Layer 20: Neon Genesis
I ripped down the curtain, and sure as day my good, golden friend still stood there. Alistair, of course, moved past me to gawk at the statue’s intricacies, but that’s all fine. The statue is meaningless. It’s a distraction. I’m after its contents: Undistilled fullness. “Pleroma of Prominence.” Something like that. The same stuff that’s in SIDHE’s pills, minus the filler they pack into each delicious tablet, all the fairy dust and moon rocks. This stuff packs a punch a thousand times stronger, a million times sicklier, and all that much closer to Truth.
But careful study has taught me that I must be taken in by its effects before my companion, who will see something far more… internal. A gooey and subjective “truth”. Hard to pin down. More a reflection of themselves than the Truth. I must admit, it’s interesting seeing my dogs, and especially my dolls, try to square the circle of belief in me versus their own eyes. Watching them liberate themselves from the constraints of the Sun Church and find their own path forward, behind me. It’s… it’s nice.
There was a thin hissing noise. The air grew thick with red mist, which I greedily inhaled until I couldn’t see the light of the candles anymore.
From out of the crimson fog, a figure appeared; a man muscled like a lion, equally powerful and lean. A figure mostly human-looking, save for the horned crown he wore. One horn swept forward and forked close to the end, resulting in a tight Y shape. The second horn was effectively a shorter copy of the first, sprouting from the back of the head and bending forward, the forked tip replaced with a wickedly sharp point. The man in the beetle crown. I had come to know him well over visits to this place between mind and matter.
“Shall I tell you a story?”
That’s weird. He usually offered me a greeting before we discussed anything, and we always spoke as scholars, interested in the Truth; never as storyteller and audience. That tradition is solely in the Sun Church’s domain.
“Uh, hey, it’s me. How’s it going?”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“I’ve come here as I usually have, to learn the Truth of this world. I don’t need any stories.”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“Stop asking me that, would you? Can’t we just have a decent conversation?”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
He’s really pissing me off. “Listen, this isn’t funny anymore. Waste the Sun Church’s time, not mine.”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
It went on like that for some time. Eventually I stopped responding, because something dawned on me. It has been a long time since I’ve heard a good story. Everything I read was informative, or else non-narrative. Yarns of brutality and blood, sticky images that evoke emotion but make for terrible stories. Similarly, I only watched clips of Sun Church atrocities, over and over, studiously, trying to discern their tactics. So much pain, so much pathos, and yet all of it, real. More than any gaudy explosion of squibs or melodramatic spilling of ink, it’s real and moving. Moving. Oh, fuck, is reality moving! It works me up into a burning froth! Gives me the power to bend the overwhelmingly physical monolith to my will! Why bother greedily consuming narrative, when reality has all the punch you need?
“Would you like to hear a story?”
I would. For some reason, even though it doesn’t make sense, I would. I’m starving for one, and I don’t know why when I get everything I need from the extended play that is reality. But just for a moment, to forget the real world, it would be… “That would be nice. Please tell me your story.”
A grin breaks out across the beetle king’s face. His teeth appear pink through vermillion fog. “Very well.”
In the beginning, there were four mighty beasts, and a host of other animals besides. The four are the most important, though; they were old, older than the trees in the forest and older than the mountain that forest surrounded. More than that, they would go on to live for thousands of eternities. They were the tortoise, wise and learned but weak in body and terribly slow; the fire-bird, forever warm of body and heart, ambitiously reaching skywards through a life of fire and ash; the tiger, strongest creature on land and ferociously strong-willed; and the dragon, quietest and most tempered of all beasts, but the largest, strongest in the sky, and therefore, the hungriest.
These four creatures lived in harmony, until one day, when their peace stretched too thin. The forest was growing thin with prey, and so the four convened in the Mountain Hall, the interstice between sky and land, to discuss the matter. It wasn’t long before a fight broke out. The dragon had taken too greedily from the forest, if you asked the tiger. If you asked the dragon, the tiger hunted too infrequently to claim any of the wild game as his own, when the dragon needed more food to fuel her flights. The tortoise and fire-bird stayed out of it; the tortoise had no stake in the matter, being a plant-eater, and the fire-bird was more concerned with affairs of the sky than the ground. So the two parties were at a standstill of sorts, passing blame back and forth.
