CW: online stalking communities, cigarettes, drug use, altered states of consciousness, suicidal ideation, self-harm, emotional incest, violent intrusive thoughts, underage sexuality, incel ideology, COCSA, panic attacks, captivity, psychological torture, interrogation, OCD/scrupulosity, religion

Marzanna refreshed the tab to no avail. The Punkin thread on that guy she’d pulled over at the cafe the other day had disappeared - and Punkin by design didn’t get archived by other sites. The government archived it somewhere, everyone knew. But Punkin wanted to be able to comply with legal demands to take content down to the letter. And if it bored their users, they wouldn’t let a thread continue to disgrace their archive.

She had called last night and forgotten about it. She hadn’t even been drinking, just gotten in a really convoluted argument with someone she hadn’t seen since the monastery on the phone. She must have done it in one of those fits of remembering she had while she was distracted by something, which never got her started on the thing she’d been putting off because she’d only think about it as long as she was putting off something else.

But he hadn’t picked up. Which was good, because she hadn’t done any background on him yet. Which was bad, because it looked like her only lead on background had disappeared.

Which was good, because it gave her a reason to give up on this hook and the embarrassing memory of how she’d obtained it.

Which was bad, because there was something there she really wanted to know more about.

Just before he had put his finger up, when he had been huddled to shade himself from any hint of the world, she had sensed something around her. At the same time as she leaned in to watch for any hint of weakness, it felt like he was looming over her. The peculiar sense, not only of this double defence, which was common in the unconscious human body language decoded by the monks, but of it from, somehow, several directions, made her conscious enough to perform a reflexive rhi attack check and detect the energetic outlines of ten hands, hovering near her. Some were balled up into fists, some readied to grip, some holding out a firm or gentle touch. They were arrayed in an decagonal formation along a subtle dimensional parallax only known in advanced theoretical kata she’d studied to waste time in her graduating year.

She had never seen a technique like that, in standard magic or Miwa monasticism. Although one emotional association was obvious - the ten “hands” of the Dark Lord, the magical monster-weapons by which he administered the causality of his territories.

Pure association didn’t necessarily make something Dark magic, but the Ecclesia ruled on it all the time.

In either case, that guy didn’t seem functional enough to learn anything that advanced. And with no indication how he would have cast it.

She knew Dark cults did weird things, though. Human experimentation.

She had told herself that wasn’t what she was going to end up doing. She wasn’t desperate enough to use that Ecclesia contract she had signed, to actually go to Confession and say that password - wait, did that obligate her to report something like this? It was sitting under a pile of old magazines and drafts she’d been working on when they’d approached her and torn out crosswords and flyers for experimental banquets.

It didn’t matter, she didn’t have anything she could prove if she was. Maybe he had an illegal ward or something, that didn't even make her curious, or wouldn’t until she understood what kind of life it slotted into. She wasn’t a True Crime idiot.

But the True Crime idiot, nay, the creepypasta idiot, in her, it beckoned.

Not that it had even beckoned enough for her to double back and confirm his real destination - which had to be close by because of how underprepared for the cold he was!

Could she stake out the area? Fuck no, she was too lazy, and on this story it would feel humiliating.

What kind of guy that pathetic, verging on public masturbator, tries to avoid leading a deus ex machina beautiful fighting girl saviour back to his falling-apartment?

Unless he didn’t think she counted as beautiful, which - she’d rather not be counted as by a guy like that, probably.

She picked up the cigarette she’d bought to lean into pretending to be a detective, if she really had to.

But she had already forgotten to ask him for his name!

She’d had two so far. She was getting into the zone of studying her own cough patterns.

Her roommate was coming back in ten minutes. She had to put back the dozen books she had pulled down and rifled through since she had woken up at 1:00 in the afternoon (after said roommate had left). The bookshelf itself, with a rough ancient lace curtain that pulled back and forth across it, was inherited and half the items on it her roommate had never read. They were owed some audience.

In theory, she’d been reading up on Dark networks a generation ago. Of course, she’d ended up skimming a police procedural that was mentioned in the introduction and happened to be on the shelf (in several volumes). Then she’d pulled out a dozen pages of notes and tried to rewrite them in its style.

Then she’d got the idea of going out and buying cigarettes into her head.

She couldn’t understand exactly how she could have gotten like this, which made it harder to think of getting out.

She had been an ace as a student. Right up into her last year of her basic diploma. She’d made just a brush-stroke short of her rival for valedictorian who wasn’t lesbian enough to care about as a rival properly, and taken a clearance exam for Winter City because she hated heat. Ever since then her life had been slowly disintegrating, pieces so small falling away one at a time that if she tried to explain any one of them she’d sound too hard on herself.

