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FIRST: When Situations Degenerate

After a quick and pleasant jaunt through the Library, Alliott and Iris stepped sideways through a wall into an air-conditioned server room, lit only by the soft blue glow of blinking LEDs.

"OK, watch your step. There shouldn't be anything on the floor but you never FUCK SHIT DAMN stubbed my toe, it's fine, watch out for the pile of guns."

"Alliott, why is there a pile of guns on the floor of your server room?"

"Because I ran out of space in the gun room. Oh, here's the door."

"Gotta say, your lair isn't all that impressive." It really wasn't; the hallway outside was bare, a concrete floor and cinderblock walls, exposed pipes hiding the ceiling. "I was expecting, like, sexy cyberpunk opium den. Not industrial parking garage utility tunnel."

"Ok, first of all, I don't have a 'lair', I'm not a supervillain. Second of all…" They stepped into an elevator, and accelerated upwards. "Hold on, I timed that dramatic pause poorly. Here we go. Second of all…"

The elevator opened onto a sexy cyberpunk opium den. Psychedelic tapestries and band posters competed for wall space with flatscreen monitors and weapon racks. The lighting was dim and seductive, a soft golden glow from an apple-shaped ceiling lamp. A low table on ornately-carved legs sat in the center of the room, covered in dismantled cybernetics, takeout containers both empty and half-empty, assorted drug paraphernalia, videogame controllers, tarot cards, knives, many-sided dice, cheap science fiction paperbacks, loose ammunition, and other ephemera of a terminally interesting life. Around it were a handful of comfortable couches, a couple of which were occupied.

"Hey, Alliott, I didn't know you were a triplet."

"I'm not, she's—wait, triplet?"

Both of the occupants of the room were, as far as Iris could tell, basically copies of Alliott. One of them was almost exactly identical, except both her hands were flesh and she had a cool geometric face tattoo; the other was wearing the kind of elaborate rune-embroidered black robes that went out of style with top hats and laudanum.

"Oh, goddess. Iris, this is Alex." The normal-looking Alliott waved. "And this, unfortunately, is Aleison."

"The Scarlet Woman greets you, Dark Lady. How—" Aleison cut herself off suddenly, and raised an eyebrow at something behind Iris; when Iris looked back, Alliott was staring at the ceiling and trying very hard to look innocent.

"Dark lady? What do you mean, dark lady?"

"Ah, my apologies, you look like… A friend of mine." Aleison frowned. "Perhaps 'friend' is not the right word. Business partner, maybe. But you are the spitting image of her." She gave a meaningful look to Alliott, who was still avoiding eye contact.

"Hmm." Iris glared at each of them in turn. There was an awkward silence, eventually broken by Alex.

"Oh, hey, you probably want to dump your stuff somewhere. Guest room is down the hall, yeah? Second door on the right." She also gave out some meaningful looks. They all had the exact same expressions. Kind of creepy after a while. "Take some time for yourself. Take a nap, I'm sure you've had a hard day."

Iris could tell when she was being gotten rid of, but decided not to kick up a fuss. The guest room was weirdly minimalist compared to the rest of the lair, IKEA furniture and bare walls. She leaned her bike in a corner, chucked her bags on the bed, and immediately snuck back out into the hallway to eavesdrop.

Someone had put some music on, probably Alliott given that it was that Discordian acid house band from the '90s she was always trying to get people into, but Iris could still hear snatches of the conversation. Either Alex or Alliott was saying something, clearly agitated: "… the enemy! Maybe … universe, but … motherfucker … your lair?"

"Discordia's tits!" Now that was definitely Alliott. "… a kid! Not the same … just a second-rate thaumaturge!" Wow. Rude. "… her out, when … kidnapped!"

Aleison, unlike the others, was British, with the kind of accent you can only get out of a hideously-expensive boarding school education. "… friends, per se … biblically, on occasion … mutual carnal satisfaction …" What the fuck. "… certain private club … devotees of Sappho—"

"Don't need to … fucked her alternate … you always … too much information!" Alex again, probably. She had a kind of low-key valley-girl uptalk thing that Alliott didn't.

"Oh, please … my personal preferences …" At that point, the track ended, and Aleison practically shouted into the sudden silence. "She fucked me. And believe me, my world's Iris is an excellent lover."

"What the fuck." Iris couldn't help it. She heard three identical gasps from the living room, and stepped out. "What the actual fuck, guys." None of them would make eye contact.

"Um." Alliott looked up sheepishly. "Sorry?"

"That's it? You're talking behind my back about, what, fucking alternate universe versions of…" She trailed off, staring at the three identical faces before her. "Oh! Huh."

"Well. I suppose we owe you an explanation." Aleison finally looked up, and winked. "And, by the by, it was you who fucked me, not—"

"NOT the time." Alliott pushed herself to her feet. "Alright. I am going to make some coffee, and then we are going to explain shit."

"Yeah. Good. Ok." Iris sat down on the couch across from Aleison with a sigh. "Hey, can I pack a bowl?"

"Yeah. Weed's in the skull."

There were at least seven different skulls on the coffee table, both human and inhuman. "Uh. Which one?"

"All of 'em."


"Are you sure we should be here? I have heard stories about the… What do they call them? Campus cops?" Alphonse Cartier looked around nervously from under his bucket hat, checking every bush and tree for the secret police. The Deer quad was surprisingly empty for a Friday night; all the good parties must be off-campus. "They disappear people, Skitter! Bodies never found! Eddie, you know him, Edouard Saint-Clair, he went to a rave here once, vanished for six weeks! Turned up in Maine, nearly catatonic, hasn't been right since!"

