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The Perils of Voice Acting
|Xanadu story universe|
It started soft, enough so that Peter figured it was someone dropping something, or a slamming door, or more of that bass hip hop music. While that was annoying, it was eight in the evening, and he had to finish reading Sarah her bedtime story. It was that, or put her in the car and drive for hours – getting her to fall asleep was work. Well worth the effort, but work all the same.
Thump. Louder this time. Peter could just hear distant dogs barking. “Silly girl, drawing in ‘Tea with Mister Mouse’. Why would you do that?”
“I like this part!” Her sulk of earlier today forgotten, his daughter showed him that sweet face. The one that always melted his heart. “Do Mister Bear’s voice!” She was demanding and willful and messy and the most beautiful, smartest little girl in all the world.
Thump. Now Peter could feel the reverberation in his bones. Thunder maybe? He forced his voice down into a low, growly register, saying “Why thank you Mister Mouse! First I want sugar. Next I want cream. I want two lumps. One, two! Now some cream!”
Sarah giggled, as she always did at this part. He’d always been good at voices.
Thump. The ceramic ornaments and the lamp on the nightstand rattled – in the distance, Peter heard car alarms start blaring. His eyes went to the glass of water next to the lamp – it was rippling. How strange.
Peter turned the page and made his voice high and squeaky. “Miss Hedgehog! How good to see you-“
Thump! Sarah made a little excited squeal. Objects jumped. Plaster trickled down from the ceiling, water sloshed out of the glass, and the cars right outside the window added their alarms to the shrieking chorus. Outside, he could hear other people shouting at each other, telling the dogs to shut up, demanding to know what had happened.
“What is it, Dadda?” His daughter’s eyes were wide. She looked more excited than frightened, but his Sarah had always been fearless. There was nothing she loved more than a thunderstorm, and they still hadn’t quite managed to convince her that not every stranger was a friend. Like every other little kid, she believed that monsters lurked in the closet – but she also believed that they were playmates.
“I’m not sure…” Had they lived several states farther south and a few states east, Peter would have immediately thought of Xanadu. But although that event had appeared in the news almost constantly, he’d never seen so much as a silhouette against the sky. Xanadu and the people from it had absolutely nothing to do with the suburbs around this sleepy town. It was neither big enough to draw anything’s attention, nor remote enough that someone might decide to hide here.
The lamp went dark, fading slowly enough that Peter saw the wire dying. Sarah clapped her hands, sure as she always was that it was a game. Some part of her father’s mind quietly noticed that his hands were starting to tremble. Very, very slowly, he turned his head until the window was in view.
It did not burst through the window. It would not have fit through the window. Neither did it burst through the wall. It would not have fit into the room. Instead it came down like a fox pouncing on a vole in deep snow, demolishing wall and window in the process with a sound that defied description.
For a moment, as the chill air from outside whipped at him, Peter’s mind refused to register that half of the wall had come down, that the floor was buckling and the ceiling was collapsing, that a monster had destroyed the safe mundanity of the bedroom.
It was big. Large enough that while its hands, with their short, clawless fingers, were flattened against the carpet, and its wide, blunt head and narrow shoulders scraped against the broken walls of the second-floor bedroom, the rest of it stayed outside.
Most of its slick surface was bare, smooth and inky black, with pale rectangular scales scattered irregularly like ceramic tiles floating on tar, and it looked nothing like what most people would describe if speculating on the appearance of a monster bursting into a child’s bedroom. Had Peter kept his wits about him, he would have snatched Sarah and run, but he stayed as if rooted into the chair, frozen stiff in shock.
The subtle seam of the monster’s blunt snout split open into a maw wide enough to engulf the bed. It spoke.
“Khaaa… So you are home af-ter all… Pe-ter Russ-ell.” Each of its intakes of breath were slow and very audible. The lipless edges of its wide, wide mouth, ringed with hundreds of serrated teeth no larger than one of Sarah’s fingernails, flexed and rippled with each laborious word. The voice was unfamiliar, guttural and harsh on the ears – and yet Peter felt a tiny jolt of recognition.
“Ah- ah-“ Transfixed, the book falling unnoticed out of his nerveless fingers, Peter stared into the closer of its two wide-set lidless eyes. It looked like a peeled grape the size of a grapefruit, perfectly round and bulging clear out of that head, with a tiny black pupil staring straight at him.
“Well? Khaaa…” It had a fat tongue, the part of Peter that wasn’t paralyzed noticed distantly. Thick and bumpy and almost human. Probably the most human thing about it – it wasn’t mammalian or even reptilian. “What do you think? Am I ev-er-y-thing you im-ag-ined? Khaaa…”
Peter found his voice, fumbled with it for a moment, then left his mouth open as it died.. “What- w-w-what do you – w-what are - ”
The creature’s face – if it could even be called a face – didn’t change, but the tone of its wretched voice seemed puzzled, slightly hurt even. “Why do you not re-cog-nize me, Russ-ell? Khaaa… It was man-y years a-go, but sure-ly you can-not have for-got-ten.”
