ANNIE VANDERMEER : Designer / Writer / Narrative

(a.k.a. Murderblonde)

Parlor Tricks

The bonfire at the center of the clearing suddenly roared to life, snapping and hissing with green and golden flames. Gwen gasped and stumbled roughly into a nearby oak, coughing as an acrid, garlic-like odor filled the air, her eyes watering from the sudden glare of the flames. Through awkward blinks she saw robed figures step silently out from between the trees at the edge of the circle, black hoods pulled low to hide their features. “So nice of you to join us, Ms. Devries,” a familiar confident tenor greeted her from the opposite end of the circle. “We’d had so hoped you’d come.”

Gwen did her best to affect a cool air of detachment, making a show of brushing bark off of her clothes as her mind raced to form a plan. “Really, Professor? Phosphorous flames? I’d have thought a man of learning would find such parlor tricks tiresome.”

The figure in the most elaborate robes unhooded himself calmly and gave her an indulgent smile, as an uncle inviting his favorite niece for tea. “Now, Ms. Devries,” he chided. “Even you must acknowledge that such tricks do have their place. And I’d never thought that you of all people would look down upon any care placed in presentation.”

“This is hardly a garden party,” Gwen retorted, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as she fumbled with the buckle on her purse. “But I suppose you may have a point. This – assembly – certainly seems to take pomp with quite a bit of seriousness. Would you call yourselves ‘cultists,’ I wonder?” The Professor looked nonplussed at the statement, the warmth in his expression fixing into hard lines like watching a cake settle out of the oven.

“A dismissive word,” he said, an edge in his voice. “We see ourselves as those who share a truth. It is amusing that you speak of pomp and presentation with such dismissal for one who draws from the very marrow of the thing, Ms. Devries. I shouldn’t wonder but that those very clothes you wear were so very carefully selected for your wander out here in the woods. And had you encountered no one, you might have even been sad that such a wardrobe were wasted for it!

“But here is that truth,” the Professor said, his voice growing in volume and his eyes suddenly shining with a frightful light. “The world of Man is but the frills and accoutrements on the hem of a ruined gown. It is a sheen of glittering ice atop a lake of infinite depth. Soon, that ice will crack, and we will all of us plunge into its waters. But those of us who have prepared our minds are the luminaries that cast our eyes into that darkness, and do what little we can to bring those proper few into the world that will be.”

Gwen’s gloved fingers, numbed by the cold, finally managed to flip her purse open, and the Professor immediately looked wary, raising a hand that brought the assembled cultists moving towards her. Quickly she grabbed at a compact, showing it to the group with a shy little smile. “Your little parlor show made my eyes water so, Professor,” she protested. “Can a lady not simply ensure her makeup is in order?”

The Professor snorted disdainfully, but a wave of his hand drew the cultists back to their stations. “Perhaps you are as vain and shallow as you appear, Ms. Devries,” he said drily. “But I think even you can recognize that which is genuine.”

With a sudden motion, the Profession whipped a sheet off a massive form next to him – Had it not

been there until just a moment ago? Gwen wondered suddenly. It can’t be, it’s far too large – and

time became like treacle, extended and dark. The ripples of the sheet pulsed like ocean waves.

The voices of the cultists rose like a tide at the edge of hearing, chanting words she couldn’t make

out. The form beneath roiled, and she could hardly contain a scream – there were hooves, and

goatlike eyes and horns, and seared flesh and charred bone. What it had been had likely already

been ghastly. What is was now – barely alive, wheezing and hideous – was nearly a nightmare

made flesh.

Gwen gasped, leaning back heavily against the tree behind her, and with shaking hands, replaced

her compact in her purse. The Professor laughed mercilessly.

“Yes, put away your cosmetics and your powders, young lady. Cast aside your frills and make

yourself plain to the young of the great Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods! Though

flames and the work of fools and madmen set to ruin its kin, yet this one, the strongest of its lot, this

one survives! And soon, it will be made whole again, to -”

The Professor’s speech was brought to a sudden stupefied halt as Gwen pulled her pistol out of her

purse and pointed it at the wheezing horror, hands shaking but still firm on its grip. The cultists cut

off their chanting with gasps of anger and dismay, some crying out in fear for their ruined creature, but all afraid to move. Gwen steadied herself, doing her best to remember all the things her fiancée had told her about the beings of the Old World. See without seeing them. To try and comprehend is to grow mad. Just point at whatever you think is the center of their mass, and shoot. Shoot, but as soon as you can, RUN.

The Professor’s bark of laughter snapped Gwen out of her reverie, startling her so roughly she nearly dropped her weapon. “My dear, to think – I had you dead wrong!” he laughed. “I’m honestly excited by this turn of events! I wonder, did you match that pistol to your outfit as well? At least your purse, surely!”

“I’ve got a gun pointed at that precious creature of yours, Professor, and yet you laugh?” Gwen scoffed, cursing inwardly that her voice quavered. “It’s as though you brought me out to this drab little gathering purely to ask me to put it out of its misery.”

“I don’t think that’ll happen, my dear,” the Professor replied smoothly, motioning to a pair of cultists on the left side of the circle, who disappeared into the darkness of the thickets behind them. “Not when I have this other guest of honor.”

Gwen opened her mouth to reply but let it fall open in shock as the cultists returned bearing a smaller, struggling figure – and even though they had a bag over their head, Gwen knew their identity at once.

Eleanor!” Gwen cried, and the younger woman gasped as the cultists pulled away the bag from her head, revealing a few fresh bruises on the face of the younger woman. “What have you done to her?!”

