Behind a black door and through a red room lay the taproom of the Sands of Time Club, a place which exists outside of all places. This extradimensional gathering place served the denizens of dozens of dimensions, including the more mystically-inclined inhabitants of the world whose story we have been following.
In order to achieve a sort of timeless sense of antiquity, its decor blended medieval and modern “gothic” sensibilities. Being a place of magic that existed in no real place gave the Sands certain conveniences. Its vaulted ceiling was always exactly as tall as it needed to be to accommodate a crowd which could include anything from ogres or centaurs to the occasional true giant or unshifted dragon. The black wooden tables and booths were always of a sufficient number to serve the crowd, whatever size it might be at the moment.
When the head bartender Johnny Dark returned to the Sands, following his first night off in longer than most of the bar’s more mortal patrons could remember, that crowd was greatly reduced due to a rather vicious brawl which had occurred hours before. The rather petite, dark-haired and youthful-looking man’s pupils widened in shock at the devastation which had been wrought by the battle.
The naga barmaid, Maria, was doing her best to supervise the clean-up, offering free drinks to those who helped clear out the debris of smashed tables and chairs and the bodies of those who’d been felled in the fray. She had drawn her snake-like lower body up like that of a cobra rearing to strike, and was giving a mixed group of dwarves, humans, goblins, and other creatures directions with all four of her arms.
“Hey how was the date, boss?” she asked when she saw Johnny, surveying the room in dismay. She lowered herself to the floor and slithered over to him.
“Eh, bien,” he said, without much enthusiasm. “We burglarized a small child’s bedroom. She ate a dead rat. I have had worse first dates. What in the name of most things that are holy and quite a few that are not have you done to my bar?”
“Don’t look at me,” Maria said. “Your friend with the brands got in a fight with your friend with the irons, and then things… escalated.”
“Irons?” he echoed, not comprehending.
She raised her hands with her thumbs cocked up and fingers extended, miming shooting.
“Ah,” he said. “You lost me at ‘friend’. Well, finish the clean-up and then you may, as they say, ‘punch out’.”
“If the bar always contains as many tables as are needed, why does the wreckage from the bar fight stay behind?” Maria asked.
“Shouldn’t it vanish when it’s not needed?” she asked.
“The tables do not ‘vanish’, as such,” he said. “They simply do not exist, if they are not needed.”
“But if they used to exist and then don’t any more…”
“That is just it,” he said. “A quantity of tables that is not necessary not only does not exist, but never did. It is like… like algebra.”
“It’s useless and makes no sense?”
“The number of tables in the Sands is not ten or twenty or thirty, it is X,” Jonny said. “Where X is equal to the number of tables that are required. Do you see?”
“Okay, but what if we spent a whole day breaking tables one at a time?” Maria asked. “The nature of the Sands dictates that there will always be enough tables, so we could never run out of furniture to break, so would we end up with an infinite supply of kindling?”
“Look, it is best not to probe into the precise workings of such matters too deeply,” the bartender cautioned her.
“Why? Is it one of those things that understanding the answer to will drive you mad?”
“Non, non, nothing of that sort,” he said. “But it does make the author rather irritable.”
“Oh, I thought we weren’t doing that any more,” Maria said.
“My apologies,” Johnny said. “It has been a rather long day.”
“I’ll say,” Maria said. “Didn’t it start like a year ago?”
“Now who is doing it?” Johnny asked. He sighed and lowered his head, putting his fingers on the bridge of his nose. “Maria, dear, I have a terrible headache. I believe I shall be retiring for the night. Just tell me, before I head to my quarters, has there been any sign of…”
“Johnny!” a voice squealed.
He closed his eyes and willed himself to be invisible… but as he was not, in fact, possessed of that power, it had absolutely no effect. He pasted on the best smile he could manage and turned to face the other of his barmaids, the indescribably beautiful Jolie La Belle.
Of all the people of every race and description which filtered into the Sands, her appearance was inarguably the most striking and memorable… and yet she never ceased trying to find shocking new ways to emphasize it.
“Bon soir, Jolie,” Johnny said. “I’m afraid you’ve caught me just as I was going to my bed.”
“Alone?” Jolie asked, trying to sound sympathetic and failing. “Did your date not work out?”
“It went tolerably well… I think,” Johnny said. “In any event, I’m very tired.”
“I guess I’d probably be tired, too, if I’d spent a whole evening hanging out with that chatterbox,” Jolie said. “I bet she talked about herself the whole time, too. If it had been me, I would have found some common interest to talk about, because I’m just the sort of person who does that. I’ve often had people tell me that I’m a very empathetic listener, you know. Even when I was a baby…”
“I am sure this story would be as fascinating in its own way as is your dress,” Johnny said. “But, please, I do not feel well and I just want to sleep.”
