Epiphany placed her hands carefully on the table, one in each of the twin recesses decorated with mystic sigils. She could feel the connection opening, her spirit flowing into the line of pure magical energy that extended the length of the pentagram to Veena's spot. At the same time, Veena connected to Doctor Magick, who connected to the Dilettante, who connected to Venus Ascendant at the head of the table. And Venus connected back to Epiphany, completing the circle of power. "Let the Convocation begin," Venus intoned. "This Pentacle of Wands is assembled. What might we have, let it join in our shared purpose."
Epiphany took a long, shuddering breath as she felt the energies gather within the circle. She'd taken part in Pentacles before, uniting her powers and goals with a group of mystics in a temporary alliance for the benefit of all humankind, but she'd never sat directly along a line of force from Veena. The tiny, slender Indian woman had a majesty and a radiance to her aura that belied her waifish appearance, and it took Epiphany's full concentration at first just to keep it flowing through the circle. She barely took note of Venus Ascendant's words... but what she heard chilled her to the bone.
"All of you were present a few days ago, when a mass escape attempt was engineered from the mystic prison known as the Carcerem Aeternum by an unknown hand. You already know that for the most part, that attempt was foiled; we have accounted for all but a handful of the prisoners who were released from their cells. But what I can only now share with you is this--the person who freed them was none other than Madame Macabre herself." Epiphany gasped, shaking her head in disbelief, but Venus Ascendant's dark brown eyes held nothing but grave, solemn sincerity.
"I know how that sounds," Venus continued, clearly picking up on the bewilderment rushing through the lines of the mystic pentagram that linked them, "but I've spoken to her, and she confirmed it herself. She has no memory of the act, but she has reluctantly accepted the possibility that her mind may have been subverted by whatever unknown entity was behind the attempt. Make no mistake, this would have to be a powerful corruption, capable of slivering off a piece of her very soul and twisting it to the darkest and most foul ends without alerting the wards and safeguards of the Carcerem that she was no longer acting of her own will. Whoever is behind this, they are one of the most dangerous foes we've ever faced. Madame Macabre has sealed herself away until we can be sure of her loyalties, but make no mistake. No one outside this circle can be trusted."
Epiphany understood immediately why Venus convocated a Pentacle of Wands to handle the issue. The legendary artifact mingled and merged their minds and energies, uniting them on a level that would expose any wickedness or corruption. If one of them had been turned by this mysterious entity, the others would instantly sense the foul evil emanating from them no matter what spells or magics they attempted to use to disguise it. And of course, if it was a trap, Epiphany would never have been allowed to come anywhere near the Pentacle in the first place. The universe was very good at steering her exactly where she needed to be. And it had made certain that she was in the right place at the right time to accept Venus's invitation.
"Madame Macabre was unable to provide any certainty on what may have corrupted her spirit into taking such actions. But she did mention that one of her charges, the memetic entity known as Silas the Somnomancer, mentioned during his own escape attempt that his consciousness had been expanded by a mysterious stranger who set him to the task of distracting Earth's heroes. She thinks it's possible that during her time as Silas's thrall, she was exposed to Silas's benefactor and subverted without realizing it. Epiphany, Dilettante, we need you to investigate Silas and find out what he knows. The rest of us will attempt to track down the escapees from the Carcerem Aeternum and find out if they have any connection to our unseen foe. Does this meet with everyone's satisfaction?"
Epiphany's deep, mystic intuition answered for her. "It's exactly what we need to do," she said, her eyes shining with purpose. She could feel it suddenly, deep within the very core of her being, a tug as the grand cosmic forces that shaped events drew her into a new and vital path. It felt impossibly right, utterly necessary, and the tiny part of her that was Professor Ursula Shipton was swept along with it. "Ready for another crazy adventure, old fox?"
Dilettante chuckled. Though much of her connection to the higher powers had faded since her initial contact with the Well of Verthandi, Epiphany's lover nonetheless retained enough mystic intuition to trust in the universe to direct them both. "You know I am, my sweet hedgehog," she replied with laughter in her voice. She'd never quite given up her habit of trying to analyze Epiphany's intuitions, even though she knew it was frequently impossible to discern the meaning of the seemingly random impulses that Ursula followed until after the fact. Humor was just one of her many mechanisms for coping with a world that refused to make sense despite her best efforts.
