"Now, Embericles... anything you'd like to share with us?"
"Fuck you," Embericles said flatly. "Fuck the horse you rode in on. Fuck the troop of lancers at your back."
Trudi raised her eyebrows. "_That_ sounds like something your mother would do. But if you won't share, I will. Are you sure you want that?"
Embericles's eyes narrowed. "I'm not giving you anything. Whatever you want out of me, you're gonna have to _take_."
Trudi shrugged. "You asked for it... All right. Let's start with your parents."
Embericles barely managed to keep control of her expression. "Let's start with _yours_," she rasped back, "and how they were brother and sister."
The others couldn't help but snicker.
Trudi ignored the barb, glancing at an index card in her hand. "So, I understand your mother is a Succubus Second-Class in the City of Dreams, working hard to make it to the top of the Guild. You know, we've heard about Nyssaias and her parents, and we all know Dominic'd come in to help _his_ children... if he could."
Xeffy and Ayna seethed.
"Do you wish your mother was here for you? What about your father? Can I take it from your sneer that you _don't_?" Trudi paced in front of the silent girl. "But that's really the _crux_ of the matter, isn't it? Do you or don't you wish they were around for you? Do you ever ask yourself that very question?"
"No." Embericles seemed for a moment surprised that she had spoken aloud. But seeing that she already had, she went on, the words coming out with the slow precision of a coroner's dictated report. "I don't ask, because it doesn't matter what I want. It has _never_ mattered what I want, so now all I want is for them both to stay out of my life."
Trudi nodded. "You say that, and yet..." She snapped her fingers and another puff of smoke burst from her hand. When it cleared this time, she was holding a faux-leather photo album. She flipped it open at random. "And yet, you keep every single postcard your mother sends you. Every single one, carefully tucked away in plastic sheeting to preserve it."
"I like the pictures," Embericles snapped back.
"Which is why they've all been put in here in such a way that your mother's little notes can still be read? And I notice you don't have any qualms about spending the money that she and your father send for your support."
Embericles didn't deign to give that even a sneer in reply.
Trudi sighed. "So, anyway, I hear from recent events that you hate succubi. Care to comment on _that_?"
Embericles regarded her narrowly, debating whether to bother answering. "I despise them," she said at last, "but I'm starting to hate you more."
"And yet, you, yourself, are _part_-succubus--"
That did get a reaction. Embericles jerked upright in her seat. There was a rippling in the air and a slight blur of fog and bone around her as it became apparent to the others that she was trying to shift into her nightmarish 'true body', but the magic of the stage set was holding her fast to her humanoid form. "There's _nothing_ of that in me!" the girl snarled. "I'm different from them! Even _she_ said so!" She made one last wild effort to break the binding upon her and for a split-second the image of a towering, rotted-looking beast loomed over her seat, empty eye sockets aglow with murderous hate. But then it was gone, leaving the redhead panting through gritted teeth.
Trudi was as unruffled as ever. "Now, there's an interesting point. If you _did_ have more succubus traits, your mother would no doubt be glad to have you there in the Guild, where you would make a most useful ally. But as you are, you are just a hindrance and embrassment to her; a liability to her career. And she has told you as much, hasn't she? Can't bear to be associated with you. Certainly couldn't have you running around the City of Dreams claiming her as parent. What would her superiors say?" She held up the postcard-album. "But, on the other hand, she _has_ maintained contact with you for the eight years since she left you and she _has_ helped support you financially for that whole time. A remarkable attention-span for a succubus. And you aren't stupid. You've realised that, haven't you? Even as she renounces you, she goes on giving those occasional little scraps of what might be affection. And even as you despise her, you go right on waiting and hoping for the next little token gesture. That's just so pathetic, I can't even say!"
This brought a howl of laughter from the unseen audience, but Embericles was working hard at rebuilding her frigid stoicism and ignored it. The others - save Nyssaias, who knew most of this already - were looking at her with a mix of horror and pity. She felt their eyes on her and turned to regard them with something impressively close to her usual bored contempt.
"So my mother's a bitch and I'm a loser," she hissed. "Neither one should surprise you."
Trudi vanished the postcard-album with a wave of her hand as she continued: "Now your _father_, on the other hand... A Fourth-Class Berserking Demon, isn't he? My, my. That's pretty low rank. He can't even enter the City of Dreams at that level. And from what I hear, he doesn't seem to be trying for promotion very hard. Why could that be, I wonder? As a Second-Class, he could go to the City. He could even take you with him. You could finally see all those things that you only - pardon the pun - dream about seeing now. Why, if he got himself promoted, he could even get you enrolled as a Dark Muse and let you finally make something of yourself. What could he possibly be afraid of?"
