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The Ravenlungs: The Serpent of Sty

By Alex Lehr All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Thriller

Chapter One

Frantic is not a word used lightly to describe the tumultuous pitter patter across The Dead Flakes. It is too sullen a word, jealous of far better words in their fine, fitting place among the true descriptions of one who must cross such a terrifying acre. The onion scented gates, rusted and chipping away at every second, slowly open themselves, and those who stand before them are pulled in by a fierce wind, one that needs them, and one that shall have them. Alas, behold, the world about, a fickle landscape, to say the least. One moment Ashland… the next, Paradise en Meadow. But both are illusions. Only the skin flakes light the way, snowing down from an unseen Nevaeh. The skinflakes persist despite what illusion the acre casts, and thus, follow it carefully, up the cobbled, winding lane to the towering Ravenlung Manor.

Good God Ravenlung Manor. Nasty. Disgusting. It was beautiful. It smelled like a sewer, and the very air tasted as a fine entrée of battered rat brains and fresh dung straight from the Whitechapel whores themselves. Such a delight it was! Oh glorious manor, how flakes your darling crimson paint of old, how rotten do your window shutters loom, and oh how your ivy, Downstairs imported, chokes the very shell of old Mirley Plantation (now renamed Ravenlung Manor for a more darling composition of title and meaning).

So go ahead, Mr. Wheat, with your bread-like name and walrus-like face. Go ahead, and knock, knock, but remember the third knock too, upon that which is the door. Do mind the door’s highly detailed, clown-like face so beautifully carved into the redwood, withered as it may be. That smile likes to take a nip, here and there.

Mr. Wheat did knock, quickly enough pulling his old hand away from the wooden clown nose before it sniffed at him (as it had done on his last two visits, signaling a most precious death to come, no doubt). Even so with his quick withdraw, the door sniffed… and sniffed him well.

Later, perhaps, when we’re all alone.

Wheat would glance here and there when he waited on these occasions of visit, his mind commonly preoccupied by the hilltop graveyard that smiled down at him. Tough Luck Resting Grounds was its name, beautifully engraved above its black grated gates, and even now, Mr. Wheat could hear the zombies singing. They liked to do that often with visits, means of showing off for newcomers and returners alike as they chorused through the latest hits (updates frequently provided by the daughter, Dusk). Even now, they sung their unmoving hearts out from beneath the soil, a rattling display of Dangerous Woman. Muffled, they were in their own rights gods of composition, and Wheat appreciated the sentiment. At least his visits were always welcomed in what must always be assumed to be the positive manner.

The door creaked open. One of the zombies, of course, did not live in the graveyard. He instead lived in the house, a rotting corpse, smellier than a presidential candidate’s lie sweat, missing eyes and brain dangling down from a splintered cranium. He shuffled forward, teeth barred, jaw agape, and Mr. Wheat tipped a bowler in the zombie’s favor, shuffling forward with his own arms outstretched, to mimic his butler friend. Two become one in brotherly embrace, Wheat patting the undead butler gently, and without a word, the two were inside the “manor,” and the door shut out the singing zombies.

Wiping the skin flakes from his jacket, Mr. Wheat turned to the butler, who wore his finest, sagging nudity, and smiled sadly.

“Sad business, old chap,” the walrus sighed. “I’m afraid I must confer with your mistress on a most grievous manner. Is she ready for me, then?”

The zombie moaned, its purple tongue snaking down slowly, hanging in midair grace. It gestured with a hand, and Wheat followed the treacherous beast across the brightly lit foyer. Such a graceful utopia indoors. Say what you will concerning its outer features. They only hid mirror polished flooring, chandeliers of stain-glass true, and a most elaborate staircase of mahogany spiral. Severed heads lined the walls, each a finely preserved young or old man and woman of varying names, from George Ravenlung III to Calibrary Ravenlung nee Colliester. Fine family members, all preserved in death and honored with daily polish. As Mr. Wheat followed the butler to the staircase, each head in the hall opened eyes filled with interest, and mouths called out in beautiful unison, “Welcome back Mr. Wheat!”

Mr. Wheat bowed to the dead, smiling and waving, but his heart was heavy. Such bad things to be happening on what had otherwise been a fine day in Deluxe City. Even a cheery hello from many severed heads could not ease his spirits today. That was Madame Ravenlung’s job.

On the upper landing, a long hall adorned with beautiful paintings. One depicted a man being boiled alive. Another, a woman slitting her own wrists as her husband merrily drunk her dripping blood. All new works, of course. Dusk was getting better, her contrast finely attuned to her diverse color palettes. And behold… there she was there, at the end of the hall.

Dusk Ravenlung. Fifteen. Bountiful. Beautiful. Her hair, dark as the nightly shadows that suffocated pale skinned lids. Lips gray as his little remaining hair, a dress so ragged and dusty that she may very well be a corpse recently dug up from the singing graveyard. Her silver eyes found him, as did her dead expression, and she slowly curtseyed the manor’s guest. Mr. Wheat took the girl’s hand in his own and laid a walrus kiss upon it, inhaling dust that happily leapt into his throat from her skin. He coughed violently, punching his chest several times as Dusk waited politely (and expressionless) for him to stop.

“Very nice to see you, Miss Ravenlung,” he finally managed, smiling a watery eyed smile at her. “Your paintings are getting along beautifully dear.”

“Thanks.” One simple word, a voice as dead as everything else about her. “I would very much like to paint you being poisoned by an Inland taipan, commonly referred to as the fierce snake. Your eyes would be punctured, of course.” She curtseyed again. Wheat felt his heart swell with pride.

“God bless you, sweet child,” he whispered, eyeing the one she was currently working on, careful not to trample the painting supplies scattered about the floor. A writer set aflame, his laptop exploding into pieces, his glasses shattering, one blue eye popping out in a glorious squirt of blood. It was a fine piece, to be sure. “Get that one done there, and I shall expect my snake-like demise upon my next return. However, you may be delayed. I am in need of aid. Wait out here until we call for you.”

Dusk turned back to her painting. “Don’t get maimed.”

The zombie led Mr. Wheat into a door at the end of the hall, shutting Mr. Wheat away from the fetching Dusk and into the presence of the equally fetching Madame Ravenlung. Seventy-two, six years superior to Mr. Wheat, she was like a birthday present that had been forgotten in the attic long ago. Her wrapping still flourished a headache inducing hot pink, this color applied to the fur that practically raped her small, elderly frame. Some women have foxes killed so that their pelts may adorn their shoulders. Madame Ravenlung went for the full bear, dyed bubblegum to smother her in her own perception of royalty. In her marvelous chamber of antique clocks and crystal china, she awaited Wheat upon a lavish chintz, sipping from a recently opened bottle of three hundred year old ale.

“Fluffy, will you seat Mr. Wheat?” she cackled in her Wicked Witch-like voice.

Fluffy, the zombie butler, reached out with his bony arms and hoisted the plump Wheat right into the air, setting him down on a Lazy Child armchair. The chair began to devour him at once, sucking him, desiring his bones…

“Enough of that now.” The Madame’s voice cracked like a whip, and the chair allowed Wheat another day of life as it was expected to do. “Now, now… Mr. Wheat, please tell me this is a social visit bordering on the sexual adventures of Miss Kitty and Captain Walrus…”

“Not today, dear flower,” Wheat replied solemnly, gripping his bowler tightly as he stared sadly at his fat feet. “We have a terrible problem. Something that requires the children, I’m afraid.”

“What requires us?” A voice whispered in Wheat’s ear, and it was as sharp and deadly as the glinting knife blade that suddenly rested itself upon the old man’s throat. Wheat, however, smiled kindly, glancing up at Adrian Ravenlung’s hungry expression. A male twin of Dusk, like a vampiric, dusty Doppelganger, the fifteen year old’s thin, snake-like nostrils smelled at the air around Wheat’s bald head. “What needs us? What do I need with it?” He closed his eyes, gripping the knife in his hand tightly. “Shall I cut you today?”

“Yourself first, son.”

“Seventeen times today… maybe you, now?”

“To bed with you,” the Madame cried at once, wagging her bony finger. “He is our guest, and he will not be cut today!”

Adrian violently jumped backward and sprinted around the chair, waving the knife in the old woman’s face. “You’re a foul, mean grandma and I hope you fall out the window and onto a spike!” he roared in her face, before promptly fleeing from her presence, vanishing through the door as quickly as he had appeared.

The Madame looked amused, and Wheat could not help but grin. “He’s growing into a fine young man, Lily.”

“Indeed the little bastard is,” Madame Lily Ravenlung exclaimed, looking fondly at the door that her grandson had vanished through. “He must, however, remember that Mr. Wheat is much too sweet to be carved like meat.”