All the while, the deer were gone, the oxen were gone, the boars and goats and all other creatures were no-where to be seen. Eventually, the tiger left, and decided he would take whatever beasts remained in the forest as his own prey. He grumbled, as did his stomach, and his hunt began.
Days passed. The tiger, ever proud of his strength, refused to eat lesser beasts like the game-birds or snakes, and certainly never would stoop to eating fish. But he grew hungrier, and the greater creatures seemed to be gone. Over days stuck to this code of deprivation, stumbling, losing clarity of thought and sight, he finally broke.
And how he broke! For in a clearing, the tiger saw the most beautiful red and gold pheasant he had ever seen, so gorgeous he would have taken it as his prey even if deer and oxen were plentiful.
The tiger wasted no time pouncing on the pheasant, and set about eating it. His fangs, again and again, sank through sun-colored plumage and into warm flesh. He slurped down red with a voracity that disgusted even himself; but that disgust was a trifle against his hunger. Oddly, though, bite after bite, the pheasant did not stop moving. It squirmed and thrashed against powerful claws, and cried for mercy to ears deafened by hunger, until only its head remained. The tiger, now full, looked down and realized what he had done. Before him lay the head of the undying fire-bird. Stripped of breath, but still speaking, speaking with moist and hollow eyes, asking to be completely eaten by the tiger. Pleading to not be left in a half-consumed state. The tiger was raw with lament, and, of course, fulfilled his friend’s dying wish.
As he slept, belly full for the first time in a long while, something happened to the tiger. He began to burn bright, a glowing hot gold like the sun. Unable to sit still even in sleep, the tiger overflowed with energy. He thrashed and squirmed and never knew peace. Dreams haunted his mind for the first time. He ran no faster, but for longer; he felt no hunger, even though the beasts had not returned to the forest; he was, for all intents, even stronger.
The dragon took notice. From her home upon the peak, she watched everything; but nothing so closely as the tiger, for he was her only potential rival. Seeing the atrocity he committed in his deprived and pained rage, the dragon grew anxious for the first time in her long life. She watched the burning tiger run for hours, and then days, around the forest, tirelessly, almost automatically. She watched as the powerful tiger tested his bite on so many necks he would never deign to feed on. This is the true greed, she thought, of which I have been accused.
In her desperation, she took to the mountain hall and met with the tortoise. “Tortoise,” said she, “it is evil for me to ask this of one so peaceful as you. But you are the final hope of the sky’s virtue, something you never knew or had reason to care for. Selfishly, I beg you, let me take your wisdom and power, patience and fortitude, into my own. Let me make your flesh as my flesh and your mind as my mind. Let me consume you, and show you the feeling of flight.”
The tortoise thought a while, and with characteristic slowness replied. “I have lived a long time, even among dragons and tigers and fire-birds, I have lived a full life. I have seen trees grow from twigs to towers, I have looked into the depths of the sky, I have known winters and summers and all things in between. I know all that I care to; all but one thing. I have never seen the peak of this mountain in all my years; even in summer it was too cold. Show me that; let me know the sky, and then let me know no more.”
The dragon solemnly nodded and took the tortoise into her claws. Up and up, ever higher she swam through the sky, cutting through the air in a spiral like an eel among the clouds. The mountain narrowed beside her ascent. Cold air stung her scales and lungs alike; the tortoise coiled into a ball to stay warm. They say the cold air froze dragon’s claw to scale, and today’s tortoises wear their shells in commemoration of this flight. Eventually, the jagged cliffs faded into mist, too thin to be seen among the thick clouds, and the dragon ceased her ascent. She landed upon a slight indent, a crater at the top of the world; the peak of the mountain. The tortoise unfurled from a shell newly forged, and looked around. Blindly, though; with eyes sliced by the cold wind, the world from on high appeared as a void.
The tortoise said the only thing that came to mind. “It’s beautiful. I am ready.”
With any more warmth, the dragon would have wept. As it was, her tears refused to flow; whether this was due to the cold within or without, no one will know.
She picked up the tortoise once more, and kept climbing the sky until she could climb no more. Her entire body ached from the cold and exertion, but she had to push on, to make the tortoise’s death a clean and noble one. At the peak of her ascent, she let the tortoise fall to the ground below.
