- You dream of Death, and Rebirth.
You are a cultist, an adherent to a god mostly forgotten to the world of men. Your home is an ancient castle high in the mountains, maintained in parts, fallen to ruins in others. You know it well. You traverse its halls without thought, climb its stairs without issue.
You are climbing a staircase now - spiral, steep, and angular. The hard stone has worn edges. The only light is filtered from the landings above and below, but in lieu of a landing, what you come to is a branch of three new spirals, separating out in a mind-wrenching twist of magic and reality. You take the right-most one. To you, this is normal. This is life.
You're late, which is also normal. You slip into the back of the gathering quietly, though a few heads turn, and listen vaguely as the guy talks about the latest omens. Everything is omens, here. Sometimes they are familiar to you, something you feel you should know, something you've seen before, but can't quite place. Sometimes they just feel random, and you shake your head, for you know your fellow cultists are grasping at straws. But you don't say anything. They don't believe you. Nobody else remembers... another place. A time before. Something very different, but not. Deja vu.
So you keep it to yourself. You vaguely listen as the guy prattles on about the champion who will yet be chosen, the Voice they have been waiting for, for so long. You note, somewhere in the back of your mind, the disparate styles of clothing people are wearing - the cultist robes, of course, but mixed into it jeans, t-shirts, tunics, bangles and beads. A hundred years of different worlds' fashions, mixed and matched.
"Pass the trials," the guy says, "and we will know."
People aye at this, and then the group begins to disperse. It's time for omens, and as small as the cult has become in the past few centuries, everyone needs to look. Some people chant cultisty things.
You wander. You don't look for anything in particular, but you note patterns on the floor, warding circles of intricate interlapping shapes, placed seemingly at random at the junctions of corridors, at the tops of stairs. They remind you of something. Old magic. Sacrifice. Consequence. Binding. You note the lack of cats. There are never any cats.
Time passes. Days blur, each into the next. People find omens, and debate their meaning. You tell one guy who asks that yes, what he found was an omen, and you tell him what it means, but you're not quite sure what you told him after. He seems satisfied, though, and leaves, nodding. There is an air about everyone, a sort of defeated hopefulness. You retire to the basement, the buried archives. They document all the things you feel like you know. Strange beasts and great portals and organised peoples. A grey city and a tower looming high overhead, full of windows. A golden city full of portals. A red sea. A black... space. Words.
Almost nobody else can read the words, but to you, they paint memories.
Sometimes, in the back of your mind, you hear the whisper... "Coraline... Coraline..."
The first trial is an omen. As always, you show up late. Others have already come and presented rocks, plants, a burnt piece of toast. A woman is talking of the tangle of her yarn, and the crows that watched as she worked her way through it. You go up when she finishes, and say only, "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow what?" people ask.
"You'll see," you say. You don't have anything, just a feeling. Something is going to happen. "Tomorrow."
Moths flutter up around, disturbed by something behind you. You feel something, a whisper of a shadow.
People nod. "Tomorrow," they agree.
As you go, a guy walks up with a duck, and smacks it down on the desk. "An omen," he says.
"That's a duck," someone says.
You don't stick around. You already know how the conversation ends.
The trials continue. You're okay. You show up. You fend someone off with a chunk of cardboard, and get poked in the stomach with a giant grass seed sheath. At some point you make a lot of really loud noises with a much smaller blade of grass, and people beg you to stop. There's food and games. People share secrets, and tell stories from long-lost times. You find yourself nodding, nostalgic. You remember. You know.
Of course you know. These are the same stories you tell every year. Nothing's changed.
"Cora," someone says, and you nearly jump. "You should tell the Fall. You tell it the best."
You oblige, telling it from the start - all three of the starts - and the room goes silent as everyone listens. Parts of it come out out of order, and you think a few aren't even the right story, but you go with it, weaving them together into a tragic tale of gods and demons, dreams and masks, love and betrayal. You include bits from the First Time, not even knowing what that was, and the binding of the nemesis, and the decline and the worlds slowly fall apart. You tell it in parallels, how they were all the same same, but different, each tragedy and every kindness building up to a brilliant end. And the end of it all is now: the ruins, the cult, the dead god all but forgot... but not. Because you all remember. You remember.
You trail off into silence. Everyone is staring. Did you do something wrong? Did you say too much? What can you do, or say, now that you've already said it all?
