“Come home, come home, darling rose…”
Monday evening, 7 December 2015, AM
Celia: The thing about first impressions is that you only get one shot to make someone like you. Which is all well and good for most people.
But Celia Flores isn’t most people.
So when Savoy’s “friend” tells her to bring a disruptive sort of weapon into Bloom Couture, Celia tries not to let it bother her. In fact, she even acts on it. Maybe living among the Damned has simply made her more pessimistic and the mystery friend isn’t a conniving cunt that wants to watch Celia crash and burn out of petty malice. Maybe the mystery friend thinks there might be trouble and just wants to make sure that Celia is prepared with a weapon if things go to hell.
She needs supplies first, though, and she sets about to gathering them. A few words to Rusty and he has the iron knife for her ready to go the next time she sees him. She hadn’t even had to explain, and she’s reminded (as if she forgot) why she keeps him around despite his less-than-stellar interpersonal skills.
If it were summer she’d steal through her mother’s garden for a rose, but it isn’t, and her roses aren’t in bloom. Still, a visit to a nursery has a dozen of them ready to go.
It would be impolite to show up hungry. Celia has Alana bleed a client for her while she fixes her face: it won’t be Celia or Jade that shows up, but instead a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl that still thinks fantasies can become reality and might even want to meet a fairy from the tales. She seals the rose and iron knife inside and, once she’s dressed, masks her Beast and heads off to Bloom Couture.
GM: Bloom Couture is located just off Decatur St. on St. Ann, its storefront is sandwiched between Ma Sherie Amour and the Vieux Carré Gallery. Celia knows the location has been a boon for Dahlia Rose, as the foot traffic in the area sees to it that her shop is almost always full of curious tourists and locals alike. Part greenhouse, part fashion design studio, stepping into Bloom Couture is always a new adventure for even seasoned veterans. One visitor described it as ”the prettiest garden you can imagine, with butterflies and songbirds and vibrant flowers that belong in a museum. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s definitely worth the visit.”
Most nurseries in the city close at 5 to 7. Bloom Couture skews towards the latter end, but the winter months prove a better time to do things, as they so often do. Celia can’t visit at all during spring and summer. Even now, as she approaches the nursery, it looks like things are winding down and the staff preparing to close up.
It’s the smell that strikes Celia first as she walks inside. Sweet pollens and fresh earth and intoxicating fragrances from a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flowers. The air is warm and humid against the wet and raining 48 degree night outside. Birds chirp over a fountain’s steadily trickling water and the soft crunch of feet pacing over grass and earth. Plants are everywhere. Palm trees, ferns, bushes, trees. Celia can’t name most of the specific varieties. There’s just green, everywhere, where there isn’t brown from the earthy trails through the plants, white from the ceiling overhead, and of course colors from all the flowers. It feels less like a nursery or conservatory than it does an indoor jungle. It reminds her of the Evergreen. But where the French Quarter lord’s rooftop garden feels like it’s bringing nature into its walls (or at least roof), Bloom Couture feels more like it’s giving itself to nature. Low conversations are audible among departing customers finishing up their purchases.
Celia’s been here her share of times, both on her own and with family. Emily’s enjoyed walking around the place to unwind from med school’s stress. Diana likes to buy her plants and gardening supplies from somewhere close by. She likes bringing Lucy too, so the five-year-old gets to see some nature. Lucy likes the place a lot. Everyone seems to like the place a lot.
Most nurseries don’t have people at the doors to greet the customers, but Bloom Couture has a helpful attendant to explain the store’s layout despite the prominently placed map.
Zahira Pavaghi, a college-age South Asian woman of the ubiquitous family, greets Celia like a new customer and lets her know where the paths branching off from the store’s front lead (beyond “deeper into the internal jungle”). The sounds from the hustle and bustle of the Quarter fade away with each step.
“Dahlia’s in her design studio,” she mentions when Celia asks after the owner. “That’s in the back.” She gives directions to it.
“We’re closing pretty soon, so try not to get lost if you still want to see her,” she smiles.
Celia: Celia—is her name Celia tonight? Perhaps she needs a new name to go with the new face—is intimately familiar with the paths of Bloom Couture. Or at least, she muses as she thanks (yet another) Pavaghi for the assistance, she thinks she is.
She’d wondered how Dahlia Rose had managed to put what feels like a rain forest inside a building. Why it looks so much bigger inside than it does outside. How she manages to create such beautiful gowns and other couture fashion out of plants. And now, maybe, an answer.
Conscious of the rose and iron inside of her, Celia (maybe something soft for the softer face?) steals through the paths of Bloom Couture. She keeps her eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, remembering Mel’s words about affinity for illusions and iron disrupting their magic. She wishes she’d thought to ask her grandsire about their disposition toward licks when she’d met with him atop the roof of the Evergreen instead of waiting for the go-between. This might just be another friendship where she lies through her teeth.
What else is new?
She pushes the thought aside. It’s not like she expects Dahlia Rose to come out and say “yes, I’m a fairy” to her, either.
She doesn’t linger overlong in the conservatory; they’re closing soon, like the Pavaghi said. Her feet take her toward the design studio.
GM: Emily had remarked once on how much larger the place feels inside than out, but didn’t seem to spare it much thought. Diana hadn’t commented on that fact at all, much less Lucy. Dahlia had still answered it was a combination of acoustics, mirrors, and “clever interior design.”
Celia spots nothing untoward, however, beyond the customers who are leaving the “building” (nature preserve feels more apt) with their assorted purchases, rather than walking deeper in. Celia spots a few more leaving the wooden doors of Eden Apothecary, which looks like nothing so much as a thatched Vietnamese hut squatting amidst the trees. The nearby greenery looks more Vietnamese too, with bamboo stalks and sacred lotuses.
The fashion design studio is a ways further back, but following the path takes Celia there. It looks like an actual plant conservatory tucked away amidst the greenery, but the walls are white and opaque. A knock at the door is answered by Manuel Lopez, a 30-something Hispanic man with a broad face, tall frame, and short beard. He’s dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and upturned baseball cap. A green apron and gardening gloves that smell like earth attest to his employment.
“Can I help you?” he asks.
Celia: It could be normal acoustics, lighting, and mirrors, like Dahlia Rose had said. It’s plausible. So is creating fashion out of flowers. Which is a convenient excuse as to why she’s here looking for the owner, if nothing else.
Celia smiles at Manuel. She’s seen him around plenty during prior trips here, though he won’t recognize this face of hers.
“Your girl out front told me I could find Miss Flores back here.”
GM: “Si,” he says, then turns around. Celia can make out some out some of the studio’s all-white walls and floors. “Hey, Dahlia! Lady here who wants to see you.”
Footsteps approach. Dahlia Rose Flores is a caramel-colored, brown-eyed Latina woman with long, dark hair that flows halfway down her back. She has full lips made for easy smiles and a pert nose that brings her whole face together. Her brows are delicately arched and expressive, and Celia has often seen them quirked in amusement. Long-limbed and lean, Dahlia Rose has the willowy body of the plants that she so often tends to. She might have more dirt beneath her nails than the typical girl, but the floral aroma that comes off her skin more than makes up for the time she spends elbow-deep in mud.
“Can I help you?” she smiles at Celia.
Celia: Well, I heard you’re a fairy…
That doesn’t seem like it will go over well. Celia gives her the same smile Manuel had gotten. Soft. Non-threatening. No fangs here.
How long does it take for her to find out about the rose and the iron? Does it count if she’s got it inside of her rather than on her?
“I hope so,” Celia enthuses. “A friend of mine told me that she got a floral gown from you, an’ I was mighty intrigued an’ thought maybe I could get one too.” A little bit of an accent makes her voice slightly different.
GM: “Sure thing,” the ‘fairy’ smiles back. “I’ve got the designs in here, come take a look.”
The fashion design studio is white. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. They’re well-lit to cast no shadow within the room. A three-way mirror sits against one wall with a pedestal before it, displaying the artist’s creations. “Floral gowns” is an apt descriptor.
Some of them resemble nothing so much as dress-shaped gardens replete with dozens of tiny plants and blooms. Others are more uniform: perhaps two dozen plate-sized white petals make up the voluminous skirt of one particular gown.
“I’ve also been starting a line of shoes to go with the gowns,” says Dahlia.
She has only one finished design currently available. It looks like there’s a bouquet resting on the toebox. The heel is made from pink petals that nicely contrast with the rest of the mostly green shoes.
Celia: The gowns are beautiful, of course. How could they not be when they’re made from florals themselves? Not a mere pattern, not dead things stitched onto a piece of fabric, but actual, living flowers.
It’s the shoes, though, that truly catch her eye. When Dahlia gives her permission she reaches out to touch the soft petals that make up the base and sides of the shoes, staring in wonder at the creation before her. She hadn’t heard that Bloom Couture makes shoes. She says as much, eyes wide in wonder when she looks back to Dahlia Rose.
“How,” she asks, “how on earth does that work? It’s not just adhered to a shoe?”
