Chapter 07: Adventure in the Dancing House

Sensations crashed into me. The beat of the music, the strobing of the lights, the heat rushing off of dancing bodies, the scent of a dozen kinds of alcohol, the furtive movements of those who shrouded their deeds purposefully in darkness: all these flashed across my brain a hundred times a second. What made me different from most people was that I catalogued each sensation, peered at it from every angle, and then filed it away for later. Nicotine, ash, and spices: Puck smokes clove cigarettes. I was not awash in sensation; I drank it in as a connoisseur would a fine wine. Each aroma, every tingle of leather under my fingertips, the whispers of air all around me: I tasted them all, picking them apart as surely as an expert might discern hints of blueberry, tangerine, and chocolate in a pinot noir.

“Oh, my dear detective,” whispered the voice of Moriarty (case file: X; synopsis: death; vulnerability: none) in my ear. “I have missed you. I know you won’t disappoint me.”

My nostrils flared and my pulse beat in time to the throbbing bass. I had a mystery to solve!

But playing Moriarty’s game was not how I would solve it. At chess, Moriarty cannot be beaten. And she only ever plays chess.

Puck (case file: 1FTR71; synopsis: fairy prince of mischief; vulnerability: impulsiveness) the Irish fairy stood next to me, watching me with a grin as he sipped a pint glass filled with what my nostrils described as an eighteen-year Laphroaig single-malt. I smiled back, wrapped my arms around his neck, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. While my hair hid my lips from any prying cameras, I whispered in his ear.

"I'm going to need some chaos in seventeen minutes. You up for it?"

He… one could only call it a cackle. “Oh, what fools these mortals be!” What happened next defied even my senses. There was almost a... ripple, but not in the air. It was as if causality itself had given a little sigh of defeat. I had a premonition that before the night was through, I might wind up looking like an ass.

With a twinkle in his eye, he put a finger on the tip of his nose. "I'm fair delighted ye think so highly of me, but yer a bit young for me. Give ol' Robin fifteen minutes or so t' let something strong impede me good judgment, and we'll see what sort o' mischief we can make together."

He twisted back to the bar and bent over backwards to tilt the bottom of his glass to the ceiling. I half turned, but rush of air across the backs of my calves, beneath the jacket I felt the slap coming at my ass before it had moved more than an inch from his side.

A test. Are you who you say you are? Evade. Send a message.

I slid to the right and locked a thumb out hard. His palm met a manicured thumbnail and he started in surprise and pain, whiskey glass jerking back downward. I whipped my hand around his and grabbed him by the wrist, bringing it up so that his palm faced the ceiling. He’d turned around, mischievous smile a little more rueful as I held his hand up between us. The skin of the palm wasn’t broken, but an angry red arc showed plain what happened to those who would toy with me.

Emphasize.

I slid back toward him, and dipped the index finger of my other hand into his whiskey glass. He watched me as I touched the finger lightly to the base of his wrist, sliding it toward the mark on his palm. As I covered the injury in alcohol, I dug ever so slightly into the wound with my nail.

“I know you have trouble behaving yourself, Puck, and I know I’m an eighteen-year-old girl. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that I suffer fools.”

His eyes glittered at me. “Lass, I suspect they suffer you. I’m going to enjoy ye more than I’d thought I might. You’re every inch who ye mean to be. An’ perhaps more. As fer Robin Goodfellow…”

He stood up fast and pressed his palm hard into my thumbnail, breaking the fragile skin open. He hissed, but it wasn’t a human hiss of pain. It was like a cat, sending a warning.

We stood facing each other for a moment, smiling savagely, and slowly he drew his hand back. A small trickle of blood had welled from it, dribbling down his palm toward his wrist with every heartbeat. As he raised his hand to face me, the blood began to move of its own accord, wriggling like a worm, and it slid back into his body. The cut closed and faded to nothingness behind it.

“I’ll see ye in sixteen minutes,” he hissed, and his lips peeled back into a smile that stretched across his face… and stretched, and stretched, until it somehow became larger than the head that contained it. The teeth in his mouth were pointed, and there were forty-seven of them and more being revealed every moment…

I blinked. The smile was gone. I was facing an empty bar stool: Puck had vanished. Only a half-drained glass of whiskey and a leather coat convinced my mind that he had ever been there in the first place.

That was… unsettling. There are no bit players here to enforce the common laws of reality. Personae may do as their stories dictate. What have we just unleashed?

