Uthark

This is a missing scene between two different stories. It also be seen as a prequel to my fanfic “A Midsummer Night’s Dance.”

Dani starts. As the adrenaline edges off, her head lolls down, from her seat and the belt holding her in place.

It takes her a moment to remember where she is as she feels the ground moving under her. She’s … in Pelle’s car. Dani remembers now. She’d begun to nod off not long after Mark began talking about a woman with three clitorises, and a news anchor killing his wife, or something. She rubs the place where the bridge of nose curves into her forehead, visualizing her heartbeat slowing down, breathing as she had taught herself to do. It’s all right. She recalls that she still has her pills, if she needs them.

It’d been so strange. She had been dreaming. It was like the painting she had at her apartment back home, or something like it. But she was in it. It was night, and she’d been in a white dress or … was she wearing flowers? Dani can’t quite remember now. She’d been … dancing? There had been flames, and people naked in the sky, and a beast. There was a beast, and they circled around each other, and it looked at her with dark glittering eyes. It was going to eat her, like the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. That’s what she was thinking then, but she wasn’t dressed in crimson as naked people flew in the air towards chanting people dressed in white robes. But those eyes held her in place even as they danced and danced, and she sang with the white-garbed people, and the pain didn’t exist anymore, and she belonged …

But she couldn’t stop moving, and the eyes consumed her. Something kept clicking, and clacking in her brain. The sounds and eyes devoured her, so much until she …

It says a lot about her, and her mental state between numbness and panic, that she welcomes this nightmare more than … the others. She shakes her groggy head as they continue to drive down the highway to Hälsingland, and Pelle’s commune. Christian is sitting beside her, half-asleep himself, distant as usual. Josh is quiet next to him, near the right car door. Thankfully Mark has stopped talking, even though Dani has to admit that the drone of his voice with its ridiculous stories and chatter about milkmaids and pussy almost distracted her from the crushing grief inside her chest. It probably put her to sleep. Somehow, though he is also quiet, she can see Pelle through the sun visor, looking at her sympathetically. Out of all of Christian’s friends, he has been the nicest, the most sociable at least. There is a warmth to him, in his eyes. She still hurts, but not because of him, and she feels like he knows a lot more about what is going on than she does …

Perhaps he’s always known …

A strange sense of comfort fills her at that thought as she considers where they are headed, into this strange place, leagues away from her home, her own sense of home an eternity away across a continent in an exhaust-filled house that no longer exists where it is so hard to breathe … to breathe …

A house filled with smoke, and loss. A structure on fire, and a sense of relief … 

Then she looks back to the right side of the passenger area, past Christian, to Josh and his book.

The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark.

Dani needs to take her mind off of everything. She’s about to ask Josh about the book, with its old, faded cover. But then a sense of déjà vu fills her. Josh carries the book around for his studies into European midsummer traditions, but mostly to annoy Pelle. And she knows, somehow, that it does annoy Pelle. They must have talked about it at some point. Dani’s brow furrows. Yes. Pelle told them that his commune studies the runic alphabet. Pelle’s commune, the … they use the Germanic characters, and something else. It’s no wonder that Josh’s book annoys Pelle. The Nazi Party, and their Theosophic roots appropriated a lot of Nordic and supposedly “Aryan” culture to build their brutal worldview, to claim they were returning to something “natural” through unnatural order, and the dominance of the patriarchal over …

It’s strange. Somehow, Dani recalls someone … was it Christian? No. Something she read, perhaps? She’d only had an introductory course to Jung. Maybe Pelle, again, told her what the Uthark meant. She almost remembers …

She knows that Pelle is good-natured. He takes a ribbing from his friends, and perhaps it’s not her place to do this, but something really annoys her about that book, and Josh. Josh, for all of his genuine studiousness, doesn’t seem to actually respect the content or the people of the culture he claims to be fascinated with. His intensity is not what bothers Dani. In fact, he is at least the most cordial of the group towards her, or at least apathetic to her being there at all. But his lack of respect, especially towards Pelle. She imagines if Pelle and his commune are Jewish or Roma.

She is about to say something, turning to Josh, but Josh and Christian are gone. There is a boy near the window. He’s tall, but slouched over with greasy dark hair. His skin his sallow, and his nose is covered by a bandage. It looks like it’s been broken. Dani blinks, and Josh in his place again. She looks down, and the book is gone, replaced with a pile of papers. The writing is runic or children’s pictures. Dani feels dizzy as she blinks again, and the boy is there, staring out the window. Dani doesn’t know what to do, or say. They are on a journey. It’s important. It’s important to get to where they need to go, and she needs to know what’s going on.

“Excuse me?” She croaks, realizing how dry her throat is. “Excuse me?”

The boy doesn’t respond to her. He continues to look out the passenger window at the declining road.

“Pardon me.” Dani tries again, getting more spittle into the back of her throat.

The boy turns towards her. There is some confusion in his eyes.

“Hello?” He asks.

“What are you reading?” Dani finds herself asking instead.

The boy looks down at where Dani is staring. In his hand, where Josh had been holding The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark is a manuscript titled Cocoon Man. “I … don’t know.” He says after a while. “Is this yours?”

Dani’s head aches. She rubs the bridge of her nose again. “I don’t … think so.”

“I …” Dani can see the boy becoming pale, the air around them darkening. When it did become evening? “I can’t breathe …”

Dani’s eyes widen in concern, and sympathy. “I can’t either.”

The boy’s face seems to swell in the growing shadows. “Where is she … Mom told me to take her with me. We can’t leave her alone.”

“Terri?” Dani leans forward, reaching a hand, as the interior of the car becomes even murkier.

“I can’t ,.. breathe. I … how can anyone breathe in here …”

And then, the car is filled with smoke. And fumes. The car exhaust pipe’s been reversed. Dani can’t breathe. She’s choking. She is suffocating on the toxins in the air, inside of her, and the group is back. Christian, Josh, Mark, and Pelle. They are dying, with her. She’s coughing, pounding on her door, on her window. There is a sound that is trying to fight its way out of her lungs, out of her vocal chords.

“I can’t … breathe …”

Somehow, even through the fumes and her wracking coughing, Dani can see the others have changed. It isn’t Christian’s friends. Her mother and father are sitting next to her. And Terri, Terri is staring grotesquely, covered in her own bile, into the the sun visor as she drives them right into the abyss, into hell.

“I can’t … breathe …”

Dani abruptly turns, and sees the boy, scrabbling at his own window, crying.

And then, the boy’s window is open. It is night, and they can breathe again as the smog is released outside, sucked out into the air amid clacking, shouting, laughing, and chanting. The boy’s shoulders heave, as Dani tries to catch her own breath until the hissing of the exhaust becomes buzzing, and the smoke going out are insects hovering all around her, trying to get into her lungs, into her skin, into her mind …

The boy turns around, the wind whipping against them. His head is hung out the window, but he is looking back at her. She sees his dark eyes glittering into her own. She doesn’t think.

“Spirits!” Dani exhales.“Back to the dead!”

The boy’s swelling face, or a girl’s, or a bear’s stretches out into an ‘o’ of surprise, as a telephone pole rushes past them, and clips off his head. Dani screams, as the car flips over, upside down, into the air, and falls up into the night …

Until they wake up in another place.

Hymn to Nautilae

Written and performed by my bard during our D&D Fifth Edition Session. 

If you listen to the chiming laugh of a brook in the wood, 
and follow where the Moon-drake winds,
you will find a cavern, and an ancient bridge, 
with a rock visited by many kinds.

Elves and Minotaurs, Satyrs and Beastmen, 
and all manner of other fey,
they’ve come, like you, to the shimmering disc above, 
where her calm waters hold sway. 

There, she comes to you, smooth and cool,
from an offering dropped into her pool.
Silver given to a silvery sheen,
the Faerie comes with intention keen,
her magic strong enough to let her glean
your wishes that are yet to be seen. 

She’s like a Nereid, a Nymph, a watery Queen,
the finest that you’ve ever seen. 
Beautiful lady, ending with a tail,
to this vision, this humble bard sings this modest hail.

Her silken hair from her head crests out in waves,
like the glimmering veins of the world hidden in secret caves.
Rocks crumble, fires die, and winds move on,
but water, Terra-life’s blood moving, is never gone.

If you are wise, and your manners are fine,
with silver presented she may grant you a blessing undine. 
For with her touch, an axe might shine,
a staff made clear of evil’s brine, 
a hallowed bow’s soul no longer confined, 
each item freed from age or taint or temporal decline.

Yet above all, if you believe only one word of mine,
the Faerie holds the guidance of the watery line.
She offers a map under temples long grass,
sunken cities that mortals can no longer pass, 
traveling down roots where no stories tell,
or to a place of lost souls through an ancient well
where hope, thought long gone, may still yet dwell. 

Such are the mysteries you might find, where rock and waters play,
if you pay homage to the underlake of night and day,
for silver to a silvered tongue is yet the best way,
to court the favour of the Good Queen, Nautilae. 

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2019.

And What They Found There

Look down the wondrous structure,
Where the chequer’d shadows play;
See the scattered groups increasing,
Wending up the dômed way. 
— E. Leathes, Fragments From the Crystal Palace

It’s like one of Mr. Dodgson’s stories, but so much worse.

Ida Codswell continues running, hiding behind a corner with her lamp. How her light has lasted this long is beyond her understanding. The fuel should have run out a long time ago. Even the Elekiter … even the light device design that Edison and other men stole from her when she worked at the Holborn Viaduct power station wouldn’t have lasted this long, or in these conditions.

Everything is grey and cold in this place of winding stairs. Nothing is smooth, but scratched and faded like the old daguerreotypes left in a drawer after a child’s funeral. Staircases wind up, and down, and lead to nowhere. Ida knows this. Sometimes, it feels like she has walked on all of those steps.

She had ripped away her small, grey petticoats a while ago while fleeing the shadows, and trying to keep up with the mirror people. Dr. Pocket’s rambling about them remains in her head sometimes. There are even times she thinks she can almost see him, drawn and pale and tired … and scared. Just like her.

She has seen a lot of them. Many of them stick to her, following her down the jagged paths, and sharp edges leading nowhere and to all the different levels of this place that decidedly hasn’t been the British Museum for quite sometime. It’s like becoming lost in some mad landscaper’s dream, or eternally navigating through a non-Euclidean nightmare.

Ida feels the exhaustion in her very being, but she realizes that she hasn’t been hungry or thirsty in quite some time. In fact, come to think of it, when she remembers she hasn’t had any bodily functions here, not even the need for sleep. This is not the case for the shadows, whose backwards faces she sometimes sees in the light of her lamp. It drives them away, shrieking back into the dark corners of this purgatory. She doesn’t know how long she will be able to hold them off.

The light in her hands that, by all rights, she shouldn’t have even had for this long before the shadows had taken her deep into this place, was a deterrent to them … consuming her, but just as it repelled them, it also let them know where she was. It is only a matter of time before they manage to surround her on all sides, and take her away from her lamp.

Even so, there are other people sometimes. Not just Dr. Pocket, if it is indeed him, but the Mr. Waylon the coat check gentleman. And others in different period clothing. Sometimes, she even thinks she sees animals like … Kevin, the rat with the cat ears at her side. Ida vaguely recalls the story of Diogenes shining a lamp in broad daylight, making a statement about attempting to find an honest man. Ida doesn’t know about that, but her light keeps her safe.

It is fitting, she thinks to herself as she turns another corner with some other people of the mirror, she had spent so much of her life wanting to be noticed because of her work with electricity, having her ideas stolen from her, that when she is the only one she can see with true light in a place of darkness she wants to do nothing else but hide, or flee from the situation entire.

Nevertheless, Ida clenches her jaw. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is now, but whatever else she has become, she is the light-bringer here. If she can provide a temporary shield for her and fellows against the shadows, she would gladly do it: to embrace this cross to bear that was never sought nor earned. And this place, even with its crawling darkness, will have to do a lot more to her if it planned to extinguish her hard held radiance.

For however long it lasts.

*

Dr. Mason Pocket wanders the labyrinth.

He recalls the etymology of the word, in his drifting mind.  The labrys: the double-bitted ax found on the island where the city-state of Crete resided. According to various studies, the Minoan civilization performed many sacrifices there to their gods. And, of course, there is the monster of myth, the Minotaur, that roamed a maze of that named created by the greatest of ancient Achaean inventors Daedalus.

But Daedalus did not avail Mason’s assorted group, nor his sense of reason and order in this situation. Invention only staved off the occultic tide for so long before human folly fell to its primordial weight of inevitability. In retrospect, he should have listened to Ms. O’Neil on that account. If anything, he can relate to the labrys most of all now: given that he had shattered the mirror that contained one of his companions.

He had been so sure it would free Ms. Codswell, as she had been pointing at him, trying to speak mutely from the dark surface.

Sometimes, he thinks he sees her here in the winding corridors.

Mason still knows there is a difference between the shadow people, and the mirror people. The shadow people are turned around wrong. Their faces are warped and twisted. If they were human, they stopped being so long ago.

The mirror people had definitely been human. But they drift around, out of colour, out of space, lost … Just like him.

Neither shadows nor reflections trouble Mason anymore. He has come to, essentially, accept them all. There is a balance in this. There are no shades of red, green, or black to trouble the former archivist anymore. He feels like a shade in some ancient Sumerian afterlife, his breathing a rustling of leaves, his respite cold muck, his essence empty, his sense of purpose drifting away …

It should frighten him, but he wonders if this is what it is like to be one of his beloved antiquities, his relics, sitting on their shelves all catalogued and organized. He helped destroy a precious black mirror, an ancient artifact after all, wrapped in symbols of … Aklo? Perhaps, in retrospect again, the American Enoch Bowen might have had a better notion from his own Egyptian archaeological find over five decades before, a thing left in darkness rather being contained in radiance. In the end, perhaps this place is the dream of a museum within an undying mind, where the struggles between good and evil, day and night, and light and dark do no matter anymore in these shades of grey.

For all he had given out his pamphlets to reveal the knowledge of the ancients to the world at large, like the tomb of the dread Nephren-Ka perhaps in the end it should have all belonged to a museum — as did he — all of them consigned into boxes, and mercifully forgotten.

