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One hundred and fifty years before, Sydney had not even existed. Then, Australian natives roamed and camped around Botany Bay and Sydney Cove, and the first ship loaded with convicts sentenced to transportation had yet to depart from England. Of course, Dr. Curwen had been here before that, speaking with dead wizards.

Now, as Lily Chen gazed out across the Rhodes neighborhood, separated from Ryde and Gladesville by the brackish water where the river diverged to the sea, the land was covered by buildings, streets, and parks. Factories belched smoke, boats whistled and steamed, and the occasional roar could be heard from one of the scanty number of motor-cars in the city. Nearly a million people swarmed around her: an overwhelming, unimaginable number. She had spent her whole youth with the monks, hidden in the Tibetan wastes: just twenty-seven men, who prayed and read and wrote and practiced martial arts and scraped a meager living from hunting and gathering in the less inhospitable lowlands. They had taught her much, but their most important lessons had been how to think, how to learn, and how to fight. With those lessons, she had learned every bit of lore she could use, and then some.

She shook her head grimly and began walking again, calmly refocusing her mind. She and Norman were here to save that million people, and the rest throughout the world. And she didn’t recall all she had learned, in any event: that unearthly library had made certain of that. If she had only known the right symbols then...

Her swift, consistent stride brought her from one cobblestone street to another. The buildings were less fine here, and the people wore ruder clothing. She noticed one man eyeing her lasciviously, and calmly caught his gaze, iron will and wolfram strength behind her eyes. He ducked his head and hurried away. She turned west, facing the setting sun.

She reached the pub where she and Norman had rented a room (the missionary of that strange cult that pretended to devour their savior’s body was staying with his own order in Sydney). It was a meager establishment, but their funds were limited. Had Lola Hayes been here, it would have been somewhere unabashedly luxurious, but she was nearly on the opposite side of the world, working with that strange Diana woman, whose loyalties Lily still found...suspect. She had been oddly evasive about why a certain monster had vanished, for one. Honestly, though, she thought as she reached the creaking stairs, ignoring the other bar patrons, they were all strange people. Lola, for instance, had been nearly a hungry ghost, in the way she had relentlessly pursued fame, wealth, and material things, unable to let them go, until she had been driven mad by the suffering of want and the things she had had to do for them.

Although, Lily had to admit, some of the material things Lola had been able to acquire since she’d left the asylum had been quite useful. A double-barreled shotgun was not as elegant as a...well, whatever that kick was called, she could still do it by instinct but had forgotten the name after that library trouble...a shotgun was not as elegant as that, but it was at least as effective. Lola lacked physical and mental discipline, but the things her wealth and wiles let her acquire nearly compensated for that. Still, why she was adored by millions of people, Lily would never understand.

Lily reached their room and entered. Norman was sitting in the chair by the window, fast asleep, with a book on his lap. His beard and mustache fluttered as he snored loudly. “I’m not crazy...the stars are gone...” he muttered in his sleep.

Lily prodded him precisely. He jerked upright. “Get me out of this sewer!” he shouted, before waking fully. His breath smelled vaguely of mushrooms. “Ah. Yes. Right. Good, you’re back.” He slowly stood, rubbing his knee: an old, nagging injury. “At the risk of repetition, Lily, I do say: excellent work with that Gate. I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
Lily nodded politely. He seemed to view himself as a mentor and leader, reassuring the rest of the team and urging them on. She had no need for this, of course, but it was best to let him feel useful.

She gestured to his books and notes, scattered about the room. “We must leave for Brisbane early in the morning, to return to Tokyo.”

“Ah! Yes! Of course, I shall begin to gather...now, where was I in the course of...” He picked up the book he had been trying to read, which had fallen to the floor and become shut. He began to slowly flip from page to page of azimuths and elevations, trying to find his place again. Lily sighed, and decided to go ahead with her daily meditation, as this would take some time.

She mused on Norman briefly, as she began to clear her mind. His knowledge of what those lights in the sky actually were had impressed her at first: it had never occurred to anyone among the monks that the pinpricks that wandered among the rest of the stars and did not flicker, were worlds just like this one. Yet in the end, that was of no practical use, and certainly of no help against the coming darkness. Travel to those other worlds was an utterly absurd thought.

