Somewhere in West Virginia
The world was a twirling kaleidoscope of colors. Green and blue twirled dizzily through the air, spinning so fast that they turned into a nearly-yellow swirl, the brilliant light of the sun tracing a perfect circle that seared itself onto my vision when I closed my eyes, a purple-green hoop in the darkness behind my eyelids. The rushing wind filled the air. It was briefly beautiful.
I hit the oak tree’s boughs near the top, and tore through a half dozen branches the size of my waist on the way down, slowing my fall until the final landing was downright gentle. I lay on the ground, staring up, feeling slightly bruised.
Jormungandr landed perhaps a hundred feet away. She was not quite as lucky as I, and she went straight through the trunk of a hundred year oak. Splinters flew everywhere as, slowly, serenely, the giant began to lean. It fell with a low creaking noise, and slammed into the ground opposite Jormungandr, while she lay staring up.
A high buzz filled the air, descending gradually through frequencies. The plane spiraled down through the air, and struck the mountain, some mile and a half distant. There was a tremendous shrieking of metal, but absolutely no explosion, or fire.
“See?” I said, as I stood up, shouting over to Jormungandr as I staggered to her side. “I told you that was the fuel gauge, and that it was empty!” I reached down and helped her up. She looked distinctly miffed. “I suppose that the pilot hadn’t planned on a very long flight.”
“Alright,” said Jormungandr, frowning as she held out the map. “So, where are we?”
“Ah… Cooper’s Rock State Forest, if my guess is correct. Head north and we should find a road soon enough. Get to Unionstown, and we should be able to find a bus from there on to Binghamton. I can find them there.” I began to hike along the forest floor. The shade kept the day’s heat from growing excessive, and it was a beautiful day. If I didn’t have somewhere to be, it would be just lovely. I closed my eyes, and focused on the movement, speeding into an easy, distance-consuming run, something I could keep up for a while.
“Li,” asked Jormungandr, a few minutes later, as we arrived at a dusty dirt track through the woods, the closest thing to a road that the state government was willing to pay for. “Why are you in such a hurry? Betty seemed worried, too, and I don’t quite understand why you’re so worried about this young man. What do you expect to have happened to him?”
“Horace is…” I sighed. “He is a deeply compassionate person. He is a well of great strength, both metaphorically and metaphysically. And he has a bad habit of trying to help people, and involving himself. He seems, oftentimes, unaware of just how fragile he is. He puts himself in positions where danger is certain to find him. He is reckless, and noble, and courageous.” I was quiet for a moment. “He has lost people he loves very dearly. He hardly ever talks about it, but the loss eats at him. His father before he was born. His mother when he was a child. His uncle, very recently- and at least partially because of me, because of Betty. And his apartment.”
“His apartment?” asked Jormungandr, an eyebrow raised.
“He was very attached to her.”
“It was a long and frankly rather depressing story that ended quite abruptly with her untimely death, and his heart being broken once again. I suspect it plays a part in his unwillingness to become intimate. You know how it is when you’ve been hurt.”
“Not really. I’ve had everyone I’ve ever wanted, in one way or another.”
The two of us walked in silence along the dusty road for a few moments while I considered. Finally, I sighed. “You know, if I don’t pay too much attention to what you say in response, you are an excellent listener.”
“Of course, you could always just wind him up in your coils and have your way with him, that always worked for me with every man I fancied. I mean occasionally I had to kill them, but… Huh. I won’t be able to do that anymore.” She frowned. “That’ll be strange. Going into a relationship knowing I can’t just devour them, bones and all, if things get awkward or troublesome… I’m starting to understand why this would all be so difficult for you, Li.”
“See, like that. A wonderful example.” I ran my fingers through my hair as we trailed through the brilliant sunlight, watching as the trees passed us by. “In a way… I am happy with the way things are, between me, and Betty, and Horace, as it stands. We have our connections. We have our common goals. We have our happy times. I don’t want that to end. A change could as easily go bad, could ruin everything, as bring me what I want.” I bit my lip. “And I left him.”