“Lily, what of your grandchildren aiding me like they did in Tangtown? This is a matter of death.”

“My favorite. What seems to be the trouble, then?”

Heartbroken at the very thought of discussing these sad matters, Mr. Wheat sighed, leaned forward, and began his woeful tale.

“Sty has been attacked.”

“Really!?” Lily was very troubled by this. Troubled, and a little excited. “Do tell!”

“It was awful. Just awful. My dear Lily…I’m afraid Peppersnout is gone.”

Whatever excitement had filled the dear lady Ravenlung vanished at once. Her old eyes widened, and filled with a terrible combination of fear and wetness. “Peppersnout?”

“It goes much deeper, my love. Not just Peppersnout. But all of them. Every animal in Bloodbooger Zoo has been unleashed upon Sty. A massive zoo break. Peppersnout was among the first animals that escaped into the city… I’m sorry.”

“That poor creature,” Lily exclaimed, and she descended in woe. “It cannot- it knows not how to- we must save him!”

“We will, we shall, but the animals… something is happening with them. They didn’t just escape the zoo, Lily. They’re coordinating attacks in a highly sophisticated manner. They are working in packs with precision and intelligence. We believe they are under the influence of a Darkod.”

“Have mercy!”

“Yes. The elephants have been most tumultuous. One nearly stepped upon me this very evening as I prepared to come see you. No street is safe. We need to know who released them, and who is coordinating these attacks. If it is indeed a Darkod, I feel that the children will be able to help me. They are fine detectives, Lily. I have faith in them.”

“Finer than all of your lot back in Sty, I’d wager. Lazy scoundrels, the lot of them, including you, Wheat!” Lily roared defiantly.

“Too true, I’m afraid,” Wheat agreed sadly. “We haven’t the forces to deal with escaped animals under the influence of something like a Darkod puppeteer. But if we bring in the children who solved the Tangotown Massacre mystery, I feel confident we can nip this in the bud before the death toll rises too high…”

“Have you come of your own accord, then?”

“Of my own, and on the hopes of colleagues who believe in your grandchildren’s’ talents. Would you allow them to review the case files? Perhaps even go as far as letting them on the scene itself?”

“That’s not my decision, Wheat, now is it? That’s the decision of the children.”

“You’re the legal, Lily,” Wheat protested. “I need a signed-“

Lily shook her head. “No legalities. This is a matter of the children, and the children alone, Barliman. Dusk!” She piped up loudly towards the door. “Bring your brother in, will you, love?”

There was a momentary silence, cut fine indeed into their souls for its cold stillness. Then, a scraping on the outside. A scuffling sound. Banging on the walls. Hisses most snake-like. Then, after a few moments, Dusk promptly marched in, still dead-faced, dragging in dear Adrian. She drug him by a thick chain around his neck, and the young man was wildly clawing at the chain, hissing louder and louder with each passing second.

“Take it off already Dusk! Take it off!”

“In a moment,” came the monotone reply. She came to sit neatly upon the floor, bringing her brother down with her to his knees. Wheat concentrated hard upon the girl, feeling a swelling of pride and warmth within, and then turned his attention to Adrian.

“Feeling better, son?”

Adrian grinned. It was the scariest of all smiles. “I’m sorry grandmother for the way I spoke earlier.” He was staring at Wheat, oblivious to Lily sitting across in the other direction.

“That’s…okay?” Wheat attempted. Lily smiled, nodding at him. Dusk, as always, looked nothing. Felt nothing. But she did release the chain, and Adrian scurried into a dark corner, caressing his knife closely. Dusk turned her head in his direction… and it did not move. She only stared…and stared... and stared…

“Dusk, Adrian, I was wondering if we could get your help on a matter most perilous,” Wheat explained, and he promptly began to tell them what he had told Lily, of the mass zoo breakout and the possibility of a Darkod involvement.

“I wonder why a Darkod would be interested in a zoo breakout,” Dusk said after he finished, still staring blankly at her brother in the corner, who was whispering urgently to his knife. Arguing with it. “It seems….so childish. Foolhardy territory of a witchling.”

“We only have evidence in small form,” Wheat assured the girl, happy to be conversing with Dusk. It was a fine thing indeed. Always a pleasure, in fact. “A marking burned into the stone walkway of the zoo, a marking of Gelix Fire. The insignia of Pleasure.”

“Dolos,” Lily whispered, most intrigued now. “The demon Dolos!”

“Nice guy,” Dusk whispered, her voice still so-very-dead.

“Dolos,” Adrian whispered angrily to the knife. “Dolos, you fucktard!”

“Indeed,” Wheat acknowledged. “The mark of Pleasure is feared by many, and it was right to stir up a media frenzy. Though what Dolos and escaped animals have to do with each other, I haven’t a clue. I was hoping to consult your library. It’s probably got the only answers to be found in a thousand leagues.”

“The library is being renovated, dear Barliman,” Lily cooed, shaking her head sadly. “A minotaur infestation. Should be cleared out by next week.”

“Did they escape from the Greek mythology section?”

“No, no, dear. Young Adult fiction. Nevertheless, I have a few books downstairs on demonology. Dolos has an entire box dedicated to him. Scars and Scabs Left Behind In Dolos Sex Dungeons and I Married Dolos For a Day and It Changed My Life. Children, are you interested in helping Barliman?”

“Is there a chance we’ll die in this investigation?” Dusk asked quietly.

“Yes, I’d say so,” her grandmother replied, looking thoughtful.

Dusk nodded. “I’m in.”

Adrian crawled forward out of the dark corner now, brandishing his knife at Dusk and resting it against her throat. “Haven’t we got better things to do with our lives!?” he hissed in her ear, his teeth chattering together. “Haven’t I got better things to do!?”

“If you don’t help me,” Dusk said, blinking, “I’ll put snakes in your bed.”

“Do you promise?” The knife drew blood. Dusk slowly raised a finger, dipped her index in her small cut’s trickle, and sucked the blood slowly.

“Either way, I’m going to do it,” she answered.

“Alright, then, I’m in!” Adrian cried, looking ecstatic. “King snake, copperhead, diamondback, garder-“ He leapt up, grinning hugely at his knife as he walked away, naming off the different kinds of snakes that his sister would surely dump upon him later. Dusk turned her head to Wheat, her large silver eyes scanning him blankly.

“Leads beyond the mark of Pleasure. They’ll work wonders, no doubt.”

“None beyond it. No witness to anyone acting out of the ordinary on the day of the escape. Three Bloodbooger zookeepers found strangled to death by ropes, their bodies hidden in trash bins, but it was confirmed by several workers that these were suicides apparently in pending. Pre-planned. Not uncommon for Deathseekers. That’s why they live, after all. They’re all up and about now, and have assured us that their suicides were not foul play. However, I am willing to bring you to the mark. I know your…special talent….will open the way.”

“Fine.” Dusk stood slowly. “I’ll bring dinner home.” She turned away from Lily and walked slowly out of the room, Wheat watching her until she vanished through the door. Smiling at such a fine girl.

“She’s a gem,” he whispered to himself, looking around at Madame Ravenlung. “Dear Lily, you’re doing a fine job of raising these kids.”

“I do what I can, love,” Lily exclaimed, hugging her fur tightly around herself. “Dusk will soon be sixteen, and old enough to begin her career at Scab Brothel.”

“She’s too talented for that dirty place,” Wheat scoffed defiantly. “Put her and Adrian to work at the department with me. God knows they have the talent.”

“Can’t be too sure, can we, Barliman? It’s tradition for the Ravenlung women to work as lice sprayers. Comes with the natural territories and all whatnot.”

Wheat smirked. “I do believe that young Dusk is better suited elsewhere. But by all means, Adrian is well fit for his career. When does he begin graverobbing?”

“As soon as the boy is of a clearer mind. Do take care of him, Barliman. Cases like this are what put him in such a state.”

“A state?” Wheat was amused. “He seems quite normal to me.”

“Quite normal indeed.” Wheat glanced up at the rearview mirror. Adrian was gnawing on his sister’s index, biting hard out of irritation of some unseen matter, while Dusk sat still, quiet, and as forever, expressionless. “Children- um, I mean, Ravenlungs- it’s been a while, hasn’t it, since you’ve been to town? Feeling alright?”

“Alright is an abstract concept of the soul,” Dusk said blankly. “It tastes like maggots.”