She slowed her breathing little by little. In, out, in...out. The bustle and clatter of the outside world faded away. Peace...

When she opened her eyes again, Norman was still gathering up his things and loading them into his trunk. He mumbled to himself as he worked. She stood in one smooth motion and went to help him.

“Girl, do not touch that!” he ordered. “Everything must be in proper order!”

“Do not call me a girl. I am grown.” The tone was neutral, but she was angry. She was tired of men patronizing her.

“What? Oh, yes, of course, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, it’s just that these observations are important. I believe that the eldritch may be discovered through anomalies in the local observed locations of the stars. The Southern Cross, for instance...” he trailed off, distracted by something on one of his papers. “Azimuth 44 degrees 10 minutes...versus...no, most likely just difference in sidereal time as measured...”

“I will bring supper for us,” Lily cut in. “We should go to sleep after we eat. The ship leaves at seven o’clock.” She could get by on only a few hours of sleep, of course, but that took its toll in the long run. It was better to rest well while you could.

Norman mumbled something possibly intended as a response. Lily took some coins from the table and proceeded back down the stairs.

 

The morning fog was starting to slacken as Lily and Norman walked down a dock in Sydney harbor side by side. With no apparent effort, she carried a heavy trunk in each hand, brushing off a porter who tried to take one from her. Their ship was just ahead; it would be a brief journey to Brisbane. The noise and clamor of the docks washed around them, with no hint of demon or god or abomination: just ordinary people doing ordinary things to live ordinary lives. The Vatican missionary was due to meet them on board.

Suddenly Lily’s skin began to creep. It felt like Tunguska again: that inexplicable sense screaming wrong. She turned to face Norman, who seemed to have noticed nothing, and there was the briefest instant of horrible anticipation, a sliver of time in which the worst was still ahead. Then Norman screamed, a horrible, wrenching sound that echoed off the ship and the water, sending gulls scattering and screeching as if in reply. He staggered a pace or two, clutching at his chest, then fell flat on his face with a crash.

Lily swiftly rolled him over; her first thought was a heart attack. But although she had no medical training, she knew that heart attacks’ symptoms did not include an inexplicable gaping chest wound. Hot, thick blood poured freely onto the boards of the dock, staining them red, drizzling into the water below.

“Norman!” she implored, an uncharacteristic outburst, trying to stanch the flow. But there was just more blood, and then more, flowing all around her hands.

“What in the name of the—?” said a deep voice behind her. Boots thudded on the deck. “What happened?”

Norman’s eyes fluttered open for a last time, and focused on her. “Lily,” he choked out. “Don’t let it win...don’t let it...” She nodded desperately. His last breath shuddered forth, his eyes rolled back, and Norman Withers was gone, all in less than one minute.

“What happened to him?” asked the voice. “I saw no assailant!”

“I don’t know,” Lily answered, finally turning to look at the man speaking. She never hesitated, but she did now.

He was tall, long dark hair stirring in the breeze. He was stripped to the waist, and her eyes were caught by the tensed bulge and ripple of his arms and chest, wandering across his body. His face was weathered but no less handsome for it, and her eyes traced the firm curve of his jaw. She became aware of strange sensations: a flutter in her breath, a stiffening of her nipples...a tingle deep between her legs...

“Well, hullo,” he murmured, looking back at her.

“Hello,” she breathed back, before remembering herself. Concentration. She turned back to Norman’s body. The blood was merely trickling now, no longer under the pressure of the heart. She stared at him. He seemed small in death; a lifetime of learning had been reduced to this load of meat, soon to rot away. She hoped his essence would earn a better body in its next life, and continue closer to nirvana.

A small crowd had started to gather along the rail of the ship, and at the other end of the dock. A policeman (of the New South Wales Police) pushed through towards them from the pavement, advancing quickly but warily. “What happened here?” he demanded, studying the body. He looked up. “Did you see who did this?”

“I’m afraid it is not like that,” she began to explain.

“Oh? Then what? I doubt demons or evil spirits had a bit to do with this, no, I’ll not have any of your Oriental superstition. Did you do this?” His hand was on his holster, and Lily readied herself for a swift kick to disarm him. She was fast, but might not be fast enough...

