Welcome back to the Thursday Night Risk Club!
Yay! We're posting on schedule!
Yanks – It came to my attention during writing that you don't know what trifle is. Basically it's a cold pudding made up of layers of things. It's very British (news to me! O.o) and it's very tasty.
Chapter Two: Infiltration
"Of the Library Arcanium, the Librarian Adrian and the Lady Phoenixia, and guests."
The announcement of their entry was somewhat embarrassing, especially as Adrian didn't want the Stu knowing of their presence. Luckily however the announcement only reached the first room beyond the Club's lobby, and there were very few people here. At least six open doors led into further rooms, all differently decorated though keeping to the colour scheme of purple, gold and white.
Tash was on Adrian's arm, and she nudged him softly to descend the stairs and enter the big room proper. Phoenixia patted Louise's shoulder and they started down, but Alice slipped her hand away from Robert's in her excitement and hopped down the stairs.
He looked down and followed, with Phoenixia smiling at him in support. Alice's thrill to be here…she had completely missed the fact that Robert had dressed with royal blue to match her deliberately. She had heard that he had been seeking advice from his fellow men…
"Calm down, Alice!" grinned Adrian. "Okay. We're in, as much good as that does. Mingle if you want, but try not to stay out of sight of each other. Castform?"
"All right, little one. We need you to be our eyes and ears from above. If you stay near the ceilings, there're some ledges you can perch on."
Castform wiggled her little antenna, and zoomed off up to the high ledges.
Adrian continued to give instructions. Phoenixia rolled her eyes, and went off in search of strawberries.
"…this room is the Atrium, and through there on the right you have the Gallery, the Buffet and the Games room, all the rooms are labelled; and that way's the Conservatory, the Music room, the Lounge. Over there past the big stage is the Courtyard, there are large glass doors that lead through to the Patio or the Balcony, the Ballroom won't be in use today…there're teleporter buttons that take you to the toilets off practically every room, you can't miss them. And…"
"Adrian, I'm sure we'll be fine!" said Louise, fed up of hovering. Luckily, at that moment, Phoenixia reappeared with sugared strawberries she'd nobbled from a passing waiter, handing a porcelain bowl each to the four guests and watching Adrian continue to waffle.
Mmm, waffles, she thought. Wonder if the Buffet has any tonight.
She glanced towards the room in question then back to Adrian, who was doing a bad job of keeping the Agents' attentions. She heard Louise sigh, and rolling her eyes, Phoenixia poked her on the arm, gestured towards the Buffet – and with a grin, the two women slipped off to get dinner.
At the same time, Alice's attention had wandered and she too grew a mischievous grin. Glancing up to Castform's ledge, she gave the Pokémon a wave and shot off into the Atrium's crowd.
Only now did Adrian notice his group had suddenly halved. "Hey hang on, you haven't heard – "
"Adrian you're being boring. We're not that socially retarded," groaned Tash. "By the looks of it we can look after ourselves. Alice is already proving that they're happy to indulge us – oh. Wow."
The overexcited Alice had, after asking nicely first, just wrapped her arms around an aqua-haired man that Tash didn't recognise…he sighed and patted her on the head.
"That's two," she giggled. "They've got to be indulging for that to happen…"
"Or they know she's just being sincere…it's not like Alice is much of a threat?" said Robert.
"Except to one's ribs!" said Adrian.
"Come on you. I want you to show me around!" said Tash, tugging on Adrian's jacket sleeve and pulling him further into the large room.
Adrian glanced towards Louise, watching her head into the Buffet with Phoenixia and disguising his fleeting concern. One of the subjects Merle had forced her to research for her whilst under the sleeper agent spell had been the nature, creation and maintenance of medium-level pocket fandoms, very similar to that of the Thursday Night Risk Club. He knew Louise was fine now, and most likely would be useful to keep the over-excited Alice in check, but briefly he wondered what Merle wanted to do with such information before he refocused on Tash's questions.
Poor Robert was left alone at the entrance…
He had gotten used to feeling out of his depth by now. He didn't usually have a day go by in the Library that didn't threaten to overwhelm him somewhat. Luckily he had developed ways of dealing with them, mostly by fencing with Thomas, talking to Alice and Louise or dealing with his Basement Welfare Officer duties, the latter of which especially took up a lot of his time.
He watched Alice talk excitedly with figures he knew only by home fandom, but knew could be dangerous through their reputation. He thought it odd that these characters would put up with this…but Adrian's point of them needing a rest or to talk plans made sense, if an odd one.
He was uncomfortable, partially from an over-heightened sense of wariness, and partially from his constricting suit. Watching Alice with a mixture of concern and longing, he wove slowly through the Atrium to another room, deciding to do what they came for and search for some kid who didn't belong.
As Robert ventured into the Lounge, the only people in the group still in the Atrium were Adrian and Tash – they saw Alice cheep with happiness as she discovered the Games Room.
"I need a drink…" Adrian murmured. He could feel the sweat under his shirt.
Tash squeezed his hand and glanced around. Phoenixia had acquired her strawberries from somewhere…she spotted a waiter with glasses of water, but was a little dubious in going up to him.
