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Tobit: The Lady and the Maiden of Knowledge

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Welcome to the 8th installment in my Hyraaq Tobit series. If you're new to this series, please start at The Demon Tobit of Delphia to read the series in order.

Uncle Al

Gathering of Resistance

On the western side of Delphia there stood a warehouse. It was a long, low sitting building made of grey stone and wood, a structure that rather matched the common architectural style of the buildings in Delphia. It was constructed a long time ago, built to house the “unauthorized tools” that came in with many of the city’s new members. Before Madison’s time as Grand Magus, it was heavily guarded and the items stored within were carefully inventoried and cataloged. However, anyone who knew Madison would tell you that the man had taken new approaches to many concepts of Delphian citizenship. He’d been far more interested in amassing numbers than maintaining strict inventory. As more people were forcefully initiated into Tobit’s city of ice and damnation, the amount of contraband grew to the point that Madison simply chose to have it tossed in and locked away, rather than carefully counted and stocked. Madison’s agenda of mass recruitment also required many of Tobit’s most faithful to exist in the outside world, to lure and entice victims into performing the suicide ritual and opening the gates. Madison, always the titan of progress and industry, began to repurpose most of the contraband that came into Delphia. Everything from electronics, extra clothing, passports and ID’s; Madison had found a use for them all. In the end, the warehouse had become forgotten.

Stored within it now was a lot of useless junk- mostly items from decades and even centuries gone by. The doors were long sealed shut. The guards no longer posted at its doors, and since the recent Derrick Reynolds incident, all patrols were far more focused on the Mendez Gate, the main entrance through Bannister Church. There were no shops or residences in that part of the city, so it came as no shock to any member of The Unwashed that it had been converted into a meeting place for their rebellion.

At this very moment, there is much activity going on in the back of the warehouse. Situated behind stacks of huge crates, a small meeting area was carved out. It is here that the leader and his Unwashed followers gather on specified nights to discuss important matters, always moving towards their goal to bring down Madison, Pinkerton and the whole damned city itself. Meetings of The Unwashed were always kept short; information was passed quickly. The leader would speak, and those that were dedicated to liberation from Delphia would contribute what they knew would help. Missions were often planned quickly, quite similar to the night that Timothy Vanburen was given the task of rescuing Derrick from the clutches of Madison. However, tonight was quite different. Tonight took a turn that caused the usual calm and order of their meetings to become chaotic and frenzied.

“Clair is in trouble…. Clair is in trouble!!!” Soka Ito was crying over and over again.

“Soka, please calm down, please lower your voice! We cannot let anyone find out we’re in here,” Clive Andrews replied in a frantic, whispered hush.

“What’s going on?” Emily Pert demanded, working hard to keep her voice down.

“I don’t know; she just started thrashing about. Where is the leader?”

Emily shook her head. “He has other business tonight, I just found out. Someone he’s quite interested in apparently has arrived here. He went to go and get a closer look. I was actually on my way to let you know that this meeting was canceled.”

“Who could be so important that he’d cancel on us?”

“I don’t know, Clive; I just know he said it’s someone that he needs to see up close. We’ve always trusted the leader, no point in questioning him now.”

“Shit, he needs to be here for this. Apparently something has gone wrong. Soka… she’s still attached to Clair Nobles, I suppose- an empathic link I would imagine. She just started, I don’t know how else to say it, just started freaking out.”

“Damnit, everyone else is already heading back home; it’s just us. Do you think we can get her back to your place?”

Emily and Clive observed as Soka continued to thrash her head wildly back and forth, screaming about Clair being in danger.

“I doubt it,” Clive responded, “I can’t get her to settle down; she’ll attract a ton of attention if we take her out on the streets.”

Emily, forever the “mom” of this little group, quickly pushed Clive aside.

“Soka, honey, it’s Emily. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

The young child’s eyes seemed distant, as though she were staring at things that no one else in the room could see. She reached up and grasped Emily’s arm. “The bad lady’s friends have Clair; I can almost see them from here. I think they’re going to kill her.”

“Fuck, half the damn plan relies on Clair and Derrick doing their part on the outside,” Clive mumbled. “If the damned Sisters get to them now, we’re screwed.”

“We’re screwed if Soka has a seizure from this shit too, so let’s try and tackle one emergency at a time here, Clive.”

“Can you help Clair; can you talk to her in her mind, like you did before?” Emily asked the distressed girl.

“Never tried it awake, always asleep, I don’t know,” the child replied, tears running down her cheeks.

“We have to try; we have no choice. We have to communicate to Clair what to do if we want to save her and Derrick. Soka, I believe in you! I believe you can do this!”

“Clive, how can she do it? How can we instruct her on something that we don’t even understand?”

“Okay, Soka, how do you normally find Clair? When you’re dreaming, how do you find Clair?” Soka looked up, a bit of confusion in her eyes. Sometimes it was easy for Clive and Emily to forget that she spoke very little English, and often had to work to translate the words in her mind.

“Soka, please try. How do you talk to Clair when you’re sleeping?”

“I… find her, in the dark places, the dark places between dreams,” she answered.

“Okay, baby, can you go there now, in your mind? Can you focus on what you do see, Clair and the bad lady’s friends- can you focus on that?” Emily asked, using a soothing and patient tone.

“I’ll try, but she’s so far, far and afraid,” the girl replied with a voice ripe with tears and childhood terror. It crushed Emily to be pushing the child so hard in this direction, but she was the only member of The Unwashed with such a gift. Without it, they have no link to the outside world. Soka would have to do this, one way or the other, regardless of how guilty Emily might feel about pressuring her later.

“Do it, Soka, find the way. Find the way that works and get there, get to Clair and tell her, tell her what she needs to know.”

“I’m scared, though. Sometimes bad things live in those dark places.”

“Clive and I will be here with you the entire time, okay? We won’t let anything happen to you, but right now, Clair needs you. Please!”

“Okay, Miss Emily, please keep me safe while I’m gone,” Soka begged.

Strange words, but both Emily and Clive knew what they meant. Soka would be gone, her mind cast out into the strange and alien places that existed between the very thoughts of mankind, but her body would be here, in the real world.

“Be brave, sweetheart,” Clive soothed, kissing the child on her forehead. “We will be here with you, nothing will happen. Find Clair, find her before it’s too late.”

Soka Ito closed her eyes, finally seeming to calm down. Her breathing became slow and methodic, a deliberate inhale and exhale that would assist her in getting her mind in the right frame to conduct the strange act of linking with someone on a psychic level. No one else understood how she did it, although she’d tried to explain a few times, in her broken English. All the Unwashed knew for sure was that they needed her. Sometimes they felt almost guilty, as though she were being used as more of a tool than a person. Clive had become such a father figure to her that he often felt that he could simply raise her here in Delphia; however, all it took was one Feasting Ritual to remind him and everyone else that their very lives were always just a gesture away from being snuffed out in the most vile of ways. Children were often enough consumed in those rituals, though not as frequently as adults, so even Soka was not safe from the whims of Tobit or Madison, whoever really was behind the hand that pointed to the harvest.

Soka’s breathing finally leveled, and both adults knew that she was sleeping. Never would either of them believed before coming to Delphia that their fates, as well as that of many others would fall on the shoulders of a 10 year old girl. She now held their futures in her mind, and they both said a collective prayer that whatever mechanisms controlled the psychic gift would hold out in their favors. This was a rushed plan after all. It had always been decided that Soka would guide Clair and Derrick to their aid; however, to do so on the fly like this, without the guidance of their leader, left both adults feeling shaken and emotionally naked. They both gazed down at Soka, and then looked at each other, mutually expressing a silent hope and fear that tonight wouldn’t be the end of all their planning.

“Good luck, Soka. We love you. Please be safe,” Clive stated softly, and Emily placed her arm around his shoulder.

Tabitha Shaw had witnessed it all. Concealed from view and shrouded by dark magic, she’d sat unseen atop a crate and watched as Clive, Emily and Soka gathered in the small space reserved for their rebellion’s gatherings. She watched as Soka was thrown into a frenzy, crying out about the dire fate awaiting Clair Nobles. This came as no surprise to Tabitha. She’d sent her girls down to New Orleans to take care of Clair and Derrick, and it would appear that was exactly what was happening. She felt pleasure at that, but was greatly disappointed that the one they referred to as the “leader” had been a no-show. She already knew that Clive, Emily and Soka were affiliated with the Unwashed, so she gained no edge by wasting valuable magic and time propped up in the corner. She came here tonight with the intention of finding out who the man or woman behind the Unwashed was, and dragging that person right over to Pinkerton. The trip hadn’t been a total waste though. It would seem that the little girl was going to try another psychic link with Clair. According to her two caretakers, it would appear that Soka had established a strong link with Dr. Nobles, and that link had alerted her of trouble. She was fairly confident that whatever piece of information they wanted Soka to pass on to Clair would do her no good in the face of Lacy and Lena. Still, though, she’d underestimated the Unwashed once before, as had Madison and Pinkerton, and from that error came the escape of Derrick Reynolds and all the troubles that seemed to follow behind it.

Tabitha thought to herself, “I could kill the girl right now, which would shatter their link and end all chances of using her gift to call for help to the outside world, but where would that leave me? The identity of their leader would still be a mystery, and for all I know, they could have contingency plans for this anyway. They’ve done too much damage for me to believe they’d put all their hope into one child. No, I need something better, I need to find out just what their message to Clair is all about, and I want that girl. Pinkerton would be furious if I killed off someone with a mind so powerful she can penetrate the barrier around Delphia and send dream messages to outsiders. Yes, Pinky will have a use for her.”

It didn’t take more than a few moments for Tabitha Shaw to decide on her next course of action. After all, she was the leader of the Sisters of Tobit, the only leader around here that mattered. Her bullet-quick thinking was just one of her many attributes that endeared her to Mr. Pinky. It never took the likes of Tabitha long to formulate a plan of action. Soka wasn’t the only one who could pull off psychic feats. Granted, Tabitha had to rely on magic to gain the abilities that Soka was born into, but a rose by any other name is still a fucking rose as far as the Sister of Tobit was concerned. She’d used a similar spell not very long ago at all to eavesdrop into Clair and Soka’s little dream conversation.

“This time will be a bit different though,” Tabitha thought, “Last time I barged into a dream in progress, one that was Clair’s. This time I’ll be chasing that little brat through her own mind, which means her rules. Once I get a hold of her though, all rules go out the window, and it’s my fucking ballgame. One way or the other, this nonsense ends.”

Much as Soka had done moments before, Tabitha Shaw followed suit. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing until she was fully relaxed. She focused on Soka Ito, and as she did, she began to whisper one of Tobit’s many ancient incantations. As she fell asleep, a devious smirk rested on her lips. Tabitha Shaw was going hunting.

Old Algiers

When Soka regained awareness, she found herself in what she believed was a beautiful dream. She was standing in what appeared to be a quaint American town. People walked past, nodding and greeting her as they went, and although they were speaking English, she understood it as clearly as if they were speaking Japanese. She felt no fear or apprehension, and her mind was, as is usually the case in dreams, only partially aware that it was in fact a dream. For all she knew, this could be real life. The sun was warm on her face, music drifted from a few of the establishments that lined this tiny burb, and the smells of delicious food seemed to drift from almost every direction. She not only felt safe here, but also welcomed, a sensation that had been missing from her life for quite some time, although, in her dream state, she was not quite sure why or how she came to feel that way. She just knew that this was a different state of being for her, and she welcomed it.

Soka walked down the bright and friendly streets, taking in the sights around her. Wherever this place was, it seemed to shine brighter than anywhere she’d ever been before. There was almost an over-abundance of color and life, almost as though she had ventured into a cartoon. Beyond just the general cheeriness of the place, there were other oddities that led her to believe this was no town seated in the cold boundaries of real life. The people, for example, defied reality. While there was a good number of human families strolling about, Soka also saw a lot of, well, best she could put it, animal people going about their business. She saw dogs and cats and birds, all with humanoid bodies, their faces morphed just enough to appear to be human-animal hybrids. She knew there was a word for this, something like “anthro” something or other, but couldn’t quite remember how to say it. Instead she put it in terms that made sense to her; this place was like the show Tiny Toon Adventures or some other Bugs Bunny type world, a place where animals and people were just one big society. Soka, feeling no fear or anxiety about her surroundings, decided to simply go with it, to soak it in and let her mind enjoy this odd, overly lit land where the nearest cop appeared to be a bulldog-man and she saw that a weasel in a cheap suit was selling used cars. It was a cartoon, sure enough, and Soka, being a child, was quite welcoming to the change of pace. She couldn’t quite remember where she’d been before arriving here, but she knew it was some place dank, dull and cold, a place of fear and death. Perhaps if she was lucky, she could just stay here forever.

She continued down the street, nodding and smiling at citizens that walked past her. They were all friendly; they all nodded back and usually had a friendly word or two. It was the delicious smell of fried food that actually stopped her in her tracks. She was standing in front of a small restaurant, the doors wide open. She looked up at the sign over the door, which read, “Uncle Al’s Cajun Camelot.” She’d never had Cajun food before, had only heard of it from her…. parents? Soka wasn’t sure if she had parents. Nothing really came to mind, but she did recall hearing that Cajun food was legendary for its spicy flavors and rich seasonings. She imagined that if she did have a mother, that she’d likely be denied the chance to try such cuisine. She could almost picture the woman, sitting there refusing to let her order the dish, stating that Soka would find it too hot and waste it, essentially wasting their money. In her dream state, Soka had no idea that this actually had happened, during their trip to Connecticut a few years ago. It hadn’t exactly been Cajun food, but rather a restaurant that served a variety of hot dishes, including some Louisiana inspired courses. Soka had begged to try the gumbo, and her mother had promptly denied her, insisting she order something along the lines of chicken tenders. However, on this day, wherever she was, Soka had no strict mother to tell her yes or no when it came to ordering food. She found herself on her own, and enjoying the freedoms that came with it. On that note, she decided that she would indeed treat herself to whatever it was that “Uncle Al” was serving up inside of his Cajun Camelot.