The only place she could go to make sense of it was Punkin Patch.

Part of the problem was, when her addiction was her job, that didn’t make it any easier to treat it as a job and not an addiction.

It wasn’t quite her job anyway. It had felt like a betrayal of her standards when she had pitched a story about Punkin Patch itself, and it had still been rejected, not just by a publication but by the Ecclesia. There had been stories about the Patch before - they were surface level and catered to people’s preconceptions about the internet. Apparently that was how somebody wanted them.

She straightened her back, breathed in and out, gathered her rhi into her diaphragm.

Breathed in and out, circulating the rhi through the higher-dimensional structure of her body until she felt like a strange attractor of looping, pulsing light, and could direct any pulse of this light instantly anywhere in an infinitesimally detailed wireframe of her physical shape whose halo of possible movements and force outputs she could perceive all at once.

Then she leaned into the desk, sighed, and reopened the Punkin window.

Honestly, was she getting distracted from being distracted?

The weirdo from the Thistle was a long shot, her closer bet was trying to pull leading details from the Kissler case.

The Kissler was a costumed lurker on a number of anonymous chat site who paid other users to act out kissing each other, coordinating meetings with a magically entangled clock app (one site had changed its randomization to add a timed waiting element to disrupt this strategy, which they considered an exploit to its core functionality). The arrangements were all strictly consensual, so there wasn’t much to be done about it legally. As far as anyone could prove, all the participants were of legal age, although there were rumours - rumours that were complicated by the fact that Punkin Patch users were no longer convinced there was only one person using the costume (horned purple heart mask, inflated pink lips, maroon silk bat-wing collar pointed with bells). Others thought the original was an employee at one of the sites, explaining his grasp of their technical vulnerabilities and their reluctance to do anything about him.

Punkin had been trying for months to dox him but there was no way they were good enough to do it without the skills of a trained journalist in their midst - an Yn Dahh’t journalist, at least; they could probably run circles around most of the journalists up here. Which, if she broke key details herself, would make it more of an investigation of her own and less of an autoethnography of internet drama; plus the story, though she couldn’t think about this too much without wincing, was garish enough in its scandal to attract the attention of people who read the newspaper and watched state-produced seasonal plays and went to office jobs and thought about nothing else. And there were a lot of those in her supposed audience, albeit in part because the seasonal plays in Winter City were a labour of love, a product of hundreds of people organically coming together in the precarious warmth of a cold country, so genuinely warm they didn’t even stop each other’s tiny contributions of inspiration from glimmering together like fresh snow.

Kissler recorded against a featureless beige wall flickering in candlelight, so there was no way to geolocate. Combing through every word of his banter had produced one reference to a product that situated him - at least one of him, and probably the main one - somewhere in the Mud Valley on the inland border between Elthazan and Silmenon. To extract more information, users were now planning to catfish him. Marzanna, of course, had to get in on this - adversarial interviewing techniques were a martial art unto themselves taught at Yn Dahh’t. But a faction of posters had ganged up on her because they saw her as insufficiently dedicated to the cause of ruthless doxing, even though none had thought to go after her or guessed at her real identity and reasons for involvement. One of the most popular participants had threatened to quit the catfishing crew if she was included, and she was waiting on his DM to try and resolve it privately.

Waiting on one task, waiting on another task. There was always something to do, but it sometimes felt like an insult to try while the world wasn’t cooperating.

She lit another cigarette, putting it into her mouth next to the other one which was down enough to singe her lips until she spat it into an ashtray across the table, catching the new one between her teeth. They were infused with lilac incense so at least the place would smell nice when her roommate came back.

In the process of spitting the one cigarette across the table, the other tumbled backwards, still lit, into her mouth.

It burned her tongue which tensed and twitched and stuck out but not fast enough for it not to fall back between her gum and the bottom of her mouth, singing somewhere sensitive enough that she coughed from the back of her throat. The more it bounced around, the more she coughed it back up, the more it stung and scratched and made her cough. It felt like trying to dislodge a jumping beetle from her throat.

Reflexively, she stretched her shoulders apart, lined the first two fingers of each hand up with each other so that she could feel the invisible vibrating circuit jumping from one to the other, and exhaled a rhi breath that drove it spinning into the air above her face. One of her newly ready arms shot out, whipped it out of the air and into a black smudge across the face of the detective on the cover of her (roommate’s) (vintage) mystery book. (Fuck.)

Maybe, she thought, being a virtuoso at manipulating her own rhi made her too confident doing stupid things.

She went to the bathroom to try and wet a tissue she could rub the smudge out with. When she came back a DM was waiting for her.

