This/Survivors song/Part 6

A fragment of the Garden of Remembering

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Part 6: The shapes of things

This is not what happened. This is not how it happened. There is complexity, finesse. There are twists and bounds.

Coraline plans. She plans and plots, and somewhere in her other mind, she already knows that the Voice would come, and what he would offer. She knows what she is. She knows she can use it. And she also knows that she can't.

But minds are weird. They do not work easily and produce discrete answers. They take days, months, sometimes years, to agree on the most basic conclusions, for reason is not a quick thing, and the stubbornness of belief knows no bounds. Add magic, add old souls, add a break in the nature of the mind, and it is an easy matter to never realise what you already know. To mention it offhand time and again without even realising what you are saying, without realising it is true, requires no twists of logic, no mental gymnastics. It is simply how it is. It is the answer you sought all along.

Why is Coraline in another universe? Why is she cursed?

Why is Kyrule wearing her mask?


  1. In a dream, everything makes sense. All the holes, all the inconsistencies, they simply don't matter. The dream simply is, and in it, you are.
  2. Relative positions are absolute in their primacy.
  3. Gestures hold transient meaning.
  4. Every word was chosen.
  5. Please keep reading.

The will

EXT. Soravian foothills - morning
Coraline Dreams.
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.
The duck looks up indignantly.
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 as 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, but at the same time, you know it's been a very long time.
"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-sized 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. You don't know why they expect you to.
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, dumping papers and notes down on the desk. "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 they're coming 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 in 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, and a few others, who simply did not survive. 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 castle 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.

Coraline peers blearily about. She's still tied to a tree, but now notices this one is a conifer, the rough bark digging into her back, the smell reminding her of better times. She looks up, watching needles as they trickle down from time to time to the frosty ground.
She's sore. Everything about her is sore, to the point where it hardly even registers anymore. This is just how it is.
Vardaman is seated by the horses a couple of metres away.
Will you speak?
Only now does Coraline realise she's no longer gagged.
Oh... er...
Is your name Amadi?
You said you were a Carrier for over four years. How did it happen?
I... don't know.
There would have been another Carrier. Someone probably attacked you, tried to eat your soul?
Coraline shakes her head.
No, there wasn't anyone. When I came to Cerris I was completely alone.
But when did it start? The hunger. The voices.
When I came here. The voices just... started happening, so faint I didn't even notice at first.
I didn't meet another living person until much later.
Where were you?
Delunn. There's a lot of nothing there. I was starting to wonder if I'd even wound up on an inhabited world, or if I'd just be alone forever. It was only a couple of months, but it felt... longer.
When I finally got to civilisation, it was all destroyed. A road, but with broken bridges. A few clusters of buildings, burnt husks. Everyone dead. I got to a town, finally, and it was just more of the same. Everything was burnt. Bodies were everywhere. I had to break the gates open. They were barred from the outside.
Inside was...
Coraline just stops.
There were two Carriers. I killed the first one quickly, before he could really do anything, but even then I recognised... something about him. Familiar. Intriguing.
The second was... different. I don't know how, or what she was. She seemed... coherent. She seemed to have a goal. She wanted me to join her, and of course, I really, really wanted to, but there was something also just wrong about it all. Voices. Audible. I heard them, really, there, for the first time.
I don't know what happened. At some point I just lost myself. And then I came to my senses, and she was dead. I'd slit her throat, somehow. The knife was in my hand. The blood on the floor was on me, too. But I don't remember it.
I've never seen anything like it since. I've never heard of anything like it.
But after, after, I started to notice. I noticed the voices, the whispers in the leaves, the cries in the wind. Chatter in the mountain creeks. Roaring in the fire, and screams. They had been there all along, sounded so much like the world I was in, but not. It wasn't that at all.
Once I heard them, I couldn't un-hear them.
And then you knew what you were.
No! I had no idea. I thought maybe it was normal. That there were spirits, or something. I mean, there are spirits - everywhere, little mushroom things, mites, glowing sprites and warbling ghostlights. Ash demons drifting around everywhere there's been people, or warmth. Shadows that drift across old paths. Trees. I thought maybe I was hearing them.
But the more I listened, the more I realised it wasn't that. It didn't seem to be tied to anything. Except magic. I found I could do magic. And I found that every time I did, the voices got worse.
We don't have anything like this where I'm from. I only found out much later. After I'd already gone full Carrier and managed to sort of recover by wandering into a bar and accidentally ordering some shalott. After I'd learned how to treat it, how to stay drunk and stay myself. After I'd met you.
Vardaman watches her consideringly, just listening.
I only found out when we were leaving. I'd gotten passage on this ship, and some of the crew were talking about how glad they were to finally be getting out of there, how there were reports of Carriers around. I asked what that was, roundaboutly, and after they'd gotten through describing it all I realised maybe... they meant me.
That was in Telegrin?
And you went... full Carrier there?
I sort of recovered about a week before we met.
Fuck. That... was you. I was there hunting you.
Well, er... sorry.
What do you want me to say? I didn't want to be this way. I didn't want to turn into something horrible and... horrible. I'm sorry you weren't able to stop me before I managed to eat a bunch of people, but I'm not sorry I managed to get better.
Vardaman sighs.
And how many souls would have been saved?
I've been able to control it, since. The only times I've really slipped a bit of vodka fixed it. Nobody's gotten hurt.
You don't remember Somn's Post?
Besides that. That was... unfortunate.
Because you destroyed a man's soul, or because I was there to see it?
You really have a low opinion of me, don't you?
Vardaman starts to get up.
Push a...
Vardaman jumps at Coraline, landing heavily on a knee next to her, and covers her mouth, interrupting her.
Do you really think it would be that easy?
Coraline smiles behind his hand.
(mind voice)
Vardaman regags her, being not particularly gentle.
Coraline doesn't fight him.
(mind voice)
(mind voice)
He's kind of fast.
(mind voice)
He's a Deathdealer.
(mind voice)
And he's really not going to like what I'm going to do next.
(mind voice)
I'll be sure to come out and watch.

Later, Vardaman does all the usual pre-leaving things to Coraline. Agata watches interestedly from a tree as he searches Coraline and then has her piss.
(mind voice)
(mind voice)
Not yet.
Vardaman takes Coraline over to the horses.
(mind voice)
If this is some scheme to leave me behind...
(mind voice)
You'll probably claw out my eyeballs, I know.
(mind voice)
Oh, I wouldn't go that far. But it would wound me terribly.
Vardaman lifts Coraline onto the horse of the moment, and mounts immediately after.
At the same time, Coraline takes the life of the horse and turns it out, and the horse collapses under them, dead.
Vardaman tumbles aside, pulling Coraline with him, and then gets up quickly, yanking her up as well, holding her close.
How did you do that?
Coraline gives him her best mimed shocked look.
Agata peers down curiously from a nearby branch.
(casting over Coraline)
Sleep hold!
Coraline becomes paralysed, unable to move.
Agata shrinks back behind another branch, out of sight. Some needles trickle down.
Vardaman dumps Coraline on the ground and sets about transferring all the useful stuff off the dead horse and onto the one remaining one. He places a hand on the horse's shoulder, murmuring soothingly, and hoists Coraline over its back in front of the saddle, face-down.
Coraline kills this horse, too, and it begins to collapse like the first. Vardaman yanks her off as it falls, jumping back.
Vardaman drops Coraline on the ground, backing up even further.
Vardaman finally just stops and and stares.
Coraline lies there, totally unable to move.
How... the fuck...
Okay, that was pretty funny.
Vardaman looks up sharply, and Agata jumps up onto a higher branch, peering down warily.

Vardaman ties Coraline back to the tree, removing the gag, dismissing the paralysis spell.
Coraline just watches him.
Coraline doesn't respond.
Why kill the horses? What does that possibly get you?
Arbitration is determined by who wins in practice. I need more time.
What?! Don't you understand I'm trying to help you? The Keepers in Abearanoth are the only ones who have a chance of figuring this out, and the sooner I get you to them, the more of a chance that becomes!
You don't know that. You don't know if they can, or if they're the only ones who could...
Let me save myself. Stop stopping me.
Why are you fighting me? This is all done for your sake.
If that were true, I wouldn't be tied up like this.
You have no idea what is good for you.
Coraline snorts.
How did you do it?
Prepared actions? A still silent spell? Gifts? Are you... using the Death of Souls somehow?
(mind voice)
Wait, I'm not getting this from the Death of Souls, am I?
(mind voice)
You're a witch. It's normal witch stuff.
Besides, you always get worse when you use it, so it's probably more like the opposite. Your power is likely what's keeping you alive fighting it off.
I'm a wizard, mate.
Vardaman just stares at her.
Okay, fine. I'm a witch, right? Witches have knacks, things we can do innately, without any casting or whatever. Mine seem to revolve around life and death. I can heal, and I can kill with a touch.
That's all it takes? A touch?
And you use this on people?
Just Carriers. Otherwise if I have to kill someone I'd really rather it not be so... personal.
I feel everything that they are. And then I snuff it out.
And I suppose I'm next?
You were first. It didn't work on you.
And once I gave myself up as a Voice, I couldn't exactly try something else. Killing each other is not an appropriate arbitration.
No. It isn't.