Soka entered the restaurant and found that she was the only customer at the moment. The place was decorated in various southern themes. The tables were all wooden, almost like picnic tables. Apparently people were allowed to carve their own sentiments into the tops of these, and Soka was determined to read them all once she sat down to eat. There was a style of music coming from the speakers mounted to the walls, a style that was called zydeco, although Soka had no way to know this. It sounded happy though, full of good cheer. A fiddle perhaps, accompanied by an accordion, and of course, a man singing along, shouting out his excitement between the verses. She almost found herself dancing along with it, until a booming voice filled the room and caught her attention.

“Welcome to Uncle Al’s Cajun Camelot! My name be Albert T. Gator, but ya’ll can just call me Al. Go on head there and look over dat menu; ya’ll let me know when you finds something that ya like!” the loud, friendly sounding voice announced. Soka looked up in the direction of the voice, but saw that it’d come from a back room. She saw a large shadow spilling from the door, but the body that owned the shadow was still hidden away.

“Okay, Uncle Al!” she replied in a chipper, excited tone. She grabbed a menu and looked it over. The menu contained a lot of stuff she’d never eaten before, and a few things she had. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage seemed to be the most popular dish. She also saw jambalaya, which was something she’d heard of but never actually seen in real life. There was gumbo, the forbidden dish from her days in Connecticut, boiled shrimp and crawfish, and lots of other items that she’d never heard of and was almost afraid to ask what they might be. Cracklins, boudin and something called tripe. She decided to stay away from such mysteries and stick with something simple, like chicken tenders.

“Uncle Al, I’m ready!” she shouted toward the kitchen.

"Alrighty then, what's it goin'-t-be?" the booming voice replied, as the owner of that voice slowly walked from the back kitchen area. Soka was not at all surprised to see that Uncle Albert T. Gator was, in fact, an enormous alligator walking on two legs wearing kitchen whites and a tall chef's hat on his green, scaly head. Al walked out with the ease and distraction as any long time restaurant worker might, until he laid his eyes on his singular customer of the hour. Soka was shocked when the huge reptile dropped to one knee and bowed his head.

"Lady Soka, dat be you, dat really be you right here in my humble joint, and I do tank ya deeply fo' gracing me wit ya presence, tank ya deeply indeed," he sputtered in his unusual yet charming speak.

Soka blushed and took a moment to take in the scene unfolding before her. This... man, who must have stood over seven feet tall and probably weighed over 500 pounds, was in fact bowing and referring to her as if she were royalty. Of all the strange and wonderful sights she'd seen this day, this one truly was the strangest.

"I think you have me confused with someone else. I am certainly not anyone to bow to," she informed Uncle Al, who continued to splay himself before her.

"Oh naw my dear, you Lady Soka as I live and breathe, so would say my mama and her mama before her, dat's you in da flesh, Lady Soka."

"I'm still so... confused. Honestly I don't even know where I am right now; I just sort of woke up here."

"Oh dat's okay. my dear; I can do da tellin' to help get you to understand a little bit."

"Fine, just please, stand up."

Uncle Al followed the command promptly. "Okay deary, look here, dis place where ya't right now, dis here is sort of your own world. You done made dis, don't 'cha know dat? Dis sort of like, yo' imagination if it done come to life."

"I don't... I don't quite understand.."

"You gotta focus on dat part. See, here, dis place like a journey, you know? Dey says you come here to set something right, dat's what my ol' mama say anyway. Dey always say you gonna come on through here, and need to travel. You gotta get to someone important, someone dat can set some tings right out there in da real world."

Soka struggled to understand this, because it almost made sense. She could almost feel some part of it trying to come together, but somehow it just wasn't ready to fit yet. She knew that talking animals weren't real; she knew that much. However, it all seemed so real, and she had no idea how she got here or where she was before. Uncle Al said he was here to help, but she didn't even know exactly what types of questions to ask him. She felt herself becoming annoyed with the entire situation.

"Well, what am I supposed to do here? If I am supposed to be here on some sort of journey, why don't I know what to do?"

Al scratched at the underside of his chin and furled his brow. "Well now, Lady Soka, dat I can't quite say fo' sure. I guess I always just thought dat you'd show up here wit some sort of.... I don't know... task or some ting like dat. But don't you fret dat one bit now, cuz I know who can tell us what to do. She da smartest person dat I know 'round dis place, and if she can't help, den I guess we just best pack it all in and go home."


"Her name be Maria, Maria da Cat! She just about as lovely as you could want and she know all bouts these sorts of tings. She da one always sayin' dat I need to sweep my stoop and clean my windows, cuz ya never know when Lady Soka goin' come on by. Let's go over by her place. She sweet as tea and will be happy to point us in da right direction."

"Okay, Uncle Al, let's go, I guess. I just have two requests before we leave," Soka added.

"Any ting for da Lady."

"First, where are we? What do you call this place?"

"Oh, dat's easy! Dis here is Old Algiers. I like dat name because I like to tink dat it's named after me, but we all know dat ain't da case. I still get tickled tinking dat though. Now, right cross da river out there is N’awlins, but dat place is dangerous my dear, no place for a sweet little ting like yourself."

"I think that's where I need to go though."

"What? Why so? What so important dat you want go over there?"

"I'm not sure yet, but I think we'll find out."

"Okay den, what be ya other question, dear?"

"Not so much a question as a request, but Al, can you please stop calling me 'Lady Soka'? Just regular Soka is fine, because, well, I am a regular old Soka."

"Ohhh, my mama likely slap da taste right out my mout' she heard me calling you outside yo' proper title like dat, but den again, my ol' mama done stayed out in da swamp, so, I suppose she won't be hearing what we talkin' bout."

"Then it is settled, Uncle Al. Let's go and find this Maria the Cat, and find out exactly what it is that I am supposed to do here."

"Okay den, let me just close down da joint right quickly."

Al about the small restaurant, his movements made slow and laborious because of his size. When he was finished, he and Soka stepped back out in the sunny streets of Old Algiers and Al shut and locked the door behind him.

"She live on da outskirts of town, so let's us move quick like. Most of da folks friendly round these parts, but dey got some stuff dat lives round here sometime. Mostly it leave you alone if you leave it alone, but dat not always da case. Sometimes dey don't leave you alone no matta' you avoid 'em or not."

"Like what?" Soka asked cautiously.

"Best not to talk 'bout gri-gri and da likes, Soka- best not talk bout 'em at all," Al responded, and she could not help but shiver a bit at the sudden change in his demeanor.

While Soka and Al went in search of information, another visitor was adjusting to the strange whimsy that was the colorful world of Old Algiers. Tabitha Shaw awoke much as Soka did- straining to grasp her new surroundings. However, unlike Soka, Tabitha required only seconds to become aware of why and where she was. She also didn’t require a roadmap to realize that this place made her sick. It was bright and vibrant, and although Tabitha’s very short and intense childhood seemed as though it occurred eons ago, she still knew a cartoon when she saw one.

“I’m in a little girl’s mind; of course she’d construct a world based on her own comforts,” she mumbled to herself as she gazed around to take in her surroundings. She arrived on the outskirts of Old Algiers, and realized that she’d have to make quick work in tracking down Soka. There was a lot to consider when invading someone else’s mind, and the margin for error was very real. Tabitha had done it many times since becoming a Sister, and nothing about entering a slumbering mind was that difficult, often being nothing more than an exercise in meditation. However, there always existed the off chance that the person you were invading had a strong hold over their thoughts, and that could cause problems. There was also the ever-present chance that the dreamer could awaken, shattering the reality around both sleeper and invader and forcing both back into reality. Of course, the greater threat was always that the dreamer could take control, force their own will into the fake world that was the slumber. Tabitha wasn’t particularly concerned about a 10 year old girl power playing her, but Soka had also demonstrated the ability to gain lucid control while dreaming. She’d proven that at least once, when Tabitha caught her talking to Clair in dreams once before. That had been a matter of Soka invading Clair’s dream though, which was actually easier for the little girl, because she didn’t have to manage an entire reality on her own; she simply had to exist within someone else’s. Either way, Tabitha Shaw did not plan on allowing Soka the chance to get comfortable here and start putting the pieces together. She knew that only a portion of this world around her was actually the child’s doing in the first place. The world of shared dreaming, this place where she comes to try and link up with Clair, was very much the wild west of sleep. Soka would be able to manipulate a portion of it to give her a sense of comfort and control, but the rest, the rest was an alien, dark and evil landscape that contained creatures of unspeakable cruelty. Tabitha had dealt with them a time or two in her tenure to Tobit, and she had a plan already in mind to make this entire situation work in her favor. She began to whistle a little tune as she walked off in the direction of civilization, knowing what her first couple of moves would be.

She still wanted to play with the idea of bringing Soka in as a Sister of Tobit. The opportunity was almost too good to let slip by. None of her girls as of right now were natural psychics, and to have not only the chance to bring a mentalist in, but also to get one as a child, to raise and groom her into the world of Tobit from such a young and malleable age, was the chance of a lifetime. Lacy was the closest thing she had to such a protégé, but Lacy was far from psychic. Psychotic, yes, but not psychic in the least bit; and someone that could pull off such feats was someone that Tabitha would love to bring before Pinkerton as her newest charge. The reward for recruiting straight from the resistance would be a further boon to Tabitha’s ever-present ambition to rise in the ranks of Tobit, and she did not intend to waste this rare chance. That question now though; what is the best way to go about this?

“Let’s kill two birds, shall we?” Shaw said to herself as she approached what she thought might be a dog-human hybrid wearing a police uniform. She figured she could run a few tests on little Soka, really test her mettle while here in the world of dreams. If she liked what she saw, that would be one less task to worry about once all of this was sorted out. However, should she decide otherwise, she could easily break the kid’s mind here, break it so bad that when she woke back up in Delphia, Soka Ito would be nothing more than a drooling vegetable, no further use to the Unwashed or anyone else for that matter. Tabitha liked this plan; she liked the options and the ability to play around a bit in such a strange world as this. Delphia was a drab, cold and grey world; this was a nice change of pace for her. Furthermore, success here meant that whatever little Hail Mary play the Unwashed were trying to throw by having Soka pass a message to Clair would fail, Clair and Derrick would die at the hands of Lacy and Lena, and that would just be more success to report back to Pinkerton. From there, convincing the boss to remove Madison would be a breeze.

“Good morning!” a gruff voice suddenly spoke out, breaking Tabitha’s concentration and causing the woman to scowl a bit in annoyance. She looked up and saw that the bulldog in the police uniform was standing in front of her.

“Don’t startle people like that; you’re apt to get hurt,” she replied, not looking directly at him, but rather staring off towards the edges of light that existed beyond the town. She those edges slowly blended to a darker hue, and she was starting to think that was where she should go first.

“Sorry about that, ma’am. We just don’t get too many new visitors around here,” the dog-man replied, apparently too wrapped up in his bright and colorful existence to realize he’d just been threatened. Tabitha figured it was best not to waste time, and pressed him for information.

“Officer, I’m looking for someone; a friend of mine, actually. Have you seen a little girl around town today? She’d probably be a new comer too.”

“Ummm,” the cop groaned, as he rubbed his large head with a hand that was very human, yet covered in dog hair. “Yes, I think so, a little girl that looked a bit lost; I think I saw her go into Uncle Al’s restaurant a little while ago. Why are you looking for her?”

“Well, that would be none of your fucking business, now wouldn’t it?”

“Hey now, I am the law in these parts. Don’t make me take you in for-“

Tabitha interrupted him, “Shut up for a second. You told me that she went to some place called Uncle Al’s? That’s where you saw her, right?”

“Yes, but I am not done with you. Tell me, why are you-“

She cut him off one more time. “You’ve been a big help, thanks. However, I can see that you really want to get to know me better, don’t you? So, by all means, allow me to introduce myself.”

She took a quick glance around to ensure no eyes were on her, found that she and her new friend here had the area to themselves, and wasted no time in snapping his neck. Poor bastard never saw it coming. Tabitha wasted no time in creating a quick and easy to understand message for little Soka. She quickly dragged the cop’s body to the mouth of a nearby alley, removed one of her daggers and carved a quick message into his still-warm forehead. “NO HIDING FOR SOKA” was quickly carved into the cop’s head, and Tabitha made sure to prop the body in such a way that it would not be found quickly; she might have another use for it soon, a way to add a new layer of stress and fear onto Soka, maybe throw her off her goal to help Clair. Tabitha had to constantly remind herself that was the real reason she was here. It was almost too easy to get swept up in the idea of recruiting the little girl. It would do her recruitment efforts no good if she failed at this simple outing and Clair was somehow rescued by whatever little tidbit of information the Unwashed felt was so important.

After her task was completed with the cop, she glanced back towards those darkening areas that existed past the rooftops of Old Algiers. The blue sky and the blackness met a low-point, and the blue blended straight into darkness. She had a pretty good idea that what she needed next lived in that darkness. With a sweet song whistling from her lips, Tabitha left the dog-cop to gather flies and strolled further into town.

Tabitha made her way through town working to avoid attracting too much attention to herself. It was simply a force of habit in her line of work. Too much unwanted attention could often spell disaster when it came to subterfuge. However, she reminded herself that this was in fact a rather artificial world, and that there could be very limited consequences to her actions here. Part of her really wanted to enjoy it, to be able to work without the constant need to cover her tracks or hide her actions. Still, though, she had to be wary of Soka becoming overly alarmed. The dead cop would do a fine job of putting her on edge and placing a bit of fear into her soul, but to go too far too fast, to really push the girl, could cause her to awaken or go into a state of utter panic. Should Soka panic, the already thin veil of physics and order that governed this world could quickly crumble. Tabitha was well aware that her greatest disadvantage here was that Soka could wake up naturally if she had the sense of mind to force herself from the dream. Tabitha on the other hand was here by way of a ritual, and that ritual could not simply be broken by willing herself to wake up. She'd heard from others that dabbled in such practices that becoming trapped in someone's broken dream-world was akin to finding yourself in the very pits of hell. All reason would collapse and the entire landscape became a frenzied madness. Plus, those evil things that were known to dwell in the dark places beyond the sky, the very things that drew Tabitha towards them, could be reduced to pure dark chaos, no longer bound by the trappings of pseudo-reality. That could cause a problem as well. So, Tabitha decided that for the time being, she would play carefully with Soka's fragile little mind, and ensure that the effects of the ritual were worn off before she made any big moves against the girl. She'd want an escape plan should this place decide to turn on its head and go ape shit.