She felt the rhi disturbance from her hands first, the flows breaking down into a tingle of granular noise, and held her left hand in a mudra to try and stabilize it before it reached her head, while holding the right on the mouse just so it would display “typing” in the chat box.

>I am going to give you a piece of advice before you try to talk about “the community”. Get off Punkin and lurk anonymous boards for a couple of years. I know you haven’t because people have to explain common turns of phrase to you every other week, and this has never given you a second thought. Learn what it’s like to genuinely forget you even have a name. “I” don’t have a beef with you. I’d probably get drinks if I met you in person. The fact that you think “the mission” is about personal agreement is proof you don’t get it. We have an invariant program of lulz and you don’t. And we can’t execute a mission this sensitive without absolute confidence in it.

She transferred the built-up rhi from the left hand across her shoulders and started typing furiously, her fingers literally a blur. what in the fucking LARP… Dark hunters in the Ecclesia don’t talk about their missions like that lol. anyway if it’s not about people then just pretend I’m not involved. I don’t have to be the “public face” or anything that was other people’s idea because I can talk normal. I posted my interview plan in the main chat. anyone can edit it. anyone can use it.

>ngl the fact that people were simping for you and getting excited for your face reveal was a big part of it, if that was off the table it might keep things more in spirit.

A vein popped on her forehead as she held her jaw rigid but slightly open. She didn’t put in enough effort to be pretty to get noticed at parties, or last more than a couple of dates after waiting in the state matchmaker’s queue for weeks, but just enough for incels to treat her like this…?once again, shouldn’t the mission come first? how many other people do you have that even that freak would want to watch e-kiss someone?

>“The mission” this, “the mission” that. I’ve never even used that word, and you tell me I’m LARPing? Tell me - what is the mission to you. What is even the end goal you want out of this.

That wasn’t fair. Nobody talked about that on the forums, even in the public chat, to avoid saying anything incriminating. And she, of course - they were right about this - played along with their plausible deniability for her own ends.

Yn Dahh’t journalists were trained to find ways to not have to do either of those things. But any such training emphasized that were situations where someone would detect you were doing this and pin you to one or the other, and you couldn’t flinch at them. You had to have a model where you told the truth, and a model where you lied, and immediately pick which was better. Ideally, you had a winning play in both.

Being honest was obviously risky here, but if she lied she might have trouble getting permission to write an article at all without discrediting herself further. She had been planning to avoid telegraphing her intention before they had some undeniable victory - Punkin users were always most open to publicity when they wanted to show off.

>I think this could become the kind of story that would define this site for a long time, and I don’t want to commit to an absolute goal until everyone can talk about it first. again didn’t think any of this even needed to be explained. the only thing that’s non-negotiable to me is us - at least, us who put in all this work, maybe a bigger us, maybe even bigger than you’re thinking of right now - getting to know Kissler’s story, as a person, where all this information we’ve been collecting fits.

>*barf* hahaha holy shit that’s gay. Legit thought I was just getting jealous of the e-girl for a bit there, thanks for proving my vibes right again. Story, person, fitting, who talks like that - we aren’t here because we care about that kinda shit. We’re here because it makes people stupid, which makes them funny. btw, can you pass the chat this. A file took twenty, thirty seconds to upload. If we’re talking interview plans anyone can use, give ‘em this one and vote on it.

A monophonic, linear, procedural jazz piano line came on in a popup behind the browser window and she let it play as she squinted at the document. (Her hands unconsciously settled into the Fog Visits From The Next Valley form, transmuting her trepidation into a sense of wonder at what fresh meaninglessness the future would bring.) It would probably be wise to have her eggs in more than one basket again - which always made her feel uncomfortably like she didn’t have any eggs in any baskets at all.

“I could swear you were sitting in the same position as you were this morning. Is that a meditation thing?” Her roommate’s voice chimed behind her, sending a ripple through her higher-dimensional aura that somehow her opening the door and crossing the entryway hadn’t. Her ability to go unnoticed like that, her rhi that unconsciously narrowed itself through space like a knife, was the first thing that had made her roommate interesting to her, despite her being in every other sense one of the least interesting people she had ever met. Beautiful, admittedly, not interesting, except… and she needed that kind of person as an anchor in her life, a place from which to chart the strange dimensions and corners of space that (her last exchange showed, didn’t it) mattered to no one but her.

“Wait - uwaaah, what did you do to my book?” And before she could stammer out a reply, her almost weightless ponytail scudded away to the kitchen, a chain of cumulus, out of sight.

Luskonneg squinted at the messages on his phone and wondered how long he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else.