The ghostly-white figures who were performing waiter duties were all dressed in silver and lilac suits, hairless and pale and politely silent as they went about their duties with varying drinks and foods. They were more than just rather odd, but thankfully the fact their marble-like faces were gently unsmiling lessened the uncanny valley effect somewhat.
"Er, hi," said Tash. "Is this just water? Plain? No alcohol?"
The waiter-robot-creature-thing nodded.
"I'll take two, these two. Thanks a lot." She babbled a little to stave off being unnerved by their silence, and went back to Adrian, who was smirking a little as he watched her interaction.
"You get used to them," he replied, downing the water in one and fighting off the urge to throw the other over his head. "I'm almost wishing for something stronger…"
"Stronger? You mortals and your ethanol," came a voice from out of nowhere. Tash put a hand over her heart after her shock as the owner of the voice melted out of the crowd and clapped Adrian on the shoulder in a friendly manner. "Adrian, young'un! Well done for dragging yourself back."
The man was very tall, very slim and very dark – an Ethiopian black so deep that at night all one might see of him would be that brilliant white shark's grin. He wore a dark green suit and cravat with a few Egyptian-themed embellishments. His shadow seemed to be fake, moving, falsely constrained; he scared Tash ever-so-slightly.
"Nyarlathotep," greeted Adrian with an unusual wariness.
Ah. That was why.
"How's that dusty old bookshop of yours?"
"It's fine, thank you." It seemed that Adrian had learned to take Nyarlathotep's mockery with a straight face.
"Excellent, excellent!" The Outer-God-in-human-form then turned to Tash. "And this must be your…guest?"
Tash was all ready with a cheeky quip – she wasn't going to let something as big as a god intimidate her! – but the words froze in her throat and she stood there with her mouth hanging open as Nyarlathotep's gaze swept over her.
"Yes…this is Tash. She is one of my guests here tonight, and, erm, my-my better half…"
"Ah." The tall man swept around to stand in front of her, his dancing green eyes almost mesmerising as he took her in. "Enchanté, mademoiselle," he said, taking her right hand and kissing it in greeting.
Tash's lips moved in her best impression of a goldfish. Her mind was returning error messages. His hand was gentle and warm but didn't seem quite right.
He let go, and the spell was broken.
"…Nice to meet you Mr. God-face!" came out what remained of Tash's cheek in a blurt, as she lowered her hand.
Nyarlathotep chuckled and turned back to Adrian. "So what brings you back, Librarian?" he asked. "It's no secret you only attend when you deem necessary."
"As usual. Well, let's just hope that your 'business' doesn't make a nice round hole in our ceiling like the last time, eh?"
Adrian went as red as Tash's strawberries. "I was not responsible for my trajectory!"
"What hole?" asked Tash, glancing up and around in the Atrium and seeing nothing more than white tiles and a gold-bordered circular skylight in the ceiling.
She stared at it for a long moment before pointing up to it. "…That hole?"
"That hole indeed," said Nyarlathotep cheerily, but with a sardonic look at the red-faced Adrian. "He had a bit of a spat with his dear mother on his last trip here…I had to break the children up after he went through our roof…"
"What?" spluttered Tash. "Runoa is here?!"
"She better not be," grumbled Adrian darkly.
"Oh she won't be," said Nyarlathotep with a dismissive shrug. "Not after blowing a hole in our roof, let me tell you."
"Okay…" said Tash, still unsure.
"Trust me my dear, that little minx won't dare show her face here again." Nyarlathotep's grin widened forebodingly. "She sends associates to keep her up to date. Although – why, Librarian," he smirked, "your cheeks have gone red enough to heat water, surely?"
"Aren't you always a source of amusement when you come here. Many fondly remember the time you got blind drunk on punch and fell into the trifle…I wonder what fun you have in store for us tonight?" Nyarlathotep laughed, lightly and slightly mocking. "Anyway, Librarian, my dear…I must go and continue to be social with my favourite mortals…"
And the Outer God sauntered away, a wine glass materialising in his hand, out to find his next target.
Tash, still in a little shock, watched him for a moment, before glancing at her partner. Adrian looked ready to sink to the floor in a purple-faced embarrassed heap.
"I think I'm beginning to see the picture now…" she began.
Adrian made an incoherent noise, and Tash grabbed his arm and dragged him over to one of the buttons on the wall in the corner. She pressed the large control, and the pair dematerialised.
Louise followed Phoenixia through the crowd that was slowly milling around the Atrium. There were a number of people that she recognised from various fandoms, but her attention was primarily on following Phoenixia's drifting figure in front of her. Louise didn't want to get lost in amongst all the canon characters.
As the pair approached the door to the Buffet, a small area of chaos surrounded a miniature silver-gilded robot who was making and serving small canapés as a show. Squeezing their way into the eatery through the amused throng, Louise spotted several heavily-laden gold-covered tables through a glass archway.
"What kind of food are they likely to have?" she asked Phoenixia as they entered and considered which queue to join. The room was a gleaming white, the lights reflecting off the gold-leaf-edged mouldings. The ceiling was a deep royal purple, contrasting beautifully with the metallic gold of the tablecloths. Out of the window she could see deep forest and the sparkle of the ocean in the night.