Tabitha found the establishment belonging to Uncle Al, and was easily able to track Soka and her companion from there. She would want to know exactly what the little brat was thinking before she went out to the darker parts of town to make friends.



"So, you're Lady Soka. We've heard a lot about you. While I am sure that Albert here has been a wonderful host, please allow me to properly welcome you to Old Algiers."

Soka bowed her head slightly and extended her hand out in greeting to Maria the Cat, who quickly informed her that just Maria was fine; anyone with eyes could tell she was a cat. Soka also informed Maria that just Soka was fine, as she was not comfortable with being referred to so formally.

"Maria, I dun told Soka here dat you could p'haps tell her what it is dat she supposed to do here," Al explained.

Maria, who stood about five feet tall and had the appearance of a black cat that'd grown partially in a human woman, sat down across from Soka. She wore a simple dress of many patches and wore expensive looking, gold rimmed glasses. Her eyes were very kind looking, and her manners matched her tone, which was one of both calm and deep thoughtfulness. Soka did indeed feel confident that Uncle Al had brought her to the right person to help.

"Some of us speak of you now and then, Soka. A young girl that will come and cross the river into the city, into New Orleans, a place of great danger and evil. No one has ever quite been able to tell us why you will choose to go on this journey, but as with most journeys, I imagine that you'll learn why while you're traveling."

"So, I am supposed to go to New Orleans. See, Uncle Al, I told you that's why I'm here," Soka chimed in, causing the large reptile to blush at his scolding.

"But why, Maria... why dey say such a small girl supposed to go to dat bad place?"

Maria glanced out of the nearest window for a moment and appeared to think over the right answer. Soka couldn't tell if she was trying to find a correct response, or one that would not insult poor Al. Clearly Maria was not one to waste time with silly questions or games, that much was clear.

"Some say there is a great evil over there," Maria began, "others say that there is a woman, they call her the Maiden of Knowledge. They say that she holds within her the key to destroying the empire of an evil tyrant, but she is being held against her will by evil witches. That legend is rather silly though if you ask me."

"No, I think you might be right, Maria. I sort of have, I don't know how to really say it, like, an inkling of why I came here. It does have something to do with New Orleans, and I think, just maybe, I am supposed to go and see a brilliant woman. I think I'm supposed to tell her something, like a clue, or maybe a magic word. Something that will help her, but, I can't remember anything else."

"Den perhaps what Maria be sayin' is da truth, Soka. Perhaps you is supposed to go there and meet this Maiden of Knowledge, as dey call her. You go there and give her dat magic word; I bet dat would solve all sorts of problems. A magic word is powerful ju-ju, sometimes dat's all you need to get rid of dem baddies dat be messing ya down."

"Tell me, why is New Orleans so dangerous now?" Soka asked.

"Well, my dear, this very land can be quite dangerous. Come over and look out this window and tell me what you see on the horizon."

Soka followed Maria's instructions and peered long and hard out of the open window, studying the horizon carefully. "Now tell me Soka, what is it that you see, at the bottom of the sky."

"Well, it's all blue until you get down towards the ground, then it just turns dark. What is that?"

"Bad tings out there..." Al mumbled to himself, causing Soka to shiver a bit.

Maria looked up, her blue cat-eyes growing narrow in annoyance. "Ignore him, Soka; he is a superstitious old fool, always has been. But in this case, he is right, although I wouldn't have quite phrased it that way to a small child. What you see out there is what we call the 'dark places', and in those dark live all sorts of nasty fellows. Goblins mostly, vile little boogers that like to scare people for no good reason at all. They have a cruel king named Bazbu, a hideous thing, as if goblins weren't ugly enough as they normally come. The legends say that out there in New Orleans, something bad happened, and the dark places spread out, allowing goblins and things worse than them to run amok over there. That's why we all stay here, in Old Algiers. The blue sky stayed here, and the darkness out there doesn't creep in any closer than it already is. The goblins stay out in their dark, and we stay here where it's warm and bright. That keeps us all happy. New Orleans, though, it's almost all overrun with those nasty creatures, and we stay far away from them."

"But.... but I think I have to go there, to find the Maiden, so does that mean.... will I have to see the goblins?" Soka asked, her voice almost quivering, either tears or panic close by.

"See what ya dun did, Maria? You dun yell at me fo' scaring da girl, den you go and tell dat story, dun got here all cattywampus now," Al scolded.

"She needs to know. If she really intends to venture there, then she needs to know what lies over there. It's dangerous, Albert; you know as well as I do."

Soka placed her face in her hands and began to cry softly. "I... feel so overwhelmed! I think I'm supposed to do something very important here, but.... I don't know how to do it or even where I need to go.... I'm so scared, I just want to go home.."

"Look here, baby girl. I don't know too much; ol' Uncle Al was blessed wit a lot of teeth and a big appetite, but not too much in da brains department. But I do know you is an important girl, dat what you supposed to do over in N'awlins be beaucoup important. So, if you's going down there to dat bad place, den let me comes wit you. I ain't dat smart, but dey tell me I am just dumb enough to be brave, and just strong enough to be useful. So, wit yo permission, I would like to come wit you over there, I'll keep you real safe, don't you fear nothing bout dat."

Soka still buried her face in her hands, but Al's words did seem to calm her a bit, as her soft sobbing seemed to quiet.

Maria huffed and gave Al another annoyed look. "Well then, if Albert here is going to provide the brawn, then I suppose it only makes sense if I come along and provide a degree of brains. Not to mention, a chance to accompany the famed Lady Soka on her prophetic journey would be a nice change of pace from sitting around here all day watching Al stuff his face. So, Soka, if you would have me as well, I think Al and I can assist you on this journey."

Soka felt her spirits rise at the idea of having companionship on her quest. In fact, it made her feel a lot better about the entire situation. She still had no idea exactly where to go or how to even get there, but at least she wouldn't have to do it alone. She sniffled hard and wiped her eyes, and when she looked up at Al and Maria, a giant alligator and a no-nonsense cat, she actually felt herself smile a bit. These were her friends, her team.

"So, how do we even get to New Orleans from here?" Soka inquired.

"Oh dat's easy. Da ferry take ya across da Mississippi right over to da port side, right into da heart of da city." Al stated, feeling pleased to be able to contribute a correct answer. It took less than a second for Maria the Cat to correct him though.

"It's not easy, Albert; the ferry is dangerous. They say that a devil-man captains that ferry, an evil one if ever there was. Thaddeus the Pink is what they call him, a man who lures you with his charm but dispatches you with his wicked thoughts. They say that he engages you, draws you in, and then when you are least expecting it, he pulls your very soul from your body and throws it into the fire that powers his ferry."

Al noticed how Soka cringed again, and quickly spoke to extinguish the fear. "Now you just stop dat, Maria. You already dun scared dis girl once befo' and now you acting like you want to do dat again." Al looked over at Soka and took her tiny hand in his giant one. "Look, ain't never been no gri-gri man alive dat could scare ol' Uncle Al here. Dis here Thaddeus da Pink don't sound like nothin' no way. Who ever heard of a gri-gri man dat take his victims wit charmy conversation. Gri-gri man all about hoodoo dolls and hex boards, dey ain't out to make friends wit ya. Plus, even if dis Pink man do decide he want to play tough, I got a whole lotta teeth say he gonna be just as gentle as a pussy cat."

"A-hem," Maria abruptly interjected. "Not all of us pussy cats are exactly gentle, Albert. But, I see what you mean; it is a rather silly legend I suppose. Plus, there has never been a man alive, devil, gri-gri, or otherwise, that could best Maria the Cat in a verbal joust, so, sure, why not, let's try the ferry."

"Sounds like we got ourselves a plan den ya'll, but let's go back to my place first," Al chimed in.

"Whatever for?" Maria asked.

"What else, fo' some lunch!"

The Shaw Sisters and The Shack

The shack

Tabitha heard all of this, as she crouched outside of Maria's window. Sure, some of it was a bit mumbled, but over the years, Tabitha has learned how to glean much of a conversation from the parts where people simply felt the need to raise their voices. She would have to act quickly if her entire plan were to come together, as even while she listened to Soka and her companions go on and on about their trip to New Orleans, she'd also been brewing her own scheme. She wanted very badly to gently test Soka while here within her mind. To see how she responded to things in her rawest form. It would be a great test to see how she could perform later, possibly as a Sister. She wanted to see just how much the likes of little Soka Ito could control her mental abilities, and what better place to test someone's mind power then within their own mind. Had the stupid alligator not suggested they stop off at his little shop for a bite to eat first, Tabitha would likely have had to abandon part of her scheme. However, she felt comfortable now that if she acted quickly enough, she could still pull it all together. Without any more thought on the matter, she began to walk at a near jog towards the dark places that resided right outside of the town. She had business to discuss with those that lived there, and she didn't have much time to do it.

As much as she would hate to admit it, Tabitha was rather taken with how quickly the landscape shifted as one ventured further out from the warm and cozy inner-arc of Algiers and out towards the darkening horizon. There was no doubt to her that this world was in fact a microcosm. Once outside of the town itself, she quickly found herself in what would be best described as flat, grassy plains. She walked along the soft, short grass in the direction of the darkness, and was taken back a bit by how the entire world around her seemed to begin to conform to the dimming in the distance. The grass, sky and earth near Algiers all looked new and fresh, a bright and animated world perfectly fit for the imagination of a young girl. Out here, though, the flat lands began to turn dull, and although Tabitha believed that she was alone, it was impossible to ignore the feeling that something sinister was nearby, watching and plotting.

"It's just like in a dream," she said softly to herself, "or should I say, a nightmare. This is that part of the dream when everything begins to slide from warm and friendly to dark and ominous. How surreal to actually live this part."

Tabitha observed as the landscape around her continued its slow decline from beauty to desolation. The green grass grew brown as she continued on, and where there was once a perfect carpet of grass, jagged rocks began to appear here and there. The once blue sky had now taken on a paler, almost grayish quality. The air went from warm to an uncomfortable cool that seemed to cut through her clothing and bore into her skin. It was becoming slowly impossible for Tabitha to maintain her normal stoic and fearless stance on life. It had crept into her so slowly that even she, with her heightened senses and lifetime of experience with all things dark and evil, failed to notice the slow change in her mindset. At first she had been ecstatic at this chance to attack and test Soka on the mental level. That energy had easily carried her out to this wasteland and kept her warm as the land slowly shifted around her. Then that mood had dropped to one of cautious wonder, as the very essence of this place began to display its more sinister heart. That had dropped to full cautious as the green fell away to the brown and the air fell in temperature. Now though, now that was devolving from an active cautiousness to a gnawing fear. She had not felt this sort of fear in a very long time, and certainly wasn't expecting it to appear in her life again. It reminded her of something, something that she fought not to think about.

"Pull your shit together, girly; this ain't the place to let your mind wander into bad territories," she mumbled to herself, but began to fear that her own self warning may have come too late.

The fear that had just gripped her took another leap, not just into terror, but into a familiar terror, a sensation that was very old to her, but something that could never grow so distant that it would lose its grip over her life. Images began to flash before her eyes, real places that she had long thought she would never experience again. The farm, her tiny, bland and desolate bedroom. The dinner table where she and her sister sat in constant terror as they forked their meager dinners into their mouths. Her parents, watching, waiting always for the slightest error. Scraping the fork on the plate, chewing with her mouth open, squeaking a chair leg, or perhaps the vilest of her parents' many forbidden actions, speaking out of turn. For just a moment, Tabitha could have sworn she was at that table, in that tiny house on the farm in Montana, miles away from anyone. For just a moment she felt the uncomfortable heat on her neck that was always present in the summer. The tiny light that hung over the dining room table, how it cast such a hopeless little glow. The walls of the house, all wood paneled, all dark. The thick curtains that were always drawn, keeping out any sunlight. The tension she and her sister, Celine, would feel as their parents watched and waited. If a mistake was made, an elbow on a table perhaps, they might get lucky and only receive a beating on their legs or back. However, the worst offenses could result in a visit to the shack.

She remembered the shack in ways now that she'd never done before. This place was tapping into her fear and making it all real. The shack, a tiny building that sat behind their home. Before plumbing had been installed, the shack served as the Shaw family outhouse. Once they'd received indoor plumbing, though, her father had gone and cleaned it out, removed the toilet and turned it into something far worse. He'd covered the hole and replaced it with a floor. The floor, however, had many holes drilled into it. He'd dug a hole connecting the septic pit to an outside opening. When Tabitha or his sister misbehaved in a way that he or his wife felt warranted a visit to the shack, he'd devised a system of punishment that made full use of the former shit-hole.