“Officer,” the sailor assured quickly, “as much as I admire your assiduousness that justice be done, with Lady Justitia properly regaled in sword, scales, and blindfold, there is no cause for your concern. I, unlike Augustus’s deity, have no blindfold, and could quite clearly observe that the young woman did him no injury.”

The policeman frowned, but took his hand from his weapon. “What did do, then, mate?” he demanded, gaze shifting between them. “That’s a murder done, right clearly.”

Lily leaned forward. “I think,” she murmured to the policeman, “this may have been the work of some dark power. Have you heard word of Azathoth, the Daemon Sultan?”

The policeman shrank back, but suspicion remained evident on his face. These days, although no respectable person would speak of it openly, rumor of the ancient evil returning from the far reaches of the stars seemed to have reached every corner of the civilized world. It was like homosexual priests or “social” diseases: everyone knew they existed, but nice people did not talk about it. The hypocrisy of Western civilization did amuse Lily at times, but she always reminded herself on those occasions that somehow it had succeeded in conquering most of the world, while her native Asia was merely a few spaces on the board in the “great game” played by the European powers. Yet, and more to the point, the general unwillingness to acknowledge the threat made their task far harder.

“What reason would...that is, why would he have suffered this due to...?”

“I am part of an organization fighting...it. He is, as well. He was. You have, no doubt, heard of the recent exploits of Lola Hayes?”

The policeman raised his hands. “Enough, I don’t think I want to know. I’ll work out something to tell headquarters and the coroner.”

“Do you not require her and me to make statements?”

“Just be gone from here before any other coppers arrive. I’ll have enough trouble explaining this as it is.” The policeman turned and began shouting and shoving at the crowd, moving them back from the dock.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” the sailor said.

“My name is Lily Chen,” she told him. “I was raised by monks in what you call Tibet.”

“Silas Marsh,” he said with a slight bow. His expression had turned grim, and he bit out his words. “I fled Innsmouth to sea to escape the evil in that place. I have carried a cargo of fear, from that place, with me for all these years. I knew that one day it would find me.”

“You heard what I said to the policeman.”

He nodded. “Well, I suppose if it must be, there are far worse ways for it to have come to be, than someone as lovely as you. Shall I join you, then?”

She started. “Well...what do you have to offer me?” she retorted, with an uncharacteristic hesitation.

“As I said, I come from Innsmouth. I know of this evil. It rules that place, unremarked and unacknowledged, hidden from any hindrance by law or government, or with the law complicit, perhaps. It is not unlike the Klan in the South of my native country. I fled from it; I knew I could not fight it.” Shame burned in him. “I am done running. I will carry my fear no longer; I’ll not have that cargo. Shall we sail?”

Lily hesitated, then noticed a new commotion. Several more policemen were hurrying along the shore in their direction, shouting.

“I think we had best be going,” Silas said. “Aside from the law’s attentions, whatever did that to your friend clearly knew how and where to strike at him. It may strike at you, too.”

That was an excellent point, and she nodded. Silas seized their luggage, hauling it quickly across the gangplank onto the ship. Eyes flickering between his straining, bulging muscles and the advancing policemen, she followed him. “Stay here,” he told her, setting everything down and hurrying away forward, quickly lost among the crowds of passengers.

She had no idea what he said to the captain, but only a few moments later, the whistle shrieked and the engines began to thunder. The ship pulled rapidly ahead, and was well clear of the dock by the time that the policemen reached the scene.

Silas hurried back to her through the crowd, speaking quickly and softly. “I’m needed in the boiler room; the beast of the furnace must be fed. I’ve sent a porter to carry your luggage to your cabin. Meet me by the mess at the start of the dog watch: four-thirty post meridian.”

She nodded again. Her eyes followed him as he hurried away. She noticed that the passengers around her were beginning to glance furtively at her far too much for her comfort, muttering to one another. She tried to smile, but honestly was not certain whether her effort had made matters worse. Fortunately the porter arrived shortly, and they began hauling the trunks below together. The voyage would take about a day, with the passengers sleeping aboard tonight, to arrive in Brisbane early the next morning.