*

There was a crooked man, he whispers to himself, and he went a crooked mile.

Archie Orlick staggers down the stairs, his arms outstretched in front of him, searching, reaching, trying to keep the balance. Trying to keep going.

He found a crooked sixpence, he croaks in an Irish brogue, against a crooked stile.

Archie had lived most of his life, looking over his own shoulder. As Septimus Goodfellow, the celebrity spiritualist whose finery he wears even now with his cloak and clasp and chain around a neck that by all rights and purposes should have been severed cleanly on a museum floor, he owed the Order of the Golden Dawn a lot of money.

The blighter Merriweather had what he wanted. He has even more of what he wants now.

He bought a crooked cat, he sings, softly, which caught a crooked mouse.

Bathsheba. He doesn’t think about her much. David’s wife. The woman a king killed a man for with dishonesty. A cat entered for similar reasons. It wouldn’t be the first time Archie got into trouble over pussy. Over dishonesty.

An actor’s bread. Mathers. Machen. His countryman Yeats. Crowley. Fakes and actors — pretentious wankers — the lot of them. As if they were any different than he. When Archie set out on his path through spiritualist circles, taking on the fop mask of Goodfellow, he claimed to channel the spirits of the dead and see their secrets for what they are. A channeler. A goddamned medium. It seems so far away now. So much clearer.

Blatavsky, another fraud. She talked about people who remembered the future, and walked towards the past. Like he is walking now. Just like now. How dare they judge him? These fucks. They don’t know. They know what it’s like living from one coin to another and not know if they were going to get their bread that day, and there are so many ignorant suckers, so many around him …

And … Archie murmurs, sing-sing, they all liv’d together in a little crooked house. 

Nah. Archie lived his whole life looking over his shoulder. Now, all he can do is look back.

Lemurians. Yes. That’s what Blatavsky called them. People with one eye at the back of their heads.

And now, all Archie can do is keep walking forward, his hands reaching, traveling down towards the different planes of this world, through its corners, and its facets, not knowing when his next opportunity, his next fellow traveler, his next mark, his next meal-ticket will come.

And Archie, who once called himself Septimus Goodfellow, his pale twisted mouth opening wide is very, very hungry.

A Midsummer Night’s Dance

They sit in the white room together.

He looks around at the walls. He’s a bit awestruck. Dark runes and symbols seem both fixed, and moving on the ivory plaster. Sometimes they are Nordic sigils, or astrological signs. Other times they are words in Aramaic, Latin, or Enochian. But the details of these pictures and phrases don’t particularly concern the two people in the room. They are just background noise, shadows, an architecture of everything leading up to this point in their conversation.

The two of them are sitting in chairs across from each other. She is dressed all in white, her shoulders leaning forward as though to listen to him more intently, her face open and receptive. He fidgets as he sits, looking back and forth at everything else in the chamber: in this place that is a lodge, or a temple, or an office. They are as different as night and day: he is dark-haired and his skin is sallow, his eyes brown, while she is smaller, her hair a pale blonde, her skin extremely fair, and her eyes are a bright green.

He smiles, tentatively. “Damn.” He says. “If only my Mom could see this place. No, wait …” He shakes his head, his brow furrowing. “No. Charlie … she would love it. It reminds me of something she would draw.”

“I know. The first time I saw this place, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t conceive of anything like it ever existing.” She crosses one leg over the other. “Charlie … she is an artist?”

“Yeah.” He looks down for a few moments. “She was my sister.”

“I see.” She says. “And you are?”

“Oh.” He looks at at her. “I’m Peter. Peter Graham.”

“Hello Peter.” Her smile is gentle. “I’m Dani Ardor. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Yeah. Likewise.” He continues to look around the room, still alert, as though hoping to avoid talking about a specific subject.

“Was she your younger sister? Older?”

“Younger.” Peter keeps examining the room, his eyes squinting.

“I had a young sister too.” Dani replies. “Her name was Terri.”

Peter’s attention comes back to Dani. His face changes, as though really seeing her for the first time. “What happened to her?”

“She died.” Dani says, her green eyes sad, faraway.

“Yeah.” Peter murmurs. “Mine too.”

Dani looks at him, her eyes intent. “I lost my entire family.”

Peter closes his eyes for a few moments. He takes his thumb and forefinger and rubs the crooked bridge of his nose. It had been broken at some point in time. “Me too.”

They sit there like that, for minutes, hours, centuries, aeons … “It was a peanut allergy.” Peter begins. “Charlie had … other issues. She went to her own classes. You know, SpEd.”

“Special Education.” Dani nods.

For a few moments, the visage of a small girl appears in place of Peter’s face: a crooked nose, small drooping lips, eyes off on an angle, hair brown with the consistency of straw. There is a hesitancy in those eyes, an awkwardness. And just as quickly, the image is gone and Peter is looking down at his hands again.

“Yeah.” He says. “Like I said, she had a peanut allergy. My mom made me take her to a party. For school. She ate something she shouldn’t have. In the chocolate there. I wasn’t thinking. I drove her back … to the hospital, or home, or …” He shakes his head. “She didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Peter.” Dani says, and her tone is sincere, and warm. “Terri had bipolar disorder. A severe case. I was always worried about her. She’d had a few episodes, but I always tried to remain in contact with her. I even studied at college to help her.”

“My dad.” Peter says, meeting her eyes again. “My dad was a psychiatrist. He must have helped people like your sister all the time.”

“Well, I wasn’t enrolling for psychiatry, Peter.” Dani corrects him, gently. “I was studying clinical psychology. But your dad, he sounds like he was a good man.”

“He tried.” Peter’s left hand clacks against the armrest of his chair.

“So did my parents.” Dani admits. “It was winter. Terri took some exhaust pipes. She breathed in carbon monoxide, and took her own life.”

Peter’s eyes widen. “Well.” He says. “That’s … that’s fucked.”

“Yeah.” Dani chuckles, mirthlessly. “It was.”

“I’m sorry for your loss …” Peter sighs. “That’s what they kept saying at my Grandma’s funeral. And then Charlie’s … It really doesn’t do much, does it? There’s not really much to say.”

“There really wasn’t anything to say, then.” Dani replies. “Mostly, I just cried.”

“So did my Mom.”

“I cried a lot. In my bed. In bathrooms.” Dani says. “I cried wherever no one could see me.”

“My Mom cried at the funeral. And my Dad … if he did, he did it in private. Me …” Peter gestures down at himself. “I just hid. I hid … until I couldn’t anymore.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it? Everyone processes grief differently. At first, I tried to be honest about it. My therapist told me to open up, to express how I felt to my loved ones. To my friends. But they already thought I was crazy. Even my boyfriend at the time. So I choked it down. I made myself numb. I tried not to feel it anymore. And, well.” She shrugs. “I just cried privately instead. No one to comfort me. No one to empathize. No one to hold me.”

Peter nods. “We never were the huggy sort of family. It was all on and off. My Dad, like I said, he tried. He really did. As for my Mom …” He sits up straighter. “When did it happen?”

“I was twenty-three.”

“I was sixteen.” Peter says. “Still in high school. There was this girl I liked. That’s all I really thought about, back then. Girls and cars. And pot.” Suddenly, he looks away from Dani again, as though self-conscious, and remembering who he was talking to.

“Just like any normal sixteen year old boy.” Dani offers, a small smile quirking at her lips. It isn’t a mocking one, but knowing and full of understanding.

“That’s it. I wanted to be normal. You know?” Peter’s left hand twitches again. “Dad was a psychiatrist. My sister was Special Olympics. Even Grandma had issues. And Mom …” He shakes his head. “My Grandpa had psychotic depression. My uncle was a schizo. They both offed themselves before I was born. I was the only normal one. That’s what I kept telling myself. I just wanted to be out of there. Out of that house …” His dark eyes glance around again, left and right. “But we’re in a house right now.”

“We all are.” Dani says, her eyes also looking around the chamber. “We are all a house. And walls. And floors. And a basement.”

“And an attic?” Peter smirks, then shakes his head, as though trying to reorient himself.

Dani laughs. “Well, I’m not sure Jung thought about attics in dream houses.”

“If a house’s a person, and if they don’t have an attic, wouldn’t they be headless?”

There is a lull in their conversation, as both seem lost in their own thoughts.

Peter runs his left hand through his hair. “I feel like I’m high or something …”

“I told you,” Dani says, “I was a psychology student, not a psychiatrist.”

It takes a moment, before the smirk forms on her lips. Peter blinks, and then laughs. He laughs hard. He stretches out his left hand, turning it on an angle for a few moments, before returning it back to his side on the armrest. “Fair enough. My friends and me used to self-medicate with pot.”

“My ex and his friends took me to this commune,” Dani says, “got me on these pills, and later drinks. It turns out it was psilocybin.”

“Shrooms.” Peter grins, and nods. “Nice.”

“I … well.” Dani shakes her head, and for a few moments a garland of leaves and flowers seems to appear there before they are gone. “After what happened to me, and what was happening to me with my relationship, my … trips weren’t the best.”

“Damn. I can only imagine.” Peter replies. “We used to smoke up. It eased up all the tension. My parents always wanted me to excel, you know? Especially my Dad. He wanted me to make something of myself. I guess … he just didn’t want me to be crazy like the rest of the family. But I just wanted to be normal, you know. I wanted to show everyone I was normal.”

“Just because you come from a family with mental illness and non-neurotypical behaviour doesn’t mean you have either.” Dani says, not unkindly. “And even if you do, there is nothing wrong with you. That is all social stigma, Peter. It is all right to be different.”

“It was weird.” Peter leans back in his shoulder, less in relaxation and more to almost brace himself. “I think that’s also what Dad wanted. I mean, he was a doctor. Grandma wove things. Mom made dioramas for a living. And Charlie. Charlie sometimes made stuff like that, but she drew. She drew all the time. Even at Grandma’s funeral. I just … didn’t do any of that. I didn’t want to. I was just … normal. I wasn’t anything special.”

“That isn’t true, Peter.” Dani says, reaching over to squeeze his knee. Then, she removes her hand, but still leans forward to focus on him. “Really, I think you just needed a place to express your feelings, to be yourself, to talk about all that pain, and find others to understand you. To be with your own kind of people.”

“Now you sound like my Dad, no offense.” Peter moves his hand, as though waving her off.

“I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you, Peter.” Dani says. “I’m just saying that I can relate.”

“I really … I wanted to find friends.” He reaches into his front shirt pocket, but pauses, realizing that whatever he’s looking for isn’t there anymore. “I smoked up, and that usually took the edge off. But then I had a bad trip, too. I was … choking. I was choking just like …”

“The grief feels heavy.” Dani says after Peter trails off. “Like a stone on your chest that you can never throw off of yourself on your own.”

Peter sighs, rubbing his face. “Were they there for you? Your parents? When your sister …”

This time, it’s Dani who looks down as Peter’s dark eyes seem to pierce into her. “Terri, she took the exhaust pipes of my parents’ cars. She ran them into her bedroom, and my parents’ room.” She closes her eyes, and breathes in and out, before continuing. “She killed herself, and my entire family.”

“I’m …” Peter looks like he is trying to find the words. “I’m so sorry …”

Dani shakes her head. “I was devastated. My ex, for all his flaws, he tried his best to be there for me. I see that now. But I worked through it. And the reason I was able to get through that was because of the commune we visited. They … they took me in. They made me realize I didn’t have to hide my grief, or pain. That they weren’t shameful things. They were there for me. They even celebrated my birthday. I mean, it wasn’t exactly my birthday but they had a celebration around the same time. It took a long time, and a lot of work. But I felt … one day I just felt this release when all that pressure was finally gone, and out of me. I felt so unburdened, you know? I felt free.”

“I killed my sister.”

Peter is staring at Dani. There are circles under his eyes. But he isn’t so much looking into Dani’s eyes so much as looking past her. Looking through her.

“We weren’t supposed to be at that party.” He says. “My Mom knew. I know she knew. She deliberately had me take her. It wasn’t a school party. I really wanted to look cool for that girl. But Charlie, she got something to eat, and it had peanuts. Like I said, I panicked. And then … I … she …” He shakes his head. “She opened the window. She couldn’t breathe. Charlie was hanging her head out. I was driving fast. There was a post and …”

His teeth clench. Dani doesn’t say anything. She sits and waits for him to continue. Listening.

“I felt almost like it happened to someone else, you know? I didn’t feel anything. Not really. I was the screw-up again, you know? I just didn’t know what I was doing. My Mom, she … broke. We tried to go back to normal. At least, Dad and I did. Mom and Dad weren’t sleeping in the same bed after a while. I could tell. You know, my Dad didn’t get it. He really didn’t. He … he tried.” Peter repeats. “I know he tried with Mom too. She really loved him, you know? I know he sure as hell loved her. She … went crazy.”

A tear flows down one of Peter’s eyes, but he doesn’t wipe it away. “Dad tried to hold everything together, but he had no chance. He had no idea what was going on. You know, it’s funny, Dani.” He says, a wry, bitter smile coming on his face. “People keep saying he wasn’t that important, aside from everything he sacrificed for me to live. But I miss him. Even now, a part of me still misses him.” He shakes his head. “But he had to die. And so did my Mom. She loved me too. She tried to kill me when I was with Charlie … when we were in the same nursery. Doused with kerosene. She was going to light that match. My Mom sleepwalked. But you know the most fucked up thing, Dani?”

“What is it Peter?” There is no judgment in her tone, or any expression. Just the question.

Peter laughs, a bitter, tear-strangled chortle. “There is still a part of me now, even after all this time, after everything I’ve found and regained, that wishes she actually went through with it.” His eyes are dark, large, and haunted. “Isn’t that just fucked?”

“For the longest time, even in the commune,” Dani says, “I kept seeing my parents’ bodies. My sister’s face. I saw the exhaust pipes. I saw them on my couch at my old apartment. I wanted to be with them too, Peter. Ideation is not an unnatural part of loss, but it’s something that you need help for, and it is not a bad or shameful thing to ask for help.”

“I …” Peter starts, his shoulders shaking, as he looks away from her. “I’m so tired, Dani. I just want this to be over. I just want it to finally be over.”

