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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
A skyline view.
There is a figure at a desk.
It's a remarkable desk.
It's big, for one thing, crafted of one solid piece of some hideously expensive wood that shines and glimmers blackly in the gathering evening. It's an incongruous desk, for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is, indeed, bigger than the doorway to the luxury penthouse office suite that it currently occupies. To the casual observer, this would make it seem almost as though, like the fabled bed of Odysseus, the skyscraper itself was built _around_ this desk.
Which is to say, the _desk_, like the fabled bed, looked as though the skyscraper had been built around it.
_Odysseus's Bed_ did _Not_ look as though it had a skyscraper built around it. It looked as though it had a _house_ built around it, which is, in fact, the case for this desk.
Sorry. Give me a moment here.
THIS DESK does _NOT_ look like it has a house built around it. JUST AS Odysseus's Bed looked like it had had the house built around it, SO does this desk look like the skyscraper was built around it. There.
Sorry about that. Anyway. Seated at the figure is a desk... um. Backwards. Seated at the desk is a figure.
Okay. Got it now.
Seated at this wholly remarkable desk is a figure, sitting obliquely in a big black leatherback chair, watching the horizon.
He, as well, is remarkable.
In fact, he is very, very remarkable indeed. From the tips of his expensive Italian loafers all the way up to his expensive, retroactive, and highly trend-setting horn-rimmed glasses, there is just something _remarkable_ about him. His teeth are remarkably white. His hair is remarkably neat. His wardrobe? Remarkable.
Really a shame, actually, that no-one really ever gets the chance to remark any of this to him. It is, in fact, generally considered an unwise act to speak to him at all.
In fact, according to the _Rhodes Book of Itemized Lists of Really Really Dangerous Things to Do_, the only thing more unwise than actually speaking to William "Way-High Willie" Stein is _NOT_ speaking to him, when he has specifically invited you to.
This is the situation that the Dark Fellow finds himself in. The Dark Fellow is a dangerous man in his own right, being as he is a graduate Magna cum Laude of the Law School and the Second Assistant Guildmaster of the Brotherhood of the Fire Spork, perhaps the most efficient and deadly assassins known to modern mankind. But even the Dark Fellow himself, Master of Poisons, Architect of Deathtraps, Famed Author of the three-week New York Times Bestseller, _1001 Ways To Kill People with Ordinary Chewing Gum_, is wary of speaking to Will Stein. It's a matter of common sense.
There is a pause as the Dark Fellow regards the remarkable man at the remarkable desk.
"Hello, Ominous." Says William Stein.
The Dark Fellow nods.
"I gather..." says Will Stein, "that you're wondering why I've called you here." He smiles, humorlessly, revealing his remarkably white teeth again.
Ominous Darkfellow nods again, within his heavy shrouds of black-hooded silk.
"Come here." Says Will Stein. There is no threat in his words. No hint of malice. Simply a sense of well-founded knowledge that he _will_ be obeyed.
Ominous treads softly forwards, somewhat catlike, until he is standing before the monolithic desk. Well. Not mono_lithic_, as such. That would imply that it was made of _stone._ Technically, it should be referred to as Mono_xylos_ to reflect its wooden status. Yes. Standing before the Monoxylos desk. Wait. "Monoxylos" sounds like a sort of acne medication. Skip that. Go back to "Monolithic" with the precautionary note that it is not, indeed, stone, but, as aforementioned, is, indeed, made, as noted, of some sort of hideously expensive black sort of wood.
Okay. Let's see. Ominous treads forward.
Stein swivels silently in his well-oiled chair. He indicates a small slip of paper before him.
"Take that. And read it." Says Stein.
Ominous does so.
* * *
Okay. So there's this guy called Charles Madison Glass, and just tonight, he broke out of his Cocoon of Mundanity and within one week, he's going to destroy your entire life. Today's Lucky Numbers are Five, Seventeen, Twenty-One, and Forty-Two.
* * *
Ominous puts down the slip of paper.
Stein regards him sternly.
"I _trust_ fortune cookies, mister Darkfellow."