Movement drew his eyes – Peter saw what he first took to be salt-and-pepper dreadlocks on the back of the thing’s flat head. Quickly he saw that they were, instead, segmented black-and-white tentacles, stirring restlessly like the serpents adorning the head of a Medusa. He shuddered involuntarily – something about it was familiar, but he’d never seen anything like this in his life!
The bulging red eyes with their tiny pupils remained fixed on Peter’s face. Sarah was strangely quiet, but her father couldn’t quite manage to look away, let alone move.
“Per-haps it was a small thing to you, but to the fans, it was ev-er-y-thing! They coll-ect-ed the pro-mo-tion-al shirts, Khaaa... On-ly twen-ty were prin-ted – Six-teen survived, shared a-mong the fans. Bought, bor-rowed and ne-ver re-turn-ed, sto-len! Khaaa… Ev-ery ep-i-sode ev-er broad-cast, and the three that ne-ver were, they had them. Stor-y boards. Khaaa… Scripts. Off-i-cial art-work.”
Part of Peter’s mind started working at a feverish pace. Wait – episodes, storyboards. Didn’t he – that was almost thirty years ago. He wasn’t sure. This wasn’t real. Couldn’t be real. He seized on that thought desperately. The dry, sardonic voice in his head wondered if the insurance would cover this. Probably not.
“It was can-celled be-fore its time. Khaaa… The fans wai-ted and pet-ti-tioned the net-work, but there was ne-ver an-y res-ponse… They dwin-dled, the few who rem-em-bered… so many grew up, mo-ved on, for-got. Per-haps they were wi-ser. Khaaa…”
The creature’s hands shifted, causing the abused floorboards to groan as it eased its bulk back and forth, caught in the memory. Flakes of plaster fluttered down, adhering to its glistening surface. Sarah made a little inarticulate noise in her throat, either protest or interest.
“So long, de-nied and neg-lec-ted by its cre-a-tors. Khaaa… Is it a won-der, that the few re-main-ing fans could not let it stay dead? They kept it a-live. The Ad-ven-tures of Young Ar-ka-dais lived in the fans, Khaaa… for short, they call-ed it TA-YA.”
Peter took a moment to collect what he had heard, the fear fading momentarily under his startled bemusement. The Adventures of Young Arkadais – yes… yes, he’d been involved with that. It had been so long. He hadn’t thought about it for years.
And why should he have? TAYA had been nothing more than one of the dozens of attempts to cash in on the popularity of cartoons like He-Man and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It hadn’t exactly taken off. Nothing really set it apart from the other imitators – it was purely average in every way, save that the fantastical characters and creatures had been drawn in a marginally more realistic style. The premise and plot had been rather formulaic, and the series had folded pretty quickly, not even finishing the first season. For whatever reason it had had a small, rabidly devoted fanbase, but they couldn’t generate enough revenue to make continuing the series worthwhile.
And Peter? Peter had been scrabbling around for a way to make ends meet, and one of his buddies who’d had some connections had suggested that hey, the company needed voice actors, and he was good with voices, so why not audition? It had never gone anywhere. He’d never looked back or searched out other opportunities in the field.
“There is no love… Khaaa… like that of a tru-ly de-vot-ed fan-base for a be-lov-ed se-ries,” the creature mused, sounding rather melancholy. “Their own in-de-pen-dant ca-non, not as im-por-tant as true ca-non, with their own ep-i-sodes, vi-de-os, a mo-vie. Their own ar-tist, their own wri-ter, their own im-i-ta-tor of the or-i-gin-al voices… Khaaa… their own de fac-to lea-der, who de-ci-ded, if en-ough att-en-tion could be raised at a con-ven-tion like Xa-na-du, peo-ple might care.”
Xanadu. Right. This realization had the odd effect of both calming and irritating Peter. There was an explanation after all. And if this monster had been a fan of TAYA, then this scenario wasn’t too different from that time back in the nineties where someone had recognized him somehow and followed him around, babbling about loving his “work”, and he’d ended up missing a meeting. Obsessive fans were a major nuisance, but this was much better than it could have been.
Now… what do I have to say to get this thing off my house? A catchphrase? … Arkadais, teen voice, enthusiastic and full of optimism, a little showy… he couldn’t quite manage without the sound guy to modulate his voice, but…
“In pre-vi-ous years, they were their own o-ri-gin-al he-roes and o-ther char-ac-ters, or char-ac-ters from the se-ries, he-roes and vill-ains and o-thers. Khaaa… This year was big. This year, they wan-ted some-thing more im-press-ive.”
“Bi-gger. Much bi-gger. The crea-ture from the cliff-hang-er en-ding of the un-aired ep-i-sodes from the end of the first and on-ly sea-son– that would do nice-ly, Khaaa... So much work. So much eff-ort. The res-ult was prim-it-ive. Khaaa… Al-most a tent car-ried on their backs. Man-y ask the ques-tion… Khaaa…” The creature’s voice briefly changed completely, taking on the quality of a recording of a charismatic, perfectly normal man asking, “What happened at Xanadu?” Peter recognized that as the voice of a well-known newscaster reading the beginning of a report, before it hoarsened and became the thing’s guttural, labored rasp once again.
