Natasha Romanov's smile is winsome; the little Darkling girl speaks softly and reasonably, with a certain amount of cheer to her voice that is wholly inappropriate for the situation at hand.
she is saying pleasantly to the military officer she and her fellow Spring Courtiers are 'entertaining' against his will, "If I might direct your attention to the television, you may decide to listen to us. We'll only take a few moments of your time."
To human eyes, Natasha is a small, slight girl with idealized proportions, a miniature nymph, and her red contact lenses and fingernails only serve to give her a sort of infernal allure that draws men and women alike to her in equal measure. General Northman is just past middle-aged and, frankly, getting quite irate both about the six elegantly-dressed people in his office (holding swords
, of all things!) and the loss of his hair piece, which had been sliced off the top of his head to prove a point about the efficiency of archaic weaponry when he'd expressed certain doubts by drawing his sidearm.
Natasha languidly presses the power button on the remote. The television turns on to a local news channel that General Northman has never even so much as heard of; his brief confusion is met only by laughter from his captors. From their vantage in the news chopper, the reporter attempts - and fails - to comment on the carnage below him. To mortal eyes, a rag-tag army of surprisingly well-equipped vagrants is doing battle with animals and humans that continue to pour out of some manner of rift in the Magnolia Crescent park in an endless tide. The carnage is shockingly unedited on the video feed, and blood slicks the grass and plants, flowing in rivulets to the gutters and the sewers.
"What is this?" General Northman demands to know, a note of horror creeping into his voice.
"There's a certain price for that knowledge, General,"
Natasha explains gently, walking closer to him. Her scent wafts into his nostrils, full of Springtime flowers and the promise of heat and passion. Fantasies creep unbidden into his mind, and hastily, the General banishes the thoughts. Natasha laughs lightly, a low, dark sound, and smiles with a certain grim satisfaction.
"Understand that if I explain these things to you, it's the end of the line for me and mine. Our whole world changes today, one way or the other. So if I tell you, you need to promise me troops. Everyone on this base loaded up into tanks, personnel carriers, the works, and marched to that battle to help my friends."
The General thinks for a few moments, staring at the television, and Natasha adds softly, "Your daughter lives near Magnolia Crescent, doesn't she? I don't think she left her apartment today, General."
General Northman finally nods his head and speaks the words, "I promise. All the reinforcements I can muster in an hour."
The six Spring courtiers have a hushed conversation, until finally Natasha breaks off, still smiling, "You have a deal, General. Full disclosure in exchange for reinforcements, and Death take the traitor."
There is a surge of energy that ripples from the Darkling girl into the General, and his eyes burn briefly before he sees the whole world in an entirely new light. Natasha's skin turns ash gray and her smile gains dancing shadows that laugh and jeer at him, and the other five captors go from simply being large into monstrous Ogres, all dripping tusks and walls of muscle. Natasha seizes him under the chin and, with strength impossible for her tiny size, forces him to look at the television once more, where he sees the armies of the Lost confronting the Host of a Thousand Princes.
"What am I looking at?" he finally breathes out, terrified, confused, and exhilarated.
Squeeze the trigger.
The field is so full of targets now that it's beginning to grow difficult to pick out which ones are of value. The quiet girl with the stained glass hair keeps up a withering rate of fire, manipulating her bolt-action rifle with understated grace and elegance. Exhale.
Squeeze the trigger. A gigantic man-shark goes down in a spray of blood and crushes a gang of goblins to death beneath his bulk; their screams echo through the din of the battle. Exhale.
Squeeze the trigger. A beast-master dies horribly; his man-hounds, freed from their tethers made from lies and cat's breath, leap upon their former fellows and gleefully tear them limb from limb.
"We must retreat," someone is saying. The girl with the stained glass hair pretends not to hear him. Exhale.
Squeeze the trigger. The self-styled Flawless King of Flawless Diamonds takes an iron-tipped round to the chest and explodes onto a thousand times a thousand perfect, fist-sized gemstones.
The retreat order is repeated. Squeeze the trigger. A mechanical elephant begins leaking oil all over the enemy ranks, setting a blaze that spews black smoke into the sky like hellfire. Her fellow Winter courtiers pick up and leave, finding a new vantage point, and the stained glass girl keeps firing, tears streaming from her eyes, her lips a silent litany of hate for the monsters that took everything from her.
She never hears the goblin miners that sneak up on her position.
Swing the pickaxe.
Her Magnificence Seraphina Lumiere, Queen of Autumn in Seattle, Chief Sorceress of the Stacked Deck Freehold, Duchess of Down Street, Lady-Protector of the Thorns, stands in the center of a circle of Ashen Courtiers, hundreds strong. Because this was her idea, she has the right to speak, though other monarchs of Fall watch her closely from the ranks of the circle. In the distance, they could hear the battle raging on. Many of them itched to join it.
"What we do here tonight can never be undone! Tonight, we throw all the locks! We open all doors! Tonight, we realize our birthright here, on the soil that first nourished us in our mortal shells. Our Keepers have come in Their glory and Their fury to extinguish the Lost from Earth, but we are ready. We were waiting for them, were we not, O Children of Fear?"
There is an exultant cheer from the circle; Her Magnificence spreads angelic wings wide, and they drip blood from a dozen human sacrifices, each of them innocents of virtue fair. She scoops one clawed hand into a vessel full of blood and hurls it into a crescent arc on first her left side, then her right.
"Hear me Autumn, Season of Sorcery, holder of mysteries! I am one of Your chosen monarchs, and I come to tell you that the Lost are finally calling in the debt you have owed us since the days of Clay Ariel. One wish, one dream, turned into reality!"
There is a hush in the circle; frost forms on all the plants, and a great upwelling of spiders dashes towards the Ashen courtiers, symbols of Autumn's presence. The circle begins to chant, a dark-sounding thing in an ancient tongue dragged forth from the Fairest of Lands.
"Autumn, season of ashen leaves and first frost, of the harvest and of raw, bloody fear, this is our demand - grant us the sorceries needed to destroy the Host of a Thousand Princes and drive them back to the Fairest of Lands!"
My price, O Your Magnificence, Queen of Angels?
Autumn's voice is like all of your worst nightmares speaking in eerie concert, focusing their baleful attention on you all at once in a perfect storm of raw, soul-shredding fear. Her Magnificence takes a step back from it, her voice wavering, but she steels herself, praying silently in her mind to gods she no longer really believes in.
"W-w-we offer th-the m-m-Mask, my Lord,"
she says humbly, kneeling before the seething mass of spiders in supplication.
Interesting. Acceptable. It is done.
The clocks strike as the Court of Fear screams in unimaginable pain.