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To Michele [Jan. 2nd, 2004|06:08 pm]
John
So, a few days ago, a long vigil ended, and Michele, aka Bookbabe, died.

I realized there was a story that demanded to be written, and it took a few days to get it down.

While she was sick, I wrote a story for her, with her as the star, and a favorite character of mine, Charleston Vanderbilt, playing a secondary role. The story that got written was a kind of sequal to that story.

Since it's long,here's a cut tag...



If Charleston were more like Tyrone, he would undoubtedly castigate himself for having revealed some of the secrets of his walking stick too early. The blade that extended from the tip wasn't much of a secret. The principle of the basic sword-cane was simply too well known. However, people expected that he would have to draw a sword, so when the blade suddenly extended, it often threw them off guard.

In this case, it wasn't a person; it was the high priest's familiar, and as the foul beast attempted to gasp a final breath through its slit throat, Charleston made sure he kept the advantage of surprise, and moved in on the high priest himself.

"Your puny weapons can not harm me!" the high priest shouted. Charleston loved it when they said that... his walking stick was a tool he'd taken from the most deadly assassins in the multiverse, and it was by no means puny.

Six cultists, plus the high priest, plus the familiar, and their greater summoning was already disrupted. There was no need to kill anyone, except the high priest, whose spirit was already reeking of a demonic corruption that even Charleston, with no magical talent, could sense.

The high priest was extremely good; it took Charleston almost two seconds to find an opening in his guard, and thrust home.

The priest had magical protections against ordinary weapons after all. More than a few mages simply bluffed about being immune to ordinary weapons. However, those protections, and the high priest himself, were definitely in the past tense now, as Charleston's blade cut deeply, and with perfect accuracy.

Charleston had taken out the femoral artery; he wanted the cultists to see their 'invulnerable' leader scream. It made them hesitate, just for a moment, which was more than enough time for Charleston to turn to face them.

There were sirens in the distance, so Charleston finished it quickly. The cultists were not well trained, and certainly were not trained to fight in a group.

As he'd hoped, none of them were seriously injured in the fight, but none would be stirring until after the police arrived. Charleston walked over to Thomas, still bound, and gagged, and started to untie him.

"Just to make sure you have no opportunity to forget our deal... you will confess to your participation in the murder of the child; you can make any deal you like to reduce your jail time, so long as you testify against each of your former brethren, and do your best to make sure they draw the longest jail sentences possible.

"Renege on this deal, and I'll be back for you. I just saved your life - in fact, I saved you from the proverbial fate worse than death - so you owe me your life, and I will not hesitate to take it if you make it necessary. I do not want to have to return here, to fight your brethren, or you."

As Tyrone had assured him, Thomas was still wracked with guilt, and though Tyrone was never wrong about something like this, Charleston was glad to be able to see it in Thomas face, and in his eyes.

Charleston was happy when things worked out like this; his job was to save lives, and occasionally visit justice on wrongdoers. He had foresworn vengeance a long time ago, for vengeance bred hatred, and hatred consumed a soul as readily as the demons that the cultists had attempted to summon.

Charleston walked out of sight, and activated his beacon. Tyrone, Charleston's sponsor in multiversal travels, would be here shortly.

Charleston was an extraordinary physical specimen, and was extremely intelligent, but he had no unusual magical or psychic abilities, which made him a rarity among multiversal adventurers. However, it took no special senses to recognize, from the look on Tyrone's face, that there was some terrible news.

And, Charleston decided that he had been wrong about vengeance.

Charleston Vanderbilt was born in the late 19th century, the son of wealthy parents. No, they weren't "the" Vanderbilts, but they were wealthy enough that the name confusion worked to their advantage on occasion. He probably would have lived the life of a common dilettante, if he hadn't lived his life in Arkham, Massachusetts, and in a world envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft.

There were many universes, Charleston had learned, and many a writer had glimpsed other worlds, and put their vision of that world into what they called 'fiction'. For all intents and purposes, it was fiction... very few people ever had the ability to breach the barrier between worlds.