“You couldn’t have known. Come on. You told me it’s been a year since there was any real crisis, right?”
“Mmm. Occasional threats, but all things that Betty had sought out herself. All just… small problems. It seemed quiet.” I sniffed. “I left because I thought he would be safe, and now he might be dying, and I failed, I-!”
The memories flooded back. Horace cornered in a room, about to be infected by plague. Being confronted by armed gunmen in a lobby. Accosted on the streets until I intervened. Being attacked by the fishmen in an empty Shark Belly. Confronting his uncle, and being beaten to a pulp as I watched, too frightened to intervene until I was shamed by the actions of a psychotic house Lar.
I realized I was squeezing myself tightly, hurting for lack of anyone to touch. I was crying, sniffling, snivelling. A complete loss of my composure, my dignity, my control. The memories and the panic that had been rotting in my belly, held back, were overwhelming. The fear of being weak, of being prey in the eyes of a superior predator- it all disintegrated in a panic that reached right down into my spine, paralyzing me.
“What are you doing?” asked Jormungandr, her voice cold. I gritted my teeth, sinking down, pressing my face into my sleeves, trying to hold back the tears. “For gods sakes, you are a demon. A snake! You are not a creature of raw sentiment and pathetic wailing like this! You are making our kind look weak! Making me look weak! And for what?!”
“We are going to be too late!” I said, my voice ragged. “I can feel it. I’ve always been too late. Too late to understanding, too late to making a choice, too late-”
“For humans! You are a demon! You are more, and less, than them! You are more powerful, and you are less constrained than them! This human is a good meal, nothing more, and you have forgotten that! He is replaceable! You will not die if-”
I launched myself at her, and she sidestepped me. I threw a furious swing, and she caught it without even rocking on her heels, her expression as cold as ice. “He’s the only thing I have left! He’s the only person who cared about me in decades! He’s-”
“Just a human. You do not need him,” said Jormungandr. I lunged at her, screaming, my arms going around her midsection, clinching her in a grab. It could break a man’s spine. It didn’t even ruffle her dress. Her arms went around me, in a counter-clinch.
It took me several seconds to realize she was holding me. I clung tighter, face buried against her shoulder, and continued to sob, as she began to stroke my hair gently. “I do need him. And he needs me.”
“Disgraceful,” murmured Jormungandr, and then she sighed, giving me a very gentle squeeze. “But I suppose I have no choice. I have to help people. And while I may be taking the appearance of a cat, I am still a snake. I could hardly let a child like you lose something they care so deeply about, no matter how much I disagree with you. What else is a big sister to do?” She gently released me, as I looked up.
“I do not-”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Of course you do.” Jormungandr turned towards the road, and smiled. “I’ll help you rescue that human from whatever trouble he might have gotten himself. And if the worst has happened… Well, I’ll hold whoever’s responsible still while you snap their neck. Won’t that be nice?”
“Let’s focus on Horace,” I said, but I couldn’t help the grateful smile that spread across my lips. “Thank you, Jormungandr.”
“Just, if we find Thor is involved, I’m not helping.”
“I think that’s fair. Horace would not want the world ended because of him.” I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, and stood straight, composing myself once more. “We should be near the interstate now.” I smiled again. “Thank you.”
“This is really getting to you hard, isn’t it?”
“It’s like…” I was quiet for a moment. “There was a story Horace once showed me. This character- a hero, Spider-Man-”
“What, like Anansi?”
“Loosely. He was a student in this story. A child. And he talks about how stressed he is. How much he feels he can’t take a break, how everyone is depending on him to save them. And his creator, Stan Lee, is playing a principal-”
“He talks with his creator?”