Building trees

EXT. Lauhen sea - morning
It's a bright and sunny morning, with useless clouds littering the sky, and horrible amounts of beating sun glaring down, bouncing off the waves, and generally just lingering in the air.
A small pile of fish is on the floor of the raft. A much larger pile of weapons is next to it.
Nolan has a hatchet tied to the side of his head.
Erry is holding a fishing pole, but not using it.
Kit is poking a fish repeatedly with a makeshift wand.
Jora is lying in the sun, her eyes covered with a cloth, ignoring all of this.
It's so sunny. Why is it so sunny?
It's summer.
It's not summer.
We're lost at sea.

EXT. Lauhen sea - afternoon
It's bright and sunny. The sky is a grand blue expanse, with even grander, towering cloud masses completely failing to do anything to the sun. The weapon pile has overflowed over the side of the raft.
Look. Clouds.
It is summer.
Erry smacks Kit with a fish.
Nolan hands Kit a fish, and Kit smacks Erry right back.
Jora backs away, and then tries to grab Kit.
Erry smacks Kit even harder, and winds up hitting Jora as well in the process.
Nolan throws a fish at Erry.
Kit smacks Jora with a fish.
Guys, stop. Stop!
Nolan hands Jora a fish.
Jora looks at it, confused, and gets hit by another fish, and then slaps right back with her own fish.
This goes on for a bit. Sometimes one of them drops their fish, and Nolan passes each of them new fish to replace them.

EXT. Lauhen sea - morning
It's another day. It's exactly the same as the previous. The kids are sprawled about, doing nothing.
The pile of weapons is somewhat flatter now.
It was summer. It's not gonna be summer again.
Different summer. We're on the other side now.
No significance of this occurs to anybody. Nobody responds at all, for a bit.
And we're lost at sea.

EXT. Luahen sea - night
It's night. The kids are mostly asleep. The huge pile of weapons is glinting dully. Nolan is sitting on the edge of the raft, peering out beyond the curtains, saying nothing, watching.
Jora nudges Kit and Erry awake.
You'll want to see this.
The vast expanse of stars is muted, only the brightest standing out, the constellations clear. The horizon, though, is awash with colour, glowing in all directions.
Then they stand, and see the sea. The surface is a brilliant canvas, full of swirling colour, greens and blues and purples, swirling into luminous depths. It shimmers and glitters as though spirits were dancing beneath the surface, and yet the surface itself is utterly still, like glass. Mermaids drift up and kiss the surface, before darting back down. The night is silent.
What is it? Are those...
Jora shakes her head.
Kit trips over the weapon pile, gets up quickly, and kicks a few of them overboard, peering over the side of the raft.
Something under the water, whatever it is.
Nolan topples into the water with a small splash.
Nobody really responds to this at first, until a few seconds go by and nothing else happens.
Jora and Kit peer into the water where Nolan fell, but all they see are iridescent swirls of glow in the depths.
Either he comes back or he doesn't.

About an hour later, the lights are still dancing, the sea still still.
Nolan reaches out of the water and climbs back into the raft very suddenly.
Find anything?
There are no sheep here.

EXT. Luahen sea - afternoon
It's a day. It's very blue. There are no clouds.
Jora is meditating, or attempting too.
Erry is juggling fish. Sometimes fish slap into people and things around her.
Nolan is soliciting yet even more weapons from Kit. Kit has started just chucking all of them at Nolan's head.
Some of the weapons in the now very large pile are no longer white - a few are glassy clear. One sword is black and shiny.
Jora grabs a dropped fish out of the air and smacks Erry with it, hard, knocking the girl over.
Erry stares at her in surprise.
Kit stops making pointless daggers.
Nolan frowns.
Enough! Enough of all this. Surely we must have something, be able to do something. Nolan, do you have any idea where we are? Can you not use the stars to determine our location?
Yes. I have.
I do not know what is at any location near to us.
Kit, do you...
Kit watches her expectantly.
Feck. What about... what do we even have with us? What have we brought?
Turn out your pockets.
Jora shoves aside the giant weapon pile, pushing it against a wall and curtain and knocking a good half of it overboard.. Some of the newer swords sink. She upends her bag and pulls some stuff out of her own pockets, which turns out to be mostly lint, along with a few keys and a small knife.
Jora indicates the much smaller pile of only partly weapons and eyes the others expectantly.
Kit and Erry come over toward the pile.
Nolan drops a large stuffed bear onto the pile. It's almost as large as he is.
Erry hugs her own, much smaller, mostly hairless moose. They are mostly the same animal.
Nolan pulls a full-sized shovel out of his pocket, and then dropped a magic bag on top of the bear, causing part of its head to disappear, the bag collapsing flatly across it as though containing nothing.
A gog crawls out of the bag.
Erry picks up the bag, sticks her head inside, and then starts pulling things out, adding them to the pile. Several more gogs also tumble out.
Kit tosses in some things from his own pockets.
Nolan very slowly adds a sheep rib, a pair of mismatched socks, and a small knife to the pile.
Good. Anything else?
Erry tosses a dirty lump into the pile.
They wind up with a heap of mostly lint, partly junk, a whole lot of random toys and tools and bits of broken things, a surprisingly good spade, not nearly enough alchemical ingredients, an ineffective amount of currency, some random bits of food and way too many ration blocks, enough martial weapons to wage a small war, and a giant wad of yarn. And 13 gogs.
One of the gogs holds up a sign. It says, 'hello'.
One of the original two gogs holds up another sign, which also says 'hello'.
Hi. Why do we have gogs, again?
So this is who we are, distilled down to simple items.
It's a start. It's potential.
Jora pushes Nolan at the pile.
Nolan digs through it a bit and then holds up the flaky brown lump that had been the contents of Erry's pockets.
Do I even wanna know?
Do you ever?
What is it? Dirt?
Nolan sits down and bashes the lump against the floor of the raft, breaking it up into smaller clods of dirt. Embedded within it are some twigs, a key, two spoons, a few clips, a knuckle die, and several peach stones. Their total volume more than doubles that of the original lump.
How in the world...
(holding up one of the stones)
Can you grow that?
Kit takes the stone from Nolan and looks it over.
There's only one way to find out.

EXT. Lauhen sea - evening
The raft is rather a mess. The awning is gone, the poles broken. The freshwater barrels are smashed. The iceforged weapon pile is scattered everywhere, mostly in the ocean, random weapons and pieces of weapons floating sadly away. Peach leaves and twigs are everywhere. Jora is bleeding from an arm.
The four kids watch forlornly as the very large peach tree floats away, half-dead already, half-sunk in the waves.
That didn't work.
Can you make it work?
Can you keep it from falling out?
Can you balance it?
Maybe. But can I keep it from getting poisoned by all the salt? And from eating itself? And make it grow, but then stop growing? And make peaches? It would be a lot more useful if it made peaches.
Can you?
Kit shrugs.
Nolan hands him another peach stone.
Kit holds it up in one hand, and starts shaping the spell with his other.
uu dalamo ido!
The stone begins to sprout, the first leaves and blunt roots growing out.
yäig yakit ineigobio.
The roots branch into imaginary soil, reaching down, even as the seedling forms true leaves and begins to bud.
Kit takes it over to one of the corners of the raft.
iuol ke yäig.
Kit holds the sapling over the side of the raft, shoving the reaching roots into the water. Some of them cling to and grow along the sides of the raft, but the rest go down, hungrily feeding off the seawater and its illusions. The trunk thickens, branching, putting out leaves and dropping others.
udun mur ugarak uaimo! Guide the roots! We need it to stay up this time!
It's chaos. Kit holds his hands on the trunk while the others scramble around, guiding the roots around the sides of the rafts, and Kit meanwhile guides the rest down, holding the trunk straight, holding the entire shape of the tree in his mind. The tree is huge now, the trunk a foot in diameter, and the shape is only a little bigger, the idea simply more balanced... roots below, tree above...
Wood creaks around them.
mamanäïm tasigum...
The tree's growth slows. Roots snake around the raft, seeking, sticking, growing out hairs. Erry yanks her arm out of between one and the wall and it draws blood.
A peach falls on Kit's head, and then a snaking root trips him, knocking him back.
The tree stills, rustling overhead. The growth stops.
Petals drift down. Felled leaves are all over, covering the raft, rotting away already underfoot. Above, the vibrant green leaves on the tree rustle in the wind, covering the raft and a good area of water around, blotting out the still glowing sky.
Erry and Jora get up uncertainly.
Kit stares up at it blankly.
Peaches fall vaguely around them, some splatting on the raft, others splashing into the sea.
Nolan catches one and bites into it.
This one seems to have worked.
Kit hastily rolls aside as another peach splats where his head was.
Peaches continue to splat down around them.
(not getting up)
So I think...
(cutting him off)
If you mention one more time how we're lost at sea, you will regret it.
Oh, no, no, that's pretty firmly established at this point.
I was just going to say, maybe this is an improvement. Over before.
(through a peach)
Being lost at sea.
Kit falls asleep, not even closing his eyes.
A peach hits him in the side of the head.
This does not wake him at all.