“Khaaa… In short, cos-tumes be-came real, and those wear-ing them chan-ged. They did not con-struct a min-i-a-ture of me. I have not grown, slow-ly or fast. Do you know how man-y fans were in-side of me at that mo-ment, Russ-ell? Khaaa… do you want to know?” It paused, silent for long enough that Peter started to hear distant sirens, long enough for it to sink in.
He’d already figured that it was from Xanadu, as vaguely salamanderlike giant monsters didn’t really exist in a sane world. And if a kid with a plastic visor could have been turned into a giant transforming mecha, it wasn’t too unreasonable to suppose that someone could have become this. But… this… thing… it was… it was…
“Khaaa… And so here I am be-fore you, Pe-ter Russ-ell. The wri-ter has been dead for al-most fif-teen years. The off-ic-cial ar-tists have sca-ttered, Khaaa, and those who stayed in an-im-ati-on live too far a-way. I am not such a fool, that I would en-ter the bust-ling ci-ty where the pro-du-cer lives. Khaaa… You voi-ced Ar-ka-dais, and Ben-tly when he was po-ssess-ed, and The Old Man, and man-y bit cha-rac-ters.”
Peter had always been something of a stickler for accuracy. It had been very helpful in his job. Brow furrowed, he couldn’t help protesting, “I don’t remember voicing The Old Man. That was Sawyer. I voiced The Old Man’s grandson.”
“Yes. In Ep-i-sode Six-teen. Khaaa… It rea-lly was you, Russ-ell. This makes things so much ea-si-er. Khaaa…” The creature’s thick tongue ran slowly over its many tiny teeth as it pressed deeper holes in the abused floor, pulling itself further into the room. “There is some-thing I must know. Some-thing that on-ly you may tell me.”
Oh sugar, this thing is big, Peter said to himself in dismay, automatically substituting a childsafe euphemism for the word he had really wanted to think.
“Who’re you?” Sarah asked faintly, the first words she’d said since the creature had appeared. Somehow, probably since she had been so uncharacteristically quiet, Peter had forgotten that she was still in bed, no farther from the creature than he was.
“I want to know what hap-pens next, Russ-ell. You must tell me. Khaaa…” As Peter started to move to get Sarah, the creature snapped its wide maw shut, making a hard thump that seemed to echo in the broken room. Peter froze again, once again seeing how big it was.
Not used to being ignored, his daughter piped up again, petulant. “I said, who’re you?”
Peter flinched and muttered at her out of the corner of his mouth, as the creature’s bulbous eyeballs swiveled to fix on her. “Sweetie, please be quiet-“
“I don’t know. All I know is that which the fans knew, Khaaa… and that is noth-ing.” The segmented tentacles on the creature’s head started to reach around, extending forwards. They looked less like dreadlocks now, almost like the gills of some blind cave amphibian. Or, perhaps, like the arms that framed an octopus’s beak.
“Tell me, Russ-ell! Who am I?” Its voice was desperate now, and tinged with madness. “I am more than an-oth-er Mon-ster of the Week. The scripts hint at my in-volve-ment be-hind the scenes in man-y ep-i-sodes. Khaaa… TA-YA was just star-ting a plot arc when it was can-celled. What is my role in it? How does this end?”
Like a bird transfixed by a snake, or a deer faced with oncoming headlights, Peter just stared. I don’t know! How could I? Thirty years ago! I only recorded for a few days at a time, how would I know? His throat worked, he wanted to protest, but –
“You will not tell me. Khaaa…” The creature sounded resigned. “I had ho-ped it would not come to this. But, if it is the on-ly way…”
Four segmented tentacles extended forwards, hooked around the legs and posts of the bed, and drew it out, scraping against the floor fast enough that Peter didn’t have time to do more than stretch his arm out in a futile gesture. A small distance, from where he was to where the bed now rested against the monster’s huge head. Maybe four feet. It seemed like miles.
“Russ-ell. If you will not tell me, you will show me. Khaaa…” Tentacles extended, inserting themselves beneath the covers, wrapping around Sarah as her eyes became big and round.
“’S cold, Dada,” she said, uncomprehending, a hint of complaint in her voice.
“No – don’t – I don’t know, I don’t know anything! Let her go!” Peter babbled desperately, trying to heave himself out of the reading chair, his body not working, and the monster was going to, was going to –
There was a roaring in Peter’s ears, loud enough that he could barely hear the monster’s next words. “Khaaa… In the fi-nal two min-utes of the cliff-hang-er that end-ed the un-aired sea-son fin-al-e, I kid-napped Ar-ka-dais’s be-lov-ed lit-tle bro-ther Chal-vic and car-ried him, Khaaa, to the top of the com-ple-ted To-wer of Night. And wai-ted. Russ-ell, there is no To-wer here, but there is some-thing else that might suit. Khaaa… show me how this ends, Ar-ka-dais!”