The ground below.
That ground was a fiery wasteland now. Absent any observers, the tiger still prowled his lands scorching the earth around him with flames of golden prominence. Game-birds and snakes cooked alive in his wake, and rotted into dirt made newly bare. Rivers dried up when the tiger crossed. The once-verdant land became a plain of ash, but still, the burning tiger could not stop himself. His claws tilled the earth, but planted no seeds. His flames struggled to catch on ashy remains of embers.
The dragon dove to recover her friend, and what she found was unrecognizable. Almost formless flesh, held together by charred sludge. This was no longer the tortoise. Anyone who didn’t know the story thus far would see this as a repulsive thing from a corner of the far-away sky, or else the depths of the sea. The dragon, though, starved from her endeavor, her climb to the top of the world, saw only a meal.
With a voracity matched by only the tiger, the dragon fell upon her final friend’s remains. Frantically, like a vulture in a frenzy, slurping down tissue and organ meat and the remnants of bones. She found satiation in the corpse of a friend, taking the tortoise into herself until not a scrap remained. Once more, the tortoise was whole. Once more, it was solid and recognizable, though in an entirely different form. A solely mental one that nonetheless hit the dragon like a brick.
For she knew the tortoise in life and in shape. She had memories of sage sayings the tortoise shared with her, and knowledge that had kept her alive, stories of the comings and goings of the prey animals. She remembered the tortoise’s understated wisdom, curiosity, appreciation for everything; in a word, “completeness.” The dragon remembered the shattered mass of flesh, and saw in it the remnants of someone dear. Someone admirable.
No coldness could hold back her tears now; in her voracious consumption, the dragon learned many things. She learned the secrets of fire and how to listen to the wind; she learned how the water speaks and how the trees listen. She learned which stones to mix to send sheer force tearing through space and which leaves to eat for all sorts of illnesses. She learned many things, most of which she didn’t even know she had learned. Most damning of all, she learned of will. For the first time, the dragon understood why the tiger’s transgression was so grave, so unforgivable; he had ended the life of another conscious being with no reason.
And so had she.
But with the mind of the tortoise, the dragon thought of something; a way to give her consumption a justification. At the top of the world, the place of her friend’s last desire, she would build a monument to his knowledge. A laboratory of sorts; supplies of healing plants, the rocks of bludgeoning wind, all around a giant bonfire. And there, the dragon would keep learning, for herself and the tortoise that now lived only as a part of her.
And so, she gathered ingredients. Sprouts of jasmine and rose, wispy willows, all a forest in miniature in the ashen blank slate the tiger left behind. Lichens and mosses clinging to bare rock. Roots buried in scorched soil, the only remnants of great trees. But remnants they still were, and so the dragon took them gratefully.
Healing, creation, that was but one part of the dragon’s Work. From the stones reaching skyward, the great cliffs, she took into her hands loose iron sand. From bubbling spots of Earth’s vented excess, she plundered brimstone. At last she traversed into the tower reversed, the orifice of the ground; the cavern stabbing into the earth below the Mountain Hall. The land at once most plentiful and most foul, full of creatures without eyes and eyes without creatures. A place alive with rot and filth alongside countless precious stones.
Even still, the dragon pushed onwards, against a smell nearly visible and a thousand gazes from eyes unseen. She cut through the abhorrent air even as it teemed with untouchable monoliths of spores; tiny crawling things seeking heat in which to place roots. In these halls drenched in disease, the dragon indulged her hungry hands, feverishly gathering phosphorus and salpeter, crunching gemstones to dust in pursuit of purer mundanity.
All the while, the tiger burned brighter. Hotter. Hungrier. He dared to touch the only place he had not tread, the bleak and freezing peak. With the ground burned down, the only place to go was up. Skyward, without wings.