The offending girl would be locked inside for any varying amount of time. It could be hours or even days, depending on her parents' mood. All sorts of horrible things had been fed into the hole. Sometimes it would be hot coals, which would raise the temperature of the shack to stifling heights during the summer. Tabitha or her sister could find themselves in there practically being cooked alive. Her parents were also fond of putting other things into that hole. Sometimes it would be a mix of cow shit and ammonia, causing a rancid gas to slowly leak into the shack, leaving Tabitha or her sister gasping at the tiny hole over the door for precious oxygen. Honestly, it all depended on her twisted parents' mood. Her parents were real bastards when it came to creative punishment. Tabitha recalled her worst times in the shack. She remembered when she didn’t finish her entire meal once. Her father had of course been furious, although he barely showed any emotion. He’d sat there for a moment in quiet consideration, a thin man with cold, unfeeling eyes. Her mother had reached over and whispered something into his ear. Tabitha didn’t need to read lips to know exactly what the word was. She’d begged, dropped to her knees on the floor and cried out not to be sent out to the shack; anything but the shack. Her parents had shown no mercy, and dragged her screaming and crying out into the hot evening and sealed her in. Food was the punishment that week; scraps from every meal was shoveled into the hole below the shack. The heat did its job quickly, and within a day or so, Tabitha Shaw was engulfed in the putrid rot of meals gone by. During that time, she was starved out, left with nothing to eat or drink. By the third day she was prepared to eat anything her parents would place in front of her. This bargain was tested, sadly, as when she was finally brought back into the house, the very plate of food she’d failed to complete was still waiting for her on the dining room table. It had spoiled badly and the flies had found new uses for it. Tabitha though was told to eat it or return to the shack. So she sat there, her sister watching on with tears streaking down her face, as she took rancid bite after bite, refusing to gag or vomit, as she knew that would likely bring her back to the shack just as quickly.

“Stop it, girly! Fucking stop it!” Tabitha shouted at herself as she still stood alone in the vacant field of dead grass and rocks. “That was decades ago, that was Montana, fucking mom and dad are dead, they’ve been dead as long as you’ve been a Sister, control yourself!” She screamed this command at herself over and over again, trying to find her usual sense of self control and command. “This place is just trying to eat you up, that’s all. It’s just a little girl’s dream; nothing here can fucking hurt you.”

Tabitha’s silent refrain was suddenly broken as she sensed a presence nearby. Something had grown bored with watching her and decided to step in and make itself formally known.

“Tabby, was that foul language I heard come from your lips? Tabby, what is that you’re wearing? Tabby, why are you out here alone? Are you misbehaving; do you need a lesson?”

Tabitha’s eyes suddenly grew to the size of saucers. That voice, so familiar, a voice that she believed she could never hear outside of her mind again.

“Fa...father?” she gasped, her voice dropping from the usual harsh and intense tone to one she barely recognized.

“Tabby, you’re not allowed to play outside by yourself, now are you?”

“No…no father, I’m sorry.”

“It’s your fault your sister's dead. You know that right, Tabby? You let her take your punishment; you let her sit in the shack for you.”

“Celine…it’s my fault…my fault that Celine died?”

Tabitha hadn’t thought about her sister in years. The night her parents threw her in the shack, Tabitha and her sister had decided to stay up late. They’d been sent to bed at their usual time, she remembered that. Her parents always had them in bed right after dinner, perhaps as early as 7pm on most nights. That night, though, Tabitha had proposed they sneak out and play. It had been a simple plan, just two little girls playing with their dolls or something. Nothing malicious or dangerous about it; just two sisters playing together. Normally it took either of the Shaw sisters hours to fall asleep anyway. The combination of stress, fear and the earliness of their bedtime meant that sleep never came quickly. Celine had been hesitant though, as both girls knew that the punishment could be severe, but Tabitha had convinced her. It was just some harmless fun after all.

Of course, they’d been caught almost right away. Both parents were light sleepers, and they ran that house like a prison anyway, always on guard for the slightest infraction of the rules. Tabitha and Celine had been out in the living room, a massive error in judgement on their parts, as that room was largely forbidden to them even during the daylight hours. Both girls had heard the creak of the floorboards as their parents awoke to investigate whatever noises the girls were making that’d woken them up. Tabitha had mouthed the word “run” to her sister, and immediately bolted towards the stairs. Celine, however, froze, terrified to evade her parent’s oncoming wrath. Perhaps she’d believed that simply taking the punishment would be better than trying to run and hide and face possible worse anger. Either way, she’d been caught, and Tabitha had not. From her bedroom, Tabitha could hear her mother and father’s disapproving questions as they pelted Celine with accusations as to why she was out of bed. Celine never reported her sister’s involvement; she simply told her parents that she’d decided to come down for a drink of water. For her efforts, she was shown no mercy.

Celine had been thrown into the shack. Her parents told her that if she didn’t want to sleep, that they would be happy to arrange that. Over the next week, they worked in tandem to keep their daughter awake. Her father ran lights around the shack, and using a gas powered generator, kept them going around the clock, blasting harsh, unforgiving brightness through all the cracks in the walls of the small wooden structure. Every hour or so, he or his wife would go out and beat pots and pans around the shack, or run a water hose through the small moon shaped window and douse their daughter in cold water. Paper and wood were burned in the hole beneath the shack, filling the place with smoke and heat. Through all of this, Tabitha had no choice but to sit and watch. When the generator would run out of gas, she could sometimes hear her sister’s pleas from within, begging to be forgiven, begging to be allowed to sleep or rest or just come in from the horrid confines of the outhouse. All of her begging fell on deaf ears, and when a week went by and her parents finally decided that it was time to free their daughter from the hell that they imposed on her, they’d found Celine Shaw’s corpse instead of their child.

Tabitha never knew exactly what killed her sister. It was likely a combination of things, the constant emotional torture, the lack of sleep, the lack of food and water or the smoke inhalation. Or, perhaps she’d just been a young girl, barely a teenager that had been put through a lifetime of tortures and terrors the likes of a POW camp. Celine had tried to hang on, but in the Shaw house, everything was eventually a matter of the shack. If the shack allowed you to leave, you got to suffer another week or two before her parents found a reason to put you back in there. This time around, the shack had decided that Celine Shaw had lived long enough.

“That was your fault, Tabby. You know that, right? You told your sister to stay up and play even though she told you it was against the rules. You didn’t care though, did you? You wanted to break the rules and left your sister to take the blame.”

Tabitha looked down at her boots for a moment. “I’m sorry, Celine, sorry that I left you there. I was weak back then, just a weak, scared little girl. But I got them back for you, I promise you that.”

“What was that, Tabby? Are you talking back again? Have you still not learned your lessons? Maybe you need some time in the shack now, is that what I am hearing from you? Perhaps a week or two in there to help you focus in on the rules and this house?”

Tabitha ignored this, and instead placed her mind in a better place. She had paid her parents back, with a little help from a friend.

Celine had been buried in the family plot, a small cemetery located a dozen or so miles from the Shaw farm. No one asked questions either. This was backwoods Montana after all; where a family’s personal business was just that. There were no police to come out and ask why or how their teenage daughter had died. When her father told the sheriff and the coroner that they’d just found her dead, they were believed. Perhaps if that sheriff had done his duty, brought Tabitha to a safe place and questioned her alone, promised to remove her from her parent’s custody, perhaps then things would have gone differently. However, there had never been any questions. All the local authority believed exactly what Herman and Doris Shaw told them, that they’d simply found their daughter dead in the remains of their old outhouse. She was buried; her parents did not mourn. They returned home and Tabitha was placed immediately in the shack.

“You had to learn your place, Tabby.”

“Why did you put me in the shack after the funeral, father? What offense had I committed?”

“You were born, Tabby. Born wild. Your mother and I could always see it. You needed to be broken.”

They failed to break her, though. Tabitha spent days in the shack after Celine was buried, for reasons never given. Perhaps her parents simply hoped that she would die in there too, and then they could be rid of both of their children. Tabitha didn’t come back from the funeral the same way she left to attend it. She was colder now. With Celine gone, she had nothing to protect, nothing to concern herself with. It was just her and her evil parents out there in the middle of nowhere. The sheriff had proven that no laws existed here, not for Tabitha or Celine. There was no protection for her, and slowly, Tabitha began to realize the other side of that coin. If there was no protection for Tabitha Shaw, there would be no protection from Tabitha Shaw. She went into the shack almost smiling.

During her time in there, she focused her hatred. Her parents were monsters; they’d killed her sister, her only friend. They didn’t feel remorse or guilt for their actions either. They blamed Celine for her own death, or perhaps they blamed Tabitha; either way, she didn’t care anymore. As the heat baked her inside of the small structure, she allowed her mind to melt and warp, to go into scary and forbidden places. They contemplated murder. She wanted to see her parents suffer as she and Celine had for so many years. She abandoned the shallow love that she’d always been told God or Jesus or whoever the fuck bestowed on her. There was no God out here at the Shaw farm. There was only the shack, and it was a cruel and unforgiving god if ever there were one. She felt her restraints pop one by one. Before Celine’s death, she’d been afraid to even think bad thoughts towards her parents. Now, however, now she found herself practically bathing in them. She wanted out of the shack for no other reason than to get her revenge, and to enjoy every second of it.

It was on the 5th night, as she lay inside the shack, half dead from thirst, crippled from hunger and heat, when a midnight visitor came to the Shaw property. She had been lying there one moment, falling in and out of sleep, exploring this new hatred and allowing that to provide her with nourishment, when she suddenly felt the presence of another in the tiny confines of the shack.

“My, oh my, I do declare darling, this place is rather foul!” a voice, well-mannered and rich with southern charm suddenly exclaimed.

Tabitha lifted her head weakly, her eyes still bleary from the lack of food and water, and the constant stench of what lied under the building, and observed a short, bald man wearing an expensive looking white suit leaning against the inside door. He was fanning himself vigorously.

“Who…who are you?”

“Ah yes, of course, my dear. How rude of me to just start wagging this old tongue of mine without first properly introducing myself. I do say, sometimes I think I should be taken out back and beaten for my lack of manners. My name is Thaddeus Pinkerton, Mr. Pinkerton to most, but Mr. Pinky to my friends. I certainly do hope that you will call me Mr. Pinky.”

“Why…are you here? Are you a friend of my father's?”

“That brute of a man that would put such a delicate and precious flower as you in a place like this? Why, I would sooner be friends with Ol’ Scratch himself then call your daddy a pal of mine. No ma’am, he is no compatriot of Mr. Pinky’s- quite the opposite really. I am here to meet you.”

“Why… have you come to see me?”

“Because my dear, Miss Shaw, you are finally ready, I do believe.”

“You know my name?”

“Of course, my flower; I’ve known your name for a long time. I must ask you to forgive me for not making myself known sooner, but I had to wait until you were ready, and tonight, Miss Shaw, I do believe you are.”

“Ready for what…” she’d asked, before falling into a nasty coughing fit.

“One thing at a time, Miss Shaw, one thing at a time. You’re in some nasty shape right now, being left out here in this… well, latrine, if you will. Is there anything I can get for you that might alleviate your discomforts?”

“Water… please…”

Pinkerton feigned shock, smacking himself comically upon his forehead. “Of course water! How daft of me to not notice that. Why I do believe my old school teacher should come on down here right now and slap the dunce cap right on my bald head. You have been out here in this, this disgusting little prison for days now, and I bet your parents have not been taking care of your basics, now have they?”

As Pinkerton spoke, he reached into his suit coat and produced, from essentially thin air, a tall, icy glass of water. Tabitha had no idea where it had come from, but her mouth puckered with fierce want upon seeing it.

“Here you are, Miss Shaw. Water, H2O, the very substance that flowed together from those two mighty rivers to form the basis of life. The same substance that flows on down the muddy Mississippi. Drink up my dear, drink and feel refreshed.”

Tabitha drank down the cold, delicious water without hesitation. It was perfect. The perfect temperature, cold and refreshing but not so frigid that she had to take it in small sips, and it worked its magic quite quickly. From that one glass she felt her strength come back, but more importantly, she felt her mind repair itself. The stress, fear and terror, even the rage, all settled, all centered into a perfect package in the heart of her being. She felt in control.

“That water comes from a place called Delphia. Welled from a source as old as the world we live upon. Blessed by Hyraaq Tobit himself and brought right here to this little farm in the boonies, just for you, Miss Shaw. Do enjoy.”

Tabitha was amazed to find herself smiling as she sat up and took in the small, portly man who’d appeared from thin air and likely saved her life.

“Are you an angel, Mr. Pinky?”

Pinkerton laughed long and hard at that, filling the dark and vile chamber with a life and joy that had never existed anywhere on the Shaw farm. Looking at his unadulterated joy, Tabitha, despite all she’d been through, couldn’t help but join in. She’d not had a real laugh in perhaps her entire life, and this was a moment she’d savor forever.

When Pinkerton finally settled, he answered her question. “No, Miss Shaw, I am not an angel, although I suppose I do herald good news for a higher being, much as the angels were said to do. However, I am very much flesh and blood, just like you. The only difference is, I made a choice in my life many years ago, to cast aside such aspects as confinement, rules and consequences. I found a place where I could be happy, and share that happiness with those who shared a like mind- those like you my dear.”

“What do you mean?”

“How old are you Tabitha?”


“And let me ask you this- what do you think most 14 year old girls across the United States, hell, across the world, are doing right this moment?”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t have any friends; my parents won’t allow it.”

“Well, allow me to inform you then. While I cannot tell you exactly what they are doing, I can most certainly tell you what they aren’t doing, and that is being locked in a shit-house, excuse my language, for days at a time, for the crime of having a sister pass away. That much I can assure you.”

Tabitha watched in awe as Pinkerton slowly developed a strength to his voice. As he continued on, he began to resemble a small town preacher, working his way towards the big finish to a sermon.

“Miss Shaw, your parents are not natural. THIS, is not natural. One does not take such a beauty as yourself, a young girl with all the promise and intelligence in the world, and seal her away in a shack that stinks of human excrements. It is not natural to deny your children of food and water, feeding them only terror and consequence. Your parents are freaks, my dear, horrible monsters, broken and rotting on the inside. They have done this to you for too long. I have been waiting for you to finally wake up, to finally let those dark thoughts out of confinement. The thoughts you are having towards your folks in there, THAT is natural, my dear. You are better than this, you are beyond this, and for you to allow it for even one more second, that my dear, is the real crime.”

“I don’t understand any of this. What is it that you’re saying?”

