Chapter 17: Tumbling After

Should any member of the company be captured, they should expect harsh treatment. No one is more vengeful than a righteous man.


I awakened to darkness and cold.

I was shaking. My arms ached at the shoulders, and gooseflesh covered my body. Nothing else was, except the sack that was still in place over my head. My hands were bound behind my back, and as I flexed my legs experimentally, I could feel my ankles shackled to the floor.

I was naked, tied up, and freezing. I curled myself up into a ball as best I could, but whatever bound my wrists cut cruelly into them as I hunched over. My jaw started to chatter, and I felt weirdly disconnected from my body as my heart pumped double time to try to warm me.

Your friend Vivian…

The next thing I became aware of was the noise. It was a mix of a bandsaw and a baby’s howling, but underneath it all I could hear a woman’s voice. She started off begging for someone to stop, stop, please, stop. Then came the screaming, mixing the unmistakable tones of pain in with a baby’s fear. Then, sobbing. Something… something about the way she begged, the wet, throaty pleas and the punctuated grunting that went along with it, you could just tell that she was being raped. Raped and beaten.

Then it began again. The way that it looped, I knew it was a recording.

But the pit in my stomach didn’t. I squeezed my thighs together, and realized that the way my legs were shackled, it wouldn’t matter if I did. I was exposed. Vulnerable. They could have whatever they wanted from me.

Slowly, I also became aware of the smell of vomit. It grew in strength, as if it were being dumped by the gallon in here with me. I fought hard to avoid adding my own. Just as I was starting to get used to it, there came a new odor: feces. Soon followed the gut-wrenching putrescence of rotting meat. I forced myself to control my breathing, counting out my exhales and inhales. The bag was tied firmly at my neck: not cutting off circulation, but if I threw up it would just be in my face until my captors removed it.

..is really my friend Vivian.

My stomach turned at the thought of her, rebelled, threatened to fill the sack tied around my face. I couldn’t think about her now. I couldn’t think about anything except the breaths coming in and out of my body…

Time passed. I focused on breathing, not listening to the recorded woman be raped and beaten and raped and beaten and raped and raped and raped… After a while, ignoring her actually became possible: I was so cold, and my wrists hurt so badly, that other people’s pain just couldn’t quite penetrate the skein of existential suffering.

Breathe. Breathe. The sensations were completely overwhelming: I couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t even be afraid at more than a level of basic anxiety that this might go on forever.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

At some point, I started convulsing, as the frigid temperatures overwhelmed my body’s ability to cope. Dimly, I was aware of my wrists growing slick with blood from the straps at my wrist, but I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t help it: my back spasmed and my legs kicked and I tried to make myself into a ball again but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, my body wasn’t working, nothing was working, I couldn’t breathe-

Suddenly, I was covered in napalm. I screamed as what felt like scalding hot liquid sprayed all over my body. My skin, frozen just a moment ago, was now on fire. My insides still felt like ice, though, and it took some time for the convulsions to stop. I kept screaming.

But it didn’t end. It wasn’t napalm. It was just hot water. So cold, and now doused in something the temperature of hot tea. It felt like I was dying, but I wasn’t.

They weren’t ready for that. Not yet.

My trials weren’t over with the end of the cold. The temperature now pulled a reversal. The water was hot, if not truly scalding, and I could feel a warm breeze on my skin as some semblance of self-control returned. By the time I could get myself sitting again, it must have been over a hundred degrees, and with the water that continued to spray, the humidity made breathing difficult. Combined with the wet hood over my head, it was practically impossible.

I gasped, sucking in air as hard as I could. Soon, my abdomen ached. It was unbearable just to draw breath, but what choice was there? I kept fighting.

When the cold air started to blow, numbing my skin within minutes, I cried. Soon, freezing once again, I couldn’t tell if it was the recorded woman’s voice, or my own.

“Stop it. Stop it. Please, please, stop it…”

I don’t know how long I begged and screamed, but my throat went ragged and the breath went out of me and I felt like I was choking on the tatters of my own throat.

But it did not stop. At some point, after more convulsions, after what felt like hours of this torture, I passed out.

We are here, the voice said in my dreams. You just have to draw us out.

I awakened to light, bright, stabbing light from a dozen spotlights shined on my eyes. I could hardly see better than when there was a bag on my head, but at least it was gone. I could breathe, and though I was cold, I wasn’t freezing to death. I was still naked, and I couldn’t move a muscle except my neck: my arms and legs were strapped firmly to a table. My legs were raised slightly above my head.

Shackled. Spread. Wide enough.

Squinting my eyes, I raised my head to look around. It was almost impossible to see anything, but I appeared to be alone. The table was surgical steel, cold on my back and legs. I could make out another table a short ways away, with scalpels, a bone saw, and a dozen other instruments both sharp and invasive. My breath caught. Also on the table was my hood - it could be any hood, really, but I was certain that it was mine.

Strange, came the thought, that you should think of it as yours. Is it not theirs? An instrument of torture? Perhaps you are going mad.

Under the table were gallon jugs of water.

I started taking stock of things. First, my body: everything still attached, just strained and tested. I could see that my shoulders had been bandaged where Moriarty had stabbed me, and I bet that there were stitches under those bandages. They’d patched me up before putting me in that room. That meant something, but I was having trouble thinking. I was exhausted and hungry; my brain felt like it was soaking in oatmeal.

Next, the setup. I was naked, and that wasn’t great, and my legs were being held wide apart, but I was at a weird incline: if anybody were going to rape me, they’d be halfway falling off while they tried it. I didn’t exactly have experience in this area, but the setup here didn’t really give anyone great access to my vagina. It was more for show: my instinct was to cover up, pull my legs together, and I couldn’t, which put all sorts of nastiness to mind… but if I were going to be raped, it probably wouldn’t be here or now. That was good news, at least. I wasn’t supposed to see what was going on elsewhere in the room, hence the lights dazzling my eyes and the dim at the periphery, but seeing the table with all the surgical stuff… that was okay.

