“Let’s talk transition options,” Malcolm said chipperly. He’d interposed himself in front of Malphas while my sister Roselia buried her face in my shoulder. We stood inside the Twin Saints astrologenius, situated at a crossroad in a crossroad. Everyone dripped with the blood of an impossible bird. Roselia was free from the devil’s clutches. So why didn’t I feel better?
“You say you had a contact in heaven,” I reminded him. Roselia had given so much, suffered so much. If anyone deserved some time inside the pearly gates…
“Yes!,” he replied brightly. “One of the heavens, at least. I’ll call Goldbeard to escort you to the Pirate Heaven Purgatorium. After I’ve finished my business with Malphas, of course.”
“Purgatory? You said she was going to heaven.”
Malphas cackled. Malcolm shot him a dirty look, then shrugged. “The Purgatorium is a part of heaven,” he said with what he thought was reassurance.
“But I was already in purgatory!” Roselia rasped.
Crowe sighed. “A common misconception, but no. The Purgatoria scrub your soul clean so it won’t disrupt the heavens. It’s like recycling. All the inapplicable cruft goes to make raw substance for the appropriate Other-petal. You were in a hell, which does opposite. Hence your, uh, condition.” He waved at her body, its limbs bent like the claws of a broken bird. “But! After a few brief centuries you’ll have a nice clean soul and a beautiful pile of booty to go with it! Unless you’d prefer a less ambitious afterlife. I’m pretty sure Yiffing Valhalla would take you as-is.”
We asked him to describe Yiffing Valhalla. Our answer was a big no thanks.
“Isn’t there some Other-petal where I can be myself again? Where things go back to the way they were?”
Crowe waved a hand and snorted. “Sure, somewhere. In, you know, infinity.”
“I’m dead. Don’t I have eternity?”
“Theoretically, yeah. So long as you don’t sign that eternity away.” He lowered his voice. “And so long as the entire World-Flower doesn’t unravel first.” A cough and a shrug. Voice back to normal. “…Regardless, you’d be stuck hitchhiking unless you found a sponsor.”
“A sponsor like you?” she asked.
Crowe, silent, tapped his chin and pretended to think.
Malcolm held up his hands. “Girls, this is a family matter. I have business to attend to with my colleague.” He nodded towards Malphas. The enormous bird devil stood panting by the giant crow’s gaping ribcage. “So unless you need me…”
“Go,” I said, and he skipped away to talk to Malphas. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Malphas produce a book from under his wing. A black rose was depicted on its cover and the whole thing was bound in leather.
Roselia sighed. “Sis, thank you. You saved my soul. You’ve given me more than anyone ever has. And I promise, once I find a place that’s good for us, I’ll find you. Wherever you end up. And I’ll find mom and dad and Xander and we’ll be together again.”
“Rose, you can’t wander like that forever. This isn’t fucking Sliders. We need a better plan.”
She shook her head. “Sister. I’ve literally been to hell and back, here. And every ‘better plan’ we’ve heard so far sounds like more of this.” She gestured to her yellow-scaled legs with her twisted bird-arms. “I know more about this stuff than you realize.” She looked over her shoulder. Malcolm and Malphas were shaking hands. It was time. “We’ll be a family again. I promise.”
“I would like that. I’ll believe that.” Even as I said it I flashed back to Malcolm’s little caveat. Could reality fall apart like he said? It seemed ridiculous, but the Other-Force had only infected the world about 35 years ago. Already its influence had snaked back hundreds of years to alter history. There was no way to guess what the long-term effects would be. Couldn’t infections kill things?
Still, if that happened Roselia would be no worse off than everyone else. Even now, mutated and resigned to wandering the layers of reality, she was better off than she’d been yesterday. Wherever she was, whatever she was, she could begin healing.
There was a sharp pain. Imagine a guitar string snapping. Imagine that guitar string was one of your temples. There was a flurry of curses and cries as it hit the others. Blood dripped out from one of my nostrils, blossoming on the tiles. They were cracked like spider-webs, the blood flowing through. “Clock’s ticking, kid.” Malcolm warned. “The ontological tides are gonna rip this whirpool apart. Where are we taking you?”
“Whatever the magical equivalent of a Greyhound station is, I guess,” Roselia said.
“Ah yes. Pauper’s Limbo,” Malcolm replied. “Malphas here can handle that, I think.” With that Malphas pulled aside one flap of the sacrificial crow’s ribskin. Roselia and I hugged one last time before she marched through, disappearing forever into its neck. Malphas plucked a single bloody feather from his wing and tucked it behind Malcolm’s ear before following Roselia inside. The air in the astrologenius grew stuffy as the portal in the crow’s neck sealed over again.
* * * * * * *
We made our plan the next day after reviewing the information from Malphas. The tome he handed Malcolm included everything he’d extracted from the vision. There were instructions for a ritual, something that would let us leave the material plane. It didn’t lead to the Other-petals but something deeper, closer to the source of the Other-Force. Unfortunately, the ritual itself required a piece of Space Brother. We’d be better off trying to capture a piece of the sun.
The second lead was a reference to something called Czernobog’s Swamp. All we knew was that it was somewhere in Siberia. This was only slightly more helpful than knowing it was somewhere on earth.
We’d break into three missions. Malcolm would visit some of his tech pals for help figuring out the schematics from my vision. We had a few vague ideas as to what the device did and how, but huge chunks of the picture were missing. Curt, meanwhile, would try to figure out what became of Cormac Stevens’ heart and what connection, if any, there was between the Torch and P!ss Frog.