Skitter Marshall knew Eddie well; the man was a scumbag even by his standards, and he had no sympathy for him. He sighed. "Alphonse, I think as long as you don't try to roofie anyone, you'll be fine. Relax." He rolled up his sleeve and checked his watch. "My contact should be here any minute, and he's a student. A very important student. We'll be under his protection."

"Yes, well, I don't know this guy. How did you get in touch with him, anyway?"

"His father is in business with my father. He's an… Import-export specialist."

"You mean a smuggler?"

"I mean a psychopomp. Ah, that must be him."

Sulfrous smoke had begun to rise from a patch of lawn. The grass withered, and burst into black flames that gave off an eldritch unlight; Alphonse had to avert his eyes, then plug his ears as a cacophony of pleading souls cried out for release from their torment. (Skitter, he noticed, was just fine. Typical.) When the noise abated, a pentagram of charred grass smoldered on the lawn; and in it stood a man, corpse-pale and crimson-eyed, face coated in the blood of a fresh kill. "The son of the serpent greets thee, servants of Mammon." His voice was an ice-cold nail hammered into their eardrums, a hooked claw scraping down the blackboard of their souls. "What dost thou require of Mordecai Diabolus, Prince of Hell and also President of the Deer Student Body?"

Skitter blinked a few times, then tapped his cheek. "You've, uh. Got something. Here. And here. Sort of all over actually." On a second look, what Alphonse had thought to be blood was actually lipstick. Quite a lot of lipstick. "Do you want to, uh, get cleaned up and try again? Because that was pretty good, but the smooch marks kind of ruined it."

Mordecai rubbed his cheek and checked his hand, then sighed. "Nah. Moment's ruined. So. You're looking for Iris Black."

"… How did you know?" Skitter sounded surprised. "I didn't…"

"I have my ways." You haven't heard smug until you've heard it from an antichrist. Alphonse could almost see the condescension dripping from his smirk. "And, as it happens, I know where she's going to be. Follow me." Mordecai set off across the quad at a brisk walk; Marshall and Carter followed, half-jogging to keep up with his stride.


"Alright, so." Iris gestured vaguely with the pipe, which was predictably apple-shaped. "You're all the same person but you're from other universes. And there's like one of you in every universe. Multiverse. Whatever. And I'm in a lot of them and mostly I'm in charge of the evil rich guy club for evil rich guys, but I'm not in here, but the dude in the shitty suit and the french guy want me to be so they're trying to kidnap me for nefarious purposes." She hit the pipe again. She wasn't high enough for this.

"Yeah. That's about it." Alliot shared some more significant glances with her doubles. Iris was getting really tired of those. "Well, ok, one other thing. As much as I would love to give succor-"

"I 'ardly know 'er." Alex help her hand up for a high-five; the others left her hanging. "Oh, come on, really? It was great. You guys just don't appreciate comedy."

"As much as I would like to give assistance to a fellow derbyist in need, I, uh… Can't do much." Alliot gave Iris a sheepish grin. "I have like, so many irons in the fire. And MCD are not good people to piss off. You can stay here for like, a few days, and I can give you some spending money. More if you're OK with counterfeit. But, uh…"

"No, no, I get it," Iris said, "I can figure something out. Should probably get out of ThreePorts, they'll be looking for me there. Uh, where are we now, by the way?"

"Eurtec. Which I cannot recommend staying in. Dreadful place," Aleison sneered, "Full of Germans. And the French."

"And they love their bureaucracy, so unless you have EU citizenship, you'll need to get a job. Which, again, I would love to provide, but…" Alliot shrugged and trailed off.

"Irons, fire, et cetera, I get you. And I've got British citizenship. But… Brexit. So it wouldn't be a super long term solution anyway."

"You know where they'd never look for you?" Alex stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Fuckin'. Middle America. Move to like, Cleveland. Cut your hair and change your name. Work at a Starbucks. They'd never find you."

"… Huh." Iris frowned. "Well, it would suck. But it would probably work. Not Cleveland, fuck Ohio. And Chicago's got too much going on magic-wise. Maybe Milwaukee. Or Minneapolis. I'll need a car, though."

"Yeah," Alliot said, nodding, "I can get you a car."

"And a driver's license. And like, a crash course in driving, I've lived in Portlands my whole life, it's never come up."

Alliot sighed. "I can do that too."


"Alright. This is where she comes to smoke." Mordecai gestured to a stump, tucked away in a grove of ancient pines. He had led them down into the Deer Canyon, a forested ravine that cut through the center of campus, and along a series of twisty trails. Alphonse was thoroughly lost, but Skitter looked pretty confident, so he decided to stop worrying. (It didn't work.) "She should be here in, oh, five minutes or so, and you can get the drop on her then. I expect the bitcoins in my account by morning. Ta ta!" With a cheery wave, Mordecai went back the way he came; Alphonse and Skitter settled in for a short lurk.

Five minutes passed. Then ten, fifteen, twenty. It started to rain. At twenty-five, Alphonse turned to Skitter to suggest they leave. He wasn't there. "Uh. Skitter?" He looked around, panic rising. "Skitter this is not very funny. You know I have an anxiety disorder." He walked toward the exit, still frantically searching for his companion; but the path wasn't there any more. Just a close-packed wall of trees. "Skitter?" Someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Oh, thank god, I…" There was nobody there when he turned. Just a tree branch. But there hadn't been a tree there before. "Skitter this isn't funny any more, where did you go?"

He heard a faint whisper over the wind and the rain, and strained his ears. It came again. "Down… Here…" Skitter's voice, choked and muffled. Alphonse looked down, and saw Skitter's face, half-buried in the wet soil, a root wrapped around his neck.

The trees grabbed Alphonse before he could scream.

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