GM: “Oh no, those are real plants,” says Dahlia. “They’re much more comfortable than normal heels are, and there’s less need to get your size exactly right. The shoe is more pliable and will conform to the shape of your foot.”
“The only downside, like the gowns, is you can’t wear them forever.”
Celia: “And it will hold weight? You can actually walk in them?”
GM: “Yep. Feel free to try them on.”
Celia: She can hardly pass up the opportunity when offered. Celia takes a seat, removing her own heels so that she can slip into the plant shoes. After a brief moment of hesitation she rises, testing the support of the heel as if she expects for it to crumble beneath her weight. She takes a step. Another. Spins. Delighted, she giggles as she spins again, the skirt of her dress flowing out around her.
“These are amazing! How did you ever think of them?”
GM: The shoes are very comfortable. Soft. It feels like walking on grass. The bouquet on the toebox sways as she walks.
Dahlia smiles. “Same way as the gowns. More plants, less cloth.”
“I knew I wanted a shoe line as soon as I unveiled the gowns. It’s just taken some time to get ready.”
Celia: It’s easy to slip into the role once the shoes are on. She steps lightly on her feet, trusting the plants to support her, and it’s like every little girl’s dream come true. She all but prances across the design studio, her imagination taking her to a place where she runs barefoot through a field of wildflowers beneath a blanket of stars.
“I’d love a pair,” that girl says to Dahlia Rose, still caught in the fantasy. “Brightly colored, like these. Vibrant.” She’ll wear them with white and let the shoes steal the show. Another spin and she sees it in her mind, a fitted bodice of hundreds of white-petaled flowers with a long, sweeping flare at the base. It will sway when she walks, letting everyone see the rainbow hued shoes beneath the hem.
“Like a fairy princess,” she all but sighs.
The girl—more alive now than she has ever been—finally ceases her twirling and finds Dahlia Rose with her guileless blue eyes. She asks the expected question.
“How do you do it?” A gesture toward the shoes.
GM: Dahlia smiles widely back at the spinning girl’s enthusiasm.
She gives the expected answer.
“Otherwise everybody would start making them.”
Celia: A serious nod meets that answer. She knows all about trade secrets.
GM: “Brightly colored, though, I think we can manage. Miguel can fit you onto the pre-order list. What colors?”
Celia: “Pink,” she says immediately. “And purple. And blue.” Like the night sky. She will wear the galaxy itself upon her person.
GM: “Star shoes,” smiles Dahlia, as if guessing that very thought.
“Galaxy shoes,” offers Manuel.
Suddenly, the mirror’s surface ripples like disturbed water.
A foul, swampy stench, like sour eggs and rotting vegetation, fills the room.
A creature emerges.
The thing is made out of countless slimy, wet, reed-like tendrils. Half a dozen or so larger ones seem to serve limbs. A fleshy orange bulb beats like a heart where its chest might be. An enormous mouth filled with a forest of thorn-like teeth splits open. Its voice sounds like a thousand buzzing, droning mosquitoes.
Hunter comes swift
Come home, come home
Your prince misses you
Misses your scent
Wilts without you
Come home, come home…”
Several of the creature’s tendrils whip towards Dahlia, flecking brackish swamp water over the white studio. Manuel stares in horror.
Celia: Suddenly the knife makes sense.
Horrifying though the unknown creature is, Celia doesn’t hesitate. This is what she’s done all her life, isn’t it, protecting people that haven’t done anything wrong. Not that she knows for sure that Dahlia hasn’t done anything wrong, but it reminds her too much of the night she left her mother alone and the monsters came for her too, and it’s all too easy to picture Maxen as this sort of tentacle-clad horror coming for her defenseless mother in the middle of the night. Celia hadn’t been there for her then. But she’s here for Dahlia Rose now.
Her hand plunges inside her body’s cavity, shredding skin with her claws to grab the hilt of the iron knife Rusty had secured for her. In flower shoes and a fluttering dress, Celia Flores launches herself toward the thing that stepped out of the mirror.
GM: The iron knife bites deep into the creature’s tendril. There’s a spray of brackish, bug-filled water rather than blood, and then a dull thwop as the severed appendage hits the floor. The swamp creature shrieks, a ghastly sound like a thousand drowning frogs, and before it can react Celia’s sliced off another tendril. The iron sheers through the creature like it’s made of play-doh.
One tendrils slips around Dahlia’s waist and seems to hold her fast, then she steps out of it like it’s made of limp seaweed.
“Get Phuong!” Dahlia yells at Manuel, her face white with fear. “Get out the customers!”
The frozen man turns and bolts.
Dahlia claps her hands together. The plants come to life. Vines and branches burst through the studio’s walls, whipping around the creature like gasping hands. It roars and twists to escape its entanglement.
Celia: Celia tries not to gape at the plants coming to life around her. It’s like something out of a movie, isn’t it?
Then again, so is she.
She hefts the knife, taking advantage of the creature’s distraction with the vines to hack and slash at it again with the cold iron in her grip. She can buy Manuel time to get Phuong, at least, and prevent this thing from sucking Dahlia Rose back into the mirror.
GM: The creature thrashes against the plants, then yawns wide and belches a foul-smelling wave of swamp water and hungrily buzzing mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are enormous, the size of baseballs, and have the wrinkled faces of leering old men and women, with noses that end in pointed stingers. The bugs hungrily alight upon Dahlia, Celia, and the beautiful gowns. The floral creations rot apart under their sucking stingers.
Dahlia gives a furious shriek and blasts the bugs with rays of shimmering violet-gold light. Several fall to the ground, blackened and smoking, the mouths dumbly working open and closed as their ruined wings try to buzz.
Several land upon Celia’s shoulders, their stinger-tipped noses stabbing deep into her flesh like knives as they hungrily suck. Celia can see her vitae shooting up the transparent needle-like thing. Several quick slashes with the iron knife bisect one of the creatures, sending its halves tumbling to the floor. The other bug warily buzzes into the air. It gibbers something at her that sounds like a cloud of furiously droning mosquitoes.
The iron blade wreaks even greater havoc against the larger fae creature in Celia’s hands. Restrained by Dahlia’s animated plants, it can’t dodge or get away. Celia hacks the struggling thing apart with impunity. Foul-smelling swamp water leaks out with each blow.
The creature gives a great gurgling wail, makes one last, desperate effort to break free, and then goes limp.
Celia: It’s the knife. It has to be the knife, the iron blade in her hand, because Celia doesn’t even begin to think that she’d do this well in a knife fight against a creature like this without it. The knife, the vines, the way her brain spirals toward a similar kidnapping from so many years ago that propels her forward, makes her faster, guides the hand with the blade. She snarls at the old, leering faces as they bleed her, lips pulled back from her teeth. They’re ugly, hateful little things; vicious satisfaction thrums through her when she cuts one literally in half. Bald—like the monster that lived in her home for years and terrorized her every waking moment. The monster who took her mother from her, who tried to saw off her leg and killed her dream, who would have killed her a second time if Celia hadn’t stopped him. Her fault, for leaving.
Her fault, for coming. The realization hits her. The rose. The iron. The hunter.
A wordless shriek of rage passes her lips. She stomps the heels of her borrowed shoes down on the wings of the fallen beasts, crushing it beneath her feet. The knife plunges again, again, again into Max—into the monster. The spray of brackish water drenches her; blood runs pink down her skin.
Dead. It’s dead. She killed it, she won, she—
GM: The bulbous heart-thing explodes.
A man strides out. He’s too tall to have fit inside. He’s made out of reeds and brambles, with cat tails in place of eyes, and writhing leeches for teeth.
A second later, he looks like a muscular Cajun man in overalls, wild-eyed but ordinary-looking, save for the swamp water leaking around his bare feet. He swings a sword, cleaving apart Dahlia’s vines and brambles as they streak towards him, then throws a metallic-looking net at her. Her next blast of light splashes impotently off as the net closes around her, sending her tripping to the ground. She screams and struggles.
The man glares hatefully at Celia, then sprints up to Dahlia. He hoists the kicking, net-bound woman over his shoulder, then runs back towards the mirror. The surviving bugs streak towards Celia.
Celia: She’s stopped short when the heart explodes and out steps… him. The thing. Whatever it is it sets her teeth on edge. The puppet master to the monster? Or the hunter’s true form, just another guise he slips into? She doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. She’ll stop him, too.
The blood in her body responds to her mental commands. It mends her split flesh and she moves, ducking as best she can around the bugs. She lunges for the mirror—
There she is on the surface of the mirror, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl she had turned herself into. Cute, dainty, feminine, with a soft pink dress and flower shoes. She should be smiling. And she is. But it’s not the smile of the girl she wants to be, the girl who believes in fairies and princes and unicorns and never knew fear in her life.
It’s the smile of the lick who orchestrated a kidnapping to make someone owe her instead of just saying hello. It’s the flat, hard, empty eyes of the lick who dropped her from the roof of a building and told her that catching her is a favor rendered.
Her eyes flash. Green, for Jade.