With this ridiculous couple of weeks, he was now a full thirteen episodes behind on his seasonal anime schedule - the only schedule of any kind he was still keeping. (Even his sleep schedule was at this point rolling a twenty-sided die.)

He couldn’t force himself to - the second he did that all the things he could force himself to do would collapse on top of him and crush him before he could pick another. The experience would probably lead to another round of unskippable incapacitation, anyway.

But this one shouldn’t have even been hard. Just block the number. You are a shut-in. Act like it.

When people were arguing about whether shut-in-dom was voluntary or involuntary, you were the one who picked up your first hit post on Feed by saying it was involuntarily willed.

(That now just made him think of Llau, who quoted that all the time at big accounts even when it was a pain in the ass.

Remembering the encounter with Llau, he sat up from his barefoot squat on his mattress and threw himself headfirst at a wall but stopped himself, trembling, half a centimetre away, repeating three times before falling back on his butt with voluntarily involuntary lassitude, crushing a tissue box.)

The reason this was bugging him was that getting interviewed had been one of his last truly childish fantasies.

When he had started sharing his deranged internal monologue on Feed, when he’d first started to pick up his small audience, he’d conducted fantasy interviews in his head for hours. Usually it would be with one of those shitty web-based media outlets that ran on ads or microtransactions (a couple were state-licensed now) and covered the ephemeral world of posting, or fanzines. He was reading a lot of profiles in those at that point, contemplating the lives it was increasingly clear he was never going to have. Rather than narcissism or excitement, the fantasy appealed to a simple, desperate need to sketch out a self before it disappeared into the grey currents of the web again. Sometimes in the fantasy he would project some alternate version of himself into the future; he would draw a gag battle manga based on Feed drama, or start his own online doujin work aggregator, or find a way to reproduce the Self Sword System in real magic… But it quickly became too much to suspend his disbelief in these scenarios. At a certain point he had to empty his imagination of himself to save it. The last times he had run the interviews in his head he talked about the same things he did on Feed; being a miserable shut-in. Enough people found that interesting there.

There was, however, a question that would come up in an interview that would never come up on Feed, and this was where his imagination balked: how did you get this way?

He tabbed over to the tracking window. If it kept going like this there was one desperate measure he could take to put his life back on track.

With over three years NEET you were supposed to be unable to order from the Magical Academy Apothecary. However, Luskonneg’s last psychiatrist had agreed to give him an automatically renewing, basically unlimited order just to keep him out of their hair. He kept tabs on the Drugs board, with research chemical threads being a particularly potent source of vicarious extreme experience for when he needed that to get the blood flowing in his veins again. There were two in particular he’d bookmarked to search across other boards when he was next in the mood - ZHX-1011 and Ambruxa.

Awww shit. It’d have been easier if there had been one. Now he’d have to decide…

But that gave him an excuse to look at the dozens of trip reports, and it turned out Ambruxa was specifically associated with the exact thing he wanted it to do: uncovering memories. He vaguely remembered this from the threads but hadn’t saved the post numbers to prove it; indeed it was what had driven his mind blindly in the direction of this in the first place; the fact that he had been thinking this was exactly the kind of memory he was hoping to uncover with the help of Ambruxa; something that would make his life, possibly, interesting to anyone else; something that would make him, possibly, a sympathetic character in it. Above all, he knew, if he was going to even consider telling a stranger about the things that made him a shut-in failure, he needed a trauma, a reason he was like this.

One Ambruxa user said, “I was hunched over the toilet trying to force out an absolutely agonizing shit, as happens to me on a near-daily basis and I never even allowed myself to think might be unusual before this; and then I remember having the bathroom door constantly opened by my siblings when they wanted to know where I was; trying to stay motionless so they’d ignore me, treating me like I wasn’t there at all because the alternative was treating me like I was intruding on them instead of the other way around, laughing if I made a noise or telling me to cover up my lap. They always had an incomprehensible game going in the bathtub…”

He typed in his credit card number and prescription code, and ordered three caps of Ambruxa. There was an apothecary outlet in Winter City; it would deliver by the evening, probably. He wouldn’t even have to think about whether he should have done it.

He had hoped expectation would unfreeze his mind, but it only made him more reluctant to do anything to pass the time.

