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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
There is the memory of pain.
Only a memory.
Imagine ten thousand beetles scuttling all over your body. Imagine them creeping their way across your flesh, burrowing into your major orifices. Imagine them scuttling their way into your nose and mouth, down your throat, filling up the tiny spaces of your lungs, and, once firmly entrenched therein, taking their razor-sharp mandibles and cutting tiny wads of flesh from the pulmonary tissue. Feel them ripping apart your bowels from the inside, crawling up through the intestines to the stomach and on upwards to the throat where they meet the respiratory beetles on their way down. Perhaps they have a beetle-y chat or something. Imagine many _other_ beetles, seeing the fun that the respiratory and visceral beetles are having, deciding to join in on the soiree by putting many nifty, neat _new_ orifices in you, insectile jaws tearing and shredding at your epidermis, burrowing down through the layers of muscle and bone and cartilage, tearing larger and larger holes in the physical fabric of your being and...
* * *
Bleary, gray, hazy light, but light nonetheless.
As though awaking from a long, long sleep.
Gray hazy light becomes bright, burning light.
Focusing, focusing, focusing onwards into a big white overhead lamp...
Above a stark, white platform in a room of strange and cryptic darkness, lit by the flare of sparks and Jacob's Ladders and the inevitable Ultraviolet Glare. Cold, stark, and above all, _white_ nearby. Blackness elsewhere.
There is a "wheep-kerblunk-BAAA!" noise from the dark, as of a sheep being dropped onto a padded surface from one meter up.
Then, a voice, from the darkness.
Oh, god. Phoebe. Suddenly, everything is going to be all right. I can forget the hideousness of the nightmares that came before. I can squeeze my eyes shut and close out ninety percent of this hideous whiteness that is clearly just another delusional state or some aftermath of the horrid nightmare that I've just lived through. Phoebe. I can picture the cute little elfin features and the little pixie-like grin, the short blond duckfluff of her hair, the candlesbase-and-stoplight blue-green of her eyes, the bubbly incandescence of her laugh, the peace of her smile. Phoebe's here. Phoebe's a friend. Pheobe would potentially be a love interest, too, were she not already taken... but no matter. Phoebe's here.
"Phoebe!" I say, and all is right with the world, for a moment.
"Charles." Says Phoebe. That voice. An end to the nightmares. At last. I'm Awake.
My voice sounds of weariness and hope and bathwater contentment. "Pheobe... you wouldn't believe the--"
This is the time where I say, "Phoebe, you wouldn't believe the DREAM I just had!" And she'd say, "What dream, Charles?" And I'd say, "Okay..."
And I'd tell her my dream.
A dream of excruciating Weirdness. A dream of being bitten on the left hand by a girl who thereafter suddenly turned into a poodle... A dream about her mother, also a poodle, coming up to me, quite concernedly, inspecting my wound, and handing me a sprig of some unknown herb, instructing me to eat it before the next moonrise... a dream about wandering home through a landscape of ever-increasing weirdness and unease...
A dream of coming home to my Dorm Room in Currier Hall to find my roommate, Luke, completely and utterly missing, and in his place, an abnormally large one-meter high Ring-Tailed Lemur that nonetheless sat hanging down from the upper bunk in exactly the same way that Luke used to, eating a Hostess Twinkie in exactly the same way that Luke used to, watching the same beat-up old copy of _Aliens_ that Luke used to, and, at every single explosion, quietly saying to himself...
A dream of slamming the door, an expression of blank, noncomprehending horror on my face.
A dream of staggering through the streets of Hoderund across the campus of Saint Cristobel's University as things and people changed and bent about me in a Brain Warp of astounding proportion...
A dream of twisting through the shadows of reality, skipping across dimensions with every step, cutting across the lines and letting the pigment bleed into the white spaces between, until finding myself in a place that bore a stunning resemblance to Saint Cristobel's... but not. A place where everything was true and nothing was what it seemed. Saint Cristobel's on Bad Acid. A place of Aliens and Government Men and Research That Should Not Be. A place where Scientists received grants for Brain Transplant Surgery and Thaumaturges used AutoCAD Systems to plot the Perfect Pentagram. Where the things going on behind closed doors were better left there.
La Universitas Da Deus Dela Amber.
The University of which All Other Universities are but pale and indistinct Shadows.
