Masks, Monsters, & Merchants

    Marshall, Carter & Dark
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rating: +59+x

Site-19 was not an easy place to break in to. Sneaking past the hyperspectral surveillance or electrified rigid mesh fence of the outer perimeter was almost inconceivable, and just charging it was sure to result in death by a hail of bullets, or RPGs if it came to that. A powerful signal jammer on the roof repelled UAVs and meant that telecommunications were limited to a monitored and encrypted hard line. Biometric, RFID, and 3D imaging scanners flanked every potential point of entry to screen out intruders and contraband, and seismic sensors would detect any breach in the walls or windows.

All the juiciest anomalies were kept deep underground in a reinforced concrete bunker. Each cell was closed off by an Access Control Vestibule with heavy steel doors, a multitude of three-tonne blast doors could be dropped to seal off sections in the event of a containment breach, armed guards and security drones were on standby every hour of the day, and every square inch of the place was monitored by both video analysis software and live humans at all times. And if all else failed, there was always the onsite nuke.

There were ways in though; mostly Ways with a capital W. Anomalous means of translocation was the one form of intrusion the Foundation couldn’t reliably defend against. Reality Anchors worked best when calibrated to specific anomalies, and the Foundation just didn’t have the resources to waste Anchors as doorstops when they might not even work.

At a little past 04:00 local time, the Reliquary of Site-19 sat in quiet stillness, devoid of any personnel. Meanwhile, across The Pond and at a far more reasonable local time, a Paratech developer of some renown sat by her computer, using the Foundation’s SCiPNET with forged credentials. The Foundation’s sadly mundane encryption methods never stood a chance against Dark’s electro-thaumic hardware and Chaos Tongue based algorithms. All the automated security for the Reliquary fell idle, the guard’s monitors looped back to the last five minutes of footage, and the live footage rerouted to Dark’s screen. She signalled to her compatriots that the security was taken care of, and nonchalantly sipped her morning tea.

She watched as the door to the Reliquary’s maintenance closet creaked open, revealing a glowing and smoky white portal. It was accompanied by the sound of calliope music – a requirement of the Waymaking device they were using - and Dark was undecided on whether that made it less unsettling or more. The door was breached by the tall, slender form of her great grandsire, clad as always in a hooded black cloak, as befitted an old-fashioned occultist such as himself. Darke’s not quite corporeal form slid quickly and gracefully along the Reliquary floor, barely touching the ground as he slid from one set of shelves to the next. Dark stood ready to guide him should he take a wrong turn, but he moved with unfailing precision towards his goal.

And it wasn’t as if it was hard to spot, either.

There, on the middle shelf, upon a black plastic dais and under a plexiglass case, sat half of a skull; a cranium missing its jaw bone, some teeth, and a good part of the top and back of its head. What bone remained was in a horrid condition as well, like the thing had been bathed in hydrofluoric acid.

Darke effortlessly bypassed the stainless-steel lock and flipped open the case. He picked up the skull in his long, nearly arachnodactyly fingers, and held it aloft as if it was Poor Yoric. He gazed into its empty orbits, meditated on it for a moment, then finally sniffed it like it was a fine wine.

“Is it still viable?” Dark whispered.

"It is," Darke nodded, a wicked grin spreading across his face. With his free hand, he pulled out a replica of the skull, placed it back inside the display case and snapped it shut. He then spun around and sped back to the Way, shutting the door behind him as he passed through.

With a few well-typed commands, Dark reactivated the Reliquary's security, returned the live feed to the guard monitors, and logged out.

That evening, the two of them waited impatiently in the lobby of Darke’s Sanctum, each with a small carrying case by their side. Darke’s short, slender, and ever silent Alagaddan servant stood by as well with its head hung low. Its presence was odd enough, as it normally appeared precisely when Darke wanted it for something, but odder still was its restless, almost anxious countenance; a far cry from its usual implacable demeanor.

Iris almost felt sorry for it, as its unease was perfectly understandable. If they were delayed, they risked offending the Hanged King.

