The Stacks

Between Fire and Shadow

By Ushas the Rani

PRELUDE

1954, and it was such a boring year too. He was weak and pathetic. He didn't even look like anything much either. He was my target, my victim. I strode over, looking confident and casual, like I could have every man I desired just by smiling at them. I was wearing the perfect outfit, red hot pants to show off my wide and feminine butt, a clingy white t-shirt to fit my breasts snugly and show off the black bra underneath and perfect raw suede sandals to shape my legs perfectly and add an extra sway to my hips as I walked past him. He looked at me, I hooked him without trying and as his eyes followed me across the room I reeled him in with a little wink and an extra wiggle of my butt.

It was cheap sexual politics and it really was below my level, but the rituals of seduction must be followed to the letter. If nothing else I am a woman of ritual and ceremony. He came over, exactly 14.2 seconds later, exactly on time. He was mine to own, he just didn't know it yet.

"Hi, um, can I buy you a drink?"

"Why would I want a drink?" I didn't want to appear too easy to get, I have some standards after all, no matter how vital this meeting was.

"You look hot."

"Thanks for noticing, I'm sure all the other guys in here noticed too."

"I meant warm, I thought you might like a drink to cool you down."

"Oh, don't you think I'm hot?" I giggled, playfully.

"Sh…sure. You're the most beautiful women in the world."

Even though he was a creep and he grossed me out I was still flattered. Any woman who doesn't like being told she's beautiful is a liar or on a one way ticket to slashed-wrist city. "Well then, I guess I'll have to have a drink now that you've paid me such a nice compliment."

"Duh…do you want a cocktail?"

It was way too early for a serious drink and I needed a clear head. "I'll have a Shirley Temple." The drink came fast, the barman knew better than to keep a hot chick waiting, even if she was being fawned over by a creep.

"Muh…my name is Hank."

Hank the plank, his parents really did a number on him. Names are more than mere identifying labels; they have hidden purpose, secret mysteries. Call someone Hank and you'll get a dull and boring guy whose crap in bed and will be a waste of a lifetime. "I'm Celeste." Celeste was not the name I was born with, which is unimportant because Celeste was my secret name ever since I was little and it was this which defined me not the name forced on my by stupid parents who didn't know the damage they might have caused me. Celeste was a ravishing goddess who could get men to do what she wanted with a smile and a kiss; she could bend and change reality with a whisper and a low-cut dress. Celeste could get anything she wanted by walking into a room and asking for it, Celeste was who I was born to be and that's why I named myself after what I wanted to be. "Are you not having a drink yourself? This is a bar after all."

"I only come here to play pool. I'm too young to drink anyway."

"Oh, what a pity. Still you can try some of this." I secreted a few drops of a solution from my fake tooth and it went unnoticed in my half-finished cocktail. I handed him the glass and smiled as he drank some of it. "Why don't you finish it off?" he was soon under my control as the solution sapped his conscious will and enslaved him to mine. "Why don't we play pool? If you win you can have one dance with me, but if I win then you have to do anything I say."

"Shu…sure."

The game was easy to learn, the rituals of conduct were quite simple to follow and I soon used the magics of trigonometry and linear algebra to put the coloured spheres in the pockets of the table. "I win. It must be beginners luck. You have to do what I say."

"Yer…yes. I must do everything you say."

I smiled, like a lioness about to wrap her teeth around the neck of her prey. "Follow me outside. You have to meet Father."

"Fuh…Father?"

"Of course." I took his hand and led him outside the bar into the empty car park. "Look, there's Father now. Say hello to Father."

"Hello Father."

I saw Father Taylor nod to the young man. "He's the last, Father, the final one."

"You have done well; your hunt has been a success. Kill him and be done."

I turned to look at Hank. "Such a poor specimen of failed manhood. Just like the others, they were all weak and easy to manipulate. I didn't even need to sleep with you to get what I need." I pulled the knife out of a hidden sheath of skin on my thigh and handed it to Hank. "Open your wrists like little roses for me Hank. I want you to cut deeply for me and then you'll be at peace."

"Yer…yes."

I smiled as he cut each wrist open, slicing deeply and cleanly. The rich red rivulets of lifeblood poured over the contours of his hands and dripped with terminal finality on the paving stones. "Good boy." Father Taylor nodded once more as the boy collapsed to the floor.