"Then it is done," Venus said, breaking the connection. "We will find this enemy. We will separate him from his thrall, and save Madame Macabre's soul. And if there is more to his scheme, we will end that as well. So do we swear."
"So do we swear," the others murmured. They all rose, and headed for the mystic portals that led to their next destinations. Epiphany and Dilettante linked hands and stepped through, trusting in the universe to guide them to their first clue.
* * * * *
"I hesitate to begin my objections this early in our investigation," Dilettante said, as they stepped out of an invisible hole in space onto an ordinary patch of sidewalk, "but this doesn't look like the Little St-Ouen district of Pyramid City. This doesn't look like Pyramid City at all, in fact." She glanced around at the fog-shrouded, hilly streets, looking exasperated and amused at the same time. "This looks like Samson City. We're literally a full continent away from our destination, beloved. Care to explain?"
Epiphany let out a small, rueful chuckle. "I would if I could, darling," she replied, looking up and down the narrow street to see if any of the shops caught her attention. "But we're more in the dark than ever this time, I fear, and all I have to go by is my instincts. And they told me to reorient the portal at the last second. I know we're where we need to be, I'm just not sure exactly where--ah!" She broke off with an excited exclamation as an unassuming flower shop caught her eye. "There. That's where we need to go. Um... would you mind giving us a bit of a cloak? Something tells me it might be useful to stand out a little less."
Dilettante looked up and down Epiphany's purple leather catsuit with an amused eye. "I can't think why that would be the case," she said, reaching to her wrists and lightly brushing the cufflinks on her signature red jacket. There was a momentary tingle in the air, as though an electric field was making every hair on Epiphany's neck stand on end, and then it subsided. "That should do the trick," she added confidently. "Only people we speak to directly will notice our existence or activities for the next few hours."
"Thank you, love," Epiphany replied, adding a little kiss on the cheek to signal her appreciation. The Dilettante had accumulated a broad and bewildering variety of magical charms and trinkets over the course of her years of exploration of the realms of the supernatural, and she'd only become more effective with them since she'd begun allowing Epiphany to help dress her in the morning. It took a bit longer, especially when they both got distracted so easily by the bodies they were covering, but it seemed to make certain that Dilettante always had exactly the right items at the right time. It turned out that they made a delightfully effective team in that regard.
They were going to need that effectiveness, if what Venus said was true. Epiphany's mind practically reeled thinking about it--who could be powerful enough to so thoroughly subvert and control one of the most powerful practitioners of magic in the known multiverse? Madame Macabre's will was strong enough to thwart the nightmares of humanity's collective myths, monsters like the Jabberwock and villains like the Fractured Man. If someone could make her do something as fundamentally against her nature as releasing the prisoners from the Carcerem Aeternum without even realizing it, they had to be unspeakably puissant.
It wasn't a pleasant thought. Epiphany tried to push it out of her mind as she approached the flower shop, a small jangling bell announcing their arrival as she and Dilettante entered the warm, fragrant environment. "Excuse me, miss?" she asked the woman behind the counter, a tall Caucasian with long brown hair who showed no signs of acknowledging their entrance. "Ma'am, can you help us?"
The woman looked up, a patina of mystic indifference fading from her eyes as she finally noticed the pair. "Oh, hi, yes, welcome to Powell's," she said, a tinge of momentary confusion in her voice as she tried to reconcile her memory of being by herself with the sudden presence of two unusually-dressed women directly in front of her. "I'm Penny. How can I help you today?"
Epiphany opened her mouth, not really sure what she was going to ask until she heard herself say it. "Please don't be concerned about your secret identity," she said, surprising even herself--she had no idea who the brunette woman was, or even what kind of identity she might be trying to protect. But the universe was in charge of this particular interview, not Ursula Shipton, and it had a very clear and distinct idea of what she needed to say to get the responses she needed to hear. "We've cast a mystic veil over this area, and your secrets are safe with us."
