As much as James loved the hunt, the prep work that needed to be done beforehand was always a bit tedious. He had to find a door that was relatively secluded and could be easily secured, not within sight of any security cameras, and preferably no cameras in the immediate facility either. But it couldn’t be too secluded either, as desirable prey needed to be within walking distance for him to lure them in.
If he and his sister were desperate, the homeless and drug-addicted would do. Putting them out of their misery was easy, but rarely challenging or satisfying. Prostitutes were a little better, but still too easy and fairly cliché. Hardened criminals who fancied themselves intimidating were a regular staple. It was always hilarious to see them reduced to pathetic, weeping husks of their former selves begging for their lives. Still, if one squinted hard enough this could possibly be considered vigilante justice, making James and his sister dark and edgy antiheroes, and that was no good at all. They wanted to be the Bad Guys, no caveats or asterisks about it.
As such, their favourite prey were those who quite unambiguously neither wanted nor deserved to die. Decent, upstanding citizens who expected to live to a ripe old age, only to have the rug cruelly pulled out from under them, often naïve enough that they could be lured into the playroom under the most rudimentary of pretenses. That was much more preferable than having to bring them in by force and risk them making a commotion that could draw attention.
As powerful as James and his sister were, hunting was still not completely without risk, hence the need to continually rotate and change hunting grounds. As the man of the house, the risk and responsibility of finding, prepping, and securing hunting grounds fell upon him. James had done a lot of things that he had no problem living with, but one thing he knew that he could never live with would be letting his sister down.
And speak of the devil, just as he was thinking about her, his phone started to ring. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a rather unusual curiosity: an analog, rotary mobile phone, a relic from the long ago, nostalgic Neverwas of yore that they had acquired from Orville's Old-Fashioned Oddity Outlet. As much as they loved their 1950's era aesthetics, the Darlings did have to make the occasional compromise for pragmatism's sake.
“Mary Darling, what a coincidence. I was just thinking about you,” he answered cheerfully.
“Heh-heh. That’s, ah, that’s hardly a coincidence, James Darling. I expect you to always be thinking about me,” Mary replied, trying to be playful, though it sounded like she was short of breath and, if such a thing were possible for her, unsettled.
“Is everything alright?” James asked, suddenly concerned. “You sound a bit… out of sorts.”
“Ah, well, actually, there is something a bit… out of sorts, yes,” she admitted, the panic starting to rise in her voice. “Something… got into the playroom.”
“What do you mean ‘something’?”
“A Planeswalker of some kind. I don’t know where he’s from or what he is. I just found him on the RetrovisionTM. When I saw him, he saw me, and he teleported into the playroom! I threw him into the labyrinth, but I can’t monitor him because the instant I know where he is, he knows where I am. It’s some kind of observer effect. He seems adept at navigating non-Euclidean spaces though, so it’s only a matter of time before he finds me.
“I… I don’t know if I can handle him on my own. Please, James Darling, come home now. I need you.”
“Sit tight, I’m on my way!” he said hurriedly, clicking the phone closed and running off to find an unwatched door. As soon as he had one, he pulled out a bronze control box from his bag and placed it over the door handle. He booted it up as rapidly as he could, hastily inputting a few basic commands. With an ominous whir, the device creaked the door open for him slowly and theatrically, revealing the hallowed and macabre lobby of their playroom.
It had reverted to its original appearance; a high-vaulted chamber made of dark green stone, chill and damp with black mould growing between the cracks in the bricks. Tall, portentous doorways were carved into the stone, each of them leading into narrow, darkened hallways. The only source of light, other than what was leaking in from baseline reality, was a cast-iron lamp hanging from the ceiling.
“Mary Darling, I’m home,” James called out. Normally, if she wasn’t already there to greet him with an old-fashioned cocktail, announcing his return was all it took. Today though, James was greeted with almost complete silence, aside from a distant dripping and a billowing draft.
This was concerning, as the playroom should have automatically transmitted his statement to wherever Mary was. Either it wasn’t working, or Mary wasn’t in a position to respond.