Peter’s body was going hot and cold by turns, he was frozen in place with an electric tingle running up and down his spine. Sarah made a small, soft noise in the back of her throat as black-and-white tentacles bundled around her and drew her up – above the jaws, thank God – and the creature backed out of the bedroom, landing heavily on all fours again with an impact that sent little shockwaves through the earth.
It turned its heavy body, tail slapping and brushing wetly against the house. “I have your lit-tle bro-ther, Ar-ka-dais! Fo-llow!”
Sarah screamed, a single high, piercing cry that immediately broke his paralysis and enervated him.
Later he couldn’t remember standing, couldn’t remember if he’d pounded down the stairs and out the front door or if, impossibly, he’d just jumped. He had no memory between her scream and the moment when he was running down the driveway, feet pounding the asphalt. It was nippy outside – around fifty degrees or so, a small part of him noticed. Not worth the thought, not with this happening in front of him.
“Ha! Khaaa… Show me! Can you keep up?” Ahead, the monster had turned and was looking back along its length, heavy tail swinging beneath a streetlamp.
He would have screamed – screamed what, he didn’t know – but he was still going hot and cold, and his chest had gone tight enough that he couldn’t waste air on anything but breathing. Already he was breathing as hard as he’d ever been in his life, legs pumping frantically.
The monster grinned horribly and started to move at a faster pace - a sort of lolloping gait almost like a foraging kangaroo, arms first, then longer legs, making that ground-shaking thump. It covered ground more because of its sheer size than any urgency in its movements, but it was still moving faster than him.
His side cramped and he clutched at it, silently cursing whatever reasoning had made him spend only a couple of days each week at the gym. Work and family taking a lot of time suddenly didn’t seem like as good of an excuse. He'd thought he'd been in decent shape anyway. Apparently not.
Pressing his hand to the stitch in his side, he ran on.
At one point it occurred to him that he should have taken the car, and he slowed for a moment to look homewards, then at the creature’s receding backside. Too late now, he realized grimly. He didn’t know where it was going. By the time he got back to the house, started the car up, and got moving, he wouldn’t even have those thumping impacts to follow. That was assuming he could even get the car going. His wife Maggie, still at work with that case, had the better one.
Later, it also occurred to him to call 911. The local cops already knew something was up, if the distant sirens were any clue, but they might not know that this thing was from Xanadu. Surely, if he dialed and told them, someone would think to get a line to that place, and talk someone into coming to the rescue. Someone who wouldn’t come away second-best after fighting a giant monster.
He’d left his cell at home. In the cashbox. In the cabinet over the counter; he could see it in his mind’s eye so clearly!
Well. It wasn’t like he was the only one to see this creature, the sardonic side of his mind remarked. Cars at intersections that the thing was passing through were coming to screeching halts or swerving all over the place, their drivers gaping up at it. He could hear them babble in confusion as he stumbled in pursuit. And people were peering out of their windows or running out of their houses to see what their dogs were barking at and what had set off so many alarms. Someone would call. They had to.
The number of times he had to stop and gasp for air, hands on knees or leaning against a streetlamp or a shrieking parked car, blurred together in his mind. Always, after a few moments, moments which were both far too long and not remotely long enough, he heaved himself upright again and ran.
It wasn’t that his legs hurt. His everything hurt, from his hands to his neck to his stomach to his toes. If his hair could have hurt, it would have. Worst had to be the feeling in his ankles, as if they were about to snap, and the burning in his lungs. No matter how deeply or quickly he breathed, he felt like he couldn’t get enough air. And even though the chills hadn't let up, he felt as if he was burning up, as if his skin was radiating heat like a furnace.
He wasn’t cut out for this. He really wasn’t. What did I think I was going to be able to do, anway? Beat it in a fistfight? A blind one-armed biker could beat me, right now. Why did I have to follow it?
It’s not like I had any choice. It’s got - it’s got my-
He ran. It got easier after a while, and the rest of the world faded out.
It felt like much later when someone stepped in front of him, stopping him more surely than a hand on his shoulder, and the world faded back in.
“Whoa, kid. Get out of here, it’s not safe!” A policeman, his exhaustion-fogged mind finally realized. No, a policewoman. Maybe in her mid thirties – younger than him – a head taller and built like a brick sugarhouse. Once again, parenthood replaced the profanity with a childsafe substitute.
Somehow he was less out of breath now than he’d been before; still, his spit was thick and slimy as he spat it to the side. The policewoman was standing before a barricade surrounded by patrol cars and more police. The barricade closed off what he belatedly recognized as a sort of minor local landmark.
When they’d first moved here, he’d laughed at the name. It was a hill that had been mounded up over a landfill, and it couldn’t be more than two hundred feet high if that, overgrown with grass and scrub and a few trees. His wife had just said, sardonically, that the place was flat enough that the locals probably thought of roof-fixers as people who were as unusual as astronauts - anything taller than a man was a mountain. It was a decent ways from the house. He’d run farther than he’d thought.