Dani stands up as Peter hunches over, crying quietly. The air ripples around them. There is grass, growing from the floor, through their feet, and their hands. “Peter.” She says, finally. “Peter. I want to tell you something. It’s something that my husband told me the first time I came to his family commune. May I come over?”

Peter nods, shadows overtaking his face. Dani walks over and kneels in front of him. “Can I take your hands?”

“I … I’m scared.” Peter says. “I’m scared and I’m tired.”

“I know.” Dani says. “I am sorry I didn’t ask earlier, when I touched your knee. But I’m asking now.”

There is a pause, but Peter nods. Dani takes her hands and places them over his. His turn, and actually hold hers tightly. The room is rippling now. It is becoming darker. There are other decorations. Windows. It is night time, but trees can be seen. And candles light the room with a gentle radiance.

Dani looks up into Peter’s face. “A long time ago now,” she says, “my husband asked me if I felt, or remembered what it was like to feel at home. To safe. To feel held. He was one of my ex’s friends, and he was the one that got me here. To the commune. He asked me if I felt held by my ex.” She smiles faintly, with old self-derision. “I didn’t. But when I met my husband’s family, I saw my missing pieces. I saw my actions were not part of where I came from. They weren’t something that happened, or accepted in America, but they were natural here. They were right. And after a while, after cooking with my new sisters, after dancing with them, and eating dinner, and having them comfort me in my grief — seeing me — feeling me, I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was held.”

She takes one hand, and places it under Peter’s chin. “Do you want to be held, Peter?”

Peter nods silently as he holds his arms around her waist. He buries his face in her chest, sobbing quietly. Dani folds her arms around him. She rubs long, concentric circles over his hunched back. For a few moments, there is daylight through the new windows of the room, and its timber walls.

“Thank you, Dani.” Peter says, after a time. This … this feels so nice.”

Dani smiles. “In time, it will get better. You will never forget where you are, or what you did. But eventually, you will accept it.”

“Charlie …” Peter repeats “… Charlie would have loved this place.”

“I can imagine.” Dani murmurs, stroking his hair. “Our oracle, Ruben, he has many challenges as well. We don’t know how long he will be with us, but every moment we have with him is special. And he loves to draw. I think he and Charlie would have gotten along well if they met.”

“Well, I can’t wait to meet him.” Peter says, raising his face from Dani’s arms. “Or the rest of your family, Dani Ardor.”

Then, the sunlight is gone. The stars have returned through the windows. The candles are prevalent again, shining, piercing, orange and red through the darkness. He looks up at her again. There is a crown, a silver paper crown on his head. Above him, among a few words of Latin and Aramaic is a symbol of three figures sealed in a circle and a semi-circle around them with three tiny shapes that look like heads. The grass around them, and inside their hands and feet become swarms of black-bodied insects.

Peter’s eyes are dark, deeper than the abyss, as they look right into Dani. “I win this dance, May Queen.” The voice rumbles, his lips splitting into a twisted rictus of a grin. “Now, give us a kiss.” 

Dani, transfixed by the transformation leans down. Two headless bodies, one blackened and one stained in red, form beside him. For a few moments, the black, empty eyes and grey face of Terri Ardor consumes her own. As her ashen lips lower to his face, she whispers. “You only had to ask, King Paimon.”

Then, Dani breathes in and out and releases a mist into his face. The room around them ripples. The tree house grows moss, and leaves, and branches. The roof crumbles, revealing the summer sky and the rising dawn. Dani isn’t wearing white anymore as the flowers and leaves cover her body, forming into a garland, into a hood of greenery and viridian. The insects are consumed by the grass, by the hum of a multitude of voices around them, by the sun, and clouds, and many shapes surrounding them, holding this place, being held.

The being wearing Peter’s face clucks his tongue. He clacks it again. He raises his left arm into the air, twisting his wrist as though to summon something. He looks around, as the space begins to folds into itself again, losing their windows. The timber isn’t white or brown anymore. It’s a deep, darker yellow. The angles in the room are more narrow, and sharper. Where there were candles, there are now torches. There is straw on the ground. Dark eyes glow, but Dani continues to hold him in place.

And then, he doesn’t blink anymore. He isn’t moving. His arm wavers as Dani takes one hand, taking his hand, and lowering it gently back to his side. Then, she takes hold of him, everyone takes hold of him, and places him back in the chair.

The conversation is over.

*

The May Queen gazes upon King Paimon’s vessel with pity.

It had been a close thing. The white-clad bodies of Hårga and Häxan alike surround the body, placed within the innards of the bear. The powers the coven brought to bear on the community were horrific, but they had prevailed. It is no Midsommar ritual. Paimon sought to break the balance, attacking in the night, from the shadows, from the corners of the dark. But they found no willing vessels here, no other dancers.

Only the commune. Only the May Queen.

The paralytic, the same that had taken Christian Hughes, the last true rotting connection she had to the outside world and made him a tribute, took affect on the Dark One through his vessel. He either hadn’t gathered enough power in this world, or land to resist it, or he had become too overconfident as they danced with each other, in the night, around the bonfire and the maypole, and failed to make her soul his own, her body and mind his puppet.

Paimon’s dark eyes glare at her out of his new bear costume of fur and gristle, his stolen face filled with hatred and malice. And fear.

The elders and the other Hårga leave the temple, with torches in hand. It isn’t the Midsommar rite, but it is time for another holiday, another celebration over imbalance, over the unnatural, and the joy and revelry of birth, and life, and pain, and death and the entirety of the cycle.

Slowly, the May Queen is put aside for the moment as Dani Ardor looks down at Peter Graham’s body. For a few moments, he reminds her of Christian. But his hair is dark where Christian’s was red. His face is still unshaven, a boy’s face, where Christian had a beard. And Christian been a man, making his own choices, where Peter had just been a boy, still immature, so afraid, so lonely, with no choice at all. Dani kneels down, next to him, and speaks, whispering softly in his ear.

“I’m sorry, Peter.” She murmurs. “I know you aren’t there anymore. That you’ve been gone for a long time. I couldn’t avenge my family against the demons that took them. The least I can do is bring justice to the demon that took yours.”

Dani — the May Queen of the Hårga — brushes her lips against Peter’s forehead, leaving her kiss there, her blessing. Then, she turns, walking out of the temple, but not before taking a torch and lowering it into the straw, leaving it — and Paimon — to blaze behind her.

Rite of Spring

It had been centuries since Charlie had come to this land.

No. That isn’t entirely accurate. Charlie himself had actually never been to this mountaintop before. Not tonight, not hundreds of years ago.

He hadn’t even been born yet: not for a while. Charlie hangs there, suspended in the cold Northern air, above the mountain peaks and the clearing below with its quaint little cottages: all of them bright, and decorated, and beautiful. They resembled nothing more, and nothing less, than the dioramas, than a miniature village that his mother in this lifetime — his poor, beloved Annie — would have created. Yet even that isn’t quite right. He turns away from the floating form of his mother at his side, floating with him, appreciating her quaint sentiment far more than he ever did as either child — still a beautiful ivory sculpture stained with crimson, Apollonian and Dionysian both as the ancients in another place and time would have appreciated — and turned to his grandmother, his summoner, his greatest servant in this age.

Ellen’s skin has long since turned black with time. Even still, she levitates at his other side brimming with the power she had earned. For ages, Charlie had laboured to return. He failed to come back many times. It cost Ellen her husband, and then her son. He knows what she gave up. He knows what she sacrificed for his sake. She failed to birth him into the world directly, but she had found a workaround. Ellen and her followers, and eventually his own mother created a perfect body, and a temporary vessel to hold him. It’d been more than anyone had done in the forever that existed before he was born, and in the brief times he had been here before. No, if anything, for all Ellen’s love of weaving she knew was she was, what the coven that she led ultimately is. No. Charlie is inclined to agree with her assessment.

The commune below them, around them, isn’t so much a witch’s house as it is a village of gingerbread.

The coven floats around him. Some are his former teachers. Others acquaintances at his grandmother’s funeral, whom when he fully awakened understands that he has known intimately. All of them had planned his return well. Some are in the air with him, filled with his strength that they’ve earned, such as his grandmother through skill and surrogacy, and his mother through virtue of being the vessel and gate of his rebirth. Others appear below in the corners of the clearing, near the trees, though not the trees deeper in the woods near the village. Most are naked, save a few like his mothers.

One of his greatest followers, after Ellen, Joan whispers in his ear: asking for guidance, requesting his commands. He nods towards Ellen. A dark, rotted hand points down at the village. Joan bows her head, plump and deferential, as she disappears to take her place again.

The coven member behind him takes up his banner, the girl’s face he wore before he realized himself. He honours it as much as he does his two mothers, having erased this body’s presence from the Book of Life, destroying that dead name, and replacing it with his own. It had been chosen by Ellen. But Charlie knows he has another name. He has always known.

Still, it doesn’t mean much. He has had many names through his existence: in this world and others. But all of them are sacred, and he will not let any of them be disrespected. Not like they were when he was here, centuries ago, passing through this land.

When he was last here, at the Hårga.

*

The bonfires are lit for the event that is about to take place.

Dani understands that it isn’t Midsommar, not the true celebration and ritual that happens every ninety years. They sit in the temple, looking over the tome that the oracle has finally finished painting. Father Ulf, Stev, Odd, and Siv along with the other elders flip to an earlier page in the book first, letting Dani see pages of runes, and drawings.

Ruben watches from his cot in the corner, his blue eyes seemingly lost, but his purposeful fingers still stained with the paint of his exertions. Once, Dani would have pitied the boy, faraway eyes lost in a sagging face with bulging lips, mute since she had known him. But under the influence of the psilocybin she can see the air radiate around him.

Pelle puts a hand on her shoulder. His hair is wreathed with leaves and flowers, a smaller counterpart to the dress that she once wore at the beginning of her new life in the Hårga. She knows the people here now, knows that this is more than just a place or a people: that the latter have taken up the rhythms, and cycles of the former. She had just been the lodge this day, with its astrological symbols on ivory walls, talking to Siv: talking with her about Pelle and the future that they would have, before being awoken with Pelle tonight, to come to the temple.

To see the pictures.

Even Dani can see that they are different. They aren’t the neat vertical lines of runes from previous generations. They aren’t even the lush blurs and colours of Ruben’s usual drawings. They are black and white, rough sketching, and very specific.

There is a boy. Or at least it is the caricature of one. He seems to be standing in a cabin, or a tree house. Behind him, is a head on a stick with xs where its eyes should be. There is a crown on it. In front of him are two bowing figures: one black, and the other white. There are eight other figures, men and women, also on their knees in front of the boy. She squints at it again. Dani imagines, if the cycles hadn’t brought her here, if she hadn’t realized that the patterns of emptiness inside of her that existed even before she lost everything, she might have become a clinical psychologist and believed these to be the drawings of a disturbed. It was ironic, given what her sister had gone through, but perhaps in another life she could have helped such children before they hurt themselves, and others.

She knows better now. It is as though someone else drew this. Another child. Another being.

The elders point to the crown, and they murmur. The workers and the rest of the commune have already made preparations. This particular image had been made about a year ago, a prediction of some night darkness. Of something coming.

Pelle rubs soothing circles on the small of her back as the elders return to the recent image, flipping the pages back to Ruben’s last work. It is more akin to what he usually creates, but at the same time there is an amalgamation of different styles that are unmistakable. Two headless women, one black, and one red. There are seven others, in the smudged green that is grass, and in the blotted blue-purple of the air. Darkness comes briefly here, to the Hårga, but it is noticeable. But it is the central figure. The boy. He is among them, up front and center. His eyes are black. The crown doesn’t adorn the twisted face of the head borne on a pole behind him, but it is silver, and around his head.

The elders speak a few names. A few words. There is a rhythm to it. A practice. Everything is practice and ritual in the commune. This is no different. The figures in the drawing surround a village. Their community.

It almost seems that the flying figures, and the forms on the margins of their commune are moving. Almost … dancing

Dani hears one word in particular. Häxan. Witches.

The elders turn to her, almost as one. Hanna and Maja, and the other girls enter. She turns to regard Pelle, who smiles at her encouragingly, then he lets her go. Dani follows them outside. She looks up and sees the figures suspended in the air, the bonfires around the maypole outlining them in red and oranges.

And as the girls lead her to the maypole, that is when Dani begins to understand what they need from her.

*

Charlie watches the people assemble below, in their radiant white tunics and breeches, adjorned in blue and red patterns, like the figurines he used to see his mother create: that he himself used to take apart, and put together into new forms.

He sees them assemble like a colony of ants. They link arms together, facing him, confronting his followers, and the powerful familiars that he has given them. But they are not the true spirits he had promised them. No. His more powerful legions will require the purest hosts, the most open and receptive.

These people. These … insects.

Fair-haired, pallid men and women, elders and children, he remembers when he came down and made them dance. He made them all dance. There is power in ritual, and for a time when he was here last, he had them all. But then, one day …

She came.

He knows it isn’t her as the girls follow her. It isn’t possible. Even if they were able to live for centuries, they would never let themselves exist longer than seventy-two summers. That was part of the pact they made with the land, to make themselves strong and beautiful, and productive right towards the end. No matter what he offered them, they refused.

Her hair is pale-gold. Her skin is white. They strip her and he sees why they are in their power. They cover her with the fruits and growth of the earth. Pale green eyes hold his dark ones. There is no fear in them. No anxiety. There is just inevitability.

Her eyes. They are the gaze of someone who has lost everything, and gained the world. It is, in retrospect, a pity he’d not gotten to her first, that his song hadn’t been the one to fill the emptiness inside of her.

Some part of him, some human part of him, wants to draw this. He wants to make silly caricatures of these silly, ridiculous, infuriating creatures. Perhaps it is the human in him, from one host to another. Maybe it is nostalgia for the mortal childhood he had, such as it was. But another kind of past consumes him tonight.

They humiliated him here, once. But now it is different. He has brought his sigils of power. He has the symbols of three heads lost. Night is short here, on this mountain, but he has his followers. It is frustrating that he cannot call on his other strengths. They burn their dead, placing their ashes under the trees. The very land here has resonance with their ritualistic deaths. He will enjoy profaning them, soaking them with his piss when it is all over …

Once he was done playing with their lives all over again. Once he takes this land, this font, and their ritual, and dominates the seasons of the world, just as he intended so long ago.