That left me and Yaritza to investigate the Russian super-mercs. Mister Siberia and Stalokovy were involved in this somehow, and they were never involved in anything good. Putting two of us on the mission would slow our investigation. On the other hand, going in alone was bound to get me killed.
I’d done fieldwork with Yaritza once or twice before and she was always a dream to work with. She was Assistant Director of VICEFRONT, so we could skip a few hours of falsifying paperwork. More importantly, she’d earned the job. The lady was a model agent: meticulous, knowledgeable, and so sweet you’d never expect her to rip a man’s face off.
In fairness, she always warned them.
According to our intel, we’d have to go to New Pandemonium to contact the super-mercs. There was a domovoy there named Vosha who kept house for a reptoid madame. Gammon’s notes said to order a room, make a mess, then cut a deal with Vosha.
There was no way we could wait for Siberia and Stalokovy to come to us, of course. We had no way of making them come, no way of keeping them quiet. Instead the plan was to shake Vosha down to figure out how he made contact, then use that to track them down.
So long as Vosha played it cool, everyone would leave this meeting alive. We’d have to contain him for a while, of course, but Yaritza had ways of keeping folks in storage. It wasn’t not a human rights abuse, but it was a lot better than that blasted Error Zone.
Step one was getting to shore. There were official channels but they’d take too long, raise too many questions. Instead we decided to infiltrate under the cover of darkness. On wing.
We anchored our LiteBoat just outside the Q. Grid. Once it was secure Yaritza grabbed my shoulder. “Ready?” she asked. I nodded. “Stand still.”
Her hand melted into butterflies. Fingers split, shimmered and crystalized into a growing swarm of Monarchs. Where they touched, my own skin followed suit. I didn’t dare disobey her order to stand still, even as my shoulders flaked into wings. Raw flesh flickered and melted in the gaps between the teeming bugs. So long as I let the transformation progress, it’d be nice and gentle. If I started scraping the butterflies off, I’d be reduced to whatever untransformed flesh they left behind.
Once we were entirely transformed Yaritza was in the driver’s seat. All the butterflies, even the ones transformed from my body, became an extension of her will. It was just as well. We were a swarm of eyes, feelers and proboscises. Yaritza somehow managed to make sense of the million inputs. I mostly wanted to hurl.
Something incomprehensible throbbed red as Yaritza guided us between the gaps in the Quarantine Grid. Hard light and electro-pulses tickled our many feelers. One wrong move and Border Patrol would know that something Other-natural had crossed. Once we were through, we coalesced back into our bodies.
Now it was my turn to take over. A small squad of phantom arms hoisted us up by our armpits. They carried us over the waters and towards New Pandemonium’s shores. A small herd of kelpies stamped on the sands below but they had little interest in flying travelers. We touched down in a small grove by the beach.
Dry land introduced our next complication: fitting in. Our powers made it easy to look inhuman, but neither of us mapped well with any New Pandemonian citizens. Still, there’d been reports of ‘spontaneous generations’ within New Pandemonium for years. Sometimes whole neighborhoods would sprout up, stretching the space where once there’d been a stray alley.
We had a decent shot as long as we matched. I ditched my coat while Yaritza transformed her arms and legs back into butterflies, her torso held aloft by a Hans and Franz. She swarmed our faces with butterfly bodies. To any observers, we’d look like a couple armless, legless women with butterflies for faces. Maybe we wouldn’t look local, but at least we wouldn’t look American.
With that, we were on the New Pandemonian streets. I did my best to walk with purpose while Hans and Franz jerked Yaritza’s body in crude mimicry of confidence. A passing cyclops gave us the side-eye but otherwise we reached the brothel without incident.
“How many?” asked the girl at the counter. She didn’t seem fazed by us in the slightest. I wasn’t sure what kind of… person she was. She looked mostly human, save for her long goat legs and hairy white arms.
“Two,” Yaritza replied.
“Altogether or each?”
“Just one altogether,” I corrected. “Puddin’ here’s getting ahead of herself.”
“Oh!” Yaritza forced a laugh. “You’re right, what do I think I’m made of?”
“Who?” the goat-girl waved a quill at the men, women and others seated around us. I couldn’t help but notice a Golem with perfectly sculpted proportions.
“Him,” I pointed. The goat-girl nodded and sent us up.
“Night,” Yaritza whispered to the Golem as soon as we were through the door. The butterflies leapt from our faces and swarmed over him, taking his mouth first so he couldn’t cry for help. He struggled in vain to rip them free but in seconds she’d assimilated his whole head. Massive arms fell still to his sides. Not long after that there was no trace of him, save for a swarm of butterflies lingering in the room.
“Right, so now we’ve got to make a mess.” I looked around. This place was so depressing there was hardly anything to make a mess with. A sink in one corner, a thin yellow mattress in the other, next to it a nightstand. Inside I could find handcuffs, lube, condoms and toys. They would have to do.
We set apart shredding the bed into springs and fluff which we then saturated with lube. When this didn’t work we tore open all the condoms and threw them around the room, wrappers tossed like confetti.
Still nothing. And then I realized, “the damn thing won’t come in here when it thinks there’s people fucking. Not unless they pay extra at any rate.”
“What should we do?”
I tilted my face towards her. “Hide?”
We melted into butterflies again, and soon the Domovoy entered the room to begin cleaning. The stooped creature was human-adjacent, features distorted and its skin like ash. It bounced on legs more kangaroo than human, long nose scraping the ground.
We nabbed him. He yelped and muttered with fear but his stubby arms couldn’t reach onto his back where Yaritza had started. His screams grew louder and soon there were footsteps rushing down the hallway.
<<Help!>> the thing cried in guttural Russian, but it was too late. When the doors swung open all the gawkers saw was a cloud of butterflies escaping.