“Quite simple, Miss Shaw; you’ve finally woken up. Those thoughts that you have, punishing your parents for their unforgivable offenses; that is what you must do. I will show you how. I will help you, and when it’s all done, I will take you away from all of this, to a place of wonder and magic, to a place where you can live your life free of those despots in there that you call parents.”

“I… don’t know.”

“Oh, Miss Shaw, imagine, a world where there are no punishments. Squeak your chair all you want, scrape your fork, sing, dance, scream, eat and drink and be merry. There will never be another time when you must fear your actions will bring you to a place like the shack.”

“They’re my parents, though, I… this is all happening so fast, and…”

“Well, Miss Shaw, let me explain it to you this way, because frankly, I am not sure how much longer my refined sensibilities will allow me to stand in this place. If you refuse my offer, I will leave. I will not argue with you, I will not try and convince you any further. I will leave from here, and you, you will still be locked in this outhouse. Your parents will never stop, you should know that. In fact, I am quite certain that they have no intention of freeing you from this place at all. I do believe that their intent is to let you join your sister in the great cloudy beyond. In other words, Miss Shaw, if I turn and leave, you will die in here, gasping for water, stomach shrieking for food, with the stench of your own shit and piss filling your nostrils. That is the deal, Miss Shaw. No more haggle, take it or leave it.”

"And that night, I went with him and never looked back," Tabitha stated to the phantom image of her father standing before her. "But not before we took care of you and mother."

In fact, Tabitha Shaw had taken care of her parents that night. Once Pinkerton freed her from the shack, he ensured that her place was quickly taken in there, by her mother and father. To Tabitha's parents, they found that they were simply compelled to follow their daughter's instructions, physically anyway. When she walked into their bedroom and ordered them to stand up and walk, they did so. Their minds were screaming to understand why and how this was happening, but their bodies simply obeyed. They never saw Pinkerton standing behind their daughter, facilitating all the dark magic needed; they simply felt the confusion and terror as they were bound to follow her every instruction. She ordered them to dress, and to put on their heaviest coats and clothing. Mittens and wool caps were a must, even though the summer heat was well into the 80s that time of year. She ordered them into the night, and marched them towards the shack. Once they were seated inside, she slammed the door without so much as a second glance, and Pinkerton drew a tiny symbol on the door. He told her that would ensure that no one could hear them outside. He promised her that he'd enchanted their clothing in such a way that they could never remove them, and fixed up the shack to where they could not escape. They would die in there, feeling their life sweat and drain from their bodies. Tabitha never felt guilt or remorse about her actions, and as she and Pinkerton walked away from the farmhouse and away from the unheard screams of her parents, she felt free, strong, and swore that she would never again live in fear on anyone or anything.

"And I haven't," she told her father. "I have walked this earth my way, living by my rules with no concern for the likes of you. I will not allow that to change because you've manifested here now, fucker. I let you and my mother cook together in your precious little shack, and as far as I am concerned, that is where you can stay."

Tabitha completed this thought as she continued to march towards the entity of her father, and as she did, she saw him vanish into thin air, as though he'd never stood there. As she stood still, taking in this small victory, she heard another voice speak up from around her, this one a low, deep growl.

"So, you didn't like my illusions, little one?"

She turned and saw something that was no doubt meant to be frightening, but to Tabitha, was closer to hilarious- a fat creature with grey skin, wearing ragged clothing. It had long hair that hung around its shoulders; it had a large bulbous nose and may warts across its disgusting face. Rotten teeth jutted from its mouth, and its eyes were beady and red deep within its sockets. On its head was what appeared to be a small crown. Standing behind the creature were similar looking beings, but smaller. They all held tiny daggers and locked their eyes on her, looking hungry.

"I am Bazbu, King of the Goblins. You have trespassed onto my land, and for your insolence I shall punish you wi-"

Bazbu never even noticed Tabitha drop her hand to her waist, as her movements were far too fast for most to track. Anyone that may have been staring at her right hand at just that moment would have perhaps thought she was scratching her side or just flexing her wrist. Immediately following her almost undetectable flash of movement were two sounds, one a whizzing sound as steel cut through air, the other a loud "thonk" as the knife buried itself into Bazbu's head. His words were stopped, and the large fiend fell backwards, silenced forever.

There was a low mumbling between the dozen or so goblins that had joined their king on this would be ambush mission. They looked nervous, as though their next move was uncertain. Tabitha relieved them of that duty.

"I am your Queen now. Do any of you ugly pieces of shit have a problem with that? If you do, by all means, step forward so that we may solve it!" Tabitha's voice was strong, firm and carried over the quiet of the field. The goblins still appeared to be lost for their next action.

"Well!?!?" she screamed, causing the group of creatures to flinch a bit.

"Queen..." one of them croaked.

"That's right, I am your Queen, and you obey me now!"

"Queen...queen...queen," the creatures all agreed, chanting it slowly at first, and then growing in confidence.

"Good, now gather around, you little shitheads. We have work to do."

Al Versus The Goblins

A while later, Soka, Maria and Al were making their way towards the ferry. They'd spent some time in Al's restaurant dining, with Soka taking a sample of just about anything and everything that she could. She'd never been allowed such an amazing variety of delicious foods, and she was determined to try each and every one of them. Al graciously served, and had Maria not continued to tap her foot and point out the time, they may have very well still been seated. However, the cat had finally convinced the giant reptile that time was of the essence, and they'd locked up shop once more, this time moving in the direction of the ferry landing.

"So, tell me more about this devil-man. Is he evil?" Soka asked.

"They say he likes to riddle and play tricks, that's about all I know of him. I think as long as we don't let Al here answer any of the questions, we should be just fine," Maria answered.

"Hey now, dat ain't at all true now. My ol' mama used to say I was quite da riddlin' fool, back when I was just a little fella'."

"Well, of that she would be half right anyway," Maria responded, causing Soka to giggle loudly.

"When did the darkness take over New Orleans?" Soka inquired, once her giggle died down.

"No one really know dat. Dey say there was a time dat it was da nicest city in da land. People there was just happy folk, going about their business and da likes. Den dey say da darkness spread. Maybe it was da work of dem two witches, what say hold da Maiden hostage. Or maybe it was da goblins, dey might have taken da place over."

"Goblins? Not likely, Albert. Goblins are stupid, and that king of theirs, Bazbu, he's just the fattest of the fools. They lack the leadership or natural intelligence to take over a city. It was likely something else. Some sort of evil that spread slowly, and just became impossible to contain."

"How does evil spread slowly, though? I mean, why didn't anyone stop it?"

"Ya know what my mama used to say, Soka," Al interjected, causing Maria to roll her eyes. "My mama say dat da evil started when you got sad."

"Me?" Soka asked.

"Yeah, you remember when we first met, I bowed down to you, told you dat you sort of made all of dis? Well, dat's how da story go, at least according to my mama. She say dat you used to be happy, and den something happened, something like you got on a boat, and den yo parents get eaten up. I'm sorry to say dat, but dat's da way my mama told me. She say you took a boat ride from home, and den yo parents got eaten."

"I've heard things like that too," Maria added. "However, the way it came to me was that you and your family were kidnapped by an evil man and his friends, and that, well, you were forced to see them hurt. You became sad, and with your sadness came the darkness over New Orleans. Please forgive us, Soka, but that is how the story goes."

"Why did you just now tell me?" she asked.

"Honestly, Soka, I just remembered it. Lots of stuff be like dat since we started walkin' wit you. It like, we didn't remember it, until you spent some time. Dis place strange like dat, full of gri-gri, my dear. Don't tink too much about it, we just gotta get over to N'awlins and help dat Maiden. Den I tink we gonna understand all dis better."

"He's right, as much as I hate to admit it," Maria agreed. "Before you came to my home today, I thought I knew everything about our land, but since we've been walking together, more and more has become clear."

"Like what?" Soka asked.

"Da Maiden! Her name, it be coming to me now! She go by.... Blair... no dat ain't right. Maybe it be Cher? Do dat sound right to you, Maria?"

"Close, but no. I think her name is...." Maria struggled to think, but Soka suddenly had it.

"Clair!" Soka exclaimed, and Al and Maria agreed right away.

"Dat be it alright, Clair. And now dat you say her name, I know we supposed to go and help her. You got some kind of... voodoo or something dat can help her out. I tink it be a magic word, something dat gonna make her understand, and free her from da witches!"

"What happens then, after I help her or whatever?"

"I think you'll just sort of know, although I imagine that Clair has her part to play as well. I think you getting to her is the most important thing, and after that, it will all just sort of work itself out."

"I guess we'll just have to get there and find out."

Al and Maria nodded in agreement, when they suddenly came across a sign.

"Algiers to New Orleans Ferry--100 Feet Ahead"

They rounded a corner of trees and saw directly before them, some distance away, the ferry landing. A grim, drab river ferry sat in the lonely dock. From where they stood, it appeared to be abandoned.

"Is it still running?" Soka wanted to know.

"Oh yeah, child, dat boat run all da time. N'awlins be a hungry city, and dey say dat Pink guy be more den happy to bring people over there. He gotta keep it well stocked I guess, so dem devils over there don't go and run outta stuff to torment."

"Oh...well, I..." Soka stuttered.

"Albert, are you convinced and determined to terrify our guest here all day? Listen, Soka, pay him no mind. Remember, we have to help Clair; she is counting on us. Don't let this lizard scare you off your path. If he had as much brains as he does teeth, we'd be just fine."

Maria was still scolding Al when they heard something moving from the trees behind them.

"What be dat?" Al stammered.

"How should I know?" Maria responded, and proceeded to call out into the woods. "You there, whoever is so rude as to hide in the bushes and peek in on our conversation, either show yourself or return to where you came!"

"Maria, calm down, you don't know what be out there in dem woods waitin' to come out and-"

Whatever was waiting out there in the woods decided to lay all questions to bed, and the rustling turned into footsteps as about a dozen hideous little creatures stepped forward, all holding small knives and pointing them in a threatening manner towards the trio of travelers.

“Is that… Is that a police officer?” Maria gasped.

Soka was taken in shock as the goblins marched out, propping up the body of the dead bulldog cop. They were working his legs and holding him in a terrifying mockery of walking. The message carved into his forehead was impossible to miss.

“Oh God no…” Soka gasped in terror, reading the message that was sliced into his face. “I… can’t hide, something is after me…. Oh God…”

The goblins all laughed in a menacing little noise that sounded far more evil than jovial, and rattled the officer’s body about, even swinging his right arm up to his forehead in a mock salute. Soka was almost too terrified to move.

"Get behind me, both of you," Al demanded gruffly.

"Now just a moment, Albert, at the very least let us-" Maria was cut off.

"Maria, for once in yo life, still dat devil's tongue and do as I say. Shut up and get behind me!"

She didn't require any further instruction.

"What are they?" Soka asked meekly.

"Goblins, and dey ain't here for nothing other den bad news and bad intentions. Listen to yo Uncle Al and stay put right there at my back. If you can't see my tail, den you standing in da wrong spot. Dat goes fo you too, Maria- you ain't gonna say nuttin' to these tings dat's gonna solve dis. Just let me take care of it."

Al turned his attention to the goblins now. "We be peaceful travelers, just tryin' to get to da ferry! If you leave us be, we leave you be!"

The goblins took no heed of Al's kind offer, but instead charged the giant alligator, knives swinging. Al took a defensive stance, getting down on all fours and looking far more like a real alligator. He bore his teeth, and revealed the predator that lived beneath his charming and innocent exterior.

Two goblins advanced first, charging in with no regard for tactics or strategy. Al raised his enormous maw and revealed his upper and lower row of razor sharp teeth. The first of the two goblins attempted to side step his huge mouth, but Al showed great speed and dexterity by grabbing the goblin with his left hand, which was hooked into a deadly claw and pulling the small creature into the range of his deadly mouth. With uncanny speed, he chomped down once, cutting the small attacker in half. The second goblin, seemingly unimpressed by this quick dismemberment, attempted to leap over Al’s jaws and right towards his face. The alligator raised his head slightly and opened wide, catching the small fiend perfectly on the descent, and with another fast and deadly bite, took the second assailant in a single stroke.

Three more goblins attempted a similar attack style, and just as the two before them, fell quickly to Al’s deadly bites, leaving seven evil little bastards still on their feet.

“Fine job, Albert!” cheered Maria. Soka, who was far less relaxed around such gore, simply stared in awe struck silence, too shocked to cheer.

“Okay now, fellas, ya dun seen what I can do, so why don’t da rest of you just pack it on up and head back home!” Al shouted at the remaining goblins. For a moment they almost seemed to consider his offer. Certainly it looked better than the option their five fallen compatriots had taken. However, common sense is not common, and the goblins decided to continue to roll the dice.

“For the Queen!” one of the goblins shouted, and suddenly, Al found himself being charged by the entire remaining group. His head thrashed about, trying to take a chunk out of any or all of them. However, the goblins seemed to have devised a workable strategy. Four of them focused at Al’s face, taking quick swipes with their knives as the alligator continued to thrash back at them. The other three goblins continued to try and work their way around to his rear, either to attack there or perhaps make a move towards Soka or Maria. This caused Al to constantly back up, trying to divide his attention into too many different avenues. He hung in there for a good clip, but soon enough they began to overwhelm him. One of the goblins slashed a cut across his snout, causing the large gator to lose focus on the ones attacking him from the sides. The goblins on the right and left of him worked to deliver gashes to his softer parts, working double time to try and reach his belly. He managed to catch one of them in his right hand, and briefly stood up to gain leverage. He brought the goblin down hard to the earth, smashing its head. The goblin was dead, but Al’s gambit cost him, as he’d exposed his soft stomach one too many times. A goblin was able to land a sharp stab there. Nothing bad, at least from what Soka could tell, but it caused Al yet another distraction, giving the remaining monsters more chances to slash and cut.

“He’s in trouble!” Maria gasped.

“We have to help him!” Soka shouted.

“Don’t… don’t cha get involved in dis, let me handle dis!” Al replied to them, sounding ragged and exhausted.