Inside her chest her Beast purrs at the transition, shedding the ill-fitting mask as easily as she rips off a gown. Together they lash out to cow the thing and assert dominance, sending to it the same sort of fear that had molded her and turned her into this.
GM: She has so much fear to draw on.
So many memories.
So many terrors, even tonight.
It’s so easy to just… share them.
To let it all out.
The hurled fear crashes into the man like a psychic missile. His already wild eyes bulge wide as he staggers forward, caught in the throes of the primal urge to fight (the mirror itself?) or flee.
He chooses to flee.
The mirror’s surface ripples as he leaps through,. The surviving bugs zoom in after him. Celia can see through the mirror-shaped hole to another place. It resembles an enormous swamp, like the bayous outside the city.
But it’s so much more.
The trees seems soar for miles. The colors are more vivid. The bayou reeds are green as emeralds. The smells are stronger. Celia wonders if a breather would faint from the egg-like swamp stench, or find themselves irresistibly drawn forward by the flowers so sweet she can almost taste them. The noises are louder, deeper, like a prehistoric jungle full of primeval terrors.
And the darkness is so much deeper.
Yet as the man madly scrambles away, down a path of trampled reeds and rotting logs, Celia can see his true mien, a plant-like creature made of reeds and brambles and cattails.
Her hair is longer, falling all the way to her waist, and made of flowers. It’s not hair at all. Just flowers. It’s an iridescent flowing mass of roses in various stages of blossom, freely shifting from blue to red to pink to all the colors in which roses may be found. She smells like a rose garden in the height of spring bloom. The roots of her hair are literal green roots and vines, anchoring the floral mane to skin that resembles freshly-turned earth. Her eyelids look like rose petals, too, but her eyes remain hauntingly human.
And equally filled with terror.
Celia: Celia does not stop to wonder where this portal will take her. She plunges headlong into the mirror after her fleeing quarry—
No. Not him.
How had she ever thought that this human mask of hers is beautiful? How had she ever thought that any mere skinbag could compare to the ethereal, inhuman, haunting aesthetic of Dahlia Rose in her natural form? Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe the radiance coming off of her. It’s alluring. Divine. Magnetic. Even if Celia weren’t intent on returning Dahlia Rose to the mortal world (where even is she? has she crossed to another realm? she must have) she’d follow her all the same, down whatever road paved with whatever monsters she needs to face. Everything else fades away.
The terror-stricken face of Dahlia Rose beckons her forward like a guiding light.
Within seconds Celia realizes the error of the shoes. She kicks them off as she runs, hurtling after the fleeing fae as quickly as her body can take her, knife ready to bite once more into his skin.
GM: Her psyche enveloped by the otherwordly beauties before her, the Toreador is helpless to do aught but streak forward. Her bare feet smoosh into the moss and bark. She can feel it underneath her. Wriggling underneath her, like a living thing, but she blurs past.
Brambles catch her dress and prick her sides. Algae and water splatters over her front. The bayou hoots and hollers around her, pulling her steadily in, step after step. She can’t even see the sky. It’s an impenetrable thicket of impossibly thick trees and moss and thorns.
The fleeing fae, however, looks equally at home in his natural environs. He’s a green blur too as he races through the otherworld. A rickety-looking skiff awaits at the edge of the log. Everything past that is water, floating plants, and the soaked roots of unearthly trees. (How many feet long must the log be? Hundreds?) The fae hops onto the skiff, unceremoniously dumps a still-struggling Dahlia onto its floor, and produces a reed-like pole. He starts to row away.
Celia leaps after the skiff. The fae whips around the pole, cracking it hard over her head and sending her crashing to the vessel’s wooden floor. The log starts to recede as they float down the bayou.
“Cut me out!” shrieks Dahlia as she claws at the net. The rose scent is even headier up close.
“It’s iron, I can’t do magic!”
Celia: Another snarl rips from her throat as the oar smashes against her skull. It’s a bestial, inhuman sound; that and the blood that drips down her face gives lie to the image that she’d so carefully cultivated with her face and dress. There’s nothing delicate about the way she rises, knife brandished, ready to thrust again.
Dahlia Rose’s voice cuts through her need to slaughter the fae to keep the treasure for her own. She doesn’t hesitate—though some part of her wonders at the order to cut through iron—but sweeps her gaze instead over the net to look for a likely spot. She slices.
GM: The net does not look as if it’s made from solid iron, but individual iron links joined by cords made from some unknown material.
The other fae, meanwhile, drops its pole to swing its sword straight at Celia’s neck.
Celia: Celia finds a link in the iron and swipes at it with the blade, quickly cutting through the non-iron material to allow Dahlia Rose to pull herself free.
Then she’s gone.
Her form blurs, shifts, and twists. Large paws touch down on the bottom of the skiff with curved claws as long as her fingers. Sharp, meant to shred, they erupt from the striped fur that covers her body. Muscles and bones shift and realign within her body to turn her into one of nature’s apex predators. Her fangs, already long in her mouth, jut further from her skull with the change. She flattens her ears back against her skull and roars at the fae male, letting loose the reins that have so carefully kept her in control until this point.
She unleashes the Beast.
The Beast (and beast) shifts backward, weight moving to its powerful back legs. Its muscles coil and tighten before they release, sending the tiger soaring through the air at the fae male with outstretched claws and a wide open jaw. Rip, tear, kill. That’s all it cares about right now.
GM: Celia lets go.
There is no Celia anymore. Just two apex predators working in peerless tandem.
The leaping big cat smashes headlong into the reed-like fae, its enormous claws and fangs already rending and tearing, and then the red haze obliterates everything beneath a roar of primal savagery.
An eyeblink later, it’s gone.
The tiger is in the water. Its coat is soaked with algae. Withing, whispering, emerald green algae. Brambles, branches, and shredded reeds cover the tig too. The big cat’s mouth tastes like plants and witter and rotten eggs. Low roars sound in the distance over the droning of insects and the ribbeting of frogs. All of it deeper, louder, more primal, and just slightly off. Their air is wet and hot. This entire place seems to silently egg on the tiger’s Beast.
Dahlia Rose is crouched aboard the skiff, which now bears a number of deep gouges, with a vary expression.
Celia: Just like that, the tiger wins. Sated on (not?) blood of its fallen adversary, satisfied with its kill, the tiger comes back into itself. It paws at the water around it as it heads toward the skiff, cutting through the algae infused water so it can haul its body out of the water to land in a sodden pile of fur at Dahlia Rose’s feet.
It won. It beat the kidnapper and got the girl, and this exquisite beauty that smells like roses is its prize. The claws that had so handily defeated her quarry slide back into their protective ligaments.
It doesn’t purr—big cats can’t do that—but it blinks slowly at her in a show of affection and rubs its giant head against her hands.
GM: The skiff noticeably tilts under the big cat’s weight.
The fae woman’s hands feel like warm, freshly-turned earth as they massage the tiger’s neck. She has pink-hued flower petals instead of nails. The rose smell is even stronger so up close. The sensation is wonderful. The big cat could do this all day.
“We need to leave,” says Dahlia Rose, her eyes warily scanning the bayou. “It’s not safe here.”
Celia: The tiger finds it difficult to tear itself away from the girl. It doesn’t want to leave. It likes this pretty place with the beautiful girl and the air that smells like roses. But it understands enough to know that the girl is right. It got lucky with the fae male and the iron knife, but it can’t count on that sort of thing happening again. It whuffs its agreement and disappears.
Celia takes its place. Blood splattered, hair matted, bare-footed, with a dress that clings wetly to her skin, she looks every bit a mess. She reaches for the knife and the net, tossing the latter over her shoulder after a moment of consideration. It might come in handy.
She points vaguely back toward the log.
GM: She finds the net and knife both gone already.
Dahlia Rose doesn’t so much as blink at the transformation, though, before climbing off the skiff and back onto the log. Her nursery work clothes are equally stained and torn. They look so ugly on her literally flowering skin. She should wear her floral gowns. They’re the only thing worthy of that hair. That not-hair. It isn’t hair, it’s a floral mane. Celia can see the blooms sway in the wind as the colors shift from pink to blue to scarlet, like they’re speaking their own secret language. She smells so good. Even here, in this swamp. So, so good. It’s like having her face buried in roses. If she were to get even closer…
The Toreador can feel her vision tunneling, like Dahlia Rose and her wondrous hair is the only thing in the world.
She got the girl. They really should stay and enjoy themselves…
Celia: The lack of knife and net concerns her… but only for a moment. Only until she sees the girl up close with her “human” eyes, smells her with her “human” nose—tigers don’t actually have the best olfactory senses despite what most people think—and enjoys the fleeting touch of rose petals on her skin.
She reaches for the vine-like hair, staring in wonder at the being in front of her with large eyes.
“You’re really pretty,” she breathes.
Inadequate words to describe her, but it’s all her brain comes up with in the moment.
GM: The hair isn’t a vine. It’s a cape. A cape of cascading, living flowers, everything her gowns try to be, but can only be for a little while.
Does she have to water it? Give it sun?