I took it out a level. It was hard to think, but thinking was distracting me from losing my mind from fear, so I kept hard at it. They’d tortured me, but hadn’t tortured me. My body was intact, and they’d even done some basic first aid. They hadn’t raped me, or cut off any fingers, or even hit me. None of that was a guarantee that this treatment would continue, but it was also a good sign. If they really meant to do any of that stuff, why bother softening me up first? Just go straight for the toenails.

There were those jugs of water. Those worried me.

I had plenty of time to worry, it turned out. The minutes stretched to hours, and as my bladder filled, I realized why.

Sons of bitches! They were waiting for me to soil myself before they moved on to whatever was next.

Too exhausted to be angry, I started to cry again. I was starving, and my bladder was exploding. I was scared and helpless and alone.

Not alone.

Something about this voice in my head stilled my tears, though the fact that I couldn't wipe my eyes or nose didn't really help my assessment of the situation.

You're not alone, mate. We can help you.

A different voice, but also strong, confident. So different from how I felt right now. I drew a ragged breath.

They're trying to break your mind, not your body. They're bloody Americans; they think they're the good guys. They won't use the bone saw, no matter what they say. They're just trying to break your spirit.

Well, they weren't far off. Despite the voices in my head to the contrary, I didn't have much left. And they hadn't even asked me any questions.

They are trying to break your spirit, the voice reiterated, but you are filled with more spirits than they can fathom.

I felt a pressure building inside my mind. There was someone in there, trying to get out.

Suddenly, it terrified me. I'd been relying on these souls I had carried since the mass murder at the Diogenes Club, and they'd been true to me so far, but I was lost, so lost, and I could feel them wanting, wanting, wanting my body... Everyone wanted something from me, and so many of them were already buried deep within. I had lost everything: my parents, my freedom, my dignity... they wanted the rest of me. They wanted my flesh. They wanted to take me over, and I didn't care why. I had to cling to something, anything! There had to be some place that was mine.

The voices were quiet, after that. They left me alone. All alone.

It was too much. When the men came in, minutes later, I was a sobbing, heaving mess, limp on the table but for my futile struggles, and I had added the reek of my own piss to the indignities that had been showered upon me.

I barely registered them, but they soon had rough hands holding my head up, slipping the hood over my head. I blubbered something, probably begging, but on it went. I felt them cinch it around my neck, an insistent squeeze, just as before, and I stopped even that much fighting. If I could have, I would have rocked back and forth, but a strap went across my forehead and I was completely immobile. Naked. Helpless.

"Who are you?" came the growl.

"G... Gwen-" I started, but the voice cut me off.

"Your real name."

As complicated a question as that was, there was only one possible answer they could be looking for. "Sherlock Holmes," I admitted.

Suddenly, I was drowning. Water poured down over my face, up my nose, in my mouth. I couldn't breathe. I fought against my restraints, to no avail. Reflexively, I sucked air, but there was none that could make it through the water that was everywhere. I couldn’t feel my body. Only my lungs mattered, but they were collapsing: I couldn’t even force them to expand, because there was nothing to put into them. I tried to scream, but I wasn’t even able to do that. I couldn’t move, couldn’t beg, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe…

As suddenly as it started, it was over. Someone pulled the hood up over my nose and mouth, and I gulped and sucked at the air in desperation. It hurt, just breathing, just flexing my diaphragm. But it was air, so like everything else, I had no choice. For long moments, I couldn’t understand: I had been drowning just a moment ago. Now I wasn’t.

“Don’t fuck with us,” said the voice from before. “We know Holmes. He’s on our side. Who are you?”

“No!” I gasped. “No, Doyle’s not really Holmes! He’s Merlin! He’s Merlin! Please, you’ve got to believe me. Arthur didn’t want a Merlin-”

The hood went back over my face. I tried to scream but it was already wet and then there was water and then the drowning started again. It went on for longer than before; I don’t know how long. Time was gone. I was gone. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe… There was only the certainty of death.

When the hood was pulled back this time, the questions began again immediately. I gagged and panted while someone shouted, “That was twenty seconds. Tell us the truth, bitch! No more bullshit or you’re going under for a minute. I’ve got all the water I need, you goddamn cunt.”

There was a pause. I heard a faint whisper. “Jesus, Galahad, she’s just a girl.”

“Bedivere, would it be easier if she were a hairy terrorist? It is what it is. Did you see what she did to Lancelot? That could have been Arthur. We only caught the one other. We have to know what she knows. There could be another attack. Arthur said to do whatever was necessary to safeguard Camelot.”

On some level, it mattered, but I wasn’t thinking about leverage, or how to exploit weaknesses, or even how to escape these men. I just wanted to escape the water. I had to escape the water. I couldn’t go under again. Twenty seconds may as well have been twenty hours. A minute would kill me, I was sure of it.

In my state, though, I couldn’t even think about coming up with a lie, even to appease them. I was too far gone. All I could do was cling to the truth, even though it would kill me.

“I’m not lying!” I pleaded. “The old Merlin, he made Arthur kill his son, and so Arthur exiled him and didn’t want you to know about the new Merlin, so he made him pretend to be Sherlock-”

“Do it,” came the first voice, Galahad. There was a moment when nothing happened. “Do it!” he shouted, and the hood was replaced in a rush.

Water. Water. Water. Everything was water. There was no air. Air was a memory. Air was gone. There was only watery death.

We can save you, the voice promised. Draw us out.

Who are you?

We're Jack.

Jack who?

All of 'em, mate. Savvy?

I drew.

Oh, look. Four of a kind.

It was so simple. It was like breathing.

Suddenly, it became a new game entirely.