Al charged forward, taking the two goblins directly in front of him by surprise. He was able to catch one in his jaws, ending the fiend’s life. The other nimbly stepped aside, swinging his small blade as he smiled with sick glee. The other goblins continued to work their blades upon Al’s hide. His scales gave him a degree of protection, but tough or not, they were still his flesh, and he felt each and every sharp glance of metal on scale.

Soka observed all of this in dawning horror. Al was losing badly. While it may appear that he was holding his own, she knew quite well that it was only a matter of time before they wore him down and began to do real damage. She knew that she had to help him, but wasn’t quite sure how. In the meantime, Al was slowing down badly. He swung his arms out and pushed back one of the goblins, but that only bought him a moment’s relief. A split second later, the tiny brute was back, stabbing away. He swung his tail around and was able to knock one of the goblins to the ground. Wasting no time, he brought his large head around and clamped onto the beastie’s stomach, tearing it open.

“Four left…” Soka thought, but those four were the tough ones. They’d been watching Al’s movements, and they didn’t appear to make any further mistakes. One of them managed to land another stab towards his vulnerable stomach, causing Al to cry out in pain. The rest of the goblins didn’t miss a beat, and redoubled their efforts again him.

“You two run, I hold dem off, you two get to da ferry, get to N’awlins and help Clair!”

“No, we won’t leave you! You may be an idiot, but you’re the bravest idiot I’ve ever met!” Maria shouted back, and looked around for something to use as a weapon. She saw many small rocks, but nothing that a lady such as herself could convert into an effective tool.

“I, I can’t find anything! Soka, I want to help him, but I don’t see anything to defend myself with!” Maria shouted.

Soka watched the fight, and suddenly it occurred to her. Maria said she couldn’t find anything to defend herself with, and that might be true, but perhaps that wasn’t the answer here at all. Soka thought about what Al had told her earlier, that she made all of this. She didn’t understand back then, and honestly she still didn’t really understand it all now, but she thought that perhaps there was something that she could do. Maria’s words continued to echo to her…defend…defend, yes, if only she could help defend him.

She stared hard at Al, focusing all of her mental energy upon him. He needed defense, something that would hold back the knives. She worked hard to clear her mind, which was a true feat considering all the shouting and noise from the battle going on. However, something told her that it could be done, that if she worked hard enough, concentrated with all of her might, that she just might be able to help.

While Soka focused and Maria continued to scramble about for some sort of weapon, Al was having a bad time indeed. He was physically spent, and these damned goblins seemed to have limitless energy. They’d found a way to evade his mouth, and every time he took a chance and tried to lash out at one of them, another would simply run in with a quick attack. Al knew that they had yet to cause any major injuries, but he could also feel himself slowing down, and he knew that when that happened, he’d be done. Just as this thought passed through his mind, he felt a sharp pain shoot across his body. He jerked his eyes in that direction long enough to see that one of the goblins had managed to jump onto his back. The little freak was riding him, and slashing away at his back and right side as he did. For the first time, he noticed the warm fluid trickling down his side, and realized that the goblin on his back had managed to cut through his scales. He winced in pain, and soon felt another goblin upon him. This one jumped on his back and worked its way up to the back of his head. It was reaching down with its knife, trying to stab him in the eyes. In a last ditch effort to protect his belly, Al dropped completely to the ground, tucking his legs up. He only had his arms to work with now, but the goblins seemed to have learned just where to stand to evade everything.

Al lay down and closed his eyes, whispering, “I’m so sorry, Lady Soka, and Maria too. I failed ya. I guess I was just a useless ol’ gator after all.”

He waited for the goblins to finish up, and hoped that whatever waited in the next life was as beautiful and wondrous as his mother had always told him.

After a moment or two though, he noticed that the pain stopped. He could still hear the goblins screaming their horrid battle cries, but instead of feeling the jabs and stabs of their knives, he now heard metallic clanks followed by grunts of frustration from his attackers.

“I did it! Look, Maria, I did it! I really did it!” he heard Soka shouting in glee.

“Oh my, Soka, you did! Well done!” the cat agreed.

Al slowly opened his eyes to see that the goblins had stepped back, confused and unsure of what to do. The two that had been on his back had regrouped with the rest, and they were standing in front of him, in a state of shock. Al risked looking a bit further, and to his astonishment, found that he was wearing a suit of full plate steel armor. He quickly rose to his feet, causing the four goblins to nervously step back, confusion dominating their faces.

Al found that not only was his body protected in a shining steel suit, but so was his tail. His arms were now adorned with metal gauntlets, and even his long snout had a fine layer of steel over it.

“How dis happen?” he mumbled.

“I did it!” Soka announced with pride. “I just pictured you wearing it, focused really hard, and it appeared on your body!”

“Well, I’ll be! You really is da Lady Soka! You really is something special!”

“Then don’t waste her gifts by flapping your ever loving lips Albert- finish them off!” Maria ordered.

“Wit pleasure!”

The remaining goblins charged Al one last time, but now even his belly was plated, and their tiny knives never had a chance. The four remaining goblins were dealt with quickly, and when it was all over, Al collapsed in a joyous exhaustion.

The armor vanished, leaving Soka and her new friends alone in the field, with their cheers of joy spreading a rare sense of happiness over this desolate part of the land.

“Oh tank you, tank you beaucoup, Lady Soka. My mama dun always told me dat you was something special, and you dun proved that tenfold by saving my old scales today. Tank you, oh tank you so much!” Al exclaimed.

Maria and Soka helped him back to his feet. “How did you do dat, wit da armor and all?”

“Honestly, I don’t really know. I sort of had an idea that it’s what you needed, though, and something inside of me just told me to make it happen. I concentrated really hard, and it just appeared on your body. I can’t believe it worked. I am so happy you’re safe though, Uncle Al. I was really worried.”

“Agreed, Albert. You may not be the easiest of creatures to coexist with, but I do prefer a world where you’re still alive. Let’s not be so foolish as to rush headfirst into a battle of 12 on 1 again, shall we?” Maria scolded.

“Okay, dat’s a deal. Dem little boogers were a lot worse den I thought they was gonna be.”

“Well, we can discuss it all on the boat. Come on, let’s get on the ferry!” Soka stated firmly, and the three travelers began to walk towards the landing.

“Wait, shouldn’t we bury that police officer or something?” Soka asked.

“No time, my dear,” Al replied. “I know it be wrong to just leave him like dat, but if we wait around out here in da badlands like dis, we likely to join him.”

“Albert is right. Listen, Soka, we will give him a proper funeral when we return, I promise,” Maria added.

Soka walked over to him and knelt beside his body anyway. She said some words and clapped her hands once, showing a sign of respect. Tears were running down her cheeks, but she was not in a state of panic.

“Let’s go, sweetheart; we shouldn’t waste no more time out here den when have to,” Al called, and Soka stood up and followed. She promised that she would return and give him a proper burial.

From behind the cover of the tree-line, Tabitha nodded her head in confidence. “Excellent work, little Soka. You are starting to understand your gift. Let’s just hope that you play nice during the rest of your little journey. I would love to bring you home alive, but I promise nothing, other than the fact that you won’t be warning Clair of shit.”

Tabitha followed them at a safe distance, also intending to catch the ferry to New Orleans.

The Ferry

Boarding the ferry was simple enough. A ramp led up the deck of the boat, and as far as Soka and the others could tell, there was no one there to charge a ticket price. They simply walked up and were on the boat. There was a series of benches and a small enclosed area up top, but other than that, there really wasn’t anything to see on the ferry. They sat down near the enclosed area and waited for the boat to start moving.

“Those goblins, I’ve never seen them venture this far out from their normal dwelling place,” Maria commented to Al.

“Yeah, dat was strange. Normally dey stay in their little corner of da world and don’t mess wit people.”

“And did you hear what they were saying, that they have a queen now? That was really strange. As long as I’ve known of them, they’ve always been followers of Bazbu, their King,” the cat replied.

“Any ideas, Soka?” Al asked.

Soka strained to think. Things had been slowly dawning on her as she neared the city, but as for the goblins and their new found mistress, she had no real ideas.

“I remember a very evil woman from somewhere that seems very long ago. She was always hunting for me, but I can’t quite place her name right now,” Soka answered.

“Well, something got all those goblins riled up; they were far more aggressive than I’ve ever heard of their type being. I think we should consider that someone has been enhancing them. Getting their blood hot, if you follow,” Maria concluded.

Before either Al or Soka could weigh in on Maria’s hypothesis, the ferry ramp began to slide up, seemingly on a mechanical system. A horn blew from somewhere deep within the inner workings of the boat. It had a deep, broken sound, as though part of its systems had died a long time ago, and no one had taken the time to repair it.

“I think we’re about to embark. That’s good. The trip over the river is very short. We should be in New Orleans in no time at all.”

“Den we gotta be really on our guard. Remember, bad tings be over there.”

“Yes, Albert, we get it.”

Slowly, the ferry began to push out into the murky waters of the Mississippi River. In the distance, behind a layer of fog that could either be natural or pollution, tall buildings could be seen. New Orleans.

As the boat began its journey, Soka almost forgot about Thaddeus the Pink. They’d had no encounter with him, and she almost allowed herself to believe they’d make the trip in peace, until a shrill voice rang out over the silent deck of the ship.

“Welcome aboard!” announced the horrid voice.

Soka and her companions turned their heads quickly, and saw, standing in the door of the enclosed area, the man known as Thaddeus the Pink. He was tall, but almost unnaturally skinny. He wore a long black raincoat that hung almost down to this booted feet. His head was bald, and his skin was in fact a hue of pink, like the eyes of a white rabbit. However, what really made him stand out was his extremely long jaw. It hung straight down, and went past his collar bone. His eyes were small, and sat deep within their sockets. He had a wicked grin on his face, which looked far more evil than welcoming. His skin was wrinkled and aged, but he gave out a sense of power and wickedness that portrayed an almost playful youth.

“Thaddeus the Pink,” Maria whispered to the others.

“Yes, oh yes, that is me, and you are you. Welcome to my ship, which, should you play well with me and win my games, will take you to the cursed City of New Orleans. However, should you falter, I may have to find other uses for you. After all, my boat needs fuel.”

“What do you want wit us, you hoodoo man?” Al demanded.

“The same thing I ask for from all of my passengers, just a simple conversation. Nothing hard about that, right? We’ll have a nice light chat about life in general, and should you find that you understand things by the time we reach the other dock, then you will be allowed off the boat and can continue along with your journey. But be warned, should you find yourself vexed, you may not ever be able to leave this wonderful little boat of mine.”

“Oh, so he want to talk about nuttin’ and everyting all at once, I see. Well den, Maria, dat be yo specialty all day. Go on ahead den and chat wit da man,” Al remarked. “By da time he get done listenin’ to you, I bet he’ll be happy to let us off his boat.”

“Albert, your charm is matched only by your wits, do you know that?”

“Maria, be careful, I think he’s going to try and trick you,” Soka warned.

“Pish-posh, Soka. He’s full of hot air just like our friend Albert here. I’ve spent so much time hearing what a scary devil he is, but seeing him up close, I am confident that I can match and master him in any game of words,” Maria replied with confidence.

“Ohhh, very nice indeed, Miss Cat. I am happy to hear that you are one for the gift of gab. I licked the ol’ Blarney Stone myself, you know, so let us waste no more time. Let us chat and get to be the best of friends,” Thaddeus stated.

“Very well then, Thaddeus, feel free to start us off. I do love a good chat; just wish we had some tea and biscuits.”

Thaddeus smiled, showing a mouth full of sharp little teeth. Combined with his beady eyes, it made him look like some sort of horrible predator. Soka felt herself shiver at the sight of him.

“Miss Cat, I’ll keep this first one easy and breezy. Tell me, why do you venture to New Orleans?”

“That is simple; we go to find the Maiden of Knowledge, Clair. She is in danger, and Lady Soka here is said to be able to provide her with the assistance that she will need.”

“I see, and do tell, how did she wind up in such danger?”

“No one knows for certain, but it is told that she is the captive of evil witches that hold her against her will. She requires some sort of magic word, at least that’s what we believe, in order to be set free. It has been told that Soka here will provide that word.”

“Magic word you say? My, what a time we live. So, Miss Cat, does Soka know this magic word?”

“She is learning as we go; that is the nature of this quest, Thaddeus. We are confident that she will realize what she must do when we arrive.”

“And if this is all a waste of time? What would you say to that, Miss Cat? What would you say if you were to find out that all of this had just been one disaster mission that she dragged you and that idiot alligator on? What if Clair is already dead? What if the witches have killed her? What then? You get to New Orleans and become trapped in that vile place, filled with demons and devils, things that eat your flesh from your bones. How will it feel to know that you left the safety and peace of your life to travel into such a nasty place as New Orleans, all to find that the very mission you’ve been sent on was doomed from the start?”

“Thaddeus, do us a favor, darling, and choose just one of your brilliant questions, please. You are starting to ramble, dear, and we just started our discussion. Be careful or you’ll run out of fuel faster than your boat.”

Thaddeus’s face twisted in apparent annoyance at Maria’s response. For just a moment, he looked ancient, and far more evil than he had when he first introduced himself. Soka tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, “Don’t provoke him too much, Maria, and remember he’s full of tricks.”

“Oh, darling, he’s full of hot air is what he is. He looks scary and I think that’s what he uses to throw his passengers off guard. Worry not for me; this guy is a softy, asking a lot of rhetorical nonsense to try and get under my fur. Just let me handle him,” she assured Soka.

“Miss Cat, at your request, I will make my question simpler for you. What will you do should you get to New Orleans and find that Clair is already dead?”

“Well, Thaddeus, I suppose I will be overjoyed that I’ll get to enjoy a return trip with you on your boat. This is a journey, as we have said before, and part of going on a journey is that you experience things as they come. The good and the bad. However, I am confident that Clair is still quite alive. Soka’s arrival in our little town today proves that, as far as I am concerned.”