Now Embericles looked vaguely amused. "If you're trying to imply things about my father, let me save you the trouble. He's yellow. A regular Spineless Wonder. He's afraid of my mother and he's afraid of me."
"And yet," mused Trudi, "he's a Berserking Demon; a creature whose sole purpose is to inflict violent death, who lives on battlefields and murder scenes. They give themselves over to bloodthirsty madness and inspire mortals to do the same. And yet, he's afraid to confront his own wife?"
"He's gutless when it counts," Embericles retorted.
"He says he loves you," Trudi inserted slyly. "Do you suppose he lied?"
Embericles shrugged nonchalantly. "I wouldn't know. I also don't give a damn."
"All right. So, if you don't have any use for your parents, who _do_ you like? That looks like a pretty short list..."
Ayna rolled her eyes. "I'm _so_ shocked."
Trudi read off the card. "According to this, there's a certain attractive older man, a Mr. Maxil..."
The others gasped.
"_Maxil_!?" Kwen demanded.
"I really _am_ shocked," said Ayna.
"So, is this just an innocent schoolgirl crush, or...?" Trudi let the implication hang.
Embericles seemed perfectly content to let it hang there, until she noticed Nyssaias looking at her. She sighed. "No, I don't have a crush on Maxil. The bitch there knows it, and so should you, Nyssaias."
Nyssaias blinked in confusion.
Embericles went on, "Maxil's a complete prick, but he's an _honest_ prick. He hates me like everybody else, but he's upfront about it and he always deals straight with me. He's afraid of me, but he doesn't let that interfere with his judgement." She shrugged. "He's gutsy and he sticks to his principles and I have to respect that."
Trudi grinned. "Then there's the object of so many girls' desires, Kari..."
Ayna sat up, suddenly attentive.
"Relax, bird-girl," Embericles snapped, annoyed. "I don't want your man. I think parrot-boy's a complete damn fool, but I can tolerate him because he amuses me. And he's not afraid to look me in the eye and tell me what he thinks."
"That's true, isn't it?" Trudi's eyes were alight with the joy of a wolf moving in for the kill. "You _don't_ want her man, or indeed _any_ man... since you prefer girls. Do you deny being a lesbian?"
Embericles started to chuckle, but stopped when she noted the total silence from the other girls. She turned to Nyssaias, who looked completely stunned.
"What?" Embericles demanded. "I already _told_ you."
"Y-you did?" the Light Muse stammered.
"Yeah, remember? You were talking about finding boyfriends and I said I didn't like boys."
"Oh," said Nyssaias, voice small. "I thought you meant that you just hadn't found any boys you liked _yet_. I didn't realize you meant you liked... girls... _that way_."
"Is that a problem?" Embericles's voice was tight with something being left unspoken.
Nyssaias seemed to shake out of her daze and offered a bright and reassuring smile. "Oh, no. No, that's not a problem, or anything. It's just... an idea I'll have to get used to, is all."
Embericles suddenly found she couldn't face her friend and so turned to the others. "Anybody _else_ have a problem with me liking girls 'that way'?"
"Statement: no," Molly said. "Although it does leave me somewhat worried..."
"Wouldn't worry, Calamari," Embericles said. "You ask too many questions."
"I am uncertain how to take that," Molly said. "I think relief is my predominant emotion at the moment."
Her tentacles flubbled. "Statement of realisation: oh no."
"Molly?" Trudi prompted. "Anything you'd like to share with us?"
"Yes." Molly said. "I am afraid the _Mask_ may be interested in Embericles after this."
Embericles shrugged. "I can handle her."
Kwen winced. "Ooh, you /really/ shouldn't have said that..."
"I'm just surprised to hear you like _anything_." Xeffy snarked.
The redhead smirked nastily. "Well, don't worry. You're not my type."
Trudi turned a loathesomely smarmy smile toward Embericles. "So, if Molly and Xeffy aren't your types, why don't we talk about who _is_? Why don't we hear the real deal about your feelings for sweet little Nyssaias over here?"
Embericles shot her a glare that would have made a mad dog slink off. "Why don't you whore yourself out to a gang of wererats, Trudi?"