Wings. As he climbed, the tiger thought about wings, and the creatures who bore them. He remembered great leathery sheets tearing through the night. He thought of glassy wings, thinner than paper, buzzing delicately in perfect chitinous sockets. Glimmering cloaks of purple emperors, pale greens like puddles of starlight-colored paint, all floating by like flayed blossoms. And somewhere along the way, his mind stumbled. The tiger remembered resplendent plumage, feathers shining in colors he’d only seen in matte petals. Feverish golds and humid scarlets and all warm shades besides, side by side by side in a cloak fit for a king,
A new flame consumed the tiger, one sickly and unidentifiable. It was something that split the difference between shame, envy, and pride, but couldn’t be called any one. In being none of those feelings, it was empty. Void of meaning, and hungry, craving definition in fullness. It was a truly all-consuming feeling. By feeling it, the tiger had unknowingly cultivated something on those slopes. The crop in his wake, that emptiest feeling, would sprout, grow, and then die. It would die, and under weight of time and heat of earth, it would become a sort of coal that burned into tragedy.
And the tiger climbed on, unaware of what he had sown.
He climbed on, until he reached the crater at the top of the world. The crater between ground and sky, earth and aether. It was entirely unfamiliar; and of course it was. The tiger had never seen this place before. But there was some part of him that had and knew how wrong this scene was. For this, the peak of the world, was ringed in stones and plants chosen carefully, shards of nature with an application beyond the station of their beginning. In the center of this hoarded machination was a sheer white flame, a prize jewel flickering and fascinating and yet unwavering. The Earth, the tiger’s domain, now was crowned in a knowledge beyond instinct. Something the tiger saw as alien to his world and heretical to his rule.
And yet. The fire burned with an unmistakable Glamour. Those white flames glistened as if soaked in oil from a raven’s feathers, and seemed to flow not like fire, but like a waterfall into the heavens. They called the tiger’s name; they offered warmth to a creature who leaked so much heat and yet could hold none. What else was there to do?
Just then, the dragon returned from the depths of the world, claws full of stones profane and beautiful. At first, the tiger only saw her silhouette against that pyre of pearls and gold. Slowly but surely, though, more of her form came into his sight as she approached the flames, until she was but a few steps from it. Mirroring the tiger, the dragon appeared transfixed by the flames.
In truth, both beheld each other.
The tiger looked upon the dragon, and saw in her place a mighty serpent dusted in eyes. And the dragon looked upon the tiger, and saw in his place a birdlike and skeletal creature wreathed in flames. They should have hated each other as opposites, and yet... The dragon, sickened by air thick with moisture and stench and life, saw the tiger as a husk, thorny and parched like paper. The tiger, burdened by a dry and pained exile on fire, saw the glistening eyes and jabbering intelligences coating the dragon.
They saw in each other an opposite. A fullness.
Step after cautious step the pair drew closer,
until they met in the middle and were wicked alight.
The tiger reacted to the flame first. The jagged boneyard beneath his loose skin finally bloomed. The constrained pain, the mass of thorns inside, burst forth into countless sets of wings. Papery wings of the moth; shimmering wings of the butterfly, beetle wings like transparent leaves. Leathery shrouds, as worn by bats. And of course, so many birds’ wings. Pitch black patches of crows and ravens, and owl’s wings, masses of silent grays and browns. Ragged resplendence, the plumage of a condor. Hummingbirds’ wings like tiny twitching emeralds, rotating frantically in a futile endeavor to lift this thing. From the tiger’s head, two sharply defined ivory wings jutted forward like holy horns; the wings of an albatross. And from his shoulder blades, the most painful-looking bones of all, burst two enormous wings dyed in the oranges and reds of a setting sun. I have not seen the bird that bore these wings, and I’m sure you haven’t either; but the dragon had, and she burst into tears at the sight of them.
Tears. So many tears, from so many eyes. Bright red, but thin as water and sickly sweet. Tears of a despair that relished in it’s autophagy. The kind of sadness one could get used to feeling, not because it’s ever easy to bear but because it eats any resistance away. A bludgeoning sickness born by deprivation, a maddened bottomless consumption, a frenzied thrashing in an inhumane mix of spider’s web and mouse trap. Call it what you wilt; that curse flowed from countless baleful eyes and ran down the mountain, where it irrigated seeds the tiger had sown.
Pandora’s ███ had opened.