Not that I like the looks of the way things stand out there, mind. Oi, one of you others! You go first.

I’d really rather-

Did that sound like a request?

Someone drowned. I don’t know who it was. All I knew was that someone was panicked, desperate, fighting, fading, dying… and then was gone.

Still going, eh? And people call me a pirate. Alright, mate, looks like you’ll be walking the plank out there. Ta!

Another mind slid into my fading flesh… not really of its own accord. This one made it longer than the last, but in the end, the water broke everyone.

Eventually, it was over. Jack perked up.

I was… outside. I was standing outside my body. Looking down, I could see my hands, my arms, legs, but they were spectral, ghostly. I was wearing the coat that Puck had given me, the Holmes jacket. I looked up, and saw my naked body on the table, with two black-clad men carrying pistols bending over it.

I started in surprise. We weren’t alone. Not at all. The room was full, packed with people. A sandy-haired boy in torn trousers. An old king, clad in Mediterranean garb, eyes sharp as diamond. A man in suspenders and a brown coat. A man in black, with a mask. A woman, beautiful, with a tongue like a snake. Others… dozens of others. Men. Women. Children.

Two were soaking wet, lying on the floor, being attended by a doctor with a painted face and bloody hands. He looked up at me and smiled wrong, and his teeth were scalpel blades. A pirate winked at me, his face painted the same way as the doctor, white with a diamond over his eye. He slipped his hand into the hand of my body lying on the table. Nearby stood a farm boy holding a small sack and wearing the same painted face. He patted the shoulder of a man who was little more than a shadow, his face a diamond-painted harlequin mask, his figure flickering and misshapen and the kind of ancient where they don’t have names for it, just titles.

Jack.
 The shadow nodded slowly to me, and inclined his head toward where my body lay.

A tall man stood there, stroking my hair. He wore a dark coat identical to my own. His back was rigid with anger, but his hands on my forehead were delicate, gentle. He was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see his face, but as he bent over my body, I felt him brush his lips across the forehead of the girl on the table, my forehead. Simultaneously in my body and standing outside it, I felt his hot tears drop on my face, mingling with the water that had soaked me. Suddenly, his neck stiffened, and he started to turn toward me-

I was lying on the table, alone with two men, but not alone. Jack let my head go limp as Bedivere removed the forehead strap and pulled the hood fully off of me. My lips moved and air puffed past them.

“She’s trying to say something,” Bedivere announced.

“Of course she is,” Galahad agreed. “She’s not a total idiot.”

Idiot, fool, clown, jester, knave...

Jack.

“Jack, Jack, Jack,” my body whispered, voice almost nothing.

“What was that?” Bedivere looked at Galahad, who shrugged, and bent over me.

“Jack, Jack, Jack,” I whispered, drawing him closer. He leaned in, putting his ear just inches from my mouth, where I bit it off.

He shrieked and sprang back, spraying blood onto Bedivere’s face. As he pulled away, Jack bent my arm in a way that Gwen couldn’t. But Jack, Jack the Scarecrow, Happy Jack, he was bend-y. “Crooked as a corkscrew,” they had called him, but now he had something that had been hanging from shiny Galahad’s belt, something that went pop pop pop in my hand and made more of a mess of Mister Sad Galahad-been.

“This is an ex-Pierrot!” Jack cried, and then I laughed and laughed and the thing in my hand popped more and there were sparks and then the lights went very out.
 Not all of Jack is so funny. Some of Jack can slip out of bonds even when it means dislocating bones and then having to find them again. Sometimes Jack finds other people’s bones instead, because a ribcage can make a fine frame for a top hat, and he does love a good top hat. So when Bedivere’s gun flashed over and over in the dark at where Jack had just been, old Jacky boy wasn’t there anymore. He’d gone wandering, silent as the ghost of a noisy cat. He’d found something surgical.

It is smooth under my fingers, and warm to the touch. Most find the scalpel to be cold and uninviting, a tool at best, but I know so much better. It is an instrument, a glorious instrument. With it, you can weave symphonies of flesh, touch people where they are real, where they are them, on the inside. You can know them, so much better than a lover.

“Catch me if you Can,” I whisper to the man who cannot see. I can see. I can see the clothes, the skin, but I must see the inside, the truth. I have come from Hell, because whoever is a monster himself, fights monsters. Because there is no one else to fight.

I must find out if he is a monster inside.

It takes some time. You have to inspect things carefully, and even with eyes like Jack’s, you have to look closely in order to be sure. A little taste of the liver, then setting it carefully next to the earlobes - connected, but you can never be certain just based off of that.

He squeals a bit, but I’m not in a rush, not Saucy Jacky. No, I get to know this one very well.

“Ah,” I exclaim, as the last flicker of breath leaves and I see him in Truth for the first time. Not a monster then. Just a man.
 Stands to reason. No self-respecting monster does that to a helpless girl.

I wash up, and then find the door. The air smells of the salty seas of piracy.

“Bloody hell,” I whispered. “And people’ve had the nerve to call me weird. Now, where’s my hat?”

I felt… sullied… and unusual. But hey, my hat was there! It was sitting forgotten on a hat rack in one corner of the next room - which aside from the hattiness was some sort of pump room - and that definitely told me that we were not in realms otherwise trod by mortal man, because who had a hat rack anymore? I shouldered my way into the black captain’s jacket and breeches sitting on the table, and wished for a good cutlass. The scalpel smelled like the wrong side of feet: the inside. Egad, I was still holding a scalpel that had just been used for-

With a fluttering motion of my hand I dropped it and hopped to one side. I narrowed my eyes at it as it tinkled off into the darkness of the room where I’d just been, and I flung my hands up after it in the hopes that some nasty juju and any blood that was still on them followed suit.

Sullied. Unusual.

