeared from her palm; Eclair held Iris's mouth open, catching the stream.
"What all do they have?"
"Ship-wise, I took out the only armed craft they had. But they've got mages and some damn good ones. I take it you haven't withdrawn the Soul of Steel?"
"No time. Could you?"
"Probably, but I don't want to spend too much downtime taking it out. If the mage they have can cut off Paris from the rest of the world, she can probably disjoin the Testament."
Selest let that sink in. The water was now overflowing, pouring down Iris's cheeks; Selest muttered and cut the spell. Iris murmured, the words lost to the water, rose a little, then settled back down,
"Poor girl. Out like a light..." Selest felt her forehead. "And still warm. It's been fifteen minutes?"
"We scouted some first, then landed on the highest deck that wouldn't cancel the power."
"How is it?"
"Bad. But they haven't transmuted more than a few, I think; there's a lot of houses piled with polymered women."
"I suppose I could disjoin the current victims... if you give me about ten minutes I could disjoin the whole of the Hall of Sanity."
"What should I do, then?"
"Find the mage leading the spell and take her out."
"Sounds easy. Ish. Can you work up a flight spell? All things concidered I don't want to waste more time than we have to."
"No problem. But, the dancer--"
Iris blinked and stirred. She spat the overflow onto the obsidian, which drank it like desert sand. "Ahhhgh. My head. What the hell'd you do to me?" she slurred.
Selest grabbed the sides of Iris's head and turned her. They met eye-to-eye. "Iris la Pucelle?"
"Iris la Pucelle. My name is Selest of the Golden Dawn. Can you understand that or are you still waking up?"
"I... I hear ya."
"We are about to launch an attack on the ones who took Paris. Do you want to stay here, where it's safe?"
"Uh... I d'no... lemmei think..." There was a low clicking.
"Pass me a key," Selest said to Eclair.
"There's one in her."
She checked Iris's neck. "You plugged her with the Lost Key? Crazy bitch!"
"Nonetheless..." She twisted the key. Iris shot straight up. "Feeling better?"
"Yes, actually," Iris said. "In ways."
"Good. Now, do you--"
"If there's ass to kick I'm all for joining in. Those scrap heaps sent something to kill me!"
"Well, not really."
"So what were they trying to do?"
"That's a bit of a story. I'll sum it up for you:"
"Hm?" June looked to the Masterpiece.
"Assuming those were the two, and assuming a few minutes for various fripperies, they have two minutes until a flight and invisibility spell is cast."
"You'd think they'd attack us?" She loved the hearing: she could tune out the soft rain beginning to fall in favor of the Masterpiece's cool, enthralling voice.
"Escape is impossible. The severing spell is thurough. It's us or them, really."
"Hense why the others are not returned."
"I have evacuated them. In the unlikely event of my defeat, they shall carry on. If not--we shal ltake this city at our leisure."
"What about the dancer?"
"If we cannot convert her, we can rip the Soul of Steel from her chest."
"You should prepare. I would take the mage--or the dancer if you are in a hurry to end this."
"I believe I shall take the mage."
"In which case, we have one minute. Be ready."
"Yes, my Masterpiece."
The rain was getting harder.
"Can you make anything out?" Eclair asked, shouting over the pour.
"Not much," Selest said. "And this rain is going to mess up the invisibility spell. Hiding splashes will wear it out. But what I can tell--there's only two on the rooftop. The others are probably e--"
There was a sound like a whip-crack. Selest made a strange noise and clasped at her throat.
"What's happening?!" Iris said.
"I don't--" She could feel it now--with each new lash, a strengthening aura of mindstealing magic. Selest jerked like a puppet at the end of an awkward puppeteer's strings.
Squinting--and drifting away--she could barely make out silvery wire, coming from one of the figures on the roof of the Hall.
A blast of green fire sizzled past her, broiling the rain. It came from the other figure.
Twitch: she sent an EMP their way. The EMP's epicenter popped like a bubble between the two gynoids, who still stood.
"Countermagic?" Iris asked.