The sacrifice

EXT. Soravian foothills - day
Vardaman loads what supplies he can into his bags, and leaves the rest with the dead horses, taking Coraline on on foot. The going is much slower now, Vardaman holding Coraline's arm, walking her along, holding her up as she stumbles, keeping her from falling when she trips.
Coraline doesn't really pay attention, moving on autopilot, staring off into space, being as slow and unhelpful as she can. She plays the part of not being all there even when she is, so that when she slips out into the Grey Lobby to practice and learn, it simply looks like more of the same.
They don't stop, don't rest, continuing on into the night. When Coraline falls and refuses to continue, not responding, Vardaman simply picks her up and carries her.
She takes the opportunity to sleep, and Dream.
You dream of Oaths, and Duty. You are a Deathdealer, sworn to Kyrule and the sanctity of death.
You're in a street, in a mountain town with high stone walls and stone buildings. The air is chill, but the sun is bright. Mushy snow hangs droopily off the roofs. People pass you by, and by your armour and robes, they know what you are, but there is no fear, only curiosity, and respect.
You walk along, observing, noting what you see. Kids playing in the snow. Men carting supplies about. A young woman, running door to door, giving out good news. You hail her, and ask what it is.
She grins, excited. "Mattias proposed!" she says. "He proposed and he's been calling all season, but now it's real, we're going to be married. Married! I'm so excited I don't even..." she trails off. "I'm sorry. You don't... do you have anyone? Waiting for you?"
You shake your head, smiling. "I don't," you tell her. "But congratulations. I'm glad for you."
"Thanks!" she says, bobbing her head. She hops off, on about her announcements, and you wonder, vaguely, at the commonplace. The relationships people have, the families they build. While you're never alone, exactly, you're always... alone.
The sun tilts. There is something off. The vague sense that precedes danger, tipping you off even before anything happens, but what you sense now is big, bigger than anything you've felt before. The whole world feels like an impending cave-in, and yet the sky is clear, the birds are singing, the people are going about their lives. Your fingers twitch toward your sword, but there is nothing there, nothing to fight. Normalcy, chattering around you.
You wait. You give it time. You talk and chat. But the feeling persists, worsens.
You feel eyes on you, but when you turn, there's noone there. A white cat, sitting on a post, watching the street disinterestedly.
Elves pass through, travelling, touristing. They greet you, and make the old gestures: a note of understanding what you are, what you've sacrificed. You return them: willing sacrifice, willing blade. Only the elves use these anymore, but you learn them still, for the elves.
One of them asks you, "How are things? Is everything good?"
You tell him, "I don't know, I just don't know."
"Should we go?" one of the women asks, softly, leaning close.
"Yes," you say.
The elves continue on, not stopping.
But nothing happens.
The feeling fades.
In the night, an old man comes to you. "It's my daughter," he says. "I don't know what's wrong. She won't answer." He takes you to his home. The night is cold, the moon bright, the growing frost sparkling on the ground. There is little sound, only the roaring of the wind in the trees beyond the walls, and little light from the buildings, as you follow him up the narrow streets and stairways to a house like all the rest, stone, multi-story, small windows shuttered shut. He fumbles at the door and ushers you inside, and directs you up.
The woman is sitting on her bed, hazy, uncertain. You go to her, sitting beside her, and ask what's wrong, but she doesn't answer, doesn't look up. You touch her, tilt her heard toward yours, and finally she looks at you, terrified.
"It's you," she whispers. "It was always you."
"I don't understand," you say. "What's me?"
"The end," she whispers, and leans forward as if to kiss you. As her lips touch yours, you realise she's doing something else, and everything about you screams in revulsion. You grab her head, break her neck, and suddenly it stops.
Her father charges you with a knife, but you're up immediately, and you effortlessly disarm him. He lunges for your throat. You bring your fist down on his head, and he collapses at your feet.
The stillness hangs like anvils. The silence loiters, and skitters away on tiny feet. Someone's watching. You slip back out into the night, uncertain what just happened, uncertain what to do.
Day comes with only more uncertainty. The tone of the town has changed. There's worry amidst the cheer. Uncertainty. People seek you out, and ask if you have magic, if you can help. Their loved ones are falling ill, going silent, disappearing.
You make house calls, all about the town, checking each, and each, and each, and the cat follows from time to time, a white shadow. One boy has a fever. You recognise it as a common thing, a winter ailment, and drop a small heal on him to hurry it along. "You'll be fine," you tell him. His muffled "nks," lingers in your ears like a ghost as you head onto the next - two girls, twins, who refuse to go outside. They've retreated into the corner of the cellar, shying away. You go down the dry wooden stairs quietly, feeling their bounce as they creak underfoot.
"Hello?" you call out, trying not to alarm. "Aisha? Medina?"
"It's all right, girls," their mother calls from the doorway above you. "She's a friend."
There's no response. You stop at the base of the stairs and listen, noting the shape of the room, the shelves and heaps and bins of supplies, the barrels and bottles. You can see most of it without seeing, but you wait for your eyes to adjust regardless, listening as the dust trickles down, as the shadows shift, as a mouse skitters in the dark. Their breathing is soft, fluttery, confused. Something brushes by your feet, but then it's gone.
You go to the girls. They're huddled together, all fluffy skirts and tiny braids, tucked into a corner behind a barrel of grain. They shrink back as you approach, pulling in their feet, tucking in their heads. "It's all right," you tell them. "I won't hurt you."
One of them looks up, staring at you, staring... through you. You can't tell, but in the low light, her eyes seem only gleaming, dark. "It's all right," she replies, quietly, calmly. Her sister is breathing sharply next to her, her face buried in her sister's chest. "I'll hurt you," she says.
"Aisha?" you ask, but the girl staring at you don't reply. "Medina," you correct yourself. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she says. "We like it."
"Does Aisha?" you ask.
Medina leans down and bites her sister's ear, tearing it off.
You jump forward, trying to separate them, but they just fall away from each other, Aisha tumbling behind you, rising slowly, not looking up, not even seeming to notice her missing, bleeding ear. Medina gets up too, slowly, deliberately, smiling, blood streaming down her chin. She spits out the ear.
"Keepers," you whisper.
Medina jumps at you, and you grab her, backing up, pulling a knife out of your belt. Aisha jumps at you too, and you knock her away with a quick slash at her chest, but Medina is squirming in your other arm, kicking, trying to bite you. You slit her throat quickly, dropping her as you turn, but Aisha doesn't try to jump you again. Instead she backs away, blood streaming down the side of her head, staring, her eyes blank, black, gleaming.
"No," Aisha whispers. "It hurts. It hurts."
"I know," you tell her. "I can help you. I can end your pain."
"There's no end," the girl says, still backing away.
You move forward, and in an instant you're right in front of her. You stop her, dropping to your knees, holding her in place, and she tenses, but does nothing. Her breathing is a flutter. Her heartbeat is a flutter. Something else, too, is fluttering. You sink your blade into her chest, and it stops, but she just stares at you with her strange eyes, staring, staring, staring.
You hold her as she fades, and lower her to the floor. In the darkness, there is only silence. The mouse is still. The dust is quiet.
You return to their mother with the blood still on your hands. "I'm sorry," you tell her. "It was too late."
"Too late?" she whispers. "Too late for what? What was wrong?"
"It was..." You stop uncertainly. She's not even looking at you. She's looking behind you, staring, frozen. And then you sense it.
You turn quickly, drawing your sword.
There's nothing there.
"You see it," she says, her voice a sharp deadpan. "You hear them too."
You glance back, but the woman is still staring at the point, the space. Where nothing is.
"What are they saying?" you ask.
She starts laughing, first a long, rolling chuckle, rising into a shrill cackle, and then stopping all at once. "I don't know!" she exclaims, all boisterous confusion.
You place a hand on her chest, sensing for harm. You sense... something. Different. Alien. Missing. She is the same, but different. The handprint you leave behind is indistinct, a red smudge.
She turns away, heading into a different room, and you follow. She doesn't seem to notice you, or remember. She doesn't seem to notice anything, just stopping again, staring at another space with nothing there. Nothing that you can see. Gently, you take her head from behind and slit her throat, stepping back quickly as she falls. A shadow spreads vaguely outward, before disappearing.
You wipe your hands and hurry to the next house. You know, now, what is happening. The only question is how bad it is.
It's later. It's bad. You leave more blood, more bodies, more lost souls in your wake. Sometimes, you think you see other things, too, but it never is, just more of the same, same, same. Those few who were there who don't seem infected, you warn to stay where they are, not go out.
You call for the town's leadership, and they gather in the temple at evening's close, in the shadow of the statue of Alyre, whose vibrant promise only casts a shadow on your words. In the corner of your eyes, you see it vibrate, almost, but when you look, the goddess is still, frozen in an instant of dance.
The townsfolk watch you fearfully, expectantly. They think you can solve this, protect them. You don't know that it's possible.
The cat is also there, sitting serenely, watching curiously.
"Close the gates," you tell them. "Seal the town. No one must leave, or enter."
They ask why, and you briefly consider what you can even tell them. The truth is huge and could cause a panic. Anything less might be disregarded.
"It's the Death of Souls," you tell them. "Several cases, around. There is no telling who else may be infected. Have people stay inside, not go out, not interact. Stay with their families. Once you spread the word, you do the same. Nobody should act as a go-between."
They stare at you with mingled expressions of disbelief and fear. You do your best to allay it, to explain, to direct.
"But then how will they manage? Who will comfort them?" This is the priestess, the keeper of the temple, dressed in mismatched colours and vibrant styles. Her jewellery marks her for what she is, but her stance marks her as... what? Her stance is normal. She's normal. Of everyone here, she's perhaps the most normal of all.
You try to smile reassuringly. "They will not be alone," you say. "The gods will hear them no matter where they are. Ensure they have a place to return to when this is over."
She nods uncertainly.
"I will make the rounds," you tell them. You do not need to explain what this means.
You walk the streets. You listen to the soft, thready heartbeat of the town. You feel eyes on you from all sides, hear shutters clack when you look up. People aren't sleeping. Soft snow drifts down lazily, sticking as the night goes on, muffling your footsteps, adding a squeak. You trace the other tracks and count. People are out. One in particular, small feet, long stride. Zig and zag. Steps retraced, fading in the new snow. Gleaming dark, sharp and fresh. Doubling back, and forth.
Padding behind you is the cat, white as the snow, dark nose and eyes following you with interest.
You pause, wiping the snow off your bushy hair, pulling it back before it gets any wetter. A flake lands on your fingers, bright contrast against your dark skin, and you watch it in the briefest instant before it melts away, trickling down. Everything is silence around you. The world is changed, white, perfect.
Snowflakes drift down like butterflies, lazily, dancingly.
Whispers flutter through the snow.
You hold your hand to doors, fingers splayed, sensing. Normal. Normal. Something... else. You knock, and knock again. Someone stirs inside, and asks, "Who's there?"
"The Deathdealer," you tell them.
The door opens slightly, a crack, and a boy, a teenager, peers out at you suspiciously.
"What do you want?" he asks.
"There's something here," you say.
He starts to close the door, but you push it open, forcing him aside, and enter with horrible certainty, like an iceberg.
"There's nothing," he says defensively, backing away.
You reach out to test him, but he backs up even further. "Don't resist me," you tell him. "You will fail."
"I'm not afraid of you," he says.
You give him a curious look. He should be afraid, and he is, but he doesn't want you to see it. You try again, approaching deliberately, and this time he stands his ground as you place your hand to his chest, sensing, feeling, listening. You nod, withdrawing your hand, and he sighs in relief.
You cast into the air, searching for others, and find two, apart, in the other rooms. The first you check - a girl, about the same age as the boy, with long black hair - and she, too, is fine. The other, an older woman, jumps you with a giant spoon as you open the door, clonking you on the head.
You give her a surprised look and say, "Ma'am?"
She drops the spoon, scooting away, throwing up her hands. "I'm sorry!" she cries. "I'm so sorry. I thought you were... someone else."
"Who?" you ask.
"I... I don't know," she says, uncertainly. "One of... them?"
You glance back. The boy is watching you from the hall.
You approach her, hold out your hand. "May I?" you ask.
She nods. You place your hand on her chest. She explodes in front of you, showering blood, falling to the ground in a grisly, broken confusion, as a grinning face and hands like claws, red with blood, burst forth from behind her. The creature lunges at you, still grinning, gleaming.
