Freaks, Friends and Fiends
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“Okay, one more time; what’s the difference between magic and alchemy?” Victor asked as he examined the show globes filled with colourful philters and elixirs at Ed and Al’s Alchemist Emporium.

“Alchemy is the study and manipulation of the Aether, the fluidic medium from which all reality emerges from,” Iris replied, her own attention devoted to the variety of alchemical catalysts the two brothers kept in stock. “It’s a Prima Materia of sorts, the closest mainstream science comes to it is String Theory. Celestial bodies generate substantial aetheric currents, which is where astrology factors in.

"Magic, as in Thaumaturgy, is the use of ritualized methods to focus and amplify EVE into Aspect Radiation, EVE being the aetheric force that causes observer effects like wave function collapse, and Aspect Radiation being EVE that’s strong enough to cause macroscopic effects. Then, of course, there are Reality Warpers -”

“Like me?” Lolly asked, her voice muffled by the fact that she had crammed herself into a one-gallon hermetic vase.

“Yes, like you, who just don’t interact with the Hume field as strongly as normal and therefore have a much lower threshold for creating aspect radiation and can essentially do so at will. Though all three are colloquially referred to as magic, so it can get confusing.”

Iris tipped Lolly’s vase and poured her out into the floor, where she quickly reconstituted into her Clown form.

“Yeah, being a Reality Bender is definitely the best magic since we don’t have to learn a bunch of spells and stuff,” Lolly bragged. “Oh, and it is Reality Bender, not Reality Warper, because we bend reality like the kids bend the elements in that awesome cartoon.”

Lolly playfully air bent a few gusts of wind towards Iris, who deliberately remained as implacable as usual.

“I prefer Reality Warper,” she said.

“How come?”

“Because I’m British, and in British-English ‘Bender’ is a homophobic slur.”

“Well, I’ll stop saying Bender when you guys stop calling cigarettes fags.”

“… Fair enough.”

Their attention was diverted to the front of the shop by the sound of Ed the Alchemist emerging from the lab and setting a crate of potions down on the cashier counter.

“There you are Ms. Dark, 48 phials of Pactolus Philter, guaranteed to cure any and all outbreaks of Midas Plague,” he said. “My brother and I are especially sympathetic to children being transfigured into metal. Be sure to give Carter a kick in the ass for both of us, won’t you?”

“Believe me I’d love to, but if there’s one thing he’s good at it’s avoiding his comeuppance. I’m pretty sure that’s why we keep him around,” she said as she took out one of the phials to examine it. “Did you really make all of these just since you got our ravenwave? That’s remarkable. While I’m here, Esq. Darke asked me to keep an eye out for some rare items for a project we’re working on. You wouldn’t happen to have the flesh from an Old God Incarnate, would you?”

“Old God as in?”

“His exact words were ‘Titans birthed from the Primordial Chaos’. I think that means anything on par with Mekhane, Yaldabaoth, the Scarlet King, gods like those.”

“Sorry. Best we got is a mummy of a Type Black Daevite warrior.”

“Hmm. Still impressive.”

“Not really. All our Fun-Lovers are technically Type Blacks, and they’re all alive and kicking,” Lolly said as she came up to the counter to pet one of Al’s cats. “That’s much more impressive than one dead Type Black.”

“It would be more impressive if they were contained in something a little sturdier than a carnival trailer,” Iris retorted. “Wait a minute, that mummy doesn’t happen to have any Daevite weapons with it, does it?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Yeah, that was a long shot. Any Akivic Purification Serum by chance then?”

“You mean His Holy Tears? No, but what the hell is Darke the Elder working on to want all this stuff for?”

“Just something to pass the time,” Iris said deflectively. “He’s an old man, he doesn’t get out much. I’ll just take the Pactolus Philter, an ounce of abiogenic catalyst, a bottle of Quicksilver and a witch’s dozen of spectral embers. Bill it to the corporate account.”

“Hey Edward, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a lot more guards around than the last time I was here,” Victor said as he gazed out the window into the bustling street outside. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m not really supposed to say anything, they don’t want to cause a panic, but ah…” He cranked his neck towards the front door to make sure no one else was listening. “There’s a serial killer on the loose. Some sort of inbred goblin creature from the House of Habsburg.”

“The House of Habsburg?” Iris asked, her ears perking with interest.

“Yeah, we think it’s hiding out in the sewers,” he said as he set the pack of spectral embers down before her. “The Guards have been down there twice already but they couldn’t find it. How it ended up here we have no idea. From what I’ve heard there are thousands of the bastards in central Europe. They’re so persistent even the Foundation is having trouble keeping a lid on them. There’s talk that the Coalition is getting ready to bring the hammer down on them though. They’re going to set up sting operations to catch their hunters, tag them and track them back to their hives, then go full scorched earth. I hope they burn every last one of them.”