It feels exquisite, either way. The petals curl around Celia’s fingers as if in response to her touch. They’re so soft. So sweet-smelling.
“Thanks, but we really need to go,” says Dahlia Rose, tugging Celia’s arm. The Toreador hasn’t yet clambered off the skiff.
Celia: “Okay,” she readily agrees, following after Dahlia Rose as if in a daze. She’d follow her anywhere. She’d followed her here, hadn’t she? To this… place. She tears her eyes away from the girl for only a moment to look around, but it’s hard to focus on anything except Dahlia Rose.
“Where are we,” she finds herself asking, not caring about the answer. But it’s something to keep the girl talking, to let that breath of fresh spring air assail her sense once more.
Maybe, she thinks, she can keep one of the roses from her hair for saving her.
Oh. Roses. The rose. She should get rid of the rose.
But not where Dahlia Rose can see. Vague instructions come back to her to not let the fairy know about it.
Then again, who cares about the rose inside of her when Dahlia Rose is… this.
GM: She’s so fucking pretty.
Dahlia Rose gives the Toreador a considering look, then just tugs her along. Celia doesn’t feel her bare feet squishing against the muck and the moss or hear the sounds of the swamp. There’s just the floral vision in front of her.
Dahlia’s mouth moves some more. Says something about it being the place where creatures like the… whatever, come from.
She smells so nice when she talks. Her lips are made of petals, too. Two pinkish petals. They have such a unique shape. It’s really pretty, too. What’s her tongue like…?
Celia: Celia nods along as the fairy talks, though the words go in one ear and right out the other side. She keeps her hand in Dahlia Rose’s, using any excuse she can to touch, feel, smell. A root “trips” her and she reaches out to steady herself, brushing her hands against Dahlia Rose’s… what is this? What is she made of? Is she a plant? She thinks she might ask, the words tumbling out past her lips before she can consciously stop them. Not that she wants to. She wants to know everything she can about this siren in front of her.
GM: Dahlia Rose just yammers something about needing to “GO.” The words are so much less interesting than watching her mouth move. Her teeth look like thorns. White-hued, rather wide thorns, but there’s a pointed shape to them that normal teeth don’t have, but which aren’t quite Kindred fangs either. Can she eat with those?
She touches Celia, too, when she “trips.” Helps her along. That brings her closer. Her flowers closer. God, she smells so nice.
There has to be a way Celia can replicate this at Flawless.
“Come on, come on, we’re almost th—fuck!” exclaims Dahlia.
“Hol’ up,” ribbits a deep and bullfrog-like voice.
The thing is huge, almost twice as tall as a man, and ugly as sin. It smells like it sleeps in a swamp. It smells like it bathes in a swamp. It smells like it shits in a swamp.
It smells like it just took a shit.
It’s standing square in the middle of the path leading to the mirror-shaped window and Dahlia Rose’s design space.
“If yuh wants throughs,” it ribbits.
“Gimme one o’ yous. For eats.”
The creature gives a very ugly smile.
“Or yuh solves muh riddle.”
“But yuh gets it wrong.”
“I eats yuh both.”
The words still only half-register. The thing is so boring. So ugly. So what if they can’t leave? She can stay here with Dahlia Rose. Stay here forever.
Celia: Celia might say something to Dahlia Rose. Something about why would they want to go when they just got here, when it’s so beautiful, when she hasn’t—
The rest of the thought never leaves her head. She’s stopped short by the thing in front of her. It’s an assault to her senses, to her very being. It doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Dahlia Rose. (Does she breathe? Oxygen? Carbon dioxide? What are the rules?)
She wants to stay. But not if one of them gets eaten. And the words only remind her that she’s so, so hungry, that the swampy watery thing hadn’t slaked her thirst, but maybe this thing…
Then they could linger. They could stay in the forest and frolick and they’ll both be young and beautiful forever.
“Okay.” Celia’s lips move of their own volition. She takes a step forward, a feral smile in her eyes. “Okay,” she says again, “but if we get your riddle then I eat you.”
GM: The monster gives a booming, ribbit-like laugh that expels foul-smelling swamp gas all over Celia’s face.
“Yuh gets muh riddle. Yuh gets tuh go throughs. Dat’s it.”
The monster pauses, as if thinking, then gives another ugly smile that shows its tusks.
“Yuh wants tuh eat me. Yuh gots tuh get… TWO riddles!”
The monster jabs triumphantly with two fingers pointed upwards, grinning ear to ear.
“I can’t eat you,” says Dahlia Rose. “Do I still get to go back we get the first riddle right?”
The thing grunts and sniffs.
Dahlia Rose gives it a bit of time.
The thing licks its lips.
“I wouldn’t taste very good, anyway,” says Dahlia Rose. She runs a hand through her ‘hair.’ The rosy smell is like some much-needed air freshener in a public bathroom. “Look, I’m a flower. You like meat, right?”
“Eating me would be like eating grass. Meat doesn’t do it for me, either. We can’t eat each other. So that’s only fair I should get to leave if we get the first riddle, isn’t it?”
The thing grunts and scratches its ass.
“Mm… okays… but yuh gets muh firs’ riddle wrong… I eats yuh anyways.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” nods Dahlia Rose.
The monster looks back at Celia and holds up its two fingers again. There’s a worm crawling on one of them now. A worm with three ‘heads.’
The monster looks at it, sticks the fingers in its mouth, then chews and swallows.
It pulls them out and holds them up again for Celia.
“TWO riddles, tuh eats me!”
Celia: The thing would turn her stomach if her body still worked that way. She’s glad that she’s next to Dahlia Rose, that all she has to do is lean in close to take a whiff of that rosy scent to drive the foul stench of the thing (ogre? Troll? Trolls like riddles, she thinks) away from her.
She could bottle this. Sell it. Make a fortune. Maybe a collab..?
“If we get your first riddle, we go through the door. If I get your second riddle, I eat you.”
GM: The monster growls.
“Yuh gets da second wrong. I EATS yuh.”
“Yuh dun like. I eats yuh NOW!” it roars, opening a cauldron-sized mouth.
The misshapen teeth are a dentist’s nightmare, but they look every bit as large and sharp as any tiger’s.
Celia: Not this tiger’s. Not this maneater. It already found the quest items, slew the monster, and rescued the princess.
This ugly, brutish thing before it is just the dessert after a five course meal.
A laugh leaves her lips. It’s a light, giddy sound, at odds with her battle-torn state. Her eyes flash once more, then settle.
“Try me,” she purrs.
GM: The monster gives her a dumb look.
“I think she means to ask your riddle?” says Dahlia Rose.
Celia gives the thing a look that Maxen would be proud of. She doesn’t need to say stupid.
GM: The thing opens its mouth again, but the voice that issues forth is light and mellifluous.
“A lady coming through my swamp
Comes right through but does not stomp
Sometimes seen and sometimes cloaked
Never by the rain is soaked
She lulls the serpent to his sleep
Causes every bird to cheep
She strokes the spine of every gator
But they do not try to eat her
She comes and goes but does not stay
Going home so far away
Who is she?”
Celia: It’s not what she expected. The voice, the riddle, all of it. She’d half-thought that there would be some childish, five-year-old’s sort of rhyme with a pun for an answer, or a silly twist. She hadn’t expected… this.
For a moment she can’t help but be annoyed. Does he expect her to know the name of an individual fae that travels his swamp?
But… no, that’s not how riddles work. Or at least that’s not how riddles should work.
Celia considers the words he’d given her, running over them in her mind.
Lady. Ladybug? Not a person. Plant? Animal? What doesn’t get soaked by the rain? Cloaked and not cloaked—invisible? Like her, someone who can turn into what she wants? No, that doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t stomp. No feet? Glides? The wind? Nature. Could be nature. Makes sense that it’s nature, doesn’t it? This whole place is nature. Something in nature. What’s cloaked? The moon? Behind clouds. Doesn’t get rained on. But moon doesn’t make birds cheep…
Sun? Has to be sun. Birds sing for the sun. Snakes get lazy and warm when they’re exposed to it. Gators… only see their spine above the swamp water so that’s all it touches? Doesn’t linger because it’s always rising and setting, and the gators can’t chomp on something that isn’t tangible.
But the sun isn’t a lady. Almost every mythology has it as a man. Sol, Roman, male. Counterpart is Luna, the moon, female. Helios, Greek, male. Apollo is the one who took the sun across the sky, but he’s male too. Ra, Egyptian, also male. Akkadian and Sumerian, Shamash and Utu, also male. It’s always a male. The moon is the female. But moon doesn’t fit here.
Unless… there was a line she read for class once, a line she liked so much that she took it for her own and used it in a writing project for another class, and one of her classmates laughed and said “you stole that from Homer.” It was a single line in a longer story, but she still remembers it:
When Dawn stretched fingertips of rose across the sky…
Almost every mention of “dawn” in The Odyssey is capital D “Dawn,” like a person’s name. It’s never just “the sun rises,” it’s always Dawn doing the thing. Dawn, female, “her” fingers. Because they personified her, and because… because she’s a goddess. With fingertips of rose. Rose, like the color of the sky. Rose, like Dahlia Rose. A fitting riddle for the girl next to her, and a fitting riddle for a lick who had studied ancient religions and cultures.