You smack at it. It grabs your arm, its claws digging into your armour, and you try to free yourself, but it reaches for your head with its spare hand.
"Mom!" the boy shrieks, running in.
You lift the creature, spinning about, using your momentum to keep it from the rest of you, and slam it down into the floor, your fist punching through its bones and soft organs. It hisses, scrabbling furiously, scratching at your arm, kicking, biting, but it's no longer gripping. You swap fist for foot, pinning it down under your boot as you rise and draw your sword.
You bring the blade down in a quick motion, impaling it through the skull, stabbing into the floor, and the creature stills immediately. A shadow bursts forth around it, dissipating quickly, as the blackness fades from its eyes. The claws turn back to hands.
Behind you, the boy is sobbing, "No, mom, mom, mom..." He stops as you turn back to him, and then falls to his knees, staring off into space.
He was too close.
You pull your sword out of the floor, out of the... man, and move for the boy. He startles, hopping back, and you see a reflection of your expression in his reaction. Cold. Dead. Merciless.
He flees. You throw your sword. The blade sinks into his back, and he falls at the doorway.
You move on. You check other homes. You kill the infected, no mercy, no hesitation, even as their family members beg you not to. If they're not infected, you tell them to stay back. If they are, or they ignore you and are caught by their dear ones' death novas, then you kill them too.
You follow the tracks in the snow, but they never quite lead anywhere, always going somewhere else, somewhere else, somewhere else.
The snow stops. Night gives way to day, but the streets remain deserted. Mostly the townsfolk do as they are told, staying inside, not moving about. A few try to flee. The guards man the walls, block the gate, armed with bows and arrows. They are told to shoot any who come, and not let them get close. At first they hesitate, uncertain, so you step in, cutting down the fleeing folk with brutal efficiency. Death novas burst around you.
"They are gone already. Do not take the risk, or you, too, will die," you tell them.
After, they do not hesitate.
You continue your rounds. More die, and more, and more. You feel the weight of their souls as a horrible toll, but by the time they meet your sword, they're all already gone. Soulless. Shells. Hungering.
The one thing you don't understand is how. How did it get so bad?
You're following the tracks again, the small feet with the long stride. The running child you never see. The white cat follows you, wings folded primly, never getting too close, never exactly approaching. You glance back, and it sits, meeting your gaze, then glancing away.
You're at the temple. You go in. There are people here, sitting, praying. They look at you fearfully, guiltily, but you stride past, paying them little heed. At the altar is a basin of water, and you lean over it heavily, trying not to show your own fear. You glance at the statue, then touch the water, and whisper, "For all who have fallen, may the gods find their souls. May there yet be solace."
You bow, making the signs for the dead, and leave.
Outside, you find the girl, waiting, small and lithe, standing in the settling snow. You know who she is even before you see her tracks, all around, obvious, directionless. The running child. She looks at you askance. A lopsided grin plays on her face.
"You shouldn't be out," you tell her, going to her. She watches defiantly, grinning up at you, as you place a hand on her head.
You try to determine if she's one of them, if she's infected. You can't tell.
"What are you doing out?" you ask her. She doesn't answer. It doesn't matter. You make up your mind. "Gods take you sweetly if I am wrong," you whisper, and hold her still. She struggles, vainly, against your grip. You stab her quickly, deeply. She screams, thrashing, and loses her breath.
It only gets worse. The town gets worse. The streets are silent. You leave the bodies in the streets. They begin to disappear.
People panic. The remaining households flood out into the streets, yelling for everyone else to come too, pounding on doors. Chaos explodes as nearly everyone else comes too. You try to stop it, and the guards try to help, but it's a losing battle as you're surrounded by infected and uninfected alike, yelling, jostling, as they press for the gates.
"What are you going to do, kill us all?" someone yells, and the cry is taken up, all around, in a wave that carries you with. You fight your way free, pushing through the crowd, retreating to the gates, making it there just ahead of everyone else. You hold your sword on the townsfolk, the mask and skull sigil a dark mark just below the hilt promising endings.
"Stop!" you command. "Turn back now." Several of the guards stand with you, bows in hand. They knock back at the crowd with their shafts.
The townsfolk stop, crowding around, pressing at you and seven guards.
"You can't kill us all," someone says.
"I can," you reply. "I will."
They yell. They charge. You slash at them, fighting back, cutting the townsfolk crowd down with deadly efficiency, even as more trample toward you, and more, and more. The guards stand with you, fighting as well, knocking back, shooting, stabbing, and more than anything, you admire their bravery. For you, this is your duty, simply something you have to do. But for them, these are their friends, their peers, people they knew well, and loved, and they have no protection against them, no god-given immunity. It is almost inconceivable, what they are doing.
Death novas burst, spreading shadow, spreading the curse, forming a wall of infection in front of everything. Your guards have all been infected, and yet still they fight, still they stand by you. The mob presses, and presses, and presses, the bodies piling high, until suddenly it doesn't. The remainder hang back, uncertain, backing off.
You go to them, climbing over the dead, and your guards go with. "We need to round them up," you tell them, as the people scatter, and with the now six guards' help, you corral most of the remainder. Eyes peer around corners. Skulking figures hide in your periphery.
The white cat watches.
You go through the crowd remainder, testing each by each. You separate out the infected, and the ones you cannot tell, and the guards stay with them, keeping each group together. You see the fear in their eyes.
You turn to the uninfected, a small group of a dozen or so. Further off, skulkers hang about. Too many eyes watch you from the buildings, from the shuttered windows, from the dark shadows. The other two groups watch as well. You haven't told them which is which.
You're stuck. These few people before you, who still have their souls, are the most precious thing of all, but you can't get them out without the infected getting out as well. You can't kill the infected first without it spreading. You draw your sword.
The uninfected draw away fearfully, pleading. "No," someone says. Others beg you not to, insist they are fine. Among them is the boy with the cold, staring at you, not saying anything. You remember his 'nks, and look at him sadly.
Your guards take the other two groups back, giving space. They have an idea what you're doing. They understand. These souls, at least, might be saved.
It's quick, efficient, as you kill them all, dancing around them with your sword. They try to run. They cower. One man tries to hit you from behind. But they all fall before you, even the boy.
The other groups watch uncertainly. They shy back, avert their eyes. A few watch sadly, curiously, delightedly. The guards keep them put, and shoot a man who tries to get away. Somehow, they hold themselves steady.
You go to the maybes next. They stare at you fearfully. "It was just them, right?" a woman asks. "We're okay."
"I don't know," you tell her. "I can't take the risk."
You take these out too, killing them all, swiftly, exactingly, your blade a scalpel in a wound. The guards back away, allowing you space, not even bothering to help when a few flee in opposite directions. It doesn't matter. They don't get away. Some of them death nova. Some of them don't.
The last group watches triumphantly, and look relieved as you approach them after, the other three guards now going to them as well.
"Can we go now?" someone asks. "You did the infected, and the ones who might have been. But now we're all okay. Right?" The others agree, hopeful, happy.
The guards stand their ground, keep them put.
"No," you say.
They stare at you, uncomprehending. They try to run.
You kill them, too.
It's just you and the guards, now, six still standing, all infected. They know what they are. They know what they've lost. They stand before you, in terror and pride, knowing that there is nothing left for them. And you are proud, too. Proud of them, proud to have stood by them, and to have had them stand by you.
"Thank you," you tell them. "You are the bravest men I have ever known." They bow their heads, and you hug them, and they hug you. They give their names, and each washes over you like an avalanche, hitting home. They tell you the seventh, who already fell.
You look to them all in heartbreak, and tell them, "The gods will remember you."
As you take their lives, each by each, you whisper their names.
You're alone, now. The town is still, empty, and yet at all the edges full of too much motion. It skitters away at your approach, hiding behind walls. Goes still at your glance.
You make your way up the hill. The motion follows in the margins, scooting between buildings, around corners, stalking, watching. Fog follows too in foggy tendrils, licking at the ground, at the edges of the motion.
They come out as you reach the square, trickling in from all sides, surrounding you as the fog thickens into a damp cocoon. The remaining infected, lost to all sanity. And others, too. Ones you've already killed. Ones who had disappeared. Corpses, wreathed in black. You hold up your sword and let out a pulse of light, raw radiant power that fills the square, pushing back against the fog, lighting it up.
It doesn't work. The corpses keep coming. The infected keep coming. They come at you as a mob, but unlike the mob before, these fight you, unfeelingly, unrelentingly, more and more piling on from all sides, all at once.
You fight them off, but you are only so fast, can do only so much. It is too much, too many, and you back away, clearing the path in a whirlwind of metal that never seems quite enough. They pull at you, claw at you, bite and stab, and as they break through your defence by sheer persistence, you feel every prick weaken you a little more.
Your back hits something hard, solid. A wall. Your clothes and armour are slippery with blood. Your sword is oddly heavy. But there are fewer, now, all in front of you, visible, almost manageable. You knock them back, cutting down a few who get too close, keeping the rest at bay, and then jump back into middle of the lot, spinning and slashing, death incarnate.
Trickles of red and black paint the fog. The ground is a mirror, deep and dark. The bodies fall softly, like ashes, like smoke, and you dance away, in control, in the heart...
It's over. Done. You're alone again, last one standing, covered in blood. Only some of it is your own, but it all stings the same, the smell sweet and thick and everywhere. Again the bodies are piled up, covering the ground, vague lumps, unmoving. The edges of your vision are tinged with black. It's too late, now. It was too late when you came. You sway, and plant your feet, bracing yourself on your sword.
You hear it behind you, low and deep, full of promise, menace. Thump.
The town is still, hidden. Not even crows disturb the silence.
You turn, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if you have the strength for anything more. This has taken everything you have already, and yet...
The temple is a large stone building, tall and straight, set apart from the rest, above the rest. It looms overhead, unyielding, uncertain. You can feel it, the shape of the thing, pressing in your mind.
You're inside. You don't remember entering. The smell is iron and musk. You're in the aisle, between the pews. The pews. The pews are full of people, bodies, corpses staring with empty eyes, white eyes, missing eyes. Their forms are shrouded in black, layered, hinted at. A layer beneath the skin, over the eyes. The eyes turn to watch you. You step forward, but they do not move, following.
Your head hurts. You're tired, exhausted. Your mind strains against the inconsistencies, trying to see, trying to understand. The white cat, standing at your feet, hisses, arching its back, but it's not hissing at you. It's hissing at the statue, at the priestess, at the statue.
You try to look at it, but you can't. Your head is an agony, the pressure intolerable. The heartbeat is everywhere, all around you, part of you, no longer audible.
The statue is vibrating, dancing. Fighting. No. The priestess is fighting. Dancing, vibrating. Mirrors. It isn't moving. No. It isn't... the priestess is standing still, waiting, watching. Something is there. Something bigger, pressing in, behind, trying to enter.
You feel the eyes, all around. You feel nothing. You're alone, entirely alone, and yet you shouldn't be.
The voice reverberates through your skull, all around, inside. Welcome, it says. We have been waiting for you. It is horrible. It is beyond horrible. It is sweet and vast and bright. It is darkness in its purest form. It makes you want to claw your skin off and dance, dance, dance, screaming, into the void.
You fight it. You resist.
You can feel it pressing at you, prying at you, peeling back your defences one by one by one.
"Join us," the priestess says. An echo. A thunder. A normal voice. "You're tired. Rest."
You drop to your knees in front of her. Your sword has long since fallen from your hand. Around you, behind you, you hear movement. People rising. Corpses. Moving. Hearts beating. You're losing yourself, like a trickle, driftingly.
She reaches out a hand to you, beckoning, smiling. Her form flickers, vibrating, in unison with the breaking of the statue.
"Never," you whisper. You can barely move, but you draw a knife from your boot, fighting for every inch, your arms trembling, and brace your head with your hand as you bury the blade in the side of your skull.
There's a sound like wings, and tearing. Then nothing.