I shared Holmes’ discomfiture, but I had only six minutes and forty-five seconds to come up with the next name on Kay’s list. I had no time for worries.

I abandoned the stool and let the room wash into my senses. People orbited and collided. Lights oscillated on the walls, and mist trailed in silky coils around our legs. Bass boomed loud enough to guarantee none of us would have to worry about kidney stones. It was overwhelming. It was joyful.

There… there was something in the sensations. A pattern.

I abandon.d t.h st..l and let .h. ..om w... into my senses. ...... .....ed an. ....ided. Lig h ts osci..a... on the walls, .... .... trailed in silky coils around our legs. .... ...... ...d enough .. ...r..tee none of us would have to worry about k i dney stones. .. ... ........ming. It .a. jo..f.l.

Clues whispered to me… but I didn’t have it yet.

Start over. What do you know?

I flashed through my contact with "Kay" earlier in the day. Rance's words. The woodwoork of the club's door. The stitching of the carpet in the hallway. No. That wasn’t it.

My brain clicked through the people around me in succession, minute clues in their dress and bearing filtered through intellect and intuition. I'd read all of these people's stories - when you're Sherlock Holmes (case file: 0; synopsis: self; vulnerability: distraction) in a world populated by literary figures, that's what you do. Now, tiny idiosyncrasies in their dress and bearing called out their true names as loudly as if they had been floating in air over their heads. Aramis. Red Riding Hood. Faust.

I started making a list of all of the Personae I recognized. Eight seconds later, I stopped at number one hundred and sixty-three. Mostly minor characters, but there were some Elders in the mix: old stories, powerful ones. For us, that counted for a lot: Superman might be strong, but he had nothing on Samson. The longer your story had survived, the more rooted it was in the collective unconscious of the world, the harder it was to deny. Some Elders could do the impossible even in front of bit players.

Stop. You are looking at this linearly, in ordered fashion. You are playing chess. Moriarty cannot be beaten at chess. You must change the game.

My brain panned out. Past the people around me, past the scintillating walls of the nightclub, past the present. Why were we here? What was the story?

Her voice whispered in my ear. “What if it didn’t have to be that way?”

Okay… she wanted to change things. She had some sort of fixation on me. She’d given me a mystery to solve as a gift, not a challenge. She wanted to give me a thrill.

She was flirting with me.

That wasn’t the Moriarty from the stories. Kay wanted things to be different, but in our world they never were. Moriarty and Holmes dueled to the death. That was just what happened. The most she could hope for was that I was a weak Holmes who let her beat me. If I fell, a new Holmes would come along to face her. Sooner or later, Holmes would win. Holmes would kill her. That was our fate. That was the order of the universe.

From before, Doyle’s words: There is a fanciful legend of dark times when many Personae die suddenly. The 'Blood Sacrifice', it is called. It is said that one of our ranks ascends to a kind of godhood… but at the expense of the old order.

She wanted to change things. She didn’t want us to kill one another. She wanted to destroy the old order. And she had assembled a room full of Personae…

Oh. Oh my. Kay was had a list, yes: the guest list. She was going to kill everyone.

I cast my eyes up to the balcony, where her silhouetted figure leaned catlike over the rail. She was backlit, but her outline was crisp, perfect.

”Perfect.” From the Latin, per facio, to bear all the way through until completeness. You are mistaken. Kay is not yet complete.

I shook my head. This was bigger than I’d thought, but I still had a task in front of me, and four minutes in which to complete it. I needed a name, and I was no closer to it than when I’d started.

“Sherlock Holmes,” Kay’s voice laughed in my ear. “Vulnerability: distraction.”

I practically snarled. Back to it.

Baby-faced girl, butterfly tramp stamp: Icarus (case file: 4AX21V; synopsis: fatal overachiever; vulnerability: ambition). Man with hors d'oeuvres, strike that, what's he eating? The bar doesn’t serve food. Ah: Renfield (case file: 389I2; synopsis: insect-eating henchman; vulnerability: low self esteem).

“You are seeking something.” The voice was sharp and stinging, yet sensuous. It made my skin crawl while making something deep inside me squirm and quiver. Most unsettling.