“Too many maggots, not enough of bredge,” Adrian piped up, fiercely stabbing the backside of the passenger seat. Wheat pondered their mysterious responses as he maneuvered the smoking Cadillac down Cherub Road and cityward for Sty’s northern gates. The city of the ghouls hid behind towering walls of en-jaded obsidian, and the green flamed lamps of its outer face greeted them in the distance. A skinflake storm had followed them off of Ravenlung property, and the Cadillac’s windshield wipers were on a fierce labor indeed. It had been hell packing the two teenagers’ things into the trunk without getting flesh particles all over the interior. A duffel of small canvases, sketchpads, chalk and crayons for Dusk, and a smaller bag for Adrian, consisting of two carving knives, a simple wooden bowl, and a silver flask. Investigative tools of legend, they were.

Wheat had pondered as to their current state of mind in registering that, in fact, Sty was destination. It was funny, really, to think that these two were calm. He certainly was not. The frantic riots, the attacks from wild, undead animals, it had driven him into a desperate move. He had not exactly followed proper procedure before coming after them. And by proper procedure, it was to remove the current probations on each teen.

Dusk had kidnapped an infant from a family in Deluxe, Sty’s neighboring metropolis. A pet, the baby had been to her, a simple experiment of what it would be like to have one around the house. The boy’s parents had been murderous in their attempts at reclamation. Dusk was still serving her two-month house arrest. However, Wheat was not troubled for her. Her crime was miniscule in the shadow of Adrian’s. Adrian, who had carved up a mailman for delivering letters too slowly to the manor box. Adrian, who had stalked the bloodied mailman home and sliced every wall, photograph and cereal box the man’s home had to offer. Adrian, who had tried to take the mailman hostage for the sake of closure. His house arrest was currently sitting at two years.

Now he was bringing both of them into the heart of Sty Operations. This was not going to go over well… but the state of emergency would guarantee forgiveness.

The gate to the city loomed, its black bulk settled nicely against the dark blue, stormy sky. It was more a massive door than a gate, guarded by two massive trolls. The trolls, pale skinned, elephantine, sported ram-like horns upon their crowns and large, curved fangs that hung out of their gaping mouths. Each one held an oversized pistol, ready at a moment’s notice. Not wishing to waste time chatting, Wheat pressed a small button next to the speedometer, and his headlights flashed several times in procession, bright green. The signal for clearance. These trolls, of course, knew him by sight, and of the urgent business at hand. They stomped their giant feet as if caught in a fine dance, and the massive door swung forward at once.

“Rum on!” one of the trolls roared, his voice’s seismic effect rattling the Cadillac. “Rum on in, Miwer Wheatie!”

Wheat tipped his bowler to them as he drove past their lumberiness and into the city of Sty. Sty, more a suburb than a true city when overshadowed by Deluxe, was of bustling energy like no other today. The streets were paved in green stone, covered in raw sewage and sporting all manner of fungi that breathed out fresh purple fumes of toxin. The sky above the city was crimson, twinkling a host of black stars. Every building twisted and shaped itself into abstract perfection, zig zags and circles and manners of polygonal ecstasy. Werewolves howled from the alleyways. Street vendors cried out in hopes of securing sales over their books of hexes and freshly dug up aphrodisiacs. Shoes walked without owners, little blue goblins, their fat, pointy ears flapping merrily about, chased down fine women with cash in hand. There were those who walked nude and those who walked fully wrapped, particularly the spirits of the mummified. The air was saturated in the delightful smell of rotten carcass.

“So many veins,” whispered Adrian. “So many arteries…”

“And little time to enjoy them all,” Dusk added, licking the window mindlessly with her gray tongue.

“In time, dear,” Wheat said quietly, more to himself than any other person. “Adrian, my boy, is your girl still living in the limits? I thought it might be nice to have her around while you’re here. She can help you stay…. focused on productive things. I’m sure she’d like to accompany us to see your sister.”

“Barianna lives everywhere,” Adrian huffed, looking proud as he crossed his arms. “Always watching out for her big man, always needing the knife to cut into her flesh some more.”

“She’ll be here soon,” Dusk whispered. “She’s following the car above.”

Wheat glanced up through the sunroof. Indeed, there did seem to be someone far above, circling slowly, riding atop what appeared to be a thick cloud of black. “Is that really her?”

“Barianna, my love,” Adrian cried, clapping his hands merrily. “Come down to me! Come down to me!”

“Good timing,” Wheat muttered, as he pulled the car to a stop across the street from HQ. The towering hexagonal structure jutted bladed towers of black painted ivory, with most poisonous fumes pouring out of the chimney. Scaly, bat-like, rhino-headed creatures watched from all corners along its walls, gargoyles under the direct command of City Hall. Wheat stepped out on the sidewalk and bade the children follow him, just as the figure circling above began descent, the black cloud dissipating.

The girl who fell before them landed with ballerina-like grace, head bowed, legs crossed, arms stretched out. A thick coat of wavy tangerine hair fluffed about as the girl threw her head back and unleashed a vicious, animalistic cackle. It was a beautifully evil sound, and she threw herself at Adrian at once. The two locked in a frantic embrace, Wheat backing against the nearby park fence, eyes wide. Adrian’s knife flashed several times, here and there, and the girl giggled madly. Her skin was bright today, pinky orange and glistening in what could only be theorized as being hundreds of tiny diamonds embedded into the fleshworks. Crimson eyes batted lids at her lover, black lips landing kiss after kiss upon the Ravenlung boy’s lips. Around the girl’s waste, a fur pelt of many colors, painted from claimed werewolves. She was a sight.

“Dearest Adrian, sweet Adrian.” Her accent was thick, a Germanic delicacy, to be sure. She gazed lovingly at the fresh cuts into her arms that Adrian had gifted her, studying the blood that flowed from her veins in awe. “Such a lovely gift.” She spun around, and stood before Dusk, who stared at her with non-existent interest. “You’re looking beautiful as the night,” Barianna Nadia cooed, her red nailed hand reaching out and gripping Dusk’s throat tightly. “Have you been taking care of my beloved for me?”

“All in good time,” Dusk promised, glancing down at the arm that threatened to strangle her. “I’ve not had my shots recently. I’ll bite you.”

Barianna grinned, retracting her hand and slapping Dusk playfully (and firmly), before turning to Wheat. Adrian cooed at her feet, dog-like, his arms wrapping around her leg. “Lily gave me a call,” she said to Wheat. “You’re after the Zoo Trickster!”

“Stupid name, if you ask me,” Wheat huffed. “The papers have lost their edge.”

“Maybe I could name him or her, then, if I catch him or her first!” Barianna giggled, clenching her fists tightly. Black fire formed around her hands, her eyes alight with a fire of their own. “Lily asked me to keep Adrian in check and I just couldn’t resist the thought of seeing my roadkill again!” She reached down with a hand and squeezed Adrian’s cheeks. “He’s been cooped up in that nasty place for too long!”

“I’ll get that fixed today,” Wheat assured her. “I’ve got to take these two to HQ and have their house arrests revoked. Then we’ll be heading to Congress At Work.”

“Why on earth would you go there?” Barianna demanded, hands upon her hips.

“Venelope,” Dusk answered. “Venelope lives there.”

Barianna raised her eyebrows. “Your older sister? What did she do to get put in the nut house?”

“She didn’t get put in there. I said she lives there.”

An awkward silence, and an irritated beckon from Wheat. “Let’s get inside and get started. Do be careful crossing the street dear.” He offered Dusk his hand, smiling kindly enough, and Dusk too it, walking together with the old man into the searing hot roadway. Naked cherubs flew overhead, their features deformed, cackling silently together as they pointed at the group. Claws retracted and fangs flashed, but Barianna was already on the move. One step forward, a pummel of her fist into her palm, and the shockwave that emitted from her sent the cherubs scattering, tossing and turning about in the air, hissing wildly. HQ really was in a bad part of town… but that was precisely why.

“I’ve been hoping Miss Lily would invite me back soon,” Barianna was telling Adrian, who crawled along the ground behind her like a loyal pup. She had summoned into her hand a black leash, and was leading him on carefully, even as the road seared his hands red. He did not seem to mind. “I do miss your grandmother, Beast. She needs the opportunity to build a relationship with her future daughter-in-law.”

“I might vomit,” Dusk said in disgust…at least, it may be assumed that way, as her voice never shifted past blankness… knowing her, it might also be the expression of pleasant thought.

“And of course, you, Dusk, dear. I’ll be your sister in the coming years. Mr. Wheat, did you know that Adrian gave me a precious Ouji diarmane?”

“Yes, and the ring was returned to its rightful owner, if I recall correctly,” Wheat muttered as they reached the shadow of HQ. “Along with his finger.”

Her finger,” Barianna corrected him, and she seemed huffy. “Treacherous squealer, she is. I’ve a mind to get it back.”