The afternoon sank slowly in dimming blue light, which he tried to parse apart from the blue light of his screen, still stuck on the clinical white of the Ambruxa trip reports page. At intervals of about half an hour he’d go back to Skry to try and find another round of trip reports, with diminishing returns both in number and novelty. Eventually he started looking up ZHX-1011 instead and sickening himself with FOMO. ZHX-1011 was good for introspection but also tended to express its insights in elaborate visions and fictional narratives. There was debate over whether it was an ensorcelegen, in which case it would probably be restricted further from public access soon. Often ZHX-1011 users - including ones who weren’t heavy gamers - described suddenly perceiving life as a video game, with tutorial audio hallucinations and floating stat blocks that measured dimensions of their personality and psychological capacities, grid layouts and flags.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried to do that. It wasn’t as if he didn’t do that, to some extent, even without trying. But like everything else, it was a futile exercise in infinite regression. He couldn’t even pull a set of consistent rules out of abstract space to design a game himself - something he’d tried a few times in his first couple years alone, when he’d imagined his isolation as some kind of artistic retreat, a freedom from the distractions of work and school and meeting people’s eyes. When he made himself aware of it he felt something huge out there trying to eat him (the Catfish-Whale from Hell Harrowing, maybe…) and the wall he bounced off was his, the only thing protecting him.

Now that sounded more like the kind of thing Ambruxa would help with.

And there we go! Ambruxa, let’s say, would let him put [how many points?] into [what category would you call this? was it even the same category? just because something was dark and wait, was he just thinking about how the Catfish-Whale turned out to be the spirit of Astig’s childhood cory? but that was just his first association, what if it was something actually alien and implacable and unrelated to him like the Wall Crawlers…], and ZHX-1011 would [no wait this didn’t work, could he even frame access to the points system in terms of the points system? but it wasn’t a given in the first place, it would have to be articulated in terms of probability, and the probability that any drug would do to him what he read about in the trips interesting enough for someone to write up as a trip report, as opposed to just making one of his waifus almost feel close and heavy and the rainbow light pulse up and down his dick like in a cheap Miwa tantric illustration…]

Fuck, I can’t even decide which drug I need to solve the problem of what drug to get!

It didn’t come to him until after he had let out his frustration by watching a bunch of rage mod compilations, and got so worked up he started flailing around and socked himself in the nose. Lying sideways across his pillow (creased flat down the middle in the direction he normally lay on it), feeling blood bubble up with each exhalation through the ducts of a conch-shell of cum-stiff Kleenex, he thought, if the problems he was trying to solve entailed each other, what if they also solved each other?

The Apothecary also had a searchable index of drug combinations, but apparently even their researchers hadn’t bothered to combine Ambruxa and ZHX-1011 before.

Of course he could just buy the two and try one then the other, but then he’d have to decide on the order, whereas a totally untested drug combination had the added benefit that he might kill himself.

He stared at his shopping cart with the queasy, overfed relish with which he’d sometimes stare at a particularly good string of likes on his own Feed for several minutes before clicking “Check Out”.

Luskonneg’s hopes were already beginning to sink when he opened the bubble wrapped envelope both doses came in. The Ambruxa came looking like liquid amethyst in a little glass decanter shaped like a snail, a quaint Silmenon tradition you hardly even saw in anime about alchemists any more, while the ZHX-1011 was a pale blue pill hardly a millimetre thick and small enough to sit on a fingernail, overpackaged in its own hard plastic bubble so you wouldn’t lose it unless, obviously, you flicked it across the room opening the plastic bubble.

These things were so overdesigned to the most banal aesthetic of their reputation, the reputation itself was probably as fake as the aesthetic. He wrote an increasingly outraged string of posts on Feed - up to seven - complaining about this, saved it to his drafts in case he was right, and then casually opened his deliveries, feeling perfunctorily motivated to have the experience to complain about it. He had been trying to figure out if he wanted to do anything special for his trip before the mail bell had rang - before, that is, he had gone to sleep, and been woken up by the mail bell. It wasn’t like he was going to go outside. Even sunsets and sunrises, from inside his room, felt oppressive and might feel more so on drugs (although the bell had woken him up in the late afternoon, and it would probably start hitting just in time for the sunset, so it wasn’t like he was avoiding this either). There was a “Tails of the Comet Valkyries” movie he had been procrastinating on watching for months, but he’d just read a review saying it was bad. He’d contemplated the idea of trying to deliberately organize his story, his life, see if something would jump out that would be interesting to somebody, and immediately laughed it off. Well, that was the kind of thing he was hoping the drugs would make him able to do - but that meant if the drugs let him do it, he could let himself be pleasantly surprised, and didn’t have to think about it until then. Otherwise he’d be thinking - not even that, but shocking his mind blank of thinking, chasing and getting chased in circles by thinking, pleading with himself to think and not have to think - when he started tripping, and that would be the worst thing.

Instead, he wasn’t thinking at all. He imagined himself on a livestream (he would never facedox), dropping the ZHX-1011 into his densely lined palm from the ragged hole in its packaging he’d made with scissors and then making eye contact with the audience before popping the stopper (a sphere-topped crown of plastic crystal) out of the decanter and washing the one down with the other.