Ominous Darkfellow narrows his hellish orange eyes, the only part of him visible beneath the black shrouds.
"I know what you're thinking. This is some kind of fluke, right. Good ol' Willie is over-reacting again, right?"
Ominous says not a word.
"Let me show you _fluke_, mister Darkfellow." He turns to his phone, which is so impressive that it only needs to have one button on it.
"Liesl." He barks into the phone. "Get me delivery from China Hut. Mongolian Chicken. Capice?"
He slams the phone back down.
For forty to forty-five minutes, Will Stein continues to stare at the black-clad assassin.
Then, an attractive-looking blond woman of Germanic stock walks purposefully in, sets a little cardboard box of Chinese Food in front of Mr. Stein, arranges some chopsticks nearby, tucks a napkin into his shirt, and departs.
Will Stein does not move a muscle.
Ominous looks at the free plastic-wrapped fortune cookie which Liesl deposited on the desk near the box.
Slowly, dangerously, Will Stein reaches over to the cookie, unwraps the cellophane with a crisp rattle, removes the cookie, and breaks it in two, removing a tiny slip of paper. He crushes the remainder of the cookie into a vaguely sweet powder which he lets fall slowly and theatrically into a nearby wastebasket which is, of course, black.
Without even looking at it, he tosses it on the desk.
Ominous picks it up.
* * *
Okay. So there's this guy called Charles Madison Glass, and last night, he broke out of his Cocoon of Mundanity and within one week, he's going to destroy your entire life. Today's Lucky Numbers are Three, Twelve, Eighteen, and Forty-Two.
* * *
Ominous nods, quietly.
Will Stein looks importantly at Ominous as he opens the flap on his cardboard box of Chinese Food, letting the chicken-scented steam waft in intricate and artistic patterns ceilingwards.
"Mister Darkfellow?" He says.
Ominous calmly cocks his head, waiting.
"You know what to do."
* * *
::?Shartooie TiaraNet Dataflux -RETRY
::?Shartooie TiaraNet Connectivity Established
Command Line Interpreter:
/RESUME_some_ sort of... blackness. Haze, I guess, you might call it. I've never really had to describe _semi-_ consciousness before. Thus far, it's kind of been either _off_ or _on._ Not somewhere-in-between.
I _think_ I'm getting a grip on it, though. And it's not really an encouraging sight.
I'm being carried. It's not a friendly sort of carry. It is, in fact, one of the most conceivably un-friendly sorts of carries that I can, personally, imagine. The sort of carry that occupies the pole to which "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" is diametrically opposed. It involves ropes.
As my consciousness goes swimmy-swim-swim in and out of brightness, I become aware that I am, kind of, slung under a stick that is currently itself being carried by two rather fuzzy gentlemen with long scaley tails. Rats. Biiiiiig rats. I hate rats. Hate 'em. Hate 'em hate 'em hate 'em. Brr. I especially hate _big_ rats. And these... well. These are some pretty damn big rats, let me tell you. Sheepers.
My consciousness fwiddles in and out again, and when it eventually rolls lazily back into focus, the lights are somewhat more distinct and constant. I can see a short train of these rat-like individuals stretching a short ways ahead of and behind me. I can make out another carrying- pole somewhere in front of me. Suspended from that pole is a grey, black, and white fuzzy thing which I'm presuming is Luke. I strain my vision ahead, and then, seeing nothing further than him to the fore, attempt to turn my head behind me, but there are no more poles, at least that I can see.
Oh, god. What if something...
"Luke!" I whisper harshly, hoping that he'll hear. "Listen, Luke, what _happened_ back there? Where are Feeb... and..."
I trail off.
"Never mind," I say.
"Frink?" Says Luke, turning his head around to look at me. Great. The only person who knows whether my companions are even alive or not can only express such sentiments in a grand total of two potential utterances. _Feeb_ seems to understand him. One of these days, I really _must_ learn how she does it...
It occurs to me that there might not _be_ any more of 'these days' to do so in.
I wonder what anthropomorphic rats eat...
"Never mind..." I repeat to Luke, a bit more firmly.