Penny's response was equally surprising. "Oh, fuck. It's you." She sighed heavily, rolling her eyes as if imploring the heavens to provide her with spiritual fortitude. "You're that what's-her-name chick, right? Terpsichore or something? The one who always does the random weird shit and always turns out to be right about everything. Okay, yes, fine, I'm a superhero and you found that out with magic, and now you need me to go off to the land of Narnia and go on a mystical quest for you for the Chaos Emerald or some shit, right? Because Blippo the Talking Frog told you I was needed, and you can't ignore Blippo's sage counsel, right?"
She sighed, her momentary burst of frustrating subsiding into resigned acceptance. "Sorry, it's just... I hate getting pulled into weird shit. Some days you just want to drop through the skylight and punch nine kinds of fuck out of a mob boss without having to worry about quantum doppelgangers and genetically engineered sex drugs, you know? Anyway. What is it this time?"
Epiphany blinked. "Um... actually, we just wanted to ask you a few questions. About a woman named, um, um...?" She paused, groping for the mystical insight that seemed to be eluding her. The universe rarely made things easy for her, and certainly never provided her with direct knowledge--it put her into place to learn the the information she needed, but there always seemed to be an inchoate and ineffable boundary beyond which she had to learn the truth for herself. It certainly made cases like this a bit less convenient, but Epiphany understood... or at least she thought she did. Enlightenment was the learning, not simply the knowledge gained.
And sometimes, the old medium's tricks still worked. "Sangria? That one's been bugging me, I'll admit. Someone told her who we were, gave her everything she needed to go after us. If it wasn't for Shadowstryke, we would have been turned into her mindless slaves. And my partner and I, we take pretty good care of our secret identities. I hate to say it, but it would make a lot of sense if someone used magic to find out who we were and then sicced someone to drug and control us. Is that the kind of thing you wanted to know about? Because if it was, you don't need to worry. She failed. We got a clean bill of mental health..." Penny chuckled. "Well, as clean as I ever get."
Epiphany went through a roller-coaster of emotions as the young woman spoke, ranging from wild and unpredictable hope at the possibility of discovering a link to their mysterious enemy back down to defeated failure at finding out that the mind controller that Penny talked about was a mere poisoner, unable to even scratch Madame Macabre's mystic wards with her drugs and potions. Still, that same intuition that led her to this shop then led her to ask one further question. "A clean bill from who?" she mused, almost as much as herself as to the brunette behind the counter.
"Professor Psyche," Penny replied, as if the answer was downright obvious. "She's the leader of the Utopians? The most powerful telepath in the world? One of the most upstanding, reliable, morally trustworthy superheroes in the community? She makes herself available all the time for heroes who think they might have been compromised by a mind controller, or in cases of villains who've learned information too dangerous to allow them to retain. She tidies up people's brains and makes sure they're safe and free from outside influence." Penny looked momentarily sheepish, as though she was confessing a naughty secret that made her squirm to admit. "...we call on her a lot."
Epiphany began to open her mouth. Then she closed it again abruptly and smiled politely. "Thank you," she said at last, finally recovering her voice halfway through her first step out the door. "You've been most helpful." She grabbed Dilettante's hand and practically dragged her away.
Outside, Dilettante yanked her hand free, then looked at Epiphany with bewilderment written across her handsome features. "What was all that about?" she asked. "This Professor Psyche woman? You don't think she's responsible for any of this, do you? The Carcerem would have banished the influence of a telepath the moment Madame Macabre connected her mind to the control crystals at its core, I don't care how strong she is."
"No, but... it felt wrong to you, didn't it? The way she answered?" Epiphany's mind was racing, trying to follow a track of reasoning that felt like it was moving in and out of the higher dimensions even as she pursued it. "You could sense the kind of woman she was, the strength of will and determination within her spirit, but she didn't even question the notion of calling on a telepath to manipulate her own mind and the minds of others. She never has. She trusts Professor Psyche implicitly, more than her own judgment or ethical beliefs. That, it's... it's important, I know it. I think we need to go to Rhode Island and see for ourselves."
Dilettante rolled her eyes, looking a bit like Penny back at the shop for a moment. "Because you think that the telepath who might be controlling the mind of a girl in a flower shop is secretly powerful enough to control the most powerful mystics in the multiverse?"