He had nothing better to do than open Feed. “i’m on drugs - ama”

But nobody was biting so he went back to the board, feeling outside himself (was this an effect already? it wasn’t outside the range of his normal dissociation) as he watched himself slide into the recursion of reading trip reports to stimulate his own trip. They were having a wild day in any case - someone had tried “Gryphon Guano” and was playing tag with Shadow People, a whole posse of monks was failing to bully someone claiming Arquenon could open new rhi pathways, and people were tempting the banhammer speculating about the phenomenology of the Black Mushroom trip based on its chemistry. Reading stuff like this completely sober could take him out sometimes. There were things he would never try because just reading about them - even where the experience sounded pleasurable to normal people who tried it - especially where the experience sounded pleasurable to normal people who tried it - would end invariably in him lying half on his stomach half on his side, pressing any available surface to any surface that would confirm it, trying not to vomit, trying not to -

She was big and there was nothing else to it. Her eyes were pointed up at the ceiling and he would never see what was in them.

He slipped the string around his neck. She kept holding it. He slipped the end over the intersection and out under, one knot and then another, until about six pulled lazily together, squished ragged. He kept fidgeting with the “knot” until it got close to his neck. He pulled tighter and began to stand on his tiptoes, and stared up at her and beamed. He inched closer to her on tiptoes. He tensed every muscle in his body, as if he was doing the breathing exercise he had been given at school. The breathing exercises never worked because they reminded him of this. He had been sent into the coatroom to do breathing exercises because he had been unspooling into a puddle of static and slipped so far down his chair it banged out from under him. He had asked to go to the nurse for his ringing tailbone but the nurse was busy. Then they had left him alone for forty minutes, and he had been touching himself when they checked back in. He couldn’t explain that it was the only way to let go of the tension once he started tensing - that he couldn’t get past the “tense every muscle” part of the exercise - except doing this, which there was no way they would be willing to do.

He had to stay like that until either some other thing got the better of him - hunger, boredom, which proved there had been nothing wrong at all - or she came all the way to pick him up, and he would be able to move under the loving despair of her gaze (which proved there had been nothing wrong at all) - feel the vibrating metro seats massage life back into him - enough to last until they got home and he could ask for his ritual - the only thing that worked.

“You won’t tell dad about this, right?” he had thought to ask one time.

“If I got the chance to tell your father anything,” his mother sighed, “no way in Chaos would I waste it on this.”

He would throw his hands around the crease about a third of the way down her waist, his head directly overhung by her breasts.

She slowly allowed her arms to fall, until the flab was almost resting on his shoulders.

If they rested, the child’s voice - five or six years old - would alternate between two sides of a scenario in a horror movie (wordless memories of being awake for hours under a blanket on the couch, the light of the television beckoning language): “Don’t stop” - precocious menace like a serrated file - “please? please?” - a stumbling retreat up the twist and taper of whimper to the ledge of choke.

She sniffed, gurgled, lifted her arms again, winding the string backwards through the air until it hung almost straight aside from a couple of kinks. As it straightened the boy - Luskonneg - started to stand up on his tiptoes, head pressing deeper into her shaking chest until it pulled the fabric of her shirt around it, shoulders and knees and calves stiffening.

It wasn’t for her any more - it was for the cold and emptiness that would receive all of his stiffness, send goosebumps all over his body. (She could see them now, on his wrists, on the back of his neck. She knew it would be over soon.)

His eyes were closed. His mouth half-open, tongue pressing over two large bottom front teeth. His hair sticking up loosely from the static of her shirt.

He had stopped moving completely. Not even his nostrils. Not even his diaphragm.

But the gurgles were rising from her throat again, distracting him, interrupting the end of it. The nothing like falling asleep that would let him forget everything that had built up in him.

“Are you…” words spawned out of them. “Are you breathing. Please don’t hold your breath. It’s not good for you, it’s… you’ll get hiccups.”

The tension frequency of the words, grinding his own to a halt, didn’t seem appropriate to hiccups. Surely she knew he couldn’t suffocate himself just by holding his own breath, right? That was the first thing he had looked up, long before they reached this arrangement. Which had been her idea, he wanted to remind her, but he was too deep in to let go just now.

But now he was aware of how he was holding his breath. And some part of him - some enemy - was trying to send daggers of breath into his lungs. And another part of him - it didn’t feel like him any more either - was trying to push them back out.

He doubled over coughing, pulling the string down from her hands with him.

“There… there…” The ineradicable stain of defeat, a hand on his shoulder that he couldn't even resist. The hand wasn’t the her he liked being close to in these moments, it was a merciless, faceless envoy of her intention. It was only honest when it was holding the rope. “You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to hurt yourself."

