July 26th, 2011 (07:06 PM). Edited July 30th, 2011 by Scourge of Nemo.
In which the victims of fate get a little pissy.rating
Currently PG-13 for mild language, violence, and... intensity...? DON'T BAN ME I'M LABELING IT.
notes on stuff
HI THERE. I'm new here. Not new to writing, though. I'm hoping to weasel my way into PC's writing community, 'cause it looks splendid.
SO HI AGAIN.
First section of the prologue doesn't look all that Pokémon-y, but... the story is. I swear. Stuff takes awhile to come together. REGARDLESS.
I hope you'll take a minute and read.
Running Through Daises
prologue - the priests and the flower girl
prologue one - the sheep's game
prologue two - hyacinth girl
+the priests and the flower girl+
That is the road to Heaven, my love,
and that is the road to Hell.
And that is the road to Faery,
where you and I must dwell.
-Thomas the Rhymer
Your best hope would be to de-personalize what follows
the sheep's game
(beware the false prophets)
Chains clinking, ice crunching with each step. Flowers crushed under the heels, beaten and strangled into the dirt. Dead. Happily, he thinks, giving a yellow-toothed smile to himself and flicking his cigarette. Days like this, they’re aching to die. Go down with smiles on their faces. The ashes, flames still flickering and sputtering in the mist, flutter through the air to join the flowers’ corpses.
The wind picks up, jostling the overgrown grass, the weeds, the un-pruned trees.
Across the yard, a porch swing gives an unsightly creak. Rosaries, one after another, shift, tinkling, crosses turning on their chains. One baby Jesus, two baby Jesus… There must be fifty, sixty, even, all different—wood, glass, dyed plastic, metal, colors, lots of colors—all with the dead god and the virgin. The cigarette trembles a bit.
A cell phone rings, seems out of place in the wind and the mist—too sharp, too defined to survive in the hazy pall. He cuts off its voice with a lazy flip of a hand and grits words into it before the man on the other side can speak up. “Nice flower beds. Good-smelling. Dahlias, I think. Knew a girl named Dahlia once. Fun to step on.”
“If you’re done violating their horticulture, would you mind knocking?”
“’Fraid I can’t,” the loiterer says into the receiver, puffing a leisurely smoke ring into the mist. It floats, barely discernable in the gloom, mixing with the steam of his breath. (Ring of fire, unicorns on the clouds.) “They’ve got their deck all covered in crucifixes. I could melt if I get too close.” He’s too loud, too mean for the still air.
The voice on the other end fits in with the dead air and the fragments. It’s sick, weak and scratchy, like there’s a pack of nails burrowed in the throat. If it stopped talking, he would just assume it’d dropped dead, and would probably hang up on it. “Darrow.” The exasperation sounds more like one-lunged respiration. “You’re Father Alexius Foulon. The girl is Cora Quarles. Enter. Avoid contact. Tell the parents the exorcism will be performed next week. Pretend to be interested. Leave. Order is negotiable.”
“Have some respect. The name’s Nix.”
The man, now identified as one Nicias Darrow—falsely, yes, but at least one of his credit cards is titled such—drops the cigarette butt. One boot smothers the sputtering nicotine carcass into the dirt and the flowers with unnecessary force, leaving inch-deep furrows. “Perform the exorcism? Yes, sounds splendid. (Darrow, the cell phone interrupts.) I even brought a printout of the rites—here, see? Well, no you don’t, because you morons picked me up off the streets and dumped me off like trash, like usual. Now what does this say? (Darrow.) Ecce Crucem Domini, fugite, partes adversae? Is that an igh or an ey? Who cares: I can do what I want. Language is fluid, or so the wise, non-stuffy grammarians tend to say. (Darrow…) Ridiculous notions of the church—these religious folks, by God. Look at all the little Jesuses on their house. Isn’t that insulting to their own religion, their savior hung from their roof like a birdhouse or a wind chime? Maybe I’ll just sprinkle some sink water on her and be done with it, shall I? Or maybe holy wafers will make it all go away. No family doesn’t have Nilla Wafers in the pantry. I could use a few of those.”
“Darrow!” The admonition morphs into wet coughs, mucus sloshing and ribcage contracting.
“Oh, dear. I hope you didn’t lose a vital organ there.”
“Foulon will rip your tongue out.” He sounds serious about this, like Foulon is any different from the rest of them, like Foulon isn’t just another man who grinds through another day and returns home to an empty house (friends, family—still empty, all of it) to devour chips and ice cream by the bowl, as if filling the void his God claims with the tangible and unclean. Like Foulon gives a damn.
Nicias regrets that this conversation is not face-to-face. He imagines shuddering in mock horror and grinning his favorite broken-toothed grin—oh, the humanity, he would say, eyes thrown wide open, hands fluttering in distress, I’ll have to resort to mimery. But no, such antics are wasted on the mechanic, uncaring mouthpiece. Instead, he scuffs his boots over the few still-standing flowers and mashes them completely, then bunny-hops a few times, just to ensure there will be no resurrections.
After the silence has been prolonged to a sufficiently obnoxious length, he resumes conversation. “Foulon will not rip my tongue out. No one actually cares about these petty little diversions of yours. The pizza man didn’t care, that grocer didn’t care, the florist didn’t care, the cat breeder didn’t care—if they cared, they would have done the damned things themselves, then hung me from a pole by my pancreas for ruining their lives. But no, these people, these scapegoats that disappear oh so often, with such splendid inconvenience—they’re helpless. I am just the ghost who hijacks their lives for a few days, then fades into obscurity. And where are they, meanwhile? Under a microscope, still-beating heart bared to the air? Frolicking in the sun? Dead, made new by your little agency? Given new life, new time, more sand trickling into their hourglass—free, and as such, unquestioned?”
He’s pausing now, smiling palely into the mist. It’s a pity, really, that he’s not standing before the man with the power. More itches would be scratched if he were actually moving with the words.