“Adrian will buy you a ring worthy of his devotion, I am sure of it,” Wheat said shortly. He seemed put off by Barianna, a thought that he was sure was shared by Dusk at the best of times. “And for further record, you shouldn’t be telling an Authority Bastard of these illegal intentions. Remember that, Barianna.”

They entered the brightly lit halls of HQ in silence, Wheat forcing Adrian to his feet. The more proper the presentation, the more likely reviews would be positive. Wheat held onto the boy’s arm fiercely, threatening him silently with a look that said brandish that knife and I’ll give you hell for it, boy. Glowing yellow eyes peered out at them from holes in the lavish pink wallpaper. The mirror-like floor reflected them as fat, slimy looking creatures (or, in the case of the usually plump Barliman Wheat, a skinny parasite with tentacles for a face). Severed human heads hung from the ceiling, lights held within their gaping mouths and eyeless sockets, casting a green hue over the interior. Each of them bade a muffled, “Ger ’’ay,” as they passed. Dusk fell behind the group some ways, and promptly leapt into the air, kissing one of them on the cheek before scurrying away to rejoin the group.

The main offices of HQ were a bustling utopia of rock mounds. Spiders crawled about these small boulders, shuffling papers, shouting on cellulars and typing irritably at the keyboards. The spiders had the fastest hands in Sty, and as such made a killing working administration. One spider in particular, an albino wolf, waved all eight appendages in Wheat’s favor and called out, “Boss is looking for you! His office.”

“Thank you, Marjorie.” Wheat sighed. He expected much hell for having vanished the way he did. Fetched the Ravenlung junior detectives without a word of permit. Still, Commander Sybl had to be desperate at this point.

As they made their way for a nearby elevator, a spider on one of the westerly mounds cried out, “Monkeys in Maverick Heights! Five dead! That means you, Churley!”

Churley, an obese zombie, dropped his hand sandwich irritably and scattered for the exit, no doubt to investigate another tragic scene. The monkeys responsible would be long gone before the police arrived, as had been tradition since this breakout had occurred. Good thing the children were soon to be on the case. Their gifts would change everything.

“Miss Nadia,” Wheat said, and he bowed to Barianna as they entered the elevator, barring her entry, “authorized personnel only. You can wait down here and we’ll go to Wiggle together.”

He grinned brightly at the annoyed girl, in whose face he slammed the elevator gate shut. The elevator already knew where to take him. It blasted off upward like a bullet, wind overtaking them with ravenous velocity devouring their every inch. It rattled and rattled hard, and Dusk did vomit…all over Wheat’s new loafers. Damn it to hell, he thought, though he would never say it aloud. Dusk was a fragile child. She stared at him blankly, and whispered, “Consider it a gift.”

The elevator halted with a tumultuous rockiness, and the doors slid open. Almost at once, a voice shouted down at them from the end of the long, empty corridor of darkness. “IN!”

A wind gripped them, pulling them forward, and Wheat knew better than to resist. Through a combination of the wind’s dominant call and their own will, they stepped into the darkness. Light flooded the room from above, descending down in a radiant shower of gold. The world around them shifted, and became not unlike the common planetarium, a void filled with hundreds of flickering yellow lights. Stars if they professed themselves in tongues, but in truth, they were the lights of the city’s inhabitants. Every citizen of Deluxe and Sty had a light, always to be watched closely… until it was snuffed out.

A figure was descending down along with these lights. With a loud clunk he landed before the group, shaking the floor. The armor he wore was a fine Mythrilian set, reflective, impenetrable and fluorescent green. Blades protruded from the armor limbs, and fire continually engulfed the triangular greaves. The man before them wore no helmet, but the demon Sybl needed it not. He had no head to hide; instead, upon his shoulders sat a blackness of sorts, a floating, set in place darkness, spherical cloud that it was. Inside that blackness, a mini storm of lighting was raging.

“I’ve had enough of this.” His voice was everywhere. It was in the walls, beneath the floor, beyond the ceiling. His voice was the air itself. “You bring these probationists before me against the authority of Sty. I did not permit this!”

Wheat stood his ground, pulling Dusk closely to himself. “I think you’ll find the solution to the epidemic lies before you, Commander.”

“You risk imprisonment!” the demon hissed, stepping forward with a bladed, metal finger pointing in accusation. “She is not permitted within the city for a month more. The boy… how many years must we throw upon him!?”

“Five deaths at Maverick Heights,” Wheat snapped, his walrus mustache twitching. “Monkeys. How many more before the city turns against its protectors, Commander?”

“Do not patronize me! I have seen their lights extinguished. Do you think I’m below this knowledge? I would have you kneel.”

“How about you sign papers for these beloved children,” said Wheat, not moving, “terminating their public suspension so that we may collect Venelope and make for the zoo. The sooner I get them out there, the better it will be for this city. Do you not wish to resolve this mess?”

A chill like nothing felt before. The very air began to freeze. As they talked, lights all over were fading out, with new ones taking their places. People were dying every minute. The demonic commander stepped forward, until he was void to nose with Wheat, and the old man breathed in the monster’s foul odor, which was sulfuric in nature.

“You’re forgetting your place,” Sybl breathed.

“It is with this city and the welfare of its people,” Wheat whispered darkly, not flinching in the dark one’s presence. Dusk was tracing her finger along the flowery-like lines of gold engraved into Sybl’s armor, eating some of the flesh off her finger as she waited for the confrontation to end. Adrian, meanwhile, was shaking in terror, hiding behind Wheat with his knife squeezed so tightly in hand.

“This boy,” Sybl said at length, motioning to Adrian, “will not provide service to this city. He is incapable.”

“I shall be the judge of that. These animals are killing people, and the possibility of both Dolos and Darkod involvement means that we need our ace now. Dusk and Adrian are capable of this. You know what they can do.”

“Magic tricks do not override the law!”

“They will in this case, because you are desperate… and desperate men look very incapable in the eyes of the public. What if the mayor were to discover your attempts to block out the keys to the mystery? He personally finds the Ravenlungs a fine family.”

“His bank account finds them in favor. He hides behind the Madame’s bribes.”

“Which should highlight the seriousness of what you’re holding back. You get in the way of his money… and you’ll have a greater issue than rampaging animals to deal with. I assure you of that.” In the presence of this demon, Barliman Wheat betrayed not fear. He held his own, and he held it well. “Now, Commander… about those papers…”

“You have…so much nerve, Barliman.” The freezing air dissipated. Sybl’s balls weren’t his own. He raised a fist, and two sheets of paper formed into being. They glowed with sourceless yellow light. Documentation of probation suspension. “I’m surprised to see you so confident in these creatures’ means.” A sharp finger prodded Wheat in the nose. “I. Expect. Results.”

He placed his hands upon the papers irritably, and the name Son of Markin appeared in the signature lines. But before the demon would offer a seal of confirmation, he tested them in silence.

Scent lay in there, the smell of a question. Inquiries had their odors. “Speak it, Dusk Ravenlung.”

“How much does our grandmother offer Mayor Ravenous for our public service?” Dusk blinked only once, the only hint of expression.

“Why do you ask me?”

“Because as we provide for the common welfare, I would like the title “Princess Ravenlung.” Shall we oblige?” If Dusk could smile (or, for that matter, express at all), she may have smirked. She was just wasting the Commander’s time, and she knew it. The demon knelt down before her.

“Princess for pennies? Do you find royalty in your name?”

“Yes.”

“And claim to Sty?”

“We’ll see.” She began to pick at scabs on her arm. Wheat smiled.

“The girl is right, Commander Sybl. Admiral charity is to be commended. Treat these children with respect.”

“I want to see you,” Sybl said, very slowly, very grimly, “in my office at seven this night. I shall expect a full report on your findings… and a lead. Fail to do this, and you will be severely beaten, Wheat. May Madame Ravenlung’s royalty save you from that.”

“Then do the children have your mark?”

“Consider them free to terrorize the city as they wish… they are royalty, after all. You will be severely punished for the smallest incident, Wheat. You will be terrorized, driven down and destroyed if a single thing is out of the place at the hands of these children. I will personally oversee it.”

“You do that,” Wheat said, nodding with a small smile. “Thank you for your time, Sybl. The mark, please.”

Sybl raised one hand, and clenched a fist. On each parchment, a seal in black, two hearts impaled upon by spear-tongued skulls.

“It is, then,” the demon assured them. “Leave.”

Wheat escorted them out of the room with all haste, and all but Dusk concentrated on the way ahead. She turned her head to note Sybl, who was standing stone still and watching them all with what could be assumed to be concentration (headlessness made perception difficult). She gave him a small wave before they entered the elevator and vanished from his presence.

Wheat exhaled only after they had escaped. “Guy scares me something bad.”