The mass of eyes and the rat king of wings at last touched, circled in flame. At first contact, the two tore into each other with the instability of wild animals. Claws tore into flesh and snapped off. Mighty blows broke bones on both sides. In their frantic magnetism, their attempts at Pleroma, at fullness, they only built a common pain. From
The dragon held the tiger and began to fly, and the tiger held the dragon and began to do the same. They could not think, so great was their union of knowledge and instinct. The dragon wrapped around the tiger, and the tiger began to carry the pair even higher, past the sky to a place beyond. A void, empty of all but potential. Wings and eyes began to bleed together, bony shoulder sockets meeting mucous membrane, only to tear apart. And then again. And again. Again and again, quills pierced sclera, withered bats’ hands grasped at irises, chitinous veins buzzed and flayed eyelids. Eyes and wings violently became one in the face of flame.
This was the first creature born with a Will; something that would fall to Earth as the pair ascended in eclipse.
They never returned. The creature once known as the dragon became the Moon, and the no-longer-tiger was now the Sun. Their child might have been something else, a third celestial Will, were it not for the Earth. It hit the mountain peak and then shattered into a million pieces like seeds. Like seeds, they grew, grew into people, nurtured in soil made rich with volcanic abandon and saturated with pain as water.
Pandora’s EYES had opened.
For now, Humanity existed; each human a part of a shattered whole born and raised in isolation. Made to know fear and despair and rage, and made to know reasons to justify the same. They—we— had an undeniable advantage over the creatures that never even approached Will, and yet we used that power to hold each other down, lick them with tongues of flame and pain, until that seemed the natural order.
“And so, it is told.”
I’m stunned. What the fuck was that? Why… In what world is that at all OK?
“Why would you ever tell me that? That everyone’s just out to get me?”
“It’s only a story, Augustus.”
“Fuck off! There are people who would do me harm, and they do it for reasons that must be crushed. Not because of some ‘innate human nature to hurt’, but because they are wrong. So don’t you sit here and tell me everything you’ve just shown me, told me, made me see, whatever, like it’s the truth.”
“It’s only a story, Augustus.”
“Yeah, that’s what the Sun Church tells you, too. “Just relax and enjoy it.” “It’s just a story.” “You’re looking too much into it” Except, it’s a story told in real life. With real life consequences. People die because of stories like this. Harm gets done to innocents, because of stories. Goddamn it, this is why I…”
“Why you what, Augustus?”
“None of your fucking business! And stop that… That eerie repetitive sing-song-ey thing you’re doing with your voice. Cut it out with that hypnotic repetition! It’s driving me fucking insane!”
Goddamn it all. I just want to wake up. I hate these fucked-up illusions. I just want to open my eyes, but I can’t. I’m held here, in this uncertain domain absolutely ruled by the strange little man in front of me. It’s a nightmare I can’t wake up from, in an entirely different way than usual.
Layer 21: Hyper Curse, or, “That fae touch turns obsidian into black pearls”
My left arm is still raw, like the very top layer of skin has been eaten away by some tiny starving things. It doesn’t hurt, unless I poke at it; mostly, it just prickles in the cold. The numbing stillness in this room, stony and oblivious to the candles. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s certainly not comfortable. It hits my bones like phantom spears, passing through flesh and nerve as if to invade me without causing me any pain.
It doesn’t hurt, but still. I hate it. I hate this room.
Augustus is still… asleep? Passed out? Either way, he’s unconscious. There’s nothing stopping me from leaving, and yet something feels like it's tying me to his crumpled form. Should I leave? Some feeling, anchored in the base of my neck, pulls me to the door. Should I stay? I can’t just turn my back on Augustus like that. Besides, it’d be rude to go walking around. He invited me back here, to this room, nowhere else.
I don’t really care if it’s rude, though; the fact is, this room is unpleasant, and I’d like to leave. I’d like nothing more than to leave, but something is shackling me here. Tying me, blindfolded, to a post before a firing squad of ghostly fingers. Cold ectoplasm dripping down my back. Shivers up and down and inside my spine. And I can’t move, because… Because as much as I want to leave, there’s an equal and opposite will to stay here. I don’t know how I can have two wills like this, if one or the other is something grafted on, nurtured within me to temper my nature, or if both are a product of a desire to be torn apart.
