"Sister, why did you want the blacksmith to make all of this?" Keith asked, staring at the mountain of odd devices. There were pillars that ended in large spheres, spiraling coils of bronze metal, what looked like string made of metal, and a variety of handheld tools. "Am I going to have to inform mother about this?"
His sister laughed in her usual way. It wasn't that bad, Keith didn't get the horrified shivers down his spine at all anymore! "Of course not!" Oh, thank heavens. "Once I am done with this, EVERYONE will know without telling anybody!" ... Slightly concerning, but at least she wasn't keeping secrets. It would be awful if they had a repeat of the Chicken Incident.
He glanced over at Miss Anne, who was very carefully not looking at the mess directly. Keith didn't quite blame her. Knowing what his sister was up to was sometimes worse than not knowing. That said, it was at least important to know what she was doing. "So... What are you going to do with all of this? It's quite odd."
His sister beamed in that way that was only slightly tinged with insanity as she dove into the pile and began piecing things together. Oh dear. This was very loud. "Keith! Or Anne, I don't care who! Go distract mother so she cannot foil my scheme!" Double oh dear. It wasn't very often that she said the word 'scheme' and the last time he'd distracted their mother she'd nearly fallen out of a tree. "And fetch me a kite! A GLORIOUS kite!"
Miss Anne nodded firmly. "I shall go fetch you a kite, my lady."
"No, I asked you to fetch me a GLORIOUS kite!"
Miss Anne breathed in deeply and counted a few times. "I shall go fetch you a glorious kite then."
"No, I said a GLOR-- Ah, never mind. Keith! Make some golems and lift some things for me, would you?" Why on earth would she need golems...? Ugh, this was bound to go wrong somehow... But darn it, he sort of wanted to see where this was going.
(Keith would look back on this moment some years later and realize that this moment where it all went wrong.)
About an hour later, everything had been moved into place. The metal strings - "wires, Keith, wires!" - had been placed inside a large box made of steel. The steel pillars had been combined with the coils of bronze, and the two devices sat on top of the box. The strange handheld devices had been placed onto the side as a variety of levers, but for what was utterly unknown. And then there was the crank, a full seven feet tall, being manipulated by a golem. The collection of devices were all humming, and every new development made his sister grin all the more.
"Young lady," their mother bellowed as she practically sprinted out, Anne in hot pursuit. "What are you doing?!" Anne silently handed over a kite. It wasn't GLORIOUS, but it wasn't half bad either.
His sister took the kite and tied the string to a thin bar at the base of the huge device. "What am I doing, mother? Isn't it obvious?" Well... Not really, Keith thought. But then nobody knew what was obvious to her, so Keith didn't hold it against her. She reached for a lever and grinned wildly, eyes practically glowing with energy. With one titanic yank, the lever slammed down.
The humming increased more and more, until it sounded more like a roar than a hum. The two pillars with spheres glowed, and the coils crackled with bare lightning. Then, with a CRACK, the pillars shot something into the sky, twin bolts of light that merged into one and exploded with a thunderous BOOM. A thundercloud formed, and rain started to pour in buckets, wind swept up in huge gusts and lightning struck out like a thousand arrows. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!" Keith yelled over the storm.
The kite soared into the air on the wind. Then, lightning struck. It tore down the string and hit the base of everything his sister had made, shattering the earth golem in the process. Lights appeared on the box, glowing like stars. His sister laughed, cackled, howled with glee. "THE PERPETUAL MOTION DEVICE WORKS! NOW MY STORM MACHINE MAY WORK FOREVER!"
"YOU MADE THIS?!" their mother yelled. "WHY?!"
Katarina Claes spun around, and threw her arms to the sky. "It's simple!" she declared, in a voice that was somehow louder than the storm she'd created. "To save myself from a doomed fate! YOU HEAR ME, DOOM FLAGS?! I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE! AND I SHALL DESTROY YOU! WITH SCIENCE! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
Gerald stared. "Um," he said, for once at a loss for words.
"Yeah, it's sort of like that," Keith replied tiredly.
The Hunt family had invited the local nobility to a tea party. They were, however, close enough to the Claes home that you could see the perpetual lightning storm that hung over it. It was like a tiny black and grey stain on the clear blue sky.
"... Are you going to explain?" Gerald asked after a moment.