Nicias chuckles, for the cell phone’s benefit. “Oh, no…” It is quiet, soft, a drawn out exhalation. “They couldn’t catch me if they even knew I existed.” Another laugh. “So who’s left? If not them, who? Certainly not me. Certainly not you. Can you even stand? You’re like a stack of collapsible bones—no skin, no muscles, just a human on a stick, with a voice-box screwed awkwardly into somewhere that wasn’t intended to be a throat. Worthless. Powerless.” (And yet with so many lives at his fingertips…)
He clicks off the cell phone right in the middle of the messenger’s first syllable, blows another smoke ring. One of the crucified Jesus figures drifts toward him, glaring as if judging him for his sins. Liar, its starved ribcage seems to say. And in front of my mother, too. Have you no shame?
He has been more… facetious… than usual. He does not make threats he will not keep, usually. Get in, make a bit of a ruckus, do what he’s told, and get out, was the intention. Nicias is a coward, on some level. And yet—now that he thinks the matter over.... He did mean it. On some level, he always means everything. He also has his reputation to uphold. And. Well. He’s always wanted to perform an exorcism.
They’re all sweat and grease and gunpowder, gruff voices, clattering dice, twitching fingers on the trigger. She’s just another one of them, a man in demeanor with bullets on the brain. But even with her face stained black with kohl, skin too light for her poorly-dyed hair and lips fastened round a beer bottle’s neck, she still cheats them out of their money and their rations like the suavest of poker faces.
“Lancre, your wager.”
She gives him a look, a wily, ironic look—grey eyes wide in faux naivety, eyebrows furrowed with confusion. Tugs on her body armor, sucks on the glass. Flashes a finger sequence. Raise. Seven sixes. Not a word from this one.
The guys (three men and another woman, really) elbow each other expertly, avoiding grenade pins and protective spikes. “Oho, she’s going for the big ones,” chortles the lieutenant to her right. “Must gotta coupla sixes under there.” Four rounds of moderate betting, and to them, she’s just another gambler with nervous tics and an over-attachment to her money. Pity for them, she’s got lies coursing through her veins, little hunchbacked hemo-goblins wrapping gnarled fingers around untruths and omissions.
Corporal Lancre just grins her empty-eyed, hollow-faced grin. If you say so, boys. Her silence says more than her twisted words. Poor bluffing, they think. Suckers, says the rush of blood to her twitching fingers. Her hand creeps towards the gun, overeager, trembling.
The three others, privates all, glance at each other from the corner of their eyes. The woman—Lancre doesn’t know her name, but she’s a large broad, handy for meatshielding, with enough of a glint in her eyes to be of use—lifts and replaces her own cup with a threatening glower.
Lancre looks from man to man, her grimy face blank save for the tooth-baring smile, skeletal and sunken. Her fingers twitch against the cup, against the snake eyes and the bluff within. She looks away from the threats of Medusa’s grimace, of the basilisk’s golden stare, lest her lies turn her to stone (for the giant’s eye rolled inward, and died of what it saw). There is poison under her skin.
“I’ll match,” says the lieutenant.
Lancre’s smile does not move.
Around them, the copter shudders, blades whirring for purchase against overzealous wind. “Lavender Tower sited,” crackles the intercom. Guns in hand, the gamblers are soldiers again, jaws set, hands curled. Lancre is flicking the cup over, smile stone cold and faded to gray. The lieutenant groans, grins, hands over two grenades and a handful of multi-colored rations stubs. She just slouches and nods, gun slung over her shoulder and hands in her pockets. Doesn’t even bother showing triumph in her expression. Easy prey. They should know better, by now—but they never learn. No one ever learns.
He turns. “Alllrighty. We’re headed down from the broadcasting rigs to the base of the tower. Eliminate all Kanto soldiers; prisoners are too much of a liability. Shoot them all to the ground. Try not to raze the place. Once the building is secure, force B’ll take the town.” Voice gruff, solid. He’ll do what has to be done, because it’s what he’s been told to do and he knows nothing else.
The soldiers are tense, silent, as they approach, not slamming their guns against the ground, not chanting. Lancre flips the dice over in her fingers, tapping her feet and twitching at the neck. This isn’t their usual fair, this midnight copter ambush in an active satellite surveillance field. It doesn’t feel right—stinks worse than the body odor and gun grease around her. But she’s flighty, and paranoid, and has been known to stick her nose in places that don’t actually exist, so she sits back and waits it out. A good (moral, pleasing, fit for the Good Book) soldier waits for the blood and the carcasses to float their way up to the river surface before he calls foul.
(But there’s a parasite in her bones, chomping at marrow, begging for blood.)
There is a hobo at their door.
Well, not a hobo. A priest. But he looks like a hobo. Oversized boots have grime crusted to their tongues, burrowing its way through each and every crevice, clinging to heavy heel-chains and ragged scarf-ends (and—good Lord—is that one of their dahlias on the heel?)… pale white hair frays out in physically impossible directions, as if twisted out of place by barbed wire and gum drops—there actually is something that looks like a gum drop in his left ear. It’s nothing short of disgusting, a walking mass of odd smells and dirt.
John Quarles gives his wife a confused look. “Uh, evening, Cardinal…”
“I’m a cardinal now, am I?” the man mutters off to the side. His breath reeks of smoke and cigarettes.
From his right hand dangles one of their rosaries, ripped from the eaves; from his nicotine-stained left, a Bible worn by something other than care. Something suspiciously like a handful of rocks.
“Well, are you going to let me in? By God, what are you people thinking, leaving a helpless old elector on your deck in the cold? How cruel, how unusual. I think I may just have to report you to good old JP II—here, give me a pen, so I can record this misdemeanor in the Bible and fax it on up to the Big Book, the Man, the pope.” Somewhere between “are you going to let me in” and “how cruel,” the dirty priest has pushed his way past the door. He now examines their sconces with a critical eye and a grimy, fingerless-glove-gloved finger. “Now this is unusual. Have you had them appraised? I rather like…” He licks the dust off his finger.
