The name meant nothing to Coraline. Some of the others rung faint bells, as mentions in disparate folklores, but meant little. La Terreur En Marche rung sinister to even her haplessly monolingual mind. And if she had to take a wild shot in the dark, none of the many other unknown names would bode anything good.
She thought furiously, assembling what she knew as the Ambassador watched her over the rim of her cup, button-eyes hard and gleaming. Shadows whispered as the Ambassador shifted her weight from needle-leg to needle-leg, the flame of the gas light flickering at some unfelt breeze.
The air had grown cold barbs, and even the Ambassador's nigh-reflexive smile was guarded and frozen, without even the suggestion of sincerity put into it. And if the notion hadn't seemed so unreal, Coraline would have even imagined fear was nestling behind the beldam's gaze.
But was that such an unreal notion? She knew from past experience that beldams could certainly feel fear. The Beldam of the Pink Palace certainly had, both of Coraline's escape from her grasp and of her own monstrous sister. And the countless psychephages that had followed her, beldam or not, had often felt the same emotion as they faced Coraline, faced some mad hunter bearing iron and a deeply-nurtured anger. The emotion of prey facing a predator.
She held the thought.
Agents dragged into the darkness. Hawkwood moaning and crying in Tantibus's grasp, before the soul was sucked out of him by the creature's noose. Fires and chaos across an entire city. Maria choking on blood, and the words she struggled to make.
It had shifted form, from something shapeless in the dark, to something like a spider, to something like a mad dog, to something that had just enough human features to be uncanny while lacking enough to remain monstrous.
Hell's bells, how about every last thing Tantibus had said to her?
Coraline rubbed at her temple with the fingers of one hand.
"It's a fear-eater," she said. "That's how it gets a conduit to a soul. It feeds on our damn fear."
"Indeed," said the Ambassador. "Fear, unease, desperation, horror, shock, mind-killing terror. Its spectrum rivals my kin's own desire for size."
"And there's only one of it?" The question's tone all but begged for the answer to be yes.
"When my brood mother's brood mother was but a hatchling, back in pyramid days … no. But only one remains now."
"And it's had access to us for all of that time?"
"Believe that it has. It has fed at its leisure. Fed in great quantities to sustain it for centuries. Fed on individuals for pleasure's sake. And whenever it took what was to another psychephage's target – then it would do so and couldn't be stopped."
"There's not another psychephage that can challenge it? Surely there must be another old coatl or beldam, or maybe a group…"
"It killed all competition, Stormcrow." The Ambassador's voice grew bitter and higher. "Do you imagine humankind is alone in feeling fear? In having souls? It fed on all who resisted it, until those left feared to resist it, and that accommodated it perfectly. We withdraw when it rises to hunt, and we ration ourselves as best we may until it sleeps again."
"You hide from it," said Coraline bluntly.
The Ambassador didn't answer, merely gripping her cup and saucer so hard the china almost seemed to squeak in protest. Coraline settled, beginning to compose her next question before the Ambassador spoke again, light and sing-song as if recounting a fairy-tale.
"One fine day – many hundreds of years ago – a trading galleas cut through the waters that led to Italian ports, heavy with Caffan refugees and vermin. And – for this ship was loved by its crew, and so it opened the way freely to us – in the scurrying emptiness of the hold, it was no great effort for Tantibus to reach out, seize but one of the vermin, and weave a dark pestilence into its blood. And but a few years later, Europe's cities turned into charnel-pits, rotting over with the fear born of ignorance and unanswered prayers."
"Wait…" Coraline blinked, non-plussed by what the Ambassador had just casually revealed. "You're not seriously saying that it caused the …"
"It fed on that for many a year, and soon slept again. And we'd dared to hope that it may sleep for good before it awoke again; this time, in China. It whispered rebellion into one man's mind, and fed as Manchu soldiers sacked their way to Beijing and as the empire ate itself in civil war. Feeding on the terror of millions caught up in bloodshed they didn't seek."
"How could it…"
"And after that … well, it drank from the march of your empires, from the overwhelmed weak and enslaved, even as it ensnared from the shadows." The Ambassador considered. "Those were but a few of its actions, and certainly not the last before now. And those are but a few of the horrors it perpetrated against your kind. The kin suffered their share. The Slow Night, the annihilation of the Eurasian kimatine packs, Qucumatz's last stand… shall I tell you those stories, Stormcrow? Or perhaps you'll count yourself content with the moral of all this, which is of course we hide from it, you fool. The alternative is annihilation. We cannot fight it!"
The Ambassador's voice had heightened, coming to a savage shriek for the last sentences, Coraline taking a cautious step as the creature grew agitated.
"And when did you start to suspect that it was returning this time?" asked Coraline, her tone very, very carefully controlled.