“Oh, well, if there’s anything I can do to help…”
“Anything?” Johnny asked.
“Anything,” Jolie echoed.
“Help Maria finish clearing up, and then take the rest of her shift,” Johnny said. “She’s worked hard enough already tonight.”
“Hey, thanks, boss!” Maria said. “You’re the best.”
“Thank Jolie,” Johnny said, and he turned to head towards the staircase that would take him to his private suite of rooms.
He cringed, and turned to see a thin woman with short orange hair and intense green eyes.
“Are we really not breaking the fourth wall any more?” she asked.
“I think it is manifestly apparent that we are,” he said.
“Oh, good,” the woman, Tigerlily Binder, said. “If I’m not allowed to make fun of the writing, I get bored.”
“Does not misfortune tend to befall you whenever you do that?”
“Well, maybe,” she said. “But at least that’s not boring. On the subject of boring, though, is this entire chapter going to be nothing but you trying to go to bed and people coming up and interrupting you? That just seems like a lame excuse for a story, even without all the meta shit.”
“I honestly could not say,” Johnny said. “Perhaps if you find this boring, you could find something more interesting to do, elsewhere?”
“Not really,” Lily said. “I mean, tour’s over, so we’re back in Kansas now. It’s not like anything exciting’s going on there.”
“Do not your sisters and you hunt monsters in Nebula City?” Johnny asked.
“Oh, yeah, sometimes, but not tonight. Tonight’s… wait,” Lily said. “What night is it?”
Minutes later, the young woman was running along rooftops in Nebula City, Kansas, making prodigious leaps across the gaps and even leaping up differences of two stories at a time as she raced across the town. Had you somehow managed to run alongside her, you would have been able to hear her muttering under her breath the words “oh crap, oh crap, oh crap,” over and over again.
She leaped off a roof, landing between her sisters — Dandelion, who was short and rather powerfully built, with blonde hair and blue-gray eyes; and Pussywillow, a plump woman with dark, wavy hair and eyes that were a startling gold.
Dandy, as the former was known, had been standing at the ready, alternately watching the skyline for signs of Lily and looking at the restaurant across the street. It was closed, at this late hour, but to her keen senses, there were still signs and sounds of movement from within.
“Jesus, Lily, cut it a little bit closer next time, why don’t you?” Dandy said. “If you’d been any later, we’d have had to move in without you.”
“Move?” Willow said. She lay curled up on her side. “Nobody told me there would be movement involved.”
“Sorry,” Lily said. “I thought I was in a filler story, when it was really supposed to be a segue from the action in Star Harbor to here.”
“I thought we weren’t doing that fourth wall stuff any more,” Dandy said.
“Yeah, well, apparently, we are.”
“Thank God. That’s like half our appeal,” Dandy said.
“Half of yours, maybe,” Lily said. “You two don’t really have anything else going for you.”
“I have plenty of appeal,” Willow said. “Being as I’m awesome.”
“What’s the deal, anyway?” Lily asked. She went up to the edge of the roof and looked down at the restaurant. “What have we got?”
“Vampires,” Dandy said.
“Yes, really. Vampires.”
“Are you sure this time?” Lily asked. “It’s not going to turn out to be criminals pretending to be vampires because that’s somehow less suspicious than just being criminals, or robots designed to look like vampires for some damned reason, or aliens who through some huge coincidence look and act like vampires?”
“No,” Dandy said. “They’re just vampires.”
“Bet you fifty bucks they aren’t.”
“You don’t have fifty bucks.”
“I would if my money manager wasn’t a big fat cheapskate,” Lily countered.
“I don’t give you money because you’d just spend it,” Dandy said.
“One, what else am I going to do with it? And two, how do you know what I’d do with it when you won’t give it to me in the first place?”
“Something’s happening,” Willow said. She sounded a little bit sleepy, but that can probably be excused as she was probably, in fact, asleep at this point.
Lily and Dandy ignored her and continued throwing verbal jabs back and forth until, inevitably, one of them threw a punch… at the same time as the other.
The shout, amplified in volume and presence beyond that of a normal human voice, got the fighting sisters’ attention, though it did nothing to visibly disturb the sleeping Pussywillow.
Floating in the air just beyond the edge of the building was the figure of a dark-skinned woman in a tan tunic and skirt with a short cape on her back. Her eyes crackled with blue-white electrical energy, complimenting the look of stern impatience on her face.
“Athena,” Dandy said, holding her hands over her ringing ears. “I hope you had a good reason for that.”