Thaddeus snickered. “And what of the dangers ahead? Your scaly friend there almost died from fighting a small horde of goblins. What of the real monsters that wait for you in New Orleans? Do you really think you’ll ever survive long enough to even find Clair?”

“Allow me to ask you a question, Thaddeus, if I may?”

“Why certainly, my dear.”

“Where am I?”

Thaddeus seemed almost thrown back by this overly simply question, as though he were searching for a deeper meaning to something so simple. “Why… you’re here, on my ship.”

“Correct, I am. And in that lies the answer to your question. If I believed that this mission was impossible, if I believed that I would never make it two steps in the city across the river, then why am I here in the first place?”

“Because you’re a fool.”

“Insult me all you wish, sir, but that doesn’t answer my question. A fool or a genius still gets out of bed for the same reason, right? To go through the day as best they can and achieve the highest results. So, fool or not, my very being here should tell you the answer to your question.”

“Very well. What should happen then if Soka does not make it? You claim that she knows this secret word that will enlighten Clair, but what if one of the many monsters waiting for you across the river gets to her first? What do you and your green friend expect to accomplish then?”

Maria hesitated for a moment. That was a tough one to answer. Soka was the foretold Lady who would come and set things right. However, she was just a small girl, and that did worry Maria just a bit. She had not thought so far ahead as to what to do should something happen to Soka, and now that the question was on the table, it was difficult to answer.

“Well, then I guess we would just…” she stammered.

“You guess, GUESS? Oh, Miss Cat, guess is a dangerous routine where you’re heading. If you are arming yourself with guesses, then I hate to tell you, but you’re going into a dangerous place with all the wrong equipment,” Thaddeus declared.

“Well, we haven’t even gotten there yet. I can hardly predict what…”

“Oh, we’ve gone from guessing to hardly predicting? Miss Cat, that is even worse. What did you think was going to happen when you got there? Did you think you’d be able to just walk through the city? Did you perhaps think that the denizens waiting for you there would just stand aside and let you pass? What is waiting for you in New Orleans will surely make those goblins look like harmless infants. What awaits you is far worse than you can ever imagine, and now you tell me that you are going in with guesses and half predictions? Miss Cat, you are not ready for what lives over there; you never were!”

Maria was struggling now. She had no witty answer for that; she had no logic or reason to combat him with. The look of distress of her face was apparent. She’d underestimated his ability to get under her skin; she wasn’t ready for the full force of negativity that coated his every word. She was staring forward at him with her eyes wide, but could think of no good response.

Suddenly, the boat horn blared out once more, sounding far more ominous than it had before. From behind Thaddeus the Pink, fire could suddenly be seen, as though the enclosed area on the deck had been lit into flames.

“Do you see that, Miss Cat? That is the fires of this ship, and they hunger for fuel. If you cannot answer such a simple question, if you are so unsure of what awaits, perhaps you and your friends should just climb on in. You know for a fact that you cannot do anything of use in a place like New Orleans; you must know that by now. If you cannot even carry on a simple conversation about life and death, how can you ever hope to face it down in the flesh? No, my dear, I do believe you have lost this, but fear not, I am willing to give you a chance now to be something useful after all. Climb on into my furnace, and be fuel for the ship. At least that way, you can die knowing that you are serving some sort of purpose.”

From the flames, Soka could hear the screams of people crying out. They were the others who’d failed this little test, and she knew in her heart that they would spend the rest of forever burning, so that this monster’s boat could continue its mission across the river.

“Soka, she be in trouble, my dear. She be in real trouble. We gotta help her, we gotta do something,” Al whispered to her.

Soka fully agreed. Maria was certainly in bad shape. They had clearly underestimated Thaddeus and his abilities to not only ask difficult questions, but to also control that conversation with an almost magical ability.

No sooner did Soka think that very thought, then Al nudged her elbow and whispered to her, "I tink he be using some sort of spell, some ol' hoodoo to keep her off her balance. I ain't never seen Maria actin' like dat, so unsho' of what be going on."

It made sense to Soka. Sure, Thaddeus was asking mean and jabbing questions, but nothing so terrible that it should be able to shut someone down. He was mostly just throwing out negative remarks, yet Soka could tell that Maria was all but helpless to continue to argue against him. There was also that fire and horn to be concerned about. Clearly the angle of this game was clear, if Thaddeus continued to vex Maria in such a manner, she, or likely all three of them would, wind up in those flames.

Maria needed help, but the challenge was still present. What exactly could Soka do? She'd been able to give Al armor when he needed it, but this was different. How do you arm someone for a discussion? Soka focused her mind once more, doing her best to aid Maria as she had Al.

"Miss Cat, can you not answer my simple little question?" Thaddeus demanded, his voice growing more oppressive, quite different than the almost pleasant tone he'd began with.

"Of course... I just need time to think. You're not going to outsmart me, I just need.... I need more time to concentrate!" she insisted.

"Awww, does kitty need more time? That's just tough, isn't it? You came on my boat and really thought you could outwit Thaddeus the Pink? I've been doing this for a long time, little kitty, and I promise that you will not be the last. And as far as time goes, take a look over the railing, Miss Cat. As you can see, we're almost there. I guess I'll use you as the fuel for the ride back."

"No... just let me... just let me..." Maria stammered, but it was clear that she had no angles of her own left to play. She began to cry tears down her ebony fur.

"Oh, now she wants to cry. Life is hard there, Miss Cat. Now, let's make this simple, you and your little friends line up and step into the fires in an orderly fashion, and I won't have to get nasty with you."

"No... I, please, not in there..." Maria begged.

"Those are the rules, now shut up and burn!" Thaddeus screamed, and began to walk towards Maria.

Soka realized at that moment that she had the answer. She wasn't sure where it came from or how it got into her head, but she knew exactly how to defeat Thaddeus.

"Maria, don't give up, use the Theory of Two!!!" she screamed to her friend.

As if by shared magic, Maria understood as well exactly what it was, as though it dawned on her as soon as it occurred to Soka. Maria stopped crying almost at once, and locked eyes with Thaddeus. "Ask your question again," she demanded in a firm voice.

The monster laughed and threw his deformed head back into the sky, as though the clouds above him would join in his glee. "Certainly, Miss Cat, we still have a few moments left. Let us bring you to the end of your miserable life with at least a fresh conundrum in your mind."

Thaddeus began to repeat his question about the fate of Soka, but Maria cut him off before he could complete his question. She understood the Theory of Two perfectly. Though she'd never met Dr. Christopher Allens of the Clair Nobles think tank, she understood his little theory on problem solving perfectly, because Soka understood it. And while Soka herself had never met Clair, she'd formed a bond psychically with her, and from that, came this knowledge, right when she needed it.

"There is a simple answer to all of your devious little questions," Maria began, "and it lies with the Theory of Two. No matter what problems or difficulties may present themselves to us, there are always two solutions. So, if Soka should fall in danger while we are in New Orleans, she will either live or die. Should she live, we will continue on our way, should she die, we will mourn our friend, and then continue on our way. If that means Albert and I return to Algiers and resume our lives, so be it. Or perhaps from that comes another option- perhaps we continue on to Clair. Maybe we don't have the magic word to free her, but we can still try our best."

The simple logic of the Theory of Two of course wasn't what was swaying this debate, but rather the confidence that it carried. Thaddeus's spell, if that's what it had been, could not stand against the combined wills of those fighting against evil. Clair, Allens, Baptiste and the rest, those that carved out the Theory of Two and put it into action to find Derrick Reynolds. That was a true power, greater than anything this fiend on a boat could muster.

"Sure, take the simple answer, but what if all three of you find yourselves in grave danger?" Thaddeus fired back, but now he sounded desperate.

"Once again, only one of two options. Either we prevail and become that much stronger, or we die and end our journey. Next question."

"What if I just decide to throw you in the fire now!" Thaddeus screamed, clearly furious that his spell had failed.

"Well, we would fight back, and if we lost, then you'd have your fuel, but if we won, then you'd find yourself burning."

With that, Thaddeus was out of options. He could either try to physically throw all three of them into the fire, or let them safely off of his ship in New Orleans. For a moment he considered both.

"Well, Thaddeus the Pink, are you going to force us in now that you can't hypnotize me, or terrify me with your dark incantations? Will you throw us all in? Perhaps you'll get lucky with one of us, but take a look at Albert back there. Do you really have the spine to toss him in? He did just devour a dozen goblins, so maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe he's tired?"

"Go ahead, little man- come on over here and try to throw me in dat furnace. I got a lot of teeth that say you ain't gonna do nuthing' like dat at all!"

Thaddeus released a low growl, squinting his already tiny eyes into mere dots. "We're here, get off my fucking boat!" he shouted, sounding far more like an angry child than a threatening menace.

The ferry docked quickly, and that mechanical ramp came down to the earth once more. Soka and her friends disembarked, keeping an eye on Thaddeus as they went. They were all tempted to make some sort of parting comment to him, none more than Maria, but they all decided that it was likely best not to provoke him. He was defeated but not dead, and if he was pushed hard enough, he could try something. So, they kept quiet as they walked past and down the ramp. He glowered at them as they passed. Once the three were on the dock and walking away, the evil little man smiled with glee. "They think they won, do they? No one bests Thaddeus the Pink!"

He ran towards the pull chain that activated the horn. He'd let every single monster and beast that roamed that city know that fresh meat had arrived. He reached up and grasped the chain, but before he could pull it, a voice spoke.

"So, she based you off of Mr. Pinkerton, I assume. The name is close, but she fucked up on everything else. You're nothing like Mr. Pinky."

Thaddeus looked up and saw Tabitha Shaw leaning against the wall of the enclosure. "So, a fucking stow-away I see. Well then, I guess I will have that fuel for the return trip after all!"

"Not really," Tabitha said, and flicked her wrist once more in that lightening fast gesture. Two small knives flew forward, and buried themselves perfectly in the ferry captain's knees. He dropped down, clutching his wounds and moaning in agony. It was so pathetic to see this monster reduced to nothing more than a sniveling baby. She wouldn't make him suffer long, but she wanted some information first.

"Normally, you ugly piece of shit, I would sit back and let you have your way with them, but I like to multi-task. Truth is, that little girl has a lot of potential, and she's using it well. See, I might want to recruit her, and if I decide not to, then I want to be the one to kill her. Not you, not one of the fuck-ups that lives in this city- no, me. So, I had to stop you from yanking your little chain there. Now, before we part ways, I need to ask you, where are they holding that Maiden of Knowledge that you were so interested in chatting about earlier?"

"Fuck you, whore, I'll die before--"

Tabitha twisted the daggers that were dug into Thaddeus's knees, causing the deformed freak to cry out in yet another shrill utterance.

"Tell me, tell me where she is. Trust me, asshole, torture is sort of my thing. I have no problem spending a little time with you here. I can introduce you to levels of physical agony that you would have never been able to imagine. Or, you can tell me where Clair is being held. I know you know, because everything in this fucking world is connected, so if these 'witches' know where she is, I bet if you dig real deep, you'll realize that you know where she is too."

"I said fuck you..." Thaddeus groaned.

So, Tabitha kept her word, and did indeed spend some time with Thaddeus the Pink on his boat. She had to pull out a few tricks, but after about half an hour, she had him begging to tell where Clair was. She was able to motivate him to tell it all, and then some. She had to dig out a few tricks that she'd not used in a long time, but she didn't mind. After all, who would have imagined that a corkscrew and a pack of matches could do so much to a man. The ferry never did return to Algiers, as Tabitha ensured that Thaddeus was left in quite a few pieces before parting ways with him.

The Forbidden City of Demons

She found that trailing the three was easy enough. They were moving about, lost, in a city where danger seemed to lurk around every corner. She kept a safe distance behind them, careful not to allow herself to be spotted should one of them decide to turn around too quickly. That idiot alligator talked loud enough to draw attention from anyone and anything, but so far, Tabitha had found the forbidden city that everyone seemed too terrified of to be an easy enough obstacle to traverse. On the surface, it looked much as the real city of New Orleans would look through the eyes of a tourist. The French Quarter seemed to be the majority of the city, as would be the impression of someone who'd never visited. The taller buildings loomed in the distance, but Tabitha believed they would always remain in the distance, no matter how far she walked. This entire world was, after all, just the illusion of a child.

However, she reminded herself that there were in fact real threats here, and kept her guard up. The monsters, such as the goblins, Bazbu and Thaddeus the Pink, were very much physical manifestations powered by the dark energy that ran through nature itself. The familiar places, like towns and cities, were just Soka's way of making sense of this raw energy. One thing, though, that struck Tabitha as strange was Soka's ability to draw directly from Clair. That little bit about the Theory of Two, that wasn't Soka's idea, but rather one she borrowed. If anything, it proved just how powerful a psychic this little girl could potentially become. This forced Tabitha to consider her own Theory of Two. Either she should end the little girl now and ride out the dream, thus taking her skills and gifts away from the Unwashed, or she should continue the idea of testing her mettle with future ambitions to bring her into the Sisters of Tobit. It was actually a difficult choice for her. Should it work out in the end, she'd be praised until the end of time for bringing such a gifted mentalist into Tobit's fold. Should she fail though, should this little message to Clair in fact work and cause even more problems to Pinkerton, it was likely that Tabitha would be held to blame.

She continued to fathom all of this as she followed along, making sure never to let Soka get too far ahead. She'd learned of Clair's location, and was impressed that, so far, Soka seemed to be automatically following the correct path. Was it the psychic link between her and Clair that was guiding her? These were just a few more questions that she'd want to find out before making her final decision.

"You know what to do," a voice whispered inside her head. She wasn't surprised at all to recognize it almost as once.

"You must kill that little girl before she gets to Clair," the voice, clearly her own, spoke once again.

"And why must I do that?" Tabitha asked, apparently to herself.

"Because you know as well as anyone else, Pinkerton wants to cripple the Unwashed. Sure, you might like the idea of having that little girl on your team, but think about it, girly. You spare her and this blows up in your face, who do you think he's going to blame?"