"Death claims him and you are freed of your past."

"Yes, Father. This thing could never be a real father, was never a real father." I looked down upon the dying body of my biological father and smiled. "Now I am free to be the agent I need to be. The Enemy cannot kill me now, for I have already killed myself, Mother was such a joy to kill earlier, she made an agreeable thud as I ran her over in her own car."

"Their daughter is unborn, unmade by your hand, by killing yourself you are released from the prison of history, an unstoppable weapon."

I nodded and watched as my shadow picked up the shadow of the weapon that lay next to Hank's dead body. "Waste not, want not."

"You learn well, Cousin Celeste."

"I have killed off 287 of my most direct ancestors, which was fun, but now the real work begins." I grinned as I accomplished my initiation; it's not just any member of the Faction who performs the great hunt as part of her initiation ceremony. I undressed and threw my clothes in a heap before being dressed in the robes of a full cousin of the Family. I was not just a creature that served paradox; I was now a creature of paradox. I was a ful member of Faction Paradox in mind, body, soul and shadow.

FACTION PARADOX: BETWEEN FIRE AND SHADOW

Dawn is such a clichéd time, over used by romantic fools who pay secret respect to the sun god that's buried so deep in their psyche that they don't even realise they're doing it anymore. Who's not jealous of that kind of achievement? I however prefer dusk, the quiet time as the world prepares to go to sleep and all eyes cling onto the remaining afterglow of their precious sun god just over the horizon. They can't see what's hidden in the shadows, because if they could then they'd claw their eyes out and spend the rest of their lives howling in madness.

The secret world of shadows contains all the nasty horrible monsters of endless childhood terrors. The bogeyman is quite real; we have tea every Thursday as a matter of fact. The sandman is real too, who else gave him his special sand, hmmm? Unicorns exist too, they're all around you, but they hide their horns when people look at them, it's a necessary trick to avoid extermination by ignorant poachers.

Worst of all though there's myself and others like me, the Nightmares. We named ourselves after what most would call us, thus we become what we are. I am must one of many, hidden away in the secret realm of the night. During the daylight we hide away in the thin gaps in reality cast by the shadows of trees, they are secret doorways used when me must move about under the gaze of the sun god. The moon god is just a howling child that cannot speak so we're quite safe from him. The man in the moon is just a spoiled brat who wants attention and he hasn't had any since they stopped sending rockets his way.

I emerged from my resting place, I soak up the refreshing night air and I look around to see others of my order come out to play too. Cousin Jessica is my best friend; she has hair like silver as moonbeams caress her. Cousin John's red hair looks black, just like blood does at night. Cousin Hephaestus is last to rise, he is my lover and one day we plan to start a family, or kill one, it's all the same after a while.

We are an elite corps of assassins; I am their leader, the one known to the Great Houses as The Black Widow. I am hardly a spider but I have become my name, my robes are black velvet with a large red hourglass on the back. My bone mask is shaped to look like the carapace of a giant spider from a timeline that never existed. My fingernails are long and wickedly sharp, painted red on one hand and black on the other. One hand wounds and the other kills. I am become my own legend. Cousin Jessica points as Father Taylor and Mother Cressida arrive. Father Taylor spoke first.

"Nightmares, we have need of your services."

I step forward. "How can we serve the Grandfather?" I look at Mother Cressida as she speaks.

"The Loa have guided us to a potential change in the history of Bliss. Our agents have been deleted from history, thus we suspect the Enemy's hand. It may be something worthy of note, see what it is but do not reveal our hand unless you must. I know this job is below your normal skills, but we have need of your invulnerability to deletion. All of you have become immune to temporal deletion thanks to the hunts you have performed. This will be your shield; it may also be your weakness, because it could force the Enemy to act rashly."

Mother Cressida looked at us and we just nodded in agreement.

"May the Grandfather go with you all."

Father Taylor bowed to us and left. I waited until they were gone from this world before I spoke. "I sense danger. Something does not feel right."

"We are not pawns to sacrifice."

I had to agree with Cousin John. "We are not pawns, they have already been sacrificed, but neither are we high ranking pieces in this game. Thus we must change the nature of the game; I will not be a lowly rook in a game of chess. We are four aces in a game of poker.

