The crime scene had not changed. Reinald watched Fourteen kneel besides the chalk outline, and with her back to them, extent a crooked forearm alongside it, as if measuring the length. None of them spoke as Anna and Reinald left her to it to look over the bullet, burns and teeth, trying to anticipate what sort of mystery was meant to be set up despite them all knowing the ending already.
"Hey, so whenever we've done whatever we're supposed to, we're going to get divided again," Flume said after a time.
"Most likely," Reinald agreed.
"So I guess good luck, if you two go on ahead. And I'm glad we could at least have understood why this is happening."
There was defeat in what she had said, where it might have been optimism, and she waited for one of them to reprimand her as they had when she had spoken of gods. Neither did.
"I don't know what a character could do to stand up to an entity as powerful as this Book, or what the point of being a strong character is if you all end up sealed away in a little novel. But names, and all that are important." A white smudge of chalk had dusted one elbow. She touched it, almost tenderly, and looked back at the shifters. She made a soft sound; a resigned, wry little heh. "We're good characters, right?"
"Hey, Fourteen," Anna said. She'd picked up one of the flat little teeth.
Reinald looked to her as she went on, "You said Smarm turned into a monster when a Geezle bit his head off, right?"
"Was he still Smarmadine then?"
And before she could answer, Anna continued, "That's what the help here is, right? Geezles? In this mansion?"
"Yeah," Flume said.
"So in this story " there was a sickly, hysterically amused little disgusted smirk in her eyes. "I guess you could say, the butler did it."
Anna started laughing. Something rumbled in the roots of the building. The gas lamps flickered, and went out.
Flume looked calmly through the dark, reminded of that hateful, cold offense she had felt when she'd had to turn around and walk right back up the ramp into this mess. "Stop laughing this isn't a joke."
Anna stopped laughing, but her mouth remained curled in a sarcastic smile. "Shall we go arrest it?"
A mutter of thunder; the lights flickered back on.
Flume felt an incredibly uncomfortable knot of anxiety, anticipation and anger crank itself tighter in her guts. Is that not good enough for you? she wanted to bellow, louder than the thunder. Are you mad we skipped to the end because everything in these stories is so obvious? She took in a long, full breath and exhaled out. Honestly, what did it want? Was it not happy because they'd done this together, and none of them were dull and predictable enough to get snapped up into Flume and the Butler or Anna and the Dog-Giraffe?
"Anna, how's your blood," she asked.
Anna flinched. "Why."
"Are you feeling like an antagonist worthy of murder by any chance?"
Anna gave her a long, cold, challenging stare.
Flume stood up, facing her. "Who do you think's in the other set, in the other mystery; a set of nice good people who want everything to be right again? Because, just maybe, we're the candidates for the last great bad guy in this mess, and it wants to cap off its stories with a fat, glorious, cliché, good-and-evil finale."
The humans eyed her with a new wariness, and she wondered if perhaps this was what talking to Archetypes was like. Well there was no time to worry on that, no; they had a story to be getting on with, now, didn't they? Because the whole damned multiverse may be filled with emptiness and rips and every person left therein was sealed off in a story or bound to be so, but at least, oh ha, at least that stupid slarking narrow-minded little mass of insipid predictability had offered up one open end in its world-flattening onslaught. Did it want an ending? Was it opposed to anti-climax? Well there was little room for hesitance dullness in stories anymore these days, seeing as how there were about three of them left in existence.
"Maybe we can't fix anything now," Flume declared, and she felt an invigoration in her skin, prickling painfully where her worn-through fabrics chafed it, "but there's still one thing left to do; one variable left in the final order; who gets to be in the title of this particular riveting read."
She watched Reinald steeling himself at her words, and her eyes flicked to Anna, and met in them some element that answered her challenge, some taint in the blood that yawned open for conflict.
"If it's all the same to you, we could try to each remain alive here, at least," Reinald offered.
"Everyone lives on in stories," Anna said, surprising him. He considered her, and he saw that same relentless competitiveness that Chaos had described to him so recently; the love of a scrap against impossible odds, the refusal to back down just because victory wasn't an option.
"So we're fighting to the death to see who's the big antagonist?" That sounded like a really undesirable business move.
"No," Flume said. "We're just going to show off a little." She smiled, and her teeth were shiny and white. "First thing first. Let's tell that Thelvet who murdered poor Smarmadine." She strode to the wall, grasped a bell-pull and yanked.