None of this was making any sense. The Darling Twins were eldritch demi-gods, ageless with superhuman might. And within their playroom, they were full gods with complete control over physical reality. What could Mary have possibly let in that she couldn’t handle?
“It’s just a game. Mary likes playing the housewife. She just wants me to kill a spider for her so that she feels protected and cared for,” James muttered to himself as he took the control box off the door and slammed it shut.
James could have summoned or conjured any weapon that he could imagine, but he started with his old stand-by; a hickory baseball bat splattered in dried blood. Whereas his sister favoured knives, James just loved the satisfying splat that one could only get by bashing someone’s skull in with a baseball bat. The sound of bones crunching, blood spattering, and brains squelching was beautiful to him. He could take someone out in one swing, if he wanted to. He often didn’t though, hitting them just hard enough to cause concussions and brain hemorrhaging, so as to give him the opportunity to deliver a more drawn-out and agonizing death.
The bat had sentimental value to him as well. It had been a childhood birthday present, and when he made his first kill with it, he chose to hide it in the playroom and say that he had lost it rather than clean the blood off it. It had been accumulating blood ever since.
James considered accessing the surveillance system to locate his sister, but he knew that he was also likely to spot their intruder as well. If what Mary said was true, that would draw whatever it was right to him. As enraged as he was that something had dared to trespass into their home and harass his beloved sister, the rational part of his mind reminded him that he needed more information on the threat before risking a confrontation. And so, he set out to search the labyrinth without any idea of where he was headed.
The labyrinth was an ever-shifting, infinitely repeating fractal arranged in higher-dimensional space-time, meaning its layout appeared impossible to a three-dimensional being. It was common for the Darlings to throw their playthings in there and let them wander around until they went mad. The Darlings though were both familiar with its properties and capable of visualizing higher-dimensional spaces with ease, and James knew his sister. They had played hide and seek in their labyrinth as children, and he knew the kinds of places she would hide. He also knew that she chain-smoked when she was stressed, and constantly sniffed for the smell of burning tobacco.
He hadn't even run a mile through the protean and fractally branching corridors before his nose was greeted by the scent of his sister's cigarettes wafting out of an armoury. He poked his head in to see Mary sitting with her back up against the wall, facing the door. Hundreds of knives were laid out around her, and she held a particularly gruesome meat cleaver in her right hand. Her left hand held the burning cigarette, and at least half a dozen butts littered the floor around her. She almost threw the cleaver on reflex, but stopped when she saw that it was her brother.
“James!” she cried, running into his arms and hugging him tightly as she began to weep. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let it in, and now I can’t get rid of it. It keeps teleporting, and it won’t stay still long enough for me to kill it!”
“Mary Darling, Mary, calm down. It’s okay. I’m here. Just tell me what we’re dealing with,” James said. Mary opened her mouth to speak, but froze at the sound of clawed footsteps clicking against the stone outside. Both of them spun towards the door, and saw the strange creature as it stepped into view.
It was a hunchbacked and cloaked humanoid, leaning upon an angular shepherd’s crook. It was bluish-grey and squid-like, a single cyclopean orifice in its face with a pair of clawed and perforated tentacles hanging down almost to its midpoint. It was nearly seven feet tall as well, and looked like it could take more than a few swings with a baseball bat before going down.
Before James could react, Mary telekinetically threw all the knives she had laid out towards it at whirlwind speed. At precisely the right instant, it teleported forward a couple of feet, causing the volley to miss it entirely and clatter impotently against the stone behind it.
“She’s been like this since I got in,” the creature sighed in annoyance, his voice echoey and ethereal, emanating from no obvious source. “Since you two appear to enjoy traditional gender roles, would I be correct in assuming that you are perhaps more capable of acting less hysterically?”
James held his bat at the ready, but if this thing wasn’t going to straight out attack him, he was willing to humour him with conversation.
“Sir, if you are indeed a sir, you are trespassing in our home,” he said firmly. “My sister was only defending herself and our property from an intruder. If you do not mean us any harm, then I strongly urge you to explain yourself at once.”