"We must take the Shadow Bridge."

"Cousin Hephaestus is right. It's the only way, we must act with strength."

"Yes Cousin Jessica, the Shadow Bridge it is."

We retreated into our realm of shadows, here we were at home. I removed my robes of office and made love to Hephaestus, just as Jessica was doing with her lover John (although they were still pretending to hate each other, which was cute). Hephaestus took me in his arms and then took me so hard that I thought my eyes would pop out of my head. He was normally soft and tender but now he was hard and brutal, I sensed that he was preparing himself for a fight and as I pushed back hard against him I found my strength building too. I pushed him to the ground and straddled him, I rode him like a massive bull in a rodeo and I never let him win but didn't crush his spirit either. I showed him who was in charge and then it was my turn on my back and he showed me how much of a man he could be, making me feel as much of a woman as I could before we were finally satiated. Here in this secret world of timeless night we slept and then we awoke and cleansed ourselves, before preparing for a war that may be already won and lost a thousand times over.

The Shadow Bridge was located at the deepest point of our pocket dimension. We went down the ivory staircase. It was carved from the tusk of one of the giant elephants of legend that supported the Earth. It was over two hundred miles deep and its tip formed one end of the anchors of the bridge. To call it a bridge is to mislabel its design, but it's a perfect summation of its function. It links every reality, every place in the universe. To cross it you have simply to call the name of the place you seek and the myriad of possible routes becomes but a single bridge with no apparent ways off on either side. We crossed quickly; the click-click of my boots matched Jessica's perfectly, while the thud of the guy's feet had their own duel-pattern that was theirs alone.

They say three is the magic number, which is why we have four members in the Nightmares, for we draw power from another group of literary figures from the storybook known as the bible. I am Death, Jessica is Famine, John is Plague and Hephaestus is War, we play up to the image of the four horsemen, but we don't let such secular icons shape us.

We embody so many different ideas, the Four Nadirs of Telos, The Four Members of the Cult of Skaro, The Beatles (from a reality where Jane Lennon and Margo Starr were a lesbian couple) and of course the Four Seasons of all M class planets (those that aren't tidally locked anyway).

Our passage was beset by the usual bothers; the no-winged Raal bats were dispatched by the flaming sword of Hephaestus. The Astral Kite was torn in two by one of Jessica's killing songs and John took down the temporal python with his bare shadow. I myself turned aside the swarm of rain hornets by freezing them solid with a simple application of hail from the tiny nano-machines implanted in my palms that could create such a blast of cold air, giving rise to my sometimes nickname of Winter.

The other end of the bridge was crafted from something that represented our target planet but twisted to meet our needs as it was formed inside our pocket dimension after all. It was a staircase of ebony. We ascended quickly, eager to arrive at our destination and scout around. We opened the shadow door that leg out onto the surface of the planet.

Bliss did not live up to its name, or else it already had a name and its optimistic current occupiers didn't know it yet. The planet was half wasteland and half city, warmed by a green sun that sat in a yellow sky. We emerged from the shadow of a dead tree in a park. The grass was tough and withered, like it had been scorched by fire for years, but if I tilted my head slightly to look at it in a different timeline then I saw it as a lush and verdant paradise. The family was right; something was changing history here, but why?

"Over there."

I turned to see what John was looking at. I saw a huge creature, kind of like a dragon but without and front legs. "A wyvern?"

"They breathe fire!" Jessica yelled and we pulled back into the safety of the shadow door, just before a cloud of flames roasted the ground and air where we had been standing a moment ago.

Hephaestus went into bezerker mode instantly. He moved faster than the speed of reality, he attacked the creature with his sword of fire, which had no effect and then his shadows sword, which tore the beast open like it was made of tissue paper. He made short work of it and cut its head off for a prize. "That will look lovely over our fireplace."

"That's just what I was thinking."

He kissed me and I felt instantly better, alas it dulled my other seven senses to the danger we were in as a flock of wyvern dived out of the air to seek vengeance on their fallen kinsbeast.