The door burst open, and through it tumbled a strange pair. There was an elfin little man wearing tights and a frilly Elizabethan collar. His face was painted a little like mine, with the diamond, except his lips were all smiles, and he had wings. Pink dragonfly ones; very “notice me” sort of wings. A little desperate. Next to him was a stocky lad in a drab tweed suit and wearing a bowler cap.

“A hat man,” I remarked approvingly. “Very inferior hat, though. You aren’t a eunuch, are you?”

He looked properly taken aback. “Holmes…? Why are you dressed like a pirate?” he started, cocking his head in a very familiar… doggish sort of way.

I moved in very close, squinting as I took in every brown stitch and no-nonsense button. He did have a pistol, which was possibly handy, and had a cane that he didn’t really seem to need based on the vigor of his entrance. I looked at his plain, open face. Strong jawline, the right number of teeth as far as I could tell.

I sniffed his lapel.

“Watson?”

He looked at Puck, who looked back and shrugged. “Ahm aaafraid it ain’t who you’re looking fer in there, pardner. Looks like Jack ta me.”

Watson, who as far as I knew was a dog, looked puzzled. “Jack? Which one?”
 I grinned and opened my mouth to answer, but Puck beat me to the punch. “All of ‘em.” I frowned, and pouted.
 “They’re all kinda the same, after all,” he added. “A lil’ crazy, a lil’ clever, a lil’ lucky, a lil’ unsettling.” Puck grinned and grinned and grinned, wider than his painted lips should allow. “Mah kinda people.”

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I interjected. “And excuse me to the term 'gentlemen' for stretching it into such a curious pair of shapes. Not to belabor a point that you may well have previously established between yourselves, but I was recently kidnapped and nobody knew where I was, and - ah, two points, actually - he is a dog.” I pointed first at Watson, but realized that I was pointing at Puck, and used my right hand to point my left index finger in the proper direction.

“Ahem, yes, about that ‘eunuch’ question…” Watson began, but Puck shushed him.

“Ah told ya, yer bein’ oversensitive. It were done to ya, not by ya. And ya was a dog. Anyways, we’re in one of those places where we can just be us. True colors, that sort of thing. Nobody about who could say otherwise, so we may as well be who we’re supposed to be. He doesn't feel like being a dog, who's going to stop him? He can be Watson here. And ‘here’ also happens to be the kind of place where Jacks and Pucks fit in ever so nicely.”

“Your accent slipped, mate,” I admonished.

Puck stuck his tongue out, and I made a grabbing motion after it.

Watson’s brows knitted. “He’s right, Holm- whoever you are, now. Jack. We should get out of here. There’s no telling when your captors will get here.”

“Where is here, and weren’t you about to tell me how you found me?” I peered out through the door that the pair had knocked open. Was that a roller coaster?

“Avalon,” murmured Puck, and a shiver skittered down my spine. “We really should be heading on, before the Lady finds us.”

“Is that a roller coaster?” I asked.

“Part of the splashdown, I think. It’s an abandoned water park,” Watson informed, informatively. “Gives me the creeps, I don’t mind saying. Puck figured out something was up after Lancelot never showed, and was heading your way to tell you off when the black van went tearing out of your driveway.”

“Positively perspicacious. Lance didn’t have the stamina to keep anyone occupied for long. Mister Puck!” I snapped, and both of them jumped to quasi-attention. “I can’t help but notice that this series of unfortunate events occurred by what one might reasonably judge to be several rescues worth of time ago. While patience for pecadilloes is a laudable trait in a crewman, does it not seem like your rescue went a bit… long?”

"I rather figured I might need-"

"On account of my having already rescued myself, that is," I interrupted.

"Yes, it's just that I thought I might need backup, and-"

"I mean," I cut him off again, "you're not really planning on calling this a rescue, are you? To anyone's face?" I paused, and then continued over him again. "Did you bring with you, for instance, a method of vehicular egress from the premises?"

Puck looked suspicious, and Watson matter-of-factly filled in, "A car."

"Yes, I know what 'vehicular egress' implies. My god, Shakespeare? Ever heard of him? I can dash ‘round the moon and back while a baby burps. In fact… something's different about that… easier… as if magic were stronger...” he trailed off for a moment, omitting something. “And, no to the car, but don't worry about that. I have all manner of escape routes. How did you escape, anyway? Weren’t there knights here guarding you? Big, hyper-masculine types?” His wings fluttered a little.

“Not important right now. Let us not dwell in a violent and intestinally displacing past!” I said, a little too easily. I waved a hand for good measure. “I know that roller coaster! This is the Lakeside Splash Park. I came here years ago, before they closed the place down."

My eyes flashed. "The coaster is right next to the pirate ship!” I bolted through the door.

The full moon hung large in the sky, like it would be at sea. The place was awash in its blue light. I skidded from one of the maintenance sheds onto to what had once been a major thoroughfare stretching from the giant water slide on one side of the park to the roller coaster at the other end. The wind kicked up, and if I were a crazy person I might have insisted it was saying, “Closer… closer…”

But that was ridiculous superstition and nonsense, and there was a pirate ship on the other end of this park. Flouncing only a little bit, I set off towards it.

Then: I was set upon!

“Come on, Jack,” said Watson, reasonably. “It’s time to go.”

He had me by one arm, and Puck had the other. “He’s not wrong, Jacky boy. Girl. Whatever. There's the Lady to think of. We’ll take the back way out.”

“Back door, eh? Good idea.” I shook my head. “I mean, no! Check my pockets; I’m sure I have a compass around somewhere.” I jerked my head in the opposite direction. “That way! And you, mister Watson Cavill Bad Dog. Unhand me!”

They lifted me fully off the ground, legs kicking. Hands under my armpits, they carried me back around toward the very boring parts of the park, where they kept the buildings with inexplicable ropes that were wound loosely around something and had something heavy tied to the other end. Why did any sensible place do that, anyway? I had no idea, but they were everywhere. I couldn't go a week without grabbing one of those ropes and sailing up into the air to escape somebody or another.