"We remember," someone says.
"We remember," others say, "We remember the fall. We remember the spirits. The gods. The guardians. We remember who we are." It builds up as a chorus, listing, chanting. "We remember the dead, the gone. We remember the god."
It's later. Another day. The trials are over, and you passed, somehow. People seem a bit surprised. You're a bit surprised. But now you're up there on the walls, on the parapets, with the lot of them, the chosen ones, the firsts. And also Bob. You're not really sure how Bob passed, either, and neither is Bob. You both sort of linger a bit off to the side in solidarity for your mediocrity. The wind pulls at your robes.
You're not sure what you're all waiting for. It's cold up here, and precarious, but the view is huge, mountains and valleys and plains stretching off into a summer haze. The floor of the wall underfoot is broken and uneven, the parapets not all there in some places, and not there at all in others.
Then the dragons appear. There are two of them, one red, and one black. They soar into view from behind the mountains, and swoop about each other in dips and twirls. One of them is yours. One of them... isn't.
"Omen!" someone shouts. You feel a pang of irritation. Obviously this is an omen.
The dragons fight. It's huge and terrible, but distant. You hear nothing, but imagine a soundtrack to go with it: a clatter of claws, the tearing of flesh. Booming shouts. It's like a dance.
"So which one are we rooting for?" Bob asks, leaning back against the inner parapet, which is much less crumbled.
"The black one," you reply, though from here they both look almost black.
"Far out," Bob says.
You can hear them, between their swoops and hovers, speaking to you, a deep voice booming in your bones and marrows. This is the god, they both are, for once speaking directly, for the first time in... you don't know. To you, it doesn't feel that long ago.
"Agh!" Bob yells. He's shaking his hand in the air, trying to get off something white and brown and sticky, but it won't come off. "I stepped in poo!" he says. "I mean, I got it in... argh!" You watch in bemusement as he dances around in disgust, wiping his hand at the stones behind him, stepping precariously close to the broken edge of the wall. He steps close, but not too close, once, twice, thrice, and you're amazed he doesn't fall off in his energetic movement, and amazed at how over the top his reaction really is for something so simple as a little revulsion. Finally he gives up, and, wiping his hand on the bottom of his robe, sags back into the more intact inner parapet muttering to himself.
"Are you all right?" you ask.
"Damn poo," he says.
"Sorry," you say, looking back to the dragons, but now they're gone. Whatever they were saying, you missed it.
The others are heading down, chattering excitedly, and you urge Bob along after them, pretending excitement as well, trying to catch what they're saying just in case it really was important. Ultimately, though, you just have no idea, and as everyone scatters into the hills and woods outside the castle, you look up at where the dragons had been, swooping, soaring, hovering. There had been something very familiar about that hover. Almost as if...
You get away from the others, past a strand of trees, into a grassy, shrubby valley, fairly flat around the shores of a marshy mountain lake. You find a rock and sit and try to compose yourself. This is bad. Very bad. You think you caught something, before getting totally distracted, something about a coming darkness. Something about the champion. Who was the champion? Why did this all feel so familiar?
There's a noise, a building, rumbling thunder, and then a loud thump behind some nearby trees ends it all very suddenly in a cloud of dust. You jump up in surprise and run toward the impact, pushing through the trees, only to find, amidst clods of dirt and broken branches, a mid-size green hatchback.
You recognise it, generally, though not the exact make, and you also notice it's a rental, somehow. A rental car just fell out of the sky. Thundered out of the sky. But you don't stop to ponder even as your fellow cultists hurry out of the trees around to investigate as well, gathering, uncertain, chattering fearfully and keeping a respectful distance. They don't recognise it, don't know what it is, so you ignore them, and go right to it. It's surprisingly intact. Some of the doors work. There's nobody in the driver's seat at all, but a man is lying in the back seat, and you check on him - he's alive, but unconscious. You move on to check the boot as some other folks finally come over to tend to the man, and the hatch opens easily. You know exactly what to do. You remember, somehow.
It's full of dead people parts - mostly legs, somewhat rotted. Some eyeballs glare milkily at nothing in particular. A hand grasps out of the pile.
You don't remember that, and back away hastily.
Some people gasp upon seeing it. Someone pukes. You hurry away, leaving the entire thing behind you, retreating to the safety of the castle.