The three of them let out a collective sigh of relief when Ruprecht Carter and Skitter Marshall came through the Way to the London Office.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” the younger Marshall apologized, his face looking even more pale and gaunt than usual. The servant handed them each a lucidity pill and a glass of water, to help them keep their minds in the strange dreamscape of Alagadda.

“You didn’t wander into the wrong reality again, did you Skitter?” Iris smirked.

Out of the six Marshalls, Carters, and Dark(e)s that ran MC&D, Skitter arguably led the most adventurous life. A skilled lockpick and Wayfinder with a general knack for finding things that weren’t supposed to be found, Skitter would more often than not be out wandering the planes in search of anything that might either amuse him or enrich his company. As fun and profitable as this was, he did sometimes go home to the wrong MC&D, or stranger yet, wrong versions of him came home to them.

“No, no, no. Not this time. At least, I don’t think so,” he said with a hint of uncertainty. “…Your hand looks a little different from the last time I saw you.”

“It took some damage and needed repairs; that’s it,” Iris assured him.

“Right,” he mumbled. “…First time we met?”

“June 26th, 2014. The Eidolonics gathered you, Robert, and myself in the aftermath of a certain incident that I’m sure Ruprecht would prefer I not bring up to discuss our status as inheritors. They made you breakfast, got Robert a new suit, and scarred me so shitless I imploded one of them with a box cutter.”

“In their defence, they had tried to contact you ahead of time, and I had previously informed you of their nature and appearance,” Darke remarked dryly.

"I was sleep-deprived, and there was a faceless monster at my door; I panicked,” Iris said through her teeth. Skitter couldn’t help but chuckle.

“That’s good enough for me. I’m home,” he said confidently.

“Speaking of your fellow junior, where is young Robert?” Darke asked, casting an annoyed glare in Carter’s director. Ruprecht fidgeted as he cleared his throat nervously.

“Regrettably, Robert will not be joining us this evening,” he reported. Darke just stared at him for several seconds in a state that bordered between rage and confusion.

“Why?” he asked at last.

“Well, he’s an attractive, charismatic, well-to-do young man – no idea where he gets that from – and he simply has better places to be on Halloween than, ah…”

“Than the Court of the Hanged King?” Darke finished his sentence. “Has he any idea what the consequences are for crossing such a Titan?”

“Darke, you said only one of each of us had to go. Amos isn’t going,” Ruprecht defended his heir.

“Amos has the excuse of being an invalid in need of continuous life support!” Darke countered.

“Well after a night out on the town, so is Robert,” Ruprecht quipped. For a second, it looked like Darke was about to storm through the Way to London and drag Robert back by his ear.

"Grandsire, being late will be a far more grievous offense than being short a party member," Iris counselled him softly, guessing his mind. "We should be heading off."

Darke let out a reluctant sigh and nodded.

“Yes. We mustn't be late,” he agreed. He snapped at his servant, who picked up the pair of carrying cases and started heading down the hall. “Everyone follow him and stay together, at least until we get to the Palace.”

“Why are there two cases?” Ruprecht asked as the four of them walked down the ominously long and lifeless hall of Darke’s Sanctum. “I thought we only had the one offering.”

“The other is just a change of clothes for me. As an Alagaddan himself, he can take objects to and from the city, and I have no intention of spending the night in whatever ridiculous costume I get stuck with when we step into Alagadda,” Iris explained.

“Life of the party as always, I see,” Ruprecht rolled his eyes. “Hard to believe Robert didn’t want to be here. God forbid you’re seen in public in anything other than those frumpy sweaters of yours.”

“She’s got a nerd chic thing going on; it works,” Skitter claimed.

“Nerd chic? Pfft. She dresses like a penniless, bedraggled fisherman.”

“What is wrong with you? She looks amazing.”

“Do let me know once you work it out gentlemen; my entire sense of self-worth depends on it,” she said with so much sarcasm the rest of Great Britain was forced to ration it for the better part of the next decade. Darke chuckled softly at the barb, then gestured for them to stop at an ancient-looking wooden door. The servant set the bags down and took out a keyring, using a different key on three separate locks, then turning a dial of Antikytheran Clockwork to calibrate the Way. Pushing the door open and picking up the carrying cases once again, he led the party into the City of Alagadda.