Jessica tore into the Wyvern with an aria of death, severed limbs rained down from the sky, as over half their number was wounded by the razor sharp vocal tones. John added to the slaughter with an endless supply of throwing knives forged from his shadow, which was replenished by the shadow door itself. I joined in the fun myself by fighting the last creature myself, its claws burned when it tried to grasp me and its soft underbelly opened easy to the blade of my shadow knife, and I finished the creature off with my fingernails, they were sharper than diamond razors as I sliced its wings off and tore out its heart. "Victory!"

"Victory!"

We left the scene of the battle quickly, taking care to close and lock the shadow door first though. We didn't want anyone to wander in to our secret base of operations after all, we'd have to kill them or recruit them.

We found a hotel room and paid for it with gold coins from a planet which had never existed. I shared with Hephaestus, while Jessica and John pretended to be upset at having to share together.

We made our room the base of operations because it was larger. We had enlarged the room with a simple dimension engine, it gave us a lot more rooms filled with clothes and weapons and doorways to other parts of the planet. There was also a briefing room which we could plan our next room.

Jessica created a map of the world and the two competing time zones. It was interesting to see that House Landralau had claimed this planet as their own recently, reshaping it into a top-flight hospice world. However the original history of the planet had somehow subverted all of that and replaced the false history in a bubble of history. I myself was not bothered why it had happened, but I was curious as to how it could happen. Was it a natural time eddy? Was it really the Enemy? "We should examine one of the locals. John can perform the temporal vivisection."

"He gets all the best jobs."

"You and Hephaestus can play with the locals another time, Jessica. Right now we need our temporal biology expert to do his job and see how time is affecting the locals."

"What are you going to do?"

"I am going to get a sample of the battle myself." I had already witnessed for myself the fragility of the barrier between this reality and the other. If it was as weak as I suspected then I should be able to perform a few basic experiments. "I'll need time to gather materials for my rituals."

I needed creatures of this world if my rituals were to work properly. I snared a lizard-like rat creature, which lured something that looked like a rabbit but was insectoid and that brought me a do-like creature that had the face of a human and the horns of a moose. They were all lovingly killed; I enjoyed their slow and bloody deaths. The violence of slaughter needed to be worked fully into their beings, it was just a pity I couldn't find some captive farm animals and nothing knew true genetic suffering like a battery hen.

Their bones were boiled clean and cast in the random pattern of chance and fate. I reassembled them thusly, it was a curious beast and the power of their trapped souls resonated with tiny vitality. "Seek now the truth, let the bones of this world guide my cause. Assist me now in my quest; I call forth the soul of this world to answer my questions." I waited a few moments before a shape was formed from smoke and shadow. I nodded approvingly at its use of the insubstantial to create something of simulated substance. She was slender, with a fountain of curly hair erupting from her head that sat on a face with eyes of wisdom and a mouth of sensual joy.

"I am Lilith, daughter of Ferella. Speak daughter of the Grandfather."

"This world is named Ferella?"

"It is my mother's name. Others tried to rape her nature with a false name and perverted her shape and being to serve their will but she has been released from her prison and captured her captors in a prison of their own making."

"I see. House Landralau did change the past, raping her nature as you said. The Great Houses are not known for doing an incomplete job. Who set your mother free?"

"The golden one, he shines with the power of metal and mercy. He freed my mother and helped her imprison those who raped her."

"Who are you, Lilith?"

"I am she who is womankind; I appear to you as one life-bearer to another. We are the same in function, if not origin. I see no beginning to you daughter of Eve, but an end. The golden one cares not for goals and factions, he cares only about destroying all those who might oppose him. He is the eater of time, the devourer of history; he will eat the day and drink the night. He has freed my mother, not for herself but because he wants to consume her himself. He is the enemy of my mother; he is your enemy too."

"He's the Enemy?"

"Not as you term it. He is not fighting the war in heaven; he is a simple creature but a deadly one. He is but a pawn, but one that would become queen. You must stop him before he becomes she who is your equal and opposite, because equals have to cancel each other out, he is your death and you his. You must…must…mother?"

The young woman vanished all of a sudden, leaving me alone. "It's not The Enemy, but it is an enemy. Something to fight, a real challenge." I cast down the collection of bones and ground them under my heel to release the power that they contained. I wondered what sort of creature this enemy was, what sort of beast could rewrite history and be referred to as the golden one. Some sort of renegade from one of the great houses perhaps? There were quite a few of them about these days, but they tended towards one strain of insanity or another. None of them were so completely sociopathic that they saw enemies everywhere, not even the mad War King. "What did she mean by life-bearer anyway?"