A dream of running madly across lawns and through buildings, dodging escaped genetics experiments leaking out from the steam tunnels... a dream of nightmarish horror and Just Plain Weirdness.
A dream involving, at its end, the ancient stones of the portico of Omega House, the fraternity I had been a part of during my Freshman Year. A dream of climbing the stairs, looking for sanctity, for shelter, for solace from the broken world behind me.
A dream of opening the front door.
A dream of beetles. Thousands upon thousands of them.
A dream of being ripped into bite-sized chunks.
A dream of darkness.
And I'd tell her my dream. And she'd say... Guess what, Charles...
"You weren't dreaming. Just so you know."
There is an audible electro-mechanical clunk. And the lights come on.
Phoebe is there, wearing a blisteringly white lab coat amidst a room full of the brain-destroyingly-weird-est machinery I can ever recall having seen.
Beside her is my roommate, Luke. He's still a lemur.
"Wheeooo." Says Luke.
Phoebe looks at me, a mad gleam in her blue-green eyes.
A laugh begins builds in her throat, which escalates into a maniacal cackle of scientific glee.
* * * * * * *
a study in expository dialogue
apologies to Roger Zelazny and, heck, everybody else, too.
* * * * * * *
"Damn." Says Phoebe, petulantly.
"Frink." Remarks Luke.
"I snorted again, didn't I." She says.
"Frink." Says Luke, in agreement, nodding his fuzzy head.
"Lemme try again. 'YEE-Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! MUA-HA-HA-HA-HA--'"
"Excuse me... but... erm..."
Phoebe looks at me. "Sorry, Charles. Just trying to get the laugh down right. I won't be a moment." She clears her throat. "YEE-Ha-ha-ha-ha--"
"What!" Says Phoebe, still petulant. "Can it wait, please?"
"No!" I say, looking about my person in increasing distress. "No! Phoebe, I demand an explanation for this... this..."
"_ALL_ of this!" I say, gesturing around at the Lovecraftian equipment surrounding my white scientific bier. "You! Luke! Everybody! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE!?!"
"Wheeooo." Says Luke, cautiously.
Phoebe makes no response, but instead, peers at me curiously. I notice here that her wispy hair has been teased up into an impossibly frizzy sort of horizontal-ovoid mass, and that she is wearing a hithero-foreign-to-her pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles. That, and the blinding white lab coat...
"You _aren't_ feeling all right, are you."
I look at her.
Then I speak. I muster as much calm and collection into my voice as is humanly possible.
"Frink." Says Luke.
Phoebe bites her lip. "Where are we, Charles? What do you see around you right now?" Phoebe's voice is calm, collected, and very precisely analytical.
I take a few deep breaths, and survey the environment.
"I'm lying on a big white slab with a big white light above me. Over there..." I gesture. "...Is a big machine with a sort of copper sphere on top of it which is sparking a little bit. Over there is a rack full of what appears to be bits of tissue in formaldehyde jars. Over _there_ is--"
"That's enough." Says Phoebe. She puts her hand to her chin and strokes it, musingly.
"I'm still dreaming, aren't I." I say.
She shakes her head no.
"Fuck." I say.
"No, Charles, you're not dreaming." She begins pacing around the room, pondering as she goes. "You're not dreaming."
"Wheeooo?" Says Luke, quietly, to Feeb.
"I don't know, Luke. I don't know. He picked a bad time for it, 's all I can say."
"Frink." Says Luke, emphatically.
Unease creeps into my voice again. "Would you mind not leaving me out of the conversations? Huh? Where are we, anyway?" I look around. "This isn't Hoderund, is it?"
"Oh, no." Says Phoebe. "You _are_ in Hoderund."
"This sure as hell isn't anything I've seen at Saint Cristobel's."
I say, peering around again.
"No. You're still in Hoderund, technically. And your physical position is the same. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to tell it to you straight."
"Frink." Says Luke. He ambles over and places one little Lemur-paw on my shoulder. I look at him. Phoebe speaks.
"Saint Cristobel's University does not, technically, exist."
I let out an exasperated breath. "Yeah. Sure. Listen, Feeb, great joke here. I really appreciate the trouble you went through and everything. Why don't you return the giant lemur here to whatever--"
"Charles, this is _serious_. Deadly serious. I'm not a trained professional in these areas, but I'm afraid we're going to have to go this alone as best as we can." She stares at me with those uncanny blue-green eyes. "Charles. Saint Cristobel's _does not exist._ You made it up."