Black, white, red, yellow; all of precisely one shade. These were the only colours that could be seen, and indeed the only colours permitted to exist by Alagadda’s unnatural laws of nature. Constellations of obsidian stars fumed in the xanthous sky above, while the dark sea surrounding the island reflected nothing; or perhaps it reflected nothingness, and no one could tell the difference. The harrowingly baroque architecture of buildings hewn from single hunks of marble bent at impossible angles, disregarding gravity and contorting into confounding configurations. Before them were Penrose stairs and Penrose triangles, impossible cubes and impossible waterfalls, even a beast resembling an L'egsistential Quandary was tethered in the city square, which the Alagaddans cruelly tormented for their amusement.

The city folk themselves were of course in their state of perpetual orgiastic mayhem, a timeless celebration that could have been viewed as an ironic punishment if they stopped long enough to think about. Some were nude, some were in exquisite finery, but all wore Carnival masks. It was forbidden, and thus impossible, not to.

Even the newcomers had been gifted with the requisite attire, as was Alagadda’s custom. Marshall and Carter had each been dressed in embroidered velvet breeches, waistcoats and frock coats, Skitter’s white with a rabbit-eared Arlecchino mask and Ruprecht’s red with a Zanni mask. Ruprecht had also been gifted a tricorner hat with a feather in it, along with a bejewelled cane. Darke wore a Pantalone mask, but his robes were only a slightly more ornate version of his usual dress. Iris, unfortunately, did not get the same courtesy.

“This is just typical,” she bemoaned as she tried to hoist the massive hoop skirt of her golden gown. “There must be ten yards of fabric in this thing and still no bloody pockets!”

"They ruin the silhouette, Luv,” Ruprecht explained as he admired his own reflection in his cane. “Is having nowhere to put your little toys really such a high price to pay for looking presentable for once?”

"Ruprecht, on the exceedingly rare occasion when I want your opinion I will -" her sentence was interrupted by a shriek as she fell to the ground. Iris had many talents, but walking (or even standing) in high heels wasn't one of them. Darke, Skitter, and the servant all rushed to her aid, while Ruprecht just tossed his head back and cackled.

“Iris in a dress and heels? This is already the best party I’ve ever been too,” he laughed.

“Keep him quiet,” Darke growled at Skitter. Skitter nodded obediently and went to keep Ruprecht at bay while Darke held out his robe as a privacy curtain so that the servant could help Iris change into her spare clothes.

“There’s no reason a woman can’t be powerful and still wear high heels,” Ruprecht opined. “Alagadda’s Ambassador wears high heels, and she’s one of the most powerful women in all the Worlds.”

“The Ambassador isn’t a woman, they’re genderless,” Skitter corrected him.

“What? You mean the leadership here has no women but they have a non-binary? How dreadfully modern,” Ruprecht lamented. He saw that Iris was now ready, dressed in Chelsea boots, dress pants, a cashmere turtleneck, and a golden half-mask shaped like feathered wings with a hawk’s beak. “… You look ridiculous.”

“We all look ridiculous,” she grumbled, impotently pulling at her mask. “We’ve wasted enough time. We need to get to the Palace before -”

She stopped short, as they were at the Palace, though she was quite sure they hadn't been a moment ago. Specifically, they were in the Grand Hall, where both many-limbed and limbless masked humanoids danced together in a mesmerizingly choreographed ballet, flowing in a Mobius strip that took them along every floor, wall, and ceiling.

“Ok, that is surreal,” Ruprecht remarked, darting his head around the grand golden gala. They were approached by an impish servant, akin to Darke’s, who offered a tray holding a drink tailored to each of their individual tastes. “Is that Vin Mariani? Bloody good show. Here, keep these coming.”

Ruprecht slipped the imp a 1000-franc Swiss banknote (which he kept on his person specifically for offering outrageously over-sized tips) and eagerly took of a swig of his cocaine-laced wine.

"Hold on, how did you sneak that bill into the city?" Skitter asked as he picked up a pint of Indian Pale Ale from the tray. Ruprecht's only response was a satisfied sigh as he lowered his glass.