The cabin was not large, but it would have been adequate for two people, and was more than adequate for one. Lily kept herself under firm control at that thought. A pair of bunks in the common cabin would have been cheaper, but Lola’s money was sufficient for this cabin, and Lily tended to attract unwanted attention. As unwitting allies of Azathoth could be anywhere, it was best to keep a low profile.

“This is a lot of luggage for one unaccompanied woman,” the porter remarked as he set the trunk down. She suppressed the flash of anger: obviously, he had not seen what had happened, and was only making conversation.

“Yes, it is. Kindly be off.”

Grumbling, he departed.

Lily lay on her bunk, staring at the ceiling, listening to the engines. She thought of meditating, but could not seem to will herself to move. Norman Withers was gone.

Granted, he had never been the most effective member of their team. Still, it was a shame that even if they managed to save the world, they could not save him. She lay there, letting her mind wander far further than usual. She remembered the Tunguska blast: the strong smell of burnt and rotting pines, the thick mud, the distant howling of wolves...but that mystery had been solved. They nearly had what they needed to defeat Azathoth. And for Norman to die now, this stumble on the doorstep of a secure house, with the foe right behind you...

She realized abruptly that she needed to focus on a more urgent problem: she did not know what had happened to Norman, so it might happen to her, or even to Lola and Diana half the world away. She stood quickly, then hauled open the trunks. Norman’s books and notes might have some answers, and she needed to determine what to do with these materials in any case. She further resolved to send telegrams to Lola and Diana at once on reaching Brisbane, although with no cables yet crossing the oceans it would take weeks to receive any reply.

Her command of written English was still not what it should have been, and it took her most of the hours before 4:30 to go through all of Norman’s effects. Much of it was vaguely comprehensible but useless, such as long columns of stars’ names neighboring columns of figures under the headings “azimuth” and “elevation”. There were long pages of mathematical scribbles she could make no sense of at all. There was a stack of newspaper clippings and other notes about the cultist riots that they had ended in Rome. She paused around midday to eat some biscuit packed in the suitcases, not wishing to encounter witnesses to Norman’s death in the mess. There was a bizarre manuscript, poorly translated into English, written by someone with a long, unpronounceable Russian name, suggesting that metal cylinders shooting flames could carry people to the Moon. After that one she gave up on trying to read everything, and looked only for material about the sudden wound, but several passes came up empty.

By the time she conceded that there was nothing to be found, the sun was sinking over the mainland to the west. She realized she had heard eight bells some time before, and cautiously unlocked the hatch and glanced around, seeing the passageway empty, and hurried to the mess. She arrived before the bell, and slipped into a passageway to one side, avoiding the passengers arriving for supper. A few minutes passed before the bell rang once, and another few minutes before Silas came hurrying down the stairs (calling stairs “ladders” was simply too ridiculous for her). He was wearing a shirt now, which left Lily oddly disappointed: it seemed to be a company uniform. She admired him silently for a few moments before calling to him in an undertone. He turned and hurried over.

“Ah, lovely Lily, I am rapturous at seeing you. ‘The modest Rose puts forth a thorn; the humble sheep, a threat'ning horn; while the Lily white shall in love delight, nor a thorn, nor a threat, stain...her beauty bright.’ William Blake.”

She was blushing. Stop that, she told her cheeks. They didn’t listen.

“I have many thorns and many threats,” she told him. “Many fools have learned this in unpleasant ways...And you are strangely well-educated for a common sailor.”

His expression darkened, and she was afraid for a moment he had taken serious offense. “Innsmouth,” he muttered, staring at the bulkhead. “I have always possessed uncommon—in fact, unnatural—wit and strength when at sea. We can discuss that further, if need be, but not here. The captain would be displeased to learn that I had been conversing alone with an unaccompanied fe—that is, lady, passenger.”

She nodded tersely. Western hypocrisy again. “Perhaps you should come to my cabin.”

He grinned eagerly at the suggestion for a moment before moderating his expression appropriately. “I agree, that would be the best way for you to inform me about your situation and what I can do to aid in the struggle. I’ll obtain some food from the mess and bring it to you there. Which one is it?”