Celia turns to Dahlia Rose, voice lowered in case the thing (troll? definitely a troll) thinks that her speaking is a clear answer.
“I think it’s Dawn.” Briefly, she explains her thought process.
GM: Dahlia Rose listens as she does.
“So, I think you’re right about the mythological aspect with sun figures being male and moon figures being female… but neither of them is, inherently. Dawn being female because of The Odyssey seems like a stretch.”
“Has this thing even read The Odyssey?”
“Most hobgoblins spend their whole lives in the Hedge. They don’t know who the president is or what Greece is or sometimes even what a book is.”
Celia: “Valid.” Something she had considered. “It’s less the book than the entire mythology and religion, but I imagine things work differently here.”
GM: “I don’t know how much mythology and religion this thing knows.”
The fae woman thinks some more. “If you leave that out, does the answer make more sense as dawn or sun?”
Celia: “Dawn is part of the sun. It’s just one of the sun’s, uh, phases. But I imagine he won’t like a technicality. Sun, I think. Does that sound right?”
GM: “I think you’re right he won’t give us credit for being almost right. Or technically right. Whether it’s dawn or sun.”
Celia: “Then we go with sun, if the nuance of the feminine form is lost on him.”
GM: “Okay. If you think that’s right.”
Celia: “…do you think it’s right?”
Celia thinks it’s right. But she’s gambling their lives on it, and she isn’t one hundred percent certain. Only mostly certain.
GM: “Well, I hope it is. I’m pretty sure he can still eat me.”
Celia: She rips through the riddle in her mind again. Nothing else makes sense, does it? It can’t be a person or an animal because they’d get soaked by the rain and gators would try to eat them, and the sun is sometimes cloaked, and it’s far away, and…
“It’s the sun,” she says. Firmly. To the hobgoblin.
GM: The monster glares down at them. She can hear a massive rumble go up from its stomach.
Then it steps aside.
“Yuh goes through.”
Celia: “Go,” Celia says to Dahlia Rose.
GM: Dahlia Rose’s shoulders slump with relief.
She looks at the monster, then back at Celia. “I could help with the second one…”
Celia: “It’s not going to eat you if you stay?”
It warms her that the rose-girl wants to help, though. It warms her something fierce. How can she fail with this at her side?
GM: “Uh, can I stay? But still leave if she gets the second riddle wrong?” Dahlia Rose asks the thing.
It glowers dully from under its heavy brows.
Celia: “Your deal is with me,” Celia reminds it.
“And she’s a plant, no meat.”
A gesture at herself, her shapely, meaty body.
GM: “Got da riddle. Goes through,” rumbles the monster.
“Right, I will go through,” says Dahlia Rose. “Just in a little bit.”
Celia: “She’s my envoy. If I don’t make it. To tell our world of your mighty riddles.”
“So others can come through to try their wits against you as well.”
GM: The monster grins at that, showing its many teeth.
“Okay. She gon’ tell LOTS o’ others.”
“An’ I’s gun’ eat dem alls.”
Celia: “You’ll be very full,” Celia says with a nod.
GM: The ‘hobgoblin’ loudly farts, then scratches its ass.
A ripe, sewage-like smell fills Celia’s nose, along with a wet patter-pattering. Something dark and slimy trails down the back of the monster’s legs.
Celia: Her lip curls in disgust as the scent hits her.
GM: Dahlia Rose wrinkles her nose in distaste.
Her rosy scent cannot be inhaled fast enough.
The monster draws itself up, then speaks in the same clear and melodic voice:
“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”
“Well, that one’s shorter…” whispers Dahlia Rose.
Celia: The answer to this one isn’t as readily apparent. The use of goblin, drake, and walking bone makes her think it’s something that comes from… this place. The Hedge, is that what Dahlia Rose had called it?
“I, uh… some sort of predator,” Celia murmurs, “that doesn’t like fish?” No, that doesn’t make sense, does it? It can’t just be about the fish, these things are never that ‘simple.’ Even though it said simple. Fish live in water. What can’t get to water? Fire? Fire is put out in water. (Her Beast recoils at the thought of fire eating anything, and she quickly changes her thought process.) The earth “eats” things too, when it buries them. Fish aren’t buried. Everything that dies ends up in the ground, unless it’s not in the ground. And it can’t be death, since fish still die. Technically fish end up in the silt at the bottom of rivers and lakes, but technically dawn fit better than the sun for the last one, so she thinks it’s… not that nuanced.
“What’s a walking bone?” she asks Dahlia. “A thing here? Or just anything that walks on land and has bones?”
GM: “Walking bones might be a thing here,” says Dahlia Rose. “Almost anything can be a thing here.” She frowns. “But not a universal thing. I’ve never heard of anything like ‘walking bone.’”
“So, my guess would be anything that walks, and has bones.”
Celia: “But walks, not swims. I think that’s the key here. Something that doesn’t like water.”
GM: She thinks some more. “What can’t hurt fish, doesn’t like water… fire? Wait, no, fire can hurt fish.”
“You can cook them.”
“They just have to be out of the water.”
Celia: “Earth,” Celia suggests, “like a… grave. It eats them when you bury them. Or when they fall and die and the earth reclaims them. Graves. Or, ah… mushrooms? They don’t grow in water so they wouldn’t eat fish? Something that feasts on decay like that…?”
GM: “Hm,” thinks Dahlia.
“But doesn’t the earth eat fish too, after they die?”
“Bottom of rivers, lakes, oceans. All earth.”
GM: “That was my thought.”
Celia: “What’s not underwater? Wind? Doesn’t eat things, not like that. Fish could be a metaphor. Simple fish. Like… the masses? ‘Shooting fish in a barrel’ is a saying, but…” she looks around “…probably not here.”
GM: “The last riddle wasn’t really a metaphor, either.”
“The sun does put snakes to sleep.”
“Well, makes lethargic.”
“The answer seems kinda literal, but kinda poetic too?”
Celia: “I think the poetic part comes in with the idea that everything is equal before death. Like all these things die on land, it doesn’t matter what it is, and it eats them. Which is why I keep coming back to like… mushrooms. Or carrion birds.”
“But it doesn’t… really fit.”
GM: “I could see it being mushrooms,” thinks Dahlia. “It’s just that they don’t eat everything.”
Celia: “So… something similar to mushrooms that does eat everything?”
“…like a mosquito?”
GM: “Hm,” she thinks.
“Can you repeat the riddle?” she asks the monster.
The monster repeats thusly:
“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”
Celia: “It’s not him, is it?” Celia mutters to Dahlia.
GM: She looks at the monster thoughtfully.
“Could he eat a drake or giant?”
Celia: “If it were dead,” she sighs.
GM: “Yeah. The answer feels poetic. ‘To eat,’ as in, ‘to overcome.’”
She’s taking longer with this one.
Stupid, whispers a bald man.
Celia: She is stupid. Stupid to think she could make a friend. Stupid to come here. Stupid to challenge a hobgoblin to a test of wits. Stupid to challenge anyone to a test of wits. They’d be home free if it weren’t for her, back in the design studio with the ruined dresses (her fault) and the shoes (around here somewhere, she thinks, and if they’re left behind that’s her fault too), and when she fails and this thing eats her no one is ever going to know what happened to her, and her mom won’t understand why she didn’t come home, and—
Stop it, snarls the thing inside of her. She isn’t going to give up like some pathetic mortal girl who needs someone to save her. She’s the hero here.
“Hero,” she says dully, “overcomes things. Snakes. Spiders. Dragons. Armies. Doesn’t fight fish because they’re… simple. Not a challenge.”
It still doesn’t seem right.
GM: Dahlia thinks.
“It seems like it fits, technically… but do heroes ‘eat’ those things?”
Her family will be sad if she doesn’t come home, she’s sure. Her mom and Lucy and Emily. The people at Flawless, too.
How many others will be?
Celia: No one.
No one else.
GM: Stupid, whispers the bald man.
How could she think she was smarter than anything?
Even a hobgoblin that shits itself and can’t say ‘you’ right?
“Plus, squires… do heroes ‘overcome’ those?”
“I’d say yes, giants and drakes, but heroes don’t overcome squires. Or eat them.”
Would he get the riddle right?
How little time would it take a brain like his?
Celia: His sire would get it. The great and powerful Coco. The wonderful, sun-shines-out-her-ass, can’t-do-anything-wrong Coco.
Dahlia Rose doesn’t know either, though. Maybe they’re both stupid. Because they’re pretty.
Stupid but pretty.
GM: Whores, whispers another man she knew.
She remembers, one time, after she’d swallowed his cum, and he asked her if she’d rather be called a whore or a prostitute.
She’d said whore.
He’d made fun of her for the answer. Was ‘prostitute’ too official-sounding? Did she not believe having sex for money was her primary vocation?