They have been preparing for this moment, after his return, for a year and a day. Now, it is time. He raises one hand into the air, twisting his arm at an angle, making a gesture with an inverted wrist.

Hail Paimon! His followers chant, striking and proud, converging, glorious. Hail Paimon!

*

Dani lets her sisters place the garlands in her hair. They take the dress of flowers, and adorn her in it. It rustles around her as she moves. But this time, as she goes to take her place in front of the maypole, it isn’t drugs, or fear, or grief that bows her head down, that bends her spine, that makes her waddle.

Siv and the other mothers saw her in the lodge. They determined when it was going to happen in a manner similar yet different to Ruben’s prophecies and the elders that took the time to interpret them.

Her eyes never leave the young man in the air. He might have been handsome once, in an awkward way. His nose is crooked. It looks like, at one time, he broke it. The drone of his name echoes through the air, and around them. Dani thinks about the spot in the clearing where the yellow temple had burned with the nine sacrifices required to keep the cycles of life and death flowing naturally in the Hårga.

She remembers the stories, when the psilocybin finally allowed her to understand the girls that would become her new sisters, of the dark one — the beast — that made all the villagers dance until they died. Some said he was a demon. Or a monster. Or a god. And then, one day, a girl came to face him. She took the dance, she brought it into herself, she turned it against the dark one, and she tricked him: and with the sacrifice of nine of her folk, she seduced him into a suit of animal fur so that her people could trap him, and burn him away, destroying all the evil inside of them for almost a hundred years: keeping from this place, from this world, for longer.

That girl became the first May Queen. And this place became hallowed as the Hårga.

And so it remained. Until tonight.

The Hårga seems to spread out for her, giving her space, but surrounding her at the maypole. Dani realizes that they have fallen into line behind her, holding their hands, facing their ancient foe, looking up right after she has done so.

As the substances inside her accentuate their reality here, in this land, in this place of power, this font that is also the Hårga, she sees the monster more clearly. He is larger. His face is almost feminine now. For a few moments, she thinks she can see … hooves where his legs should be, and a bag at his side. But his crown, its spokes are elongated now. They threaten to pierce the heavens. For a few moments, they look like antlers, like something the Horned King from Celtic mythology would wear.

For a split second, as he looks at her she sees a brief, poignant life of rejection, and his sheer painfulness — a sense of inherent wrongness — in him interacting, or even being in this world without hurting it. Like he never fit in. Then he looks like a scared little boy. Just like Christian at the end.

That is when she realizes what this being wants to do. He wants to take this place for himself. To despoil it. To warp and twist the natural flow of the land to serve him, and his followers. Like a parody of the Horned God, he wants to take her for himself: to succeed where he failed centuries ago, and corrupt her and her people to his will.

But as Dani looks over, to see Pelle with his own flower crown, she knows that she will only ever have one Green Man.

His name is chanted, by beings that should have died a long time ago, wielding things that ripple strangely through the air, that are black where grass should be growing out of healthy skin and blood.

And Dani clucks her tongue.

Like a mother hen, like a disappointed parent, Dani’s tongue clicks against the roof of her mouth. And, behind her the clucking is mimicked by her brothers and sisters, by her mothers and fathers, by her grandfathers and grandmothers, by her family. For a few moments, she realizes that the witches surrounding the dark one have grown silent. They are no longer chanting his name. They have shrunken back, but remain in their positions. But something has changed here, now. Something fundamental that Dani cannot name.

Perhaps, with her hands around her swollen abdomen, it is similar to that of the unnamed child inside of her.

*

Charlie’s eyes narrow into fury, black slits.

These insects dare to mock him? Again? To mimic him? For a few moments, he sees his loyal followers look up at him. Not in confidence, or a lust for glory, or recognition, or power. But fear.

It is only a small passing of time as Charlie — as Paimon — knows that they aren’t afraid of the Hårga. They do not fear these elders and their children, or the dead ashes fertilizing the ground, but rather his own displeasure. His wrath.

And it is then that Paimon grins. He will make these people dance all right. He will make them dance the dance of St. John. Of St. Vitus. And they will dance it for him beyond death itself. That will be a small price to pay for sealing him in the guts of a bear, surrounded by corpses and fire, for setting him aflame, for burning him in effigy for centuries.

As though he were responsible for the evil inside of them. As if they didn’t want to make mischief. To dance.

Hypocrites.

Paimon clicks his own tongue. It sounds like the cracking of bone through the air. Beside him, his host’s grandmother rises dark and twisted and glorious, her white funeral dress flapping as she plunges down. Yes. Let the May Queen meet a true ruler: the great Queen Leigh herself.

And then, finally, Paimon will begin to make the diorama of the world that he has always wanted.

*

The witches converge on the ranks of the Hårga on all sides, even as the headless black body in its white robe flies towards Dani.

It is a horror. Once, this would have been beyond belief. She wouldn’t have thought it was real. She would’ve run. It might have even destroyed her mind. But Dani has already faced her own demons. And she isn’t alone anymore.

She thinks about the previous summer, about how far she has come, and what was lost. Ingemar and Ulf, Simon and Connie, the elder couple that died together, Josh … Even Mark. Even Christian.

She will not let their sacrifices have been in vain. She will not let the fruits and roots of Midsommar be tainted.

She is prepared. Her family are ready. They have all taken the mushroom, and eaten the paste made from the Yew tree. They do not fear pain or death. They will feel what the other feels, no matter what happens next. The land protects them. It honours their sacrifices. The grass grows through them all. Old life stirs under them, even as new life begins in herself.

As the followers of the unnatural, of things that will never be held, descend onto Dani and her family, she sees the rot for what it is, and with the communal power of her people seeks to gather it, to contain it, to excise it … to burn their foes to ash and mulch and let the pain of its destruction allow the space for something new, for the continuation of only good things.

And with that, at the heart of the Hårga, the May Queen remembers herself, and begins to dance.

Status Imperfectus

Annabelle stands on the rooftop of Griffith College. She doesn’t mean to imitate the brooding nature of Batman, however cool it would be to be him, or Kate Kane. She knows that she should leave the brooding to Jasper, even if these nights he doesn’t have as much to brood about. Even now, after everything Nelli and Victor would find it absolutely hilarious that “Baby B” is being all angsty up here like some stereotypical vampire. Hell, even Ramona would heckle her if she were here with one of her Rat Pack.

She wishes Ramona were here, even with her duties to the Valkyries: one of the results of her own decisions as leader or the face of the Anarch Movement such as it is. Annabelle also wishes X were here too. And …

Annabelle replays the song on her phone. She knows she shouldn’t. She knew the risks. But she can’t let herself forget. The Brujah cannot ever let herself forget.

“I hurt myself to-day, to see if I still feel …” 

She laughs, wetly, through her blood tears. The song is both ridiculous, and it hurts. It hurts that this is the music on the Playlist tonight.

“Well, it’s no Linkin Park.” A gruff, almost gravelly voice says right beside her.

Despite all this time, and everything she’s learned, Annabelle feels the blood rise inside of her. Part of it is instinct. The predator, the Beast that is now her constant companion, snarls and wants to brace itself against a potential threat in her personal space. According to her own experiences, and talks with both Nines and Casey, their Clan are even more prone to angry outbursts, to rage, than some of the others: just as they were capable of still feeling great moral outrage and passion. But it is more than fury, it is also fear: fight or flight. And it is more than just being startled, even with her heightened senses and still being caught off guard.

It’s the vampire next to her. The other Brujah in her life. It’s him catching at an emotionally vulnerable moment.

“Carver, fuck!” Annabelle growls, deciding on anger, snatching her cellphone away from him, wiping at her eyes. “Personal space, dude!”

Carver, the smug son of a bitch, holds up his hands in a semi-placating manner, backing away a little bit but still amused with himself. He still wears his leather jacket, black where Annabelle’s is red, and sporting his Mohawk where Annabelle’s head is still shaved only on one side. “Hey, Babydoll, it’s not my fault you forgot your vigilance. You’re an important girl these nights. You can’t afford to laze. I mean.” He looks at a spot in the shadows and stares. “I know you’re there Jasper, but you won’t always be.”

Annabelle can’t help but bite her lip in some amusement at the familiar guttural snarl from the darkness, but she’s still annoyed. “Still none of your business.”

The older Brujah smiles, as though knowing there isn’t nearly as much vehemence there as there once was. A lot’s changed since they first — officially — met. She still doesn’t like him very much, but she doesn’t hate him anymore. They came to something of an understanding. But she never really calls him Dad. Not like with Victor. Not even sarcastically.

“Well, what it’s worth it’s still better than ‘crawling in my skin.’ Damn.” He says, taking a flask of … something out of his jacket pocket. Annabelle doesn’t see a blush of life appear on his features for it to be just alcohol. “Gives me the jeebies. Reminds me too much of a Tzimisce.”

“A … what?” Annabelle asks, quirking one brow.

Carver chuckles and shakes his head, taking a swig from his flask. For a few moments, Annabelle actually thought she saw an uneasy look, a grimace, form on his face. “Never you mind, Babydoll. Not here for you to take more note-taking.”

Annabelle is aware that, even now, she’s still learning new things. She’s had time to acclimate, one way or another, but she is still the youngest of the coterie. She has a lot to learn. And she will be damned, one way or another again, if she lets anyone else make fun of her for it: least of all Carver.

“Then why are you here, Carver?” Annabelle asks, exasperated. “Is Mr. Sisters of Mercy criticizing my taste in music?”

“Easy there now.” For his part, Carver sees her irritated confusion, and somehow manages to smile even more widely, his own growl a light mockery. “Did Nines introduce you to Damsel yet?”

“No …” Annabelle draws it out, squinting at Carver.

“In a certain light, you kind of look like her: except it’s the pop cultural ranting instead of just the political stuff.”

“Well no.” Annabelle gathers herself up. “Nines’ been too busy helping me through the ‘political stuff’ himself.”

“And how he must hate it.” Carver shakes his head, with a rueful grin. “The politics, I mean.”

“Huh.” Annabelle doesn’t have the energy to be annoyed anymore, but there is still a degree of impatience. She notices, as well, that her face is still warm and wet. Right. Vampires cry blood tears. All she did before in attempting to rub them away, was smear her face with its redness. To Carver’s credit, he doesn’t react — not making any snarky remarks, or so much as even smirk — as she takes out some tissues from her pockets — her many pockets — of her jacket, and wipe her face. “Power is everywhere.” Annabelle remembers, from her classes, now so long ago.

“And the personal’s political, isn’t that right, darlin?”

So much for that shred of decency, Annabelle supposes. She’s about to retort, to tell this jerk to go fuck himself despite her curiosity about his presence —

“You know, they can take care of themselves.”

At first, Annabelle didn’t think she heard him properly. Can vampires suffer hearing loss? But then she realizes, he’s spoken so softly, so uncharacteristically gentle, that it almost sounds like distant thunder, more of a rumble than a growl. Annabelle doesn’t know what to say to this, doesn’t know how to deal. “I know.” She says instead, thinking about Mark and Ellenore sabotaging political offices together, organizing protests, even the rally in Griffith Park where everything almost turned to shit … and other moments since then. “I just worry. I …” Annabelle’s words, and thoughts trail off to a place darker than anything a Lasombra can summon, but she feels stupid talking about it, especially to someone like Carver.

“You’re worried about all this.” Annabelle focuses her attention back on the older Brujah, who takes another drink out of his flask. There’s a funny smell to it, kind of like vitae, and anything else that she can’t quite name. “About you.”

“I’m …” Annabelle says, then straightening her shoulders out again. “I’m not afraid for myself. Of dying. I’ve risked my life –”

“Not death.” Carver sighs, and it occurs to Annabelle how much affectation they all still have, that they sigh when they don’t even have to breathe anymore. “I mean what you’re fighting for. Losing that battle. Losing … sight of what it is.”

“I know what I am fighting for.” Annabelle says, with more force in her voice than she knows is necessary. “I was at the Succubus Club. I saw what the Duskborn were doing in the student houses, what they were driven to do. And what the Inquisition is doing. And what Victor, and Nellie, and Jasper went through at Elysium …”

“And what you had the Gangrel do to Rags.”

Annabelle narrows her eyes. She … she knows it hadn’t been perfect. But it had been a choice between letting him go, or being destroyed. It had been a test: a test the Valkyries had set up for her. To see if she was worthy of mentoring, of allying alongside. But how dare he come here, after all this time, and dredge that up. Carver would have killed everyone, or blown them up, or left everyone there to clean up the mess while taking whatever it was he came for. How dare he condescend to insinuate anything when he didn’t even try to do better. When he didn’t even have loved ones …

When he didn’t even have Ghouls …

“I gave him a chance.” Annabelle says. “I try to give everyone a chance. And then …” Her shoulders droop. “I know I don’t have the answers. I know I know nothing and all that Socratic crap. But the Tower has to be stopped. There’s no need to treat people like objects. It’s … it’s wrong. Oppression is wrong. And everyone … everyone deserves a home.”

“We declare our kinship with oppressed Kindred everywhere and offer a home to all Kindred of all generations and clans who will agree to dwell in harmony with us.”

This time, Annabelle looks at Carver. She really looks at Carver. He shrugs. “The Status Perfectus.” He takes another drink. “Jeez. I’d have thought that Nines would’ve shown you it by now, or at least talked to you about it. Or maybe Abrams. Maybe.” He looks back at her. “Really. Here they are, going on and on about how you’re like the reincarnation of MacNeil, and they don’t even tell you about his and Salvador Garcia’s Second Anarch Revolt Declaration of Freaking Independence? Of the Anarch Free State. Heh … I mean, MacNeil was a screw-up, and Garcia probably a fucking traitor, and everything turned into a clusterfuck, but really.” He wipes at his mouth. “I expected better from Nines at least, if this is going to be your freaking heritage.”

“Well, who pissed in your Polyjuice Potion?” Annabelle finds her patience rapidly disappearing, fueled even further by information she never had. Why hadn’t anyone told her about this yet? Why does she keep getting left in the dark? Is she that much of a figurehead to the other Barons? Even … She shakes her head. “You disappear for God knows how long, leave me to my own devices, I do the best I can, and Nines picks up the slack, and you have the audacity — the freaking balls — to start lecturing me like you’re my –”

“Hey.” Carver interjects. “I did try to look for you. I got that favour from Eva, and it seems you got some too. You really should wash that jacket. It reeks.”