I returned to the meeting place to see if the others had discovered anything from their allotted investigations.

Hephaestus was the first back after myself. He had left Jessica to wait for John, which gave us valuable time alone for him to seduce me and get me into bed. Alas we didn't quite get that far when John returned and I quickly pulled my knickers back up from around my ankles onto my hips. "John? We thought Jessica was waiting for you."

"There was no sign of her." John sighed. "Perhaps she is torturing a small child with candy it can't eat or a cat with a ball of twine behind a sheet of glass?"

"She never puts pleasure before work." I felt a bit of a fool saying it, but one had to take advantage of the quiet moments and not let fear of being caught having sex dictate my life. "I had a most disturbing confrontation; it revealed a terrible adversary, one that might in time become our equal."

"If it has attacked Jessica, taken her secrets, it could be too late."

I led the way as we emerged from the room like death in cloaks and skull masks. I was fully dressed in my battle armour, it looked like leather bondage gear which it was supposed to, but it had charms and fetishes woven into it to add mystical protections and the leather was cured in anti-temporal fluids to protect me from changes to the time lines. The bust was only slightly enhanced to support the long steel spiked that emerged from them like parodies of nipples and the long razor clawed gauntlets were just as effective as my own fingernails but much less brittle and of course my shadow grasped not only my favourite dagger, but also a nice mace to do some blunt impact trauma damage to my foes. My mask was fashioned from the skull of a being from a different timeline, it was said to be from the skull of a creature that was what humans could be if they had taken a different evolutionary path, one that resembled a mammalian scorpion beast. The others were dressed in a similar way but they forwent the nipple spikes and 4" heels on their boots.

"We must retrace your path, Hephaestus. I trust you didn't do anything foolish like walk in a straight line?"

"Of course not, I took a spiral path, great arcs that did not form a straight line. I know better than to risk at attack by an aeonic tiger."

"You could deal with one like that."

I nodded as John clicked his fingers together to make his point. "We could all deal with them, but the other creatures of this world could not. Their shadows have no weapons, they are weak and while it might be fun to watch one or twelve die, the great houses might send an emissary to stop us and you know how boring they are. Never mind that one of their worlds has suddenly never been, meddle a little for fun and they get really tetchy."

"Over there!"

I saw signs of a struggle, a terrible struggle. There was blood everywhere. Then I saw Jessica's severed head and I let out a yelp of shock and sadness. My best friend has been killed, I'd deal with that by killing her killer, but her body had been stripped of all the buried devices and implanted loci that focussed her powers, her vocal chords were gone, her lovely and deadly voice was silenced forever. John was crying and I put my arm around him. "There will be time to grieve after she has been avenged."

"I will wear this creature as a cloak!"

Hephaestus unsheathed his sword and it caught fire instantly. He pointed at the ground and I saw what he was pointing at. "It was wounded, she spilled it's blood too." I scanned it and took a large sample. With it I could work out what it was and how to defeat it, of course a large burning sword in the heart works too, but I didn't want Hephaestus having all the fun of the kill. "We must find this creature and kill it, together."

"It went this way."

John pointed at a trail of faint blood drops that left the scene of the killing. "We follow it then, but carefully. It may lead us into a trap, or it could have doubled back on itself."

We ignored the locals as they either ran from us or tried to hinder our progress. The local police officers didn't stand a chance as Hephaestus slew them all in seconds, likewise their military. Nothing could stand against us, except perhaps our quarry.

We found its quarry, in a reality tear in the fabric of a wall. It was a crude attempt at creating a shadow base; it must have taken some of Jessica's thoughts when it killed her.

"It might be dangerous to go in there; it could have set a trap. If it could kill Jessica then it could kill any of us."

"I shall burn it out, with flame. Between fire and shadow lies the great beyond!"

Hephaestus aimed his fiery sword at the rent in reality and willed a fireball down its length and into the creature's lair. I only hoped the thing died painfully, but I secretly hoped it survived so that I could watch the light fade from its eyes as it died by my hands. Nothing happened, and then suddenly the flames of Hephaestus' sword died leaving just plain steel.