"Katarina." Because Keith now knew after a month of seeing every one of Katarina's weird experiments that Katarina was an explanation for any oddity. It was pretty cool, honestly. Even if he did sometimes have nightmares about what would happen if Katarina got any sort of political power.
An explosion sounded off in the distance, followed by two loud cheers of excitement. Oh dear.
For some reason, Prince Gerald seemed very concerned about it. But Keith supposed that was what happened when you didn't spend all your time around his sister - you didn't adapt to the constant sounds of destruction and chaos. "What is going on, exactly?"
"Katarina," Keith repeated, even as the sound of screams echoed in the distance. Then a terrifyingly large plant stumbled into view. Yes, stumbled, because it had huge leaves operating as legs. The flower-stem, more like a tree trunk, ascended up into three huge roses filled with needles. And in a basket in the center of the roses were both Katarina and the young Mary Hunt. "Relax, Gerald. This isn't even the most terrifying thing she's done today."
"What," Gerald said worriedly. Keith ignored him and tried not to think about the stitches he sometimes found on himself after waking up.
"Keith! Hey, Keith! Check it out! Check out this mutant rosebush!" Katarina called, a huge smile on her face. Don't think about how angry mother will be, don't think about how angry mother will be... "Mary is super good at growing plants! Her roses were super resistant to the mutagen, their genetic baseline must be extremely stable!"
Mary Hunt squealed happily. Squealed. Oh, Keith did not like this. Not at all. "This is so much fun! Miss Katarina, can we go experiment on the daisies next?!" Oh, Keith really did not like this. He was putting a stop to it right now.
"Katarina," Keith called. "Did you remember to make sure the plant doesn't harbour a desire for the flesh of man?" True, the roses didn't have mouths or throats or anything to eat the flesh of man with, but he had learned that it didn't truly matter. You had to be certain.
There was a suspiciously long length of silence. Oh dear. "Well... I was having so much fun trying to show off to Mary... That I sort of... Didn't think I had to?"
"Who did it eat," Keith sighed.
Mary Hunt smiled sunnily. "Nobody that anyone cares about." It suddenly dawned on Keith that he hadn't seen any of the older Hunt daughters in quite some time. It also dawned on Keith that he didn't know how long the two had been playing together, and that he didn't know how many of the horrible rose monstrosities had been made.
Gerald looked increasingly concerned with each thing that Katarina and Mary said. "Wait. Eat? Who did... What?!" The Prince was really bad at adapting to all this, wasn't he? Keith only slightly pitied him. Slightly, because the bastard was still engaged to his sister.
"Keith, don't be a killjoy! You're just jealous that I gave Mary a battle platform to smite her enemies with!"
... Yes, but he wasn't telling her that. "I'm telling mother."
"You look very tired," Alan Stuart said the first time he ever met Keith.
"I always look like this," Keith replied for lack of an answer. "Can I ask why you're here? If this is about the lightning cloud, we've tried to break the machine but nothing works."
Alan frowned and turned aside. "I was wondering about that... But no! I'm here to tell Katarina Claes to stop seducing my fiance!" ... Deep breaths, Keith, deep breaths. Keep your temper. Katarina didn't know she was doing that, don't punch the prince for making accusations of your dear sister... Even if he did want to get Mary away from Katarina... Sigh. "Mary is so pure and innocent! There's no way she didn't seduce her!"
The past month of nightmares rushed past Keith's brain. He thought about the giant battle roses. He thought about the battle cats. He thought about the cyborg cannon that as far as he knew wasn't attached to anybody. He thought about the flying broom that screamed at people. He thought about the thing under his bed that snarled at everyone but him. He thought about the device that turned people into dinosaurs. Mostly, he thought about how he'd seen Mary ruthlessly mutate a pleading rabbit into a six foot tall pet.
He laid a hand on Alan's shoulder, feeling so very tired from basically everything he'd seen in the past... What, two years of living here? "You're a much more innocent man than I am. It's something worth keeping."
Alan gave him a weird look. "I have no idea what you mean by that. Should I be worried?"
"Did you see the perpetual lighting storm outside?" Keith asked blankly. "Listen. It's dangerous in there. Don't say that I didn't warn you."
Alan stalked past angrily. He walked back ten minutes later with his hair on fire. Keith opened his mouth to say something, only for Alan to point at him furiously. "Don't. Don't say you warned me. Do not." Then he left. For once, Keith wondered if somebody had managed to escape the wild gravitational orbit of charisma surrounding his sister.