“Hey, did you hear me? It’s not safe. Go, get out of here.”
Some of the police had spotlights aimed up Shadow Mountain; others were talking into bullhorns. In the clearing at the top of the glorified hill was the monster, waiting, its captive held close above its head like the bob of a topknot.
“Kid. Hey, kid. Do I have to cuff you?” The officer sounded annoyed, but he could tell that she was out of her depth and knew it.
Finally getting his wind back, he managed to get out, “It’s got my br- my daughter.” What was wrong with his voice? And what had he almost said before correcting himself?
“Really? Well, shit,” the officer said. “Aren’t you a little young for- nah, never mind. It'd be nice to tell you that we have everything under control, but I don't mind saying that we really don't. I guess we can’t get you to back away, then.”
“No. I’m not going.” There was definitely something weird about his voice. It was higher than it was supposed to be. But then, he did feel strange after that run. Not only was he overheating, pulse throbbing a mad tempo in his head, but his body felt… tighter in places, and he felt like there was a weight on his back. It was strange, but not remotely important compared to what was happening up there on Shadow Mountain. He had to – he had to –
“Right, well… okay, kid. Whatever that thing is up there, it’s not doing anything we want it to. Not reacting to us at all, and we don’t want to do too much in case it does anything to that little boy-“
“Girl,” he interrupted. “She’s a girl.”
“…Yeah, alright. We’d have some supers here, but from what I’ve heard they’re busy enough already taking care of other problems. I hear there’s something about a white rabbit out east… anyway, the only people who we can count on arriving any time soon wouldn’t be able to do much good here. I don’t suppose you…?” Her voice trailed off questioningly as her eyes flicked over him.
“Huh?” I can’t fight that. Not by myself. He was still distracted, desperately trying to make a plan. Any plan. “Oh. I don’t. Why do you ask?”
The officer shrugged. “I just figured, looking at you. We don’t have many mid-teenagers around here with kids of their own. Those that do don’t usually dress like that. Or carry swords.” Her eyes flicked to just over his left shoulder and rested there.
“Huh?” Automatically he reached over with his right hand and felt it – leather stretched taut over a hard, rounded end and a rock set into the tip. He turned his head and saw.
That was not his hand. His hand was big, with a vein prominently sticking up through the skin, and marked with little moles. The nails of his hands had ink under them, and were scuffed and a little yellowed and always in need of a trim. They were not smallish, and unblemished, with a couple of tiny scars and tiny fingernails, and clasped over the hilt of a sword with a begemmed scabbard that lay sheathed against his back.
For that matter, he had been wearing an old, much-abused maroon sweatshirt with a dark blue T-shirt underneath, and slacks, and long white socks under comfortable house shoes. Not an ensemble of homespun tunic and leather vest and belt and armguards with a ragged half-cape, not knee-high sheepskin boots that laced up their entire length.
Even more inexplicably, he had been a middle-aged man. Not the tomboyish teenaged girl that suited this outfit.
That’s right, that part of his – no, her – mind that wasn’t frozen reminded her. It called me Arkadais. Arkadais was a girl.
Yes… she remembered now. Way back when TAYA was being voiced, Arkadais’s original voice actor had quit rather suddenly. Enough hours had already been recorded, and the money was tight enough, that the though of finding and hiring someone else to redo all the lines which had been recorded but not broadcast made the producer uneasy. The sound guy had been able to modulate Peter’s voice to sound pretty much the same if both of them made an effort, and the show had gone on.
Very much an unexpected development. She felt a little light-headed. Still, this isn’t important. I have to save Ch- Sarah, I can’t let that thing hurt hi- hurt her!
“Kid-“ Something in her face stopped the officer from completing whatever she’d wanted to say. “Suit yourself. Maybe you really can do something. Good luck, I guess.” The policewoman stepped aside.
I think I know what I need to do. It would never have occurred to Peter, pragmatic and unimaginative as he was. He would have thought it was a stupid, crazy idea. And indeed, she wished she had something better. But sometimes, stupid and crazy work. Stepping over the barricade, she started to climb Shadow Mountain.
At this time of the year, the trees and bushes were losing their leaves, and the grass was dying. There was little to impede her as she climbed the hill; she could feel each rock and cold-hardened clump of dirt under the soft soles of her boots, but it was easy enough. Shadow Mountain wasn’t exactly steep. Families picnicked up at the top in the spring and summer; it was meant to be a leisurely climb. To her, it was even easier.
The monster was waiting for her, head and tail both oriented in her direction. It stood as solidly as any of the trees, almost perfectly still but for the slow breaths it took and the continuous motion of the tentacles on its head. Standing, what passed for its chin was maybe five feet above the ground.
“Khaaa… So, Ar-ka-dais. I have your litt-le bro-ther. You have pur-sued me. This is not the To-wer of Night, and it would be foo-lish to mis-take it as such, but it will have to do. Khaaa… What are you go-ing to do?” Now that they were actually up here, the creature seemed far less certain.