I turned to see a tall man studying me. The look on his face was vaguely curious, but somehow I could tell it was the same expression he would wear while applying a whip to exposed skin. How does that feel? What will you do now? His dark suit was tailored, and he wore an expensively white shirt partially unbuttoned. He wore his pants without a belt, because one end of it was in the hand that he held at his hip.

The other was wrapped around the neck of a thin woman in a severe black dress. Her nails and eyeshadow were both a vivid green, and her earrings dangled partially-open gold fans that looked like nothing so much as broomsticks. The look on her face was a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The belt being used as a leash around her neck was just shy of taut, allowing her no room to move without it tightening.

“What do you want, Marquis?” I asked.

He frowned, disappointed in my question. Then he smiled with only his mouth, and widened his hands as if to show he had no guile. As he did so, the belt tightened on the woman’s neck, and she staggered to the left. She righted herself quickly, resuming her erect stance as quickly as she could.

Mine, said her green-painted eyes, glaring at me. Back off.

The Marquis answered my question, hands still spread wide. “What do I ever want, my dear detective? To see what you can take. I imagine tugging all your zippers open with my teeth while you squirm away from what my fingers are doing to your-”

“You are trying to use heterodox sexual suggestions to unbalance me so that you can provoke me into making decisions with which I would not normally be comfortable,” I gulped. “It won’t work.”

I was flat-out reciting what Holmes’ voice in my head was telling me, because oh my goodness it was working. The Marquis was like a cross between the Vicomte de Valmont and a great white shark: dangerous liaisons indeed! “Now, now,” he clucked. “I never play with someone who isn’t asking for it. Begging for it, usually. Isn’t that right, my pet?” He slapped his empty hand down across the green-eyed woman’s ass, and she gasped, a mix of pleasure and pain.

“Oh, yes, Marquis,” she moaned. “I’ve been so wicked…”

You see? said his eyes. He looked appraisingly up and down my body. “I don’t think you’d last long, anyway. What are you, seventeen?”

“Eighteen,” I almost retorted - as if it meant a damn thing! - but my inner Sherlock was a step ahead of him. He is trying to get you to prove your worth, another common tactic amongst con artists and seducers. The more you wish to prove yourself, the more he can work his will upon you.

“Young enough that you might make your current catch of the day worried that you prefer something fresher,” I replied instead. “But I know someone who’s both age-appropriate and who’s been looking for a spanking. I think she’s had a frustrating evening. I’ll send her your way. But before I do, a gesture of good faith: answer me one question each.”

The Marquis’ eyes flashed. “I saw her when you came in. We accept your terms. Shhh,” he caressed the Witch’s hair, “I promise that you’ll be happy for a break before long. And I’m certain you know how to bewitch me with your… wickedness.”

He tightened his grip on the belt, and I saw it bite down just so on her neck. She hissed, but I saw a smile creep across her open mouth.

“Yes, Marquis,” she whispered meekly.

“Very good,” he purred. “Now, I believe I was being interrogated?”

“Her first,” I said. “What color was the lettering on the invitation you received?”

Both of them froze for a moment, confused. “The… invitation?” asked the Wicked Witch of the West.

I nodded at her. “From the way you pronounce your vowels, you’re not from here. New Orleans, unless I miss my guess, which I don’t. You received a plane ticket, and and invitation. It was in a box, sealed with wax, correct? The box had had a hand-penned letter, cursive, and a formal invitation, on heavy-weight card stock. And a ruby slipper.”

“Yes… how—?”

One minute.

“Never mind that!” I snapped, almost wishing I were holding that belt. Was she really going to ask me how I knew that? “The lettering, on the invitation. What color was it?”

“White,” she shrugged. “But I don’t see what color has to do-”

Yes. Keep going.

I turned to the Marquis de Sade. “What color was the whip you found in your box?”

His eyes narrowed, and then his smile was genuine. “White,” he answered.

“You aren’t the only one who can make people do things they know they shouldn’t,” I snapped at him. “You were just so curious, weren’t you?”

“I’ve known for a long time what I was. My... heterodoxy, as you might say,” he answered. “The name that the invitation called me was so clear. It explained a great deal of my story.”

Something… something there.

“And promised more answers,” I nodded. “You didn't know who you were, before the invitation. You'd never heard about Personae. You never met your predecessors, did you?”

Both shook their heads minutely. I recalled from my files. “Both murdered. November twelfth, eight years ago,” I nodded to the Witch. “May twenty-second, four years back,” I told the Marquis.