We are carried for some time through the fossilized netherrealms of the Mall, passing storefronts abandoned since the early days of recorded history, through alternating patches of Stygian darkness and inconsistently-burning rainbow neon that serves to do nothing but accentuate the blackness around it. As we go, the rats mutter to each other in a sort of strange, garbled dialect. Something about it is oddly familiar, but I'll be danged if I can figure out why.
Big rats. Brr. Willies.
Right now, I'm actually kind of thankful for my willies, however. For some reason, all these huge rats swarming around are actually managing to make me centrate on the very fact of their yukkiness, and to allow me to forget about the horrid fate that I will, sooner or later, meet at their hands. Luke, too. Poor sap. He deserves better.
We _all_ deserve better. Mentally I run through the loose and barely-cohesive chain of events that have brought me to this sorry state of affairs. The whole sordid story. Feeb _claimed_ that all of this was leading up to a chat with one of the Uberauters. By now, I've forgotten why we even cared anymore. We were here to get... a cinnamon roll? From a shop in the... Food Court? To serve as an offering for one of... Them? So that he'll tell us what the HELL is going on and how the hell the four of us are going to manage to survive one week in this ludicrously hostile world until our appointment with Queen Voria, who will SUPPOSEDLY fix everything...?
And now what. Feeb and Buddy are missing, goodness knows where. Luke and I are hanging off sticks, being carted off to serve as the main dinner entree in some kind of twisted rat-thing soiree...
Maybe they're _not_ going to eat us, though. Maybe they're just going to question us, clear up this little situation to the both of ours' satisfactions, and let us go on our merry way.
What the _Hell_ am I thinking? This is Charlie Glass we're dealing with here! Of _course_ they're going to try and eat us!
The shell of willies holding the big nasty thoughts at bay is beginning to crack and crumble, and my brain starts racing, trying to figure out a way out of these bonds, while simultaneously trying to avoid the sick compulsion to organize some impromptu recipes to suggest to the rat-creatures upon their cooking me.
I make no progress in the first area; the bonds remain as tight as ever throughout the whole trip. Nice knots. However, by the time we reach the Rat village, I _have_ managed to come up with two or three lovely suggestions for a decent marinade. Hell, if I'm going to be eaten, I at _least_ want to taste good. I think that'd be a serious insult, you know... getting eaten alive by a tribe of cannibals and then having them really be more-or-less displeased at how you turned out. "Second Helpings?" says the pleasant hostess rat-creature. "Nah, I'm stuffed." Says the polite guest rat-creature; however, he doesn't _really_ mean it because he's saying to himself the rat-creature equivalent of, "Man... that was _really_ dry. I'm going to need to get another beer." _All_ of these problems could be solved by a good marinade, incidentally. The one I personally thought would work out well was sort of an Oriental job with teriyaki sauce and some sesame oil, with some braised garlic thrown in for flavor.
I'm losing my mind...
Anyway. I am on the verge of compiling the complete "Charlie Glass's _Cooking With Himself_" when the lights of the rat-creature village appear in the distance. It appears as though they've sort of shacked up in an old, long-abandoned amusement park here in the depths of the Mall. They've made their own modifications, of course, not the least of which include big hanging bridges between the giant superstructures of the tall roller-coaster supports, thus creating the effect of a sort of city in the trees, I guess. I get the distinct impression that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that down below the vast interconnecting network of rope-bridges and ratscrabbles creating a lively plexus of aerial movement, there are easily ten times as many tunnels and warrens dug down deep into the fossilized tinsel and masonite tile of the ancient, cracked Mall floors.
The firelight from the Rat village twinkles in a blithe and cheery fashion, but somehow I am unable to take any comfort. It's very possible that I might be _cooking_ over one of those same fires very shortly. These sorts of situations tend to suck the poetic spirit right out of life.
"Reggie..." I mutter softly to myself, "...if you had a mind to help out, now would kind of be a good time for it..."
But Reggie does not appear. Not that I really expected him to.
I can still hope, beyond all hope, that this is indeed some
massive sort of misunderstanding. Maybe they're not going
to cook us at all...
* * *
"It seems," I remark to Luke, "That they're going to cook us."