Coraline awakens in utter terror, breathing hard, almost sobbing. Only after a moment does she remember where she is, and who she is.
She's sitting on the ground, tied, against a tree, but for once not to it. She isn't gagged, either. Vardaman is squatting in front of her, a hand held to her heart. Like she had done in the dream.
Coraline whimpers, scrunching up against the tree, looking away.
(withdrawing the hand.)
You're getting worse.
Tell me what you saw.
It's just a nightmare. Just a dream.
What about?
Coraline looks at him and then starts laughing, a maniacal half-sobbing.
Vardaman frowns. When she doesn't stop, he replaces the gag, re-stuffing the cloth in her mouth, muffling, but not cutting off, the laughter.

INT. Grey Lobby
It's Agata who finally drags Coraline into the Grey Lobby, climbs onto her knees, and stares at her intently until Coraline starts responding somewhat more normally.
How are you?
I'm fine. Peachy. Great!
Great. Stop acting like you've had a psychotic break.
Agata hops down and pads away into the various bits of furniture.
Coraline gets up slowly, peering about unhappily.
Agata hops onto a sofa behind her.
Say after me. "I'm normal, sane, and perfectly fine."
Say it. "I'm."
Dammit, cat!
Are you or are you not?
I'm really not. Any of those. Bloody damn.
Then stop moping.
I'm not moping!
Agata and Coraline stare at each other for a bit.
(leaning over one of the sofas)
Am I interrupting something?
She's just moping because she had a bad dream.
I'm not moping!
Then what are you doing?
Well, no. I'm angry. I'm angry because I'm terrified. I shouldn't be terrified. It was just a dream. A dream. Doesn't mean what you think.
Sometimes dreams mean a lot, or nothing at all. Or teach! Dreams teach.
(gesturing to the Lobby)
This is a dream, you know. The Eternal communicates with his other Voices in dreams, too.
This doesn't scare me. This isn't an ending.
What scared you?
In your dream. What scared you?
There's a long silence.
All of it.
I was a Deathdealer. I was strong. I was merciless. And yet what I was up against, I couldn't do anything to stop it. I failed at every turn, and in the end...
Coraline just stops, staring off into space.
You're afraid you'll fail in this life, too.
What I'm up against, it's big. Huge. Like the thing in my dream, it can't be faced. All the strength in the worlds can't defeat nothing, and yet that's what I have to do. I'm in over my head, and I know it, but I try not to let it scare me. I try to be brave, and keep going, because the alternative is certain failure. But I'll still probably fail. I'll run out of time. I'll run out of options. And that'll be it. Game over. No more lives.
I couldn't do anything as a Deathdealer. How can I possibly do anything as myself?
By being very, very surprising.
He throws a blast of lighting at Coraline. Coraline throws up a ward in the same moment, blocking it.
The boy in green smiles, and then shoves a hand in Coraline's direction. Her ward flickers out as she's knocked backwards.
(casting back from the floor)
The boy in green puts up his own ward, blocking the effect.
Full sleep shadow hold!
This punches through the ward, hitting the boy in green square on, and he falls over, paralysed.
Coraline gets up and comes over, and swipes with her hand over the boy in green. He immediately jumps up again, grinning.
Coraline smiles as well.
Yes, yes, yes! That exactly.
Red blue skin.
He flings the spell at Coraline, and she turns purple.
What the...