Business resumes as usual. The others bring back the man, and the parts, but he doesn't wake up. The parts are tended to by the keepers. There's chatter about the thing, as those who weren't there ask questions, and those who were look to you for answers. You don't have any.
Then the strangeness starts. It's not much at first. Nobody really notices. But it builds. Someone goes missing one day. Someone finds all their clothes in disarray. The dead people parts, taken from the boot of the car, disappear. Then the cultists themselves start acting strange. People you've known your whole life, and who've known you, forget who you are. Forget who the god is. People mutter more, and stop responding. Sometimes, they seem almost as if they're after you.
You're being followed. Someone you once knew well is following you, not responding to their taken name. You turn to accost him, and he grabs you, pulling you toward him, so you shove back, twisting away. He stumbles, and falls backward down the steep spiral stairs, a blankness about him.
You look down. You're standing on one of the magic circles, and you realise what it might be for. Or at least, you realise it might be for something. You might be able to use it.
You retreat to the basement. Nobody bothers you here, and now you research. You search for darkness, and for what the cult is even here for. You search for things that would come after you. You search for... hatchbacks. You find things. Important things, random things. You find documentation of cars existing, once, long ago. You find documentation of the cult itself.
You find your name, or what might have been your name in another life.
It all comes together in a big, horrible picture you can't quite make out. Nemesis. Destroyer. Another name, buried. Peledeska.
You take it all with you, and hurry back up, climbing the spiral staircases, navigating the forks and branches, ignoring the impossibility of the geometry. You find your receptionist friend, Shoshanna, halfway up her tower, manning her desk as always. Her jewellery jangles as she looks up from her desk.
"Hey you," she says. She seems normal.
"Hey," you say. "Have you noticed people being a bit, well, odd lately?"
"Yeah!" She sighs in relief. "I thought it was just me. And here I almost never get out of my tower, so maybe I'm just missing something?"
"Definitely something," you say. "Help me go through all this, will you?"
Shoshanna does, but at the same time, she has a hard time reading it - any of it. It's as though she's fighting against something in order to do so, fighting her way through some invisible barrier placed around the words. But she doesn't relent, even as it causes her to shake from the exertion, even when she bleeds from the ears. You take her hand to try to comfort her, help her fight.
It's not her hand. It's one of the dead people parts from the car. Somehow it had gotten under her desk.
You recoil in horror, but you're still holding it, or perhaps it's now holding you. You hurl it at a window, up and out, shaking it off, and then it's gone.
"What was that?!" Shoshanna asks.
"You need to hide," you tell her. "Protect yourself, stay away from this."
"Oy, someone needs to be here," she says, gesturing at her desk. It's halfway up a tower, but you don't argue. She's right. Someone does. "Don't worry. I'll just pretend I'm one of them."
"Them?" you ask. And then you realise she's right. It is a 'them'. Somehow, something has taken over the cult, turning your cultists into something else. there is an 'us', which at the moment seems entirely limited to this room halfway up a tower, and a 'them', which is, in all likelihood, everyone else.
This was it. This was the coming darkness. The god tried to warn you, and you were supposed to be the champion. But you weren't even listening because Bob had gotten his hand in some poo, and now everyone's after you and you still don't even know what to do. What can you do? There isn't... anything, is there?
You realise you've wound up somewhere else in the castle. You don't even remember getting there. You don't remember... much of anything. Shoshanna. Shoshanna was holding the fort. Against... this. It has its hooks in you. You feel it, except not. You don't really feel much of anything, just not all there. That's all it is. Nothing.
The god. You still remember the god. Don't you? You think you do, at least. Except there's someone after you again. You listen, and no. It's too many footsteps, from too many directions. There's several people after you. You don't even have anything, there's no defense, no way out, no escape. You're forgetting too. You're not immune. How vain you were to think you were. You're not a champion of anything. You're not anything.
But you can still run. You don't need to give in. Even if you don't remember anything else, you can still keep going out of spite. You've always had a bit of that, if not in this life, then before.
You run. The footsteps follow, though your pursuers say nothing. You go up, and your practice pays off, always moving, walking the halls. Your feet remember, and you choose your path exactingly, spiral staircase to spiral staircase, navigating the uncanny branches even as your brain twists at the impossible angles.