"Frink." Says Luke, with wide-eyed worried sarcasm.
"I gather this," I say, "From the fact that we are now suspended over a very large fire-pit into which the anthropomorphic rats are currently tossing big, slow-burning-potential peat logs."
"Frink..." Says Luke.
"Any bright ideas?" I say, a quaver creeping into my voice.
"Frink." Says Luke, helplessly.
"Fuck." I say, uneasily to myself with a certain degree of advancing horror. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
There is a pause as the Rats continue to toss fuel into the pit. They're basically done with the logs, and are now in the process of spraying some sort of commercial charcoal lighter all over the piles. Quite a lot of it, actually.
"You sure?" I ask, my heart pitterpattering.
"Frink." Says Luke, even more helplessly.
"You know," I remark parenthetically, "if.. say... anyone happened to be WATCHING this, and wasn't, oh, say, ADVERSE to HELPING OUT, this MIGHT be a good time to do it..."
"Frink?" Says Luke, curiously. I shake my head at him.
The fumes of the lighter fluid are reaching my nostrils.
"YOU KNOW," I remark again, "_IF_... and this is a BIG _IF_... SOMEONE with the ability to come INTO A SITUATION like this and, oh, possibly, HELP OUT, like he SAID he would... we would MAYBE have a chance to, oh, I don't know, LIVE THROUGH THIS..."
The Rats are swarming around us, now. One of them, an imposing-looking little Rat of sober mien and deep brown hue, who is currently wearing a ceremonial headdress made, apparently, out of old bicycle parts, flicks the trigger on an electric match. A tiny orange flame spits forth from its maw.
There is a low, sussurrant hum from the surrounding Rats, which rapidly expands and increases in volume into a full-blown chant, tripping and playing about two or three notes in an undeniably sinister fashion.
It grows into a roar.
The brown Rat lowers the electric match close to the peat logs. The flame wavers and flickers and grows exponentially in the acrid fumes of the lighter fluid...
"GODDAMN IT, REGGIE, if you're GOING TO DO SOMETHING, FOR THE LOVE of _GOD_, DO IT!"
There is no response but the moaning and the roaring of the Rats.
I narrow my eyes and then seal them closed. The last thing I see is Luke, nearby in the pit, darting his tail around attempting to, perhaps, extinguish the flame on the match. Not that it'd buy us much time, after all, but with no limbs free, I can't even do that little bit of time-buying.
I close my eyes and prepare for the end.
My nose senses a whiff of smoke... and...
"STOP!" Shrieks a voice.
Oh good! Feeb!
I pry my eyes open and look in the direction of the voice. Feeb is there. Buddy too.
Feeb is... different. She has the holdalls slung over one arm, which is I guess a good thing, and the broken Censorship Device is grasped lightly in one pale elfin hand. But that's... the only thing that's the same about her. The lab coat is gone, for one thing. She's dressed in a soft gown-y looking thing in earth tones, apparently scavenged from three or four different and now-defunct clothing stores. The effect is eclectic, but strangely... pleasant. She's not wearing the glasses, either. And her hair... has been... combed out and braided down... and interwoven therein are multitudinous plasticene flowers.
On anyone else, it would look tacky. Hell, on _Feeb_ it looks tacky. But...
Anyway. Buddy is somewhat less remarkable, although he too is wearing a wreath of plastic flowers, as one might a Celtic pastoral crown, and looking pleased as all get out to be doing so.
"Stop!" Says Feeb, in a more pleasant tone of voice. "These people are my friends!"
There is some muttering discussion amongst them.
"Feeb!" I exclaim, finding my voice at last. "Wha-- How--"
"Ssh." She says. You're not out of the woods yet." She motions sternly at the rather important-looking Rat wearing the bicycle parts, who still brandishes the electric match in a cautious fashion. He looks at me sternly and soberly and then turns back to his muttered discussions.
I look at Feeb. "They... they understand English?"
"A little." Says Feeb. "They are of human stock, after all."
I frown at her.
It always seems to end up this way...
"Huh?" I say, from my upside-down hanging position.