“It’s meta. His principal tells him, he should take some time off. Take a break. Turn off the radio, just take some time to himself, for one night, that night. That it will make him happier and healthier in the long run, and that nothing bad will happen.”
“Yes. So, Spider-man leaves. And his nemesis enters. And the nemesis says, ‘So, I’m thinking about robbing a bank.’ And Stan Lee says, ‘Tonight. Do it tonight.'” I laughed, and the sound was a little ragged.
“A terrible thing to do to someone.”
“Isn’t it? But that’s what creators are like. Tormenting us for their amusement.” I shook my head. “It really stuck with me. Especially… Well, now, obviously.”
“We’ll get there in time,” said Jormungandr. “I promise.”
Somewhere in Pennsylvania
It was nearly five in the afternoon when we arrived at the town of Unionsville. Between the freight train, the car, the coked up trucker, and the plane, we had made remarkable time. The sun was beginning to hang low in the sky, however, and we had spent nearly half an hour walking the road before someone picked us up, taking us the rest of the way.
“I mean, really,” I said, glowering as we walked down the main street. “Two young, obviously vulnerable women! We should be beating off the serial killers and rapists with a stick! Not a single obviously vile murderer who I could feel comfortable incapacitating, leaving for the police, and stealing their transport! No, all, ‘You girls should be more safe,’ ‘imagine if something happened to you,’ ‘Do you have any idea how dangerous hitchhiking is for a young woman in ripped up clothes’! Safe as houses!” I kicked a nearby discarded can as hard as I could, sending it tumbling end-over-end into the air.
“We’ll find a way.”
“We don’t have any money, and there’s a limit to how many times we can steal cars before our luck, or the police, will catch up with us. Still…” I paused for a moment, and frowned, studying the cars nearby, and the largest rocks available on the street.
“Hmmm. What’s a bus?”
“A vehicle. Public transport,” I said, as I picked up a stone, weighing it carefully in my hand to see if it had the heft I was looking for.
“And it requires tickets?”
“Usually,” I said, approaching a likely looking car, and carefully hefting the rock, judging it. Might be a car alarm.
“So, two free bus tickets to Binghamton would be about what we’re looking for?”
I paused, and turned around, following her pointing finger. A McDonalds stood nearby, with a large banner.
’50th anniversary of the Big Mac! Third prize: $500 dollar gift card to McDonalds! Second prize: One year of free meals! First prize: Two bus tickets to Binghamton!’
“What sort of contest do you suppose it will be? I’m capable at a test of strength, obviously, but if it’s a riddling contest, I might have some difficulty. I’m a little bit out of practice.”
“I have a hunch this will play to your strengths.”
There are remarkably few competitive eating contests in legend. Throughout most of history, there has been much talk of gluttony, but rarely much discussion of competition. Even in the modern day, the eating contest only truly came to a place of honor a few decades ago. There are many reasons for this; scarcity of food throughout much of human history has a great deal to do with it. In that sense, this place- the wide, open grass lot behind the local McDonalds, filled with news crews, spectators, and an easy three dozen competitors- was a celebration of both the modern day vanquishing of starvation, and its replacement with death by over-eating.
“Well, of course, obesity is a great danger. And we at McDonalds franchises around the country are dedicated to fighting this epidemic. Let’s be blunt! We want people to be McDonalds customers for as long as they can be, which means making sure that they’re eating right, eating responsibly- and eating reasonably! As you might have guessed from our ‘unusual’ first prize- Yes?”
The owner of the franchise, an older man, turned, frowning, towards the two of us. Jormungandr smiled. “May I join the contest?”
“Hah! Well, most certainly, young lady, one of our competitors stepped out. Please, help yourself to a seat, we’ll be starting in just a few minutes. You hoping to visit an anime convention in Binghamton?” He flashed a cheerful wink as he gestured towards her tail, turning back to the cameras. “These forty brave individuals will battle gluttony, satiety, and each other! Of course, ah, ties are only possible on first place; otherwise, no prize!”