I just stare at her.
"I'm going insane." I say, quite matter-of-factly.
"No." Says Feeb. "Quite the opposite, in fact." She sighs.
"I'm not getting this." I say.
"Okay. One-minute summary. For your entire life, you have lived in a little cocoon of spectral energy. It's a spiritual condition that we call 'Mundanity.' It's not _unusual_, as such. In fact, about twenty percent of the world's population possesses it. Practical result is this: For your entire life, you have seen, smelled, tasted, felt and heard the world through a sort of... filter. Your brain automatically chose to generate this little cocoon around you to shut out things that are weird, unusual, strange or even slightly off-kilter. In essence, to you, the world has, up until, apparently, now, seemed like a normal, fundamentally sane place governed by the laws of physics and the principles of reason."
"Okay." I say.
"It's not." She says.
"You lost me." I say.
"_This_ is the real world, Charles. I'm not Mundane. I've never been Mundane. So I don't know what things looked like from the other side. But you must understand this. What you are seeing right now is totally, utterly, completely, without-a-doubt, _Real._"
"Frink." Agrees Luke.
I swing my legs to the edge of the bier and try to rise. Bad move. A massive wave of vertigo forces me back to the sitting position. I swallow hard to dampen the nausea a bit. "Okay." I say, cradling my head in one hand. "If this _is_ a delusion--"
"It's not." Says Feeb.
"IF THIS _IS_ a delusion," I repeat, trying to work things over in my mind, "I don't seem to be getting out of it anytime soon. This is quite possibly the most pervasive and long-lasting hallucination I have ever had."
Feeb muses for a moment more. "I suppose if you looked at it like that, the end result would be the same. You'd just be going with the flow. You're wrong about this being a hallucination, by the way, but let's just let you keep that last philosophy. Maybe it'll help you to ease into things a little bit. Agreed?"
"Okay." I say. "Agreed."
"Now." Says Feeb. "For some unknown reason, your Cocoon of Mundanity has come unraveled. Meaning that, for the first time, you're seeing the world as it actually is. I don't quite know _why_ it's coming apart on you, but it's not a completely unheard-of phenomenon. Usually, when this sort of thing happens, we take the person to a psychiatrist or something to help them to 'deal' with coming out of the darkness. I'd _like_ to do that for you. Unfortunately, I can't."
At this point, I'm not particularly hearing anything except for Feeb telling me that there's someone who can help me but she's not able to take me to them at the moment. I seem to be reducing everything to simplest terms. Perhaps it's best this way.
"Wait a second. Why not?"
"Because. The Medical People are working for Him."
"WHO THE HELL IS _HIM_?!?" I say, throwing my hands up in utter exasperation.
Luke casually leaps up on a piece of machinery, as though to get a better view of me.
Luke has a tail. A big, long, stripey one.
I squeeze my eyes shut. "I'm sorry, Feeb. I'm not doing well, here."
"Perfectly understandable." Says Feeb. "_HE_ is the god Ashraak, a minor divinity of litter and the profane. He attends the School of Religion and Philosophy."
I stare at her.
"The School of Religion and Philosophy." I say.
"Yes." She says.
"Why would a god be attending the School of Religion and Philosophy?" I ask, calmly.
She stares at me. "How else are you supposed to learn how to be a god?"
I stare at her.
"That's not how things worked where you came from, is it." She says.
"No." I admit.
"Just another one of those things you're going to have to accept. For the moment."
"I... um... thought... you... um..." I gather myself. "I thought Religion and Philosophy courses were taught so that you could learn _about_ religion and such. Not so that you could create your own..."
She stares at me. Between the two of us, we're doing a lot of staring.
"I mean..." I say. "...I used to _be_ a Religion and Philosophy major..."
"Yes. But now you're majoring in English. Ever since the start of this school year. You are remembering this much at least...?"
I shake my head again. "Let me get this straight. Unbeknownst to myself, I have been attending an unfamiliar university..."
"L.U.D.D.D.Amber," Feeb fills in.
"Whatever." I say. "I've been attending an unfamiliar university which I _thought_ was a smallish Big Ten school with absolutely no weirdness about it whatsoever, which is actually L.U.D.D.D.Amber, probably the weirdest single place in the known universe."