“Ah, if you don’t mind, I can direct you to the dining room—” Adelaide Quarles realizes that, for some odd reason, her peace offerings of nourishment are falling on otherwise occupied ears, but her fragile mind does not quite make the connections necessary to reach the appropriate conclusion. “I’ll just go get a hymnal, then,” she says vaguely, and wanders off.
John puts his face in his hands.
The priest unscrews the nearest sconce, lifts his robes to his chest, and sticks the sconce into the pocket of newly unveiled cargo pants. “Must have a holy lamp holder on hand. Just in case.” A pause. “I don’t suppose you have any sterling silver about? Or perhaps a BluRay player?” A longer pause. “No, then. I’ll just have the sconces.”
This is what I get, John thinks. This is what I get for living my life. This stagnant, pointless life. Didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything, and now—demented wife, braindead kid, clergymen sticking my lightbulbs down their pants. Karma’s all over the place. Wrong, it’s got it all backwards and inside out, condemning me for the Jews in the soap and the dead in the street—none of his responsibility, none of his fault. I couldn’t’ve done this much ****. Expression resigned, he resists the urge to slam his head against the wall.
He leads the priest to their dining room and points wordlessly to the China cabinet. Turns to call up the stairs. “Cora… It’s dinner time. Come meet the new priest.” This is what I get. (The priest’s footprints are in his carpeting, a mishmash of dirt outlines and dead flowers.) Miserable life. Crushed under a heel, bleeding from the neck. Suffocating.
Left hand goes around right wrist. Arms behind back, shoulder straight, eyes blank. We mustn’t show our failure.
The priest points at the table, then to the China cabinet. “You’re going to serve me on this flimsy kidsware? I want that bowl. It’s nicer.” He pouts, lightless eyes wide, grime-covered hand dirtying the white linens.
John’s hand tightens around his wrist. Another acid tripping excuse for religious authority, another quack who can’t do a thing for his daughter, who can’t pull the demons from his life any better than he can pronounce half a verse from his own Good Book. John would swear, but he’s been brought up too well. All he can do is stoop down and pick up a dahlia petal off the floor, drop it in a vase of long-dead flowers.
The wife returns. Her turtleneck hangs askew; she grasps a cookbook in one snag-nailed, shaking hand. “I found the hymns…” Vacant smile, blurry eyes.
The daughter flounces demurely down the stairs, wrists bound, muzzle fastened across her smile.
John’s face whitens.
This is what I get.
For the wages of sin, the girl whispers.
There are smoke and tears in the air.
Something’s exploded somewhere it shouldn’t, and she’s caught in the middle of it. Got a burn in the back of her throat and soot on her trigger finger. They’re headed the wrong direction—everything is backwards, inside out. Their tactics are falling apart, fragmenting into bits of refractive glass that catch only seconds of the story, looping time and space and never getting anywhere.
(Bullets spray by her shoulder and in a second she’s whipped around, got the soldier dead on the ground, bleeding at the feet of a tombstone. It’s all around them, the death, the mourning and the buried. The ghosts are hiding, but the death remains.)
The wrong side—they came in from the wrong side. “We’re in the wrong hall—they’ve got it blockaded. No way through. All of the holes’re burning, now. We’re trapped, damn you. There’s no getting out of this.” She hears a panic in her voice that no one else perceives; it’s in the way her vowels wobble, the end of her words rise to a higher pitch. They just hear static and calm, but she’s falling apart on the inside. Her cool crumbles as the fire burns the walls to ash.
There’s always been something about flame…
“The Grey Eminence’s got it covered,” crackles the earpiece.
Her back twitches into a shudder. Memories fill her head, full of fire and hate, of the stench of crisped flesh and singed fur smothering, of far-seeing eyes and teeth that know the taste of blood and bone far too well. Shakes herself out of it. “The hell is that doing here?”
“Master sent him. The Eminence’ll be coming out on your side in a few minutes. Stay put and pick off the blockades.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that thing.” Death trap—that’s what this is. Enemies on both sides, her army and the other, flames devouring the gaps between.
Her head fogs over; fear settles into her bones. It’s in her voice, now, and they can hear it, she knows. She’s fragmenting; she feels that predator’s smile ripping into her arm and her hands are shaking, her feet are stumbling, and then the wall explodes and she’s tumbling backwards into a tombstone. It shatters beneath her.
Box of bones—that’s what she’s in, that’s where she belongs. Rotting away in a box with the dead. (She’ll be there ‘til she dies.)
There’s too much fire, too much smoke, and all she can remember in her muddled mind is the sear of glass melting onto flesh. The dull ring of the explosion in her ears pushes all but a thickened silence and the flaming roar from her mind.
The stench of the dead is all around her, rising from rotten remains. The devil is in the fire, grin wide, teeth sharp. Steel and skin crumple around her. Her blood burns away her veins.
There is something of the Devil in this man.
“I have power here, in this place.” His voice is quiet. The parents say nothing—merely blink with their dull, human eyes. “Why?”
The child hisses. Yes, there is something wrong in this man, in his too-white hair, the shine of his eyes—and it’s there, in the steel of his voice. He knows too well the turning of the world.
He sits across from the child, fingers steepled, tangled in the stolen rosary, poking out from half-intact gloves. His eyes follow her movements, steady, sharp. Waiting. Jumping from hands to muzzle to ringleted blonde hair and back again, but never meeting her gaze.
Look at me.
His face tightens, and the child knows he has heard.
Look at me.
He reaches behind him, scratches a cascade of dirt out of his hair. Turns to the father. Blatant disregard. Deep within the child, something sneers. Feeble humans, always railing against their faith.
The priest resumes his jaw-flapping once again. (Something in him is begging for an excuse to hold his eyes away—don’t look down, as they say.) “Look at you. You’re pathetic. I bumble about, half-drunk and smelling of smoke, and you just let me barge my way on in. You greet me with a feast, give me your grandmother’s untouched China, scrape and grovel and practically kiss my boots on your knees. And why? For your precious daughter—who you’ve chained to the table and gagged like a dog. What child worth so much could be so horrible as that?”
