(I know it’s only one chapter this week, but I had a deadline on a story for an anthology. More next week!)
If you haven’t read the story yet, the best starting point is here.
And what can you do, really, when your quarry runs? You give chase.
I was chasing a white rabbit that was chasing an anthropomorphic pig. Even my weirdest days at the Bureau had been normal compared to this.
And the Shadow Casino only moved the already surreal into the realm of improbability.
I hadn’t recovered my sight as fully as I hoped. Instead, I followed Biggles as he exploded up out of his seat and scrambled toward the stage.Half the time I couldn’t see where I was stepping as we ran only. I trusted to luck and the little white flag of Biggles’ tail, bobbing before me in the darkness like a beacon.
I’ve chased down plenty of creatures over the course of what was an admittedly brief career working for the Bureau. But this chase will always stick out in my mind. We groped and ran our way onto stage and a part a me noted that the flooring was slick under my fingers, with a chilly bite to it as though made of metal rather than wood.
The pig had exited, stage left, and I blundered through felted curtains as though moving through a wall of wings, darkness bludgeoning me with the softest of buffets as I pushed my way through, following the gleam of white that represented my helper.
There was an edge of panic to the singlemindedness of my pursuit. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me in that place if I lost sight of Biggles. Something told me errant humans weren’t particularly welcome in the Shadow Casino. I thought Biggles would probably come after me if we were separated, but how well did I know him, after all? If there really was a traitor in the Consortium, he was as likely to be the one as the next rabbit.
But this wasn’t the time for second guessing. We chased a pink flicker down a corridor whose thick carpet greedily swallowed the sound of our footsteps, the walls lit by silver hands holding torches. I thought I saw one move as we dashed past, but there was no time to examine it.
People scattered as we ran, with exclamations and shouts and sometimes laughter, as though they thought this some sort of party game. A few even tried to join in, ran beside me for a fee steps before they gave up. One dwarf in golden armor lasted two corridors and a stairwell before he or she gave up. A centaur in a sequinned halter-top lasted longer, but not by much.
We came to a fork in the hallway and Biggles waved me right as he went left.
“We shouldn’t split up!” I protested. “How will I ever find you again?”
“We don’t know which way he went, Boss! I’ll catch up to you, no worries.”
And then he was gone and I was on my own, in a supernatural casino I had never visited before, and which I was still having trouble perceiving, plunging down a hallway and up a stairway whose railing shifted under my hand, a troubling sensation like grasping a snake. Up thirteen steps to another landing, swing around and up another thirteen, feeling my breath kick in comfortably as though my body was saying, in a reasonable tone, we should have done this earlier, we’re good at this, and then BAM, I collided with the pig on the landing where he stood, trotters on his knees, bent over and huffing to catch his breath. As I went back, a heel snapped underneath me, giving way. We both went sprawling and I started to bounce back down the stairs that I’d just ascended, but I grabbed for the treads, feeling grit bite into my palms and stopping myself from tumbling. The pig went straight into the opposite wall with a squeal of pain and then he was running again, hooves clattering upward.
“Biggles!” I yelled, but doubted he could hear me. I hauled myself to my feet and took precious seconds to snap the heel off my other shoe, then launched myself after him.
Panic lent him metaphorical wings — who would have thought someone so bulky could move so fast? I came up on another landing and saw the door swinging shut. I dove through it and collided with someone again.
This time it was Biggles. I managed to keep my feet, but he wasn’t so lucky. I outmassed him enough to bounce him off a nearby chair. He was light, as though his bones were hollow as a bird’s. Maybe they were.
“He’s heading for the throne room!” he snapped. “We need to get there before he can ask for sanctuary.”
“Throne Room?” I said. Biggles hadn’t said anything before about a throne room. What sort of creature ran the Shadow Casino? “Ask who for sanctuary?”
Biggles’ throat bobbed as he swallowed. “There are some things in the shadows that today’s nightmares are only drawn from. Like vampires.”
“You mean Dracula? He fell to Jolie last year, in case you hadn’t heard.”
“Worse than that,” he said. “Come on!” And he was off again in an odd hop scuttle that was faster for him than two feet, apparently. My shoes weren’t made for running, but our fleeing Ephemeral was hampered by this form — the stubby legs, the disproportionate body. He ran clumsily, the way a child who’s recently grown runs, unaccustomed to the way his or her limbs move and vanished through a set of double doors.
I burst into the room behind him, diving towards the flash of improbably, fleshy pink representing the pig. I collided with a whuff — for some reason I hadn’t expected him to be so solid.
We tumbled, head over heels, the pig squealing as though I was dragging it off to the slaughterhouse, a high pitched discordance directly in my right ear, setting it to ringing so I could hardly hear the voice that spoke.
“Well, well, well. What have we here?”
I didn’t need Biggles to tell me I’d made a huge mistake. The voice alone did that. It was soft as a snake’s slither, but somehow echoed all the way down my bones in a manner my ancestors might have recognized, huddled around a fire and hearing that soft sibilance out there in the dark.
The pig and I pulled apart and he retreated into a small and sobbing bundle. “Sanctuary!” he gasped. “I seek your protection, mighty Lord, Lady.”
I could see clearly now. I wished I couldn’t.
“Lord, Lady,” the pig had said, and that might have been the best way to describe the figure. Its left half was a beautiful blonde man, his single eye the blue of late spring sky. The other half was midnight haired, female, equally beautiful. Their clothing carried out the illusion of two images spliced together; he wore dark silk, and her armor was silver.
I had an inkling who this might be. A figure that had fascinated many of my classmates and terrified others. One of the most argued about Supernaturals, maybe up there only next to God himself.
I sprawled in Death’s court, with a sobbing pig at my feet, and a white rabbit my only ally.
Death gestured, and someone helped me to my feet. I didn’t even see who it was. I couldn’t take my attention from him/her. I didn’t know that anyone — any human, at least — had ever come this close.
Well, without actually dying, that is.
Which still seemed within the realm of possibility.
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