Charleston didn't have this ability... he had entered what people called "the multiverse" through a gateway that went out of control during a major summoning.

Until he'd met Tyrone, he'd travelled more or less at random. He would have foiled some major threat to the world in which he landed, and something 'accidental' would transport him to another. Tyrone had the ability to 'shift' himself and others into other universes, and once Charleston was working with Tyrone, the seemingly random shifts had stopped. Apparently, someone or some thing - maybe even Charleston's own subconscious - had caused Charleston to travel to where he was needed, despite having no conscious ability to shift to other worlds.

Tyrone had been glad to provide a focus for Charleston's unique abilities, and Charleston was glad to work for a man whose only care seemed to be making the multiverse a better place for all.

It was rare that Charleston would ask for a favor from Tyrone, and even rarer that Tyrone would refuse it. This time, though, Tyrone did. So Charleston insisted, and Tyrone pleaded.

Finally, almost a week later, Tyrone agreed, and sent Charleston to the universe he'd asked for.

It was a misty place, with a feeling that nothing was real. Charleston had expected that. It also didn't surprise him to see that his quarry had put on the appearance of a beautiful lady.

He was facing her because of another beautiful lady, who he had met only once, and in a world where the meeting might not even have been real. Nevertheless, he had heard of her death, and he was determined to avenge her.

In what Charleston thought of as 'the great war', and what he knew people now referred to as "the first world war", he'd been a sniper, and one of the best the United States had. He could have obtained a powerful rifle and seen how much damage he could do from a distance, but he know that wasn't the right way to do this. Not only did he not want to risk her escape if a bullet couldn't kill her, he wanted - no, needed - to fight her up close.

So, Charleston stalked her, getting ever closer, until he had the opportunity. Only then did he attack.

He leapt out from behind cover, and smashed at her with his walking stick. Though it was solid, dense, and nearly unbreakable at the tip, it was weighted at the head and made a fine mace. He smashed at the lady as hard as he could. Nothing human could have survived the strike he made, but, though it wore the form of a lady, there was nothing remotely human about his quarry.

She turned and he struck again, seeing the prettiness of her face marred with the smashing in injury. His next blow took her off her feet, and, as she landed, he landed on top of her, having leapt at just the right instant to add his own weight to the impact of the fall.

He couldn't stand on top of her, of course, so he dove, and rolled, coming up to his feet. Amazingly, she'd gotten herself rolled over, and up on her hands and knees herself in the same space of time.

"Who?" she asked in a voice that sounded almost sad.

"Michele. Bookbabe," he said, his voice flat and hard. Then he howled in nearly inhuman rage, and attacked again.

Charleston had known, growing up, that he was meant to be a warrior, though he never had any dreams of what he'd be fighting.

As it was, he'd fought beasts horrible beyond imagining, evil wizards, and crazed fanatics bent on destroying their own world. But above all, he fought back against the monstrosities that would drain a human's soul. Even when he'd been sure it would cost him his life, he'd been willing to attempt rescues of people facing such fates.

This time, hearing about Michele, he realized there was one soul sucking fiend he had never dared challenge, and it was long past time that he do it.

In a berserker's rage, he pressed his attack, smashing her again and again.

At some point in time, he lost his walking stick, but that was okay. In his day, no proper young gentleman would grow up without learning to box, and it was more satisfying to smash into her with his fists.

He didn't know how long he pounded at the awful demon before him, but he finally collapsed in exhaustion, without even enough energy to spit on the still form before him.

He sat still for a long moment, noticing that there was no sign of life from the awful creature, and still feeling empty. It wasn't enough... nothing could be enough.

He'd barely known her; he'd met her only once, but she had touched him, and helped him befriend a noble race of dragons. He'd wished her luck in the battle that he could sense lay ahead of her, knowing even then, that it was not something any of them - she, he, or even the powerful dragon, could control.