You run, into darkness, in and out of shadows, on and on until you can't. You've been cornered. You didn't even hear the others coming, but suddenly there's at you from all sides, people you don't know at all, eyes blank and unseeing.
You stop. There's nothing else to do. They slow in response, advancing carefully on cornered prey.
There's a circle on the floor right next to you, this one is an elaborate pattern of crenallated squares, forming a star interwoven with strange writing, so you step inside. There's no reason not to try it. There's nothing else left.
They continue after you, and you hunker down, covering your head, not looking. If you don't look, maybe they won't see you.
Nothing happens. You don't look. You don't know what you'll see. Vaguely, you realise you don't know what you are.
You look up. There's a dead people part eyeball hovering in a window, looking down on you. The cultists, five of them, blank and unyielding, are all standing around you, right outside the bounds of the circle. They can't reach you. One of them pokes above the circle, but is stopped as though by an invisible barrier.
You kick at one of them, knocking him back a bit, but he just steps forward again.
This isn't supposed to happen. You know this. You're very clear on this. But they're possessed. Is that what they are? In your previous life, they'd always fought possession with religion, or the like. Or had you? Had that been you? Movies?
You try praying. You may not remember the god, but you remember remembering the god. You remember the ritual, the patterns of it all, and you chant. Most of it is nonsense. Some of it is Real. Some of it is stories. It doesn't matter. You pray and chant and half of it is a total bluff, designed to scare away whatever has taken over your peers regardless of what your god may or may not do, or be able to do. You're not sure. You're not sure it's anything.
You don't care.
And then somehow it works. Light bursts out of your chest, except it's warm, and really you're glowing. It's you. The fuzz in your head simply melts, and you remember. You remember who you are, you remember the god, you remember what the cult is actually supposed to be, and you're angry. You reach out an arm, glowing fiercely, beyond the bounds of the circle. One of the possessed tries to grab it, but the moment he touches you, he simply collapses.
The others bolt. The eye is gone. You run after a random one, because no, that's not how it's supposed to go, they're not supposed to just get away after all of that, that would hardly be fair, and then you manage to catch her. All it takes is a poke, and she falls, suddenly no more driven by whatever possessed her than you are.
You run after the others, chasing them down, chasing random other people down. They all run from you now, and you delight in the chase, relish the fear you can taste in their wake. You have all the power here, and their possessor none.
Except... that's not really true, is it? This is still a losing battle. You can get them back if you can reach them, but there's only one of you, and all of them. And you have no idea what even happened. Was it the guy the rental car? The nemesis? How? She's dead. You killed her.
No, the god killed her. You're not the god. What is going on?
You wind up back in Shoshanna's tower, still glowing, a bit irked. She smiles vaguely as you enter, firmly seated behind her desk, her eyes bleeding, refusing to budge.
"I did it," she says tiredly, but triumphantly. "They couldn't take me. But I don't know how much longer..."
"Shh," you say. "It'll be all right now."
"Please, Cora, just kill me," Shoshanna says. "I managed this long, I think that's a hell of a feat, but..."
You go hug her, and she collapses into your embrace with relief as the power over her disappears. She starts laughing, even as a guy hiding in the closet bursts out and runs away.
"Oh, that is better. Okay," she says. "Now I'm glad you didn't listen."
"You always were the most stubborn," you say.
"Yeah, well, you should go get that guy," she says.
You chase him down. You chase everyone down, and poke them, hug them, grapple them. It doesn't matter; you just do whatever. And finally you get them all, except for a few, who simply aren't in the castle anymore. The guy from the rental car is gone.
Your glow is faded, but not gone. You stare out over the ruins in anger, even as everyone in the ruins behind you stumbles back into their day-to-day rhythms, picking up the pieces, wondering what happened to the past few days. This is not what should have happened. With their help, you fish out the other dead people parts, scattered throughout the castle in nooks and crannies for maximum effect, and burn them. You tell them it's handled. You tell them it was likely the nemesis, but you don't know. You tell them rental cars falling from the sky is clearly a bad omen, and apparently you're the champion. Everyone goes along with it. They don't know what else to do. They lament those who were lost, and hope the missing will be found.
You don't tell them that you possibly caused all this in the first place because you weren't actually paying attention.
Bob shows up behind you, and also doesn't mention this. Instead, he simply says, "Oh hi, did I miss something?"
You poke him, and ask, "Where've you been?"
"Digging," he says.