"All kinds," she said, enthused, "just grab a plate and help yourself!" Phoenixia did just that, turning around with a white octagon of porcelain with gilded filigree edges and the purple logo of the Club in the middle, and began ladling some potato salad onto it.
Louise looked around the length of the first table. It was a mixture of green leaf salads, cold meats, cheeses and pickles. She collected one of the beautiful china plates from the stack by the door. It was a far cry from the paper disposable plates she was familiar with.
Looking down the table, Louise found it difficult to take in the variety of food laid out before her. She quietly helped herself to a couple of slices of cold meat, and a selection of cheeses. Salads were not Louise's thing, and she positively cringed at the thought of eating olives and peppers.
Phoenixia was already moving onto the second table where the food was equally as elaborately arranged. In addition to the potato salad, she was asking the waiter for the hog roast, which was quietly turning behind the table. Louise silently wished Alice was with her, the meat would have made her friend's mouth water with pleasure.
Louise glanced around at some of the members and their guests, knowing many and recognising many more. Her eyes settled on a sandy-haired man in an indigo suit, but before her mind could process whether she knew of him, her gaze caught a thin young man wearing light emerald green as a prominent favourite. She blinked as the slight gentleman disappeared into the crowd, shook her head, and finally caught up with Phoenixia by the dessert table. The ex-hologram was having a discussion with one of the club members.
"No, my Lord," she was saying with a big smile, "nothing like that will happen this time. Promise!"
The figure she was talking to came into view as Louise wove her way through the eaters. She hovered back from Phoenixia briefly as she recognised the man.
"See that it doesn't," the man said, and as Louise approached he walked away, the crowd parting respectfully.
"What were you talking to Vetinari about?" she asked of Phoenixia.
"Oh," she smiled, "he wanted to make sure this," her hand gestured towards an enormous trifle bowl, almost large enough to have a bath in, which was filled with a pudding made up of layer upon layer upon layer of biscuits, cakes, custards, cream, chocolate, jellies and fruit, "stays in one piece this time…"
"It hasn't before?"
"Let's just say Adrian got very drunk one year…he has a penchant for the Club's punch…"
"Oh..." Louise laughed, eying yet another table on which sat eight massive crystal punch bowls, two of each of red, yellow, purple and green iced liquid that were being served in glasses by a team of butlers. "The cat really got the cream then?"
Phoenixia gave a light chuckle, tasting her food. Her eyes were not completely focused on Louise. She was remembering a Club meeting long ago when Adrian had been forced to confront another, more powerful member, with very different – and less amusing – results.
"Nixie?" Louise's voice was suddenly quiet and serious, causing her companion to look up.
"When all this is over, I was wondering…could we have a private professional chat?" Louise stared at her feet as she spoke.
Phoenixia slipped into counsellor mode easily, recognising Louise's need to resolve her problems and glad that she had finally asked. "Of course we can," she replied. "But whatever is bothering you, try to forget about it while you are here. Enjoy yourself." She flashed Louise a beaming smile before helping herself to a collection of small cakes from the dessert table.
"I'll have a bit of that, and one of these, and a bowl of this, and some of this…ooooh, cheesecake!"
The Cloakroom was actually a suite of rooms at the back of the main building, just as lavishly decorated in purple, gold and white. There was an actual cloakroom, a set of toilets complete with attendants, a marble bath in a room of its own and, upstairs, a dormitory for those who became ill or were tired.
An LCD map of the clubhouse suddenly lit up, one room glowing a bright yellow; and Adrian and Tash reappeared on their teleport from the Atrium.
"Ooooh," Tash gushed as she looked around. "You guys certainly don't do things by half! Even your toilets are gorgeous!"
Adrian had gone to flop onto a black velvet chaise-longue, where he leaned back into the plush cushions and sighed.
"This is such a nice place!" Tash continued, whirling from panel to panel and peering in every door. He detected that her talkativeness stemmed from the unnerving encounters in the Atrium. "The people too, and the food, don't know about those butler things, this is all just great! I wish you'd told us about this before – "
"There's a reason I didn't!" he wailed.
She blinked at him.
"Sorry…look, I'm not happy here, I've never been happy here; a lot of these characters are just so blasé about things. I just want to get the Stu and go home," he said.
Tash sat down beside him, her light skirt settling around her legs. She reached over and began to rub at the knots in his shoulders.
"I don't think I've seen you blush so much. Is it really that embarrassing?"
"Which, the hole in the roof or the trifle?"
Adrian groaned and put his head in his hands, but she felt him begin to relax under her gentle massaging.
"Relax…" she whispered. "No-one's around…we have all the time in the world…the Stu can wait. I know how I can get you to relax…" she crooned as one hand crept upwards towards an ear.
"Nyarlathotep knows we're here for a reason, he's going to be extra watchful, he can see through any pretence…" he murmured, unconsciously twitching at Tash's touch.
"Oh screw him!" she giggled, leaning further into him and entwining their legs.
But as her hand went to one of Adrian's most obvious erogenous zones, he turned swiftly and grabbed her hands. "Tash! Not now."