Jormungandr took a seat among the others, as I stood in the crowd. She smiled pleasantly around at the competitors around her, who shot her some odd looks. Her cat ears and tail were still quite obvious, and her dress… somewhat provocatively torn from the day’s adventures. There was an even mix of overweight amateur eaters, and the lean, trim looking professionals who were there to compete. There was even a young Japanese man among the crowd, who wore a shirt adorned in half a dozen corporate logos, all for food franchises. He winked at me as the judge counted down to the start.
“Sixty minutes to decide which of our winners shall be the champion!”
In the great history of mythology, I can only think of one eating competition that really stands out among all others. Part of one of the Eddas, in fact, the Norse mythology. This story relates the competition between Thor, Loki, and another god whose name I can never remember, and members of the household of a fort owned by giants. Thor tries to lift a cat, and fails. The other god tries to outrace an elderly giant, and fails. Loki tries to out-eat a fat giant, and fails. The cat was Jormungandr; the elderly giant was Thought; the fat giant was Fire. Three impossible contests. And their performance was impressive enough to terrify the giants into fleeing.
I gazed out upon devastation. Most of the cooks inside the McDonalds had either collapsed, or given up, being tended to by kind members of the audience. Three quarters of the competitors had quit, some in disgust. There was a tight neck-and-neck race for second place between the Japanese competitor and one of the amateurs, who I now realized was a member of one of the Fae courts, based on his refusal to use the iron cutlery or plates. That, or he was a truly spectacular glutton.
Jormungandr took the burger the moment it was placed on her plate, and ate it in two tremendous bites. Her score on the board ticked over into the triple digits. She burped daintily, and patted her stomach while one of the judges checked under the table, presumably for stashed burgers. She simply watched with a bored expression as the waiter ran back into the restaurant. There was a howl of despair from within, and the sound of someone collapsing to the ground. I presume it was another cook giving up under the strain.
Jormungandr was truly her father’s daughter.
The owner ran up to her, and whispered something briefly in her ear. She seemed to consider it, rubbing her chin as the waiter brought out another burger, destined for one of the other competitors. She grabbed it off the plate as he passed, and nodded as she took her first tremendous bite. A moment later the two of them approached me, Jormungandr licking her fingers clean.
“I have been informed that you want to get to Binghamton,” said the man.
“I might need to be taken a little further than that. And we need to get there fast.”
“Lady, I will drive you to hell if it will get your friend out of my contest.”
“Oh, thank you.” I smiled brightly as the owner went to announce the end of the contest.
“Was that doing harm?” asked Jormungandr, contemplatively.
“No, I don’t think so. I’ll certainly explain it to Betty. I imagine she’ll get a laugh out of it.” I smiled as the owner approached us, glowering, his car keys glittering in his hand.
Somewhere in New York
I ended the call, frowning as I handed the phone back to the owner, who had driven in stony silence for the last two hours.
“Well?” asked Jormungandr, from the back seat.
“No response when I called his number. And when I called his landlady, she explained that he moved all of his things out a few days ago, said he got a new job in a new town, near here. Just a few miles north. If it’s okay-”
“As long as you two swear never to visit my McDonalds again,” he said, his face still red, his knuckles white. He’d been pushing the bare limits of acceptable speeding, even for a middle-aged white man in America, the entire way. He flicked on the turn signal and turned up the off-ramp, onto another highway headed north. The car was silent for another few seconds as we drove.
“So, what does it mean that he didn’t answer?”
“It could mean almost anything,” I said, my heart thumping. “He might be busy. Might have forgotten to charge his phone. Might have thrown it at something. Might just have the buzzer off and didn’t notice. Doesn’t have to mean he’s in trouble.”