The family is dreadfully silent.
All the while, he’s stuffing food in his face, spitting out around it. And he’s the only one—the others have learned to wait, to sit frozen with their spoons in hand until the child has had her fill. He would learn, in time.
“No child, that’s what. Which means that I’m either here because your child is not a child—doubtful, that—or because my predecessors have been abysmal failures. A far more likely scenario, considering that they’re priests.” He pauses, dragging his teeth along a stripped chicken leg. “Not that I’m not a priest.” His eyebrows twitch in a way that makes it seem he’s begging them to throw him out on his face. (He is the most dangerous of liars—the honest liar, the man who bears his lies on his face and never hides his deceit.)
“Ohhhh, yes…. I’m the holiest of men.” His words are slow, and his face twists into a soft, almost baleful smile. “The daughter, though. What’s she doing? Speaking in tongues? Avoiding garlic? Getting rashy in the sun?” A lazy hand flips the chicken bone into a flowerpot. “Wrong ailment, sorry.” He licks his fingers clean, one at a time, making suctioned pops that slap wetly in the air.
“Tongues, deep voices from the underworld, hellfire in her eyes, contortionist feats….” He leans forward, elbows on the table, face grave, spoon full of mashed potatoes weaving thoughtful circles in the air. “Or perhaps she merely failed a math test? Yes, I could see that warranting a full body-bind. But I suppose… I suppose that would hardly make you quite so desperate.”
An escapist, this one—always talking, never saying a word. Babbles on and on with his meaningless nothing that’s worth just as little of the scraps of food in his teeth. What he has carefully constructed to sound like an elaborate revealing of truth is, in fact, little more than floundering confusion. If he talks enough, perhaps he will find dry land. (What a big mouth you have, says the red-hooded girl to her grandmother.)
“Well?” the priest demands, fork pointing with entitlement.
The child smiles coldly. So predictable in his unpredictability, demanding an answer to a question never asked. (Why do you let me do this? something in him is screaming. Why don’t you stop me?)
The father’s only response is to unhook the muzzle.
And then the child is gorging herself, silverware forgotten, fingers prying meat from bone, face drowning in the mashed potatoes, hair unheeded, dragging through gravy and jam. The child’s hunger is ravenous, unrelenting—peas cling to her cheeks, saliva oozes down her neck, and still she devours, never taking a breath.
The mother hides her face away.
“No one can help our daughter.” The father’s voice breaks, but not with despair. He has lead one too many failures through his house—lived one too many nights with a demon whispering in his ear. All he has left is his anger.
“Yup.” The priest leans back to pat his stomach and release a throaty belch. “So why am I here?”
“We asked and we received.” The father says this with a quiet desperation, like it should mean something, then says it again: “We asked, and we received.”
There is no logic in this, no reason—yet there is truth, of a sort. It is broken, twisted, hidden behind layers of unmeaning and illogicalities, but it is there, bent as the priest’s lies.
“You can’t help our daughter. You don’t even want to. So what the hell are you doing here? Why did you come? Why in hell?” The father spits the word, face twisting, and the wife cringes away, deeper into her hands, farther from the truth.
“I am but a slave of the gods.” Except for those times they allow me to become one. “They sent me, and so I have come.” It rings true (but there are formaldehyde and lye in his voice).
The father’s face burns red; his hands clench, his mouth contorts as he prepares an undoubtedly scathing retort.
The child rolls her eyes. She has had enough of this, the petty squabbles of these humans. “Look at me,” the child demands again, and this time her command has the strength of her human voice behind it.
The priest has no choice. Their gazes meet. The child sees dark, dark eyes—blacker than Hell. And then everything is blank.
July 28th, 2011 (02:30 PM).
The first thing I notice is that you have a very interesting writing style. It’s gritty, detailed in all the right places, and you give me a very good picture at what’s occurring. Since this is just the prologue, I’m not sure where you’re going with this or even what genre this is, but it catches my attention and makes me wonder at what is going to happen next. I’ve never read a fic quite like this before.
One thing I will point out, though, is this passage:
A cell phone rings, seems out of place in the wind and the mist—too sharp, too defined to survive in the hazy pall. “Nice flower beds. Good-smelling. Dahlias, I think. Knew a girl named Dahlia once. Fun to step on.”
That was the only thing that stuck out for me, and the rest of the prologue holds up very nicely. Good work, and I’m curious to see where this goes.
July 28th, 2011 (06:47 PM).
Thanks for the feedback. Always good to hear you're giving 'em something new. I tinkered with the paragraph you pointed out a bit; flow feels a bit off, I think, but the confusion's gone. Mostly. Good catch. XD I don't think the direction will be clear for awhile, but hopefully this next part channels properly.
Bemalte Blumen duften nicht.
(grown from blood)
She cries out to the shapes in the smoke.
Help me. It’s coming.
And it is. All at once, it’s crushing down on her—the specter of her childhood fears, the shadows stretched across her wall in the dark of night, the creak of the floor and the terrified whimpers of nightmaring children. She’d forgotten, pushed it from her mind for so long, but now the Grey Eminence is here and she’s in a coffin and there’s an enemy soldier and his dragon right by her shoulder but he doesn’t see her because she’s as good as dead and he’s as good as dead and they’re all dead as soon as that thing comes near her the bullets won’t matter and oh God.
She’s landed on her gun, twisted on top of it, somehow. None of that, then. So she fumbles for her belt, pulls away two Pokéballs. The flashes of light are barely red against the fire’s insistent grasp. “Casper… Stay away from it. Stay with me. Stay with me.”
The snake is fanged and dangerous, fit for the Garden, ready to kill. He coils, blade-tail lashing, body a mass of twisting spine and poison. (The name Seviper has never been an adequate explanation for the vitriol in this serpent’s eyes—cold-blooded yet burning with hate, just like his master.)