Blue and violet eyes met, hers wide with shock.
She nodded slowly. "Okay, that's okay," she said softly. "Sorry…"
He smiled weakly, and Tash spotted a water fountain in the corner under the stairs. Standing and shaking out her long skirt, she sauntered over, thinking silently as she filled a glass with water much cooler than the glasses from the Atrium.
He really doesn't like it here, does he?
He seemed to pick up her silence and became uncomfortable. "Look, Tashy…"
"It's okay," she said, smiling warmly as she delivered the water. "We can look for the Stu in quieter areas. Didn't you say there was a patio or something?"
"Yes…there is. It's lovely too, with a koi carp pond, and watching the stars…"
"Much nicer, mm? Maybe you'll calm down."
He nodded into his ice water, and smiled for the first time. "I knew you'd understand."
"Of course!" she beamed. "You know, this reminds me of – "
She was cut off by a sudden darkening of the room as the door to the outside swung shut. A new presence was in the room, chilling it with its malevolence.
The pair looked around; the figure was swathed in swirling black from neck to floor, and as he removed an outer cloak to give to one of the butlers, he looked at his silent audience with red snake-like eyes set in smooth grey skin.
It was Lord Voldemort.
However the response to his entrance was rather unexpected.
"VOLDY!" cheered Tash, throwing her arms in the air.
"Oh good grief," groaned the Dark Lord. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Oh we're just visiting," she said, hugging Adrian's arm.
Adrian smiled sheepishly.
"I'm here to have a relaxing evening, not to be harassed by Muggle sympathisers!" Voldemort snapped.
He made to march towards the teleporter button, for the first time revealing his companion snake Nagini following like a loyal retriever with a black silk ribbon tied in a bow just beneath her head. He paused with his hand just in front of the controls. He looked back to Tash, a look of apprehension on his face.
"You…you haven't brought your little green friend with you, have you?"
"Nooooo," Tash replied sweetly, giggling inwardly…they may not have brought Jenny, but they had potentially brought someone much worse…she decided to not mention Alice and hoped she got to watch the fun.
Voldemort scowled, and shook his head in annoyance, then vanished as he touched the teleporter.
Adrian leaned over and kissed Tash on the cheek. "Ahh Tash…you're such a breath of fresh air."
"That one! That one!"
Harriet pushed open the door to the Mod Sofa Lounge and regarded the growing audience with some satisfaction. There must have been about five people in the Lounge when (a) had transferred the feed, and intrigued by this video of a leader and five of her cohorts doing things in this posh setting, more had come to watch.
The smell of popcorn and fizzy pop permeated the air, and voices shot back and forth as the now large group watched the entertainment.
A large wager field had been quickly drawn up and people were betting with a large jar of boiled sweets as to who she might glomp next as she made some sort of pretence of searching the Games Room.
She had already glomped the Mercury Adept Alex in the Atrium, causing Ben to whoop with joy. She had also, by this stage, bent the ribs of an unusually merry Moriarty, the lazily amused Vlad Masters who had phased through her arms after a few seconds, a richly-dressed boastful Baal whose squeak had sounded hilarious through the Goa'uld filter, and even an impassive Master who'd given her a patronising pat on the head.
She had also gone for a figure known as Xellos, but he had dropped everything and legged it by fading into purple mist before she got there. Dave had laughed at the sight after being mortified beforehand.
"She's mental!" laughed Jess, barely able to sit up.
"Ain't half fun to watch though!"
"Give me your mint rock! I won the Baal bet!" said Rhia, scrabbling for a pile of sweets from the paper table. "More please, Alice!"
As if to oblige, (a) started playing Yakety Sax quietly through the speakers. Everyone laughed.
Her next challenge was to get her arms around the hard-to-read snappy Marine Special Agent Gibbs… To her audience's giggles, the fifty-odd-year-old man in dress blues made her hold out her arms and turn around to make sure she wasn't armed before he reluctantly allowed her a few-second hug, also tapping her lightly on the head as she released. His red-headed companion was struggling to hold in her laughter.
There were cheers and sweets changing hands as Alice managed a running glomp-tackle on Intendant Kira from Star Trek Mirror Universe, who had been the only one to actually ask to be hugged and was more than happy to oblige. Next, she turned to the vampire overlord Kain, standing nearby, but like Xellos he also teleported the hell out of there.
"Awww," went Alice, to even more waves of laughter and collapsing agents. Harriet grinned and grabbed a handful of crisps as she watched.
Her next victim only noticed that he had been hugged when his purple-robed brother-in-arms gave a polite cough.
"There seems to be something clinging to your leg, Horus."
"Indeed," said the pre-Chaotic Primarch of the Luna Wolves.
Alice, at only five foot four, barely came up to the level of his crotch. She looked up and beamed, not knowing exactly why these gnarly bastards were letting her squish them but having fun nonetheless.
"Do I need a spatula?" he asked, highly amused. The white-haired Fulgrim was grinning.
"Noooo…" she sing-songed, detaching – but then she dove for the Emperor's Children Primarch. Fulgrim caught her mid-glomp and swept her up to sit in the crook of his arm, her height at least off the ground. She hugged his shoulder instead, pulling her silver-blue skirt around her.