“That depends. Are you going to make this more difficult than it has to be?” A part of her quailed at the challenge in her voice. She quashed it, as firmly as she could.
“On-ly if I must. I need to know, Ar-ka-dais. Khaaa… I need to know. Tell me. What happ-ens now?”
“I’ll tell you. We don’t have to fight. If you let me, I can help you!” Ack, she realized. That’s one of Arkadais’s catchphrases. In this situation, it probably didn't matter.
The monster waited. A small figure squirmed in the knot of segmented tentacles above its head.
I wish I knew what I was doing, she thought, taking a deep breath. Here goes the neighborhood.
The first thing that came to mind burst out of her mouth, made up on the spot. “You do have a name. It’s... Deuvoci.”
It could not blink, but its bulging eyes sank into its head for an instant, like a frog’s. “Deu-vo-ci? De-uvo-ci. Huh.” It ran the tip of its thick tongue along the edges of its wide mouth, then repeated the name again, as if tasting it and liking the flavor. “De-uvo-ci. Khaaa… Tell me more.”
“Yeah, fantastic,” she said, accidentally spitting out another of Arkadais’s catchphrases. Now… there had been a conversation around a water cooler about Lost, a crackpot theory… “You are a physical manifestation of existential grief, called into being by Eothenfrago, the Unholy Manipulator in Otherspace.”
“Am I? Am I rea-lly?” The monster’s eyes – Deuvoci’s eyes - sank and reemerged again. Several of its tentacles relaxed, sliding out of the knot to curl and stroke against the sides of its head.
Maybe I’m laying it on a little too thickly… no, wait. I think - “Yeah. In Episode Eight, we had some people who worshiped an aspect of-“
“’The Tribe of Fa-rro?’ I thought they were on-ly a-no-ther one ep-i-sode cul-ture. The Mon-ster of the Week in tribe form.” It sounded puzzled. “They were ne-ver men-tioned af-ter-wards. Khaaa…”
“Don’t underestimate the writer. Even that early, he had an overarching plot in mind.” She wasn’t quite lying – the writer had been full of grandiose plans. They just hadn’t been anything remotely coherent. “The Chieftain never came out and said that they were followers of the Unholy Manipulator, but…”
“Yes. The Fa-rroans were not on con-ver-sa-tion-al terms with you, Ar-ka-dais. Khaaa… Yes, I supp-ose the etch-ings in those ruins they in-ha-bit-ed might have in-di-cat-ed that.” Once more Deuvoci’s eyes sank and bobbed up again. “And – yes. Khaaa… There were sim-i-lar etch-ings on the walls in that cave in Ep-i-sode Twen-ty One. That was the first ep-i-sode that hin-ted at my ex-is-tence.”
“That’s right.” Maybe I’m not making this up off the top of my head after all, she thought. Just keep talking. It won’t work quite yet. “You actually materialized, off-screen, in that episode and in that very cave. The writer talked about that in my hearing. The actual materialization was cut and purged from the script because the producer didn’t like it.”
The monster paused for a long moment. “Khaaa… Yes, yes… I think I re-mem-ber that…”
She took another deep breath and plunged in. “As the first of Eothenfrago’s attempts to get an agent into the Land of the Buffalo Princess-“ had the country TAYA was set in ever sounded less than ridiculous, she wondered? “-you weren’t as loyal as the Unholy One might have wished. At first, you worked according to the Unholy One’s plans… Deuvoci.” The creature definitely shivered, hearing the name she had coined.
Strange. It had been thirty years, but now she could remember the episodes in question easily. “You were what spooked the cartbeasts in Episode Twenty-Three, not a batch of creelies like Bently thought, even though creelies did appear on that road. But you watched, and saw how we made it through, and the seeds of doubt were planted in your heart.” Gah, that line sounds so cheesy.
Cheesy or not, Deuvoci was lapping it up. It wanted to believe this. “I rem-em-ber that! I could have ta-ken the lot of you when you camped in the Elm-tal-on For-est in the ver-y next ep-i-sode, but I did not. Khaaa… I crept near to lis-ten, and told my-self I was cu-ri-ous, and I was care-less en-ough to leave foot-prints.”
“Yeah, fantastic. You’re not evil, Deuvoci.” Now she was outright lying – although the writer had once come in drunk and outlined a number of plotlines, he’d said that the black beast with red eyes had been one of many evil servants to a worse overlord. This particular monster had been a harbinger to the second season's plot, nothing more. “Even then, you hated your master.”
“Khaaa… Yes. Eo-then-fra-go was cruel and hate-ful. E-ven then, I wan-ted more. I envied you and your com-pan-ions, Ar-ka-dais. Your trust mul-ti-plied your eff-ect-ive-ness ten-fold. Khaaa… And... I was lone-ly.” More tentacles slipped free; now she could see the child sitting up there, a little disheveled but very much alive.
“After that, what you were doing was testing us.” Who would have thought that those overheard conversations around the water cooler could turn out to be so useful, she mused. Never having been interested in Lost, those theories made no sense, but reapplied to TAYA... “You wanted to know if we could help you if you defected.”