“Yes I do. I’m going back to the closet.”

“No, no.” The hand pulled her into the other, the left hand that was only used to hold him, that hung limp even when it moved, numb in its invisible glove, and Luskonneg felt the stiffness, the tiny gap it left instead of closing on him, measured by what fractional millimetres it had increased since last time. The closet was where it had started. Luskonneg had been hanging his clothes back up, from the right side of his closet to the left, and from the lighter colour to the darker colour. It was his first time doing it on his own and he had finally decided on a way to do it, even though he had gotten nowhere on answering that for a month and it had been sprung on him first thing after school because mom was tired. He was almost finished. His mother opened the door - “What’s taking so long?” - and instantly made an irritated face. “What are you doing? Just run them left to right - don’t train your eyes to look at things the wrong way.” She started pulling them off and rearranging them.

When she next came up to invite him to dinner, an hour later than usual (because she was tired, of course more so after she’d done the thing she’d been too tired to do anyway), she found Luskonneg in the closet, with one end of a silver-white string he’d had out for a school art project tied around one of the remaining plastic hangers, the other around his neck. It was just chafing on him, he understood nothing about knots or physics (subjects he would go out of his way for years to make himself bad at), but he had pulled himself absolutely taut on his tiptoes as he pulled the other end of the string down with one hand, and didn’t move, didn’t even acknowledge when she opened the door, tugged the whole thing apart, and watched him go back to it over and over, until not knowing what else to do, she grabbed the end from him, and watched him relax to sleep on her chest.

Luskonneg woke up in a fetal position, in the dark. At first he wasn’t even sure he had woken up because he couldn’t see anything he usually did in the dark. The dark was a shifting mesh, loops of blue-purple faintness or light shifting in and out of each other, and otherwise utterly featureless. But he had definitely woken up. Because he didn’t know what had happened between starting the trip, and this dark.

Just because he had woken up, didn’t mean he was awake.

He had had those dreams, where you wake up into another dream before. The dark had gained one feature - the edge of his mattress, which sitting up he could cast his eyes around himself and trace floating in impenetrable grey against the deeper, more fluid tone of the other dark. Like it had been filled in with the edge of a heavy pencil and the rest of his room was a spreading ink-spill.

He let his head sink into his forearms and waited for other objects to appear.

His laptop, for instance. Its screen was open, but dark. A third dark, an onyx mirror.

He reached out for the keyboard, thinking first to see what time it was, then to watch an AMV.

It flashed so brilliant, so harsh, and as featureless as the room he immediately squeezed his eyes shut and rolled over to the other side of the pillow.

His own back sheltering him from the floodlight, stretching his shadow out into endless grain, he waited.

Luskonneg sprinted away from the grocery line, knocking over a clip-on shelf and sending packs of gum and small magazines with questionable headlines skittering across the floor. He couldn’t have forced himself to glance back and see his mother bending over humiliated. He slammed the bathroom door behind him and crashed his whole body like a plank into the urinal, shoulders just wide enough to lean into the cold of either side, forehead against the top. Normally this gesture of extreme privacy was enough to isolate him in a world in which he had complete control and could pee into the hole of the urinal precisely as a pilot aiming a laser in some kind of target practice, but he was no longer at peace with his body, he couldn’t be with his mother scraping fallen magazines off the floor behind him, and colourless piss exploded from a knot of twisted fly in all directions, splattering his chin but not high enough to satisfy his curiosity as to the taste, he squeezed his eyelids shut for safety and immediately wrung out tears no less sticky with dissolved eye-mucus.

He rubbed the droplets into the weave of his shirt as the contamination ran down his cheeks.

The voice to his left sounded no different from the tears as they bubbled up in hiccuping gouts with his breathing.

It was gurgling wordlessly on and on with barely a pause for breath. The face, a grey-shaven double scoop of chin, was also pressed forehead to wall, concealing as his own before he had made the mistake of looking up.

It breathed through its chin like a fish with gills.

Was this the first time he had seen someone do the exact same thing as him?

Of course, usually if you saw somebody in a weird posture or doing some unintuitive movement, they were just doing magic. And that sound… in school they said nobody really used incantation magic any more because it was inefficient. But that was what made the speculation worth it. People on TV did things with incantations all the time that he had never seen anyone do with real magic. It was supposed to be less efficient, but in stories it seemed the opposite, and he was inclined to believe stories.

He believed this more than he believed anything. It scared him sometimes, because he didn’t believe anything. He had stayed up all night asking himself that once and the answer was no. One second tried to trick you about the next, and anything on top of that was fooling yourself a thousand times.