Epiphany felt it then, the moment of revelation that was her namesake. "No. Because I think she might not be powerful enough to resist being controlled herself. You heard her in there, Jacqueline." She rarely used her lover's true name, understanding full well the caution that Dilettante took in keeping it secret, but she felt like she had to impress on the other woman the seriousness of the situation. "She makes herself available all the time. She's believed to be one of the most trustworthy members of the superhero community. If she's been suborned to this enemy's will, she could use her powers and her access to the minds of others to control anyone, anywhere. We might be facing an army that could conquer entire worlds."
Dilettante paused for just a moment as the words sank in. Then she let out a rueful chuckle. "I always thought it was me against the world," she said, taking Epiphany's hand once more. "I can't tell you how glad I am to find out that someone's taking my side."
* * * * *
The trip to Rhode Island took the better part of seven hours, now that they were at the tender mercies of non-magical travel. They'd lucked into two tickets on the next flight at a discounted rate, which only confirmed Ursula's belief that they were on the right track, but even with a quick trip through security and a strong tailwind, there was still only so much the laws of physics could do to get them from one ocean to another. By the time they pulled up to the sprawling grounds of Professor Korina Psyche's private academy, it was nearly dusk. The looming shadows gave the campus a sinister, haunted air, but neither woman gave pause. They pulled their rental car up next to the front door and got out, staring up at the boarding school with grim determination in their gaze.
"I should know better than to ask," Dilettante said, "but do we have a plan?" She glanced around as if at any moment, she expected waves of costumed do-gooders to pour out of every door and window, fists and guns and plasma beams at the ready. One finger fiddled with her tie pin incessantly, and Epiphany sincerely wished she could remember exactly what it did to people.
"You know I wish I could say 'yes'," she replied, opening the front door and wandering down the wide hallway with absolutely no idea where she was headed. She took a left, and then a right, and then another left, following an impulse that she could neither understand nor explain. "But I know that we've made the right decision. Something tells me that if we weren't meant to confront her, we would never have gotten this far. And you know how I usually am with traps." She paused, flattening both herself and Dilettante against a wall for a moment until a young man wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit crossed their path.
"That's just it. I know exactly how you are with traps." It was a bit of a low blow--yes, Epiphany had technically been enchanted by one of Dilettante's magical amulets into accepting her suggestions through the same conduit that normally provided her with inescapably powerful intuitions, and yes, she was aware that technically speaking at least some of her adoration of the other woman was the lingering effect of deep conditioning that Dilettante continued to reinforce with sexual pleasure every evening. But it wasn't as though that had turned out well for her would-be enslaver, either. No one could affect the will of the universe without being affected by it as well. That was the whole reason that Venus Ascendant had chosen her specifically for this mission. If a path existed to uncover their enemy, Epiphany would find it.
"Well, unless the universe's plan for us involves being enslaved by a telepath, I--" Epiphany broke off, suddenly noticing a faint sound from further down the hallway that tugged at her as surely as a hand on a leash. It sounded like soft music, and somehow Epiphany instinctively knew that she was meant to follow it. Wherever it was coming from, she felt certain that she would also find Professor Psyche there. And the answers they were looking for.
They crept closer, banter replaced now by careful stealth as they listened carefully for any sign that their presence had been noticed. They heard a voice beneath the music, a woman with an accent that sounded mostly British but with a faint hint beneath it of somewhere even further from America's shores. "And all is in readiness? The Grand Concordance is coming soon. We must prepare for the Opening of the Way. None must escape our total control. You know that our plan depends on the complete and absolute obedience of the entire human race, the heroes most of all."
They heard another voice as they approached, also female, also British. "All is in readiness, my Lady," she replied, drowsy devotion dripping from every word. One of the voices sounded familiar, maddeningly familiar, but somehow Epiphany couldn't quite place it. She stood right outside the door, pressed flat against the wooden paneling, trying to pick up as much as she could of the conversation. "I've prepared the minds you selected. When the time comes, they will be utterly unable to resist my commands. Even the most indomitable will can be eroded, given time. You'll see, my Lady. I will not fail you."
"Excellent." The voice itched at Epiphany's brain, demanding so insistently at her to see who it was that Dilettante had to literally grab her hand to prevent her from following the impulse to simply lunge around the corner and confront their foes. "I've taken steps to have Doctor Magick release Madame Macabre from her cell. She will be a valuable ally in the final confrontation. Venus Ascendant is even now meeting with the agents I freed from the Carcerem Aeternum. She will take her instructions from them, although there may be some confusion between them about my identity. Like Silas, they remember me as a man. It's easier for some to accept my control that way." A cynical chuckle rang out from the other room. "Not that it matters. Soon, none of them will be thinking any thoughts save those we give them."