Plonked gently back down, Alice sank onto a purple sofa to catch her breath. Her smile was all over her face. She had no idea that her audience were having even more fun just by watching her and betting over her movements – not less that they had noticed that the Games Room was swiftly emptying!
By this point Robert had calmed down significantly, and as he discovered the large selection of fine wines and ales, had begun to enjoy himself. He didn't know the majority of the men, women and other creatures who frequented the white-and-wood decorated Lounge, so he mostly kept quiet and to the edges, but those whom he had spoken to – or more specifically, had addressed him in passing – had seemed rather relaxed and polite, despite in some cases what must be a fearsome reputation, if only he'd known what they were.
He dared to meet gazes, and quickly learnt that nobody minded, but he was a little too nervous to invoke conversation. He passed endless suits and gowns; sandy hair and indigo, dusty brown and messy, black and red and neat.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a glow of powder-white and royal blue step into the room. He held his breath and looked over towards the door; Alice, her golden-brown hair a mess and her face flushed rosy-pink, accepted a glass of light punch from a passing butler. Downing the cool drink – he did hope it wasn't too alcoholic, if at all – she set the glass down and pulled off her goggles to smooth down her flyaway hair.
Robert noticed that a conversation near to him had slowed after her entrance, and the man in the black suit and crimson silk waistcoat and bowtie he had acknowledged before approached her.
He watched Alice's grin grow as she sought out another potential glomp on her tally – but then watched it drop and her eyes widen as she recognised the smartly-dressed gentleman a little too well.
"The fuck are you doing here?!" she gasped.
"I could ask you the exact same thing, my dear," the man replied coolly.
"But…why aren't you…how…huh?"
"Eloquent as always," said the man, shaking his head. "You know my penchant for influence; you gave me free rein to make plans. You honestly expected me to not travel and network?"
"Buh…" Alice was lost for words. Robert decided to intervene.
"Begging your pardon, uh, sir, we have…business to attend to in the Atrium…"
The man nodded, and Alice hugged Robert's arm.
"You're tall…" was all she managed to get out.
"Yes. And you're short," came the comeback.
"Come on Alice…" said Robert.
The man watched the pair leave the Lounge arm-in-arm, and his eyebrow rose. He had already noticed his audience, a blond gentleman in the navy Victorian suit.
"Entertained, Lord Verelli?" he queried.
The gentleman smirked. "Say, Eclipse…wasn't that your author?"
Eclipse heaved a sigh. "So it would seem…"
Alice shivered slightly as she and Robert walked back into the Atrium.
"Have you seen the Stu yet?" she asked him, looking around as they stepped onto the huge white marble floor.
"Not a sign," Robert said as he gazed down at Alice. His face told all the emotion that was pulsing through his body, and yet the subject of his adoration didn't notice.
"Maybe the others have had more success."
Robert sighed. He wanted her to notice him, to realise that he was in love, but as he told himself every day, he was prepared to wait.
"Maybe," was all he could muster in reply.
The Atrium was beginning to get less crowded as people moved from the entrance way to the adjoining rooms, but there were still some groups in the corners and by the stage. Robert knew their entrance would not have gone unnoticed, but in studying the members within, he could see nobody that looked out of place. If there was a Stu here, he was keeping far from the majority of the other members' eyes – he knew he would be, if he was trying to learn how to fit in with a highly socially-skilled group.
"Alice, I think we ought to be searching the side rooms, perhaps," he suggested. "I do not think we will find him in here…"
"Find whom?" came a voice from behind the pair.
Alice jumped, but Robert turned fluidly to face the speaker. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a rich-looking dinner jacket, and a tanned, neatly bearded Mediterranean face that was relaxed with only a slight amused puzzlement.
"David Xanatos?" said Alice, eyes wide and her smile growing to match.
The Grecian-American millionaire of Gargoyles fame rolled his eyes a little, smiled and wordlessly spread his arms to allow Alice to hug him. Alice seemed a little glomped out however, and the much gentler hug was short.
"Alice, he's a Founder…" said Robert weakly.
"And it's a pleasure to see you both here. Now, you seem to be looking for someone. Can I help?"
"Oh," said Alice dismissively, "we don't know, we don't know what he looks like, we're just seeing who else is here…" Her bullshit-cogs in full flow enough that it was making her gabble, and Robert could tell that Xanatos wasn't convinced in the slightest.
"Who are you with?" he asked.
Alice dinged the white gold saltire charm on her necklace, and that told him everything. He nodded, and she pointed out the members of their group she could see.
"We always welcome guests," he said smoothly, glancing to Louise peering into the Music Room and Phoenixia taking a plate of cake out towards the Patio. "I will be sure to greet the Librarian when I see him…If you'll excuse me?"
Alice did a little manic dance as Xanatos sauntered off, leaving Robert to put an arm around her to get her to settle. However, neither noticed the Founder lean towards his compatriot, Lord Vetinari of Discworld, and whisper four words…
"We have an intruder."