She thinks for a moment he is going to disobey, turn away to devour the Grey Eminence—but then he is around her, comforting her with his squeezing grasp. A death grip, some would call it, but he is the blanket for the frightened child to tangle beneath.
And she needs air, needs cold, she knows—that’s why the Slowpoke’s on the ground beside her, already raising a Safeguard and spraying her with water. The Slowpoke turns to call rain into the room but the soldier is on her in a second, screaming, “No, no, no, it’ll kill me, no, don’t, don’t, it’ll kill me, it so loved the fire, don’t—” And then everything is a mess of incoherent babbling.
The blockade shudders to her right (and she looks around her and sees that even the ghosts are hiding from the darkness). The soldier turns to spray a metal fire of his own—but it won’t do any good, nothing ever does any good. The fire is over there, far away but far too close to her.
She envies the ghosts in their death, stolen away from the fire and the eyes. Every slam against the blockade sends all the tombstones into a reluctant vibration, but there they are, the ghosts, haunting every crack in every epitaph, buried and safe in the stone (because you can’t kill stone, can’t destroy it, can’t send it to Hell in the flames and the blackness—can only wear it away, way after day, in the wind and the sun and the storm. No matter how many pieces you smash it into, you can’t grind stone away completely. Not like flesh).
The blockade is ablaze, turning to ash and cinders before her eyes. And the Grey Eminence steps through, burning cold and proud in the smoke.
She’d forgotten how beautiful it was.
All pride and hate and fire and death—fur and teeth white, so white, even when covered in so much blood. And oh is there blood. It smears the muzzle, drips from the gums and off the tongue, dirties the bared teeth as the lips pull back for a ragged snarl. Flame pours from its mouth like the blood, filling her nose with more flame, more acrid smoke, stealing air from the room. And the flame—so bright, golden, like it’s pulled from the stars as it burns the soldiers to dust.
(Then she is remembering those fangs, those brilliant, blinding fangs pulling her flesh from her bone and it’s all she can do not to scream.)
It’s moving in a blur of white—like ash, like snow—and fire, every step graceful and so, so deadly. One side, one soldier, down and bleeding from the neck, then a second later collapsed to smoking ashes in the center of the burning room—one soldier, two soldier, three (for a funeral) and they’re down, falling like dominoes in pretty patterns, ashes settling into the ground like dust returned to the earth (six, now, and she’s in hell). The bullets are flying and the beasts are roaring but the Eminence can’t be touched—it catches the bullets on its skin and tears the Pokémon to shreds with its claws.
(Her lungs don’t seem to be working quite right, don’t seem to be bringing anything but flame and smoke to her lungs.)
She remembers. The endless grind of the guns and the bullets in too-small hands, the fear of the dark and of the death (their parents gone, all of them—plucked away from dead arms)—but it was a better place, a safer place, until they came to fear the red of its eyes. It, the fox, the demon, the nine-tailed horror with the voices of saints and the master in red (the soldier in priest’s robes).
She can hear the voices now—the saints, speaking to her from those beautiful tails.
(No air, no breath. She’s suffocating slowly—too much fire for life to go on, even protected. She calls the Slowpoke back.)
In the beginning… whisper the voices. In the beginning was the Word. (And she knows this, she lives this; she has torn it into her arms with her nails and her knife because she was a child and without those words she had nothing but they lied and they screamed and she was bound and—)(her head is a mess, a jumble, taken apart and put back together with pieces in the wrong places)
“The fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and *****mongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars—they will drink the brimstone, breathe it in.”
This is the second death.
The Grey Eminence turns to stare at her. She sees the red in its eyes.
This is the second death.
Something’s in her veins, devouring her flesh. (The serpent tightens around her, nearly strangling.)
God, oh god have mercy (and she takes a moment to laugh, laugh at something she’d forgotten is funny, a flitting shadow of memory that seems ironically fitting in the smoke and the fire and the death.)
Kill it. Kill it for what it did. She doesn’t know if that is her or the saints, in her head or in the air.
As her sight slips away, she feels the serpent coiling to strike. The fire coils in retaliation, Prometheus with his damnation at hand.
God have mercy.
This whole “exorcism” ordeal has not gone quite like he expected. Or even remotely like he expected. In fact, the whole thing has been an explosion of not-what-he-expected.
As evidenced by the fact that he currently seems to be a floating blob of non-matter in a dark room that probably isn’t a room, because it definitely doesn’t have walls—or dimensions of any sort. It’s more of a space vacuum, really, and he appears to be stardust. That isn’t quite right—no, as he previously determined, he has no mass. He just is. So perhaps he is the vacuum itself, the endless blackness devoid of sound and color… Or is that a mite too pretentious? Most likely, yes, he realizes sadly.
Well, it appears that, even mass-less, he can still manage to get his mouth moving. Just as well. (Or is his mouth actually moving? The word seemed more… thought than spoken. A vibration of psyche in the darkness.)
Id, meet ego.
That wasn’t him. And he has no idea what that is supposed to mean.
What? his mind projects into the absence.
Careful where you point your eyes. The abyss is looking back at you.
…What? His non-voice appears to have admirable intonation skills.
The other speaker harrumphs. A know-nothing. I don’t suppose you bear unjustified hatred towards immigrants?
He finds himself uncertain of how, exactly, that follows from the preceding conversation, but he can only assume that he is being judged based upon his recollection of useless factoids. Even when he no longer exists. Splendid.
As I thought….
The emptiness shifts, giving a jolt reminiscent of a static-lined television screen twisting into focus. And somehow Nicias is Nicias again, all atoms of dirt and petulance and oversized boots. Before him stands the child, somehow exuding the impression that she is sitting lazily, even though she is undeniably on two feet before him, posture excessively straight-backed and shoes shined to a glimmering point.
She gives a full-bodied contortion and screws up her face. “Blech,” comes a childish, tongue-extending protest suited to threats of a new haircut or a spider.