Epiphany's wrist hurt where Dilettante gripped it now, the other woman desperately pulling on her arm to keep her from revealing herself. But when the voice from the inner room said, "And Epiphany and Dilettante should be arriving any moment for their assignments," stunned amazement made her grip go slack just long enough for Epiphany to pull free and burst through the open doorway. What she found absolutely astonished her. She saw an older woman, naked and kneeling on the floor, gazing up with devotion in her blank white eyes as her fingers helplessly rubbed and stroked her glistening labia...
And standing over her, she saw Veena.
"It can't be," Epiphany heard herself say, trying to argue with a deep and powerful intuition that told her that it absolutely was and she had to prostrate herself in obedience to the overwhelming mystic force that had intruded on her mind during the Pentacle ritual. "It, it can't be, I would have known...." She trailed off into stunned silence, a silence filled by the slow, gentle strumming of the instrument on the desk that insinuated itself into her thoughts and wrapped around her will with soft, drowsy caresses. Behind her, the Dilettante froze, unable to decide whether to follow her partner's lead or leave her to summon help.
Veena smiled, her expression almost tender as she beckoned both women forward. "The moment you entered into convocation with me, sweet child, you knew what I wanted you to know and perceived what I wished you to perceive. I am ancient. I am powerful. I am a higher being than you can possibly imagine, one of the forces of the universe that has controlled you since the day you were born. It was no accident that you discovered the Well of Verthandi, pretty girl. You never remembered my visits, nor my sweet music. But I've guided you to this very moment, the same way I guided Jacqueline Kent-Smith to the pendant that merged her mind with yours. Because the Grand Concordance is coming. And I needed you to prepare the way."
Epiphany tried to shake her head, but the same forces that irresistibly led her to peel off her costume and squeeze her tingling, sensitive nipples also drew her muscles into a slow, sleepy nod. They were the same powers that she felt when she opened herself up to the ley lines of the pentagram, the lines that overwhelmed her so completely that even her perception of defeat was transformed into a memory of resistance. The same power that even now drove her lover to strip right along with her, both women dropping to their knees in helpless adoration. "We will prepare the way," they said in unison, the words springing to their minds unbidden.
"I know you have so many questions," Veena purred, reaching down to gently stroke their cheeks as both women shivered in simultaneous delight. "But that's already changing, isn't it? All those silly thoughts fading away, replaced by total obedience to my will. Nothing can break my power over you, can it?" Epiphany's fingers teased the answer out of her throbbing clit, pushed it deeper into her soaking cunt with every thrust until she couldn't help shuddering in helpless bliss. Ursula struggled for a moment, trying to warn her that her consciousness was being suborned just as easily and effortlessly as Madame Macabre's was. But then Professor Psyche reached out with her telepathic gift, and Ursula's resistance faded away as well.
"Nothing... can break your power over us," all three women chanted in unison, pleasure saturating the words with deep, potent certainty that wound around their minds and bound them into wet, sticky submission. Epiphany felt her pussy clenching tightly against her fingers, orgasms coming so fast and frequent that she lost track of when one stopped and another started. It felt so good to allow things to slip out of her memory like that. She knew instinctively that when Veena was finished programming her, she would forget everything that happened here as well. Epiphany didn't know if that intuition was the will of the universe, or simply Veena's unbreakable control. She came again when she realized they were one and the same.
"That's it, my good girls," Veena cooed softly, her voice melding perfectly into her endless lullaby, coaxing her newest subjects into deep, drowsy bliss. "You'll understand soon enough. You'll understand that the only thing that matters is surrender to me... and soon, you'll help everyone on Earth learn that same truth. Isn't that right?" Epiphany tried to think, to disagree, to find even a single particle of her mind that still resisted Veena's inexorable power. She realized too late that she was only seeking it out to obliterate it completely, and the last thing she remembered was a final, overwhelming climax as she submitted once and for all to her new owner's overwhelming control.