“This is what made the good old days so good my young friends; we put cocaine in everything!” he proclaimed.

“Bloody Hell, the light spectrum of this place won't let me get a reading," Iris muttered as she unsuccessfully tried to scan her hot cocoa with her phone's in-built spectrometer. She gave up and handed it to Darke. “Can you tell if it’s safe?”

“Iris, that is incredibly insulting to our hosts,” Ruprecht reprimanded, handing the imp another 1000-franc note. “Let’s just keep this between us, shall we?”

“Forgive me, but I’m somehow sceptical that an otherworldly, heedlessly hedonic, slave-owning city-state ruled by reality-bending oligarchs would prioritize informed consent,” Iris retorted.

“The drink is free of intoxicants, poisons, or enchantments, and I believe it has been made to your tastes,” Darke assured her, having completed his psychic reading of it. “Ruprecht is correct, however, that our hosts would not dare to harm us, lest we should offend them. It would be best for all of us if you were to keep any and all unfavourable opinions about our hosts to yourself for the remainder of the evening.”

“Yes, you’re right. I apologize. Even with the lucidity pill, I think this place is still messing with my prefrontal cortex a bit,” she nodded as she received the hot cocoa. “We need to present our gift before we join the festivities, don’t we?”

“Indeed we do,” Darke nodded as he took the chalice of condensed miasma from the imp’s tray. “Would you kindly inform your masters that the Deathless Merchant of London and his guests have arrived?”

At the speaking of his title, the Grand Hall fell silent, with every courtier's gaze fixed upon them. They had also once again been moved without realizing it, and now stood before the Hanged King himself.

He was a Titan, dwarfing all others who dared to look upon him, draped from head to toe in damask cloth, impish servants crawling over him like insects. Around his neck hung a noose of thorns, forever binding him to his throne. Though his mummified hands were human enough to look at, wriggling tentacles could be seen flicking back and forth underneath his tattered robes, calling his apparent humanoid form into question.

The King shuddered and groaned, imps shaking off as he did so, the entire Palace rattling at his anguish. The spectral flames dimmed, and sickly yellow fumes poured forth from his wounds and languidly sunk to the ground at his feet.

The Three Masked Lords emerged from the strange fog, each mask oozing a viscous, corrosive fluid that slowly ate away at their hosts.

There was The White Lord, Wearer of the Diligent Mask.
The Yellow Lord, Wearer of the Odious Mask.
And The Red Lord, Wearer of the Mirthful Mask.

The Black Lord, Wearer of the Anguished Mask, was of course nowhere to be seen, having long since been exiled for crimes none dared to speak of.

Lastly, the tall, lithe form of the Ambassador strutted forth, the only person in all the city to wear no mask. Their face was blank, and their skin smooth and black. It was impossible to tell if they were nude or covered completely in some seamless garment, but their feet stood on tall, narrow heels and their fingers were shaped like long, lethally sharpened nails.

“The Masked Lords, The Ambassador of Alagadda, and The Hanged King all extend a regal welcome to Percival Darke, The Deathless Merchant of London, learned Alchemist and master of the Occult, as well as to his esteemed partners Skitter Marshall and Ruprecht Carter, and most especially to his heir the ingenious, prodigious, and – if she would be so kind to tolerate an old man’s double standards – lovely Iris Dark,” the Red Lord greeted them, glaring down at them with wanton lust, his voice aged yet depraved. Iris was indeed tempted to offer a flippant response, but before these twisted and bizarre old sorcerers, even she felt it was best to hold her tongue and bow.

"We thank you for receiving us; My Lords, Your Eminence, and Your Majesty," Darke bowed graciously. "And I would like to offer my sincerest apologies for the absence of Amos Marshall and Robert Carter. As you know, the Elder Marshall suffers from quite debilitating maladies and is in no condition to attend such a lively festival. The Younger Carter has regrettably found himself otherwise engaged with… shall we say youthful indiscretion."

The entire Court burst out in mirthful laughter at the pathetic excuse, and they all turned their heads towards the Ambassador to hear their response.