“This is the only thing you’re good for, my pretty little whore,” he’d smiled, patting her cheek.
“My stupid, pretty little whore,” he’d repeated.
“God knows I’m not paying you for intellectual discourse.”
Celia: She’d thought it was the answer that he wanted to hear. All those times he’d made her call herself a whore, his whore, she’d thought it… she’d thought it might have made him happy with her, would have made their exchanges more pleasant, would have made him say something nice.
She was weak and stupid and desperate and just wanted someone to care about her.
Like Stephen had. Before she’d ruined that too.
But she seizes the thought because it’s all she has left, searching for whatever part of her he’d found attractive. Attractive mentally, not physically. Other people have told her she’s smart. Gui. Savoy. Smart and pretty. She can be both. She will be both.
She rips through her mind for the answer. Something that overcomes and eats, no matter how mighty it once was. Scavengers. Termites. Beetles. Worms. Maggots.
She lists them, one by one, to Dahlia Rose.
GM: Dahlia isn’t sure and asks the hobgoblin to repeat the riddle again.
“I eat goblin, snake, and spider
I eat giant, drake, and walking bone
I eat soldier, hunter, squire
But simple fish I leave alone
Who am I?”
“Maybe?” she says.
“Hm, do worms eat spiders?”
Celia: “Worms eat everything when they’re dead.”
But it’s not an answer to the riddle. It brings her back to the grave idea. Fish aren’t buried.
“Graves. Dirt, since it’s mud in the water?”
She thinks she’s grasping at straws.
GM: “This one is hard,” says Dahlia.
“Spiders don’t get graves, though?”
Celia: “Neither do the rest of them, except humans. Animals don’t really bury their dead.”
GM: “Yeah. And not all humans even bury their dead.”
“We technically just ‘inter’ ours, in the city. With the above-ground tombs and vaults.”
GM: Celia’s mom even picked one out with her, when she did her will.
She didn’t ask Celia to pick a grave, though. Much too young for that.
Is it technically accurate that she’ll always be too young for a grave?
Celia: She won’t need one. Hopefully. She wants to be ash when and if she dies.
GM: So are dead kine, after long enough.
Celia: And everything else. What’s that saying? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Do fish turn to ash or dust when they decompose? She asks Dahlia Rose, as if she might know.
GM: “That doesn’t sound quite right to me,” frowns the fae woman.
“‘Wet decomposed remains’ is probably the more accurate.”
Celia: “Could be the answer. Ash.”
GM: “I’m kind of stuck at this point.”
She’s already whispering, but lowers her voice further.
“I wonder if there’s any way we could cheat…?”
Celia: “What, like look it up online? You guys have wifi or cell service here?” Celia matches her quiet whispers.
“Distract it and bolt?”
“You have that net he hit you with? The knife?”
GM: “I was thinking more the latter, or maybe trying to get it to spill the answer.”
“Technology is… funny here.”
“But it works better when you’re close to the real world, and that portal’s only just ahead…”
“And I dumped them both in the water. Sorry.”
Celia: That brings up all sorts of question about this world not being “real,” but now is hardly the time.
GM: “I could go back for the knife. The hob said I could leave.”
“Maybe he’d even let you, since you’re not going through the portal?”
Celia: “Maybe,” Celia hedges, but she’s not betting on it. She doesn’t think she’s going to get this riddle. A dozen different ways to cheat her way out of this open up before her, another dozen ways to get out without spilling blood. No matter that the Beast wants to tear into it, the girl had just wanted a friend.
She finally sighs loudly, forcing the sweet-smelling air out of her lungs. Maybe it’s the magic of this place. Maybe it’s her proximity to Dahlia Rose. Or maybe it’s just her, the blue eyed blonde with the ripped, wet, bloody dress that clearly doesn’t belong in this world. Exotic, that’s the word. Can’t the hob see it? Doesn’t it notice how the ground parts for her, how the stars shine down on her from above, how there’s an inner glow—an inner beauty—that pours out of her very soul?
He’s used to the way the things look around here, isn’t he, the half-plant, half-animal, half-whatever, covered in swamp water and leeches and reeds and petals. But not this. Soft. Warm. So very different. So very alluring.
She turns those blue eyes onto him (what’s that color? cerulean? sky? something deeper, shifting, like the ocean?) and smiles softly. The charm pours out of her.
“Can I ask your name,” she says to it, “so that when my friend tells our world about you you get the proper credit?”
GM: The monster grins widely at her with a vacant expression.
Celia: “Thank you.” Celia beams at him. Is it possible she looks even more radiant than normal? Another wave of supernatural charm? Maybe she’s just, like, really pretty.
“Grumblegut,” she repeats, “I like that. It makes sense.” A nod towards his large stomach. “Can I confess something to you, Grumblegut?”
GM: “Sure,” rumbles the hobgoblin.
He grins wider, showing his fangs.
“Yuse gon’ taste so good…”
Celia: “That’s the confession,” Celia says with another long sigh. “I admit I’ve been stalling, Grumblegut. I know we made our deal, but I don’t want to eat someone as smart and clever as you, and I was looking for a way to let you save face, as it were.”
“Because my friend here,” Celia slides an arm around Dahlia Rose, “you see her? I had to come in here to get her. And you’re guarding the portal back. And I don’t think anyone else will do as good a job of it as you do, so I don’t want to take you away from it.”
GM: The hobgoblin’s eyes seem to sharpen.
“Riddle. Or eats.”
Celia: Those sharp eyes of it must see how wonderful Celia is, then, when she does pour on more of the charm. She wants to be friends. Best friends. Doesn’t he see that?
GM: “…okays,” grunts the hobgoblin after a moment. He scratches his ass again.
Dahlia Rose eyes the creature warily.
Celia: Celia nudges Dahlia Rose toward the portal, letting the charm continue to seep out of her and ensnare the hobgoblin. She follows along behind, smiling pleasantly all the while.
GM: The monster stands still as the women walk past.
Dahlia Rose walks very briskly. There’s a sharp, adrenaline-like tinge to her floral scent.
The hobgoblin watches them go for several moments.
Watches them walk towards the mirror.
Watches them get a fair distance away, and get a head start on making good their escape.
Then, its eyes bulge and it bellows at the top of its lungs, spittle flying from its fanged maw,
Dahlia Rose takes off in a run.
Celia: Ah, well, the jig is up. But the portal is right there. Celia sprints toward it.
GM: The Toreador literally blurbs ahead. She comes to a stop at the mirror.
An ordinary mirror.
An ordinary mirror that shows nothing more than the reflections of her and a desperately sprinting, panting Dahlia Rose.
And, just behind the fae woman, a bellowing, furious-eyed hobgoblin rapidly gaining on her.
Celia: There’s nothing ordinary about a mirror where Celia’s face is reflected. Her visage is nothing less than exquisite. Divine. Perfect.
Even a raging, stampeding hobgoblin upset about his lunch getting away can’t help but notice it. How pretty she is. How perfect she is. How still she stands, waiting for him to come to her, arms outstretched with a smile on her lips. Come and get me, that smile says. Teasing, cajoling, urging. Nothing else matters but that mirror.
Until it changes.
Until the girl in the mirror isn’t the girl he’d seen in front of him but a twisted, distorted version of it, with eyes that flash a rich shade of green and lips that pull back from her teeth to reveal long, sharp fangs in her mouth and claws that sprout from the tips of her fingers.
He sees the truth. Not Celia. But Jade, the green-eyed monster, and the Beast locked inside her chest.
And Jade is just as hungry as he is.
GM: The monster freezes in place for just a moment as Jade’s supernal presence crashes into it, beady eyes wide.
Dahlia barrels past Jade, her heart audibly hammering to the vampire’s sensitive ears, and bangs her fist against the mirror.
“Let us out!”
The surface ripples, showing her trashed design studio on the other side. The fae woman dives through the glass like it’s made of water.
Grumblegut roars at the sight and charges forward.
Celia: Celia doesn’t hesitate. She tumbles into the mirror after Dahlia Rose, praying that it stops the hobgoblin but not her.
GM: She falls through, landing with a crash on the other side. Dahlia swipes her hand across the mirror’s surface, yells, “Close!” and the hobgoblin’s almost inches-away face suddenly disappears. A booming thud sounds from the mirror’s other side, but all that stares back at the two is their reflections.
Dahlia Rose looks human again. There’s no flowers in her hair (‘for’ her hair), and her skin is flesh rather than earth. She smells like sweat and swamp rather than roses.
Her clothes, though, are just as torn and wet.
Celia: She doesn’t need to breathe, so her chest doesn’t rise and fall with erratic movements. Her heart doesn’t thud in her chest. There’s no adrenaline that surges through her veins.
Just satisfaction from getting out of a near-death experience and awe at getting to go to an entirely different world.
Wide eyes fix on Dahlia Rose in her now-human guise. Finally, she lets out a breathless laugh.
GM: Dahlia sinks to the floor. Unlike the Toreador, she’s panting heavily. Celia can still hear her heart hammering in her chest.
She looks around the destroyed studio, then at the mirror, and buries her face in her hands. Sobs start to sound.