In fact… I ran through the names I’d determined so far. Achilles: June seventh, three years past. Emma Bovary: last January. Prospero: six years ago last week…

All of them, murdered. The predecessor of every single Persona in this room had died violently within the last decade. It had been careful, subtle, apparently random; I had missed the hand behind the deaths. We so often died in violence, and she’d been clever about making their deaths fit their stories… The Personae who were here in this room had been left with no one to guide them. No one to tell them anything about their heritage. No one to tell them who they were, or why they could do things that others couldn’t.

All murdered… across a decade… all so this new generation wouldn't know what they were. All so they would be confused about their strange feelings, the voices in their heads, their unusual abilities. All so they would be willing to come here, tonight, for answers.

Ten seconds.

A decade ago? I shivered. Kay would have been something like twelve. She’d started off by murdering Julius Caesar. They’d found him impaled on thirteen different knives.

Seven seconds. The pattern from before. The name.

“I..e ..o.. f.. . .... ..m. .ha. I ..s,” .. a....r... “T.. .... ..s .. ....r. It e..l.i..d . g..a. ..a. .. .. st..y.”

“White,” ..e s.r..g.d. “..t I d..’t s.. ..a. c..o. ..s .. .o-”

Think!

White. Harry. Eric. Harry White? Eric White? Eric—

Bingo.

“Five seconds,” Kay’s voice whispered in my ear. “Who dies next?”

“Not Eric White," I announced to the confusion of the two in front of me. "Erik Weisz. Harry Houdini."

The wall of lights momentarily darkened. A box appeared in it, and a crude human figure dropped into the box, fighting the chains that were wrapped around him. Seconds later, the chains fell away, and the figure sprang from the box and took a bow.

Yes! I’d gotten it right.

“Admit it,” she purred. “You’re enjoying this.”

I looked across at the Wicked Witch. I saw the belt that had formed a leash around her neck. I saw the excitement glittering in her eyes. This was what she wanted. She belonged to the Marquis because she thrilled at belonging to him. She was playing a game. Moriarty and I were also playing a game. And she had me, just as surely. I knew that my eyes sparkled as well.

“Mmmm…” she murmured in my ear. “Yes… yes, we should definitely play again. Ten minutes, my dear.”

Again. We were doing it again. My eyes darted around the room. A million sounds crystallized into meaning in my ears. My nostrils flicked wide to fifty-six… fifty-nine distinct perfumes. Impressions came in, were catalogued, were put away for later, a thousand times a second. My breath was coming quickly. I felt something swelling inside me, a pressure, a pleasure. My lips parted. My toes curled. My back arched and I tilted my head back and there was so much around me all sensation so much so many everywhere I… I… ah…

A bead of sweat falls to the floor from my brow and is caught in the rush of air from the downward sweep of Ariel’s arm as it falls from where it had waved across the room to the Wolfman whose form flickers beastlike in the pulsing lights that beat a staccato rhythm across Gollum’s too-large orbs that take one-hundred-and-thirty-five percent longer to blink than even doe-eyed Bambi’s eyes as they flutter flirtatiously with Hamlet, whose clenching and unclenching hands reveal him to be as indecisive as ever in the face of what for him will be merely the little death of orgasm, a throbbing release as inexorable as the collapse of the planetary orbit made by Cleopatra and Julius Caesar across the room from one another as they try to avoid fate and pain the Witch cries in the overwhelming sensation like a tornado ridden by Pecos Bill who rears his hat back and howls with the voices of a hundred people screaming to a mashup of show tunes and rap music that vibrates the air a hundred-and-fourteen times per second in revels now faded and insubstantial in pageantry that is all this is just a pageant answering to a girl on a balcony who binds the air into whispers in the ear of Theseus who has vanished into a hole in the skein of the universe so that Raskolnikov did not bump into him when the Russian murderer was pushed out of the way by Otrera mother of Amazons as she slipped back into existence from where and why was she vanished and was she in the same hole as there is Theseus where he wasn’t before and moving wrong with conservative motions atypical of an Elder like Achilles when I walked down the stairs Otrera was there and not there when Puck bled and she spoke to Theseus and he went missing and now where is Hercules?

“Hey.”