Or maybe I’m just “of two minds,” as they say. Maybe this isn’t even a unique position to be in. Maybe I just want to make myself feel special, because I can’t make up my mind about whether to watch someone sleep or to leave the room. Well, that came out wrong. I guess, yeah, it would be pretty invasive to watch Augustus when he can’t look back at me. He doesn’t strike me as the type to care much about conventional etiquette, anyway; I’m sure he’ll understand if I have a look around.
So, at last, I open the door, and return to a hallway I know to be dizzyingly scarlet. Now, though, in the faint light of the night, it’s stained a monolithic red-violet, like choked flesh too full of blood. Almost alive, almost pulsating with the shadows of trees in the silent breeze. Almost alive, like the shadows and puddles in the streets. Almost, but too dry and too codified to hold that kind of culture.
A different kind of culture drips from these stalwart walls, hangs from the ceiling like two-dimensional stalactites. Art, ideas, and the art of ideas. Progress, in circles. Stories in glimmering images, images of gnarled beasts and great heroes, of wise guardians and motherly spirits. Hellish, churning wars in tableau, and portraits of a dying world. First images of trees, then temples, then newly gleaming towers, all rising from ashes to pierce the heavens. All these great ideas, festering and manifesting in turn.
Maybe those two kinds of cultures aren’t so different.
I find myself standing before a door, having walked a good distance lost in thought and in the images on the walls. On the door, no, in the door, there is a great forest. A sea of palm leaves, studded with pomegranates, all surrounding a proud woman cloaked in pale blue robes. Under one arm, she holds a scroll, and she is flanked by a pair of pillars. It’s a testament to the detail in this door that there’s an indication of writing on the pillars, but I can’t make it out. The woman’s head is about the size of a peephole; she and her pillars are dwarfed by the intricate arboreal ocean making up most of the door.
It’s not like I have anything better to do than open it.
There’s a stairwell behind it, a disappointing one, if I’m being honest. Corrugated metal steps, plain white cinderblock walls, like a stock asset from an office building. Apparently, I’m on the bottom floor of a seemingly infinite number above me. I don’t have anything better to do, so I climb.
The first flight doesn’t have an exit. Nor the next, or the next, and by the fourth landing I was ready to turn back if another door didn’t make itself known soon. Luckily, there was one, just as elegant as the entrance. It’s a monolith of dark mahogany shot through with gold in a fractalized version of the palm/pomegranate forest I entered through, a sharp contrast to the barren pallor surrounding me. Over everything, there’s the robed woman again, this time with arms spread wide like wings, scroll unfurled, and a face twisted into a gargoylesque visage. She’s bigger, too, like she’s jumping out at me. The pillars are closer, but this time they’re just sheer, smooth columns. No writing, nor even texture. Disappointing. Honestly, the whole thing feels almost crude, or would were it not for the detail in the image. Every line in the woman’s unreadable, undeniably extreme expression is captured exquisitely. Even as the pillars are untextured, they are not undetailed. Their smoothness is emphasized with dings in the mahogany that expose more of the gold within.
Enough dragging my feet. I go to open the door, and grasp air where the doorknob should have been. I look up, and I’m staring into the purple blackness of a cloudy night sky. I look down some, and meet wild gray eyes, flashing behind wind-whipped black bangs.
“Hey, it is you! Uh, what’re the odds of seeing you here? Like, I was just here because of this guy I know, Augustus—”
“Oh, you know Augustus?”
I’m kind of shocked. Sputtering for a bit, I manage a reply. “Uh, yeah, I didn’t know you did too. Is it just me, or is there something hypnotic about him? He stands there like a snake’s slit pupil, sometimes, and I think that I would follow him off a cliff. Is it his posture or something?”
“Huh. I don’t think he’s all that captivating. And you know, that’s kind of dangerous. Come on out here for a second.” Behind her is a sheer, flat rooftop, a room with four mesh walls and no ceiling. There’s nothing of the remaining flights of stairs to see. This might as well be the top of the tower.
I follow her lead outside. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I brought it up. Anyway—”
“No, I don’t think you get it. Not really. I think he has the kind of personality that attracts a cult, or something. I don’t feel it, but I know what to look for, and he has all the signs.” Luna sits down, back against the fence, as if to punctuate her point.
“What are you talking about?” I mimic her a few feet to the side.