The regret

EXT. Soravian foothills - day
Vardaman and Coraline get higher into the foothills, gaining altitude slowly as they head west, always west, almost parallel to the mountains themselves. The trees and rocks grow thicker.
They continue through the nights, only stopping to feed and water Coraline. Vardaman gives up on making Coraline walk and just carries her outright, holding her in front of him like a pile of logs, her legs now also bound. Coraline no longer fights, just waiting, practicing, making sure she can breathe. Agata is curled up on top of her.
Spirits, like the faint, featureless silhouettes of little children made only of cold mist, watch forlornly from the rocks as they pass. Indistinct heads turn to follow, but they do not otherwise move.
Coraline watches them vaguely for a bit before it occurs to her that they're a bit odd, and she hasn't actually seen them before.
(mind voice)
What are they?
(mind voice)
Ghost spirits... nobody knows. It doesn't help that very few people can see them.
(mind voice)
Can people see the other things? The housemites and the ghostlights and ash demons and all the weird shadows and... things? I always just assumed they were normal, and nobody paid heed because they were just part of life...
(mind voice)
(mind voice)
Can Vardaman?
(mind voice)
I don't think so. I think it's mostly... witches. Mediums. Necromancers. Those who can see the dead, and speak with them.
(mind voice)
Are they dead?
(mind voice)
It's the same magic. All things, all power, has a spirit. A ghost that remains behind after. If you were good, you might even see a trail behind you, echoing your struggle with the Deathdealer, showing every step and motion. The words, the pain. The hope. The fear.
He's very afraid, though he won't show it. He is not certain of his decision, and as you grow weaker, he reconsiders more. You're getting bony, Names.
(mind voice)
Funny. So it's like souls? Those are dead people spirits... like all of these?
(mind voice)
I think... yes. And no. Souls are the same thing, but more powerful, and unless you do something to stop it, they leave the world quickly when their owner dies. But there's more than that. The soul goes, but a spirit remains regardless. Memories, patterns...
Your soul is not here, and yet you are still you. Your spirit remains, full of fight. Sisu.
(mind voice)
Sisu. Right. I'm not sure that applies anymore.
(mind voice)
The things you see, they're spirits. When you use the Dead Voice, you speak to their spirits, through all their loneliness, and fear. And they love you for it.
Or I could be making all this up. Who knows.
They continue on, Vardaman walking quickly, each step deliberate, flowing into the next. The ghost spirits watch, rooted to the ground, their vague shapes of heads following.
Agata purrs.
(mind voice)
I wish I could talk to them.
Can we stop for a moment?
The spirits. Do you see them?
Vardaman doesn't respond, doesn't slow.
Let us talk to them. They're lonely.
Do you take me for an idiot?
(mind voice)
Worth a try.
(mind voice)
He can't even see them. How could he possibly trust us?
Can you use the Dead Voice?
(mind voice)
Agata proceeds to just sit there.

INT. Grey Lobby
The boy in green is flying, hovering about two metres up, with indistinct shapes of what might be wings traced out in light from his back.
He stops mid-whee, looking around uncertainly. He's still just hovering, in place. He tries flapping his arms a bit. Nothing happens.
The boy in green falls out of the air, his wing shapes disappearing all at once. He pops up a moment later leaning over a sofa.
Hey. So.
(shaping out the spell)
sleep hold full.
Coraline starts to put up a ward, but then just stops mid-cast, letting it hit her. She topples to the ground.
Agata wanders off and goes to sniff at a random MAN IN BLACK elsewhere in the Lobby.
Hey kitty.
He pets her a bit.
Agata hops onto the man's lap and curls up, accepting further pets and scratches.
For a bit, nothing happens. Coraline tries to cast through the paralysis. A nearby armchair catches fire.
The boy in green looks disappointed, and dismisses the spell.
Coraline gets up and smacks out the fire.
I think I still need more practice. Is there any way we can... I dunno, only tie me up partly or something?
Do it using only the words. Words only. Only words.
(crossing her arms)
break empty wind.
Her dress flutters around her, as if caught by a slight breeze.
It's like I'm farting. What the hell is this language, anyway?
For the spells. All the incantations are in this weird choppy language I can't quite place.
Oh! Um. Dunno. It just is, you know?
Not really... nevermind.
If I'm not actually restrained, how do I even know if it's working? If it's the right spell, the right shape?
Looks like it's working. Here.
A rope appears in his hands.
I'll just tie you up, okay?
Coraline shrugs, and he proceeds to tie her arms really badly, including a rather taut rope across her neck.
You know, if we were really here, I'd be a bit worried about this job you're doing...
(backing off)
Yeah yeah, go on cast it.
Empty wind.
The knots unravel and the rope slides off.
See? Now if we can get rid of the other words too...

EXT. Soravian foothills - night
Real life is just more of the same. It's utterly miserable. Vardaman is carrying Coraline, not stopping, not saying anything.
Coraline is too tired to sleep, too sore. In her mind, she repeats the mantra, going over the words each by each, as the world goes by in a stark mingle of rocks and trees and softly glowing spirits drifting about in warbles. The ghost spirits, at least, are mostly past, only one or two solitary ones standing in place as they pass from time to time.
She slips back into the Grey Lobby, not even noticing what she's doing.

INT. Grey lobby
It's empty, now. Grey and empty. The sofas beckon like long-lost friends. Even the floor looks welcoming.
Coraline collapses into one, a poofy length of not quite velvet, and it embraces her in fuzz. But she cannot sleep. She closes her eyes. She stares out into the space, not really seeing. She scrunches up, burying her face in its poof.
She doesn't even have the strength to cry.
The Voice is standing over her.
There is no sleep here. This is not the world of the living.
I'm so tired.
Carriers who have progressed far enough often cannot sleep either, though your sleep deprivation appears much more mundane.
And yet you also did not seem to need sleep when you carried the god shard...
(mumbling) my sock...
It reacted differently to you. Even beyond your being a Carrier, there was something more.
Just kill me...
Later, perhaps. You have a long way yet to go.
Agata... Agata... please...