She told him quickly. He gave a sweeping bow like a gentleman from a century past, and kissed her hand. Anyone else doing that would have been involuntarily doing it again, much more painfully, a moment later, but she was frozen by the fire that seemed to radiate from his lips (yes, that metaphor made no sense). She made her way back to her cabin in a haze, startled upon reaching it by her inattentiveness.

Lily was hardly ignorant to the ways of the world. She had guessed by now what she was feeling and why. Still, the timing was most inconvenient. She wished for a moment that she could turn him away, but he was a potentially strong ally, and they needed that now.

A soft knock came a few minutes later. She opened the door to his impossibly handsome face and rugged body, and two plates loaded with food.

“I had no knowledge of your tastes, so I brought some of everything,” he grinned, handing her a plate. She took it, and nearly dropped it when their fingers brushed. He closed and locked the hatch behind him.

“I believe I was able to do this undetected, although I suppose the captain’s wrath would hardly be relevant now. Well, it would appear we have no shortage of time now...so, shall we...begin?”

“What?”

“My knowledge of Azathoth is roughly equivalent to my knowledge of Einstein’s new theory, to wit, that it exists, that it is bizarre, and that thinking about its implications too extensively is a threat to one’s sanity. You promised to educate me.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she answered, hurriedly scrambling for papers. That, she could do: she had gleaned much lore in her travels. “Outside the ordered universe,” she quoted, “that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan...Azathoth...who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable—”

“Inconceivable?”

“Ah...yes, that’s what the—“

“I do not believe that word means what that author thinks it means.”

“Please do not interrupt me.”

“As you wish,” he drawled, in a tone that in most civilized countries would regard as indecent conduct. Lily internally swore, her heart fluttering; all her mental focus was worthless when dealing with this man.

“Yes, anyway, the chambers are inconceivable...and they are also, ah, without any lamps. That is, unlighted. Amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes—“

“What, ex-actly, is the sound of an ‘accursed’ flute? Is this just a poorly tuned flute, or—what? Did someone actually separately cast a curse on every single flute? I mean to say, if all I could do was listen to drums with bad acoustics, and out-of-tune flutes, I suppose I would want to destroy the world as well. Has anyone in your organization looked into just hiring some new musicians for Azathoth?”

Lily stared at him, speechless, for several seconds. “What is wrong with you?”

“Innsmouth.”

She realized what he meant. Not only was he not quite an ordinary human, but he had spent years knowing he was living alongside hidden, unspeakable evil. One would have to acquire the ability to laugh at the whole business, or else lose all sanity quite quickly.

None of that made him any less irritating...nor less impossibly handsome.

“What matters to us,” she said, trying to reassemble the shredded fragments of her focus, “is that this being, for reasons incomprehensible to us, wishes to...to bring an end to man on this world. Were the full strength of its power unleashed...this would be already done with ease, but Azathoth is blind and beyond time and space. Here, it can only influence and guide, and can only send upon us flimsy mockeries of its true nature.”

“Flimsy?”

“They certainly seemed that way in my encounters with them,” Lily responded calmly. Pride was a distraction, but it felt so good at times.

“You’re a marvel,” he said, gazing at her with a new respect, and even more desire plain to see. “I thought, until now, that Christianity offered us false hope: that there was no benevolent almighty Creator to save us from this menace. But now I see that you must be one of His heavenly host—"

“How many women have you told that?”

“Counting you? One.”

She couldn’t hold herself back any longer. They could speak of business in the morning.

She hauled him forward by his shirt and pressed her mouth to his. He returned the kiss almost at once, and it was bliss and immolation all at once. Ship, sea, and time seemed to vanish in the flame of their passion.

Silas effortlessly lifted her over him, then laid her on her back on the bunk, climbing atop her. Gasping for air, she got enough of her mind working to raise one eyebrow before flipping him again with a practiced maneuver, pinning his wrists to the mattress, then kissing him frantically again. Lily could feel him stiffen against her groin, and shivered in anticipation. She knew what society thought of women who fornicated with strange men they had no intention of marrying, but if she had ever cared, she didn’t now.

They broke apart for air. “Or maybe we just need to find a lady of dubious morals for Azathoth, you know, relax him a little—“

“Please stop speaking.”