They were all startled by the sound of the cat shrieking in sudden pain and bolting out of Lolly’s grasp as her grip reflexively tightened.

“What did you just say?” she asked softly, the anger in her voice barely contained. “Did you actually just say you want those fascist paraphobes to burn Freaks alive?”

“Lolly, listen, I know you think of yourself as Serpent’s Hand so you’re no fan of the Coalition, but we’re talking about psychotic cannibals who breed like rabbits. These aren’t innocent Freaks.”

“And genocide is the best solution? Stick to what you’re good at, right?”

“Lolly, they’re not genocidal. Their governing body is made up of representatives from 108 occult factions, including the Alchemist’s Guild, and they have an entire division dedicated to maintaining peaceful relations with the anomalous community.”

“On their terms! They expect us to stay confined to Nexuses or extradimensional ghettos and pretend we don’t exist because as long as we’re secret we have no rights and they can do whatever they want to us! Any Freak that doesn’t submit is labelled a parathreat and ‘liquidated’! The Geo Sea are Nazis who want us all either dead or locked up, I hate them, and I hope those Habsburg goblins eat them alive!”

Lolly stormed out of the shop, slamming the door so hard the glass shattered and the door frame cracked.

“I really should choose my words more carefully around type Greens,” Edward lamented.

“I’m going to go after her, I’ve never seen her like this,” Victor said, running through the broken doorway.

“Ms. Dark, is it okay if I add the damage to your bill?” Ed asked, only to find that she had vanished, along with the box of spectral embers. “Ms. Dark?”

“Brother, did you scare off our customers again?” Al shouted from the backroom.

“… Maybe.”

Victor sprinted out into the busy bazaar, looking for any sign of a distressed Clown. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far. Lolly had gone into the alley beside the Emporium and was sitting against the wall, hugging her knees with her head hung as she took deep breaths.

“Lolly? Lolly, are you alright?” Victor asked as he crouched beside her.

“I’m sorry. The Geo Sea just really triggers me,” she said.

“Yeah, I remember,” he smirked, thinking back to the first show he had ever seen her perform.
“But I didn’t actually know it was because you thought of yourself as Serpent’s Hand.”

“After the Circus, the Library was the first magical place I got to visit,” she began. “It was incredible; bookcases the size of mountains that stretched on as far as the eye could see, holding every book from every iteration of every reality in the multiverse. Icky told me that it was a Sanctuary for Freaks, just like the Circus, and that the Ways wouldn’t let anyone they knew were bad in, and if someone bad did get in the Docents and the Elephant God would protect us. Then she introduced me to some people she knew in the Serpent’s Hand and explained that they kept magic and Freaks safe from people who wanted us kept secret or destroyed, and that it was because of people like them that one day magic and Freaks wouldn’t have to be secret anymore.

"The day I found out magic was real was the best day of my life. My life has been wonderful and incredible because of magic, and I’ve dedicated my life to sharing that joy with others. Every time I perform, I show new people that magic is real and wonderful, and the Geo Sea want me dead because of that. I have friends who are dead because of them. They want everyone who wants the dumb Masquerade overthrown dead, and if they had the firepower they’d want every Freak in the multiverse dead.

"When I think of magic, I think of my Circus and the Library and Wondertainment’s toys and mindblowing anart and kindly old Mekhanites and the Oneiroi Dreamworld. I think of amazing, marvellous things and I hate that some people only think of the anomalous as something monstrous.

"You don’t still think of me as a monster, do you?”

“I never -”

“Yes, you did. I’m not stupid. Isn’t that why you came after me? You were worried that the monster Clown might be going on a rampage?”

“I came after you because you’re my friend, and I was worried about you,” Victor told her.

For the first time, Lolly looked at him, smiling even as tears still streamed down her face.

“Really?” she asked.

“Look, I don’t really want to get into a discussion about anomalous civil rights, and I think the whole situation is a lot more complicated than good guys and bad guys, but I know you’re not a monster, and I don’t want you dead or locked up. And maybe I wouldn’t always have thought that, which is why I’m glad I’ve had the chance to know you and your Circus.”

“That’s why I do what I do,” she smirked. “Jeez, I’m a mess. I gotta get some Milk into me. Hey, don’t tell Icky that Edward made me cry, or what he said about the Geo Sea. She might take it worse than I did.”

“I won’t, I promise.”

“Iris either.”

“I…” he looked around, suddenly realizing he wasn’t sure where Iris was. “Oh, crap.”

While the others were distracted by Lolly’s outburst, Iris had snuck out a side door and into an empty back alley. Using her bionic hand to slide off a manhole cover, she had slipped into the sewers to do some goblin hunting.