“You could have fooled no one,” Dusk offered. “Your sweat is melodramatic and the aroma, a traitor. Consider bravery. Consider nerve.”

“Fraidy cat,” Adrian spat in Wheat’s ear, prodding the old man with the knife. “Fraidy cat!” Wheat lost his temper, and snatched the knife right out of the boy’s hand. Adrian gasped loudly, backing against the wall, his head in his hands, shaking in disbelief.

“Enough.” Wheat’s voice was a growl. He pocketed Adrian’s precious friend, and the boy tried desperately to find the pocket, clawing at the air, hyperventilating.

“Giveitback…pleasegiveitback…giveitbacknowrightnow…” Jumbled together words, a sweat filled tone.

“In time.”

“Consequences shall be a theme, Adrian.” Dusk hugged him tightly, the only solution of calmness available. “Best to behave.”

“That goes for the both of you,” Wheat warned. The elevator came to a halt, and Barianna came to join them from a nearby bench.

“Am I allowed back into the posse, then?” She was stroking a black kitten in her arms, her face filled with irritation.

“Consider Adrian a free man.”

At this, the teenager cried out, flinging her arms outward, the cat rocketing away into the darkness with an angry meeeoooww as she squashed Adrian, who now forgot all about his missing knife. Dusk fell onto the floor at Barianna’s brute push, and stared up at her future sister-in-law with what Wheat was surprised to see eyes a millimeter wider than usual. Just a miniscule change. It quickly relapsed into death once more.

“I’m so proud of you, Beast! We shall celebrate tonight! I know a place…”

Wheat motioned for the group to follow them, and stepping out into the city once more, he smiled kindly at Dusk, who was still staring at Barianna silently. “Feeling up to an investigation?”

“Yes,” she replied slowly, without averting her gaze from her brother’s lover, “I am.”

Wheat blushed. “Excellent, excellent… we’ll be in order before long. It’s all to do with these riots, they’ve got to cease. As soon as Mayor Ravenous passed his anti-masking decree…” He shivered. “Well, I just know this is a part of that. Protests eventually evolve into far worse things.”

“You suspect a Lackoid, then?”

Wheat shrugged. “I don’t know who to suspect. It would seem that a Lackoid wants to make a statement of sorts, but- at the cost of these lives? No sir.” They all remembered that day well. Mayor Ravenous stood at the balcony of City Hall and made that terrible, world changing speech. Once masking had become outlawed, there really had been hell in the streets. It had started with protests outside of the hall. Protests had turned to graffiti. That vandalism had turned to riots. Riots had turned to public beatings of civil officials. It was logical that the next step could involve something as destructive as a zoo breakout. The people wanted to mask.

When they reached the car, Wheat offered Adrian a door, but he was promptly drug away by Barianna onto the large black cloud that awaited them.

“We’ll see you at Wiggle!” she called out as the black cloud ascended with both of them aboard. “It’s been far too long!”

“I”LL WANT MY KNIFE BACK!” Adrian roared as the cloud hit the sky and blasted off to the east. Dusk sucked on her middle finger dreamily, and then entered the car with Wheat. He was in a fine state indeed to have her as company. Adrian complicated things, and Dusk was a fine girl to converse with.

“Would you like a cold drink?” he asked her as they sped down the road, turning right and heading for the Hills of Sludge.

Dusk nodded. “Freezing. Frozen. Hopeless.”

Wheat looked at her fondly. “I want to see you in the right field, Dusk. I want to see you in a field that appreciates your abilities.” He pulled into a Subatomic Path The drive-thru joint was almost abandoned. Massive boar heads were stuffed upon golden pedestals, tongues hanging out, purpled and fine. When Wheat parked, the boar head beside the car opened its mouth and spoke.

WHAT?”

“Two cherry Spretzas, large on both, and can you drain some of your dirtiest mop water into one? Mark it, will you?”

SURE. FEED ME FOUR DOLLARS AND TWENTY SEVEN CENTS FIRST.”

Wheat stuck a five into the creature’s mouth, who engorged upon the money hungrily, burped loudly, and went still. Now to wait. Now Wheat was turning back to Dusk.

“I mean it. The department could use a girl like you. Smart. Engaged in her work, and able to see the truth so easily. I can work things out with Ravenous to have you placed into a junior position. You don’t want to work at the brothel, do you?”

Dusk took his hand in hers, concentrated on it for a moment, and then bit down hard upon his middle finger. Wheat laughed dizzily, pulling his hand away quickly as Dusk said, “The truth of the matter is, Mr. Wheat, that I want to move to Deluxe.”

“Deluxe? What’s in Deluxe, dear?”

“I heard,” she said slowly, “that there is a place there… a place of torment, and pain. A place where the souls of the damned go, to be castrated, mutilated, and finally regurgitated as piles of human feces. In these dark, dismal halls, they scream, they plead, and finally, they die. I want to see this place in its glory… maybe experience it for myself…”

Wheat nodded. “You’re talking about public school.”

“Grandmother has told me stories,” Dusk said, nodding, “about the instructors there. They haunt the nightmares of those who learn beneath them, and the horror is endless. I want to experience it.”

“I see… Your tutor just isn’t doing it for you?”

“Adrian threw him off the roof. He refuses to come back… and that’s okay. I want to meet other souls in torment. This hell is real, and it’s calling me every day.”

A rumbling sound from behind. Wheat turned, and saw the boar’s mouth open once more. Green goo vomited its way out of the creature’s mouth, saturating the side of the Cadillac, and the long, purple, sticky tongue of the great pig protruded into the window. Two large, foul smelling drinks sat there, and Wheat handed Dusk the mop water flavored delight. As they drove away, Wheat glanced at his young assistant and said, “I’ll give you a good word, Dusk. I have friends in Deluxe. Perhaps there is a school there that would serve you well. As long as you don’t end up in that brothel…” He clenched a fist. “Damn it to hell with your family traditions.”

Dusk blinked. “Hmph.”

Wiggle Asylum. A garden of transformation. Going in, there was only out. Out was a standard way of life, an escape of the world you entered from, an entry into something much broader: the mind’s soul. The beastly drove the sane to limits, and the limits soon became leisure. Cackling patients sung their songs on high, and ribbiting women danced with the souls of the dead in peace. Men crawled on all fours and howled at the passerby tales of pirates and Sked-Dogs, children ate toes from one another at their respected pace.

Barianna awaited with Adrian at the entry way to the hospital, which was a door. The door was alone. It was a simple wooden door, painted white, mahogany at its finest. The golden knob was stained by ages of dirt. Behind this doorframe, a barren wasteland of bog and mist. Not a building in sight.

“Shall we, everyone?” Wheat said as they approached the solitary entry. Dusk, meanwhile, fell behind the group. She saw something out of the corner of the eye, and fixed her blank stare to somewhere behind the door, just around the edge of the frame. Yes, there they were. Eyes.

Eyes were watching them, a creeper hidden behind the door, holding onto the frame with a colorless, gnarled hand. Those eyes were white and wide, staring into her very soul. She nodded shortly at the hidden watcher, and came to stand beside Wheat, who noticed her looking still at the creeper.

“Are you alright?” he asked, looking over at the creeper as well. “You see something, do you?”

“The ghost watches,” Dusk whispered, “and with her watching, inquires me to come.”

Wheat frowned. “A ghost, eh? Keep your wits about you. There are foul ghosts in this part of town, drawn in by the cries of those damned to this hospital, feeding off of misery.”

“I can see why Venelope chose to come and live here,” Barianna said confidently, looking pleased with their location. She sniffed. “The smell of grime in the air, the misery of those near-dead and the appeal of the departed. We need more places like it.”

“You live in Sty,” Wheat replied shortly. “Like it.”

He pushed open the door, and they entered through in excitement. To see Venelope once more would be a fine affair.

There was no bog or mist on the other side, but instead the Void itself.

The Void, “a realm of the abstractally concretian macazygoin into the finest of revolutionary crackers,” as stated in the official Encyclopedia of Maniacs. The world around them flourished in its spectrum. First blue, then green, then silver, then red, then turquoise and carrot, and soon all colors mated into an incomprehensible mess of slithering vibrancies. The walls were rippling water, but the ceiling was rippling magma. The floor was crocheted yarn of finest quality, sinking them down lower and lower into the suffocating blackness below. Eyes a million watched from all sides, blinking, judging… mouths licked them, and their ears were filled with ants as they fell. The ants lived there forty years and died off after civil war wrought their lands, leaving but a barren wasteland indeed. Harmonies came at them, and the further down, down, down they fell into the darkness, the louder these songs became, ear-shattering, violently bleeding their brains. Monkeys swum about inside of their eyes. Demonic faces violated them.