We got into the town, and it wasn’t hard to tell where Horace would be. The police tape gave it away. A Shark Belly’s franchise sign glowed in the parking lot. Where the building and foundation should have been, a ragged hole had been torn in the asphalt, roughly circular. There had probably been gawkers, earlier. Now, the sun was slowly setting behind the hills. The man let us out, and I stood at the edge of the water, sniffing the air, tongue lashing gently at it. I sank down to my knees as the car drove away.
“Well?” asked Jormungandr, her voice soft, expectant.
“I taste… fish. And cat. And Horace.” I closed my eyes, head lowered. “A lot of humans. I can’t follow the trails, but I know. Horace was here. At least one of the Fishmen I had encountered before. And Betty. She came, and went.” I stared down at the pool of water. Like a sinkhole. It could have been a natural process, the nearby river eating away some underwater deposit until it collapsed under the weight. It could have been some man-made incident, some unfortunate thing. Maybe Horace hadn’t even been there when it happened, perhaps he was somewhere safe.
Tonight. Do it tonight.
I wiped my eyes. Jormungandr stood beside me, and rested a hand on my shoulder. “We could find Betty…”
“I have no idea where she went. She might already be there.” I pointed down at the water. “This was them. Taking him away. It had to be. What other reason could there be for such an open, such an obvious attack? It had to be for a target they valued. And whatever they do with him-” I shook my head. “I don’t know how to get through there.”
“You think we can?”
“Of course. It is a passage. They opened it up once. It must be possible to open again. Forcing our way through. If I had the first idea of how to open it.” I let out a breath. “It is like a door, with a lock, but I do not even have a beginning of an idea of what the key looks like.” I dipped my fingers into the water, and shivered, biting my lip. It was cold, cold enough to send a shudder running down my spine as I withdrew from it, standing up. I had no idea what on earth to do. Where to go. Contact the Esoteric Forces? They would be enraged at what I’d done, most likely. I did not even begin to know where else I might look for answers.
This was all my fault. If I had insisted on capturing the two fish men, interrogating them, instead of allowing myself to be distracted. If I had stayed with Horace. If I had been faster returning. If I had sought the Esoteric Forces aid.
Because it had only been a scant handful of hours since this had happened.
Tonight. Do it tonight.
“I think you’re looking at this the wrong way,” said Jormungandr, her voice soft.
“I am not going to abandon him. I cannot. I just need to- to think, to figure something out.” I rubbed my forehead. “The house. He would have moved his books there. I can look for them. Find-”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” murmured Jormungandr, very gently. “This is a locked door. We do not have the key. So.” She lifted her hand, and cracked her knuckles. Slowly, she stretched her arms over her head, shoulders popping as she bent first one side, and then the other.
“You- You can’t be serious. Punching a hole between worlds? Do you know what the consequences could be?”
“If I don’t, it doesn’t count as harm, does it?”
“Can you even do this? I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
She smiled. “It was broken once. Someone cut out the place for the door. That means it should be nice and weak. I can absolutely do this. If it’s worth it to you. If you want to save that boy you love so much.”
I didn’t even hesitate. She nodded, and stepped over to the edge of the world. She took a slow, deep breath, and lifted her hand into the air. She arched back, winding up like a pitcher, and the wind slowly ceased, coming to a gentle stop, as though the world was holding its breath.
She swung forward, and down, striking the water with tremendous force. There was a sound, so loud it made my eyes hurt, reverberating in my head, like a gong the size of the parking lot had been struck. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and slammed my hands over my ears, shaking as the violent sound filled the air. After several long seconds, I opened my eyes, breathing hard, staring down.
The water sat there, utterly undisturbed, as flat as it had been before. My heart fell. “Thank you, Jormungandr. That was a brave-”
There was a soft sound, like glass cracking. A hairline fracture became visible in the water, then more, dancing out like spiderwebs. They fell away from the place where she’d struck, revealing water. Murky water, faintly lit by dim orbs visible in the distance. Jormungandr turned towards me, and smiled. “You want to go first?”
I didn’t even hesitate.