“Gentlemen,” I began, “you will always remember this day as the day that you almost captured Captain Jack oooof!” My braggadocio was lost slightly as the rope that I grabbed and kicked jerked me upward with slightly more force than I’d anticipated. I catapulted out of their arms and into the air, screaming like someone who was terrified out of her wits, and slamming bodily into a power line. It might as well have been a steel girder: I wrapped in a U-shaped tangle of limbs around it, scrabbled at air a bit, and then just barely managed to grab hold of the cable itself as gravity did that thing it did.

“Mister Watson!” I shouted. “Come up here and get me right noooooooow!” The last extended vowel was because the power line snapped, and suddenly I was falling rather drastically. I held on for dear life and promised myself that I’d never pillage again if I could just-

I patted myself in a non-flattened way. Oh, delightful: I was alive! The power line swung me right down onto a rooftop, some sort of burger shack, I thought, but maybe that was supposed to be a crab? Hard to tell from the back of the sign if those were legs or onions. I tumbled in a heap into a pile of old cleaning supplies, ending up with a bucket on my foot and a mop on my head, dripping something wet down my face.

I spat at it absently. It was wet, yes, but it didn’t taste so terrible. I'd eaten hot dogs before, after all. Yet… if there was something wet and moppish on my head… where was…

“My hat!” It had caught a gust of some sort, and was trailing off into the distance. I dashed after it, very dramatically leaping from building to building as it drifted down, down, into, oh, bloody of course it would fall into the lake in the middle of the park. You were not supposed to go in there. There were signs!

I looked around, from where I stood on top of a nearby - what, arcade? Arcade. Hopping down onto a pinball machine that they’d dragged out back for some ghastly sort of discipline, I peered down the avenue. The dynamic duo were racing after me, shouting something about staying out of the water.

Well. Easy for them to say. They had a hat between them, albeit a terrible one. What was a girl to do? I rolled my eyes, trod past the “No Swimming” signs, and into the lake.

I mean, I wasn’t planning on swimming. It was a manmade lake; how deep could it be? Just a little way out, there was my hat, lying there on the surface of the water, right next to the arm holding the sword aloft. With a grin and a flourish, I waved it at the two idiots who had run up screaming to the water's edge. I clapped the hat to my head with a satisfied air, feeling much more like myself.

Wait a tick. A sword?

It was a big, heavy one, in a leather scabbard inlaid with gold stitching. Not really my style, but I was down by one sword, and the lady’s arm that was holding it up looked to be about my size. If she could do it…

“The sword isn’t important,” murmured a voice very close to my ear. “It’s the scabbard that you need, to beat him.”

“Aaah!” I yelped, hopefully in an intimidating sort of way. I spun around - as quickly as one spins waist-deep in water, but a little faster - and came face-to-knee with a woman in a gauzy dress. I say “face-to-knee” because she was much higher up than I was. I peered at her legs.

“Either you have extremely long shins, or else you are standing just below the surface,” I observed. “That’s a neat trick.”

“I am Nimue,” she purred. Her lips and eyes were the same shade of lavender. “The Lady of the Lake.”

Watson and Puck had skidded to a stop just on the other side of the “No Swimming” signs. Watson was fidgeting with his gun, as if deciding whether or not there would be any point to using it. I held up a finger.

“Being the aforementioned Lady, who features rather prominently and conflictingly in various tales surrounding a sword, you are telling me first that the sword isn’t important, and second are offering me some assistance in beating the same person you once gave a sword that was important?”

I waggled an eyebrow at her in satisfaction. No one ever expected me to make sense, and they alwasys seemed taken aback when it happened. It was normally an excellent time to kick them in the bait and tackle and make my escape, but, well...

Nimue pondered for a moment, and I reconsidered how I’d phrased the question. I parsed it out in my head. "Aforementioned" - too much? No, no, it was perfectly clear. Satisfied with myself, I awaited her answer.

“I gave Merlin a sword, to give to the king,” she spoke slowly. “Its name was Cut-Steel. It came in an enchanted scabbard, which shielded its wearer from harm. It was the prize of my collection, but I had no choice. The wizard had my son.”

“Don’t believe I've ever heard of a Boy of the Lake…?” I was sure that she would elaborate. Parents loved nothing more than talking about their little scabbers. I couldn't quite take my eyes off of where her legs trailed off into the water, though. There was something… off…

“His name was Grendel. He was… different. I’d kept him sheltered, trying to protect him from the cruelty of his fate. He was so sensitive... couldn't abide noise. He would get out of control. They killed him for it, in the tales. But not my little Gren. I made sure we steered well clear of heroes and thane-halls. But Merlin… he found us anyway. I wasn’t expecting him. He stole my boy, and forced me to accept his enchantment to bind me to this place. I cannot leave, and I must obey his will. It’s been years now.”

I nodded. “Ten of them, I’d say. Not a big believer in ‘proof of life’, are you? Merlin’s been gone for a solid decade. No idea what happened to the boy, though.” I worried at a fingernail with my teeth. Feeling like I should elaborate, I said, "Sorry."

Nimue shook her head sadly. “He had my son; I agreed to a lifetime of slavery. What choice did I have? He enchanted me. I must obey. Though I’m glad to hear the bastard is dead.”

I moved closer to her feet. Or, where they should have been.

“I’m sorry, I can’t help but notice that-”

Nimue interrupted. “I must obey, and I’ve been commanded not to let you leave.” I felt something slide across my leg in the water, and clapped my hat firmly to my head with one hand in alarm. The water of the lake began to churn. “So you more than likely won’t get a chance to use the scabbard. It can’t help you against me, any more than it helped the last person who came to steal it. Lady Macbeth didn't have a prayer when I found her, and that was before things changed. Puck tried to tell you a moment ago: things are different. He is more powerful. As am I. I'm more now than I was when she came. I'm afraid you must share her fate."