Dusk was at peace with this realm, a fine customer and potential resident, for sure. Adrian and Barianna danced in their freefall, waltzing with a fine pleasure as vampire bats drank deeply from their necks. Wheat was busy texting a co-worker back about what kind of coffee to buy for the office. All too soon the falling ceased, and they came to their landing with fine enough grace upon the floor of cloud-like bumps beneath them. Below this transparent walkway, a million rotting corpses. Darkness and noise still pressed down upon them, but now the true entrance to the asylum lay before them, a double glass door.

Through they went, into a brightly lit corridor of fiberglass and metal. Fluorescents burned their eyes. Dusk preferred it back in the mad Void. The short corridor led into a massive lobby, towering to an impossible height that no light showed the ceiling. Across the polished floor was the front desk, at which an elderly witch and three skulls, two human and one a bird’s, sat chattering with each other over their serial The Way To a Woman’s Heart and Other Precious Internal Organs. It was a cooking show.

“Show was better back in the Dahmer era,” the witch muttered to the group as they approached, turning away from the lesson on how to make Crème de la Fartbomb. “He was a handsome man…”

“We are here to see-“ Wheat began, but he was cut off.

“Venelope is waiting in her room, number 129, and while you’re here for your visit, Ravenlungs, might I inquire a favor? ASK HER TO LEAVE!” The little witch had quite a roar. “She’s driving us NUTS!” The old woman cackled in her own hilarity. “THIS IS A MADHOUSE! SHE DOESN’T NEED TO LIVE HERE! SHE’S TOO SANE!” Her calmness retuned at once. “Thank you dearies.” She turned away, back to her show, and as they quickly retreated, one of the human skulls called out, “Proclaim to her my unending love, will you!?”

“Creatures I care for dearly,” Adrian giggled to himself. “This seems like a fine home… shouldn’t be complaining… can’t complain if she don’t have a tongue. The knife?” He held out a hand to Wheat. Wheat sighed, and finally returned Adrian his precious. “Do not make me regret giving that back,” he warned in a deadly voice.

“Go fuck my mother,” Adrian snapped.

Dusk spun around fast, coming to an inch of halt before her brother’s nose, her wide, blank eyes staring into her brother’s very soul. Adrian grimaced, and Barianna gripped his arm tightly.

“Brains of old, come down now, deliver unto him a passage of fire-“ Dusk chanted, and Barianna countered her.

“Heed not her words and make them blank, void the things that dwell from the tongue of the Ravenlung-“

“Burn his intestines, oh brains of old, and find comfort in his sickliness-“

“Terror gods, fondling gods, do you hear her? No. Do you know her? I shall not wager. And in her non-existence, she is foolhardy.”

Wheat gripped Dusk’s shoulder tightly and steered her away from the smirking faces of Adrian and his lover, shaking his head. “No hexes. You both have to stay out of trouble, remember?”

Dusk said nothing. Felt nothing. Barianna, meanwhile, was cackling. “If you’re going to try to hex my beastly boy, I’d recommend doing it out earshot of a Burnbay Witch. I’ll counter anything you throw at him, my beloved Dusk.”

They made it to the upper floor in tense silence (though Dusk never betrayed the slightest hint of tension), and finally came upon the proper floor. The walls were painted in full, unicorns, tropical birds and rotting horses moving about the wallpaper as vultures did a merry dance in the sky. Patients wandered the halls every which way, banging into walls, sniffing each other’s legs, biting one another and whispering curses into the ears of the dead mice they held. A Rattlesnake Child crawled upon the ceiling, hissing and spitting venom at the walls. Even the dust particles seemed to be lost in deep philosophical debates as they floated past the group.

Room 129 was near the staircase as they stepped onto the landing, the closest door, and Wheat sighed aloud in relief that at last they could collect the final piece to the puzzle and get to work. Upon the door hung a severed doll’s head, a doll sporting golden, glistening eyes and blackish-blue curls. The head blinked as they approached, and asked in a sweet voice, “Do you like crayons?”

“Love them,” Dusk replied promptly. “They are as tools to the trade of gods.”

“Is Venelope home?” Wheat asked urgently, watching the nearby patients nervously. One of them, a muscular, seven-foot man, watched them intently from the wall behind, long, sharp blades where his arms ought to be, one pure black socket of emptiness issuing out a cold like no other.

“I like crayons too,” the doll replied. “Consider the ramifications of not having them. Colors would be homeless. This would discourage life. Life would be poisoned. That poison would drench the earth and kill off ants. In the end, color would be the death of the anteaters as we know it. Wouldn’t that be awful?”

“Venelope!” Wheat cried again. “Is she home?”

“Wouldn’t it?” the doll insisted.

“Vene-“

“WOULDN’T IT!?” The doll’s voice became universally omnipotent, booming and deep, its eyes bleeding fresh blood, its cloth skin graying. The head let out a terrible, banshee-like scream, and the door was flung open at once.

“Lover!” Venelope Ravenlung threw herself at Wheat and embraced him in a lover’s assault, forcing her tongue down the old man’s throat as she kissed him with ravenous passion. Wheat tried desperately to pull away, coughing and sputtering.

“I told you last time to never do that again!”

“Oh, lover, you’re so funny!” giggled Venelope, beaming at the man. Colorless skin. Dirty-blonde hair, tamed beautifully to a bun and decorated by an accompanying, tiny black top hat, a simple black netted veil over her face. Crimson eyes stared at Wheat with hunger, black lips ready to kiss her great love once more. She was dressed in a white toga. “Haven’t you missed, longed for, needed, required, called for and practically bled for the day of rendezvous, a day to be reunited and a day to be sewn? Aren’t we all here for the coming of the ages, a union of flesh and unflesh?” She wiggled her fingers in his face. “You are three years late for our date, Barliman! You must come inside at once.”

“Yes, thank you, we actually would like to discuss something with you, but Venelope, I stress again… as I told you three years ago, we are not engaged, and we are not lovers. You remember this?”

“Always in denial,” Venelope whispered sensually into his ear, grinning. “I need that fire in my life. May I tame you, then?”

“Lead the way.”

But Venelope was now noticing Dusk, Adrian and Barianna. At the sight of Dusk, Venelope screamed in the same banshee-like way her doll’s head had and went for her little sister, scooping up the girl and crushing Dusk in a fierce hug.

“Oh you’re so cute, I could just devour your organs!” she screamed in Dusk’s face. “You’ve grown since the last time I saw you! You’re a fetching woman! A woman who will command respect, authority, worship! Dusk, the conqueror!” She leapt into the air…and remained there. “Behold, all ye who watch upon this bitter hall, at the grace of the goddess of the evening, the bringer of night, the patron saint of crickets and stars! Dusk Ravenlung demands your worship! Bow before her!”

“You heard her,” Dusk whispered, eyeing all of the on looking lunatics. “Bow before me.”

The patients were going crazy. A furious roar of monkey-like howling, beating on chests and leaping up and down. Men bit each other’s toes. Wallpaper paint was scraped by desperate fingernails. Women hung off of the green flame lamps and laughed hysterically. It was a bow enough for Dusk.

“And Prince Adrian reigns supreme!” Venelope called out, shoving Barianna forcibly into the wall and grabbing her stunned brother, who waltzed against his will with her across the hall, stepping on top of groveling worshipers as Venelope sung a loud song:

“It was fifty years ago, that brother Adrian went away,

And when he did, I was so sad, that he’d go off, just like your Dad,

But there he went, the balding man, with his sack held high, and a coffee can,

Filled with brewed witches snot and beer for all the kids of Hundalere,

And when they saw him, kicking hard, upon the noble door, he starred

In anguish play, a performance right, and went off screaming into the night!”

She finished her song and waltz, much to the excited cries of the patients around her, and grabbing both twins fiercely in each arm, Venelope excitedly steered her guests into her home, Barianna savagely breathing as she and Wheat took rear. None of them paid heed to the girl. The girl who stood with her wide staring, white eyes… the girl who reached out desperately for Venelope’s door…

Inside of Venelope’s home, a utopia fit for a princess. Dolls. Dolls everywhere. They filled the ceiling above, the walls around, the floor below. The apartment was glass, and these dolls were the Void within. Black, white, red, blue, green, the colors were every, the hairstyles endless, the button and glass eyes alive and blinking. Giggles unending. Whispers of possibilities to one another.

Venelope brought her guests into a sitting room with three floating couches, two queen sized beds and five squashy armchairs. All floating. All bumping. The air smelled of old socks.

Venelope flew upwards onto one of the floating beds and gestured at Wheat to join her. He took a seat upon the floor and stared up at her with an eyebrow raised.