Phoenixia wandered away from Louise, who was still happily helping herself to the selection of desserts, and headed towards the door, a plate piled high with mini-cakes balanced precariously in her hands. As she reached the exit, she looked back at the young agent, who was now in deep conversation with a dark-haired young man. Phoenixia cared for all the agents in the Society in one way or another. Some people, like Tash, were cared for in a very physical way; whilst others, such as Alice, were watched over in a maternal, compassionate manner. Louise didn't really fall into either of the two categories; she was a psychological mystery. She was an outwardly bubbly, cheerful soul who saw the best in everyone, but the ex-hologram knew that beneath this benign exterior, she had a dark past – a past that was always waiting, waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly head.
As she watched Louise, her attention was caught by a stranger standing in one corner of the buffet room. His sandy hair and haughty expression contrasted with the white walls of the room, and he looked somewhat out of place despite the plate of food he was delicately consuming. None of the Club's patrons were really paying him any attention, and yet Phoenixia was finding her eyes were increasingly drawn to him.
"He's the Stu," she murmured to herself. "It's the only possibility."
There was no chance of successfully chasing down the Stu through the crowd of people, Phoenixia realised. She would need to regroup with the others and come up with a plan. She looked around for Louise, who was still chatting to the Club members.
Giving the young agent more time, she turned to head out of the door, colliding with a gentleman in the process.
"Oh," she gasped. "I'm sorry." She looked up into the dark eyes of Lord Asriel himself. Dressed in a smart suit of brown, with a grey waistcoat and burgundy tie, he seemed to tower over the ex-hologram, despite them being of almost equal height.
"Forgive me," he smiled, and his dominant presence seemed to shrink slightly, and saying no more, he collected a plate. Giving Phoenixia a final, knowing grin Lord Asriel disappeared into the throng of people to collect his food.
"Mmm…" she said quietly, looking down at the pile of cakes teetering uncertainly on the plate before her. There were a decidedly fewer there now than when she had put them all there. Looking back across the room, she spotted a number piled neatly on the disappearing plate of Lord Asriel.
"Cheeky little..." Phoenixia sighed and looked around. The young man in the indigo suit she had spotted earlier had vanished. She turned and headed straight out of the door.
Carefully making her way around the edge of the main room, Phoenixia spotted two familiar faces – relaxing on a cast-iron bench in front a beautifully lit koi pond on the terracotta patio just off the Courtyard. Grumbling under her breath at the sight, she marched out to confront them.
"Look at you two. We're doing all the work, and you're just sitting around!"
"Pot kettle black, Phoenixia. You've been stuffing your face," Adrian countered lightly, his hand resting on Tash's legs, which were laid across his lap.
"Touché…" she replied. "Cake?" She proffered the plate to her friends.
"Ooo," Tash sat up, and selected a beautifully iced one from the top of the pile. Adrian helped himself to a chocolate sponge cake from the edge, making sure the rest didn't land on the floor.
"So, while you have been out here," Phoenixia perched on the edge of the bench which Tash and Adrian has been relaxing on, "I've discovered something."
The Librarian and the Society Leader sat up, dropping both Tash's legs, and the crumbs from the cakes onto the floor.
"Yes, I think I've spotted the Stu. He's a sandy haired young man in an indigo suit," Phoenixia reported.
"Has he been spotted by any of the founders yet?" Adrian asked, concern in his voice.
"Not that I am aware."
"Then there's still time!" He jumped to his feet.
"Adrian," Tash looped her arm around his. "What did I say about you relaxing? Rushing in there like hellfire is only going to arouse the attention of the members, the Founders in particular. The last thing we need is to get into a fight with people like Nyarlathotep."
"We will die," Phoenixia mentioned.
"Okay, maybe not him. Point still stands." Tash looked into the violet eyes of her partner.
Adrian sighed deeply.
"Just a thought," Tash said, suddenly all business. "Didn't Nyarlathotep say something about Runoa sending associates to the Club?"
Phoenixia looked around warily; she hadn't heard the Outer God's words about the Lieutenant Mary Sue.
"Is there a chance that someone is here, spying for her today?" Tash continued.
"It's not a Sovereign," Adrian commented. "We would have recognised them."
"Or them us," Phoenixia interjected.
"Just means that we will have to be even more alert," Adrian muttered. "The sooner we get the Stu the better. Runoa's associate, whoever he, she or they are, will be at least Permitted if not Sanctioned Guests, and we won't be liked if we jump them too."
"Then might I suggest we gather the others for a quick meeting?" Phoenixia prompted.
Her stomach full of delicious food, Louise decided that maybe now was the time for her to assist in the search for the Stu. She had watched Alice and Robert moving around a lot in the atrium, and felt a little guilty at her own inaction.
Looking through the glass panes that made up the Buffet doors, Louise spotted a similar sized room on the opposite side of the Atrium. Picking her way around the milling groups in the main room, she made it to the other room.
She peered inside. It was large, a sort of squashed square shape, with a huge grand piano standing on a raised dais at one end. Various club members were gathered in small groups, discussing all sorts from world domination to Top Gear. Louise, more entranced by the samples of music and instruments within, slipped into the room.