EXT. Soravian foothills - night
(mind voice)
It's okay.
Agata licks Coraline's chin.
Coraline whimpers.
(mind voice)
You need to sleep.
(mind voice)
I want to.
Agata licks Coraline's face some more, her rough tongue scratching at the mingled dirt and tears of too many days bound up.
(low and rough, like a purr)
Coraline falls into blackness.
The Dream only comes later, drifting out of the deeps and covering the darkness in its own, full and warm.
You dream of Life, and Home.
You're back. You never left. You had your one day out with the God of Death, but then you turned him down. After he laid everything out and asked, you told him, "I'm sorry, I can't just give up my life like that." And Sherandris smiled, and said, "I understand completely. Thank you for considering it."
And now you're home, in your apartment, sitting at your table, going through your mail. Things are ordinary, sane, far from simple. You need a proper job. You need to start your life. You need to say goodbye.
You regret, vaguely, your decision. The god's request had been for her, after all. Your distant friend, your dear half-adopted sister of sorts. But it had been too much, for not even a certain thing. For only a chance.
So you go back to your work. Applications, applications, follow up, and applications. Days pass into weeks. Your odd job in the interim tides you over, and you mix drinks and pour vodka. Mostly you pour vodka. Your customers chatter and laugh, acting almost like swedes. Your friends come by, and also act like swedes. You chide them in swedish. They laugh, and make questionable jokes, and then you're all hurling around memes, caught up in the moment.
A customer is staring at you expectantly, trying to avoid being too obvious, trying to avoid actually looking at you, and you cough and hurry over. He orders in two words. You pour and pass it over, processing his card, and say nothing. It's simple. Effective. Finnish.
And life goes on. Somehow, against all expectation, this works too. The skills of a librarian apply behind the bar as you organise, catalogue, dispense. Curt phrases suffice for all negotiation. It comes as a total shock when one morning, opening your mail, you find an invitation letter. Thank you for your interest. Let's talk. You realise it's english, and thus perhaps not as promising as it initially sounds, but you follow up. You talk. You negotiate rates and starting times and benefits.
You're giving notice. You're packing. You're saying goodbyes, and staring at your coffee in the sudden horror of realisation. England. They drink tea there. You're screwed.
Your bags are shipped. You get off at the airport. An hour to a bigger airport, and then a few more to London, and Anna, whose basement you'll be staying in at least for the time being. Anna texts you excitedly, telling you not to crash and die. You tell her that only happens sometimes, and you wouldn't get that lucky. You're more likely to crash and burn really badly and then somehow not die. She tells you everyone will love you here, and she really wants to be there to see what the library makes of you when they actually meet you in person. You tell her you'll wait to dress up like a pirate until later.
When you finally get there, get your stuff, and spill out into the main airport, Anna is standing there with a 2m length of PVC pipe in hand, holding it like a wizard's staff.
"What's with the pipe?" you ask.
"Thought it'd be funny," she says, and leads you out.
Moving in is hectic, but as the packages arrive by post, and the furniture and other items are dropped off all at once, Anna brings in all her local friends to help, and everything gets assembled in totally the wrong rooms. The bed is in the kitchen, and covered in chairs. The table is in the bedroom, half embedded in a sofa. There are two desks, which is one too many.
Along with all the boxes, none of it quite fits. You all use the boxes for chairs, have curry, and chatter and plan.
The others go. It's three in the morning. Anna is staring at the fridge, eating ice cream, considering. "Well, you've got the important things, at least," she tells you.
You nudge some chairs out of the way and collapse on the bed. "Wake me when the world ends," you mumble.
"I'll strike a compromise and wake you when you run out of ice cream," Anna says. "How's that sound?"
You don't answer. You're reasonably sure you're already asleep.
The first day, you wake up with a cat on your head. The second, you wake up with two cats curled up next to you. Of three, only two are Anna's.
The new city is strange and exciting. The people are different. You start your job and nothing horrible happens. Anna shows you around, introducing you to things, concepts, people. She takes you to a bar, and says, "This is a pub. People talk to people here."
"I know," you tell her. "I used to work in one."
You go in. You have an awkward conversation with the bartender. Later, you return, and have less awkward conversations, too.
Days turn to weeks. Weeks turn to months. You collect books and shop for food and are surprised, sometimes, by the same same, but different. Slowly, you settle in to this strange new place, this strange new life. You make friends, find gaming groups, meet Petr.
You hit it off slowly, taking two years to finally get around to a proper date, just hanging out in the meantime, throwing jokes across the gaming table, reliving the highlights in every reference. The time Petr Silenced the big bad before it could launch into a monologue. Your incident with the pickaxe, in which your negative strength cleric critted with it six times in a single night after randomly picking it up as a joke. The octopus tearing up the basement, nothing even left to loot.
You mention the octopus the most. It becomes your call sign, your in-joke. "Octopus," one of you says, and it's all giggles from there. You don't even know why, anymore. It's just funny.
One day Petr runs into you at the bus station. This is not unusual.
"Octopus," he says. "Go out with me."
And you do. Together, you make adventures out of toothpicks, go to Wikimedia meetups, and watch through series upon series of television, gaming all the way. When your characters hit epic levels, you dress up and go to the grocery. People whisper behind you, and you laugh, delighting in it.
You marry. You dress as cultists and have a little ceremony in the courthouse, and invite everyone over for octopus after. The octopus turns out to be the cake, almost a metre tall, rising up off the table like a lovecraftian horror, painted in terrible colours.
The congratulations are many and confused as everyone gathers around, loitering, smiling, talking, eyeing the octopus. Nobody wants to cut it. Nobody wants to destroy it. Nobody is even sure what it is, really, so finally you pull out a sword and assault it directly.
The others stand back and watch.
The remains, after, are sad, but distinctly cake-piece-like.
"Avast!" you announce, waving your sword at it. Crumbs and bits of frosting fly off.
Petr rolls his eyes and hands some people plates. They begin to serve themselves, digging in. You giggle, and he hugs you, trying to avoid the frosting-covered sword. "It stood no chance," he tells you.
"Nothing does," you reply. You're very certain, though you don't know why. Nothing will ever stop you.
The years pass quickly. You grow older together, take on new positions, make new friends. You make a baby together, bringing it into the world amidst considerable confusion, utterly unclear what to do with it, treating it like a kitten, because for some reason it even squeaks like a kitten. At some point, you stop referring to it as 'it', and start calling her Katia. "You will do better in this life than your namesake, dear Katia," you tell her as she finally begins to understand words, and their function. "But I hope you still have her sisu."
And then you make another one, just for the hell of it. Petr names this one before you can even weigh in, like he was afraid what you might come up with, but you don't mind. It's still yours. Sam. Sam is still yours.
Katia squeaks indignantly.
The world goes on around you. Politics happen. Regimes change, Wikimedians worry, librarians chatter. Demographics shift. Rotherham. Cameroon. Firewall. Names take on new meanings. Progressiveness becomes... something else. Words become dangerous.
Words are your life.
You're in your office, a bigger one, all to yourself, in another library. The desk is covered in paperwork, and you resign yourself to it, going through each piece not even really paying attention. You won't finish it all. Not any time soon. And there will be ore...
There's a picture of the kids in the middle of it all, half buried in a stack of requisition forms next to a potted fern. Katia, now five, peers at you from under the fronds. Sam is totally buried.
Something nags at the back of your mind, an old ache, a half regret. Life goes on.
Anna is at the doorway, hanging off the frame, holding your coat, looking expectant. "We're gonna get some lunch," she says.
"Can't," you tell her. "Need to deal with all this. Terrible, is what it is. Can't even get to the reincarnation forms until I've requisitioned the paper to print them out on. This stuff is dependency hell."
"Really?" Anna says. "I'm sure the dead will wait. Put in the orders and let's go."
She has that look about her, and you realise it's hopeless. She'll just drag you if you don't come willingly. Forcibly. She's considerably bigger than you, after all. "We're on the first floor," you point out. "I could escape out the window."
"Ah," she says, "but if you do that, you won't be working anyway. Come on."
"Lunch winds up at a place. A television with news on is on the far wall, something about terrorism and an embassy being blown up, and controversy, and you try to ignore it. People had been saying journalism was a dying profession, but they had gotten it all wrong. It wasn't dying, but evolving into something far more dangerous.
Petr joins you a moment later. "It's not as bad as it looks," he tells you.
"What?" you say.
"Huh?" he says.
Life goes on, and on, and on. The world goes mad around you, and yet for the most part, nothing really changes. Tones, perhaps. Tensions. Fear. Joblessness abounds, but for now, it's only around you, and in the library, you do what you can. You make it a haven where people can escape, or search, or learn. It's all a part of living, now.
And then one day it all changes. Petr is trying to fix his hair for a meeting and keeps popping in and out of the bathroom. Sam is hanging off the stairs trying to hit Katia with a metrestick, and you're yelling at the both of them to stop being you and eat their breakfast already. This is all normal. Everything is the same as ever. Except it's not. It's not the same at all.
Petr pops out again, announces it's hopeless, and then just stops when he sees your face.
"We live in Austria," you say. "This is Austria all over again."
"What are you talking about?" he asks.
You shake your head. You don't know. The whole world feels like an impending cave-in, except nothing new has really happened. The news isn't odd, but more of the same. Free speech crumbling, replaced by protections. The wars spreading, with more refugees incoming. More no-go 'dark' zones established. Jobs disappearing, taxes increasing.
China's leadership changed again. Russia annexed Finland. Taiwan recognised as a sovereign state, while India and Pakistan make peace. Things are backwards. Turkey invades Syria, moving south with ponderous certainty as the Islamic State spreads in every other direction, just as certainly. Czechia attacks Slovenia. Tanzania attacks Kenya, and loses badly. Mexico attacks itself. Venezuela becomes the handbook. Seemingly unrelated incidents compound and multiply, and nowhere escapes the madness.
You know what started it, but you tell noone. First, because you talked to noone who would listen. Now because there are no safe channels remaining to even speak on such things, and the laws on hate speech are absolute, zero tolerance... as long as the subjects are non-white. Even Tor is known to be unsecure, though it's better than nothing, though you now direct all library traffic through it. All the libraries are. They've become an oasis, in the madness. Free knowledge, backed by free software, never directly opposing the narratives, but always hinting, suggesting people read further. Underpaid radicals, the lot of you, just doing your jobs.
But something has shifted. You confiscate the metrestick and shoo the kids back to the kitchen. Austria, even once they had realised their mistake, could not escape until the war ended. But here, now, people were realising. The mailing list traffic, though subtle, was showing more and more progress. Small victories. Books as a weapon.
The world is at war, and you're in the middle of it, fighting in your own way. It will only get worse, before it gets better.
It gets worse. The libraries are closed. Wikimedia is declared a hate movement, free knowledge equated with foreign propaganda. Memes are made illegal, and so multiply exponentially, showing up everywhere, in advertising, on the street, painted on walls, posted as signs, referenced unknowingly in speeches. It is a revolution in green, and you, too, revolt. The libraries revolt. The Wikimedians and teachers and shitposters revolt as imageboards become a mainstay, even as they are constantly taken down, only to pop up under a new name, a new url, full of memes.
You reopen the library. Petr is with you, along with four other librarians. The kids are with Anna. A small crowd gathers around as you march up and unlock the doors, and announce, "We are open, and full of books."
Police are there too, keeping back the crowd, but also allowing you space. "You shouldn't be doing this," one of them says. "It's supposed to be closed."
"Then stop us," you say. "Stop all these children from reading their books. Stop these adults from seeing the worlds. This is a library. It's only dangerous to those who oppose people.
"This isn't what you signed up for," you add. "You signed on to keep the peace, to protect the people. So help me. Protect them, ensure this place remains open to them." You could have worded it better, you know. You could have said more. But it's enough, because you're right, and they know you're right. They help. They protect. They keep it open.