“Venelope, it is very good to see you again,” he said, “but we’re in urgent need of your help.”

“Urgent need of my help? Hmm….” Even though the bed floated to an upside down position, she remained sitting firmly in place, pondering something with a look of deep concentration. “It’s about animals, for sure.”

“You know, then?”

“Yes… yes I know all about it… you wish to become a true walrus, Barliman… but you wouldn’t look as handsome when living life as a walrus and I simply could not marry an animal like that. Perhaps you should put away this dream altogether.”

“The Bloodbooger Zoo,” Dusk corrected her, before Wheat could. “And the animals that escaped from there. We’re going to find out who was responsible.”

“Heavens me,” Venelope whispered, tutting. “How very fine a quest. I should like to some day break down the walls of a zoo myself. What a fine mystery indeed.”

“The death toll climbs,” Wheat told her sadly. “We have to put a stop to this while we can. Deluxe and Sty shared a disastrous danger.”

“And these animals will no doubt try to interrupt our wedding!” Venelope cried. “We have to stop them! I’ve had Stegosaurus Catholic Sanctuary booked for three years now! They mustn’t wreck up the place.”

Wheat frowned heavily. “Get rid of that booking right this instant! We are not engaged!”

Venelope held up a hand. “Hush, now, lover. Let me think for a moment. Alright now. Bloodbooger riots. Animals all over. People dying. Three siblings, a witch and a law official cracking the case. A saucy, sexual love affair between the beautiful Rosalina Pariark,” he gestured at herself, “and the golden boy Rodeny Starlocks,” she gestured at Wheat, “which ultimately leads to tragedy when Rodeny is found out to be the main villain, the man responsible for the epidemic!” She grinned at Wheat. “You’re such an imposing god, Barliman. A fine villain indeed.”

“I’ve already told you to stop writing me into your stories…” Wheat muttered, seemingly insulted. “Will you help us crack this case?”

“Did you get all of that!?” Venelope called into the next room. “The details of the story.”

A hundred tiny voices called out in unison. “We’ve got it, Missus Wheat!”

Wheat sputtered. “I say!”

Venelope giggled. “Alright then! They’ll compile the notes and prepare the necessary writing space for my return! This new book will sell by the ones! I’ll call it, Escape from Bloodbooger: An Epic. It will be a fine addition indeed for the library. Now… I need the inspiration- as you need your muse,” she added, blowing Wheat a kiss. “I shall prepare myself.”

She hopped down from the bed and sprinted out of the room. Wheat, looking ill to be in this place and embarrassed by Venelope’s relentlessness, stood up and looked around at them all. “Shall we?”

“Please,” Dusk said at once. She loved Venelope. She despised Venelope. Oh how she despised Venelope. Indeed how she loved Venelope.

The group made their way back into the doll room, and as they did, Venelope appeared from a nearby door. Her toga was gone. A frilly black dress had replaced it. In each hand, Venelope carried a little doll. One, a black haired, green eyed girl wrapped in flowers. The other, a brown haired, blue eyed man, wrapped in vines. Wheat nodded. He knew them to be her tools of talent.

“The Lovers bid you hello,” the eldest Ravenlung announced, holding the dolls high above her head. “They decree that the animals shall soon fall at the hands of the mighty Truthdwellers!” She grabbed Wheat around the arm and locked onto him, beaming proudly. Wheat sighed, giving in. He nodded, allowing it. She really was a sweet girl.

“Come on then.”

The group left the home at once, Dusk and Barianna equally pleased to be out of that place (though only one was capable of expressing it, as Barianna stopped only for the briefest of moments to place upon the home a curse of roaches). Let the dolls have fun with them. One of these roaches fell from her hand and crawled after Venelope, sneakily making its way up her backside and onto her arm. As it made its journey for her hair, one of the dolls in Venelope’s hand, the girl of flowers, reached out with its cloth hands and grabbed the poor insect. Venelope beamed down proudly at the doll, allowing the little girl to place the roach onto her tongue. She crunched pleasantly.

“The patients here are so mad,” Venelope told them all sadly. “All insane. Brain cells the color of puke. They haven’t a clue, naturally.”

“The doctors all seem to be taking their breaks at the same time,” Wheat noted, looking around and finding not a non-patient in sight save for them.

Venelope looked confused. “Doctors?”

Wheat said nothing more. Damn this place.

At last, at long, long last, the group found themselves standing at the gates of Bloodbooger Zoo. The air was malice worthy, sweetly perfumed to lavender and ocean mist soap. Someone had been through here, decontaminating the disgusting. Fiends. Dusk, Adrian and Venelope surveyed the world before them in their own manners of interest.

Everywhere you looked, gates were barreled over, bones had been flung in every direction, feces littered the walls and blood flowed like a river down gutters. Some animal carcasses remained, those who had either fallen to their brethren in the haste of escape, or the ones who had been shot down by zookeepers. Two headed rhinos lay in pieces, seven sludge tortoises piled in a pyramidal fashion, even the zombie lemurs had been crushed beneath some manner of large feet. Vending stations were obliterated, novelties and other keepsakes strewn about the ground, some of them still firing off swear words in their PTSD. Police tape covered every entry way into the zoo. There were still stragglers about, policemen searching for clues and zoo staff busying themselves with clearing out mess across the way in those spots deemed permissible by the authorities.

“What a grisly scene,” Barianna choked up, but she looked excited. Few of them could deny their invigoration with such a sight. “It needs a woman’s touch!” She rubbed her hands together, her eyes set upon a destroyed plushy stand. Wheat held her arm, shaking his head.

“No fixing the place up until authorized. We don’t know what evidence is to be found. The zookeepers will worry about that part. Our job is to simply investigate that.” He pointed some ways ahead at the threshold of the gates. Everyone studied it closely.

The mark of Dolos still burned bright with its ethereal green flames, flickering almost happily at seeing investigators who dared to challenge their unbeatable master. It was a game, and the fires actually snickered aloud at the prospect. They settled around the mark, Wheat setting down the duffel bags that contained the twins’ tools and unzipping them at once.

To Dusk he handed a sketchbook and a small bag of colored pens. To Adrian, the silver flask and wooden bowl. The boy already had a knife, and Wheat would only give another one to him as was needed. The three siblings set to work.

Dusk was on her knees, studying the mark of Dolos intently, and with the appropriate color pens in hand, she began to draw out the entire scene. She drew the mark and the sidewalk, the approximate positions of the wrecked walls and overturned stations. She drew each individual object with exact care, with fine detail, scribbling, coloring, stroking. Tools of the trade, give her strength! Shadows were just so, highlights brilliant, the smell of the blood within the pens sickening and pleasant all at once to the appropriate people.

Adrian, meanwhile, walked with Barianna, and with her encouragement, cut deeply into his own palm with his precious knife. He allowed the blood to flow into the wooden bowl, and promptly, with his lover’s aid, began to gather up remnants from the ground: remnant toenails left behind by rampaging lions, wads of poo, rotten grass and even a small wishbone. These things were ground into the bowl with Adrian’s blood, stirred delicately with the knife, and when the combination had been made into satisfying paste worthy of the pour, into the silver flask it went. Wheat studied the scene carefully.

The flask began to shake in Adrian’s hand, smoking black fumes from the top, a noise like a thunderstorm screaming from within… and then stillness. This stillness was followed by the engulfing, as Adrian took to the drink. Wheat had to look away, and so he focused intently upon Dusk, lost in her art, lost in her craft… and he smiled dearly at her. She was such a fine girl.

Adrian doubled over, held from the ground’s impact only by Barianna’s firm presence. She kept him in place as he wretched loudly, his eyes straining, his teeth crushing together in what seemed to be an agony of sorts. He collapsed onto the grass, bringing Barianna down with him, a stillness falling over both.

And then Adrian was on his feet, helped carefully by Venelope and Barianna, who studied him closely with tender love. Adrian smiled. His eyes widened, his expression cool and confident.

“We should be careful not to trust the grass,” he said in a calm, collected tone. “There are rocksnouts hiding in the ground, remnants. I know their scent. Smell the sulphur? It’s an exhale from recently eaten insect life. The snouts thrive on them. Here.” He pointed at an ant hill. “And here.” He tapped the ground beside a small hole, worthy of a mouse burrow. He smiled up at Wheat. “Are you ready, Mr. Wheat?”

Wheat nodded, relieved at last that Adrian was under the influence of his deep magic. The boy moved with an entirely different stride, his face concentrated on the surrounding area, sniffing deeply and watching for signs of something invisible. He drew out his knife carefully, and held it before him in parry style. “Guide me,” he commanded it.