“No. Just. Don’t.” Annabelle points at him, right back to the level of fury. “Why are you back here, Carver? Are you just here to get your jollies telling me just how much I don’t even know? After you threw me right into the middle of all of this?”

“No, darlin.” Carver says. “I’m not here to lecture like Abrams, or give you a pep talk like Nines — a Kindred afraid of his own power. And I like the man. But seriously. You are a born activist. A student. You keep wanting to change things, but you don’t really look at everything that came before, at what others tried to do. You have …” He looks down at his flask, at his hands. “You are different. It’s the reason I didn’t leave you to die in that building. I could’ve. I think some days, when it’s really bad for you, you wish I did. Just …”

“What?” Annabelle demands, her blood rising despite herself. ‘What else should I know, Carver?”

“Look at the tools, the … tools of the oppressor, of the colonizer. The master’s tools. That’s what they teach you these days, right? At this college.” Carver has a strange light in his eyes, even as his tone remains the same steady, growling pitch it has always been. “Look at the fears that motivate us. The sun. Fire. Humans knowing what we are, and how that all affects anything we build. The Traditions, like the one that tells us to hide from humans, those existed before the Cam. And the Cam, the Tower, they formed in Europe when the Inquisition — which had been made by other Kindred trying to one-up each other — to supposedly protect all Kindred. To hide us. But look at what happened before that. When the Inquisition, the kine tools of power, got out of control and the Elders threw their childer at them. To save themselves. That’s when the First Anarch Revolt happened.”

This catches Annabelle’s attention. “The First Anarch Revolt …” She thinks about it. “Victor said something about that. Maybe Nellie too.”

“Yeah.” Carver nods. “It was a big deal. That’s kind of what led to all of this. I guess the Baron of the Valley knows some stuff after all.”

Annabelle doesn’t rise to the bait. Victor has made his mistakes, but she will never doubt his loyalty to her, the friendship of any of the coterie no matter their flaws. None of them are perfect, and Carver is one to throw stones. “What happened to them?” She asks instead, the question suddenly extremely relevant and overshadowing any sense of personal grievances with this man. “What happened to the first Anarchs?”

Carver is quiet for a while. He blinks, once. “When the others formed the Cam, with the surviving Elders, they rebelled. They became pretty much the Sabbat.”

Annabelle feels something crawl down her back at the way Carver speaks that word. She has heard it before. Victor has mentioned it. Even the others seem to know what it is, but they never really talk about it. Finally, he speaks again.

“Remember Nick the Asshole?”

Annabelle tries not to shudder, attempting not to remember the Nosferatu killing her, or the savage beating she laid on him afterwards after Carver had — arguably — saved her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. Imagine a whole Sect like him. But worse. They wanted revenge on humans for hunting them. They wanted to turn them all into chattle, into things to feed on, hunt … play with … and kill. The Cam, it’s fucked right? I don’t have to tell you that. But mostly, it just wants to leave humans alone so they get left alone. And when they kill, well, it’s pretty brutal but just necessary. That’s the idea anyway. The Sabbat though? They enjoy it. They make games out of it. TThat’s what they would do to the whole world if they could’ve gotten away with it. The Lasombra and the Tzimisce especially.”

“That’s …” Annabelle wonders if she needs the blush of life to return the colour that she feels is leaving her cold skin She recalls the Scourge Rodrigo back at the Maharani, his eyes deeper than the abyss, asking her what she would build with the framework or the tools left from the systems that she would destroy, understanding the impart of those words a little more now. “That’s horrific.”

“And they all started from Kindred that just wanted to be free.” Carver sighs. “But this isn’t History Class. You want to find out more about those assholes, ask Nines or maybe your coterie. Hell, the Valkyries hate them too. You know, they come from Europe right? Another Old World group. They’re not just an Anarch faction. Just something you might want to look into on your own.” Carver shakes his head again, as though disgusted with himself. “I’ll give you another tidbit for free, darlin.” He says. “The Perfectus was made before the Baronies. MacNeil and Garcia, and the others, they had to make them when it became clear as a night of freezing rain in the ninth level of hell that Kindred couldn’t govern themselves without causing great fuck-ups. The point is, as you probably figured out by now, the Baronies were concessions to our baser natures. Little better than Domains — freaking Princedoms — in the Cam. A point of failure. I think that’s why MacNeil up and left. He knew, you know? He knew we used the tools of the masters, that trying not to made things worse. He didn’t want another Sabbat. Another Cam. Probably broke his damn fool idealistic bleeding heart. So when our better natures didn’t work out, I guess he gave up. Left us to our devices.” He takes another swig from the flask, a deeper one. Annabelle almost thinks she sees his skin flush from that drink. “I guess it was better than becoming a dictator, or a monster. Sure better than what happened in Carthage, or Russia. Anarch socialist experiments — especially Brujah ones — they don’t always go well, Babygirl.”

“Well …” Annabelle tried to take all of this in, tries to remember all of these terms to look up later, to pester Victor and the others about. “Why do you tell us how you really feel, Carver.”

Carver pauses for a moment. Then, he laughs. He laughs hard. It is a deep, belly laugh tinged by wheezing. Annabelle wonders, at first, if the older Brujah is choking until she remembers what they are. “Me? I just get stuff done.”

“With who?”

“With a gang or two that I put together.” Carver replies nonchalantly.

This time, Annabelle looks at him. Really looks at him. There is something different about him today. She can’t figure it out. “Don’t you have a coterie?”

Carver looks down at his flask. “I did.”

Annabelle doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She doesn’t have Nellie’s Discipline in Auspex, nor can she develop it on her own as far as she knows. But she has a decent skill at reading people. “What happened to them?”

“They’re gone.”

Annabelle thinks about Mark. She thinks about Ellenore. Her eyes go back to her phone and the Playlist that she had just heard. “What about anyone else?” She knows she’s prying again, but she had been so angry at Carver this whole while that she didn’t know anything about him. And for some reason, right now, this bothers her. “Did you have anyone else in your life?”

“I did.” He says, simply. “She’s gone too.”

“I’m sorry.” Annabelle replies, totally at a loss, awkward, wondering why suddenly she cares.

“Eh.” Carver shrugs his shoulders. “Shit happens.” He turns to her. “The important thing, darlin? Why I’m here now? I might not be lecturing, but just … I know how hard this must be for you. Figuring all of this out. It helps that you have friends. Something more than a crew. They keep you here. They keep you real. I went on about all those Sects and names. But the real enemy’s not even the Beast. It’s us. It’s time. A lot of those fuckers probably started out, even selfish, with some good ideas. But when you live forever, you forget things. Especially when you get caught up in the Jyhad. It’s easy to forget that Humanity after a while. Or take it for granted, until it’s gone.”

“I still remember who I am.” Annabelle says. “Do you?”

Carver grins at her, a big shit-eating grin. “Babygirl, I know exactly what I am. Just … heh. But seriously. When you have to make the hard calls — and you will — just remember who you have. And what you have. Because disappointed idealists, they make the worst kinds of sons of bitches. Don’t let yourself be a monster, Annabelle.” He says, his tone direct, his face flat again. “But don’t let them keep making you their puppet. I didn’t save your life for any of that. Ask the right questions. Keep asking everyone those questions. Keep asking yourself.”

Annabelle nods. “I … I will.” She bites her lower lip. “Thanks.”

“For my childe, anything.” Carver wryly smiles back at her, before putting his flask back into his coat pocket.

She can’t help it. Annabelle rolls her eyes. “Yeah, says the guy that made me and left me to wander the campus feeding without telling me what I was.”

“It’s better than some Gangrel Embraces.” Carver replies, putting both of his hands in his pockets. “And it seems to worked out pretty well for you.”

“I guess.” Something a little more hopeful enters her heart, thinking about it all now. “I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

“Also,” Carver says, looking at Annabelle a little longer.

“Uh, yeah?” She asks, feeling awkwardness before discomfort.

“Annabelle.” He tells her. “You are a lot more powerful than you think you are. When you’re doing your homework,” he points in a dismissive gesture, but his tone doesn’t change, “remember that.”

She nods again. There is something direct. Imperative. Clear. For a few moments, it’s as though Carver is speaking to her in a different way.

“Well, enough socializing.” Carver says. “I have situations to kill and all.”

“Hey.” Annabelle says, something occurring to her. “That thing you quoted.”

“Yeah?” He says, turning around.

“What was it again?”

“The Third Principle of the Perfectus.” Carver says. “Offering a home to all oppressed Kindred of all kinds in the Free Anarch State.”

“I see.” Annabelle nods. “I was thinking, when I find a copy, and read the whole thing of changing that. To all Kindred. All kine. All … people.”

Carver seems to consider it for a few moments. “Huh. Go figure.” He smiles at her. “I knew all the Unbound needed was some new blood.” He turns around and begins to walk away. “You’re just starting, and you’re already better than MacNeil ever was. As for the rest, just get ready to break some heads.”

Then, Annabelle only blinks once, and Carver is gone. She opens her phone and looks down at the Playlist. It takes her a moment, but she adds a new song. Right below Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” now resides a song from Halestorm. “Love Bites (So Do I).”

It’s a little risque, even cliché considering the circumstances, but Annabelle figures that it’s worth it.

*

Carver speeds away, his Celerity taking him from the rooftop in almost literally the blink of an eye.

It had been close. Annabelle is far from stupid, and perhaps he overplayed his hand. Chimerstry only takes you so far, taking your vitae, masking an appearance you’ve taken pains to disguise independently, before it runs out like some kind of glamour. Fucking A Song of Ice and Fire with Mance Rayder as Rattleshirt comes to mind. He doesn’t suppose that the Nos of the coterie could teach his Disciplines. Or worse, what favour he’d owe if he asked Golden. He doesn’t like his chances there.

Then again, just saving Annabelle’s life had been a risk. He is lucky, in some ways, that some Kindred remember the person he used to be. Eva owned him that major boon, one that has kept Annabelle safe up until this point. He wonders how Isaac hadn’t sensed his presence, or Annabelle’s earlier, but he has his suspicions: that the elder Toreador had already known what Annabelle was, and where she came from. Perhaps he even hoped for this outcome, whatever it may still be. Indeed, from his own sources, he knows that many people from the beginning of the Movement saw something in the young Brujah that they hadn’t seen in a long time.

It is all the more reason for him to keep his distance. For just as he had allies who knew who he was, he had enemies with long memories as well. Especially from the Tower. He never forgot the day that the Prince had made him humiliate himself, bowing and scraping, and worse. How he forced him to smash his head against the floor until his Ghouls took him out and threw him in that dumpster.

He wouldn’t wish that on anyone. He especially doesn’t want this for Annabelle.

He said he was done. That the Experiment hadn’t worked, like so many failures before and after it. There were never supposed to be Barons or Baronies. There especially wasn’t supposed to be a Baron of Los Angles. He didn’t want any of that.

So he went underground. He kept making crews. Just impersonal adhoc operations to make things uncomfortable for the elite. All grassroots. All under the radar. He would not associate with anyone closely again. It … hurt too much.

And he especially wouldn’t sire another. The one he left in New Orleans still rankles, even if he’d gone to the Cam for his own purposes.

But then there was the Office, and that asshole Nick, and then the girl and everything he saw her do with Mark and Ellenore. It reminded him of something. It reminded him of something that he had lost a long time ago.

Perhaps, looking at Annabelle, he saw the person that everyone else saw. The inspiration that he used to be. No, deep down Carver knows that he sees something better. If it survives.

Armando will look after her, he keeps telling himself. He might not want power, but that is why he trusts him with her all the more. And, as she goes on, she will come into her own true power: something beyond Generation or age. Perhaps beyond Faith. Carver doesn’t know. He knows that he knows nothing. In the meantime, he will lay the groundwork, do the grunt work, help light the flame that Annabelle will ignite.

His time is long passed now. Perhaps Annabelle will do better. He has hope that she will do better.

“You’ll do fine Annabelle,” he says, his voice no longer gravelly as he whispers to himself. “Break some heads, Babygirl.”

Paper Moon

Jasper fucked up.

He knows he fucked up. The pain in what’s left of his arm, after touching Eva like an idiot — twice — almost obliterating his claw on her personal ward, is nothing compared to the chagrin and the mixture of feelings he’s experiencing at the moment. In a way, he’s almost grateful. After the ritual Eva conducted, she had destroyed her hand too in the Thaumaturgical fire she created. It’s the least he deserves after putting her through this, after putting Chloe …

But that’s only a taste of the pain he’s put both of them through, and he knows it. He’s been set on fire before, he should be used to it by now.

Just like he should be accustomed to his own sense of self-loathing.

The Nosferatu cradles his twisted claw against his ribs, watching Chloe follow Eva out of the house where they staged their “intervention” on the former’s behalf. When Chloe regained her senses, for a few moments he almost hoped she wouldn’t recognize him: that he would be another, more hideous stranger, next to Eva and Fiona in that room. In some ways, her knowing exactly who he was, was far worse. The look of utter betrayal on her face hurt more than any reaction to his repulsiveness.

There are other feelings as well. Anger towards Fiona for making Chloe … his Chloe, his … into a Ghoul, fury at the Inquisition for somehow finding Fiona’s territory and Chloe instead, that awkward self-consciousness of asking Eva to do so much for him, despite everything they …

He resists the urge to snarl to himself. It all comes back to his self-hatred, his selfishness. What did he, of all people, think would happen with that one note he left on the napkin on the Griffith College campus cafe? That they would have a Hallmark moment, some contrived moment of grace, a Touched By an Angel God loves you segment? Chloe never stops. He knew that. Even when he watched her over the years, after that piece of shit took his life in his apartment and left him like this, he never forgot her drive to see her own research to its end. And he never forgot the depth of her feelings for him.

Jasper recalls Chloe’s words to him, not that long ago: that somewhere, deep down, he didn’t want to let her go. That wanted her in this world.