The walls were a pale gold, contrasting beautifully with the dark purpleheart wood floor. A collection of alcoves lined the opposite wall, each gathering its own shadow within it. Walking up onto a dais that held the piano, Louise could see that it was expensive. The black wood of the shell highlighted its quality, and the ivories gleamed and reflected against the shiny surface. She ran a hand carefully over the keys, making sure that no sound issued from them.
"Do you play?" a clipped voice asked.
Louise turned, surprised. "Oh, um... no, not really," she answered before she realised what words were coming out of her mouth. Behind her were two individuals – a young gentleman, probably no older than fourteen, and a giant of a man behind him. Both were impeccably dressed, as befitted the club, but Louise was forced to swallow the gasp that was building in her throat as she recognised them.
"Greetings, Artemis," she finally spoke.
"It appears you know me," the young man appeared to study her, "but I do not know you."
Artemis Fowl was a child genius, and an expert in most social situations. She was fully aware that she couldn't lie to him. "My name is Louise. I'm a guest of the Librarian." She gestured to the quill-and-sword saltire charm that hung from her bracelet.
"Ah…" Artemis' eyes took in the gold charm which complemented Louise's red-black dress beautifully. He was dressed in the finest tailor-made suit, its embellishments giving away his Irish nationality.
"No Holly today, Artemis?" Louise asked under her breath, enjoying the reaction that those simple words engendered. The Irish boy's breath caught, and he paused for just too long before replying.
"Many of the Club's members are not to her taste," he explained. "They…scare her a little, not that she'd ever admit it."
Louise merely smiled. She knew very well that Captain Holly Short, one of Artemis' acquaintances from his home fandom, had worked with many an undesirable individual in her time, though the Club was beyond that. Several of the members had done a lot worse than simply cut down a few trees.
"Your first meeting as a guest?" he enquired, to Louise's nods. "Ah yes. It's not really that intimidating. I'm just glad the Founders decided fourteen was adequate enough to attend the evening meetings at last. Oh, I'm sure you know my bodyguard?"
Louise turned to the large gentleman at Artemis' side. "Hello, Butler."
She already knew Butler's role in Artemis' life; also being his tutor and until very recently the closest thing he had to family. The Eurasian man, his suit all black, simply nodded in acknowledgement, but said nothing. Work was work, after all, despite being a sanctioned guest.
Artemis caught Louise's attention again. "Are you going to be staying for the announcements tonight?" he asked, changing the topic.
"…Most likely," she replied, wondering what on earth the Thursday Night Risk Club would be announcing.
"The majority of the members have made their opinions clear on the subjects," he continued. "The Founders will have the final say, as always."
Louise nodded, and politely excused herself. She watched as Artemis moved to the next group in the room, chatting cordially to a number of guests; Butler hovering like a fly, always within reach.
From her place by the piano, she could see that majority of the room. There was no sign of anyone who looked out of place; she recognised a great deal of them, and there was certainly no obvious indication of the Stu. A couple of figures lingered in the shadows of the archways, so Louise decided to check them out surreptitiously.
Stepping down from her vantage point, she sidled around the edge of the room, collecting a drink from a passing waiter. Catching snippets of the conversation around her, it was clear that everyone seemed to be discussing the announcements, what they could mean for the club, and for themselves. It seemed the Thursday Night Risk Club was a well-loved bastion of rest and sanity for a lot of these people.
As Louise reached the edge of the alcoves, a dark figure stepped from the shadows. Dressed in a sharp black suit and snakeskin shoes, the gentleman approached the agent as she leaned on the wall. She was watching the room, and hadn't seen him approach until he was less than a metre away.
"Greetings, Mirani," the man hissed in her ear.
Louise almost jumped out of her skin. Not only had the man caught her unaware but he had addressed her as Mirani – which could only be a bad sign. Her reactions were quick, but not quick enough; Louise's hand was on her waist, desperately searching for the weapon that she hadn't been permitted to bring, but the man's hand landed atop hers, pulling her backwards into the alcove.
"Now now…" he said. "We don't want violence, do we?"
The man wrapped his hand around her wrist, twisting her arm.
Louise winced, too paralysed by fear to even cry out. She was unarmed, and unprotected. Her friends were elsewhere, and she was suddenly uncomfortably aware she was surrounded by potential enemies – or allies? She opened her mouth to scream, but his finger landed on her lips.
"What do you want?" she replied shakily.
"Oh, nothing important," the man whispered. "I am only to deliver a very simple salutation to you…"
Louise didn't relax.
"…Merle sends her regards."
The agent turned towards the man just in time to see his smile, before he released her, turned and retreated nonchalantly into the shadows. "Crowley," she murmured. "Not you too…"
By now the twenty-odd-strong audience of the Thursday Night Risk Club mission had had enough of Alice's glomp-fest, and with their piles of sticky winnings they changed the feed to show different scenes. Oohs and aahs came as they approved of the surroundings, and excited whispers shot back and forth as people recognised yet more members dressed in what passed for their formal finery.
None of them actually had any idea why the six agents were in this place, and a couple of those whose sides weren't quite aching yet had tried to question why, but in general, few cared. They were having fun watching.