“I’m a little hazy on the details, but back when I got my powers, there was some reason I was in that trial in the first place. And I think it has something to do with Augustus, or at least someone like him. Some commanding presence.”
“Like the Sun Church.”
I’m stunned. I can’t believe she would just… accuse Augustus like that. “Hey. Augustus hates the Sun Church. He’s not anything like them. Trust me on this. He’s a good leader, and a great person besides.”
“I’m sure he does hate the Sun Church, and rightfully so. And that he does what he sees as right. But I’m not sure that amassing an army is the way to go. I think people need to fight on their own terms, the ways they can, so they can live happily after we win.”
“Personally, he hasn’t asked me to do anything I don’t want to do.”
“Has he asked—ordered— you to do anything you want to do?”
I have to stop and think about that. “Well, I don’t really think there is anything I want to do in particular. I don’t really know where to start, how to live as another sword against the system. Do I just go out in the street and start screaming at the sky? No, right? But then, how do I live without just becoming complacent?”
“There’s really nothing you want?”
“I can’t really think of anything, no. I like reading fine enough, and movies, but… I don’t know. There’s not much for me in pages or frames anymore. Whenever I’m told a story, I just feel guilty the whole time. Like I’m becoming spineless and complacent, without even becoming aware of it. Maybe…” I trail off. I don’t want to say it. I can’t say it. It’s a closed loop; because I want to admit that I do want things, but feel guilty for indulging when my life could be so much worse. But then, to say that would be indulging a desire to make my feelings known, I’d feel guilty, and have no one to blame but myself.
Luna, for her part, is still looking at me intently as ever, owl-like eyes wide beneath the stars. “I think… I think that kind of thinking is why people join up with the Sun Church. The feeling that they need a grid, some unchanging path, to move along in life. But you know, I don’t agree—shocking, I know. You, along with most everyone, know how to be good enough to each other to drift by, “Doing as you wilt.” You know what that means? To me, it’s the idea that we all know what the right and wrong things are; it’s not that hard to figure out. It’s an expression of self-confidence.
And you know what the funny thing is? To a lot of people, those words are evil. The person who wrote them called himself “the wickedest man in the world”, and plenty of people agreed with that title. I want to know what you think about that; as for me, I want to believe in myself so strongly that I would accept the title of a demon to do so.” Luna’s beaming as she finishes her sentence, but her pride snaps and drags her face sinking all too soon. “Sorry, I’m so sorry, I went on for way too long… Argh. Sorry.”
Contrary to Luna’s self-flagellation, her speech stirred something within me. “Don’t worry about it. I’d like to think I’m a wicked person, too. I mean, I already do; in practice, I have a lot of debt to work off from the years I spent rotting and unaware. I think I’m pretty evil, going by the outcome of my existence. But at the same time, I think it’s more a matter of fighting back the bludgeoning haze that seems to seep from my will. Now that I’m awake, I have to keep my eyes open, no matter what. Even if they sting, or well up with tears, even if I just want to rest, I have to keep my eyes open.”
“Is that what you want? To be forever hypervigilant?”
“I don’t think it matters what I want. It’s what I owe the world.”
“I think we’re going in circles here.” Luna chuckles. “Hey, can you try something? You mentioned feeling like you wanted to go out and just scream earlier. It’s just you and me up here, so give that a shot.”
“What?” I’m genuinely confused.
“Just try it. See if it makes you feel any better. If not, what’s the harm? So go on.” She sits forward and grabs the air, dramatically making a fist. “Untie those knots in your chest; spit your restraints from your mouth as spider’s silk! Howl, howl madly, like some Wallachian haunt, embrace the lycanthropic urge to rebel! Scream at the moon, howl, wail, cry out, make a single auditory scratch against the universe!”
She’s getting so into it, I can hardly stay detached. So, I work my way into a squat, and then stand with arms crossed like a mummy. When I’m fully unfolded, I shoot my arms to my side and yell. I stand up and scream, emptying my lungs of all the pain of flame and burn-out ash, every bitter pill and wasted day. All this trash filling me up just spews skyward, invisible and noisy, until one thought catches on my teeth and blocks the whole thing up.
I must look like a fucking lunatic.