And even this battle did nothing... nothing, except perhaps give back a measure of pain to the horrible, ravenous beast who'd stolen his friend.

After years of living in the multiverse, one meets many types of beings, and faces many modes of communication. One thing that becomes easy, after a time, is to understand the truth when one hears it spoken with sincerity, and this is why the voice that Charleston heard caused him such pain.

"I'm sorry... I wish this battle had eased your pain, but though I hold your friend, I did not steal her spirit as you imagine."

Despite his exhaustion, Charleston moved, leaping for his walking stick, and coming up in a defensive crouch, until the words sunk in, and he realized the futility.

Did he ever feel, deep in his heart, that it was possible for him, a mortal, to defeat Death?

She reached for him, a single hand, not her all-encompassing embrace, and she caressed him.

And Charleston Vanderbilt, hero of a thousand battles, who had stared unblinking into uncountably many horrors, burst into tears.

Death's touch was so warm, so tender... so *alive*.

As he stood there crying, his walking stick slipping from his now limp fingers. Death continued to touch him, gently, never risking too much contact, and he could sense, deep within her, the same pain he felt. She also had a job to do, and it wasn't the job she'd have chosen... and it also was never enough.

Once he managed to get his sobbing under control, Death guided him to a place where they could sit down, side by side... and then, she started to speak.

Death laid her hand upon his head... she could not do more, for it was not time to take him into her embrace.

"I don't think you understand," she whispered. "Have I ever tried to seduce you? Have I ever tried to grab you or pull you? Do you think I hunger for you? I do not. I merely walk beside you, and must take what I am given.

"It is not I who pulls the last breath from you, nor I who lets that crucial last bit of blood drain from your wound. It is not I who stops the heart, nor I who prevents it from restarting.

"I can only accept you into my embrace. I can only hold you when you've fallen into my arms; I can only provide you the final comfort, the release from a body that can no longer sustain you.

I must take what is mine, but I do not grab for it. I must hold those that come to me, but only because they must be somewhere.

"I am not your enemy... this time especially.

"I stood by her side, gladly taking in cells as they were destroyed, cherishing each bit lost from that great mockery of life. I stood by to take each cell in its time, and yearned to take more, ever more. But there were too many; their wild growth too strong.

"I, Death, was not the enemy... the enemy was life that had lost its way, that had refused an honorable ending, that had strived too greatly for growth, until it destroyed the very world that it lived in.

"I did not wish to take your friend, not yet. But both our desires were thwarted, by life run amok, by life that refused to follow the pattern of life, and death, and rebirth.

"And yes, I do have her, I do hold her, and I give her what comfort only I can give. But I did not want her to come to me, for she made me greater, more meaningful, with her life. While she lived, she gave me more meaning, for I do not get my meaning from those who die... my meaning, my purpose, my message, is to those who still live. Alive, she brought joy to people, and helped them live more fully. What more could I want? There is no joy in holding someone whose life was achingly incomplete, so I yearn for people to live, to love, and to find completion, before I am forced to hold them in my embrace."

She fell silent, and neither of them spoke for a long time.

Charleston finally cleared his throat. "I'm sorry... for both my attack, and my hatred." Surprisingly, Death chuckled warmly at him.

"Your hatred, Charleston, could never hurt me, for you never truly hated me. You hated the same things I do... those who used me as a weapon, and the empty despair that I must sometimes wade through to provide my comfort."

There was a momentary awkward pause, and then Charleston hugged her, tightly.

"I wish it could be twice as warm, to make up for the fact that you can not hug me back", he explained, and was, now, completely unsurprised to see tears in Death's eyes.

"I'll do my best to keep you from being used unfairly... and to protect you from having to bear the burden of lives that should not have ended when they did," he promised, as he once again picked up his walking stick, and activated his beacon.

As Tyrone appeared, and started to shift them both back home, Charleston was pretty sure he heard Death whisper a loving "thank you", though he realized he would never be sure... until it was time for him to lay down all his burdens for the last time, to accept an embrace he now knew was truly loving.
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