When Alan came back a week later with a miniature volcano, Keith wondered if he was old enough to get drunk yet.
Keith had hoped that only Katarina was afflicted with her particular strain of madness. It'd been a lifeline, something that kept him sane and let him sleep easy at night.
Sophia Ascart had, with zero hesitation or regret, severed that lifeline. "So I was thinking we use the arms of a bear. They're quite muscular, and will make the overall monster stronger." The two of them were sketching out the designs to stitch together some kind of horrifying monster. "But I'm entirely lost on what to use for the legs."
Katarina hummed and tapped her quill against her cheek. "What about a tiger? Or if you're desperate to keep the humanoid shape, reinforce the musculature of a normal human's legs?" This already sounded like a disaster. It'd barely been an hour, and Keith was already exhausted listening to them. "Do you have any human bodyparts to use? I assume you don't want to graverob."
Mother could never hear of this conversation, it'd drive her mad.
Across the room, he saw Nicol Ascart. The boy was staring off into the distance, like he hadn't seen reality for some time. Like he was lost in a sea of weariness and sorrow. It was a look that Keith had seen many times in the mirror. It was a look that made Keith begin to cry with joy, because Nicol... Nicol understood. Neither of them had to say anything, but they both understood the raw suffering the other had to go through.
The two locked eyes. They embraced, and sobbed in unison over finally finding somebody who got it.
"Tell your brother to stop seducing mine," Katarina sighed.
"My brother has horrible taste, so he was probably seduced by your brother," Sophia replied.
One morning, Keith woke up and saw Anne outside the window. This was concerning, because he slept on the third floor of the building. He opened the window before she could knock on it.
"Lady Katarina requires your aid," she said in a weirdly off voice.
Keith yawned. "Tell her I'll be down once I get dressed."
The maid nodded shortly. "Understood. Anne-Droid 2308 shall deliver this message." She then turned and walked away. As she did, Keith could see that her entire left arm had been replaced with six extendable tendrils ending in screwdrivers and wrenches, while her right had been equipped with some kind of huge powerful gauntlet. Also, her legs had been replaced with what seemed like four extending spider legs made of pure liquid mercury.
It was way too early in the morning to be dealing with this...
He wandered down to the blackened and barren patch of land that Katarina had built her workshop upon and upon entering, immediately wanted to leave. Annes. Annes everywhere. Over a hundred, each armed with numerous implements and unusual limbs. "Sister," he called, and then flinched as over a hundred Annes turned to look at him. "What have you done now?"
"Oh, I'm just finishing up my clone/android army." Not helpful. That did not help his blood pressure at all. "I've never been able to decide, you see, but Anne was very helpful and offered to let me clone her and then turn the clones into androids! ... Heh. Androids, Anne-droids, I crack myself up..."
Keith inhaled deeply. "Okay. But why do you need a clone/android army?"
His sister stared at him like she'd just seen somebody die painfully. "... That's a sad question, Keith. It's sad you have to ask that."
"How is that sa-- No, never mind, why did you want me here?"
Katarina grinned her Slightly Evil But Still Halfway Sane grin. "Oh, well, I was genetically modifying the original Anne? I asked to clone her, and she wanted to be altered in exchange, but now the clamps are stuck and I can't get her out. Could you use your golems to pry it open?" Keith complied, and then spent an hour making golems to punch through the seemingly unbeatable clamps.
Eventually, the machine finally opened. Anne was lying inside, but her legs had been replaced with a mermaid tail. Keith stared at Anne. Anne stared at Keith. "I've wanted to be a mermaid since I was a child," Anne said after a moment, fully unashamed. "Don't you fucking judge me."
Keith sighed and stared at the altar that'd been erected in the basement of the academy. Runes were being transcribed onto it by Mary, while two machines sat on either side of it being modified by Sophia and a trio of Anne-droids. Thankfully, Gerald was missing entirely. "Sister, what are you doing? And... Where are you? I know you're in here."
"She's in the next room over," Raphael said simply. He sipped from his coffee cup and pointed at the altar. "And we're trying to game dark magic into giving us unlimited magical power. You won't narc on us, will you?"
"No," Keith lied. He fully planned on telling Mother, but nobody else.