People trickle in, some afraid, others eager. You keep it open, through the day, through the night, and your police go against orders. In light of all the other chaos, the protesting, the rioting, the muggings and rapes and murders of the dark zones, this small, quiet defiance goes unchallenged, and your officers, your protectors, ensure it remains quiet.
The other librarians join you. And then other libraries reopen, too, all around as the idea takes root. Quiet resistance. Somewhere peaceful people can go while outside, the madness and horror mounts.
You move in entirely, and then the schools move in as well, living out of the library, guarding it, making it alive. Everyone chips in, teachers, refugees, even students, maintaining and defending, keeping the peace outside. Anna comes, too, bringing Katia and Sam. You hug them fearfully as Katia blathers excitedly about octopuses. Anna laughs and hands you a tumble of pages, drawn and inked and painted. They are all octopuses.
"Octopus," Petr helpfully points out.
"I know, you doofus," you say.
"Dofus," Sam says.
"Pues sí," you reply.
"You know that show's supposed to be French, right?" Petr says.
"Quel est ton pont?" you ask.
He winces.
Something's happening outside, more than usual, loud and angry. People are tumbling in, while several of the librarians, new and old - for they're all librarians now - push past, out into it. You move to join them, but Petr gestures for you to stay, going instead. "I'll check it out," he says. "Guard the library, my Librarian."
"But..." you say. But he's already moved out, and Katia's stuck to your arm like a limpet. You raise her up as she clings. "Oh no," you moan. "I've broken out in cats."
Katia meows.
"It's later. You're with the kids - many kids, yours and others, reading them a story about sentient poop. Even some of the older ones are there, their faces painted in disbelief that the topic was as literal as the book's title had suggested. You go through the pages, trying not to hurry, trying to put on the good show - because it's a book that deserves a good show - acting out every line, articulations and sound effects and voices and pauses. Big, pregnant, expectant pauses.
Except something's wrong, and you know it. How long has it been? You don't know. Where is Petr? Where are the others? One of the other librarians is by the door, waiting for you to finish, smiling vaguely at the vary flagrant jokes as the kids laugh uproariously. He isn't one of the originals, instead a refugee, first from somewhere in Morocco, more recently from somewhere in East London, but now he's one of yours, same as all the rest.
You finish. The sound effects continue, and the laughter continues, as you get up and sidle through the kids, trying to keep your cool. The older ones, and the less distracted ones, still catch on that something's off, but your calm reassures them.
"What's wrong?" you ask him as you head back out into the alien space that the main library has become.
"We're staging a rescue," he replies. He doesn't need to explain what for.
Tents and sleeping bags are everywhere. The computers are packed, mostly with teenagers, but that's less unusual. Folks are all around, lounging about reading, talking, eating. You weave your way through it, and meet a small throng of armed librarians. They hand you sticks. You grab a megaphone as well, and charge out into the riot outside.
It's utter chaos. The din is cacophonous, full of explosions, fire and gunfire, and bludgeonings, and tramplings. People are yelling, screaming. You yell into your megaphones, blaring out demands to disperse, or at least get out of your way. Some people do. Others don't. You push your way through, surrounded by your cohort, yelling the fray into submission, and in some cases, hitting. A few get lost, but you continue on.
The police are there too, doing much the same, though they have armour and shields. Somehow, together, it works. People disperse, quiet down, stop attacking. The streets are strewn with wreckage, and bodies. Storefronts and buildings are trashed. Some are on fire. Cars are trashed, and some of these, too, are on fire. You unclump. You tend to the wounded, check the dead. Now, in the calm, the smell stands out. Burnt. Dead. Rotting. Your city in ruins. People in ruins.
Petr. You're not sure how long you've been standing there, staring. He's there. He's dead. On the ground, broken, dirty, bloody. It's him. It isn't. You're not responding properly. You're not responding at all. What are you doing? You look around. The stillness is eerie. The quiet hanging like anvils. Voices babble in the distance as people coordinate in the mess.
You turn away. Go inside. Retreat to food. Cake. Octopus. You're drawing swirls in the frosting, adding suction cups. Octopus. Octopus.
Others were lost, too. Names you knew well, and names not so much. There's no time to grieve. The world is still falling to pieces, and you're still too busy keeping an oasis of sanity in the middle of it. Food is a concern. Supplies. Getting enough gets harder, and then getting them at all becomes difficult. People coordinate, reach out. For everyone lost, you fight that much harder. You declare your stance openly, defying the orders that have taken over. You are not racists, or nazis, or freedom fighters. You're librarians. You're open knowledge. You're normal people, and at this point, normal people have just about had it with the whole mad world. Somehow, it becomes a revolution. Somehow you're in the middle of it, spurring it on. Your library. Thousands of libraries.
It's messy. It's bloody. You lose more, and more, and more. Somewhere along the way, you've lost feeling. But you, and everyone else around you, everyone behind you, you know it needs to end. The chaos needs to end. Your children look on in fear, uncertain where their next meal will come from, uncertain if you'll still be there the next day. Or they will.
And then it ends. All at once, it ends. The war is won by military victories by Australia and Canada, and the world leaders, what's even left of them at this point, all just stop. Treaties are signed. Governments turn over. Trials are put on. For some reason you're at the UN making a speech, and you don't even know what you're saying, or why. You just want to sleep. All you want is sleep.
It takes months to pick up the pieces of your lives, years to relearn how to live. Nobody argues when you take leave to look after Katia and Sam directly in a new house, a real one. For some reason it's labelled as a pension. The laughter is gone. There's an emptiness, a hole. A void. Ripples in the world. This isn't real. Your family is broken, but you go on with your lives, growing older, remembering, learning, talking, but never with enthusiasm. The schools have changed. The politics are all different, now, as one form of racism is replaced with only another. It's always the same, and you see it now, because it's still people at the heart of it all. People never learn.
Katia draws octopuses and covers the walls, piece by piece, building up into a mosaic covering two floors. You look at them in passing over days, weeks, months, until it's done, and then you see it. You try to hold back the tears even as you choke on the grief welling up inside you, too huge to bear as the final image stands out: one great octopus, holding all of you in its tentacles, together.
You don't talk about it. You don't talk about what happened, in your family. You were all too close to it, and there's nothing left to say. And then, as the kids grow up and go to university and beyond, they do. They talk in their classes. They talk to their friends. They challenge the narratives that sprung up in the world war's wake, no more right than what had come before. They share their stories at conferences and events, and then you do, too, taking up organisation once more, reminding the world just what happened, to make sure people never forget. Not this time. Not again.
You know, though, that they will. They always forget. Even with the pictures, the videos, the archives, people always forget. But that's why you keep fighting, keep telling your story, to put it off a little longer. To do something. So you speak.
People listen. They listen to the librarian who started it all, who held her ground and inspired so many others, and you remind them it wasn't just you. That there were many. That it was them, too. That it will always be them.
But somehow you've become the face of it all, the keynote that, suddenly, everyone wants to hear. The knight. The guardian.
Somewhere, in the midst of it all, something niggles in the back of your mind. Something is missing. What about her? Whatever happened to her?
Life goes on. The world moves on, but you remain the lady librarian. Your life is a whirlwind of travel and talk, opening and addressing, speaking out before councils and governments, slipping into your grandchildren's birthday parties. You are a legend, but they only know you as the granny who always shows up with the cake.
Every cake is shaped like an octopus.
You grow old. You grow old. The bottoms of your trousers...
The wind is in your hair, and you feel it playing with your curls, making wisps, as you look out over the city, laid out before you in all directions. You're standing on a rooftop, and other people are here, too, but they don't matter. Fragments of conversations wash over you as you remember everything that brought you to this point. The battles fought, the people lost, the friends and family found and built. A lifetime. An instant. None of it was right.
The wind is cold, pushing and pulling, but the sun is warm.
You hear a girl behind you. "But mom, mom!" she says. "That gramma is standing right on the edge."
Idly, you look to see who it is, but you don't notice anyone on the edge.
You look down, and see the city below, the buildings, the street. Pedestrians moving like dots.
"That gramma's going to kill herself!" the girl says. And it's true. The grandma is you. You step off lightly, slipping at the precipice, and falling, down, down, down.
I chose this, you think to yourself.
I chose this.
The ground rushes to meet you, full of rough texture, bigger than anything.
You're elsewhere. Dark. Grey. Bright. You're in blue, seated on a sofa, holding a coffee. Sherandris is seated across from you, purple, strange, deliberate. The God of Death, just a guy, unassuming. Around you is nothing. The idea of a room, etched out of nothing. Infinite space. Nothing.
...didn't choose this.
"No," Sherandris says. "You didn't."
"Sherandris?" you ask. Nothing makes sense. Everything makes sense. You're dead, you know, but you're... not. You didn't choose that. That wasn't your life. What was...
"Am I dead?" you finally finish your question. "Am I really here?"
"In a manner," he says. "You're dreaming."
"But this is you," you say.
"Yes," he says.
"And I chose..." you start to say, but then you're not even sure. You don't know.
"You chose to go. You chose to give up your life, your home, everything you were, for a chance that it might help."
"And then what happened?" you ask.
"You left," he says. "You came out somewhere else, and the Dark Sister closed the hole behind you. After that, I do not know, though I am pleased to see you are still... somewhere."
"You don't know?" you ask, surprised.
"The soul here is that of you dream," he says. "You aren't here, but so long as the dream persists, we may use this as a means to speak."
You stare at him. You don't know what to say. You have so much you need to say, so much you want to ask. "Octopus," you say.
"Yes," he says. There is a profound sadness about him. You don't know how you never noticed this before. "Are you safe?" he asks.
"No," you tell him. You don't want to admit it, tell him you screwed up, failed so utterly. "I think," you say, your voice quivering in the black, "I think I might not survive at all."
"Tell me," he says.
You tell him. You tell him about your arrival and the months alone, spent looking for even anything, anything at all, before you finally came to civilisation, only to find it primitive and superstitious. You tell him about the Death of Souls, and how it seems unstoppable, how even the local gods have no idea. You tell him you feel yourself fading, and yet you don't know what to do. You tell him about Vardaman, and the sheer stupidity of your current situation, and about Kyrule and the weirdness with his Keepers. He chuckles at your wording, but grows only more concerned as you lay it all out.
Finally, he says, "You were asked the impossible. And now you're faced with even more, too much for anyone to support."
"But I have to," you say.
"Yes," he agrees. "I'm sorry."
You sit in silence. It feels like an eternity, simple, calming, comforting, but also doesn't. Just a moment.
"I wish I could help you," Sherandris says. "I wish I could sweep in and rescue you like a big damn hero and make it all right." He pauses, vaguely, and you can just picture it: a swirl of ridiculous colour, badgers everywhere, and pastries, like a whirlwind of glittering sugar pulling the damsel in distress out of the... lake? You're not sure why it's a lake. You're not sure why the damsel looks like Samuel L. Jackson in a frilly dress, and is holding a bazooka. You're not sure why Sherandris, in your picture, is dressed entirely in ducks.
"Sorry," he says. "Dreams are fun."
You giggle.
"You have what is there," Sherandris goes on. "Even if the local gods do not know what to do, how to fix this, that doesn't mean they won't be able to help. Kyrule will make a valuable ally, so stick with him. Azorres has helped you even without reason to, and his followers hold no grudges, so keep bouncing ideas off them. But look elsewhere, too. Gods can be wrong, miss things, even the obvious. Especially the obvious. Look past their grudges. Remember the commonplace, that which is most often missed."
"The commonplace?" you ask.
"This is your soul, your life," he says. "You are the one living it. You know what you feel, so pay attention. If something helps, try to find out why, even the littlest things. Sometimes there's..."
The dream cuts out abruptly.

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