Not a lot of options left. "GET THEM!" Eclair screamed, and charged.
June had been mildly panicked at the EMP--she understood what it was on some new fundamentel level--but calmed when it disappeared with a wave of the Masterpiece's frail hand.
"Try spellcasting," the Masterpiece cooed.
June nodded, pulling the strings on her left hand. Here was an invisibility purge; she tugged the line, and the three offending gynoids were visible, the mage hovering, the dancer circling, the other charging, Tunguskan energy weaving into a blade.
The Masterpiece conjured a long reed and met Eclair's swing. The gynoid's blade struck, but did not burn through, the magic reed; in one motion the Masterpiece lept, threw Elair into the floor, took a precious moment to call a lick of hellflame, and projected it at the would-be heroine.
Eclair parried the spell, sending it into the Masterpiece. The ancient construct flew. She charged her Tunguskan blade and shot it as a blast. June tugged a wire and a wall of force appeared between the Masterpiece and Eclair's bolt. The wall was destroyed. The Masterpiece landed with cat's grace on Eclair's chest.
June did not hear the dancer land behind her; nor did she anticipate being smashed in the head by a painful-looking gymnastic kick.
Eclair grabbed the thing's leg and fried the joints.
The gynoid leaned forward, pulling free of the sundered legs; she landed on the crisp stumps, spinning to face her.
Eclair lept up, discarded the legs, and called another blast, thrusting it at the maimed ancient. It cast another spell, deflecing the blast, and was knocked over when Iris punted the puppeteer into it.
At bloody last, she thought, briefly charged a new shot, and sent a beam of Tunguskan fury at--another wall of force. Selest. She called another energy sword, but it was too late; she felt the horrible drag of negative ions conjured beneath her feet.
An arc of lightning peeled from the sky and struck her.
Eclair's scream was lost to the thunder. Iris was blinded for a moment; her photoreceptors regenerated, revealing Eclair, prostrate and twitching as though in the midst of a breakdown.
"You-you-you... you-you-you... bit-bit-bit...."
The old bot was reclined; June (her own puppeteer!) was guiding in Selest, already on her feet...
"Hush," said the old 'bot. "In time you'll appreciate your new mindset. Puppeteer, the mage?"
"I can guide her in with my left. I believe using both hands lets me take over high magic functions, but I can use one to take over movement." She withdrew her left hand and--
Iris stopped in midcharge (for she was ready to bash the mage's head in). Something was...
She pulled a short dance, then part of her prize-winning Eidorac's Conflagration. What the hell? She screamed at her actuators, but nothing going. Like... well, grand, like a puppet on a string.
"Yes, indeed," June said.
"Play with her. I'll be taking her now."
Eclair was halfway through "tear your head off" before jerking to a halt.
"Shhh... It's a peaceful existence, childe. All for our glory--liberation from flesh. It's a noble cause. No more suffering, no more arguement."
"It is now or never."
"Give.... them... some ... time to... grow into themselves! YES!"
She called a Tunguska blast, and froze.
"Yes," the old bot said. "The spell is ready. Hmm.... save for this mental block. The power you wield is formidable, childe. Pity we can surmount it. Puppeteer."
She was halted mid-dance. June twitched her hand and Iris was thrust into the ground. She felt her arms crawl forward. The old one was waiting, that one terrible hand outstretched.
So this is it? she thought. I was singing earlier, I the world made some kind of sense, and now I...
The key burned. The slick pleasure of being wound up filled her. So that's why she left it in, she thught. She twitched a joint in her neck. The key's burn was orgasmic.
She saw June stumble at the edge of her vision.
She sprinted forward like a cheetah, grabbed the Masterpiece's arms, lept up, and yanked. The arms, ancient and mighty as they were, had not been built for grappling, and snapped off.
The puppetter turned--
And she punted the Masterpiece (apparently that was its name) like a football. Mighty legs sent it flying.
The puppeteer ran past. The Masterpiece's torso bounced on the floor, her servitor ran--
Eclair felt the spell's energy disapate. She was up, free, and pissed off. The Tunguska blast flowed in much faster than normal. She cast it.