The nibbles scattered about in bags and bowls were enough to fill a small pantry, and the agents had shoved the modular sofa into a vaguely straight line with the odd switchback, all facing the huge screen. Harriet was flicking through the varying feeds into the fandom with a remote control, and occasionally adjusting volume or prodding away (a)'s hearts.
In a large room with a white marble floor, they spotted a trio of well-dressed gentleman conversing closely. Zooming in closer, discussion grew as to who the men were – easy to identify some, difficult in others – and what roles they played here, as it was obvious that the other members gave them a respectful berth.
The man in black and red was just finishing speaking. "…because as Founders, we have an example to make…and set."
"True, true. When should we call it?" said another, with bronze skin and blue embellishments.
"Soon. Let them show themselves first," said a third, with a sinister politician's voice.
"Very well," said a fourth man on approach, who was all in green and gold.
Lil' C gave a small squeak and crept around to hide behind Stephen, who was sat cross-legged on the navy carpet. Stephen tried to twist around, but only saw the small green tentacles disappear beneath the folds of his over-long T-shirt.
"What's up, C?" he said, almost toppling onto one side.
Lil' C only squeaked in response.
The three other men didn't react in any way other than to acknowledge him. The group nodded and split up, sauntering in different directions.
"Could it be, uh, that?" said Tom, pointing at the screen and the unnerving green-suited gentleman who was sashaying his way through parting crowds. Harriet zoomed in.
"Who is he?"
Lil' C chirruped angrily, but then hid again.
Just to compound the unsettling moment, Nyarlathotep turned and appeared to look straight at 'camera' – gazing directly into the room as if he knew he was being watched; those unearthly green-and-gold eyes roved the room, settling briefly once on everyone watching…
The only sound from the lounge was a single crunch of popcorn as the Outer God gave a fiendish, knowing grin, then turned away to be social again.
"That's enough of Mr. Spooky…" said Harriet, slightly spooked herself, switching views with the remote control. Nyarlathotep's shark smile remained burned into the screen for a couple of seconds.
The new view onto this strange but fun party came via a camera already existing in the fandom. It seemed to be perched in a room with white floors, purple seats and glass walls looking out onto a broadleaf forest and a lake beach, all bathed in the warm blue night. Many members took up the violet sofas, their drinks kept full by one of those strange dutiful butler-things.
The view seemed to come from a place high in the room. As the agents watched, there was a chirp, a scuffle and the camera 'hopped' laterally around on the ledge on which it was perched, giving them a better view.
Unfortunately the movement caught the attention of a blue-haired man, dressed in black, grey and white.
"That's a Cyrus," said Michael, his mouth half-full. "Where's this camera? On a Pokémon?"
It seemed so too, as there were several indignant squeaks from behind the camera, and Cyrus gave a smirk and pulled out a Poké Ball.
Nobody could miss several members behind him roll their eyes and turn away. They heard one mutter "Fight your own battles, why don't you…" in a very English accent.
Suddenly there was a flash of white – he hadn't thrown the spherical trap yet – and a ball-shaped attack feathered by seven silver strings blew towards Cyrus, again from behind camera. It hit him full on the chest and toppled him backwards into a butler.
There was laughter at the display, but Kyle recognised the move. "Okay, that was Weather Ball."
Gareth agreed. "Normal-type, but still…"
Karissa turned her head so an ear was closer to the speaker. "There's Pokémon-speak…it's not coming through well…"
Harriet turned it up, and they heard an angry tirade of 'Casts' and 'Forms'.
"Asuka, translation please?" asked Dave.
The Luxray listened for a moment before she spoke, the translation emerging in English from her collar. "I know who you are, I know what you've done; you're a miserable old bastard who…" and here she paused, blinking in shock. "…who can't get laid to save his life! I pity your Pokémon and wish you could bugger off and drown somewhere!"
Tom nodded. "A fine sentiment!"
Cyrus, however, was anything but amused, and pulling himself to his feet, he hurled the ball with incredible aim. "Very well Castform…it's time for you to shut up."
The thrown Pokéball hovered menacingly over Castform's head, opening and casting a red field around her, preparing to pull her into the trap – but it lasted a second before the white shield that marked an already-caught Pokémon expanded around her, dissipating the red capturing energy and repelling the ball. It shot into the air and back down into the room, and there was a small scramble to get out of its way. It missed Cyrus by a hair, instead hitting Q in the back of the head.
"Cast form," hissed Castform angrily. Asuka didn't translate that one.
Q, in a red and black Starfleet dress uniform, turned around with a scowl on his face. "Do you mind?" he asked Cyrus sardonically.
Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "I almost caught a Q. Now that would be a Pokémon worth bragging about…"
"You wish, little man!"
The spectators in the Mod Sofa Lounge watched the argument rage in the conservatory – at least until Lord Vetinari quietly cleared his throat. Then they stopped.
Castform hopped along the ledge into the opposite corner, and found a short passageway that led to the next room. She had not yet found anything suspicious, judging by the fact that none of her group had taken any action. So she determined to continue her observations.
To be concluded in…
Chapter Three: Exfiltration