Nicias is coming back into himself—slowly, for whatever is happening is a process. His body appears to be here, but everything else is… there. His mind is clicking its gears back into place; his joints re-align and his snide tongue crawls its way back into his throat, nerve endings linking back to the rebooting brain.
Around the child, a glow dims and sputters out. She breathes a sigh of relief.
He knows this child. There is something he wants to say to her—spent half of a biscuit ruminating on it, preparing the accompanying hand gestures.
“You’re pathetic.” Ah, yes. “I bumble about, half-drunk—” Wait, no.
The child’s eyes light with a condescending amusement.
Nicias staggers. His tongue refuses to move; it lies thick and heavy in his mouth, tripping up his words. His limbs are twitching, his muscles spasming—and then he’s on his knees, hands grasping feebly at ground that looks real and supports his weight but feels like nothing beneath his fingers. This is wrong, all wrong. This world doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
“I shall be the one doing the talking, thank you.” Her eyes—they shine golden, like starfire, too bright, too strong. They burn. (He has to look away.) “I don’t want anything else coming out of that jumbled mess of a head.”
This is a child before him, a girl that can’t be any more than nine—her limbs are fragile, weak with childhood, her movements hampered by a disproportionate form, her will still chained by webs of legalities and fine print, her tongue unable to form all its consonants and her thoughts softened and beaten by the voices of the world. Yet her words burn in his mind like her eyes, drenching him in fire and agony. This is no child, no human. And she is in his head, driving him mad.
“Let me see. Behind all this babbling—you really ought to reign that in, by the by; it’s not as much of a distraction as you think, and while you may hold the herd in thrall easily enough, you won’t be dealing with much of their ilk for much longer, given the stunning efficacy with which you got yourself flagged by a cult of men who are more or less breaking the universe (and, also by the by, you have me to thank them for)—ngyeh.” She gurgles irritably and throws down her hands in a tantrum-like motion. “You really can get into a demon’s head, I’ll give you—GAH.” A deep breath. “Truthful little bastard, aren’t you. Despite all appearances.”
Nicias spent the first portion of this ramble, which the child delivered in a single rushing breath of air and words, attempting to kick some sense into… into… just into. At this point, he has flat out given up. The burn has receded to more of a dull throb that coincides with each word, and that is enough for the moment.
“Well, this is irritating. By Jove, I want to get out of your head—who even says by Jove?”
Another deep breath.
“Well. It appears you’re under so heavy a delusion that your locutions—locutions? what?—are influenced by the noblest of motives that I am unable to share your head without spilling out copious amounts of… of… tripe. The crossover is usually obnoxious, but Good Lord—” Here, she pauses to splutter indignantly. “—this is absolutely ridiculous. There is something horrifically wrong with your mind. Have you been universe hopping?”
“My God, you have, haven’t you. For shame.” Her eyes roll back in her head momentarily, then focus back around. “Oh, do I want Cora back. Well, because you asked, and your pathetically needy psyche has some existential compulsion to answer every single question as verbosely as possible in the vain hopes that someone will remember you after your death—you see, I lack true identity, in that I am an idea, informed into existence only by the internal conceptions of those who know what I correspond to. Because I am in your head, and you have no idea who or what I am, I am, currently, channeling a bastardized version of one of your own self-conceptions. This is fairly easy to recalibrate, normally, but—” She now appears to be biting her tongue and hiding her breath. “God damn, you just don’t stop. Why can’t I—” Another gurgle. “I AM GLUTTONY, SCOURGE OF TURKEYS AND DAMMIT, NO ONE CAN TAKE A WORD THAT COMES OUT OF YOUR MOUTH SERIOUSLY.”
“Gluttony?” And the connections are flaring up again; the heat is unbearable, turning his thoughts to ash.
“Yes, Gluttony. The fat piece of lard in fig leaves riding a pig and drinking beer in The Faerie Queene—left the common people cowering in my wake, if I hadn’t eaten them. You know how it goes. Oh, those were the days, back when they still abhorred us, ran from our shadows with their tails between their legs. You lot, now, you’ve gone all Freudian on us, embraced the irrationality. ‘Who needs to fear the Sins? The gods made us for them,’ they say, mouths spitting out hatred and sex and jealousy. We, the bedtime stories, the demons that hold mankind in check… We’ve been obsolete for so long…”
A twitch, involuntary, full-bodied, wracks through the demon-child; the whites of her eyes twist and shudder, and spittle flecks her lips. Her head twists into a contortion that should only be possible for an owl. “Oh, yesss. And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen.” She cringes. “Almost. As soon as I’m out of your head, I’ll never say anything like that again. No more humanity in my thought patterns, at the very least. Although now I’m thinking about food again. Thank you for that. The rest shouldn’t last. …I hope. It could be permanent. The rambling seems to have—”
Nicias has never really seen a demon pout before, and he would never have expected it to be possible, but it occurs to him that that is precisely what is happening before him.
“Well, business. You’re an idealist. It’s obnoxious. And rather embarrassing. Yet another aspect of your imprint that had better not linger. You in general, really—do you realize how annoying you are? Yes, yes, of course you do. It’s rather the point of you, isn’t it? And all these rhetorical questions. SHUT UP, would you?”
It comes in waves, now, the fire. Ebb, flow, soft burn, full blaze… He can’t move, can’t think—on some distant plane, he knows he should be panicking, writhing, screaming in horror and pain and confusion. But that is neither here nor there. He is an aborted being, awash in the flames.
Nicias has resigned himself to the furnace. Its flames whisper to him, flickering, flitting—undecipherable words, burned away into the air before they reach his ears.
“You think me a monstrosity, manipulating those people the way I have, leeching from their lives like a parasite… using my power over them for my own gain—not that you would know anything about my motives. No, even bearing the fires of hell in your mind, you cannot sense my essence. To the point, though. An utter dismantling of your character is in order, to make you properly cooperative and-or subservient, so that I might utilize you to get myself far, far away from the miserable Quarles family.”