I fall silent. Breath won’t catch in my throat; the rumbling in my voice box is completely gone, replaced by a deadened hiss. Air just leaks from me, and I can’t make a noise or anything. I probably look even dumber with my mouth open like a fish, so I shut it. My breathing regulates, but I still don’t think I can make a sound.
Strangled as I am, I crumple into a ball, slumped, the back of my neck pressed to the fence. Forced to look up. Above my head, there’s a deep purple sea, impossibly alive with stars swirling like plankton around the moon. At least, that’s how it looks to me. I know that’s not “actually” how it is. But to a mind deprived as mine, stripped of air and stability, the shifting and tiny moon is a pillar; the unmoving pyromantic masses, stars, are nothing but flecks. The sky, too. It’s not a thing that starts or ends. But to my eyes, it is; I could push through the shimmering surface and sink into the inky purple mud at its depths, if only the vertigo in my scrambled head would make itself real.
It’s Luna. I let my head fall to face her, but I don’t say anything. It’s not like I can, anyway. Not right now.
“Do you ever wish you could fly?”
My instinctual answer screams out. Of course not.
Besides, by the time I was born, humanity had flight figured out for generations. We’d used it for everything from mass slaughter to tying the world together; from machinated profit to grand romantic gesture. Flight has been written about, studied, codified… the skies are just another field of study, another discipline to be devoted to. It’s just another thing that humanity can see the gears of, the mechanics behind, and it’s yet another thing that I have too wide a perspective, that I’m standing too far back from, to be allured by.
Something tells me that’s not what Luna really means, but I shake my head anyway.
“What about you?” I shock myself with my words.
Not the words themselves, but the presence of my speech. Of course, I damn my thoughtlessness as soon as the words escape my lips. I met Luna shrouded in wings like wilting and tattered petals; flight is probably something of a sore subject. But bluntness like that, it’s just a part of my Drifting Sickness.
For her part, Luna just laughs it off. “I used to, actually. Then I got my wish, and, well, I can’t say it’s the wings that make me unhappy, so much as how I’m drawn to use them. I’d rather not fight so much, I wish the world was more still, you know? Or maybe… Maybe I never wanted this kind of flight, and I wanted to fly as the jellyfish swims. Led by chance, or currents, or whatever strings may drag me.”
A new voice enters the fold at her words. From in front of us, invisible to twin skyward gazes, comes a voice harsh and soft at the same time. Bruised.
“This is what I can’t stand about you, Luna. Constantly romanticizing everything.”
There he stands. Fascination himself, Augustus. The monolith of screaming crimson. Even beneath his scarf and bangs, he wears the twisted mask of a scowl.
“You just won’t look at the world as it is. You stumble around in the dark, hoping to see something pretty in the shadows. You run scared any time suffering is illuminated before you. It’s like you’re blinding yourself to any part of this world that’s not “darkly beautiful”, when you know as well as I that these streets are tarnished.”
Luna just smiles. She smiles the smile of a shattered mask; the kind of smile that ought catch tears in its corners, though she sheds none. In their absence, her smile seems more ephemeral than unhappy, like the Mona Lisa’s.
As for me, I just keep my head down. Augustus is wreathed in some aura unpleasant; not a frosty disapproval nor a burning rage, but something jutting and off-putting. A sea of spikes wrapped in bright green mist.
“You’re probably right.” Luna, seemingly oblivious, just smiles her same sad smile.
And just as soon as his wrongness flared up, it softens; fades back into the bludgeoning shimmer I know him for. “Yeah. Let’s just discuss our strategy. I know how to hit the Church where it’ll hurt.”
I can’t stand it. I hate those two civilized masks, clattering against one another, when they’re so close to shattering that even tonight’s dull moonlight shines through the hairline cracks. I hate seeing Luna so clearly hurt and so completely hiding it; I hate seeing Augustus lash out so calmly, like it doesn’t even matter. I want to know them both, truly and deeply, I want to know why Augustus wraps himself in freezing charm and why Luna won’t let herself cry. And for my own sake, I want to see why they’re the only two people I care about anymore. I don’t think it’s just a matter of “being the only ones to show me kindness”, there has to be something more to it than that. But damn it, as it is, there’s nothing I can think of that I know about them tying them together.
I want to know.