The creature vomited itself forward out of the rip and attacked Hephaestus with tooth and claw. I had to admire its elegant design, it was a perfectly formed killing machine and it was almost a shame to kill it, but I had to do so to save my lover. I sliced its arm off without trying and then its other. John tore its head from its body with ease and we thought our work done as I cradled my dying lover in my arms I saw his wounds were mortal. I let loose a banshee scream, so loud and mournful that it entered the psyche of the world and kept the memory of my loss alive for all eternity. Hephaestus was in great pain however and I showed rare kindness as I cut his heart out with my hand and sliced his throat with my shadow blade. He died in my arms and I stayed with him until his end.

"It's not dead!"

I turned to see John was looking aghast at the body of the creature; it was growing a new head and arm. "What perverse science is this? I want it."

"Check its blood."

I did as John suggested and discovered that the creature was the product of genetic manipulation. It bore the distinct markings of House Ferrat, the political rivals of House Landralau. It was also based on the DNA of one of the creatures of this world, from the time before House Landralau arrived and remade the world in their image. There was a toxin, a poison to kill the creature. "Come, before it finishes growing. We have to leave." I walked away and John followed me more on autopilot than anything else.

We were halved in number and power, two of the four had fallen, this left us weak, but there was power in two if you knew where to look. Master and apprentice, man and woman, light and dark. They were more intangible and less accessible as a source of power but it was all we had.

"Where are we going?"

I pointed towards a small bush. "We need its fruit." I unsheathed my dagger and coated it's blade with the juice. Then I had my shadow do the same to its weapons one at a time, it was not so easy to do but I was long used to controlling my shadow as an extension of my being and I found it easier than John. "If this fails then we will have to perform the rite of unmaking on the beast."

John nodded. "My hunt was less complete than yours. I will be the one to fall on my sword, without Jessica I don't want to go on anyway."

"Release your death wish, lest the creature grants it." I was not going to have a suicidal companion on this quest. "You are Cousin John of Faction Paradox. You are a Nightmare, you are Plague, you are the killing hand of Autumn, you are an assassin, so do your duty to the Grandfather!" This roused him from his inward pain.

"Of course. Duty above all else."

That was when the creature attacked and John killed it with his bare shadow, his venom soaked hands flooded the beast with the plague of poison from the berries and it screamed in agony. I quickly picked up the body and threw it into the hole in time and space, along with the body of Hephaestus. Then I used the rite of healing to seal the gash in reality to make sure that if the creature survived then it could never escape. That left only one final duty, an act that would forever claim this world for the Grandfather.

EPILOGUE

Lord Tredonin looked out on the world. The surveys showed it to be a primitive world, suitable for colonisation via alteration of the time line, but there was the terrible stench of paradox to it all and he looked down to see agents of Faction Paradox waving back at him. "I want a world free of their kind; they have no doubt already polluted the history of the planet with a thousand inconsistencies. It would take more time to undo them than it would to find a new world.

Cousin Lilith looked at Celeste and John. "Thank you for saving my mother, but how did you manifest me as a human and why did you meddle with mother so much?"

I laughed. "The Loa wish this world to be a base for us and what better way than to bring it into the Faction? You will see in time that this is the best way."

"We must return, via the Shadow bridge. We need to recruit two more Nightmares."

I nodded in agreement. "The Great Houses will hate us even more for what we have done; we stole a large resource from them and remade it in our image. We're used to the scorn of those who are too afraid of their own power to become known in legends and fables. Have your people remember the Four Liberators, remember our names for a million years, that way no one will forget the lessons learned and the sacrifices made here today." Lilith nodded and smiled.

"I understand."

I took hold of John's hand and led him back towards the Shadow Door. "Time to leave." I wondered what Jessica had seen in him to make him suitable as a potential mate, he was a good survivor and strong, or maybe he just had a very large tonker? Maybe I'd find out or maybe I'd find someone else to fall in love with one day? Right now though I needed to be myself and be Cousin Celeste, the Black Widow, Death, the cold hand of Winter, the stuff of legend. More than that though, I wanted answers, who had created that creature and unleashed it? How did it have the power to survive death like that? How could I gain such an ability myself? I would perform the rite of questioning tomorrow, but tonight we walked the shadow bridge. Beware you sleeping mortals for Nightmares are real and we walk the land with impunity.

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