She is pacing, now, hands behind her back, shoes glimmering darkly. Her words flow through the fire in her eyes, resonating in his limbs.
“You abhor the power I hold over them, the ways I use them. But are you not the same, you, breaking through their doorways in the robes of a priest, demanding their cutlery and heirlooms? You, who wields the power of God at your fingertips as if it were yours?”
All Nicias can do is croak. The walls of his throat have been parched by the heat, devoured into uselessness.
“Well?” she demands, hand making a gesture of entitlement.
He sees himself in the demon’s eyes, and he wishes he could scream.
“Ah. Nerve control.”
He can move again, inexplicably, but the inferno is rising and now his body understands. His eyes are watering, his mind is burning, his limbs are convulsing and there is nothing he can do—nothing but reach for the one thing that might do… something.
His fingers reach inside his robes, scrabble against a metal surface. It’s red-hot, screaming with all the fury of the flames and the moment he makes contact, he can feel his flesh blistering but he has to get closer, has to press the button because it’s the only thing that might be able to do anything and by God if he doesn’t he knows he will die here, because whatever this demon may think, it has no self control and it’s burning him and devouring him and killing him and it’s in his mind and so hungry and and and—
The familiar red light flashes, a beacon of hope in the inferno.
And the demon just laughs.
“Oh, now that’s new. I haven’t seen one of those since—” Her head twists around, and her neck gives a sickening crack. The fascinated, childish interest is misplaced in the demon’s burning eyes. “What is that? A Dunsparce? My, my. Someone really has been universe hopping. And… that far? The walls haven’t been that broken in… Well, they just haven’t. How did you—”
The demon smiles.
And the fire releases its hold on his mind, enters the air around him. He breathes it in, swallows it a bit.
“I think we’re going to be very, very good friends.”
He’s burning on the inside.
She hears her heart in her ears. For a moment, nothing else. Then a beeping—steady, slow, mechanical. In time with her heart. Lifeless, cold and sharp in the stale, disinfected air…
She blinks blearily—sees a moment of white, everywhere, before the harsh, washed out fluorescent lighting stabs at her eyes.
Takes a deep breath.
And then she’s ripping all the cords from her arms; needle-fulls of fluid spray from un-anchored IV bags and her veins seep blood. The oxygen tube’s out of her nose in a second, spluttering listlessly. The heart monitor flatlines the second her hands are free of its clamps, and she smiles a dull, joyless smile. Somewhere in the hospital, an alarm begins its desperate keening.
I’m watching myself die, she thinks, mouth wry, mind steady. Dehydrated, suffocated, blood stagnant in my veins—I am the machine, and the parts have fallen away.
Returning to her bed, she draws her knees to her chest. The chill of the hospital sets into her bones through the thin material of the shift, and she wonders idly why the halls are so very lonely. No one else is here to watch her die.
The monitor continues with its heartless line and its monotone drone.
I am the machine.
As Nicias comes around in the dining room, facing the white-faced Quarles family, he spends a moment idly pondering how it is, exactly, that he fainted himself out of a metaphysical realm. That brief moment pains his head enough that he decides he would rather just not think about it. (He’s coasting now, so deep in panic that everything is a game and the only thing keeping him from hysterical laughter is the fact that the oxygen has been burnt from his lungs.)
And then he sees the child.
Or, rather, the giant, fat beast that now lolls where the child used to sit, tongue hanging to its feet and drooling rudely on the table. He has no idea what it is, but it appears to be of roughly the same origin as his trusty flying pancake, otherwise known as Claude the Dunsparce.
And speaking of Claude. “Hello, Claude,” Nicias says fondly, stroking one fledgling wing of said trusty flying pancake, who somehow ended up in a bowl of creamed corn half his size. Or, rather, he tries to say—but there’s a fire in his throat, soot and ash and blistering burns. He doubles over, coughs with sickly, body-wracking coughs that steal the air from his lungs.
He thinks he might be dying.
It occurs to Nicias, as he eyes the demon-turned-pink-drooling-blob-of-tongue, that now would be a good time to call the mysterious man with the unfortunate voice and the impeccable suit. The thought is lost as he clutches at his burning throat.
Somewhere at the end of the table, John Quarles lets loose a high-pitched shriek and faints himself off the chair.
“I’d been wondering where you’d gotten to,” Nicias mutters at his body.
“Are you quite finished?” asks the blob, beady eyes blinking indulgently.
“Give me a moment.”
Eyes quick, heartbeat quicker (jumping into his throat). He notices, absurdly, that the wallpaper is floral.
Massive table of food—something out of a carnival, all honey-glazed pigs with apples in their mouths and mounds of mashed potatoes and silver cutlery next to cheap china and flickering candles. Ridiculous fancies made real. Nothing useful for getting him out of this jam. He turns. China cabinet, lots of glass, lots of porcelain. Probably enough to shred its stomach lining, in theory, but something like that evolved for eating. And even if there isn’t some natural biological failsafe mechanism—well, demon.
His eyes leap across the room, from the antique tables to their lace doily coverings and the dusty lamps on top—books, cards, windows, more dishes, chairs, cushions, windows really looking like the best option. And, damn it all to hell, it’s time for speed dial and pancake stalling. His thumb flicks to get the Big Man on the line. As much as his insides squirm at the thought of it, it’s this, and hope help comes before the slobbery thing digests him, or… well, get digested with a bit more speed.
On second thought, maybe he better not call the company. A speedy death would be…
“Who am I kidding. I don’t want to get eaten to death.”
And then Nicias is on his feet, one hand snagging Claude by the tail, the other clinging desperately to the cell phone. He casts one last glance over his shoulder at the dining room to see Adelaide Quarles staring numbly at a crucifix clasped between trembling hands.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” whispers the demon in his ears.
She’s not sure how long she’s been here, now. They tell her that she became sick (which is impossible—she can’t be sick, none of them can be sick. They’ve been made better than that.) They tell her she failed to obey orders, failed to operate. They tell her that she turned on an ally, ordered her pet serpent to force poison through its veins. She can believe the last part. She remembers the last part. But she has never failed them. She is made to never be broken, to always grind forward, gears and smile in place. Illness is not possible. Not true sickness—not in her blood.