Demigods and Elders all Hercules Theseus Otrera Achilles is the last three of the four who are here have disappeared and Hercules will come back any second now and then Achilles will disappear and come back with strange careful furtive motions like the planned and mapped gait of a red-haired murderess—

“I have a hand inside your jacket on a zipper that is currently most of the way up your thigh and if you think I can’t tear off those stitches and yank it all the way up to your armpit then you’d better realize who you are not listening to a damn word I am saying can you hear me Gwen?”

Vivian gave an experimental tug to show me that she was not fucking around.

I blinked. I was panting, a light sheen of sweat on my skin. I’d wandered from where I had been standing near the Marquis. We were near one wall, not far from the bottom of the stairwell I’d come down not ten minutes before. How long had I been…?

Yellow eyes came into focus as I reined my mind back inside my body. They widened from nervous slits to a glare.

I gulped for air. “I’m… I’m good. You, uh, you can let go now.”

She didn’t move. “Might be too late for that. I think I felt a thread pop.”

My eyes shot open. “Wha-? No!”

She pulled back with a throaty laugh. “Oh, Gwen. You poor thing. I am going to give you a heart attack someday.”

My dress retained its integrity as Vivian withdrew, her fib about a loosening thread notwithstanding. It was my turn to glare.

“Very funny, Irene. Some of us are working, here.”

She let my casual mention of her “darkest secret” pass without so much as a blink. “Looked to me like you were using something on yourself from that big-ass bag you had me carry down here. How do I get that job?”

I shook my head. “I’ve got a better job for you.” I relaxed for a moment until my senses found Achilles in the masses of us. Hercules had not yet returned from whatever hole he’d disappeared into. Achilles was just coming back from the bar, not far from the Witch and her Marquis. Where he moved, Personae parted to let him pass.

I pointed a finger. “Him.”

“Stupid surfer hair and the ass that could crack walnuts?” She pursed her lips, considering. "Pour moi? I'll take it. It's done." She stressed that last word just enough, and nodded at my look.

She finished setting it all up already? My, she certainly is efficient.

“Him,” I agreed. “Get him out of here, fast. I… I think this is going to get bad. It’ll be worse if he’s not clear.”

She started toward him, all hips. Then she paused, half-turning back to me. Over her shoulder, she asked, “How bad? Are you sure you don't need me to stab anyone for you?"

“I’ll be okay,” I lied. “You can let surfer guy do all the poking tonight. Just get him out of here fast, before the other Elders can grab you. They’re already moving.”

An arched eyebrow. “Them? They’d better stay out of my way. I've got a few frustrations to work out, and he looks like he can take it."

“He’s invulnerable, actually."

"Not to me." She stalked off after chiseled prey.

“Tsk, tsk,” clucked Kay’s tongue in my ear. “I saw you playing the detective down there for a moment. Now you’re killing my buzz. I thought we were having fun!”

“It’s not like you to play only one game of chess at once. I’m going to beat you at all of them.”

“Really?” she asked. “How’s your little Irene Adler going to convince Achilles to leave with her when every time she opens her mouth, she can do nothing but insult him?”

I started to retort, but my words were silenced as they left my mouth. It was the damn noise-canceling speakers! They could map the words that Vivian would say, and twist them against her. I had to help—

No. Moriarty underestimates Ms. Adler. She is quite persuasive.

I drew up short and watched as she strode toward Achilles. She was amping up, glamouring herself without even thinking about it. Her dark hair fluttered in an invisible breeze; she seemed to grow taller. Vivian was working it.

Achilles had stopped in front of the Witch. I couldn’t hear them from this far away, but I could read the motions of their bodies as if they were words.

Hello, pretty thing. Why are you this little man’s slave? said Achilles.

The Witch dropped her eyes and looked to the Marquis. She chose to give herself to me for the night, he answered for her. I can take her places that she has no idea she—

It’s not right, that you should be chained, Achilles cut him off, not taking his eyes off of the Witch. Lucky for you, there is a hero here who can save you.

Uh-oh. As I watched, I could almost see Achilles’ reality seeping out and overwriting the world around him. Elders could do it even to other Personae.

No, said the Wicked Witch. Don’t, please. Stop…

It was too late. Reality changed. Achilles was a hero, and over there was the man who was trying to take away his… Briseis, wasn’t it? That was her name. I didn’t know why I had thought she was a witch. She belonged to Achilles. No other man should have her. She loved Achilles…

My husband! her eyes shone to him. Save me!

This is wrong. She said no, yet Achilles still forces himself upon her mind. She said no.