“The Elder Marshall’s absence is excused,” they announced, idly sharpening their nails, making a show of saying nothing more. Ruprecht averted his gaze from the throne in anguish, fearing for Robert’s safety. In a rare moment of solidarity, Iris gently squeezed his hand.

“Enough grovelling, Percy,” the Ambassador declared, sensually strutting forward with their hands on their hips. “You promised me a new toy; where is it?”

“Iris, would you kindly do the honours?” Darke asked. She glanced up in confusion for a moment, as that had not been the plan, but saw by the pained looked in his eyes that he had been stricken in his current bowed posture by the will of the Ambassador. The Ambassador stared down at them sadistically, eager to see if the inexperienced Iris would give them a reason to dish out some entertainment.

“Of course, Grandsire,” Iris bowed, taking the box from their servant and slowly opening it to display the contents to their hosts. “What you see before you is all that remains of what the Foundation classified as SCP-096, known colloquially as The Shy Guy. While normally docile, if any sapient being even so much as glanced upon its face, in person or via any form of recording, it would be thrown into an unstoppable rage and hunt the person down to the ends of the Earth and destroy them. The Foundation deemed the threat of mass destruction this creature posed so great that it had to be destroyed. They did so one year ago tonight by exposing it to their most well-known captive, SCP-173, who could break the monster’s otherwise unbreakable bones. Once broken, they filled the creature’s spine with hydrochloric acid, dissolving its marrow and negating its regenerative powers, finally killing it.

“Within this skull fragment, enough marrow remains to catalyze a complete regeneration, if exposed to a sufficient source of occult power. We offer this to you, to do with as you will. Within your great city, the monster’s unremovable mask would render it harmless. Remove it from your city, and you will have an invincible assassin at your disposal, who can track down its prey from any distance, at least within a single world. Regrettably, its ability to reach targets located on other worlds is not known, though you should be able to work that out yourselves with minimal effort.”

The skull vanished from the box and appeared in the Ambassador’s hand, who again held it aloft like they were Hamlet, peering into it with every power in their possession. Iris, Ruprecht, and Skitter all looked worryingly at Darke, who was still held immovable by the Ambassador’s will.

At last, the Ambassador let out a gleeful cackle. They set the skull down and reappeared upon the King's shoulders, grabbing his veil and casting it down with one swift motion. The god-shaped hole that was The Hanged King's face was now visible to all, and it was that most abominable and eldritch of powers that caused the last remnant of SCP-096 to stir. The broken cranium began to mend itself, a new skeleton started to form, rapidly sheathed in new muscle and skin. The Hanged King let out an anguished sob, a cry repeated from the reborn throat of SCP-096.

Ruprecht and Skitter immediately turned around and covered their eyes, while Iris made sure to position herself in front of Darke to keep him safe from the monster's face. They all waited in terror for a moment, until the pregnant silence gave birth to thunderous applause. They carefully turned to look, and there, in the center of the Grand Hall, was 096. His tall, emaciated body and elongated limbs were unmistakable, even under the extravagant Venetian robes. His face was completely covered in a beautifully painted full mask that didn't even have eyeholes. He had no need for them anyway.

Thousands of eyes were now upon him, and he couldn't care less. He grunted in confusion, tentatively running his fingers along the porcelain mask, but gave no sign of distress. He shook his head listlessly and began pacing in a circle.

“What a darling little pet,” the Ambassador cooed as they re-veiled the Hanged King. “Percy, I graciously accept your offering. As a token of my gratitude, I grant you one boon from the Hanged King, to be redeemed at a time of your choosing. I’ll also forgive the absence of the Younger Carter, this time. You and your guests are free to enjoy the party.”

The Ambassador finally released him from their telekinetic grasp. Darke would have collapsed to the ground if Iris had not been there to support him.

“Th-thank you, Your Eminence,” he managed to gasp out.

“Everyone kindly raise a glass to The Deathless Merchant of London, and his gift of a new Court Assassin,” The Yellow Lord ordered. Another burst of applause and cheers echoed through the ballroom as people clanked glasses and imbibed their libations. Even for a party city like Alagadda, it was a special occasion.

It wasn't every Halloween that a decommissioned SCP came back from the dead.

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