Then Katarina bounced into the room. Behind her trailed a nearly naked Maria Campbell, dressed in nothing more than a bra and some underwear. Normally he would've focused on that and freaked out, but right now he was more concerned with the countless sigils painted across her skin. Across her legs, her arms, her torso, and even her face, were what looked like eyes and foreign letters painted in something red. He silently prayed that it wasn't blood.
Katarina led the girl onto the alter and then shackled her legs to it, and her arms to the ceiling above. Sophia gave a thumbs up, as did Mary and the Anne-droids. "Alright! If we can pull this off, we can ascend to godhood!"
"QUESTION," Keith asked, not sure if he was about to see somebody die. "Why is she covered in some kind of hell writing?"
"Wow, how'd you guess what language we used?" Katarina asked. Damn it, why did this always happen to Keith... "And it's because Maria is powered by Light Magic! We plan to use her body as a filter to turn normal magic into Light, and then turn the Light into Dark. I suspect we can bypass the need for a human sacrifice entirely, and earn dark magic!"
Maria Campbell, despite being shackled to a demonic altar and possibly being seconds away from being murdered in some kind of horrible science experiment, gave Mary a really smug look. Mary muttered something about how she totally would've given her life for Katarina. "I'm ready for whatever you want to do to me," Maria said, putting Far Too Much Emphasis into those words.
Mary punched a hole in solid stone. The cup in Raphael's hands audibly cracked. Sophia's hair simultaneously and literally turned red with rage and green with envy. Keith, not having much experience with violent and angry outbursts, just glared.
Katarina strolled over to a large lever on the wall. "Did you seriously install one of those here?" Keith asked.
"I'm a girl with needs!" Katarina protested, pulling the knife switch.
The entire population of the academy had been evacuated to a nearby hilltop, away from the square mile of solid flame.
"WHAT ON EARTH HAPPENED?!" Gerald yelled loudly, looking out at the inferno devouring the academy.
"Oh, it was TERRIBLE!" Maria wailed desperately, joined by Katarina's tears. Alan and Nicol had shown up, looking exhausted and terrified. Keith would fill them in later. "We were KIDNAPPED by a DARK MAGE who wanted to use us as SACRIFICES for some DIABOLICAL SCHEME!" It was bad. Her acting was bad, and her tears were bad, and Keith would be wholly shocked if even an infant bought her story.
"WHO KIDNAPPED KATARINA?!" Gerald yelled even louder. As much as Keith hated him, the bastard was focused on keeping Katarina safe. So. One point to him. One.
The group floundered for a moment. They visibly glanced at each other nervously. Had they really not bothered to come up with a scapegoat or excuse for all of this...? Well. This was what Keith was best at - covering his sister's ass just before the consequences of her own actions eradicated her being from this mortal realm. "It was HER!" Keith yelled, pointing at a random noblewoman.
Estella Morel looked up with bewilderment. "What's going on?"
"A CRUEL WOMAN!" Keith yelled. "WHO HEARTLESSLY KIDNAPPED MY SISTER!"
Gerald exploded into action like a trained dog. Over the screams of pain and burning, Alan sighed. "I can't believe he bought that." He sounded disgusted.
Maria, who had been wrapped up in Katarina's labcoat for modesty as they escaped the raging inferno, curled up into Katarina's arms. "Maybe we could do that again?" she asked, stroking Katarina's face. "Just you, me... And the chains?"
"IT'S DANGEROUS!" Mary snarled. Actually snarled. Her head turned into that of a St. Bernard dog. "We can't leave that experiment to you!"
"That's right!" Sophia proclaimed, wheedling her way into Katarina's lap. "Far too dangerous for you to be left unsupervised!"
Keith sighed tapped Katarina on the shoulder. "I saved your bacon there," he pointed out. "If I hadn't helped, he might've figured out who actually started the fire."
Katarina rolled her eyes and handed him a voucher. It said 'Good for One (1) Stress-Free Day'. He immediately handed it back to her. "I," he told her seriously. "Am going to sleep for twenty four hours. If I am woken up, I will not consider it a Stress-Free Day."
His sister nodded. "That's fine. I'm mostly going to be planning how to siege the royal palace with my clone/android army."
Keith breathed in. He considered getting involved. He considered telling Mother. He considered doing a number of things. But in the end... The option he chose to go with... "You know what? I don't even care anymore. Go for it." Was to ignore the situation completely and live in mildly blissful ignorance.
Shut up, he's earned the right to ignore the horrifying reality of his situation and sleep in all day.