Her eyes narrowed. "But if you do kill me, remember my boy. Remember the children stolen and the children murdered by the mercy of Merlin’s Camelot.”

Nimue’s body started to rise from the water. Where her feet should have been, a pair of green tentacles trailed into the murk. All around me, tentacles began to break the surface of the water, and a mountain began to grow in the center of the lake.

I grabbed the sword. The hand came up with it, ending in a ragged stump just above the elbow.

Out of the lake, Nimue’s true body rose, and rose, and rose. She was tremendous, thirty feet high and still going. There was no way that the lake could be that deep: it was just for show, after all. Yet out of it she came, impossibly. Her body had something of a squid shape to it, except with more tentacles. Her mouth was a circular cavern filled with spikes, and her breath washed over me with the putrid odor of a steam room in hell. More limbs than I could count wriggled against the sky. Some of them were probably four feet across at the base, and all of them were at least as thick around as my leg. Her mouth opened, and I felt a tugging at my legs as lake water poured into it.

She roared.

I let the putrid air of her bellow wash over me in a reeking gale. I weathered it with a glint in my eye.
 She didn't move. I grinned and pulled the sword from the scabbard, holding it aloft. “You’re kind of a giant, aren’t you?”

The question hung in the air for a moment.

“I'm Jack. I was born to slay giants. Come on, then!”

She came. She moved like a shark through the water, despite her bulk. Her tentacles pushed her forward, and a wave surged into me. I heard shouting from the shore, maybe twenty feet away… and suddenly as far below me, as a fleshy limb wrapped around my right leg and bore me aloft.

I swung the sword hard, cleaving through the tentacle. As I started to fall, I flung the severed arm and the scabbard at Puck, who saw the motion and flew up with a tinkling of fairy wings to intercept them.

"Hand of Glory!" I cried while plummeting. "Get to the ship! Don't argue!"

The thing about fighting someone who is thirty times bigger than you is, she’s used to being bigger than the people she kills. She thinks downward. Up in the air, she’s not as sure what to do with you. There’s a lot of flailing and swatting, and if you play your cards right you can take advantage of that. Three of Nimue’s tentacles raced at me, but I slashed hard with the sword and two of them retreated, stung. Big things also aren’t used to you being able to hurt them, because nobody ever tries.

The one that got through caught me by the leg, but I was waiting for that, too, and a scoring cut with the blade made it recoil just seconds after it had caught me. She’d stopped my fall only ten feet up, and the resulting plunge into shallow, murky water was not my favorite landing ever, but was a lot softer than it could have been. I vanished beneath the surface, rolling painfully on the rocks that lined the bottom. Rolling with a fall while underwater was weird and slow, not the bouncing sort of impact you’d expect on land. I kept my air, barely, and then shoved hard with my feet to evade the crushing tentacles that I knew would follow.

Nimue did not disappoint. The crash was strangely muted underwater, but the rush of water from the impact site flung me wide and away from her. I surfaced two dozen feet from where I’d landed, gasping for breath but still alive, and still armed. My feet touched bottom, and while Nimue looked for proof of her smashing victory, I hauled ass to shore.

I took a second to orient myself once on the other side of the “No Swimming” signs. I’d wound up a quarter of the way around the lake from Puck and Watson, closer to the roller coaster than the pirate ship that was my ultimate destination. I saw them huddling around Lady Macbeth’s severed arm. With the kind of cool I’d expect from a dog who’d survived Afghanistan, Watson had pried a bullet cartridge open and was sprinkling gunpowder on the dead fingers.

Father Barham described the Hand of Glory as the severed hand of a dead murderer. You couldn’t do much better than Lady Macbeth. When you lit its fingers as a candle, it shone with a light that only the bearer could see. Some legends said that it shielded those in its light from detection. It could also open any lock, paralyze those in the vicinity, or cause sleep in any but the bearer who the light touched. Sleepers couldn’t waken in its vicinity. If we were very, very lucky…

Well, okay, if we were very, very lucky, we probably wouldn’t be here in the first place. If wer were very, very lucky, a satellite might fall out of orbit and crush Nimue into monster paste. But if we were just very lucky, she’d stiffen up, fall asleep, and we could saunter on out of here.

Crack! A pistol shot from Watson, and I saw a spark of flame… and then he and Puck vanished from sight. Nimue did not stop moving.

Well, fuck. Stupid legends.

Nimue surged toward the sound, tentacles waving. I could see her preparing to unleash hell on the spot where they’d disappeared: she probably knew the Hand of Glory better than I did. She knew they were still there, invisible.

“Hey!” I hollered. “Bet I can run faster than you can ooze!”

I didn’t wait to see if she’d taken the bait. I ran, not looking back. You never looked back.

Another thing about fighting things that are bigger than you: they can all move faster than you can. Lots faster. On a sunny day, if you’re heading in the right direction, their shadows give them away. All I had was moonlight, though, and Nimue had a few more arms than your average giant.

Crash! A tentacle pulverized the earth behind me, shaking the ground and forcing me to check my stride in order to keep my balance. Automatically, I dove to the left, tucking into a roll as another one followed just behind it. I sprang to my feet, changing direction, staying just ahead of the earth-shattering blows that she threw at me. Giants were strong and could run fast, but they could not change direction quickly.

I vaulted over a counter and into a concession stand whose boarded up face had long since been ransacked by trespassers less intent on massive property damage than myself. One of them had helpfully bedecked the inside with anatomically questionable depictions of his idea of feminine beauty. Apparently this included P-cups. I was not wearing a sports bra, and didn’t really appreciate the reminder. I didn’t stick around to admire the rest of the cave paintings, though, and threw myself out the side exit into what had looked like a shadowy alley when I’d dodged past it.