Celia: The satisfaction fades in the wake of this despair. All of her feelings of triumph are gone in a flash. Her smile dims.
Hesitantly, Celia reaches out to touch Dahlia’s shoulder. If the girl doesn’t throw her off she scoots across the floor and brings her in for a hug.
GM: Dahlia freezes at the Toreador’s touch, her head instantly bolting up from her hands. Then she sees it’s Celia, and after a moment, she collapses against the other woman.
“I… I thought… I was safe…” she sobs.
Celia: “You were,” Celia says quietly. Her hand travels up and down her back.
“You are,” she amends. “The thing that came after you is dead. It can’t report back where you are.”
“It was hunting you for a… for a prince?”
GM: Dahlia gives a shuddering nod.
“He… he found me…”
Celia: “Why? What does he want?”
Maybe we can kill him goes unsaid.
GM: “To take me back…”
Celia: Celia bristles at that.
“Then we’ll stop him.”
GM: Dahlia gives a broken-sounding laugh.
“You can’t, no one can… just hide…”
GM: “Because he’s…” Dahlia trails off, then looks at Celia. Warily.
“You’re not human. But you’re not fae…”
Celia: “No,” Celia agrees.
GM: Dahlia starts to slowly back away.
“What are you?”
Celia: Celia lets her go.
“Someone who wants to help.”
GM: “What are you?” she repeats. Fear is edging back into her eyes.
“Why, why do you want to help?”
Celia: Because it’s her fault.
“When I was a kid,” she says slowly, “a monster came for my dad. It broke my family. Years later, my dad came for my mom. They were divorced. But he took her. And he hurt her. And I don’t… I won’t see that happen again.”
GM: Dahlia doesn’t scoot closer. But neither does she scoot any further away.
“What are you,” she repeats, a third time.
“You’re not fae. You wouldn’t have asked that, about my Keeper, if you were fae.”
Celia can hear the word’s emphasis.
“And you turned into a tiger. You asked the hob if you could eat him. You’re not human.”
Celia: “I thought it would scare him,” Celia admits. She keeps her hands folded on her lap, as if to show she means no harm. “I wasn’t really going to eat him. I doubt he’d taste very good.”
There’s a pause. She could lie. Should lie, maybe. But if she knows Dahlia Rose’s secret, isn’t it fair that the girl know hers?
Then, as if realizing she won’t understand the slang, “Vampire.”
GM: Dahlia Rose eyes her for several moments.
“How’d you… you showed up. With iron.”
“How did you know what I am?”
Celia: “It’s… kind of a really long, really dumb story.”
GM: “Well, we’re here.”
Celia: “I did a favor for someone. And they asked what I wanted. But options were limited, so I… wanted to know if fae are real, since everything else apparently is. And they said yes, and told me where to find one, and warned me to… to bring iron, because you might be in trouble.”
Celia lifts her shoulders, but her hands stay on her lap. Non-threatening.
“And you were. And I… really just wanted a dress, but then the thing came out, and I couldn’t just watch it take you, and no one else was doing anything…”
GM: “Manuel couldn’t. He’s just human. He…”
Dahlia gives a sharp inhalation.
“Phuong. She isn’t here. She should be here.”
Celia: Celia is on her feet in an instant, holding a hand out to Dahlia Rose. Her lips set in a thin line. Hopefully that thing didn’t send a friend for her, too.
“Come on. We’ll find her.”
GM: Dahlia hesitates for a moment, then takes the hand. They walk outside, past what’s left of the ruined gowns. The design studio looks equally wrecked. There are holes and cracks everywhere from the plants that burst inside. Trees are missing branches or look like they’ve been hacked to pieces, from the monster’s struggle. Leaves, dirt, upturned stones, and broken bits of tree lie scattered along the paths, lending the formerly tranquil place a feeling of disharmony.
Dahlia Rose looks around warily as she makes her way briskly down one of the disturbed paths.
The vampire, though, smells it in the air.
Celia: She hadn’t thought that the monster made it this far. Hadn’t figured it would be after the other woman too, just Dahlia Rose. Celia stops short at the scent of blood, sniffing the air to find the source. She heads towards it.
GM: “Phuong’s apothecary is this way,” whispers Dahlia Rose, pointing the other direction.
Celia: “Blood,” Celia says shortly, nodding toward the source.
GM: Dahlia seems to think for a moment, then follows after her. The scent grows steadily stronger as Celia heads off the beaten path. She finds Manuel lying on his back deep in the undergrowth. He’s bleeding from a head wound and a number of cuts, but worst off is his right leg. The skin beneath his torn pants is badly shredded, and the limb is twisted at a nasty angle. The ground underneath is seeped red.
He awkwardly, painfully, tries to haul himself away when he hears the two women approach, but stops when he sees the one behind Celia.
“Dahlia,” he starts, “they-”
Celia only half-hears what comes out of his lip. She just sees. Smells. All.
She can’t stop it. Just like that, her Beast breaks loose. Celia lunges at the wounded man, fangs long in her mouth, as the red haze descends.
Then. Pain. Motion. Struggling. Fury. The Beast roars and thrashes. It could be as brief as an instant, or as long as an hour. When Celia finally comes to, vines, brambles, and branches are wrapped around her from toe to shoulder, binding her fast against a tree. The red thirst burns in her throat. She can’t move her arms and legs.
Dahlia Rose watches with a grim expression, hand held out as if directing the plants.
Celia: There’s no time to warn her. No time to do anything but give in when the Beast snaps its chain. She tries to reign it in but out it comes. It burned through enough blood for this bitch tonight; it wants the helpless, defenseless feast in front of it. Already half dead, isn’t he? It’s a waste if she doesn’t take it. She wants it. Needs it. Her throat burns, fangs erupting from her mouth as she hurtles forward, lost to the monster inside of her.
She snarls at the plants, ripping and tearing and bucking her body this way and that, but they hold her fast. She doesn’t know how long. Too long. Long enough that when she finally comes to, with plants wrapped around her, she knows what Dahlia Rose must think of her: that she’s a mindless, slavering beast. That she’s just as bad as every monster in every story.
She can’t even deny it.
The fangs recede. Her struggles cease. She hangs limply against the vines that hold her tight, shame in the eyes that she directs toward the ground.
All of this is her fault. The Keeper. The hunter thing. The hob. Phuong. And now this—almost murdering a man in front of his friend.
What? Sorry? She is, but that doesn’t mean anything.
“—in control,” she finally finishes.
GM: “Are you? You don’t look like it to me,” says the fae woman, sashaying up to her.
She presses a hand against the tree, to one side of Celia’s head. The vampire feels the plants around her tighten.
“I don’t think you’re in control of anything right now.”
Celia: No, she supposes she isn’t.
GM: “What do you think of that, mmm, big fierce vampire?”
Celia: Celia holds back a snort. She wasn’t the one crying over dresses.
GM: “Dahlia…” groans Manuel.
Celia: “He’s going to bleed out.”
GM: The fae woman smiles and starts playing with Celia’s hair.
Celia: “Your plants have healing magic, do they? Then fix him. Before he dies.”
GM: Dahlia Rose brushes a finger over Celia’s lips.
Celia: Celia stills, wariness in her eyes as she watches Dahlia Rose. She doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like this one bit.
GM: Her finger traces down Celia’s chin.
“Sometimes, I can hear them scream…”
Celia: “…the plants?”
GM: “Metal, metal, metal, don’t we even…”
She cups her hand around Celia’s cheek.
Celia: Oh. She’s insane.
GM: “All day, every day…”
“Sometimes, we just…”
Her footsteps pad against the undergrowth as she paces around Celia, then leans in close to the vampire’s ear.
“…have to let go.”
She pulls away and stares long into Celia’s eyes.
Celia: She does know. Sometimes she just wants to disappear into that red haze and let the Beast… let the Beast do its thing. Sometimes she doesn’t have a choice. And sometimes she does.
Is that what this is? A fae-like Beast inside of Dahlia Rose, similar to what she has? Just… clever and tricky instead of a raging, fighting, merciless killer?
“So you let go.” Celia lets her head drop back against the tree. Her lips pull into a smile, though it doesn’t meet her eyes. “You lost control when he came for you, and now you want it back.”
GM: Dahlia smiles and turns away, spinning on her heel as she holds out her arms.
“The golden kiss.”
“I was so warm.”
“Warm, warm, everywhere!”
She giggles and pulls off her shirt.
She undoes her bra, then steps out of her pants, throwing the ruined, soaked clothing articles aside. She looks human with her clothes off. All-too ordinary, though her tanned body is still slender and well-proportioned.
Celia: Celia’s eyes rake her form. Human again, not what she was in the Hedge. Not that half-plant, overwhelming beauty. Just moderately attractive. It doesn’t keep her from appreciating it. Her tongue runs across her teeth.
“Do you want to be warm again?”
GM: Manuel stares at her for a moment, then grits his teeth as he starts pulling himself away, using his arms.
Dahlia pulls off her socks and shoes, then her panties.