Tabitha turned and saw her doppelganger standing across the street from her. It was wearing a goat mask, and Tabitha realized that this was her own manifestation. One that represented her pure killer side.

"You've dealt with a lot today, girly, having to relive all that shit about your parents and all that crap that you thought was buried so long ago. Maybe it made you soft today; maybe you forgot who you are for a second. Don't worry though; Tabitha; I am here to remind you."

"I'm not soft, you bitch; I'm just playing the long game here. To have her gifts on our team, we'd be unstoppable!"

"Shut up! Would you have put this much effort into Lacy or Lena had they resisted you? Are you going to offer Emily Pert a place on the Sisters? Or how about Clair? Yes or no? Of course not, and you know it. You already know full well that this little girl isn't going to go along with anything you try to sell her on Tobit. She watched her fucking parents eaten alive in Tobit's cathedral. She's been forced to eat human flesh at Pinkerton's little 'Hiya Toby' freak show. That girl hates you, Tabitha; she hates Tobit. Why else would she go through this much effort to protect Clair? You know all of this shit already, girly, so stop pretending that you can save her. Stop pretending that Soka Ito is you, locked in the fucking shack. She's a target, she's a member of the Unwashed. Kill her ass before she gets to Clair. Kill her in this world and her mind will fucking die in Delphia, and that ends it. Then when you wake up, go right over and dispose of her corpse. Just think of the blow that will be to the Unwashed, having their little mascot dead. Fuck girly, you'll win the whole thing just from that alone. Now go put on your big girl panties and go do the job that you're here to do!"

"That bitch makes a good point," Tabitha mumbled to herself, and decided that her goat headed alter-ego was the one giving the best advice after all. Perhaps she was just trying to protect Soka; perhaps she was over thinking the idea of recruiting her into the Unwashed. Now that the odds had been put into words, it did seem like an unlikely task. The little girl would be far too much work. Lacy and Lena had been alone when they were recruited, but Soka had the support of the Unwashed and their mysterious leader. She knew as well that members of that little rebel group were damned hard to break. Timothy Vanburen had been in Madison's little torture cell for months now, and he certainly wasn't appearing to break anytime soon. Tabitha weighed the options one final time, and decided that she was a fool to think Soka would ever be useful as a Sister. She would resist to the end. Instead, she would seize this chance to take out one of the rebellions most valuable members. Even if attacking her caused this world to go haywire, she'd rather ride out the chaotic darkness and return to her own world, than risk failure and return to Delphia with Pinkerton asking why and how she failed at such a simple task.

Tabitha stepped up her pace. The decision was made- Soka Ito would die. Tabitha drew her blade and began to close the distance. She would eliminate them where they stood and so would end the resistance once and for all.

Soka Awakens

Soka and her friends had been commenting on how easy the trip through New Orleans had actually been thus far. For a place that was reputed to be full of devils and the like, they'd yet to see another living creature. Soka was beginning to ponder if there was actually anything over here at all. It was far more likely that just a lot of superstition had been built around the place, nothing more than that. She was just about to inform her companions of that theory when a voice cracked out from behind them.

"Soka, your quest to save Clair Nobles has come to an end, girly. You've done well for such a small and frail little thing, but all good things must end. You, and the rest of your friends in the Unwashed, will fall. Hail Delphia, Hail Tobit!"

Soka whipped around and saw Tabitha Shaw standing in the middle of the intersection. She had a blade in each hand and a malicious smile on her face.

"You.... you're the scary lady..." Soka whimpered.

"You got that right, you little fucker. I am a scary damned lady, and it's time for you to see just how scary I can be!"

"Who is this woman?" Maria asked.

"Big trouble, dat what she is," Al replied.

"Your name is Tabitha, right? Why, why do you want to hurt us?" Soka demanded.

"Well, the long answer is that I hope to gain the favor of the Council and find an appointment there. I want to reshape Delphia in my image. I want to see what Tobit has in store for other worlds. The short answer, I suppose, is that I fucking enjoy it!"

"Just leave us alone!" Soka cried.

"Sorry, girly, can't do that. I thought I might have some use for you, but I had a good talk with a friend and decided that it's best to just be done with you now. So why not make this easy on both of us, and hold still!"

Maria glanced around and found that the demons and devils that she'd heard about were in fact real. She could see them now, peeking out of shop windows, leaning over balconies and standing on roof tops. They were hideous, deformed things, evil and twisted beyond what her mind could understand. A creature with three eyes and a single, twisting horn coming from the top of its head stood on a nearby stoop. Another thing, a short and greasy-looking beast, was leaning against a shop window, licking the glass. From above them, she could suddenly see a terrifying creature flying over. It seemed to have no identifiable face, just long black wings with two burning orange eyes looking down at them. From the sewers and chimneys more and more demons emerged. Each time Soka flinched in fear, more would arrive.

"Looks like the party is starting, Soka. Take a good look. You're surrounded, and trust me, these things are not going to grant you the quick and painless death that I might be willing to give you. They want to hear you scream; I simply want to watch you die!"

"You have to go through me first, you gri-gri woman! Uncle Al ain't gonna let no one hurt Lady Soka!" Al stepped between Soka and Tabitha, his teeth showing as he readied for the fight.

For a moment he thought he saw Tabitha step forward, but then noticed that she was gone. He turned just in time to see the woman standing behind him. She kicked him in the back, hard enough to send him stumbling forward. He attempted to keep his balance, but was put down hard by another kick. Al turned and landed on his back.

"Stay down, asshole. You'll live longer," Tabitha remarked, and turned her attention back to Soka.

"You won't hurt her!" Maria screamed, and stood in front of the little girl.

"You've got to be kidding me, or is it, 'kitten me' in your case?"

Al stirred, catching Tabitha's attention. She turned with blinding speed and planted her boot squarely into his portly belly. "Keep pissing me off and I won't let you live long enough to see your little Lady here die!"

The truth was that Tabitha wanted to leave Al and Maria standing so these demons would have something to feed upon while she escaped. She knew all hell would break loose once Soka was dealt with, but was confident now that she could hide out until the ritual wore off. She just didn't want to be the only living thing standing around when that time came.

Tabitha advanced, once again so quickly that she seemed to move at a blur, and slapped Maria to the ground.

"Soka... I am sorry," Maria whispered, tears once more wetting her onyx fur.

"Any last words, Soka. Anything you want me to tell Emily or Clive before I rip their hearts out back in Delphia?"

"I... please, please don't hurt us--"

"Too late for that, little princess. Now close your eyes and say goodnight!"

Tabitha stepped in and raised her blade. In one quick swipe, she'd end it all. Only, it suddenly wasn't that simple. Try as she might, Tabitha could not bring her arm down. Her eyes went wide as she looked down at the little girl, only to find her smiling.

In that split second, Soka had finally become aware. Tabitha's attack and taunting had done the trick to jog her memory, and the illusions that had surrounded her all day were finally starting to fall apart, one by one. She knew now that she wasn't in New Orleans, but rather in that strange place that existed between minds. She'd traveled this road once before to meet with Clair in her dream, and had succeeded. In waking, she'd forgotten the experience as people are apt to forget their own dreams shortly after dawn. She would most likely forget the majority of this too, but for now, in the present, she knew exactly what was happening and where she was.

"Tabitha Shaw, you will not harm me here; you cannot harm me here."

"What... how, how are you doing this?"

"I think, I think I am starting to understand this. I've been confused this entire time, not sure why I was here or what was going on. But when you mentioned Clive and Emily, Tobit and Delphia, it started to come back to me. I came here to tell Clair exactly what to do in order to escape your agents. And that is exactly what I am going to do."

"No, you cannot stop me; you will not stop me!" Tabitha screamed, but all her rage and panic was in vain, as her body simply refused to obey her brain's commands.

"It's actually rather funny," Soka continued. "Had you not attacked us, I would have likely never figured out what was going on. I've been going around here all day thinking that I was trying to save some Maiden from evil witches, but in fact, I am trying to save Clair from your friends, and it's time to do that now."

Al and Maria looked around, and were astonished to see that the sky had cleared up, and that the demonic horde that has just been closing in on them had all but vanished.

"She dun did it, she dun figured it all out," Al said softly to Maria.

"I knew she would, she always does. Perhaps one day she'll get this down to a science and we won't have to keep showing her around. This was a hectic little day."

"I hope she need us fo'ever, Maria. She is da Lady Soka after all."

"It doesn't matter anyway, you little brat. When I wake up, I'll find you and your fucking friends. I'll rip their fucking throats out, all while you watch, I'll bathe in their blood, your screams will be my music, I'll--"

"Shut up, Tabitha. By the time you wake up, we'll be long gone. The Unwashed has been outsmarting you for a long time."

"No, you won't escape me; no one escapes the Sisters of Tobit!"

As Tabitha screamed her threats, Soka and Maria assisted Al to his feet.

"What about her?" Maria asked. "Can we just leave her there?"

"She won't move, trust me. By the time she wakes up from her ritual, my friends and I in Delphia will be safe; we have lots of hiding places there."

As Soka walked away, Tabitha continued her litany of threats and rage. She sounded a lot less like a cold blooded killer and more like a spoiled child as she continued volley after volley of empty threats. They turned the block and soon her voice faded out altogether. She would remain frozen there on the streets until her own spell wore off, several hours from now.

About 20 minutes later, Soka arrived at the front door of what appeared to be an apartment building. She knew without a doubt that Clair was being held inside. “Well, this is the place. I guess it’s time to see if I can really help Clair,” she said to herself. She was still a little nervous, but that feeling of stress was gone. She felt sure that she’d be able to complete her job here.

“Good luck to you, Lady Soka. Remember, come back here anytime; we’re always ready to help you,” Al stated softly, sounding a bit saddened that it was over.

“Indeed, we will. Be brave in there, sweetheart. Do not let those witches get to you. Stay strong and remember who you are,” Maria agreed.

“Thank you both for all the help. I love you and couldn’t have done this without your help,” Soka replied, feeling tears forming in her eyes. She would miss them when she woke back up. She turned to express this to Al and Maria, but when she looked back, they were gone. She was alone. Al had been her strength and courage, and Maria had been her cunning and intelligence. They were still a part of her, but she felt confident that she could do this on her own now.

Soka turned the doorknob and walked into the small apartment. She saw what she expected, and upon taking a deep breath, felt confident that she’d succeed. She felt hope not just for herself, but for everyone.

Clair Learns the Magic Word

Thousands of miles away, in a tiny rental in New Orleans, Clair Nobles, Derrick Reynolds and Trevor Leary had spent the day with Lacy Suzino and Lena Vasquez. Throughout the day, both Lacy and Lena had pelted the group with question after question.

“How did your fucking big brother get into my hotel room?” Lacy demanded.

“I honestly have no idea, I keep telling you that!” Trevor replied, hoping that he could maintain the lie that he knew Gregory had made a deal with Madison.

“Well, I think you do know. Imagine my surprise when you answered the door here, Trev, and I saw that it was you. You know, honestly me and Lena weren’t even really after you two assholes. You two were always Madison’s play things, not ours.”

“One of the Leary brothers, hard to imagine we’d all wind up in the same room,” Lena said, more to herself than anyone else. “Your family has quite the relationship with Delphia, but I am sure you already know that.”

“Lacy, I’ve already told you everything that I know. I told you in that bar, that I was on a boat ride with my friend Sergio and we crashed in Antarctica. I escaped, that’s really the whole story,” Derrick added.

“I think they’re telling the truth, Lacy. I don’t believe that we’ll find out any big secrets from them. They’re just a group of fools that got too close to the flame,” Lena stated.

During most of the conversation, Clair had been involved. She was a logical woman, and her goal was to try and convince these two psychotics that she was just a researcher, that her findings were well documented, and that she and the others here had no great conspiracy against their Delphia or Tobit or anything else. They just wanted to get back on with their lives. Derrick and Trevor had allowed her to lead this defense, and had done their best to support her.

However, about 10 minutes ago, Clair had become silent. Her head had dropped and her eyes had closed. She’d said nothing since then. Trevor was starting to worry that perhaps Clair had suffered a mental breakdown.

“Well, then I guess it’s about time they get burned,” Lacy said eagerly, and began pointing her knife at the group. “The only real question left is who goes first?”

Derrick and Trevor both tensed when Lacy stepped towards them; however, Clair made no reaction at all.

“How about you, Trevor? You wanna go first? I could pay you back for your brother, square that deal right here and now. He shot me, so I gut you. That sounds about right, wouldn’t you say?” Lacy asked, waving her blade in his face.

She moved down to Derrick next. “Oh, Derrick, I am most certainly saving you for last, so don’t worry. I still owe you for all the shit in the hotel room. You and I are going to finish our date before you die, so don’t feel too bad. At least you’ll die with one last good fuck.”

She finally moved on to Clair, and an evil grin took her face. “No, let’s do this little brainy bitch first. Look at her sitting there- can’t even say shit when she’s about to go to the grave. Clair, I bet you’re the kind of girl that masturbates to episodes of Cosmos, aren’t you? Yeah, your little uppity ass goes first.”

“No, don’t!” Trevor shouted, but Lacy paid no mind.

“Goodbye, Clair Nobles. I hope the Triassic project was worth it all to you.” Lacy raised her knife and prepared for the thrill and rush of the kill.

For the first time in a while, Clair showed signs of life. She looked up at Lacy, and shocked the young woman by smiling. “Sorry to ruin your plans, Lacy, but you’re not killing anyone today,” Clair stated with no fear or hesitation.

“Really, Clair, I’m not? I’m not sure if you didn’t notice the giant fucking knife I’m holding, or maybe the fact that it’s right in front of your face, but guess what, you are most certainly about to die!”

Clair continued to smile, and looked across the room. “I think you’ll find that you’re wrong.”

Clair took in a deep breath, completely unafraid, and spoke Soka’s message, her “magic word” to all in attendance.

Written by K. Banning Kellum
Content is available under CC BY-NC
Published November 22, 2015

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