“An unfortunate misunderstanding on the behalf of several of my more overeager fellows, I’m afraid,” the Professor said, his tone as lightly apologetic as if she’d been served the wrong tea. “Some people are built with more enthusiasm than sense, as I’m sure you well know. Eleanor here has been our guest for a little while now, although at times she’s gone to quite some lengths to divest herself of our company.”

Run, Gwen!” Eleanor cried, straining at the arms of the cultists who held her fast. “It’s not worth it, please! Just go!

“What do you want with her?” Gwen demanded, hands tight around the grip of her pistol. “Answer me, or by God, I’ll shoot that monster of yours dead ten times over, and the next bullets will be for you!”

The Professor tsked at her. “So gauche, Ms. Devries. I’d have thought you better than that. It should in fact interest you to know that the younger Ms. Devries here has quite the magical talent. Or… were you aware before?” He smirked at Gwen’s pained face. “Surely you had some clue – Guinevere.”

Gwen hissed. “I did not grant you permission to use my given name!”

“Surely you can imagine we’re beyond permissions at this point, Ms. Devries? What an unfortunate modern slur of such a classic name. Is it any wonder you found that medallion at that dig site near Galway? You said it called to you.” Gwen glanced at Eleanor, who sobbed and turned away.

“Our letters – you said –“

“I’m so sorry, sister, I meant to burn them, truly I did!” Eleanor hung her head and wept. “But I was so lonely at Miskatonic University. Even there, I was afraid everyone would think me mad – until I met the Professor –“

“And she told me something rather precious.” The Professor smiled, and revealed a small, leather-bound book – and Gwen let out a pained cry, stumbling and nearly falling to the ground. His book. They have HIS BOOK.

“This lovely little journal – your late fiancée’s, I believe? – placed in her care while you were away, this holds some surprising secrets, as it turns out. Your dear sister confessed to me that on that last dig your fiancée was on, the one where you were meant to join him but fell ill, you were far nearer to death than she had ever let on. In fact” – the Professor’s smile was a shard of glass – “you died.”

The woods suddenly seemed completely devoid of all noise except the echo of Gwen’s heartbeat in her ears and the small, distant noise of her sister sobbing. “That’s… impossible,” she whispered, hardly able to shape the words. “But I’m alive.”

“And such a wonder it is, isn’t it!” the Professor exclaimed, his mirth grating. “A trick within a spell. Some clever thinking on your lovely sister’s part. She scribed your soul – made a copy, in a manner of speaking – and when your original soul was claimed, hey presto! On goes the copy of your soul, good as new, back in your body as if nothing had happened. The sickness flees, Death is tricked, all is well with the world!

 

…except.” The Professor raised his eyebrows theatrically, and Gwen’s rage nearly brought a hail of gunfire cascading into his skull. “A copy needs something to stick it, or that trick doesn’t last. You’d have been striding gaily through the streets of Paris, or sweeping around a ballroom with some young handsome so-and-so, and alas – down you would fall, stone dead. So some glue was found – or perhaps to be more accurate to the metaphor, some thread. And so your dear sister, this lovely Eleanor, sewed her own soul to yours.

“And – unknowingly – to a great and powerful legacy, did you know?” The Professor laughed again, a tendency that seemed to Gwen now a very obvious sign that his sanity was unraveling, as though the beast near him were fraying its very strings. “You should not have lived to your current age, my dear. Though modern tales sanitize her fate to simply living life in a convent, your most famous namesake took her own life. The one before that, torn by wild beasts. Before that, consumed in fire. Retellings each getting it just a bit wrong and just a bit right. Old but simple magic, written in a repeated trick – and easily fooled.”

Gwen slowly lowered her gun. This is insane, she thought. It can’t be real. But there was her sister, weeping, unable to look her in the eyes. There was the Professor, with her lover’s book, smirking and wielding it like a prize. And there was the creature, red wounds and scabrous blackness, wheezing and bleating in what seemed like agony. “What do you want from me?” she whispered at last.

“We did ask Eleanor here very kindly to heal the avatar of our most loved and most feared Shub-Niggurath. She – refused. We took steps to convince her, but I figured out that any attempts we might make to try and – push her into understanding – would be incomplete without the missing piece of the puzzle.” The Professor waggled the book in her direction, as though toasting her. “You."

His chuckle was like the rasp of dry leaves as he continued. “You’re tethered together. Her power can be unleashed if she wishes it, but her will is tied with yours. Simply tell your beloved sister to heal our dear wounded friend here, and the both of you can walk free. None will truly believe you, so we’ve no fear of being found out. And you well know that it’s only a matter of time until, as I said, the thin veneer protecting this flimsy world of Man from the world of the Old Gods cracks asunder, and all is set to rights again. Wouldn’t you rather spend what little time you have left together, attending parties and selecting pretty dresses and hanging on the arms of handsome young bachelors? ” Again that look on his face – the indulgent uncle. “Can we simply not all have what we desire?”

Gwen’s mind whirled. Her face burned hot from the bonfire, but her hands and feet felt like blocks of ice, heavy and insensate. But calling to her from her past was his voice, as if his face was there, his cheek next to hers. To try and comprehend is to grow mad. She raised her head, and took in her surroundings clearly, matter of fact. Shoot – and run.

“A tempting offer,” she signed, pulling herself up, straight and presentable. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.”

Before the Professor could form a retort, Gwen aimed, squeezed her eyes shut, and fired at the small canister sitting next to him – where she knew the phosphorous necessary to cause the bonfire’s pyrotechnics was sitting. With a roar, the canister exploded, sending hissing flames high into the air, and enveloping the Professor, the creature, and several unfortunate cultists nearby in flames. Two more shots took down the other cultists holding Eleanor, and the younger woman yelped in shock as her sister darted across the chaos of the circle and grabbed her hand.

“I do hope you’re wearing sensible shoes, Ella,” said Gwen. “We’ve got to run!

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