"Right." Says Feeb. "The rest of the world is pretty weird, too. Your folks, for instance, are exploring the Amazon River Basin right now, searching for ancient civilizations."
"And your dad."
"Right." I say. Then... "They told me they were going to Florida."
"That," She says, "was when you were Mundane."
I am trying very hard, at the moment, to understand the logic of this hallucination, and I think I'm beginning to get a grasp of it. "So everything that I used to know... has a correlate here. And what I _used_ to see was just a way-normalized version of the real, honest-to-goodness thing."
"So... You're Phoebe Dimmesdale, right?"
"Right." She says.
"Two days ago, I was under the impression you were a Physics Major."
"Is that what you thought?" She looks intrigued. "Interesting."
"So. What are you really?" I ask, the questions coming faster.
"Ah. I'm actually a major in Mad Science."
"I see." I say. "That explains the hair."
"Yes!" She says, quite proudly. "My thesis project in Cosmetology For The Insane. You like?"
"Thank you!" She says, beaming. "CFTI is a prerequisite for Mad Science Majors. We spend about half the semester on Hair. It's a requirement, if you're going to get anywhere at all in the field. There's really a lot of variability, though. It's not at all stifling. I just chose to do 'Classic Mad Tease.'"
"I see." I say. Then... "What about Luke?"
"Frink?" Says Luke.
"Luke is a Deltalemur. A mystical fusion of man and beast."
"That would explain his table manners." I say.
"Frink." Says Luke, sourly.
"There's lots of Delta's out there. Deltacats, Deltawolves, Deltahorses, Deltaokapis..."
"I get the picture. So. He's a Deltalemur. What's _he_ majoring in?"
"Engineering." She says.
"Frink." Says Luke.
"Well. That's not too different, at least."
"Really?" Asks Feeb. "You had Engineers when you were Mundane?"
"Well, yes." I say.
"Secret _qabals_ of mystico-technological geniuses who harness the forces of nature and technology and weld the powers of heaven and earth into Devices of steel and glass?"
"Kind of." I say.
"Hm. Well. Luke is one of them."
"Frink." Adds Luke.
"In training." Corrects Feeb.
"I see..." I say, warming to this little game. "So... all these departments are the _same_... but not."
"Manner of speaking." Says Feeb.
"So... what are things like in the History department?" I ask.
"Picture select groups of scholars zipping back and forth across the epochs of time, learning first-hand the ways and means of ancient and lost cultures."
"Mm hm." I say. "How about CompuSci?"
"Ah. Groups of symbiotic half-organic-half-machine creatures who spend their lives in ultimate connectivity with the Thinking Machines of the Known Universe."
"Building secretive FTL planet-hoppers as we speak."
"Monastic Ascetics who have shunned the outside world to contemplate on the mysteries of Chaos Theory and Utterly Inapplicable Numbers."
"I think I'm getting the hang of this. We've discussed Religion already."
"Yes." She says. "And the offshoot school of Theurgy, dedicated to the further exploration of the Mystical Arts."
"Tinkering with the Genetic Language of Creation to create Fantastical New Creatures and Hellish monstrosities that should Never see the Light of Day!"
"Frink!" Says Luke, becoming more and more excited as Feeb and I up the tempo.
"Covert operations in distant and exotic lands! Beautiful foreign women! Secret missions! Unbreakable codes!"
"Three- and Four- Dimensional Sculpture! Non-Euclidean Geometry! Artistic Quark arrangement! Mystical Portraits containing worlds onto themselves!"
"DEMAGOGUERY! OVERTHROWING MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES! SETTING YOURSELF UP AS DICTATOR-FOR-ETERNITY! *CONQUEST OF THE WOOORLD!*"
"ENGLISH!" I say, in an ecstatic rush.
There is a pause.
"Um. Writing stuff, I guess. Reading stuff, too. Analysis of Literature. Things like that."
"Frink." Says Luke.
"Wait a second." I say. "You're telling me that I'm attending the most fantastical University in creation, where students and professors are pushing back the boundaries of known reason, where logic and rationality are being thrown on the fires that heat the furnaces of Ultimate Creation... and I'm a member of the single most boring department on campus?"
"Pretty much." Says Feeb.
"Frink." Says Luke.