“Fine by me,” he answered, kissing her again. Feeling no more resistance, she released his arms, and began running her hands over the flexing muscles of his chest. Lily could no more describe the sensations, than she could sing a painting or carve a song, except that it was the best she had ever felt in her life. She felt the wetness come on at realizing this was just the beginning.

Silas began to work at her clothes expertly. No doubt he had a woman in every port, she thought. She wore a simple skirt and blouse, not as daring as the flappers’, but hardly prudish either.

He quickly unfastened the former, sliding the waist down to her knees with one easy motion. His manhood pressed against her through her unmentionables.

She had no clear memory of what came next, just the desperate desire for as much of him as possible. Somehow their clothes had all come off and been scattered about the cabin, with Silas’s shirt clear across on the other bunk. Well, they wouldn’t have any use for it anyway. Their bodies entwined in a sheen of sweat, with a heavier wetness already trickling from her loins. He seized her breasts, flicking his tongue across one nipple, and she gasped and choked out Tibetan obscenities, it taking all her mental control to keep her voice down. Every nerve in her bosom seemed to shoot white lightning into her mind.

He switched to her other nipple; the chill of evaporation lingered on the first, but she hardly noticed that compared to what he was doing to this one. She hissed as his teeth grazed it, and he quickly brought his tongue into use soothingly, in slow teasing circles.

Unable to take any more, she pulled his chin back up to hers, lips meeting again. That brought their loins together, and she felt him graze her other lips. The kiss broke, they both gasped for air, Lily’s eyes opened and met his. He reached down, positioning his manhood, and raised an eyebrow. A beat of hesitation, she knew this could hurt, or make her pregnant, but she really no longer cared, and she nodded desperately.

He was decent enough to go slow, at least. He eased in, pushing her tight folds apart. Lily’s eyes rolled back from this impossible bliss, no pain, just lightning and flame and a raging waterfall all at once all through her...and he just drove deeper and deeper, until she was completely filled. It hurt, yes, but that was barely noticeable...

Silas started to thrust, and she couldn’t hold it back anymore. She let go, muscles clenching and shaking with no control at all, hot liquid spurting around where they were joined. Her eyes rolled back in the grip of the sensation that unfettered her mind from control, from reason, just that blissful release...

A strange image of an alien place flickered before her for a moment as her mind drifted, unchained; she seemed for an instant to look from the eyes of a laughing bearded man at a world map covered in brightly colored tokens and odd pictures. The man rolled dice, and seemed frustrated by the result. Then the vision faded, and her eyes registered only the dully colored bulkhead. Two bells rang: that was 5 o’clock. As the strokes faded, their rapid breathing and the thrum of the engines were all that could be heard.

Silas pushed himself up, rolling off her. She was dimly aware he had released his seed in her. They lay side by side, desperately trying to catch their breaths. Lily moved to grasp his hand, then pulled back. She had a duty. Her focus must be absolute. Besides, as pleasurable as that had been, he was not really marriage material.

When he reached out for her, she reconsidered. She let him pull her close, snuggling together under the blanket. He smelled of smoke and engine grease, but he was warm and reassuringly human.

“That was excellent,” he murmured.

“It was amazing,” she answered.

“Well, I’m pleased I could give you such an...amazing first time. Mine...went poorly. What Innsmouth does to women...” She could feel him shudder, just a little.

“You’re not there now,” she said firmly, more awake. “You are here and you are safe, and you must let your past go. You never left all your fears on the dock.”

He sighed. “True enough.”

They lay there silently for a few moments before Lily rose to retrieve the plates of food. With her innate strength and stability, she had no difficulty doing so, though her stance was slightly broader than usual. Steam rose from her in the cooler air of the cabin, and she started to shiver before she could rejoin Silas under the blanket as they ate. The ship continued its steady progress north.

“Do you need to return to your tasks?” Lily asked after a moment.

“I have a daytime watch. Someone may deduce that I am here when I fail to appear in the crew quarters but that hardly makes a difference now.”

“Good,” she said, easing her bare bottom against his groin. She could feel him becoming stiff again, and turned her head to catch his grin.