"Human stock." Explains Feeb. "These creatures are, most likely, the descendants of ancient, ages-past shoppers who, many aeons ago, became disoriented by the confusing architecture, the out-of-date directories, the important-looking but meaningless neon-- all the things that make Capitol Centre what it is. Anyway. Most likely, these certain poor shoppers probably got so dazzled and befuddled that they wandered away from their safari groups and ended up staking out a colony _here._ Over the years, their children and their children's children gradually _adapted_ to their environment through the process of evolution, and, of course, the end result is what you see here."
"Mall-Rats." I say, squeezing my eyes shut, just now figuring out the joke.
"Exactly." Says Feeb. "All these details, which you and I perceive as being 'rat-like', are actually highly distinct specializations to the intricacies of their mall-dwelling nature."
"Including the tails?" I mention.
"_Great_ for climbing things." She says.
"Mm hm." I say.
"And it doesn't help that their genetic structures have been rendered unstable by massive consumptions of Frozen Yogurt. Makes them all the more susceptible to catastrophic evolutionary changes."
"Yes." Says Feeb.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, Feeb never gets a chance to explain this bit to me, because they (the Rats, of course) seem to reach a firm decision.
They turn to us, as one person.
The brown Rat flicks the match on again.
"Nyeargh!" I say, involuntarily.
"Charles." Says Feeb, quietly. "Tell them if they do not obey... you will become _angry_ and use your magic."
I blink at her. "_What_ Magic, Feeb?"
"Just do it." She says, calmly.
I do so.
This seems to stop them for a while. They start the discussion thing up again.
I look at Feeb. She's keeping her face carefully blank.
The Rats seem to reach another decision.
The brown Rat flicks the match on again.
"Feeb..." I say. "It didn't worrrrrrk..."
She says nothing.
"FEEB!" I say, a bit more impatiently, looking at the match-holding Rat as he approaches. "Do whatever you were going to do! Please!"
She frowns at me. "I'm sorry, Charles. That was the extent of my plan. I was hoping that you could take it from here on in..."
"_THAT_ was the extent of your plan?!?" I say, using one of those questionmark-exclamation point-questionmark thingies at the end of my sentence.
She nods. "Yep." She says. "Guess they called my bluff. Sorry."
"Feeb." I say calmly. "Aren't you the one who's supposed to be the potent one, here? I mean, isn't that the way things have worked out, thus far? You hold all the cards and I... like... just hang on?"
She looks at me sternly as the little rat with the fire-stick edges ever-closer. "You're mixing your metaphors, Charles."
I grit my teeth. "Look, these are primitive tribesmen, huh? Impress them with something flashy and scientific or something!"
Feeb looks at me interestedly. "Ooh! Good idea! I wish I had thought of that earlier!" She smiles.
There is a pause.
"WELL?" I demand.
"I wish I _had_ thought of that earlier, because, unfortunately, according to my calculations, anything I would prepare would be... approximately... give me a second here..." She scribbles some figures down on her omnipresent clipboard.
"Seven seconds too late." She says, proudly.
"So we're going to die."
"Basically." Says Feeb. "Unless you think of something better."
"I can think of a _lot_ of things better than dying, Feeb. None of them are suggesting themselves right now."
"Frink.." Says Luke. I can't read his expression.
"Shit." I say. "Mother-fucking shit." I continue. "Damn all of this to hell."
They approach. My tirade grows more agitated.
"Bloody fucking hell!" I exclaim. "SHIT! DAMN IT! FUCK! STOP IT! JAYSUS FUCKING CHEERIST!"
Two steps. One step. The match-holding one is upon us. He lowers the match.
The logs take.
Flames lance upwards.
And then, the dam breaks. All my pent up rage and frustration and anger and weirded-out-ness focus and channel themselves, faced as I am with the moment of my death, into a single, apostasic howl.
Somehow, far back in my mind, I am wishing that my deathbead utterance could somehow, someway, be something more profound than "SHIIIIIIIIIIIIT!" except for with about ten times more I's. But it isn't.
The flames crackle upwards.
I prepare, at last, finally, to perish.