"A year before was when it became unmistakeable," said the Ambassador. "All the old shadows were stirring, all the old mind-destroying coldness nipping at us again. Even the Grimalkind, arrogant and forgetful and stupid as they are, couldn't help but feel something was amiss, though they had no idea what."
"So when I asked you if a psychephage – any psychephage at all, really – might have been involved in Massachusetts, you lied to me," continued Coraline, her voice cool and smooth. "And when Wybie asked you how a kimatine could be driven mad – through induced fear, as it turns out – you lied to him as well."
"I hardly lied. I merely used half-truths. Directed you and he along other avenues of investigation. Omitted parts of my knowledge. I am an ambassador, after all. I needs must employ my talents."
"Interesting. Tell me, Ambassador, do you know how Tantibus has made its grand entrance this time around?"
"It made its entrance with the aid of human terrorists – its cultists, probably. They attacked this city last night, targeting civilians. They killed them by the thousands. And it killed one of my oldest friends. And its lackeys attacked other cities, in this country and others, with similar results."
She raised the falchion again, her knuckles white around the hilt.
"We're only now getting a full tally, Ambassador. And you know what? I'd be willing to bet that a pretty good portion of the hundred thousand people who were slaughtered last night would still be alive if you had TOLD ME EVERYTHING FROM THE BEGINNING!"
The thin line that passed for the Ambassador's lip curled.
"Spare me your indignation over lives lost, Stormcrow." Her voice was cold and contemptuous. "I raised not a claw to a single one of those souls, and that particular concern ill becomes you, killer of thousands."
"What the hell are you talking …"
"Must I recount your own life, Stormcrow?" half-screamed the Ambassador, her self-control falling violently astray. "Shall I tell you more tales? Of the young beldam, mine own sister-daughter, who had not even finished her first hunt before she was hunted down and murdered by a monster wielding the bane. Of the oldest of the coatls, too old and proud and near-senile to know when he should have turned down a human's deal, and who was killed by your hand on the field of your own White House. Of the three siblings, phylaxii, who were outnumbered and alone, but who gave their all to try and save us from you. And of the thousands others, dead by your hand or by those you inspired."
Fury all but seemed to blaze off the Ambassador. Coraline kept her gaze level with the Ambassador's own as the beldam's face slowly began to sharpen once more.
"Did you spare a thought for them, Stormcrow? Did you feel regret for what you did as they died by your terror? Or did you feel naught but the bloodlust of the hunt?"
"Oh, I get it," said Coraline, cutting the Ambassador, her voice heavy and vicious with sarcasm. "I'm the monster here. Well, I did have to earn the Stormcrow title somehow. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that every single psychephage I took down had either killed or was killing children. And you dare complain when we fight back, when we can finally defend ourselves?"
"We have no choice, you fool. We eat the souls of your kind . We feed or we die."
"Then it's just as damn well we came up with the synthetic soul-matter, isn't it? Thank the Concord. Without it, don't think I would have stopped for a second. For a single damn second."
The two stared each other down, fury-filled echoes ringing off the walls, the gas light flaring, caught up in the uncanny currents running thick in the room.
Coraline spoke first.
"This is dangerously irrelevant," she said slowly, carefully, icily.
"Not so. Take it, at least, as a motive for my withholding of information."
"And what was that motive?"
"If you are plagued by a monster beyond confrontation," said the Ambassador, as simply and clearly as if she was explaining it to a child, "Then what better deliverance than seeing it clash with another monster?"
Coraline held her breath, considering her next move as carefully as she could.
She was on the edge of a precipice.
It had been satisfying, so, so satisfying, to openly rage against the Ambassador, to rip open the scars which had never fully healed (even as a part of herself whispered the Ambassador's words back, killer bloodlust monster Stormcrow, and shrank fearfully from them) and to lose herself to a part of her anger.
But in this moment, she couldn't afford to. Because in the Ambassador, past the mask all but ripped away, there was mixed desperation and spite. One could yet help her. The other would leave her adrift. And there was something about her last words that invited examination.
Atop something needle-thin and twice as delicate, Coraline ventured.
"Tell me," she said after a long moment's pause, by which time the Ambassador had started to recompose herself, "Are psychephages immortal?"
The Ambassador's composure broke briefly, displaying surprise and bemusement at the query.
"In practice, no. But if we won all confrontation and succeeded in every hunt, then we might yet. Our realm does not suffer some of your evils, natural annihilation among them. Why is this asked?"
Coraline leaned against one wall, resting briefly and shifting the falchion in her hands, holding it with both hands, tip resting on the floor. "Have you ever heard of something called dented iron?"
"I take it that it means nothing so obvious as a battered bane artefact." The Ambassador was irritated, and yet curious.