I blinked. Holmes’ voice in my mind was definite, absolute, but I couldn’t understand it. Achilles was saving his wife; what could be wrong about that? I must have read things wrong…

Incorrect, Holmes insisted. She said no. There is nothing else one need observe. Lucky for her, there is a hero here who can save her.

Suddenly, Vivian shouldered between Achilles and Bris- no, dammit, the Witch. (Of course she was a witch!) Reality contracted into familiar forms once more; Achilles jerked to a halt and cocked his head. Vivian had caught him off-guard as he was reenacting his legend, and he was feeling the shock of being forced from the world he defined back into the world that defined itself. It happened to everyone, not just Personae, and it was always a shock to be toppled from the throne of the universe.

But not such an upsetting one, as Vivian draped an arm over his shoulder and ran a manicured nail down his cheek to his chin. I saw her lips press together, the kanji written on them seeming to dance as her mouth formed a naughty smile. The finger ran from Achilles’ chin down his chest, across his stomach, over his belt buckle, and stopped between his legs.

He shook his head, a question formed silently.

“Man-eater,” she mouthed. I could tell by her posture that no sound had escaped her lips, and that was how she’d intended it.

Achilles straightened, and I could see his smile without seeing his face. He brought up a hand and took hers, and the two of them bolted for the nearest legally-mandated “EXIT” sign.

I saw Theseus move to intercept them. Otrera (case file: 1AZ0N; synopsis: daughter of the East Wind, bride of war, and mother of Amazons; vulnerability: loves to hunt) wasn’t far behind.

“I wouldn’t,” I cautioned Kay. “All the talking that needed to happen between them, just did.”

I turned and looked up the stairs. She was still leaning on the balcony ledge with her elbows, frozen in place. With the light sparkling behind her I couldn’t make out her features, but I could read frustrated helplessness all across her posture. She was doing the math, mapping the angles, foreseeing every possible outcome. She had to realize…

The two Elders stopped before they reached Achilles and Vivian. Achilles shouldered his way through the back door, and the pair was gone.

“Well,” came Kay’s words tersely in my ear, “that was no fun.”

In a second, she was going to call foul, and then she was going to up the ante. That’s how the Holmes-Moriarty game went. She made the rules, and when I surprised her, she played a trump card. I was close to figuring out something important about what was going on here, and she was about to pull the trigger on something new and force my attention elsewhere. I had to figure out what was coming next before she completely changed the game. She was going to kill everyone, but at the same time she was doing something to the Elders, getting them to work for her. No… changing them. There was a pattern. A pattern…

I sprang up quickly on top of a nearby chair and looked out over the crowd. In my mind, I willed them to stop milling about. Time dilated: the gyrations and movements slowed. They came to a stop, and then began to rewind, moving in reverse. I had a perfect memory of everything that had happened since I'd arrived: I could play it backwards, couldn't I? I could do this. I sped them all in my mind's eye through the last ten minutes, looking for someone lurking in a corner. He'd been there when I was on the balcony before... and now he was gone. What had happened to Hercules?

I was losing it. Perfect memory or no, I had been down in the crowd for most of the time I'd been here: I hadn't actually seen everything that everyone had done. There were gaps. Time threatened to reassert itself, tugging forward against my mind's eye.

I concentrated. It was complicated, but people's movements weren't random. When you walked down a city street, you weren't alone: you were interacting with every single person you didn't collide with, stepping around one another. Some people pressed forward and expected others to move; you could predict it if you knew their psychology. Working out how the revelers would bounce off of and slide around each other was inexact, but I could do this. I could see names floating above their heads as I watched them, adjusted the dance for the personality quirks of each person… I had files on all of them. I knew how they would react, interact.

I played the scene back from where it was now, and forward from when I'd last seen Hercules. There were… discrepancies. People wound up in the wrong spots.

I did it again. I changed some of the variables in my head. One man, big, athletic. One woman, similar. Change their behavior pattern, make it less like an arrogant Elder, and more like a criminal mastermind... If you inserted them just so into the flow, then all the human perambulations worked out. You got from then to now.

All you had to know was everything.

Theseus and Otrera had come out of a screened entrance near the back of the club that even I had missed. They had been together. They'd approached Hercules, and led him back behind the screen… where?

Their movements… they moved just like Kay did. Just like Kay did. I could read the words on someone’s lips from the way their back bent and their fingers flexed, but movements weren’t just words: they were also a signature. Kay was written all over Theseus and Otrera.