The creature raised his clawed tentacles in what appeared to be a hostile, or at least defensive, gesture, but made no move to attack.
“If I had to describe myself in human words, I would call myself a Paraxenaut; a traveller of strange, alien planes,” he answered. “I scout the countless planes of Creation, searching for anything that may be of interest to my people. Your sister here, or rather her intended victim, happened to glimpse me on some sort of scrying glass, and it caught my attention. I went to investigate, and when I arrived, I saw your sister watching from this… this magnificent void between worlds you call home. Surely you can’t blame me for wanting to take a closer look? I took no action against your sister other than what was needed for my own well-being. She’s unsettlingly violent, you must admit.”
“It runs in the family,” James sneered, beating his baseball bat into his open palm. The creature likewise held his crook at a defensive angle, but still made no directly aggressive move. "You mentioned your people. There are more things like you out there?"
“Of course. I didn’t just spring out of the quantum foam from a once in an eternity chance fluctuation, now did I?” he asked rhetorically. “Which is why, even if you could manage to slay me, which I doubt you could, it would be a very bad idea. My people possess powers that transcend the laws of our native reality, or any reality we find ourselves in. We killed and ate our own god to get them, and the murder of one of our own is not something that would go unnoticed, or unavenged. You don’t want to make an enemy of us.”
The creature's clawed toes dug into the stone floor as he clenched his feet, sending cracks racing out in all directions. A ring of mist began to swirl around his cyclopean orifice, the light within simmering in preparation for some kind of psychic assault, and semi-corporeal tentacles slowly began to unfurl from his back.
The Darling twins exchanged glances with one another. It was obvious to both of them that the violence they so adored wasn’t going to work here. The thing in front of them was strong enough to overpower them, fast enough to evade their attacks, and seemingly not even fully corporeal at all.
Mary mouthed the word ‘Noodle’ to her brother, who nodded in agreement. He gently set down his bat, and she stuck her meat cleaver into the sash of her housecoat, as even when she was trying to be civil she couldn’t bear to be without a knife altogether.
“Very well, you’ve made your point. There’s no need for threats,” James insisted. “Let’s start over, shall we? I’m James Darling, this is my sister Mary, and we’re delighted to have you as our guest. What would you prefer that we call you?”
“I’m afraid my name doesn’t anglicize or latinize very well,” he replied, relaxing his defensive posture. “But Quixoto is the closest I can manage.”
“Quixoto it is, sir! Delighted to make your acquaintance. Do I shake your hand or your tentacle?” James smiled.
“My hand, if you please James. You haven’t earned a tentacle shake yet,” Quixoto replied, extending his right hand.
“However you please, Mr. Quixoto,” James said as he shook his hand. “Mary Darling, why don’t you go put on some music and mix some drinks while I show our guest around?”
“Of course, James Darling,” Mary smiled. She stepped backwards, the walls opening into a doorway to let her through, and closing again before Quixoto had a chance to object. A tessellating wave moved through the room and out into the hallway, transforming the dark stone dungeon into warmly lit wood panelling and red carpets.
“Thank you, Mary Darling, that’s so much better,” James shouted. Frank Sinatra began playing over an unseen intercom system, and James placed his arm around Quixoto’s shoulder. “Come, the walk back to the lobby will be so much more pleasant now. Can I offer you a cigar, or perhaps a cigarette? You breathe through those holes on your tentacles, I presume?”
“Correct, and I’ll pass on both,” he replied, allowing James to lead him out into the hallway. “This is some very impressive programmable matter you’ve got in here, James.”
“Nonsense. It’s perfectly pedestrian programmable matter; Mary just works wonders with it,” James insisted, paying close attention to whether the exit signs were green or red, and where their arrows were pointing. “So, what is it about our home that caught your interest so much that you simply had to drop in?”
“Voids between worlds that are both stable and habitable are extremely rare. And you’ve already gone to the trouble of developing it quite substantially,” he replied. “I still need to complete a full evaluation, of course, but I’m quite certain that my people will be interested in acquiring this place.”
“I see,” James said softly, his eyes glancing up towards the hidden cameras. “And if we have no interested in selling?”