“I am no-thing a-lone, com-pared to Eo-then-fra-go. Khaaa… I would have been cal-led back and kil-led, un-less I could find some-one to pro-tect me,” Deuvoci marveled.
She smiled up at it, breaking into Arkadais’s infectious grin. “Yes, and you found us. We’re a very forgiving band of adventurers, and you have a smaller, more convenient humanoid form. So you joined up, and we kept traveling. Eventually the Unholy Manipulator sent other creatures, some more loyal than others. You stuck with us.”
“It makes sense.” Deuvoci’s tail had begun to wave slowly, then froze in midswing. “But wait. Khaaa… Why would I kid-nap Chal-vic if I wan-ted to al-ly with you? It’s coun-ter-in-tu-it-ive.”
She went completely blank as she puzzled out the last word it had said. Ah. Sugar. I forgot. What possible reason could a wannabe ally have for snagging Chalvic and carrying him off to the Tower of Night? Maybe… maybe she could blame the producer, say that he’d wanted a cliffhanger… but...
“You were ly-ing to me, wer-en’t you.” Its voice was flat. Her blankness must have shown on her face. “You lied. Khaaa… That was all a fab-ri-ca-tion; you know no-thing more than I do.”
“No! No, it’s not that! It’s, um-“
“I be-lie-ved you, Ar-ka-dais,” it said sadly. “I rea-lly did. I could see what you were out-lin-ing. Khaaa… You’re go-ing to have to fight me now. For the life of your lit-tle bro-ther.”
Sugar, she thought, staring up at it. No backup, none of my friends, just the sword… against that… oh, sugar.
Then she heard the last voice she would have expected, piping up in an aggrieved voice. “Why d'you have ta fight, anyway? It's mean. 'S nicer to ride.” It came from the child bound on the creature’s head. He didn’t look much like Sarah. A year or two older, dressed differently, and a boy. Chalvic had replaced Sarah, at least physically, as thoroughly as Arkadais had replaced Peter.
For a moment, all three were silent. Then, as it occurred to her, she spoke up, slowly and clearly.
“You never kidnapped Chalvic. He’s never been afraid of weird creatures – he saw you and wanted to play. The Tower of Night was close by, and mostly empty, since it was so recently finished. You hoped that with him there, I would listen when you made your plea.”
Its eyes sunk and popped back up. They both knew that Chalvic hadn’t been characterized like that – he’d been a slightly bratty kind of mascot character, rather annoying. Although he’d never seemed afraid of monsters, he’d never shown a desire to do anything but fight them with the rest of the band. Arkadais’s brother had been nothing like Sarah.
And yet –
“Oh-kay,” Deuvoci sighed. “Khaaa… I’ll foll-ow a-long. I’m so ti-red of this. It’s been less than a week, and I am so ti-red of it al-rea-dy. I want to eat off a plate and fit in-to hou-ses. Khaaa… I want to ride in a car or a cart. I want to sleep in a bed and hold con-ver-sa-tions with peo-ple. The fans could do all that. I re-mem-ber what they re-mem-ber. They nev-er thought a-bout it. Khaaa… And now they are gone. I want – most of all, I don’t want to be a-lone an-y more.”
That blunt, salamanderlike head could hold no expression; those bulging red eyes could not be made to plead, and that wretched voice could barely carry any emotion at all. But somehow, it managed.
“Khaaa… Please, Ar-ka-dais. Please. Will you for-give me?”
“Of course I will,” she said. Deuvoci hesitated.
“Ar-ka-dais, won’t you let me join you? Khaaa… I could make a great add-i-tion to the band.”
Now it was she who hesitated. Peter would have thought back to the destruction of property, to whatever had happened to his body and to Sarah’s, to what this might mean about the future, and he would have rejected it outright. And frankly, Peter would have had some good points.
But she wasn’t just Peter, devoted to his family and to details but little else. She was also Arkadais, the good-hearted young adventurer, sometimes rash but always ready to forgive and to help others. That was why at least some of the fans had been so loyal, she saw now.
“Okay. You can come with us,” she said firmly.
“Rea-lly?” On Deuvoci’s head, Chalvic fidgeted and kicked his heels.
“Yeah! It’ll be fantastic!” Arkadais said enthusiastically, then frowned a bit. She wasn't as incautious and impulsive as Arkadais, not quite as intent an optimist. “Well, maybe not fantastic. It’ll be hard, and frustrating, and a lot of work. But if you’ll let me, I can help you.”
“Thank you! You won't re-gret this.” Deuvoci started to… almost deflate, shrinking down rapidly. Arkadais started to react with surprise, then remembered. Smaller humanoid form. Right. I’m lucky I thought that one up. A new person is hard enough already; Maggie's shown me the paperwork for adoptions. It'd be a lot harder with a giant salamander thing.
Chalvic slid off its diminishing head to trot over to Arkadais and grab her hand. “Ya still haven’t read all the story,” he said in a stage whisper.
“-What?” she asked. Story?