And Jasper hates himself for it. Somehow, it’s even worse than the whispers when he is hungry, of wanting to consume her and sometimes mistaking it for the intense fire he still feels towards her, being in her skin again in some way, and the happiness of being seen. That rebellious joy is treacherous: that she still wants to know him, and what he’s gone through, and that this — this ugly abomination his body’s become — can’t keep her away. In a way, his Clan’s deformities have been something of a blessing to him, more than even the Mask of a Thousand Faces could ever be. The fact is, when most people see his face Jasper knows they see a monster, something to shy away from, and scoff at, and either fear or underestimate him. It is the perfect mask. Very few people bother to look past it. They don’t have to.

But Eva did. It made sense, in an empirical way. The Tremere are warlocks, thaumaturgists that had dedicated themselves to uncovering the mysteries of the world underlying the surface. It made sense that Eva could eventually see right through him. It had just been a system of Prestation between them, that’s what he kept telling himself. A boon for a debt, a debt for a boon. Even when she started him on the path to Thaumaturgy himself, it had simply been a greater boon. But they both love puzzles and secrets. They’ve worked closer together over time. And Jasper knows he loves Eva’s mind, just as he is beginning to suspect that she loves his.

He can’t afford to have attachments, Kindred or kine. They can be used against him. Worse, they can be fleeting, ephemeral, lost in an instant of bad judgment: such as what he displayed back at the cafe. Tonight was the first time he touched Eva, as she burned for Chloe … for him, and he burned in return. It is fitting, it makes sense in the twisted, intuitive way that his Labyrinth also does.

It’s infuriating. If he had just thought it out, he should have reasoned Eva had her own personal wards. He should never have reached for her. If he hadn’t, he could have offered her his blood — his vitae — to heal her hand. Instead, he hurt himself and knows — he fucking knows — she will create another batch of that cream to heal his burns despite all the trouble he’s put her through. She broke Chloe’s compromised blood bond to Fiona, and then made her her Ghoul. And he knows she did it for him. She knows that Chloe is his touchstone to the mortal world, and even that might change soon …

He wanted Chloe away from this. That’s what he keeps telling himself, even now that she made him face the truth. That’s why he left her those years ago, left her arms and her warmth so she wouldn’t see what a monster he had become on the outside, what a demon he was on the inside …

But her words win out. And here they are now. Somehow, he thinks Annabelle will be laughing at him. And as he follows along behind them, thinking about how Fiona could have imprinted Dominate commands into Chloe’s mind or used her as a piece against him in the current political climate, or even killed her, and smelling Eva’s familiar, soothing floral vitae in Chloe’s body — the woman he loves saved and Ghouled by the other woman that he loves — as dangerous as these thoughts are, these signs of weakness and vulnerability are to his current state, he can’t help but think to himself that he doesn’t deserve either of them.

*

Eva grits her fangs together, less against the pain in her charred hand, and more to bite back the hunger that wants to consume the young woman walking alongside her. It would be so easy, but counterproductive given all the work she put into saving her to begin with.

The prospect of breaking Jasper’s heart hurts even more than that.

She doesn’t like this. Any of it. Not the Inquisition getting so close. Not the Camarilla attacking her sisters. And especially not what Fiona may or may not have attempted to do with this young girl. That in particular overrides any other feelings she has on this matter. She had been in Clan Tremere for ages, when its Pyramid was still strong. She knows what coerced blood-bonds do to a person, be they kine or Kindred. It is a mixed blessing that her Clan can no longer create blood-bonds, even if they are now especially vulnerable to such acts from other parties.

As long as Eva is in the Anarch Free States, she knows she is essentially free. Without the unity of the Tremere, and even their reduced status in the Camarilla, they cannot come for her: the other Houses. But that can change. The Camarilla still has its resources. It can still succeed in proclaiming praxis: even her Haven in Griffith Park. Clan Tremere, such as it is, could find a way to take her back to the fold.

Maximilian Strauss could find his way back to her.

Jasper … Jasper made that promise to find the vial with her vitae. To finally free her from … that monster. She didn’t go into details, but she knew she didn’t have to. She knows, deep down, he would die for her. And this thought terrifies Eva, more than she will let on: even to Jasper.

Eva has always had to owe someone, or something. The Sect with which she used to belong. Her Clan. Its Elders. Strauss. She never truly knew freedom until that night, those nights, when she made the choices that led her here amongst Anarch territory. She does provides services, of course. Nothing is free: neither her protection, nor her services. Hers, and Jasper’s association began in a similar fashion. Certainly, his work for Baron Abrams and her consultations with the latter, often led them to similar domains of duty and inquiry.

It occurs to her, sometimes, just how young the Nosferatu truly is. He is quiet, and askance. Brittle. Even tonight, when he touched her for the first time, when it finally registered through her pain of the ritual that he did so, she recalls how hesitant it was, how … tentative. It doesn’t escape her that the reason he did so was because she was in pain … and because he was afraid she would feed too much from Chloe. Eva doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like how her wards burned him. As she told him, he was not the one for which those protective wards were created. She had meant to come here and find out what the Inquisition had fed into Chloe’s system, to find a way to neutralize it. It had been some form of chemical compound, but more than that, an alchemical solution that targeted a Regnant’s vitae: the master of a thrall’s blood. It had been drawn to Fiona, and while Eva feels nothing for the Ventrue one way or another, especially with her political games and her Clan’s usual penchant for taking what little freedoms away from their servants or those under their sway, this is a weapon that cannot be ignored. It could be one more arsenal in the extermination of their species.

But she hadn’t intended to break a blood-bond, though she doesn’t regret it. Then again, she hadn’t intended — nor wanted — to become the Domitor to a Ghoul: even if she could temper the Bond to not interfere with the girl’s thoughts and feelings. Chloe … is a complication. Jasper is not as strong as others believe. This entire situation is almost entirely of his making, but she doesn’t have the heart to judge him. He already knows, and admitted, that he made a mistake. She is his touchstone, Eva recognizes that. Chloe has an inquisitive mind, and a fierce thirst to find the truth.

Only recently did she and Jasper talk about the Labyrinth under Griffith Park, with its energies beyond that of even thaumaturgy. She had heard enough lore in her Clan to suspect and even know that there are powers and magic independent of Kindred Disciplines. It is a fascinating and terrifying prospect. She understands why the Nosferatu are so keen on investigating this phenomenon. Jasper has slowly been letting her in, which means much to her, and she knows that Victor Temple’s dealings as Baron with the Nosferatu rub them both the wrong way: for all their sound pragmatism.

But it’s more than that. Jasper is harder on himself than most Kindred. She knows this. He rarely keeps himself around people, even other Kindred beyond … what he has to do, and his own coterie. It is actually miraculous that he even has the others in his coterie. Knowing what she does of their kind, and the Beast, Eva admits to herself that they are actually good for him. For all they themselves cause complications, they have some spontaneous, even ingenious moments.

It’s true what they said to Chloe. Kindred are monsters. They are nothing to aspire towards. But sometimes monsters can do good things, as Jasper said. And Jasper, touch-starved Jasper, angry Jasper, sad Jasper, who can only feed off of “monsters like themselves,” who is smart, and strong, and brave except in matters of the heart … Eva is terrified of letting anyone have influence over her beyond Prestation again. But it’s different with Jasper.  It wasn’t just the fact that he helped save her Tremere sisters and was burned in the process. Sometimes, especially after she brought him those flowers, hoping he would find peace in being a monster, in leaving what he loved behind as much as he could, she thinks about offering him her vitae: to let him feed from her. He has taken it in her substances, to heal his body, but this is different. He would tell her that too, she knows. He would tell her that his feeding is different: that he needs to feed from those that deserve it, that are monsters, that need to be punished …

But they also, his vessels, need to feed. She sees him deal with this torment every night, and she knows that she could offer him her arm, her vein. A part of her wishes she could tell him that it is all right. That he can take what is offered. That they can be monsters together. That they can explore the Labyrinth of the night forever, or as forever as drifting feelings over centuries or possible imminent death by Sect war and manipulation would allow.

And then, this girl. Chloe. She finds them. The Ventrue told her all about them. She could have wiped her mind, but she didn’t. She could have even killed her, but decided not to. They can’t afford to turn on Jasper. They need him in this coming conflict between the Anarchs and the Camarilla, and Fiona knows that. A part of Eva is glad to have Chloe with them, away from Fiona’s blood-bond, a way of potentially taking one more chess piece away from the Ventrue to use against Jasper. And she can’t help but admire Chloe’s curiosity. She feels it in her veins from where she drank from her. It would be so easy. So … easy  …

She could also take him away. A treacherous voice in her mind whispers to her. Take him away from you …. 

Eva squashes that ridiculous thought before it can continue. She doesn’t know what will happen next. She doesn’t know if Chloe will return to Fiona under her own free will to continue to be a Ghoul, or become one of them. Or if she will continue to be with Eva, or become something else. Jasper will not turn her. Jasper sees what he has as a Curse, and Eva sees her fate as no less: even if she does have some solace in it.

All she knows is that, this night, she is not going to leave Chloe anywhere else other than with her: with them … whichever way it turns out in the end.

*

Chloe attempts to take everything in.

It’s a lot. She pieced everything together, but nothing made any sense. And then, right after she went to the police with her information — or the lack of information and sense with regards to Jasper’s death — she met Fiona, and everything changed. She recalls her deal with Fi, to stay by her side, feed from her blood, learn what she could of vampire … of Kindred society from her, and she would tell her all about Jasper. Even meet him.

But then, there was a raid in on her Haven. Black-ops soldiers. They questioned her. And then they knocked her out and pumped … something in her body. After that, there had just been blackness and nightmares. And then this old house, the room, and so much pain until the bliss of two sharp points in her neck and ecstasy, the smell of burning blood and … Fiona in front of her, actually looking both worried and fascinated, the white-haired, flowered woman she would get to know as Eva, and a man in a hoodie whose features were warped and distorted.

Her memory hadn’t been that bad, or that compromised to realize who he was. Who he is.

Maybe he thought, after all this time, she wouldn’t be able to read his facial expressions or his body language. Jasper stood across the room from her, away from her, and when she really thinks about it, everyone else. Fiona had told her a little bit about the nature of his … condition, but telling is one thing, but seeing is a whole other. But it’s still him. Still the same gentle touch, the same concerned face, the eyes of the person who had always been at her side, the one who held her at night, the same individual who wrote that note on the napkin that nearly broke her mind.

Nothing about Jasper’s death made sense, neither the dearth of evidence nor the too brief testimonies of the authorities. It just didn’t add up. But there had been a funeral. She thought, maybe, she had been losing it: that the grief, and the stress of school had finally gotten to her … But that drive kept her going. That napkin was a sign.

And she had been right. Chloe was right.

It all seems clearer now, with Eva’s blood in her veins. It doesn’t make her emotions any more simplistic. She’s angry at Jasper. She’s furious at having left her, at not telling her the truth, of leaving her that message, and letting it eat her up inside. But she feels rage on his behalf: on the vampire — his sire — that stole his life, and their life together, away without his consent. Chloe thinks about how violated he must have felt, and then to have that thing this … Beast fighting in him constantly that he was too afraid of getting close to anyone. Including her.

She’s also happy. She feels immense joy knowing that he’s still … alive? Existent? That he had been watching over her? But still angry that he hadn’t said anything, that he led her into this place without her knowledge. Fi had informed her as much as possible. It’s true. Now that she knows a little more about the soldiers that abducted her, those agents, members of this Second Inquisition she realizes just how much her search would have endangered the vampires … these Kindred if the wrong people in law enforcement or research fields had listened to her questions, or looked at her information and saw how she was putting it all together. Likewise, most authorities might have simply thought her deluded or insane. But Chloe isn’t stupid. She’s tired. The pain inside of her, from the chemicals they pumped her with that kept her unconscious, is gone: purged by Eva and replaced with her blood. There are factions among the vampires, and she could feel that tension in that room with like the earth heaped on the coffin in which Jasper had never been buried.

She does feel betrayed, but also elated. And immortality? Chloe is still thinking about the implications of this discovery. Yes, there is a Beast that comes out in a vampire when they are made, and they do need to feed off blood. But Fiona’s words about affecting change and influence still echo in her head. And she’s seen what Eva is capable of doing. And even Jasper … Fi had told her that, for all of Jasper’s faults with endangering the Masquerade, he was a fairly potent and powerful vampire now. Though … she can understand why he doesn’t want to turn her, if his Clan looks like …

In retrospect, she’s glad she didn’t make a decision tonight, and that she has a little more time. She also feels protected. Whatever else Jasper did or didn’t do, she knows he will be there. And, in a way, looking at Eva now and the way she looks at Jasper, she feels a little better in knowing that Jasper hasn’t been completely alone: with both Eva and his friends, whom Fiona had said were quite some … characters.

The fact of the matter is, even in this clear state, even outside of the besotted almost drunken feelings that her bond with Fiona had possessed, Chloe still has a lot to think about. Reality still feels new, not as permanent or as concrete as she believed. Everything has changed. Everything is changing. Chloe majors … majored? She majors in Communications at Griffith College, but as one of her electives she took a film class that dealt with media. Once, she and her class sat down and watched some old films that played with reality. It’d been an old black and white French film by a man named Méliès. It was supposed to have some kind of anti-imperialist or a film that made fun of preconceived concepts of reality. Right now, she feels like one of those Selenites that exploded if someone touched them the wrong way. Chloe recalls, at the end of the film, the spacefarers returning home with one of the Selenites captive. The thought hits too close to home, like a rocket in her eye.

Jasper’s face kind of looks like a cratered moon now. She tries not to giggle at the image. Something about moons seems appropriate. Instead, Chloe focuses on more of the questions she wants to ask. Fi’s burner phone weighs heavily in her pocket, full of more promise. But, right now, Chloe decides to think about how Jasper is still here, how he is here with her, how she feels safe with him and Eva, and how she has so much more to learn.

And, perhaps, they all still do.

12: Alternative Facts: Natural Medicine

“Physician, heal thyself.”
—  Luke 4:23

It’s a caution: of the boogey.

“Beware the Nats.” The old tales say. “They carry the Novax.”

Back cycles ago, no other chill was strongest than a call, or word of Novax. Fore the Disunity, and the Interregnum, and the supposed “Great Reunity,” a people went their own way. They believed the Land — all of it — healthy, holy, sacred. That all that grows from the ground is good. And all that came from making and artifice was sick, unclean … cursed. They espec feared the start of aughts, or a state of oughts: running from them, making themselves Sep from techne, from gleaning, that everything of the Land would save them, that all other things were poison.