At once, his feet began to move, striding past the mark of Dolos and into the zoo’s carcass.

“I’ll follow him,” Barianna said at once. “He’ll be able to see the patterns now, won’t her?”

“Yes,” cooed Venelope, crouching down. “The past will speak with him. Those past will speak to him.” Venelope beamed at her brother with pride. Conversing with the spirits was a gift most pleasurable. They told the finest secrets and foulest rumors. The spirit of this place in particular resided within the remnants of chaos, of the shattered fragments of this once bustling animal utopia. Within Adrian, they made him calm, made him one with the spirits. He walked in their realm now, and conversed freely for their wisdom. The knife led him on, guiding him towards the spirits who called out to him.

Dusk, meanwhile, had finished mapping out the scene. On her paper, an elaborate portrayal of the carnage before them. She was now putting her drawing utensils to the side, and fixated heavily upon the page, she placed her hand upon it and whispered the Words.

Vige Em Uroy Restsce. The zoo. Lelt em fo eht dienf. The face. The name.”

The drawing sprang to life. A world of pen thrived on the page, and the images were blurring away fast. It was something reminiscent of watching a video played in reverse. The doodled carnage was fixing itself, and several hundreds of animals were speeding into the scene, lions, tigers and bears oh my. The scene shifted, and still in its fine pen form, the zoo in her drawing faded away entirely. There replaced it an image of something far, far more sinister. First burned the insignia of Dolos. Then, stepping out of the very insignia and forming its own inky body, a shrouded figure. The figure was tall and thin, and covered in absolute darkness. A walking, living silhouette, almost like a wispy bathroom sign figure. Dusk nodded, understanding.

“The figure was faceless,” she whispered to Venelope. “A shroud of shadow.”

“Looked like a silhouette,” Venelope hissed. “Perfect. The truest disguise, a manageable shield from your power, darling Dusk.” Venelope glanced up at her fiancé. “The work of someone who may have anticipated your movements.”

“D-don’t say that!” Wheat stammered, looking around nervously. “I’m sure no one’s onto me! It would make sense for anyone to conceal their face during an attack like this. I had actually anticipated on the drawing breaking through that defense.”

“Silence,” whispered Dusk. “It isn’t finished.”

The drawing was stirring again. The black shroud was dissolving into something new. The creature it became… terror.

A grinning face, filled with mirth and confidence. The face was perfectly matched to the traditional “comedy face,” often associated with theatre. This laughing, generic face had the most peculiar body, a single stem with two leaves. This creature was a flower of sorts. It let out a rattling, insane laugh, one that chilled the very bones of poor Barliman Wheat something fierce. He collapsed onto his knees.

“This is the first step!” A voice issued from the drawing. It was high-pitched and would have been comically clownish to the blissfully ignorant. “Make it innocent enough!” The face swum about the page, and then a black bird flew into view. It squawked loudly and landed upon the laughing mask. The bird’s eyes were silver.

Silver like hers.

“I see?” It was a question, not a proclamation, and she asked it to herself. “I see? Does he see what I cannot see?”

“Let’s ask him…” Venelope was shaking with a sudden rage that she herself could not explain the source of. That laughing face was in her heart, and it burned like fire. She held her two dolls high above her head, and closed her eyes, concentrating. “I command the wind submit. You’re hiding within it. I feel you. It disgusts me. Why not reveal yourself?”

The wind suddenly picked up with an almost pointed haste at her words. Venelope smiled. “Cazaz dian-son-soto!” The secret words. Gibberish words. Wondrous words. Nonsense at its finest. “Bara-cu-ac-u-lum Balla-ca-noosh, Temper-datum and Tom-Twon-Toosh, Little on Feces and Carad de-Heces I sayeth a prayer on you!” She danced about, calling out these words in sing song fashion, grinning widely. The wind fought her more fiercely, but it was not enough to deter her music. “The fine shrimble of Dages make Loft-can-cages and barimust-quantims of cane-qwawk dation. I cannot for the bafe to seen so clearly the barfenstien of calliester polmagrace.”

Enough.” The voice was venomous, and poisoned them all as it spoke. Dusk doubled over in pain (though her expression was a mere, tiny wince), and Adrian ran for them, his expression furious.

“The spirits talk! The demon is there!” He was pointing over Venelope’s shoulder, who resisted the toxic voice and faced what she could not see yet confidently.

“Reveal yourself and my words will cease, blitheen cazeen and baratace!”

Silence your words. Silence your desires. To find the source is to find your own annihilation. Cease this foolishness NOW.” That poisonous voice set the air ablaze. Fire cracked about from the invisible source, like small fireworks shooting off, and Venelope stepped forward, holding the two dolls before her like shields.

“Speak again, but with a face.” The dolls were waving their arms, reaching out for the unseen force, and the entity let out a terrible moan. Something was hazing about in color, phasing into being with a stubborn will, its invisibility slowly cast off in the same way a shirt should be taken from a screaming toddler. But the dolls acted as catalyst, and they sucked into their little forms the dark power of illusion that the demon had cast over itself. And now they could all see the creature clearly, and Wheat nearly fainted.

A large, hulking, solitary, yellow-green eyeball, writhed in blue flame and sporting flailing, oozing tendrils. The creature was a vibrant sight, lidless and shaking. It waved its sludgy tentacles about Dusk’s face, who was closest to its ugly form and still bent over, still poisoned from its terrible voice. Wheat threw himself forward, standing between entity and girl, arms thrown out. He would not allow the demon to touch her.

“You are the servant, not the man himself,” Venelope whispered. Adrian nodded, coming to stand beside his sister.

“Yes. Tarklacian, the Watcher Grin. The spirits say he takes note and does nothing beyond reporting. Dolos will soon know we’ve begun to investigate,” Adrian stated darkly.

“He already knows,” Dusk hissed in a husky voice, coughing violently. The toxin was closing her throat shut tight, and she was struggling to breathe. “The drawing doesn’t lie…” She threw her sketch at their feet. The laughing face was still caught in its mirth, its bird companion squawking in an almost singsong fashion. “We were expected.”

“How could that be?” Barianna demanded, standing between Adrian and the demon, black fire burning happily around her hands once more. In the far parts of the zoo, faculty were watching the scene in frantic whispers “You, demon, where is the Gift Giver? He is responsible directly for this attack. Confirm it!”

The floating eye quivered a little. It was like laughter. “Too true.”

“And he is not here, is he?” Barianna demanded, her teeth gnashed in a terrifying fury.

Too true.” This demon was amused.

“Why do you remain!?” Venelope asked it, still holding the dolls at bay. They had bound themselves to the entity’s magic, and would promptly draw it in should the demon attempt to conceal itself once more. But the demon showed no interest in doing so. Indeed, it showed no interest in her at all, choosing to remain silent.

“Venelope has questioned you, demon!” Barianna roared, stamping her foot in rage. “Why do you remain here!?”

The demon quivered. “Diligently watching, diligently reporting. Dolos knows his enemies in number, not identity alone. He uses me, his Eye, to see beyond his own doors. And what-do-I-see? The artist. The dollmaker. The swordsman. The witch. The official. Will the madam give her heart to your rebellion as well?”

“My grandmother must,” Venelope spat. “She is obliged.”

“You’d best tell your master it’s six. And that number only grows,” Barianna cackled wickedly. She threw her hand out, and the black fire exploded at the ground beneath the demon. The creature flew upward, hissing like a snake, and Barianna threw another handful of that dark energy. It spread through the air like a serpent in its own right, twisting and laughing like a small, gleeful child. The demon spun around, sailing eastward and out of sight.

Barianna stared after the beast with a mad grin, breathing heavily. Wheat, looking worried, ran to confront her at once. “What have you done? You drove the devil away? We could have captured the beast!”

“Dolos already knows what he needs to know. We were his the moment we stepped into the zoo perimeter,” laughed Barianna, shaking her head sadly. “I just wanted these demons to know who they’re plaything their fine little game with, and why they shouldn’t. I like my games… and I love winning them.” And she thumped him playfully on the nose. “The demon will play his hand now, and we’ll lure him into a false sense of stability.” He cooed up to Adrian’s neck with her teeth ready to strike. “And when he comes a sniffing… chomp.” She bit into flesh.

Dusk struggled to climb to her feet, and Venelope came to her aid at once. “Are you going to make it, little one?” she whispered into the young girl’s buzzing ears. The toxic voice had hit Dusk hard, turning her usually pale skin a colorful peach. The rosiness made both sisters sick to behold it.

“I’ll be fine,” Dusk said blankly. “We need to draw out more of this place.” She stared into Venelope’s piercing eyes. “We’re dealing with something much deeper than Dolos.”

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