The child blinked impatiently. “Tea with Mister Mouse! You need ta finish it so I can go to bed!” His face suggested that of a genius saint putting up with a dullard of a pigherd.
Taken by surprise, Arkadais laughed. “You’re still thinking about that? Fine. But it waits until we’re back at the house.”
“N’kay,” Chalvic accepted that pragmatically.
Child in tow, Arkadais advanced to where Deuvoci had finished changing and stuck out her free hand to help it up.
It – no, she, for it now appeared to be female – accepted the help, standing unsteadily on two legs. Her hand was cool and slightly clammy.
Arkadais was slightly disappointed to see that, although she was now much more humanoid, there was no way to see Deuvoci as human. The smaller form really looked nothing like what she had half-imagined.
Deuvoci had a tail, a smaller, thinner version of the thick one she sported in her other form, and her skin was as dark as a pool of ink, with tiny rectangular off-white scales scattered about. She now had a face, with normal features arranged in a fairly human pattern, and eyelids that blinked, but her eyes were still a solid red with black pupils. Extending from her scalp almost to her waist were segmented black-and-white tentacles, still moving slightly and restlessly. She didn’t look to be any older than twelve.
“Is this good? I’m not sure whether or not I can do more.” Deuvoci kept a slight lisp, but all in all her humanoid voice was much more pleasant and easy.
“Not bad,” Arkadais assured her after a pause. She didn't want to press her luck. And, secretly, she was pleased that even as a teenager she was older and better-looking than Deuvoci - the humanoid form she had half imagined had been tall, dark and attractive. “I think we’ll do fine.” Stripping off her half-cape, she settled it over Deuvoci's shoulders so that her new companion wasn't quite naked. "Give this back later, okay?"
“Good work.” The stranger’s voice, coming out of nowhere as it seemed to have done, made Arkadais jerk in reaction. Chalvic clung like a burr to her leg, and Deuvoci produced a sharp “Kha!” of surprise.
The stranger, leaning against what looked like a small, dragonfly-like helicopter, had to be some kind of superhero, caped and masked and wrapped in brightly-colored spandex as he was. Arkadais couldn’t identify him – Peter’s knowledge had extended to Superman, Batman, Robin, and Spiderman, no further.
Now he raised his hands in a pacifying gesture, saying, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to surprise you. I’m not looking to start any trouble, believe me. There’s been more than enough of that today.”
A little sheepish, Arkadais resheathed a sword that she hadn’t realized that she’d drawn. The superhero grinned ingratiatingly.
“I thought nobody could get here in time,” she told him, slightly annoyed. It would have been nice to know that if Deuvoci had decided not to be reasonable, someone was there to help her out.
“Things wrapped up in New York a little faster than anyone expected,” he said, losing the smirk. “Still, whoever told you that was right. The locals say you came up this runty excuse for a hill an hour and a half ago.”
An hour and a half? Already? “That can’t be right. I guess we were talking for longer than I thought.” Belatedly Arkadais took the time to look around and was surprised to see that the sun had completely disappeared from the sky. All the light seemed to be coming from spotlights and the little helicopter that the superhero was leaning on. It had to be cold, from the breaths she could see hanging in the air, but she barely felt it at all.
He shrugged. “That’s what I was told. Anyway, good job resolving the situation. When I was called here, I was expecting a major disaster. Project X has been working to try and protect actors and voice actors and scriptwriters and the like ever since that failed abduction of Hugo Weaving, but we can’t get everyone. Particularly not from really old series. This wouldn't be the first secondary change, but I honestly didn't expect you to resolve this on your own.”
Secondary change… Right. That was the term for changes happening to people who hadn’t been in costume at Xanadu.
“So. Now what?” Arkadais ruffled the hair on Chalvic’s head as he released that death grip on her leg.
Again the superhero shrugged. “I’m not involved with that, thank the deity of your choice. Way too much hassle for my tastes. But from what little precedent there is – I think you should just go back home, if you know where it is?”
He seemed to be waiting for something, so she nodded. “Yeah, I know where home is. I haven’t lost myself.” She hadn't, she realized to her relief. She knew where home was, and it wasn't anywhere near the Land of the Buffalo Princess.
“That’s good. Well, you should go home for now. Try and get some rest. There’ll be plenty of time to settle this in the morning. I’ll radio in. There’ll probably be paperwork and some interviews, someone will come around to see what can be done, but they won’t be too bad, I don’t think.” The man’s wristwatch started to beep urgently, and under the mask that covered his eyes he scowled.
“Damn it, it never ends, does it? Good luck, you three.” With that he swung himself into his little helicopter and started to work the controls. Far faster than should have been possible, the rotors were spinning and it lifted off the ground, receding into the dark with much less noise and downdraft than a normal helicopter of any size could have managed.
Deuvoci yawned and seemed surprised by the action, blinking her red eyes rapidly. Arkadais covered a yawn of her own, then flinched as she thought of something.
“Maggie’s got to be home from work by now! How am I going to explain this?”
There really was only one thing to say. This called for something stronger than 'sugar.'