They looked to find Dise, and discovered Doom instead.

They made themselves no defense … agon the old horrors. They were not immune. Droves of them, the old tales said, from Mas and Fem to their childer, dropped. They were all over every Land, as well as our own: not just in the South but the North too. And that was the most abominate of all.

Where they sat, ate, drank, shat, coupled, or stilled they brought it with them — the Novax — sickened and killing all people with them. And it spread during the Interregnum, just like they did, into the Repo Fiefdoms and the Demos Brigaders and away from them. When the Disunity happened, they fled. They left — becoming Resists — even during the Unquiet in the most distant parts of our Land: trying to get back to the Land, the old tales say, to the soil, to everything that grows.

That’s one way why, after a while, even though they once proudly — vainly — named themselves Novax, they became called the Nats.

They should have died. All of them. Espec during the Dark Times when medicine was low, for everyone, on both sides of the Wall.

Many found were purged, the ones that didn’t fall on their own. We had our own Reunity, made our medicines and techne for our defense. So many sick, then, and dying, we drove the plague-bares fore they could spread into our Prides, our Spectra, from the Borders into the deepest Badlands. Many went on their own, for new Land: to be isolate. Pure. They never came back. We thought it was over.

We still use the Interface. We glean there are still pockets of their spots in the North, even in our Lands now. Some even try to adopt into our Prides. We deal with them. But the plague-bares, the Great Infests, are mostly old tales now. Old fear fire stories to scare childer.

We were born of theory-head, of Sacred Thot, when they made Mas bleed.

We tell the other Spectra what they need to glean. It was why we were born. Agents of the Heterodox are still in us, and sometimes the Joys and Llangs still listen, even now when they are playing HetSoc. Utter abominate what they will do. We do not need mech-wooms. Our surrogates, our Vessel of Trade, between the loyal Prides do us just fine. We’ve not the numbers to deal with that infection in the Spectra, just enough brethren and sestra left behind to fight the Traitors, to deal with the soul — the purity — disease.

We were the scourge. We burst their pockets among others. Stamped out their spots, and drowned their flesh-fires. Sent a few back to the Heterodoxy and their Dark Age. Sent more to die in the Badlands. Long, the Heterodox claimed we were sick, but they made us sick, made us swallow the sickness they didn’t want, made it internal in us. But this — we would not countenance this. We …

Those calling themselves Novax were purged by our own fire. Our Prides buried their fallen. The Nats were exterminate. We spread only word, and sight: our historia made safe again.

Yet now, brethren and sestra, is the truth. We were born to tell and fight. To purge. We were gleaned that Silence is the Foe of All Spectra. Of the HetSoc and their Heterodoxy. But here, now, we take the tool — the other armament of the Oppressor. We use it to prevent the spread of the Willing Sickness.

Again, the Nats — their infest — lives. It has become adapt. They are still adapts, even in the middle of the Badlands that kill us when we go in too far. Maybe they were left in the ruined Domes, deep in the Badlands. Maybe Domes are caerns. Toom-woom incubae, spreading infests of the plague-bares. Somehow, even now, they grow. They rise in isolate, and move out. Just coming into their Resists enough to catch the dread Novax. They do not fight. They never have. They are have strong Resist. Their bodies keep the horrors in them and fight for them, agon us. They are even dangers when they are dead. Espec dead. In numbers.

And we were made, from blood, to fight all Sickness. Our fore goal.

We are still Mas and Fem, Monog and Nonmonog strong. We try. We must be main the scourge and the flame, the word and the silence. The infests, the Resists, go deeper than we glean. We keep this from the Joys and the Llangs and their toys, the Binary and Trans Gen Traitors: Heterodox agents and infests of Poison Mas that will one day be Sepped permanate. Most of us stay here, near the Badlands — deeper — our lives sacrifice. Many have joined the Nats, the Novax taking the body but not our purity. Our hearts stay with the earth. We must memor our oath agon the dangers, and the tribuls. We must bring it all to bare.

We are the fire that Climbed the Walls of Sickness. We will keep the Prides Liberate, and destruct those that turn on us. We will keep back the Sickness made by the Heterodoxy. We do what we must to guard the Spectra, and keep it all clean.

We are Meides, and we have Hearts of Stone.

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2019.

It Came From the Heavens

An old attempt at mythological revisionism, and an alternate history: depending on how you want to view this. It was a gift to my father, and myself. Somehow, I think it appropriate: at least, to my own experience. 

“And every spring,” the old kohen told them, “we celebrate the days of Passover.”

“Isn’t Passover based off of the ancient pagan fertility rituals of spring?”

The old man beamed at the young woman. “I’m glad you asked that. The answer is yes. Spring itself is a renewal of the world’s life cycle. The Elohim created us all: making the times of our lives mirror the seasons of the Earth. We are born in spring, young in summer, in our middle years in autumn, and we pass away in our winter. Many of the ancient pagans saw this truth as well, but they viewed each season and element within it as a god in itself. However, we see it as part of the cycle of all things that the Elohim set in motion.”

“So, kohen, spring isn’t just a time of birth, but rebirth as well?”

“Yes.” The old priest said, reclining back into his pillows. “All life is created and destroyed conversely to allow for life to flourish again.”

“But kohen, we are born, we grow old, and we die … yet we do not come back.”

“That is correct. We live a linear existence. Like you say, we are born, we live, and we die. Yet our world and the generations of us live in a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We live on through our descendants, our plenitude, and through the dust in which we return we even live through the ecosystems of our world. We now know that in this way we are all eternal.

“When Pharaoh held us — our ancestors — as slaves in Egypt we were stuck in winter: in an endless cycle of toil and suffering that only ended in Death.”

“But kohen, Passover took place in the Desert.”

The priest laughed. “Yes, my child. But the deepest Desert can be as stark as the coldest winter night of all: a place of extremity where life barely survives and that which does is all the sturdier — all the hardier — for it. Yet no thing could live there without the blessing of the Elohim. And we would never have lived at all as we are now without Moses: the King of the Hebrews.

“He was the descendant of Joseph — beloved advisor to Old Pharaoh — descendant of Jacob who took his brother’s birthright, descendant of Isaac who was spared by the Elohim, and descendant of Abram who turned away from the gods of Ur to begin the Elohim’s legacy.

“Though the Patriarchs were great, they had only succeeded in taking Canaan: the Land of Milk and Honey. They made no cities nor did they cultivate the land that was given to us. Eventually, it became fallow and Joseph–who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers — allowed us to live among those that ruled the Egyptians as friends and advisors. Yet the former rulers of the Nile — the Hyksos — were driven away after Joseph’s lifetime and we were made into slaves by the new Egyptian dynasty.

“Moses’ story, you already know. The Pharaoh harboured great fear that a male child of the Hebrew people would overthrow him. Yet while the other baby boys were slaughtered his mother sent him in a basket down the Nile. To this day, the Egyptians believe the Nile to be sacred and that it–and their gods–blessed Moses while others considered him a new incarnation of their hero or their own god. We believe, however, that the Elohim blessed him to begin his work: our work.

“He was found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter: raised and schooled amongst the elite of Egypt while we toiled. Yet blood told and he knew us as his own. After he killed a cruel overseer, Moses fled: fled into the Desert of Egypt’s Lower Kingdom. It was there that the Desert became the crucible that changed him and the Elohim spoke to him through the vessel of the burning bush. From that point on, Moses was transformed. He was not a god, of course, but neither was he completely mortal. Instead, he became a white-haired messenger of the Elohim.

“And so he came back to Egypt and fought its sorcerers with his superior magic. He brought plagues upon the Egyptians when they refused to let his people go. The heir of the Pharaoh–the Prince–attempted to kill Moses and only the tribesmen of his first wife’s people saved him: may their descendants be honoured forever.

“Yet when the final plague killed all the first-born of Egypt — young and old and including the wicked Prince — the Pharaoh realized his mistake. He and his own priests believed that Moses was not only the incarnation of their Horus, or a demigod (of which we do not believe), he also proved himself by the divinity surrounding him and his cause to be the rightful heir of Egypt.

“Thus Pharaoh released the Hebrews from bondage and gave Moses the Blue Crown. They executed the most wicked of the slavers, overseers, and those who defied Moses as Pharaoh. Yet the Egyptians were allowed to keep their ways — their own understanding of the Elohim — while they were also allowed to adopt ours as well. Men and women were honoured — as they are today — as vital aspects of the Elohim. Yet this in itself was not good enough for Moses: our King.

“And hence the true story of the Exodus. Moses remembered his promise to the Elohim and his people. He decided to reclaim the land of Canaan — the Land of Milk and Honey — that we abandoned centuries ago. He took an entire Egyptian host and all those among us that he raised and trained. It was during this long time that he created the Sacred Code of Conduct that we live by — the Twenty Commandments — to make us stronger and more disciplined.

“Yet even the might of all Egypt and Hebrew combined could not withstand the intense heat of the Desert for long. Even when Moses parted the Dead Sea with his power, there was still much distance to travel even by Chariot. Our crude travel flatbread ran out almost as soon as our drinking water. Many soldiers and people died. Weapons cannot be held under the intense heat of the sun. Shields cannot protect burning skin. Riches cannot in themselves slate parched throats.

“It was only when Moses, his brother Aaron and his disciples — when we all of us prayed for deliverance — that the Elohim answered our prayer. Remember, children, he or she that does not recite the Story of Manna has not fulfilled the essential requirement of the Passover ceremony.

“One night, it fell from the heavens. Some say it rained down. Others say that small red birds from paradise itself brought them to us. But whatever the case, our ancestors woke up to find great white flakes coating the ground. Moses ordered us to gather and make from them cakes and breads. And he said that each night as we approached the Land of Milk and Honey, it would rain food, mennu …or as we know it manna. Manna,” the old kohen paused, “was like celestial hoarfrost, snow, or,” his eyes twinkled at the youngest smiling children, “frosting. It is said that it tasted like cookies or wafers of honey; that could be melted and condensed into the sweetest of juices; and that no matter of the form it could also fill a human being’s appetite. Some in the world call manna ambrosia: the nectar of the gods. But we see it as the salvation of our ancestors by the Elohim.

Photo Credit:  The Gathering of the Manna by James Tissot

“Afterwards, there were enough stores of manna to revitalize us, the Egyptians, and their vassals. And we took Canaan and we created a new nation and way of life for the entire world. Yet the story of Passover — the true story — is not how the Shadow of Death passed over the sons of Israel by tyrants or the slaying of the Egyptian first-born and Death sparing our own.

“Rather, the story of Passover is the Story of Manna. And to complete our ritual tonight, look at the feast of Manna bread in front of you and all the food and wine that our ancestors began to run out of in the Desert. Look upon the food of our Judean Empire, eat, drink, be merry, and celebrate life.”

And so the kohen and his disciples looked down at their frosted breads and cakes — at their feast — and they began to eat.

Run, Rabbit

This is a graphic Get Out and Us crossover fanfic containing racism, graphic violence, and revenge. This is set in the sandbox of Jordan Peele. Reader’s discretion is advised.

Philomena King hides in the parlour with a flashlight.

The lights have gone out in their home. Everything has shut down. First, they were watching the news about that dreadful business. Rioting on the streets, looting, murder, rape. Perhaps it is the Race War that the Order had been concerned about in the 1970s. Heavens only knew, Roman Armitage had actually told them to expect this before his … transmutation. Philomena has never really paid attention to the particulars of this conflict, certainly not in the sense that Roman, or his son Dean, or even Logan would have understood: just that it was all the more reason to behold the Coagula, and become the next generation … the winning side.

But then the power went out. And she can’t find her husband anywhere. The police, whose commissioner is a personal friend of her husband’s … even he wasn’t answering their phone calls before the line gave out entirely.

And then, the noises began. They had both heard movement outside. Logan had gone to check, with his old shotgun. She told him to be careful. It has been two years, but even with his young, strong, chocolate body she can still taste her husband on her lips. She still sees him, in the twinkle of his eye, as he reassures her. It is just deer, he tells her, or animals. Heaven forfend that it is the beasts of this strange, millennial “flash mob” assault on their society: the one that the Order had been in the process of saving by preserving the minds and souls of titans of industry and science, of wealth and power, like Logan. This is what marijuana will get you, she thinks to herself, and a culture embracing fornication without the sanctity of marriage, and the order of more enlightened brains.

Perhaps … perhaps these ruffians, these hooligans in the red uniforms — those Antifa hoodlums and the Klan from Charlottesville — are the ones behind all of this: spreading their conflict throughout the whole nation.

Philomena, Mrs. Logan King, also admits to herself that for all of her husband’s power, and that of their friends, she is scared. The poor Armitages were gone, tragically killed in a fire. Poor Missy, and the brilliant Dean, their son Jeremy, and that sweet girl Rose. And Marianne and Roman, after their transmutation had succeeded. All gone. She knows how upset Logan is. Roman had been Logan’s friend for ages, and with the deaths of Dean and Missy, the Order of the Coagula’s greatest achievement had been lost.

She knows how keen Logan had been to secure her a new body, a new young host so that they could continue life together in the new world order. He never says anything, but she knows how devastated he was. He and the other Families, they all hoped to salvage what they could: to continue the transmutations, and give them a way … She has full confidence in her husband. They have been together, married, for decades. They will have more years, more centuries together. Some of the others of the Order still remain in all other places. They will regroup, and gather. They have the resources. And there is still time.

A sudden crackling sound breaks the tense silence. Philomena shrieks, putting the flashlight in front of her, quailing backwards near the sofa.

“Run, rabbit run, rabbit, run, run, run …”

A faded, melodious voice echoes through the room. Philomena gasps, her heart pounding in her chest as she sees a familiar figure, a silhouette, in front of the recorder player.

“… Logan?” She breathes. “Logan …” She gets to her feet. “You scared me half to death.” Relief fills her, followed by a spike of anger. “What is the meaning of …”

He turns around. Philomena opens her mouth, and then leaves her jaw hanging slack … as he walks forward, the object in his hands a golden, swift, moving blur in the glancing afterimage of the falling flashlight. Backing away, her chest filled with icy terror, Mrs. Logan King, Philomena, barely even has time to scream.