(Valuable ally, the nurses say, smiles plastic and needles bright. You’ve hurt a good man. Well, the nurses never watched the Red Eminence smile indulgently as the Grey Eminence held a child by the neck in its jaws. She hopes the poison stains them for eternity. She has weighed his sins, and he is guilty. He is damned.)
So they won’t let her out. And she’s not sick, she thinks—she can’t be. She’s just dangerous. Maybe a bit ill. But not in that sense. Her body is fine (she tries not to look at her ribs when she bathes). Her mind—that’s the problem, and it can’t be much of one—not for long. They don’t care about the mentally imbalanced. They love it. The crazier, the better. The less sanity in her head, the more judgment in her bullets. The higher she will go.
But now Kainan is here. Kainan the Cripple. Kainan the Court Jester, the Laughing Man. Not because he’s funny, but because they laugh. (Kainan, the man who pulls the strings, makes the puppets dance to his tune.) Kainan, with his sickness, with his infirmity. What she was never supposed to be. Here to tell her she’s weak like him, useless like him. She’ll be sent away. (And where will she go? Her hands aren’t hers anymore, they’re theirs, and they’re covered in blood.)
Kainan sits quietly, hands folded, posture neat. That’s how he is. She’s never seen him break the calm, break the cold. Even when angry, when joking, everything is perfectly in place, arranged symmetrically and unsympathetically. He’s more the suit than the man, and she’s not sure there’s much man left to be.
“Elle.” Not Corporal. Not Lancre.
She doesn’t want to say the next words.
“You’re not fit.” His voice rasps. Grates against her ears, hurts her head, makes her want to jerk her shoulders upward into a shudder. “We can’t afford to have you in the force.”
She’s never been a desperate person, but she’s imagining her life without this—where she’d go, what she’d do. Through the rabbit hole, she supposes. They’ll leave her without a life in the middle of some city, dump her out like trash on a curb now that she can’t do anything for them. Everything looks so different without them, and that scares her.
“I can fight, still—I’m stronger than I look.” Her arms are roughly the diameter of candle-sticks, and she hasn’t been able to stand even once in the past two weeks. But she’ll get better. She has to get better. She doesn’t have anything else.
She’ll do anything.
Something in his answer makes her taste bile. “I know that,” he says, “I made sure of that.”
“So you knew.” Thought so. He’s always been in charge of everything. They give him too much power. Something of her old smile—knowing, stone cold—works its way back onto her face.
He’s laughing, now, and it’s skeletal, sick. Green eyes so far back in their sockets, skin stretched painfully over bone, coughing hacks that shouldn’t even be possible with human anatomy—she wants to push him over, and see if he’d crumble and break on the sterile tile. “We all know. Child armies. What else would happen?”
She sneers. No justification, no supplication—he understands, understands it all, and he accepts it for the horror that it is.
“You were better off,” he says. “All of you. Dead and alive.”
And she knows it’s true. Kanto, Johto—even Sinnoh. They have no use for children. The factories are long gone, demolished when they still had bombs; the war depends on scavenging and imports. No need for cheap labor because there’s nothing left to labor on. The land is ravaged, empty; the people hide away. All children can do is fuel a few fires (and even then, they’re not much good as kindling—too smoky).
“You could have regulated it,” she says, half-heartedly. “Watched them. We were children. Doomed or not, we needed to be protected from the dark.”
“We did. We do. You are. Are, not were. And that… that was an accident. A mistake. Alexius should never have been let near children. We know that now.”
He’s so calm, so even. It makes her so angry, the way he just takes it. Like they can’t say anything, can’t do anything (because they can’t—it’s done, it’s over, it’s gone, and she knows this and she’s so powerless). “It’s too late for that batch.” Spits vitriol like it’s Casper’s venom, burning her mouth. “They aren’t just soldiers, not even just child soldiers. They’re so much more violent than that, so much more deadly. Caged and ready to turn on themselves.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.” He pauses, taps one fingertip against another in thought. “We tried very hard to make you forget.” A shrug, the first careless action she can remember seeing from him. (The bones of his shoulders raise painful-looking points in his suitjacket.) “It didn’t work quite as planned.”
She is silent, for a time. Then she speaks, soft, slow. “I would like very much to continue to be of use.” She wants to see it all end—because she’s trapped, they’re all trapped, in the center of this cesspit, drowning in the waste. They’ve left the bellum iustum in the muck. And Kainan Fawkes with his child soldiers and his toy guns and the bullets that never made sense in their world is the closest thing they have to sanity.
The man just nods, skeleton face bobbing in the pale fluorescent lights. A moment more of sitting by her bedside, and then he stands slowly, unfolding bone by bone, joint by joint, cracking in chorus along the way. He shuffles to the doorway. Puts his hand on the frame. Gives one of his usual hacking coughs.
“There is more of Alexius in you than you might realize.”
And then he leaves. No goodbye, no remnants—just a slight impression on the chair by her bed and a buzz in her head, petulant and indignant. Such a petty attempt at manipulation. She deserves better.
We know that now, Kainan had said, lying through his crooked teeth. They knew it now, and they had known it then—his violence, his excesses. Vice. The human Eminence has always claimed the color red for ferocity, for the loyalty and the sacrifice and the courage that justifies their existence. But they know, they all know—he is red with the guilt and sin of the apple, the Fruit of the Tree and all the hate and blood and the fire it brings.
She will fail, and it is his fault.
That night, she’s caught trying to smash her way out of a window with an oxygen tank. She’s crushed her hand against something; three fingers twist angrily to the side, broken. The nurses crowd her in, hold her down—lock her away.
A Murkrow crows to its murder outsider her window. It’s the first Pokémon she’s seen since Lavender Tower. (She tries not to think about that.)
She thinks it might be saying
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