My eyes fluttered and came back to the present. There: Hercules! But… but not Hercules. He was Kay, too.

Kay’s voice was insistent in my ear. “You have a name to give me, I hope? You've wasted your time on something that has nothing to do with our game. I hope you’ve been multitasking.”

“I’m not the only one who’s been up to more than one thing at once. I'm onto your little scheme with the Elders," I bluffed. "You don't play fair, so I’m not playing your game anymore. I’m shutting this down."

“I’m doing this for you!” she practically shouted at me. “You love this. You, me, our game, our dance… my new bodies... it's all for you." I heard her breathing for a moment, calming herself. "I… don't forget who I've got in a cage in the back. You may not care about these people, but you care about him. You can't save him unless you finish our game.”

"Maybe I can't. Not alone. But there's only ever been one ending to our game." I reached into the top of one of my boots and pulled out a shiny new phone that I'd prepared earlier in the day for a very special purpose. I pressed a button.

"You wanted to change the game, Moriarty. You don't need a blood sacrifice: just change. Stop following the script if it doesn't work for you. I already have. So this time I'm not alone at the top of the waterfall."

A meaty hand slapped down on my shoulder and spun me around. The phone went flying out of my hands, skittering across the club's floor between legs and gyrating bodies. No! I marked its path in my mind - thirty-two degree angle of descent passing between Tom Bombadil and Jean Valjean - and looked up into the tattooed face of someone who definitely had some leftover gorilla genetics expressing themselves.

Not Theseus. Or Hercules. Not one of Moriarty's. This is something else.

"Hey!" he shouted at me, alcohol-infused spittle flecking my lips. "I saw you earlier with my man! That's his coat you have on!"

My eyes got wide. I glanced to one side. Standing just behind the giant, Puck raised a fresh glass apologetically. He was a little early. It happened to a lot of guys.

"I, uh, think there's been a huge misunderstanding," I tried.

"Oh, you're hilarious," growled the troll. "I'm hyperthyroid, bitch."

"Ach, come onnn, Mister T," trilled Puck in mock protest. "'She means nothing to me."

I glared at Puck. Then realization dawned. Mister T? Impossible.

I looked on incredulously at the mountain of muscle in front of me.

"Tinkerbell?"

At the same time, Puck dragged on the back of the big man's shirt. "Come on, baby, 'twas nothin', really! Hardly any tongue at all. Well, maybe a wee bit o' tongue."

Do you believe in fairies now?" Puck's boyfriend screamed. He reared back a fist as big as my head. Tinkerbell was the jealous type.

One hand on my shoulder, the other racing toward my face. Pupils pinpricks, sweat glistening on his bald head, spit on his lips. The reek of too many appletinis. T-shirt two sizes too small; I'd still be swimming in it. We'd attracted the attention of seventeen nearby onlookers, and were getting more eyeballs every second. A sizzle in the air, noise within noise. A hum. Something... ultrasonic.

Something familiar.

Oh, Puck, you beautiful little man. Your timing couldn't have been more perfect. I’d been chasing Moriarty’s shadows the whole time I was here, distracted by the game she wanted me to play and not focused on the one she was really playing. Now it was my turn to misdirect.

I watched Tinkerbell's fist float through the air towards me. It seemed to drift lazily, a clumsy thing of meat and encumbrance. My senses sped free, ephemera, unbound by time. His other hand held me, preventing me from stepping away... but not into him, towards the fist. I ducked in, his sweaty paw brushing my cheek, and delivered a two-handed thrust into his solar plexus--

No, that was no good. Rewind. Play it again.

... towards the fist. I ducked in and under his arm, to the outside of his body, letting his blow slide over me as he tangled himself up. With a leg thrust out, I hooked his ankle as he stormed by, sending him crashing on into--

No, that was hardly fair to poor Hamlet. Rewind. Again.

... preventing me from stepping away, but biomechanics said that you could only be strong in one direction at once. I drove two fingers hard into the instep of his elbow, bending the arm holding me inward. He didn't let go of me, so this drew me forward and inside the blow, but spun me into him. Now his bulky arm was wrapped across my chest. I was pinned, but he was momentarily confused. I screamed in my very girliest voice, "No! I don't want you to touch me! Somebody, help!"

A room full of heroes straightened up.

Play.

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