“Go on,” she grinned back. “Just not inside me this time. I have a task I must complete.”

The rest of the night passed in a whirl of passion. Lily had thought she had known the ways of the world, but Silas showed her things she had never dreamt of, until she almost thought her sanity would slip from the intensity of the sensations. Kisses had been amazing, but they paled in comparison to the sensation of his lips on her nether lips. After more petit morts than Lily could remember clearly, they fell into a peaceful, dreamless sleep, for Lily, the first one free of nightmares in many months.

 

Lily woke abruptly to a steam horn blast, confused, then startled—person beside her! Naked! She leapt up from the bed, ready to fight, only to remember a few moments later who, where, what, and why. The ship still steamed on, although another blast came from the horn, and it seemed to be slowing. They must be nearly there, she thought. This cabin had no porthole, and she glanced toward Norman’s effects for his watch, but couldn’t spot it in the jumble.

Silas was still snoring gently on the bed. She supposed he would be used to the ship’s horn. They needed to prepare to depart, if he was coming with her, and last night had made up her mind about that question: she wanted a lot more of his lips and strong jaw against her nethers. She expected this would do much to keep her sane.

She shook him. He groaned, then jerked upright. “I’m coming, Bruce,” he said clearly, before realizing where he was. Then he looked considerably happier.

“We’re nearing dock,” she informed him. “If you intend to come with me, you will need to gather your possessions and inform your captain.”

He nodded. “I will. I will meet you on deck, my lovely Lily.” He pulled his pants and shoes on, then left the room bare-chested. Lily picked up his shirt and tossed it into Norman’s trunk, trying to decide whether or not she should take exception to “my lovely Lily”. The horn blasted again as she pulled on her clothes, observing that the skirt was now slightly torn and noting to mend it. As the ship began to turn, she began hastily cramming everything into the trunks, having to suppress her instinct to pack properly, which she had always had time to do.

Fear actually hit her then. Her focus had not been absolute. She had spent her life training to confront this evil, and instead of determining which of Norman’s possessions were still useful for that purpose and how to dispose of those which were not, she had spent all night fornicating with a man she’d known for one day. The possibility came to her that he might really be aiding Azathoth, with or without knowing it. She dismissed that a moment later, as she knew the signs of that and he had exhibited none of them. Not to mention that if he was, he would have chosen an origin story much less likely to arouse...that is, to excite...er, to make her suspicious.

Silas would likely be a valuable ally; there was that. Three people were very little against a demon sultan, and four was an improvement. In any event...she allowed herself to think this for the first time: they seemed to be close to victory. Dimensional gates had been sealed; few of the monsters that had come through them still existed; and two of the three mysteries of how to expel Azathoth’s will forever had been solved.

She returned to rapidly packing, but for the first time, considered the question of what her purpose would be, if they did manage, against all initial odds, to defeat Azathoth. Lola had insisted that the others would not need to worry about money if that came to pass, but Lily doubted that a life of leisure would suit her.

As Lily shut and latched the trunks, it occurred to her that there was much evil in the world that Azathoth had not created. Injustice, corruption, hatred, and violence held sway over far too many people, in far too many lands. Silas had mentioned the “Klan” in the south of his country. Perhaps that was where she would begin.

The porter arrived to help her bring the trunks above deck. She could see his nostrils flare, as, no doubt, he noted her appearance, smell, and disheveled clothes, and reached a conclusion. When she noticed him leering at her thighs as they ascended a “ladder”, she seized the other trunk from him and, with an immense effort of will, hauled both up the remaining ladder to the deck. She caught her breath from that, massaging her arms, and noticed that the porter had made himself scarce. She ignored the stares from other passengers, settling herself on the luggage and scrutinizing the approaching shore.

There was a struggle to win, and then, perhaps, others. There was a world to save. And there was an absolutely magnificent sailor for passionate lovemaking. What else mattered?

 

A telegram from Diana Stanley, received two weeks later:

HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHAT CUT NORMAN STOP AGAIN NO INFORMATION WHATSOEVER STOP IT IS UNLIKELY TO RECUR STOP I HOPE TO SPEAK WITH MR MARSH SOON STOP PLEASE CONTINUE WITH THE PLAN STOP