“Then things get unpleasant for you; both of you,” Quixoto replied, his tentacles turning upwards in a kind of smirk. "As I've already made clear; it's in your best interest to cooperate with us. You will be compensated, substantially compensated, if you do.”
“And what do interdimensional squid wizards use for money, if I may ask?” James smirked back.
“The crystalized Ichor of our dead god,” he answered, holding out a small purse filled with drops of what resembled a bluish-green amber. Each was aglow with a misty aura and beating with a faint pulse; a small, sigil-marked pupa slowly rotating within its translucent volume.
James paused midstride, taken aback by the sight of the strange gems. He began to reach out for one before stopping himself, only for Quixoto to push the bag towards him insistently. James tentatively picked up a drop and held it up to the light, rolling it in between his fingers as he allowed its psionic emanations to wash over him.
“You really killed a god for these; or at least bled one,” he said in awe.
“That’s why we use them for currency; so that people know what we’re capable of,” Quixoto boasted. “Take the whole bag. I’ll give you and your sister some time to work out what these are worth to you, and then we can negotiate on how many you’d need to sell this place.”
“Right,” James said slowly, remembering what it was the strange visitor had wanted. He pocketed the small purse and continued leading him through the labyrinth. “We should be getting pretty close to the lobby by now. Just a few more… oh, actually, here’s something that might be of interest to you.”
James stopped them right in front of the large glass wall of an enormous aquarium.
“Bet you can’t guess what we have in here,” James asked jokingly. He checked the exit sign nearest them, and while its arrow was pointing towards the aquarium, its light was red.
“A sea monster?” Quixoto asked flatly.
“That’s right, can’t get one past you,” James laughed, double-checking that they were within view of the cameras. “We named her Pool Noodle. She was Mary’s idea. I was worried that a three-tonne sea monster would basically be a white elephant in terms of upkeep, but it turns out that abyssal sea creatures have remarkably low metabolisms. Just a single human body is enough to sustain this girl for months. Although, I suppose any body would do.”
The exit sign changed from red to green, and James gave Quixoto a superhumanly strong shove through the glass. He passed through it like it wasn’t there at all. Almost immediately he slammed back into it as he tried to teleport back out, but the exit sign had already been switched back to red.
“Can you hear me in there, Squid Wizard?” James shouted, mockingly banging on the glass with him. “I told you that Mary works wonders with the programmable matter; she can even make it teleportation-proof. She’s never bothered to do that to the whole place before, but now that we have to worry about ‘solicitors’, I imagine she’ll be changing that policy.”
Quixoto frantically tapped and turned his glowing dials, slamming into the glass again and again with every teleportation attempt. A flurry of agitated air bubbles and garbled vocalizations erupted from his tentacles as he furiously clawed and pounded at the glass. This came to an abrupt stop, however, as the sound of a deep and eerily whale-like call came rumbling forth from the depths of the aquarium.
James smiled widely, and Mary came out from across the hallway with an equally manic grin plastered onto her face.
“I didn’t miss it?” she asked, handing her brother an old-fashioned cocktail.
“You’re just in time, Mary Darling,” James said, accepting the drink with an appreciative nod.
A spinning ring of glowing sigils and spell circles manifested around Quixoto’s waist as he attempted to either escape or at least curse the Darlings with his dying breath. Before he could finish the ritual, however, a creature that vaguely resembled a colossal viperfish or dragonfish came roaring up from below. Its massive maw clamped down on his body, impaling it with innumerable foot-long fangs and shaking it back and forth like a Great White Shark, staining the water a fluorescent blue with his blood.
The Darlings laughed in delight at the spectacle of their pet sea monster tearing their enemy to shreds and then ravenously gobbling them down. Though such a strange entity and the equally unusual artifacts he had with him surely would have brought in a fortune, the Darlings were happy to see them in the belly of their beast if it meant they got to live to kill another day.
“So…” Mary said once the feeding frenzy was over, pausing to take a sip from her sweet martini. “… he was a realtor?”
Written by The Vesper's Bell