"Except the people in Actuarial Science. They're worse."
"Wheeooo." Says Luke.
"Pretty bad job prospects, too."
"Okay, okay. Let's forget that. Can we get back to what's going on right here and now?"
"Sure!" Says Feeb, brightly.
"Okay." I say, trying to strengthen my grip on "reality," such as it appears to be. "So. Nice lab."
"Thanks!" She says.
"What are you studying here?" I say, conversationally.
"Ah. I'm researching the Minds of the Uberauters."
"The Uberauters. The people who are writing about us."
World: 3. Charlie Glass: 0.
"I don't understand."
Phoebe lets out an exasperated breath. "Okay. This is the one conceivable place your English Classes could possibly come in handy. Other than that, you're best off using your as-yet-hypothetical diploma as an expensive and non-pliable substitute for Kleenex."
"Heyyy..." I say.
"Just listen to me. You _have_ taken a course in fiction writing, haven't you?"
I nod, dumbly.
"Okay. Have you _ever_ been so deeply entrenched in a piece that you're writing that you feel like you're not really _writing_ at all? That you're just looking through a window onto a world that already exists somewhere and you're just recording and reporting the events you see there?"
"Yes!" I say, proudly.
"Well then..." Says Feeb... "You probably were."
I frown at her.
"Wheeooo." Says Luke.
"Yes." Says Feeb, apparently in agreement with the bi-syllabic lemur who still hangs precariously from a tall equipment tower. "You can't _possibly_ believe, then, that _our_ world is so special and hoity-toity that there's not someone on a superior level of reality who is _right now_ writing about _us._"
"Someone's writing about us?" I say, blandly.
"How can you tell?"
Feeb holds up a small, ambiently blinking red light mounted on a small black box. "This light. It detects the presence of one of the Uberauters. Luke and I constructed it about three months ago."
I blink at it.
"So when that light is on..."
"Someone is writing about us, yes."
"I don't believe it."
"I'll prove it to you. If we just sit around and do absolutely nothing, he or she will get bored and do a jump-cut to the next time that something happens. Right now, we're doing a lot of expository dialogue, so we're probably being watched. So lets just sit here for a bit, okay?"
I nod, willing to concede to this plan, just for the moment.
And so we sit. And sit. And sit. And s-
* * *
Five minutes later, the light blinks back on with a fizz and a pop. Phoebe slams on a nearby table, triumphantly. "SEE!"
"So the light went off." I say. "Why is it back on now?"
"Because we're back to interesting dialogue, and the Uberauter is watching again!"
"But..." I say... "The only reason we _had_ dialogue at all was that the light blinked back on..."
The three of us think about this for a moment.
"Hm." Says Feeb. "Well, anyway. I'll have to look into that. Regardless, we've tested it independently, and it seems to be a fairly reliable indicator of the presence of an Uberauter."
I sigh and rub my temples a bit. "Okay! Okay. Let's concede that this little box can detect the presence of one of these 'Uberauters.' Why is this interesting at all?"
"Because..." Says Feeb, staring at me intently. "It helps us to see into their minds."
"Um." I say.
"Oh, it's not perfect. Not at all. The best we can do is engineer some concrete concepts and ideas and hold our sensors up to them and see if the Uberauters are interested. The first time we really noticed this effect was about a month and a half ago. We had one of the experimental New Zeland White rabbits sitting here in a cage while Luke was using the VCR in the lab to watch a copy of the film version of 'Donovan's Brain.' This thing went _NUTS!_ Best we can figure is that _someone_ out there must have been writing something involving some sort of a fusion of these concepts. Since then, we've been grouping all sorts of different things here and seeing if any of the Uberauters find them to be interesting. With any luck and enough time, we should be able to figure out exactly the sorts of things that the Uberauters are writing about, and what's more, perhaps even identify the specific signature concepts of many individual Uberauters!"
"Um." I say. Then... "Like what?" Once again, I am just going with the flow here.
"Come with me. I'll show you. Is your head okay?"
"I'm still feeling a bit woozy."
"It's to be expected after resurrection. Come along." She begins wending her way through the rows of machinery. Luke follows her, leaping nimbly from table to table.
"Wait!" I say, standing unsteadily. "Res-ur-...?"