"It's named after a condition in our football players," said Coraline, her tone now quiet and even. "They take a lot of damage - through pummelling, tackling, strain, all that fun stuff – and it builds up. Scar tissue's a shoddy replacement for the original stuff, and old injuries linger and drag you down. And they die sooner than other people for it. And after a lifetime spent taking knocks, I think I'm in the same boat as them."
She looked right at the Ambassador. "There's only so much our medicine can yet do. I've got two or three decades left, at the most. How much longer will an immortal unchallengeable fear-eater have?"
The words stung, raising the old familiar numbness that had first hit her when she'd spoken to a doctor about a few growing aches several years back. At some point, she knew she'd begin to break down for good, and it was a sour and dark thought. To bring it before the Ambassador rankled. But if she wanted to save her world, what choice did she have?
"Ambassador, if I'm one of your monsters … then please, for god's sake, help me take down the other one now."
The Ambassador's face was infuriatingly and tellingly blank as she carefully sipped from her cup, black button-eyes boring into Coraline.
"When Tantibus attacked yesterday, it took us by surprise," pressed on Coraline. "All we had at hand were a few rounds of ferroshot and basic weapons from which to fire them. And we managed to hurt it. It healed, but we hurt it, and we can kill it, but we need your help." The words were sincere. Against such a terrifying unknown as Tantibus, Coraline wanted every scrap of help she could claw together. And the Ambassador's full knowledge would be invaluable.
The Ambassador placed her cup back on the saucer and contemplated the contents for a few moments before she looked back up at Coraline.
"Tantibus does not merely hunt," she said. "It delights in setting examples. If it imagined that the kin had found a reason to not fear it, then it would devote much long and bloody work to giving us a reason once more. We would court decimation should it discover any assistance."
"You've already told what it is what it does, and how you usually react to it," said Coraline. "You don't think that was something I could try and use against it?"
"It was information offered for a cautionary sake, not an assistive one."
"No. It was a little more than that," said Coraline softly. For as the Ambassador spoke, Coraline realised that she was nearer the mark than she had believed.
For she, and the knowledge and tools accumulated by the Department of the Supernatural and all its counterparts worldwide, were the best and only chances the psychephages had for seeing their oldest nemesis destroyed.
The Ambassador knew this. She wanted Coraline to defeat the fear-eater, even as she believed it was impossible, and the conflict tore at her, eroded her cool detachment and coupled with her desperation to lunge like a leaf in the wind when Coraline had brandished the possibility of her winning.
The Ambassador remained composed, all signs of her earlier eruption now vanished as she seemed to give her own thoughts weight. Coraline affected to absently play with the falchion's hilt. Inside, her heart was beating like a jackhammer.
If she'd screwed up … if she'd misinterpreted things … if Wybie and the Department had no tricks to pull out and Tantibus struck again … damn it, why did the Ambassador pretend at that silence all the ti…
The Ambassador straightened her back and spoke.
"Even if I felt your …ah, fool's errand deserved more than cursory dismissal, I couldn't answer you," the Ambassador began, "The decision to do so could not rest solely on my shoulders."
Coraline frowned. "I was under the impression you were one of the most powerful and influential beldams in the Sur-real."
"As of ten years ago, after the Toulouse Scouring, yes. But I am not more powerful than something I am but a part of. And war in any form against La Terreur En Marche must be considered carefully. By many heads. By all, if possible."
The Ambassador, with an illusionist's twist of her hand, slid the cup and saucer into nothingness. Her claw hands clapped briefly, the sound echoing and acquiring an eldritch timbre with each successive echo, and she spoke one word, short and unprounceable.
It would be inaccurate to say that, from Coraline's perspective, the room expanded outwards, space rushing in to fill what had once been a void.
It would be inaccurate to say that countless doors of faint light formed in the walls and ceiling, sliding open in a thousand different ways from a thousand different angles to admit space and other things to the room.
It would be marginally more accurate to say that both of these things happened at the same time, space sliding around itself in such a way as to make Coraline's eyes hurt, setting the walls criss-crossing with lines of white fire that moulded itself into wood and metal, that opened as space collapsed.
The whole thing happened in seconds, and as Coraline turned to regard the room; even past the blur as solidity tried to reassert itself, it didn't take hawk eyes to see that they'd acquired visitors.
Shapes moved in the blurry dark. Humanoid shapes, bestial shapes, winged and centauroid and massively serpentine and utterly alien shapes rose around her, moving forwards.
Eyes stared down at her, orbs of fire and pinpricks of light and pits of ice and obsidian, buttons and coins and nothingness and ink and clock faces, in pairs and singly and in numbers beyond counting.
Her merely human senses tried to register just how much more Sur-real the room had gotten, and gave up.
Coraline, irrational as she knew it was, found herself truly wishing for something a little more substantial than a sword.
"Kin," said the Ambassador, her clear voice casting itself over the low litany of rustling and hissing and murmuring surrounding them on all sides. "The Stormcrow has a proposition for us."