“Yeah, go ahead and let the vampires know we’re here, why don’t you?” Lily said.
“The vampires are dead,” Athena said.
“Well, yeah,” Lily said. “I mean, vampires. Though, are they really dead, or do they have a weird mutant viral thing? Because I’m getting sick of…”
“They’re really dead,” Athena said. “As in, no longer rendered animate. I took care of them while you were squabbling.”
“Oh… um, thanks?” Dandy said.
“Hey, we fight the supernatural monsters in this town,” Lily said.
“No,” Athena said. “You don’t.”
“I’m all for contrariness for its own sake,” Lily said, “but I think that’s going a bit far. Because, we totally do.”
“You do not,” Athena said. “When you do stumble over some sort of supernatural occurrence, you waste valuable time bickering and fighting among yourselves and then inevitably take the perpetrator down in the way designed to cause the most property damage possible.”
“Right,” Lily said. “Because ripping a street light out of the ground and using it to club a giant robot into the side of a building just screams ‘respect for public and private property.’”
“You’re clowns,” Athena said. “Musicians pretending to be superheroes. If you were only endangering yourselves, that would be one thing, but you put the public at risk with your antics.”
“Okay, hold on,” Lily said. “We never said anything about being superheroes. Also, if anything, we’re pretending to be musicians. When’s the last time you saw us touch an instrument?”
“Time and place, Lil,” Dandy said. “Athena, I have a great deal of respect for you, but I don’t know what gives you the right to question our effectiveness.”
“Your sister—who, I remind you, turns into a housecat for her power—is asleep,” Athena said.
“Still kick your ass,” Willow murmured.
“Don’t let her unassuming appearance fool you,” Dandy said. “Will can take care of herself.”
“-ish,” Lily added.
“She’s never been hurt on a mission, anyway,” Dandy said. “Athena, look, being in a position of leadership myself, I’ve always empathized with you.”
“Wait… who are you the leader of, exactly?” Lily asked her sister
“Not helping, Lil,” Dandy said. “The thing is, Athena, we belong in different worlds. What you and the other Stormfronters do is one thing, what we do is the other. We don’t mind you taking out a coven of vampires if you find one, just as we take out criminals that happen to cross our paths, but really, we’re in separate lines of business, you know?”
“Yeah, which means you can’t just get all up in our business about how we do our business,” Lily said.
“You can’t say that you’re not involved in the world of superheroics any more,” Athena said. “Not after the events of last week.”
“Hold on, hold on,” Lily said. “Are you telling me that you were fine with us doing our own little thing, but because we helped rescue your ungrateful ass, you get to lay down the law all of a sudden?”
“If you want to put it that way, yes,” Athena said. “And the law is this: if you operate in Nebula City, you’re going to have to get your act together. I’ve already spoken to Storm Siren and Minerva, and they agree it’s a bad idea for you to have free reign.”
“And this has nothing to do with me snarking off to you about my new girlfriend?” Lily asked.
Athena simply glared at her.
“Ha. I’ll take that as a yes,” Lily said.
“Point of order?” Dandy said. “You said, ‘and this has nothing to do with…?’, so if you take it as a yes, then…”
“Oh, shut up,” Lily said.
“Look, here’s the deal,” Athena said. “If you want to keep operating in the city, you’re going to do so under my direct supervision, so that I can make sure you stay out of trouble and learn how to work together effectively.”
“Oh, wow, this isn’t just another tragic permutation of your mommy complex,” Lily said.
“And just how long do you expect us to put up with this?” Dandy asked.
“Until I say otherwise.”
“And if we refuse?” Dandy said.
“Then I turn you into 4B for failing to register,” Athena said.
“Oh, that will totally end well,” Lily said. “Why don’t you just shoot us on the steps of a courthouse now and get it over with? Screw this action. Vampires are dead, I’m going to Stacey’s.”
“Lil…” Dandy said.
“No, you know what? I don’t like hunting monsters that much anyway,” Lily said. “If my choices are letting Captain Control Freak give me the hairy eyeball for the rest of my life or go home and cuddle with my girlfriend, it’s not even a contest.”
“Fine,” Athena said. “So be it. I’d prefer you all gave up this charade, anyway. I only offered to supervise you as a compromise.”
“Yeah, right,” Lily said. “You’re real happy that I’m going to have sex with another woman instead of hanging out where you can watch me with your telescopic x-ray vision.”
“Point of order?” Dandy said. “If she really had telescopic x-ray vision…”
“Oh, stick a freaking cork in it!” Lily said. “Point of order? I quit.”« « 2: Special Delivery 4: Confronting The Past » »
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