"Resurrection. We brought you back to life. You didn't think you could come smack up against the minions of Ashraak with no defenses whatsoever and expect to _live_ through it, did you?"
"Um." I say.
"We'll get to that later. Come on."
Feeb and Luke vanish into the depths of the Lab.
Sometimes, there's nothing you can do but follow along behind.
* * *
"Our light's back on." Remarks Feeb. "He or She is watching again."
"Wonderful." I say. "So what have we got here?"
I gaze upon a wire-mesh cage, about two meters square, with a padded floor. On one side of the cage is another black box with a light on it. At the moment, it appears to be dark.
The cage appears to be empty.
"What we have here," Says Feeb, "Is a cockroach."
I look closer. Sure enough, there is a single brown Mexican cockroach clinging to the interior of one of the cage walls.
"Charming." I say. "But not, apparently, interesting." I indicate the light on the cockroach cage, which still appears to be dark. "Why do you need such a big cage?"
"Ah." Says Feeb. "That's no ordinary cockroach, Charles."
"I'm awaiting an explanation, here."
"Good." Says Feeb. "This is something that was whipped up by the Biochemistry department. We should be seeing something in... oh..." She checks her watch. "About five seconds."
Five seconds pass.
A shiver runs through the tiny insect form. There is a burst of light, and a hideous, wet, ripping sound, followed by a distinct "Wheep!"
Clinging to the side of the cage is an adult male sheep.
It seems surprised to be there and promptly falls to the padded floor with a "Kerblunk" sound. It lets out an indignant bleat.
I guess I was right.
Phoebe is cackling nearby. I turn to her. "Great. You've got a cockroach that turns into a sheep. Just the sort of thing that the Uberauters... would... be..."
Phoebe is pointing to the light, which is flickeringly, hesitantly, glowing.
She continues to cackle. My guess is that Mad Science majors have a course in that, too.
"It worked! Again!"
"Frink!" Exclaims Luke, excitedly.
"So. One of the Uberauters is interested in cockroaches that turn into sheep. I don't think I want to find out any more about these people, Feeb."
"It's not that, Charles. Whoever He or She is, He or She is probably not interested in this specific thing right here. But we're dancing around key concepts, hoping to come across something really dead-on."
"You got anything any more robust than this?" I inquire.
"Got a promising new one over here." She leads me through the shadowy stacks, away from the poor SheepRoach and towards what appears to be a big butcherblock table supporting a porcupine in a cage. It looks vaguely content, in a sort of bland way.
"Another loaner from the Biology department." She says. "This one's just a normal lab animal. But watch what happens if I do this..."
Feeb removes a pink latex balloon from a pocket in the lab coat and promptly blows it up. Immediately, the indicator lamp on the porcupine cage goes on.
"Can't quite figure this one out, either." She says. "One of the Uberauters must be interested in balloons and porcupines in some unusual way. Doesn't seem like a very likely mix, to me. Luke, you got one of those multi-colored ones handy?"
"Frink!" Says Luke, tossing her one. Feeb promptly inflates the limp bit of polymer into a colorful latex ball. The indicator light glows a bit more brightly.
"Seems like the colored one is more interesting." I say. For all these machinations, the porcupine continues looking blandly content. It chews on a nearby salt block.
"Yep." Says Feeb. "For a while, we could get a similar effect with a male animal, but lately, that effect has been wearing off a bit. This one here is female."
"Porcupines and balloons." I say.
"Something to do with popping them?"
"Tried that. With a pin _and_ with a porcupine quill. Nada. The light goes right out."
"Weird." I say.
"Wheeooo." Says Luke.
"This is all very fascinating, Feeb," I say, peering oddly at Luke, "But what _does_ this have to do with me? Or with us? Or with Ashraak?"
"Absolutely nothing." She says.
"Oh." I say.
"Except for one thing. _Our Light Is Glowing_. Has been ever since yesterday evening. And not just the limp little flickers that we've been able to simulate in the lab. We've got an honest-to-goodness fully-roped-in Uberauter _watching our every move._"
There is a Wheep noise from back in the direction of the SheepRoach's cage. I ignore it.
"I don't like the sound of that."