Nimue ensured that future generations wouldn’t have to wonder about the identity of the Rembrandt with the boob fetish, smashing the shack into oblivion a split second after I’d burst out of it. For a long moment, I thought that maybe she’d lost track of me as I flattened myself against the wall in the shadows of the alleyway.

I felt a softness glide over my leg, and I started. An orange tabby looked up at me from between my legs. It looked terrified, but maybe it thought that I was a safe place. It cocked its head up at me.

“No, no, no, niiiice kitty,” I mouthed. I mean, seriously?

“Meow!” it responded. Then it hissed, and shot off down the alley as the light of the moon was blotted out behind me. The cat didn’t get far: the alley was a dead end.

I turned around. Nimue blocked the only way out. I grinned, and readied my sword.

“Hello, beastie,” I growled. Her tentacles came for me. I came for her. I charged.

Racing toward a mouth that I could run into without bumping my head had not been at the top of my bucket list, but it had a big advantage: Nimue hadn't expected it. Her limbs surged past me into the empty alley, and I ducked between them. Planting a hand on one of the massive trunks, I hopped up and onto it. Its surface was rubbery, but firm. This close to her body, with her appendages all tangled up inside the alley, it couldn’t move too much.

But I could. Nobody climbed better than Jack.

It took her a few seconds to sort out what had happened, and a few more to extricate herself from the alley. By that time, I’d crested her back, and it took all of the sea legs that good old Captain Jack had in him to prevent me from tumbling straight back off of her. She planted some of her tentacles and threw herself backward, sending both of us flying through the air to slam into the roller coaster.

It worked out as well as both of us had hoped. She ditched her passenger, and I got even more altitude. My sword went flying, but I snagged one of the girders making up the coaster’s substructure and pulled myself up. Casting my eyes around, I saw that I wasn’t far from one of the main supports, with the built-in maintenance rungs that would take me straight to the track. There were three vertical supports between me and the main beam: I’d have to get past them to get to where I needed to go. Trotting down the girder, I reached the first vertical support beam, and eased myself around it.

Nimue crashed her body into the roller coaster again, and I clung on for dear life. She’d found me. As the rocking subsided, I raced as fast as I dared down the girder, planted my hands on the next support beam, and threw myself into space, pivoting around it and landing - barely - on the opposite side.

A tentacle wrapped itself around the girder in front of me. I sprang over it, caught sight of another coming for me in the corner of my eye, and leapt for it, into the void…

For a second, I was running along a tentacle, its suckers pulsing very close to my legs. They had little mouths inside them, and I could hear them whispering, “Gwen… Gwen…”

Not Gwen. Jack.

I leapt for the rungs on the main support beam, and caught the bottom one with my left hand. I swung there for a moment as my shoulder screamed in protest, but there really was no time for pain. I scrabbled up with my right hand, and found a rung. Swinging my legs, I heaved, and pulled… and I was climbing.

Nobody catches Jack while she’s climbing.

A the top of the column, I found myself maybe halfway up the first drop of the coaster. Overhead, I could hear a clattering. Puzzled, I whipped my head down. The coaster was moving! Far below, I saw Watson scramble out of the control booth, and he gave me a little salute.

Good boy,” I whispered, chest heaving. Then I was running again. Up.

Behind me, I heard Nimue climbing. She did it slowly, painfully. Water was her element, and up here in the air, she was off-balance, unsteady. But she was still coming.

I didn’t look back. You never looked back. I scrambled up the slope, half running, half pulling myself up with my hands, so sheer was the ascent. I felt the structure begin to shift and sway under me as Nimue’s bulk tilted from side to side. She was fighting to keep her balance on the narrow track, which was a good sign… as long as she didn’t pull the whole thing over on us.

My breath was coming in ragged heaves as I crested the top of the rise. The wind whipped around me, spraying my hair in all directions. I was a hundred feet up, and it felt for a second like I was closer to the moon than to the earth below. I could just reach up and touch-

Wait. That was no moon. That was a headlight on the roller coaster car.

I threw myself into it, and there was no time to make sure my lap belt was latched with the chest bar securely locked before I was going over the drop. I wrapped my arms around the bar and felt gravity lose its grip.

Nimue clung there on the tracks, fifty feet down. Many of her tentacles were rooting her in place as her massive body tried to keep itself steady. The rest were straining towards me, whispering for me. The roller coaster car obliged, and I rocketed down to meet her. She saw it, and I heard her scream. I screamed, too.

There was a sudden jolt as the car slammed into her. And then, nothing.

I felt the wind rushing around me as I sailed through the air. I was spinning, tumbling, falling, no clue which way was up. I heard a girl’s voice call my name.

Then-

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“Jack?”

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“Jack, come on, you silly. You fell down again.”

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I heard a crack. It sounded like my spine shifting back into place from several other places, and I screamed in agony.

“Oh, Jack,” the girl said, stroking my brow. “You did a real good job this time. But don’t you worry. I’m here. Jill’s here.”

I could see - I’m not sure quite how I could see, because my brains were splattered all over the ground - I could see a little girl standing over me, maybe eight or nine, in a blue dress. She had long, dark tresses, and she was carrying a little red balloon. Her face was all innocent concern as she gave me a gap-toothed smile.

Reality shuddered, and the image of the girl flickered. She was replaced by something that was wrong. For a second, the tresses were fully obscuring her face, her head bent slightly, and she moved as if through stop motion, a grim hand jerking through space and time toward me. She would flicker back to the picture of innocence, and then this grim visage again. A sound like static mixed with a bandsaw hissed through the universe. She touched what was left of my head.

I sat up with a start. My body was whole, and hearty. I felt my skull: no cracks. Satisfied with my handiwork, I smiled, and then I smiled again at my happy little red balloon. I had swapped that silly pirate costume for a sun dress. It was blue, and so pretty.