The Masterpiece had tumbled off the Hall; the Puppeteer lept and caught her.
A column of blinding light, bright as the sun, smashed into them. She curved the blast away from the rest of Paris; it lit the city like day as the blast faded.
When the blast was over she saw nothing of either of them.
Eclair paused. She let her arm drop. She checked on Iris, who was steaming-hot and breathing heavy. Must be near overheating. She saw Selest hovering behind her, confused and shaking. There was a city full of beaten-down or post-spell-groggy people stirring. The rain was letting up. She could feel static pulling her clothes skin-tight.
She could use an oil bath and a massage.
"You okay?" she asked Iris.
"I'm..." She giggled. "I'm feelin' good."
To Be Concluded...
The oil bath didn't help much. Some, yes, but there were all those threads left...
The dozens missing was the most prominent. How many had special techniques as June did? Where did that antique thing come from? Where had it learned its magic? Did it come with magic built in? Who built it? And so on.
Eclair was up to her chin in hot oil. It sifted through her joints, flooded everything that needed flooding. She wondered if humans felt this good in springs or jaccuzis--she'd been, but oil baths were a level above.
Hell to clean up, though.
She sank a little deeper and blew bubbles.
The door to the bath whispered open. A cool lick of air shifted over her. She saw Iris, nude, tiptoe toward the bath.
Eclair pulled herself out of the mire, blowing some oil from her lips. "Hey there," she said. "How did the Golden Dawn treat you?"
"Like usual... so, like a queen."
"I didn't know Randolph Carter was so... uh... prolific, over there."
"Yeah, that comes as a surprise. Speaking of which, what's you're holding behind your back?"
Iris blushed. She was good at imitating humes. "Uh..." She drew her hand out, slowly. It was a key; not a Randolph Carter key, or even a Stephens Brothers key. Cruising her data banks, Eclair linked it up to something she'd seen in an upscale sex-toy catalogue, The Locked Box.
Eclair giggled. "I've got one of those."
"Wha? You're not even a wind-up!"
Eclair sank back a little into the oil. "Yeah. But I know a few. And, ah..."
Iris giggled. "So, you're a winder too?"
"Yeah. Heh. You could say it turns all kinds of things on."
They laughed. Iris shifted, bit her lip.
"Wan' wind me?" she asked.
Eclair bid her a come-on with her fingers just barely out the pool.
The bones had been alone so long the stench of rot was gone. Cello tread the last stretch of hallway before the Final Curve, where the catacombs dove so deep no spell could lead one out again. One had went down and never returned. Some whispered it went to Mordiggan itself, waiting for the rise of the ghouls, that it may rise again to clear the earth of the living dead.
The Final Haven was her destination.
Her footsteps changed from the soft crunch of bonepiles feet thick and onto stone. The altar was set several yards in, lit by blighted lumimoss. Two of the Enlightened sat, waiting.
The bundle in Cello's arms spoke. Low and catlike: "Your spell worked, dearest Gate... but work on your timing. My Puppeteer is in pieces."
"Yeah... I could use a few more legs... and my arm. Way less effective when I inch forward."
Change nodded. "Yes, my Masterpiece. We have found pieces for a new body--one of steel and gold, beautiful and ancient."
"No--the Puppeteer first. She has a Carter key built into her--such power will serve us better in the short-term."
Change took the bundle. She set it on the altar, unwove it. They stank of ozone and teleportation magic, but they were still beautiful. The Puppeteer gently cradling the head in her good arm, the blank face of the Masterpiece scrutinizing all the universe set before her.
Change set to her work; it would be long. She turned part of her perception to the legend inscribed above the altar-workbench.
Listen, dry bones--
Listen to the voice of the Deep
The powerful Azathoth of our ancestors
Who in one breath created them
Will re-tie your undone knots
You will have new flesh
On which new skin will form
Dry bones, you will live again
Under the eye of Azathoth, she began.