Thunder grumbled with the tolling of the bell, and they waited, each shifting with impatience until the pair from the library met them across the yellow tape.
"What have you found, constables?" Asked the Fetch. Reinald watched its eyes, seeking that incorrigible madness for desire and meaning. "I trust you've gathered new evidence-"
And then Fourteen stepped backwards, throwing out her arm, and declared in a hard, convicted voice, "Officer, I have reason to suspect the culprit in this crime is none other than my partner Anna Smith, who has been corrupted to her very blood and claimed the lives of innocents."
The entire room went utterly still.
" That was not what you had implied," Anna said, her head turning slowly to meet the alien's eyes.
"I turn her over to your custody, officer," Flume said. "You may see to the accused as seen fit."
"Constable Smith!" Barked the Fetch. "Rel-"
"Like hell," responded the accused, and as Flume and Reinald watched a flare of sputtering black pigment burst up through the fabric of her uniform, bleeding out in a peppery cloud that slithered down her arm and alit in her eyes with an energy nothing short of delight. It took seconds, fractions of seconds, before her hand was in the air, her fingers in the white zone, and her pistol in her palm. The retort echoed through the ballroom, the Fetch coughed, and the impact blasted so brutally through its chest that a wing snapped open at its back.
"Murder!" The Thelvet screamed. "Murderer!"
The officer stumbled back, black blood dribbling in gobbets, Chaos' familiar light broiling ecstacy in its eyes, and Anna pivoted and squeezed off three rounds into the belly of the brute. It fell to its knees, electric hands spasming as the fake, literary life force that held it bled away.
"C constable," garbled the officer, blood in its throat. Anna moved forward, bloodlust exerting in a miasma of motion as she neared its designer, and pistol-whipped across its face with all the strength in her chaos-charged arm. Its head fell back and her switchblade was out and plunged into its silky warm throat.
She stood with her shoulders heaving, a weapon in both hands, over the aliens she'd so easily slaughtered, as easily as those brats in the forest. As the Fetch's blood dribbled down its chest the prescence of Chaos bled away, and with it receded the power in its blood.
Anna breathed, squeezing the handles in her hands, and returned to her usual old self.
"You backstabbing fucking bitch," She said, and with a vigor born of adrenaline hatred she launched herself at Fourteen.
Reinald plunged his hand into his own white zone, grasping at his pistol as they two of them fell, Fourteen's hand arching up in a flash of chitin to meet her plunging switch with a grating clash of blades. There was a faint shriek, a brief rip, and the smaller creature curled on the floor and delivered a viscious bunny kick into Anna's abdomen, forcing them apart. Fourteen panted on her knees, a fresh slice bleeding down her front, a switchblade in her left hand, an organic scalpel in her right.
"Ya can't cut on me, Anna," she sneered manically, apathetic to the gash in her chest. "Did you forget that I'm the Cutting Monster?"
Reinald advanced, his pistol pointed at Flume, who heaved a sigh that sent cadmium red blood sloughing down her zipped. Around him the lights flickered, and Flume closed the switchblade and set it, black and bright, on a chemical burn on the carpet. "What did you just do," he asked levelly.
Flume did not answer him, but she didn't need to, because Anna's harsh, sarcastic laugh had come again. "Did you plan that all along."
"No." Flume sighed, and wobbled upright.
"So I'm the murderer in this story," she didn't seem troubled. If anything, she was amused. The building shuddered, and with a crackled of ozone a rift tore in reality at the far end of the room.
Reinald took Anna's hand and pulled her upright; she returned her weapons to the white zone.
Flume's eyes were half lidded as she watched the world devouring in on itself, sated by their ending and prepared for what would likely be the last story ever written. She met Anna's gaze and there was a grim, bemused sort of kinship between them, the murderer and the betrayer, two antagonists in a joke of story.
Reinald Anna Sinclair GARGANTUAN AMOUNTS OF SUPPORT
Thank you to all involved; this was my best round and the most rewarding to write. It revealed a purpose to my writing, proposed exciting new options for where to take my story, and included some seriously fun characters. As always I dread I mucked up Anna and Reinald, and if so, their respective owners have full rights to pummel me, but regardless I want to thank them for lending them to my story.
All feedback, suggestions, typo notifications, etc. are, as always, appreciated.