"Now, now," the hostess scolded, "is that any way to talk in front of a nice girl like Nyssaias? It's bad enough that you're a perverted little dyke without trying to corrupt her, too. Come on, now. Tell us all about it. Do you want her 'that way'? Do you dream that she might be your 'girlfriend'? Or is she not your type? Do you realize that she's just too purehearted to have any feelings beyond pity for someone like _you_?"
"That's _not_ true!" shouted Nyssaias.
"Now, Nyssaias," Trudi tut-tutted, "nice girls shouldn't lead someone on like that. Especially not someone like _her_."
"You lie with every breath," declared the Light Muse. "She knows how I feel. She knows the promise we made each other."
A wave of Trudi's hand brushed that aside. "And I'm sure that's all _very_ sweet, but it doesn't address the main issue here, which is whether Batdyke has the hots for you..."
Embericles was staring at the floor now, face hidden behind the fall of her bangs, hands tense on the armrests of her chair and wings and shoulders twitching with some tightly-repressed feeling. She said nothing.
"Tell us," Trudi said in a warning tone, "or I'll have to _compel_ you to. And I can do that, you know."
"Statement," Molly said. "Leave her alone."
Trudi ignored her, eyes fixed on Embericles. She raised her fingers to snap them. "I'll give you to the count of three to tell us the truth about how you feel, little Emmy. One... Two..."
Face still downcast, Embericles began to speak, not loudly, but the words coming out distinctly and without hesitation. "Once upon a time," she said, "there was a road, and on this road a serpent met a butterfly. The butterfly had heard that there was a rainbow at the end of the road and was on her way to see it, but had just found out that the road was not a safe one. The serpent knew of the dangers, of the birds and spiders and scorpions that lay in wait, but didn't believe in the rainbow. But somehow, the two became friends and set off down the road together. The butterfly flew along in the breeze and the sunshine and pointed out pretty things for the serpent to raise up and take a look at, while the serpent crawled along in the still shadows of the road, pointing out dangerous or interesting things for the butterfly to see. And so the serpent saw new things and the butterfly saw new things, but what the serpent enjoyed seeing most was the butterfly, because the butterfly was prettier even than the pretty things she pointed out to the serpent. And whether there was a rainbow at the end of the road or not, the serpent decided to stay with the butterfly until they got there and to use its fangs and its poison against any bird or spider or scorpion that dared to get in their way, because finding the rainbow was less important to the serpent than being with the butterfly." Now Embericles did raise her head, looking Nyssaias squarely in the eyes as she spoke the final two words: "The end."
Nyssaias met her gaze with a soft smile. She shook her head. "Not the end," she said quietly. "The story has a long way to go..."
"Mm." Trudi said. "It's not the only one... is it, Xeffy?"
The MythMob blinked at her.
"Over nine hundred years ago, wasn't it, Xeffy? /Nine hundred/. And the end is /still/ not in sight."
"Consider," Trudi said to the world at large. "Daddy dearest is a Muse of History. Dear sweet Mom was a Muse of Epic Poetry. Big sis is a Muse of Metafiction. So how exactly is it that a family like /that/ produces a Siren? The /first/ Siren, in fact, to be seen in the Outside Dimensions in over three thousand years?"
"Wanna see my DNA tests?" Xeffy challenged.
"Oh, naturally, no-one could deny the family resemblance." Trudi continued. "But still... Divine inheritance has /some/ manner of logic to it. In /this/ case, however, logic seems to have been crumpled up and thrown out of the window.
"Now how could /that/ happen, hmm? Molly? Nyss? Any ideas?"
The two girls in question looked blank.
"Statement," Molly said. "It is apparent you are insinuating Xeffy and Ayna are not strictly Divine. However, it is not apparent what the options are."
"True," Trudi allowed. "Xeffy? Why don't you put us all out of our misery?"
"I'd like to put /you/ out of /my/ misery..." Xeffy shot back.
"The Archetypes. It's the Archetypes."
"That's impossible," Nyssaias said.
"...Say what again?" Embericles demanded.
"Nyss? Mind telling us?" Trudi invited.
Nyssaias nodded. "They're... they're like the fundamental images in the collective psyche. They represent something - some concept, some idea - so big it can't be contained. Described, yes, named, yes - but it can't be contained, can't be pinned down. An image that turns up over and over again, that manifests itself, in cultures throughout the world. The Trickster, the Healer, the Eternal Hero..."