*

“Get back here!” Logan King hollers, chasing after the fleeing shape with his shot gun.

He saw him. He knows he saw him. The boy. The one from Lake Pontaco. He’d been told that Chris Washington was going to become the new host for that sarcastic, cynical blowhard Hudson. But then the Armitage residence burned down, killing everyone inside … destroying everything. All those years of good work, and achievement. Gone. He hadn’t told Philomena the extent of it. He hadn’t the heart.

He and the rest of the Order had agents in the police force and forensics, even if by necessity they didn’t know the extent of their masters’ work. Everything in the building had been unrecognizable, except dental records. But Marianne had died in a car crash. And Rose … the girl had been shot in the stomach, seemingly from his old friend’s — Roman’s — shotgun, while Roman himself had inflicted on himself a fatal head injury.

But Logan remembers. Andrew hasn’t been a bother to him in a long time. It had been two years, but the young man he once was had finally accepted his fate. Dark, youthful energy combined with old money and wisdom. He understood, now, what the two of them — what Logan King — can provide them. His guidance will continue to shepherd him, as will those that had also won transmutation and coagulation. But the experts had only found the Armitages, and the hosts of Roman and Marianne. Even the remnants of Hudson.

Yet they found no one else.

Chris hadn’t been in the wreckage. Logan hadn’t forgotten him. He remembers the boy and, in particular, his camera. He may have taken a great deal of photographs that day. He certainly did of him.

And now, here he is. He’s here.

“Get back here, Christopher!” He shouts, firing a shot into the distance, but losing him, him moving so fast into the trees. “You won’t get me! You will pay for what you did to the Order! To us!”

They offered the young photographer a chance of a lifetime. To be a host. To be accepted into the family. Into the Order. And he knows. He knows that Roman didn’t kill his own granddaughter. He knows the Armitages didn’t die from negligence or ill-maintenance of their home, despite what he and the others had the police report. They couldn’t pursue Chris officially. That was too risky. And even if he had photographs, it didn’t mean anything. They had done nothing wrong, nothing he could have documented. Even if he had worn the body of a friend of his, he could easily tell them that Andrew had found new love and that love itself had no boundaries. Didn’t the Order already prove that!? And Chris took that away from them!

He is a plant! He has to be! He sees the other’s uniform! Just like the rioters on the television! It is the Race War! The one that Roman warned them could happen. They hadn’t been foolish. Even Dean Armitage had been extremely concerned with the Elections, wishing for the millionth time that Obama could have had another term. If Logan hadn’t know any better, the forty-fourth President could have easily been one of them.

Someone had been hunting them. For two years, the other families had been growing … quiet. The Greenes. The Wincotts. The Jeffries. The Waldens. Even Tanaka hadn’t been returning his calls for a while, before he realized what had happened. Officially, everyone — even Philomena — believed they had died of old age, heart-attack, stroke, cancer, or just retired to Florida, the Bahamas, or the Cayman Islands.

Those were just cover stories. They had been murdered. All of them. In gruesome ways. Even the transmuted members, especially them. Some of them remained alive, of course, or in hiding, but it didn’t make sense. The Order had always been discreet, aside from that one unfortunate incident in 1963, when Roman and a much younger Dean had attempted to transplant the brain of a dying popular politician into a colored … a Black man, hoping they could get him to work with them, but whose memory lapses made him all but useless. And he had actually been a volunteer … But someone knew who they were, where they were, what they were capable of … and enough about their security to deal with them: to send a message.

That they were coming for them all.

Andrew’s youth feeds him with adrenaline, but Logan’s rage is his own as he thinks of what this boy has cost them all: he and the people he’s been working with. He must have been an agent of theirs. And now, he thinks he can come here and take what’s theirs away! It’s bad enough he destroyed the process that could save his beloved wife, that he had to hide all of this from her so as not to terrify her out of her wits, but now he and his friends have the temerity to come onto his property, and into his home to take what belongs to them!

There is no way that Logan King will let that happen.

He follows him deeper into the wood. He doesn’t know where his security team is, or the staff. Everything has gone mad now that this group has gone public. But their home still has defenses. He told Philomena to wait for him. He knows the rest of the Order, the ones no one could track or kill, and his agents in the police will be here soon. But he will be damned if some black pup, who wasted his potential, will terrify him.

And then … there is a flash.

It hits Logan. A spike right in his brain. He blinks. He shoots in the direction of the flash, the camera flash. There is another bright, poignant moment of light. He feels something trickle down his nose. No. He knows what this is. He tries to shoot again, but he … can’t aim. His arms are not steady. They are shaking. Just like they did before his rebirth. No. Now he knows what this is. He knows what the other is trying to do …

Another flash.

Logan drops the gun. The round goes off. He screams, the shot deafening him. There is a red shape. A blur. It hits him. He falls down, rolling through the leaves and the grass. His favourite strawhat … he feels it caught off his head in the wind. There are footsteps. And then … nothing.

He sways to his feet. Something is clamoring in him, but he … he ignores it. He looks around, splaying his fingers through the grass … But he can’t find it.

His gun is gone.

His heart beats fast. His anger is slowly eroding into what has been lying underneath it, in its own sunken place. Terror.

He hears footsteps. Not just one set. But a few.

“Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run …”

That music. Logan furrows his pounding forehead. He remembers this song. It’s loud. It’s coming from his house. Through loudspeakers. He looks around, lost in the dark, trying to find a way out of this.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang goes the farmer’s gun …” 

He recalls Dean’s griping about deer. He even told Philomena that the noises outside their home were just animals on their land.

“Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run …”

Logan King begins to run.

The music, that song. He and Roman used to listen to it, back in the Dirty Thirties. He played it for his grandchildren. But it feels different now. It has another connotation. He thinks he hears something … shriek. Something holler. An animalistic cry, followed by another inhuman sound. What is going on? Logan doesn’t understand. He is afraid. And his fear is matched and multiplied by …

Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun ….”

A bright light burns through his retinas. Logan clutches his head. He hears something shout. There is a clang of metal. A scraping. A … sniping sound coming closer. Red blurs coming in and out of the forest. It’s harder to move his legs. It’s like he is fighting against molasses. Lactic acid burning through his lungs. His breath wheezes, rattling through his lungs — youthful lungs won with his wonderful, strong, lithe dark body — a sound he never thought he would hear again after his rebirth and combination with the young man that had so graciously been volunteered to extend his life.

He trips.

He rolls down the hill. The calls are coming closer. Logan tries to get up. He’s hit his head or the flash has burned through his brain. His body … it’s fighting him.

“We-we will die …” Logan rasps out, coughing, talking to himself, talking to him. “P-please. Andrew we need …”

Then, Logan sees someone standing over them … over him. He is dressed in a red jumpsuit. And out of the bushes, and trees, several more figures come out. Something hard smashes him in the face. And he sees no more lights. Only darkness.

*

“He’ll get by without his rabbit pie …”

Logan King wakes up. He’s in his parlour. He can hear his own record player playing … playing that song … that infernal song.

He is sitting in his easy chair, but he feels the cold bite of circular metal around his wrists and ankles. He looks down. It’s still dark, even with the dim illumination nearby. Someone has lit the fireplace. He sees that he has been handcuffed.

And … there are several figures around him.

Clang.

Something jars in his head, fighting to get out. He sees one of the figures. They are holding something.

Clang.

He winces. It can make it out. It’s a can. A plain metal can. And the other, they have a fork.

Clang.

The dull metallic sound is arrhythmic to the song from the record player. It is making Logan’s head hurt. He sees another form, kneeling in front of another shape prone on the floor.

“Who …” Logan starts. “Who are you … people. Where … where is my wife? Where is …” He groans, wriggling around. “W-where is Mena …”

There is no answer. The figure with the can continues to tap it with the fork. Logan smells something odd, almost a memory … except there is no antiseptic with it. No conversation from a video lens and a hospital bed, or an operating table.

“W-what is going on!” Logan roars, wincing at the pain, but trying to turn his fear back into anger. “What are …”

And then, the power comes back on. Or perhaps, it is turned back on. Logan looks at each of the figures. His eyes widen. No. This … this isn’t possible, he thinks to himself. He read the reports. He saw them. There is no way …

“Missy?” He says to the red garbed figure, with her tin can and fork. “Jeremy … Rose …” He looks at the others. “Marianne … Roman? Roman, is that you? No … you were dead. I … I saw the photographs. I … I was there!”

The Armitage Family, the Order of the Coagula, stand before Logan. They are dressed in red jump suits. He blinks, and sees that they are … paler. There are more shadows under their eyes. Somehow, they even seem more gaunt. Even Marianne and Roman, for their new dark skin, are more sallow. And he can … he can see … Their scars? There is nothing expert, or smooth about them. They have not been made by a professional surgeon, never mind a butcher. And why … why does Rose have a bandage wrapped around her stomach. And … Jeremy? The young man’s face … it is all bloated and distorted. Like it had been broken and badly reset. It’s disgusting. Marianne is moving awkwardly, like she had with her old body, but she looked hurt. He can see more scars on her body. And Roman … half of his face … The injuries are all crude imitations of what he saw in the photographs.

And all of them are carrying golden scissors.

“My god …” Logan feels his gorge rising. “What … what is happening? Is this … did you purge us? But … why? This wasn’t part of the plan? You organized this entire uprising? But … our plan … we were going go to gradually take over … to continue in the new generation. Roman … what are you … W-where …” He shakes his head at the screaming inside of it. ‘Where is Mena! What did you …”

And then, he sees the other figure get up. It’s Dean. His neck is scarred and at an awkward angle. There is no intelligence in his eyes, only a vacant malice. Yet his hands are the same. Steady, clever, patient. He sees the blade. And finally, he sees him lift an object towards them. His wife, Missy, makes a guttural sound which he returns. Logan can see a wound on her face. He understands these injuries and scars are all self-inflicted. But that thought is drowned out by what Dean is carrying. He walks across the room, towards another figure. Chris … he is with them. He’s holding his camera. A malicious smile is on his face, his white teeth a barring contrast with his dark skin, and cotton … cotton stuffed in his ears.

But Logan sees the object. He can’t turn away. It’s a head with half of its skull removed expertly. Its brain is exposed. Philomena’s face stares out at all of them, blankly, in frozen terror.

“M-Mena!” Something inside of Logan shatters forever. “Mena!”

He goes slack. It’s like he’s dying all over again. He sees Dean awkwardly pat Chris on the shoulder, who comes closer to him … with the camera. But he keeps moving as the others watch him, as Missy keeps clanging her fork against the tin. Over and over and over again.

“Run rabbit. Run rabbit, run, run, run …” 

“Stop …” Logan wheezes, tears flooding in his eyes. “St-stop it …”

But through all of it, he sees Dean approach another figure. He sees him. He tall, and dark. Slender. His hair is thick. There is a scar around his forehead. It looks eerily familiar. He takes the head … his dear wife’s head. He looks at Logan. Then back at the head. Logan sees the man has a beard. And then … he remembers. He knows why this man is so familiar.

The impossibility of all of this floods Logan with numbness as he sees the other take Philomena’s head … and throw it into the fireplace.

“No …” Logan sobs. “No …”

Then, the man with his face … the face he chose, comes towards him. He sees a pair of golden scissors with blood and hair and gore on their tips. As for the other figures … The flashing lights begin again, accompanied by the clanging, ripping something out from deep inside of him.

And Logan King begins to scream.

*

“So ev’ry Friday that ever comes along
I get up early and sing this little song …” 

U-Lee watches it happen.

He watches as Sate continues flashing his camera into … into his original’s body’s eyes. He hears the clang of Misses’ fork on her tin, driving them on, marking their new time against the old. Atlanta, with her deep frown, and William, with his hulking, restless body stand by along with John. Thorn, for her part, gravitates towards Sate as Deacon goes back to throw the woman’s body into the fire.

U-Lee comes closer. He sees the man, wearing his face, writhing in agony. Blood is pouring out of his nose and eyes. Sate grins as his camera, without a memory card, or image keeps bathing his victim in unforgiving light. Blank, waxy paper keeps falling to the ground from the old, vintage, 1980s camera. Their captive is howling, begging for mercy, convulsing with each flash of light, receiving no reply other than Misses banging on her tin next to his ear: her eyes intent and cold.

Then, the light in the man’s eyes seem to die. His face shifts. U-Lee watches it happen. He is glad he turned the power back on, after getting everyone through the security of this place, and dealing with the guards and defenses. He scratches at his beard. There is something he wants to see. Something he can’t name yet.

The other’s face changes. He sees the man … his expression looking more … familiar …

U-Lee holds up a hand and both Sate, and Misses stop. There is only silence, aside from a quiet weeping. U-Lee kneels down at the young man’s side. His face is twitching, hard and fast. Blood is pouring out of his nostrils into his mouth. But there is something else looking at him, at U-Lee. It looks closer to a mirror now. A distorted mirror.

A small, tentative smile forms on Dre’s broken face from the chair: an expression U-Lee barely recognizes as … relief. He speaks. His voice a whisper reminiscent of their Messiah.

“T-thank you …”

Then, his eyes roll back into his head, replaced by the terror of the other … thing inside of him. U-Lee takes his scissors, golden and perfect: baptized already in an original’s blood. He notices the man looking at his gloved hand as he raises them up … plunging them down into his skull.

Over and again …

U-Lee feels the splattered warmth on his face by the time he is done. There is still enough of his original’s face left to see his staring eyes. He looks down on him, as he reaches out his hand, not his gloved one … he bare one. And shuts them.

Thorn comes over to him, with Sate having one arm around her. They bump into each other. Their arms flail a little, but find purchase against one another. John and W take the body off of the chair, bringing it to Deacon. They place it on the floor as they had the other. They are going to leave soon. U-Lee feels the call, the plan, the impulse setting in, for all to be united. For no one to be left alone. No one to be left behind in the maze … lost …

They were Tethered to these creatures that hurt each other for gain. Now, they are only Tethered to each other. As U-Lee and the others wait for Deacon to be finished, to discard the bad parts into the fire, he hums along, along against the tune of the record player, discordant, uncaring.

“Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun
He’ll get by without his rabbit pie
So run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run.”