She sighs and presses her feet against the grass, arms still held wide.
“Loved by the sky…”
Celia: Celia’s eyes follow the mortal, bleeding man. It’s a waste.
“If you’re going to let him die anyway,” she says to Dahlia Rose, “can I at least feed from him?”
GM: “To grow tall… wide…” murmurs Dahlia.
She kneels to the ground, runs her fingers through the earth, and pulls out a clumpful. Celia can see some worms and bugs wriggling in it.
Dahlia sighs and closes her eyes.
“I miss him…”
She opens her mouth and starts eating the handful of earth, worms and all.
Celia: Celia stares in disgust.
GM: Dahlia swallows and gives a contented sigh.
“Love… love… what do you anyone know about love…”
Her head suddenly snaps up towards Celia, her eyes narrowed.
“What do you think you know about love?”
“You don’t know anything!”
Celia: “No?” Celia asks. “You think you have the monopoly on love?”
GM: “People, people…” Dahlia holds up a single finger. She wags it back and forth, her eyes following it unerringly.
“One, one, one at a time…”
She spits to the side. It’s brown and has flecks of earth.
“People don’t know anything about love!”
Celia: “And you think you do?” Laughter. She’s laughing at her.
GM: Dahlia rises to her feet and spreads her arms wide again, looking up towards the sky.
“I was loved by a FOREST!”
“I was loved by every tree! Every vine! Every bramble! Every blade of grass!”
“I was loved by the sky, by the wind, by the sun!”
“I fucked the sun!”
Celia: “I loved a god.” Goading. “Was loved by a god. Was formed by his hand. The master of Death. Taken to the brink and brought back.”
A peal of laughter. This flower thinks she knows about love?
GM: “Gods!” Dahlia whirls. “There are no gods here!”
She scoops up a handful of earth and tries to shove it inside her vagina. Most just slips out past her fingers. She scoops up more and rubs it over her shoulders, arms, and breasts.
“He made love to me, ceaselessly! Every second of every minute of every day of every century of every eon! He made love to my roots! He made love to my stem! He made to my petals! My leaves, my pistils, my sepals! The wind blew with his love! The rain wept for his love! The sun shone for his love! His pollen grew inside of me, singing ceaselessly of his love!”
Dahlia cries and throws herself upon the tree, wrapping her arms around the trunk as she grinds her womanhood against it. Celia can smell her wetness, but tears leak from her eyes.
“There’s no love, here! There’s no love, here!”
“Take me back…” She sobs, grinding still faster, “Please… take me back…”
Leaves, vines, and branches wrap around Dahlia, caressing her breasts and sex.
Celia: That’s some prince. Keeper. Thing. It sends her mind spinning down all sorts of different paths. If this is how it is even from afar, how much better is it up close? How lost will she get in the sensations of what he can bring her?
What would it be like to be loved by a fae? By a prince? By the trees, the wind, the rain? She’s so close to the crying, writhing girl, so close to the vines and leaves that caress her skin. She shifts, doing what she can with her body bound as tightly as it is, mirroring the movements of Dahlia Rose.
GM: She can grind back and forth, a little, but the plants’ grip is quite tight. She finds herself frustratingly un-fucked as a crying Dahlia madly continues to hump the tree. Moss tickles her stiffened nipples. Grass snakes up her leg to caress her clit.
Celia: She’s never used her powers on plants before. But she tries it now, searching for the same feelings inside of her that Dahlia Rose feels for the plants. Her fingers, the only loose things on her, stroke the vines like she would flesh, begging for them to return the favor.
GM: The vines remain still and inert even as their siblings continue to pleasure Dahlia Rose. But she looks little happier for it.
Celia: Does she? Celia tries it again, watching the reaction it has in the fae.
GM: Dahlia only continues to sob and grind. She has to start bleeding if she keeps that up.
Celia: It’s not like bloody sex is a problem for the vampire. But maybe it’s not what the girl is looking for. And the crying is a real turn off, anyway.
She’s had moments like these where she just needs to rub one out or have a good, hard fuck to clear her mind. Maybe Dahlia Rose just needs the same. Without the use of her limbs, though, there’s little she can do to assist.
Except offer to take Dahlia Rose back to her Keeper, if that’s what she wants, so he can love her again. But she doesn’t think it is. She’d been terrified at the thought of him getting ahold of her again. She’d said that she thought she was safe. With him, she isn’t safe.
She could bring her to that edge, she knows. Help her find the post-climax clarity with a toe-curling orgasm that will leave her panting and gasping for more.
But some part of her recoils at the thought. Not for herself, but for the fae’s sake. She knows what it’s like to love what she can’t have. To want what she can’t have. To crave the touch of someone who won’t give himself to her, who toys with her like a cat or a string. Dangerous and lethal, but she wants it anyway.
She can’t give that to Dahlia Rose. Not while whatever this is warps her mind.
But she can take it away. She can remove those feelings from the girl, can numb her to the ardor that courses through her veins.
“Dahlia,” she says quietly, urgently, “Manuel is dying. He’s bleeding. I can’t get close. You need to help him.”
While she speaks she reaches out with the gifts of her clan, cooling the fae’s passion.
GM: Manuel has dragged himself away, but Celia can still smell the man’s blood. Her fangs are long in her mouth at the tantalizing scent. If only she wasn’t tied.
Dahlia’s head whips towards Celia’s. She stops humping the tree and cups the Toreador’s face in her hands. Their lips hungrily meet.
Vines and brambles rip and pull off what’s left of her clothes.
Leaves and moss start to tease her nipples. It’s a sensation altogether unlike any human (or Kindred) lover’s mouth or fingers.
Celia: Her nipples stiffen at the contact. Soft, but… rough? Textured. It’s decidedly different from anything she’s ever felt before, but not unpleasant. Is this what fucking a forest feels like?
It’s certainly not what she’d intended, but she’ll take it. Despite the long, sharp fangs in her mouth she doesn’t cut into Dahlia Rose with them, keeping them tucked behind her lips as best she can so the thing inside of her isn’t tempted. Who knows what sort of control she’d lose.
…then again, she’s tied up, and if Dahlia Rose is going to have fairy sex with her, isn’t it only fitting that she introduce her to the red kiss as well? She can compare it to the golden one she’d just been ranting about…
Just a sip, she tells her Beast, just a taste. She nips.
GM: Taste floods Celia’s mouth.
Oh, it tastes like roses and flowers and nectar sweet beyond compare, but it shimmers and sparkles and laughs on the way down. It doesn’t trickle down her throat: it races, pitter-pattering, skipping, laughing and cavorting. She feels the light welling inside. She is light. She is glowing. She’s a star! Radiant!
She’s on a plane!
She cannot contain the laughter. It bursts, screaming, flooding, shooting from her lips like a thousand rays of light. Her veins laugh laugh. Her heart laughs. Her hair laughs. Dhalia Rose laughs. Her face is enormous. It’s so big Celia could climb it. Swim in it. Garden in it. She’s a fairy again, with flowers for hair, plant stems for hair roots, and earth for skin.
Her mouth opens like a cavernous pit. The vines sing with her.
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
So she gave them some broth without any bread;
And she whipped them all soundly and ate them instead.”
Celia: Is it even blood? It’s more than blood. It’s divine, heady, intoxicating. It’s ambrosia, the nectar of the gods themselves, and it’s on her tongue, in her mouth, sliding down her throat. It’s all she has ever wanted. All she has ever needed. She drinks deeply, as long as she can; she never wants it to stop. The visions swim before her eyes. Everything shifts, changes. It’s more colorful, more vivid. She’s on fire. She’s drowning. She’s singing, sunlight in her veins.
Is this fucking the forest? Can her Keeper do this, bring her this pleasure? Are they even still touching? Is she still feeding? Where has her Beast gone?
The rhyme should mean something, shouldn’t it?
She doesn’t know.
She doesn’t care.
She just keeps going.
She keeps going.
She drinks the rhyme.
The rhyme drinks her.
They’re one, aren’t they?
Ha. Ha. Ha. Foolish girl.
No they weren’t.
Yes they were.
No they weren’t.
Colors swirl past. Her surroundings dissolves into rainbow. She is the rainbow. Everything is the rainbow, and there are more colors than she ever suspected. If only she had names for them. She needs to get the names…
All yellow beneath the tomb
You breathe quiet fangs among the clouds
Ahhh! The bitch is done
Sinful and rabid over the clouds
You stroke mammoth tomb stones about the slime
Can you dig it? The inspiration is over
We are dark among the mist
I condemn flying dreams behind the light
I reach! The devil has gone
a long way from home
a sense of danger
In how many places
the face in your mirror
stop for a while
when the world was new
Celia comes to. She feels like she just woke up from the mother of all weed trips. She’s naked as the day she was born. She’s lying on her back in a park. A wet green substance like runny clay is smeared over her body.
What happened to her clothes is an open question.
Celia: Well, what the fuck?
It’s a question Celia doesn’t ponder long. She slips into shadows and takes to the air, a warm shower in her mind.
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