"Thank you," Trudi said.
"...But how is it even possible?" Nyssaias said.
"Xeffy?" Trudi invited.
"...My grandmother," Xeffy said, not looking up. "It was my grandmother. She tried to take over one of the Archetypes, /become/ the Archetype..."
"...But that's impossible," Nyssaias said. "You can't do that. It's too big for one person to become - or even contain."
"Yeah." Xeffy said quietly. "That's what /she/ found out.
"But you don't walk away from something like that, you know?
"All of us - us and Mum - we inherited a connection to an Archetype. We're plugged in to them. Got a piece of them stuck in us."
"A gaping hole," Trudi smirked, "waiting to be filled by the first Archetype that came along.
"Which in /your/ case happened to be the Sirens. And having that piece of them stuck in /you/ reshaped your Divinity. Remade it.
"Not so unlikely, when you stop to think about it. After all, Xeffy isn't the first example you've met, is she?"
"...Kari," Nyssaias said.
"Mm." Trudi agreed. "But then, his case was different - /he/ was three millennia old when /he/ got changed, while Xeffy and Ayna have been the way they are practically from conception. What they might have been, without that Siren-shard in them... who knows? But what's done is done.
"Interesting, isn't it, that the same basic shard manifests in two such very different ways. Ayna's is the more... /primal/ manifestation, the Sirens of myth and legend, the doom of sailors, predators of the sea... while Xeffy, on the other hand, Xeffy, looks like any mortal you might meet on the street. To all intent and purpose, that /is/ her true form. A more modern manifestation, perhaps? Something more suitable to the times? As both mortal and Divinity associate music with more /humanoid/ sources..."
Trudi paused. "Of course, such a human appearance comes with its own drawbacks. For instance, did you know that Xeffy didn't know she was a Siren until she was /twelve/?"
"...What?" Nyssaias said.
Embericles raised a cool eyebrow. "Shouldn't bird-girl over there have been enough of a clue?"
Xeffy's face contorted into a scowl.
"You'd think, wouldn't you?" Trudi agreed. "Unless, of course, Ayna wasn't around for some reason... A dirty little secret in the family closet, perhaps?"
Ayna flinched on the word 'closet'.
"Not in /our/ closet," Xeffy said quietly, softly. "You want the truth, Trudi? You want it?
"We're not twins.
"...What?" Nyssaias said.
"You heard the girl, Nyss," Trudi said. "Alters. Different versions of the same girl. From two different - but equivalent - realms." She looked momentarily faux-puzzled. "But which is which?"
"I'm the one from /this/ realm," Xeffy said, still in that same soft tone. "Ayna's- Ayna's from..." With an effort, she managed to force it out. "The darkside."
Trudi mock-gasped. "No! But she's such a /nice/ girl!"
"Stick it," Xeffy told her tiredly. "Yeah, she's from the darkside. Doesn't make her nasty."
"...So /you're/ the evil one, then?" Trudi suggested.
"_No._" Xeffy said. "_Neither_ of us is the evil one, okay?"
"Hm." Trudi said. "Now how could /that/ work, I wonder? Unless the pair of you were so close to neutral..."
"That's not-" Xeffy sighed. "That's not the way it works, okay? Just 'cause it's /light/ and /dark/ doesn't mean it's good or evil. It's just the way things turned out."
Nyssaias's expression looked suddenly thoughtful.
"Like yin-yang," Xeffy went on. "I'm the yang, Ayna's the yin. We're counterparts."
"Fascinating..." Trudi said, in a not-quite believing tone. "Interesting as this whole discussion is, let's get back to the point at hand, shall we? Even without Ayna, how did you manage to miss finding out you were a Siren? I can't imagine someone as conscientious as Dominic - a History Muse First Class, after all - overlooking something like /that/..."
Xeffy's expression was suddenly that of someone much older than her years. "He /didn't/. Him and Mum - they knew what I was. They just didn't tell us.
"We lived in Subreality. They don't /know/ about the Bureaucracy there - as far as /they're/ concerned, Muses're just another type of fictive. Work by fictive rules. So their children aren't expected to be Muses themselves - not unless it's in the family."
"Hm." Trudi said. "That explains /some/ of it... but it doesn't explain quite how /you/ never found out."
Xeffy sighed. "Mum. Everyone sort-of knew what Gran'd done, but they didn't /know/-know, you know? Rumours, gossip, that sort of thing.