A woman lay in the dirt nearby. It looked like something really big had landed here, but all I could see was the lady. She had lavender eyes, and she tried to stand up as I walked over. But she was all broken.

“Who…?” she gasped. “How…? I… saw… you… die.”

“I’m Jill,” I said brightly. “When Jack falls down, I’m here to pick up the pieces.” I narrowed my eyes. “And I don’t like you. I’m going to set you on fire now.”

Reality flickered around me with the sound of a bandsaw cutting through the universe. I felt my hair in front of my eyes.

“Thank you,” she gasped, as flames sprang up all around her. “I died ten years ago.” Her purple eyes saw through the flames and the hair, and then I was the little girl again. I bobbled the red balloon happily as I watched the flames take Nimue. Then the little girl was also gone, and I was finally Gwen once more.

“Tell my Gren I love him. And remember,” she whispered. “Remember the mercy of Merlin’s Camelot.”

Then Nimue was gone, as well.

I put a hand on my temple and sagged. I was... I was definitely Gwen again. No Jack, no Jill.
 I was also completely exhausted. There had been the torture, and then… Jack. Jack had been overwhelming. Jill may have put me back together, but everything still ached.

I looked around. I was standing in the wreckage of what had been the ramp for the pirate ship ride. It had been one of those that swung the ship back and forth around a central axle. I saw that axle hanging limp from the struts overhead. Nimue had crashed into it when she fell, and smashed the ship free of her moorings.

But there was no sign of the ship. Just past where I stood, a hill slipped down toward the Potomac River, and I could see a massive trench, just ship-sized, almost as if…

In the distance, on the water, sails unfurled. I heard a bark, and the faint tinkling of fairy wings.

I smiled. Things had changed.

Good boy. See you soon,” I whispered.

The high thrum of a sports car engine cut through the night, approaching fast. I turned and found myself in the headlights of something absurdly expensive. I tensed for a moment, but forced myself to relax: this car wasn't Camelot’s style.

At least, not anybody they still trusted. Doyle came spilling out almost before the car came to a stop.

“Gwen!” he shouted. “Thank god you’re all right! I, er, what happened here? And why are you holding a balloon?”

I gave him a tired smile, and let the balloon drift up into the sky. We watched it for a moment.

“I went all Beowulf on Grendel’s mother,” I said quietly. “Did you know that she was the Lady of the Lake? Same person. Weird. Oh, and I think I died. Is that an Aston Martin?”

“Yes, the Vanquish Volante." He paused. "Beowulf. You died.” Doyle’s expression barely masked the inadequacy of that explanation, but he shook his head impatiently. “You’ll have to tell me all about it some time that is other than right now, because we have to get out of here. Watson’s gone insane, Vivian's gone missing, and I think Camelot has gone to war with you. And maybe me.”

I laughed. “Quite the detective. Vivian... missing? How do you think I got here?" I scoffed.

"She was... vague on what she knew and how. Just that I had to hurry." He paled. “Wait, you mean… she gave you up to them? For what? What the hell is going on here, Gwen?"

"I was going to steal Moriarty's device back from Camelot. I need it to help Frankenstein reanimate my father's corpse."

He blinked, processing. Finally, he nodded. "The toughest girl... toughest person I know is standing here wearing a blue sundress, so I'm fairly confident that I've now seen and heard everything. Fine. Frankenstein. But why steal the hard drive? I gave it to Vivian. The way she was fidgeting, I half assumed that she was getting it for you, anyway."

"No," I said quietly. "Not for me. And she needed me out of the way. Set me up. Murdered Gavin."

He looked genuinely shocked, and then shook his head. “She set you…? No. I don't believe it."

I relayed what Arthur had told me. Doyle snapped his fingers.

"Two shooters? Not her, then."

"Doyle, she's obviously got an accomplice."

He swallowed. "No. The timing doesn't work out. I can account for her... it wasn't her, all right?" he snapped, looking testy.

"If you say so," I shrugged. "But she did set me up. She fed Arthur a story and fed you something and now she's got the hard drive."

"She sent me here," he insisted. "She was genuinely worried for you."

He looked grim. "But that's not all. Watson's locked me out of his systems. He won't respond to me, and half my bag of tricks depends on him. More than half. He's hiding from me. But I know him inside and out: I told you he’s got certain signatures? He’s been watching this area closely. I’ve been trying to decrypt some of his communications, but haven’t had any luck. He’s got every phone or email selector we know of for you under electronic surveillance, though, and has been talking nonstop with Arthur. Nobody in Camelot will talk to me. ”

I shivered. “You said he’s watching this area?” I looked up at the sky.

Doyle nodded. “One of my high-altitude drones. Not weaponized, but you can’t hear it or see it from the ground. The visual fidelity isn’t great unless it gets closer, but-”

I cut him off. “You were right. We’ve got to get out of here. Now. How long would it take for Watson to scramble the big guns?”

“Out here, if he didn’t already have them in the air… twenty minutes?”

“We’ve got ten. Are you still wired up to work some of your magic?” He nodded. “Then I’ll drive. You’re going to be busy.”

The sound of sirens wailed in the distance. I looked at Doyle, who got that blank look that meant he was interfacing with some remote computer.

“Not everything I do is dependent on Watson. He’s locked out of me just like I am from him, but I have a few other tricks… APB. Both of our photos, plus a picture of my car and the plate. Wanted for involvement in the tragedy at the Diogenes Club? A confession from the female perpetrator?”

I gritted my teeth. “Your damn robot has a lot to answer for. Get in,” I gestured to the passenger seat. “Keep him off of our ass long enough for us to get to the Wilson Bridge.”

“He’s an artificial intelligence. What are you going to do?”

I slid in and wrapped my hands around the wheel. The leather crunched softly under my grip.

“Fly.”