The sewers were absurdly spacious, similar to the ones in Vienna that the Habsburg Dynasty had previously called home. One of their lineage would no doubt be quite adept at navigating and concealing itself in such a subterranean labyrinth. It made perfect sense that platoons of guards storming the sewers hadn’t been able to find it. The creature wasn’t stupid, and had safely remained in its hiding place until they had passed. But a young woman, all by herself? That seemed like it would offer the creature far more incentive to come out.

“Hello?” she said in a soft whimper, doing the best damsel-in-distress impression she could manage. “Is anyone there? I, I fell down the manhole. I think I broke my ankle, I can’t climb back up. Please, is anyone down here?”

She smiled as she heard the faint scampering of feet against wet stone coming towards her. In her right hand, she held a spectral ember at the ready. The footsteps grew louder, and she could hear the bestial thing furtively sniffing the air. She let out a small, frightened sob to draw in her prey. It took the bait, and she felt its disgusting breath on the back of her neck.

She immediately ignited the ember she held into a Spectral Flame, flooding the sewers with light. The Habsburg Noble howled in pain and shock at the dreaded illumination, shielding its eyes and blindly trying to fall back. Instead, Iris grabbed its throat with her left bionic hand, lifting it off the ground and slamming it against the wall. It struggled with ferocious might, but relented when Iris brought the Spectral Flame up to its face.

Nein, nein, nicht das Licht! Bitte, wir geben nach!” it wailed.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not quite fluent in German. Did you say you’d like some more light?” Iris smirked as she increased the intensity of the fire.

Nein, no, please!” it pleaded. “Please, please we submit, just take away das Licht!”

“But I want to get a good look at you; you are such a rare creature after all,” Iris replied.

The being was only a few inches shorter than her at about five feet, though would have stood taller had its back not been so horribly bent. Its skin was pale and hairless, each handheld seven long, splayed fingers, and its pointed ears were so large as to be almost bat-like. Its left eye, the larger of the two, had a black cornea and gold iris, while the other had a clouded cornea and red iris. Its nose was hooked and crooked, but most grotesque of all was a mouth that went almost literally ear to ear and was filled with multiple, misaligned rows of large teeth.

“Incredible. The product of three hundred years of alchemically enabled and accelerated inbreeding, dozens of generations without any outside blood, reinforced by the ruthless culling of all but the most monstrously mutated, you are a work of art!” Iris marvelled. “I can’t believe I actually got a chance to look at one of you things up close. Do you have a name, little Nosferatu?”

Freiherr Dagoburt von Habsburg. Please, forgive us! We thought you a mere peasant, but your strength and cunning are proof of noble blood. We were going to eat you, but now we see you would be a worthy vessel for our brood. Let us fornicate, and a fortnight from now the noble products of our union will gnaw their way through your womb and burst forth to carry on our combined bloodlines!”

“I’m flattered, really, but I am rather focused on my career at the moment so I’ll have to pass,” she replied. Placing the Spectral Flame on the ground, she pulled out her old box cutter and made a small slash on the goblin’s skin. It hissed in indignation but made no attempt to break free. A smear of a midnight blue humor began oozing from the laceration.

“Literal blue blood; brilliant!” she smiled. She now used her box cutter to carve a sigil into the goblin’s flesh.

“What are you doing?” it demanded.

“Just a little exsanguination spell I know,” she replied, pocketing the box cutter and unhooking the hermetic vase she had brought with her from her belt. “You Habsburgs aren’t the only ones who value that blue blood in your veins. If the Coalition has their way, it will be priceless pretty soon.”

“No, wait, please! I can pay you double what my blood is worth! Spare me and I -”

“Oh, I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to give it as a gift to my Grandsire, to ensure I stay in his good graces, and also just because I’m a little curious about what he’ll actually do with it. Besides, I can’t have you murdering and terrorizing the biggest flea market in the multiverse; it’s bad for business.”

Iris dropped the Habsburg to the ground and began murmuring invocations in the Chaos Tongue. Aerosolised blood began rising from the sigil and raining into the open vase. The pitiful creature shrieked and wailed as its convulsing body rapidly lost its vital fluids, flailing its limbs and thrashing its head in agony. It let out an ear-splitting scream as the last of its noble blood was depleted and its body went limp.

Somehow, the desiccated corpse was even uglier than it had been in life. Dragging it by the scruff of the neck, Iris tossed it into the sewage channel for the Bazaar’s authorities to find and deal with.

Ensuring the lid on the vase was tightly sealed, she picked it up and gazed at it in contemplation for a moment.

“Not even the weirdest part of my day,” she smirked to herself.

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