"But one thing /everyone/ knew - Mum was the daughter of a Divinity and an Archetype. She grew /up/ knowing that. They /knew/ she was special, wanted to know what she could do - what she was - kinda tends to set you apart from everyone else, you know?"
"At least until Dominic came along," Trudi said. "Thank the Fates for the ignorant newcomer, hm?"
Nyssaias stared at Xeffy as if she'd been hit by a two-by-four.
"Yeah," Xeffy sighed. "So by the time they had us, they'd moved away from most everyone who'd been 'round back then.
"But Mum didn't want us growing up like /she/ had. When she found out what we were - she didn't want to tell us, wanted us to grow up normal. Connected.
"So she and Dad decided to keep it quiet - tell us when we were old enough."
"Of course, it didn't work out like that," Trudi observed. "Because dear sweet Mom - she got cancer when you were seven, and" - she snapped her fingers - "*bam*, she was gone by eight. And Dominic? Oh, he just fell apart, didn't he? Hit him right -" She put her hand where her heart would have been. "-there.
"As for big sis Allie - she went kind of wild. Tattoos, karaoke bars, Klatchian coffee..." Trudi tutted. "Such a shame in a promising student.
"But not /you/, Xeffy. Oh no. You kept what /you/ were feeling inside - kept up a brave face, Daddy's brave little soldier."
She leaned forward. "But what you were really feeling - what you /really/ wanted - was to have Mom back. To have everything back to normal, the way it was. Before everything went to Hades."
"You have no /idea/." Xeffy hissed. "None at _all_."
"Then, of course, everything /did/." Trudi went on. "Didn't seem like it, of course - but then it never does. Calliope stepped in, took Allie in hand, packed her off on work experience. Wasn't enough to snap Dominic out of his funk, no - but at least it looked like a step in the right direction.
She cast about, alighted on Nyssaias. "Nyssaias, do you remember a couple of years back - remember the Draining?"
"I heard of it," Nyssaias said cautiously, visibly wary of Trudi's seeming change of tack. "Something was draining the strength from the Muses in the outer realms. It reversed itself before it reached the City."
"Did you ever find out what'd caused it?"
Nyssaias shook her head. "Not really - not in any concrete sense. What I heard was that it had been because of a great enemy of Musekind - something from Beyond - and that thanks to the... um, Pro-Fun Hoedown, the thing from Beyond had been sealed away for eternity." She giggled. "I remember reading about the Hoedown's hostess, this little Pro-Fun Troll, and thinking she seemed to have a lot of good ideas..."
"True enough, as far as it goes," Trudi allowed. "Would it surprise you to know that Xeffy was there? At the Hoedown? That she knows what the Hoedowners faced?"
"For a short time," Nyssaias replied coolly. "But if she didn't want to talk about it, I'm sure she had good reason."
"The best of all," Trudi said, glancing at Xeffy, who'd turned white and trembling with rage, fingers clutching into her armrests. "Have you ever heard of the Eaters of Story? The Gods of Ragnarok?"
Nyssaias stared at Trudi. "Are you actually implying they went up against the /Story Eaters?/"
"Oh yes," Trudi replied. "The Story Eaters - the /alter/ Story Eaters, at that - unleashed upon the Universe. The Hoedowners challenged them to battle - and by the rules that bind them, they had to accept. Winner would stop the other where they stood.
"And among the challenges they sent the Hoedowners... among those challenges... were the /original/ Divine Sirens. The /originals/, grown hateful and bitter after millennia of self-exile. And guess who was lucky enough to face them?"
Xeffy looked as if she were about to vomit.
"...Xeffy?" Nyssaias whispered.
"...they were so /hungry/, Nyss..." Xeffy whispered. "So /hungry/... I still /remember/..."
"What is the /point/ of this?" Molly challenged. "You are /hurting/ them!"
"'Secrets Of A Demon Lord's Harem', remember?" Trudi replied coolly. "And we're going to bring up /all/ those shameful secrets you girls have been keeping - get them all out in the open - before the show's done."
Molly fixed her with the full strength of her gaze. "You are a truly horrible person. I hope that I will never meet another Grel who has descended to your despicable level. Such information-gathering in such a way - against girls I call my friends - is utterly disgusting."
"Suck it up, Molly sweetie." Trudi said cheerfully. "We've got a lot more where /that/ came from!"
Copyright 2005 Imran Inayat.