"You shouldn't. Charles, you're not aware of it, because you've been Mundane for the entirety of your first year here at L.U.D.D.D.Amber, but you and Ashraak have never been on good terms. In fact, when you were part of the school of Religion and Philosophy, you waged an epic battle with him and his minions, the end result of which was that he was imprisoned at the site of the battle, the infamous Omega House, with the contingency that _you should never return there._"
"So... who _is_ Ashraak? I mean... who was he? To me?"
"You lived with him in very close quarters your first year. The University put you there to keep Him in check."
I stammer for a moment. "Rick? My old roommate at Omega?"
"Very possibly. Does that surprise you?"
"Well, yes. Kind of. He was a bastard and all. Played loud music when I was trying to study. Never cleaned up his closet. Left rotting food lying around and such. But I never thought of him as a malevolent demigod..."
"That was _before._"
"I know, I know." The headache is coming back again.
"You _must_ remember your epic battle, at least..."
"I... erm..." I rub the bridge of my nose a bit, my eyes closed. "I recall a big row just before I left the House. Something to do with unwashed dishes..."
"Must have been it. You were quite a hero, Charles."
"Why don't I remember any of this?"
"You've lived a sheltered life."
"So... what's the problem?" I ask.
"You agreed never to set foot within the prison of Omega House again. Last night, you _did._ Ashraak annihilated you. And now he's free."
"Shit." I remark.
"Frink." Says Luke.
"So I died."
"And you brought me back to life."
"It was kind of difficult. Ever try to reconstruct somebody who's been ripped apart by beetles? It ain't pretty, Charlie. We had to re-clone most of you from scratch."
"This is very unnerving to me." I say, sitting down in a nearby chair.
"Tell me about it." Says Feeb. "And now, by bringing _you_ back to life, we've probably brought the wrath of Ashraak down upon all three of us."
"It's okay. What are friends for, right?"
"Right." I say, going with the flow again. "So. We've got a psychopathic demigod, formerly my roommate, out to kill us."
"Exactly." Says Feeb. "You're adjusting nicely to all this, Charles."
"The madness is going to hit me a couple hours from now. I'm still in shock at the moment."
"Wheeooo." Says Luke.
"So." I continue. "What do we do now?"
Feeb bites her lip in thought. Then she goes over to a fancy-looking wooden jewelry box that is sitting nearby. With an aura of cautious reverence, she opens it, and is promptly bathed in Radiant Light.
A pale, rhomboid crystal floats up from within and remains in the air, spinning end-over-end in a tranquil fashion as an aethereal female voice speaks, as if from a great distance.
"You, Phoebe Dimmesdale, have an Appointment with Her Majesterialness Voria Starbender, the Queen of The Mortal Realms of Amber, on the Twentieth day of October, Year of the Gathered Grain, Century of the Wombat. Please keep this Mysterious Crystal to remind you of your Appointment."
"-ment... -ment... -ment... -ment..."
The crystal settles back into the velvet-lined box and the glow fades. The box slams shut with a sharp *snick.*
I look at her blankly.
"If there's _anyone_ on campus who can suppress Ashraak and get you back into a position where you're not in danger of being shredded again, it's Her Majesterialness. The beneficent and all-powerful Empress of--"
"Wait a sec. Are we talking Mary Sue Coleman, here?"
"The President of the University."
"All right!" I say. "We have an appointment with the President on... what was that date again?"
"October Twentieth. One week away."
"So the trick is... we have to survive one week on the campus of L.U.D.D.D.Amber, being hounded by the hellish minions of the demigod of litter and profanity, so that we can eventually meet our appointment with Voria Starbender who will, hypothetically, take care of everything and return our lives to normal. Yes?"
"Frink." Agrees Luke.
"Okay. So. What do we do now?"
There is silence.
Suddenly there is a fizz and a pop from Phoebe's Indicator. She whips it up to eye level and we all look at it, expressions of assorted horror and anxiety on our faces.
The light has stopped blinking ambiently.
It is now glowing a steady, blood-dark red.
"The exposition is over." Says Phoebe, quietly.
"What does that mean..." I whisper.
"It means..." Says Phoebe, "... that the plot is about to begin."
There is silence.
The porcupine gnaws contentedly on the salt block.
I shake my head, slightly.
"I have a very, _Very_ bad feeling about this." I say.
And we sit there, watching that light, knowing that while it is on, one of the Uberauters is _observing_ us. And unless He or She enjoys writing about three people spending a relaxing week waiting for their Appointment...
Things are about to become Interesting.