In the night, when one second of falling asleep tricked you into still being awake, and staying awake was the cost of vigilance to the seconds trying to trick you, he would occupy himself mumbling strings of random word-like sounds.

The way this guy was talking wasn’t quite as word-like as that, but in some way to him that made it sound even more word-like. But it bothered him that he couldn’t shape a single syllable.

When he had finished letting the last of his pee dribble onto the urinal cake and went over to the sink, wiping soap and water up his forearms and on his face and neck too, he kept looking at the corner of the mirror where he could see the man’s back, still hunched over the urinal, still gurgling, like there was a drain in his mouth.

He found excuses to spend even longer washing, trying to wash already-dried flecks out of his shirt, then dry his collar. By the time he was at putting his face under the dryer, there was a knock on the door.

It swung open without another knock. “Hey, is there a kid in here? Somebody’s kid?”

Luskonneg dove under a stall door before the face entering the room could look in his direction - as it was turned in the other direction, distracted by the urinal guy. He wasn’t sure why he was hiding. He would have to explain why he had been so long, and then break it down to every tiny component that went into it and explain that, and find he couldn’t explain things that far and start to form weird theories about them and be stuck in that the entire car ride home, with his mom’s doubled humiliation dripping between scaffolding of thoughts. Of course, tripling what he had to explain wasn't a winning strategy, either. But he had already discovered it helped him deal with unpleasant things if he deferred them so far that when they happened, there was no way to support the belief that they could have been otherwise.

The man from the urinal, however,wasn’t moving. Hadn’t stopped mumbling. The janitor who had walked in pulled a notepad from his capacious pockets and flipped it until he found a page, held it open and added to it with a snub pencil. Then he turned to the door and repositioned an earpiece on the other side of his head. “Manager? That guy’s - no, I don’t see a kid, but that guy’s been in here for two hours twenty minutes now.”

Luskonneg had been thinking he might head back to his mom once he wasn’t startled by the door opening and someone looking for him - but now he was resolved to stay here until he saw what happened. How the man would be… removed? Would there be a fight?

Would there be a magic fight?

Something Dark?

He had to see it all the way through to the end.

No sooner had silence had congealed in the room than words tore themselves through the continuity, and the man rasped: “Help… me…”

Luskonneg’s ears perked up. He didn’t know if he could trust the man - didn’t know if he could turn to the Dark, if that was what it was - yet here was someone doing something he thought only he did, against the world.

“Magic… pin… on the… sink.”

A magic… what would he do with it? Luskonneg crept out from under the door, around the painted cinderblock divider (making sure to score a blob of sticky paint with his fingernail) and pressed himself against the rim of the counter, running his arms all over it.

He would not learn until high school health class that this was prescribed to users undergoing a controlled withdrawal from certain controlled substances, resetting their body hard and fast into a normal homeostasis for 24 hours if a withdrawal was stronger than planned.

And spent the rest of the day thinking about it until he recombined every thought so many ways he couldn’t make sense of them any more. But he did that about something every other day, by that point, it wasn’t something to think about, stay on this, stay on this while you can.

“I don’t see… ope.” His hand swept too fast because he had given up looking straight at the blindingly wavering detail of the countertop like a cape in front of a bullfighter. The blue-plastic-marble-headed pin skipped the edge of the sink and rolled down the basin.

The urinal guy made no sign of even noticing. Luskonneg fished in the drain and got grey gunk string on his hands.

It occurred to him that the pin might have been some sort of magical power-up. He probably couldn’t fight off the store’s employees, or the Royal Guard, or the Ecclesia, or the deep cover Dark cultists and shapeshifters, without magical assistance. Maybe there was another way to “help him”. Maybe he had come here for this.

As he pressed himself back against the other urinal - the old man was no longer gurgling, he was doing what looked more like forcing himself to cough or hiccup - and began incanting the way he did at night - the old man tore himself out of himself again, both hands gripping the corners of the urinal like a rock jutting out of a sheer cliff, seemingly half likely to tear it out of the wall, leaning over Luskonneg’s shoulder. His lips were sucked back into his mouth like it was a wind tunnel and he seemed to move his mouth to speak against the same force that was holding it open. His pulsing neck seemed to be exerting that force. “What - you doing - making fun of me - tryna get me beat up -”

The door edged open, then swung all the way.

“There’s the kid!” the short, balding manager threw one hand back in the employee’s face and grabbed Luskonneg away by the scruff of his shirt with the other. “Were you even looking?”

“Where’s my pin? I told you to get my pin!” His voice raised proportionately as Luskonneg was dragged out. “The world doesn’t work without it! The world doesn’t work without it!”

And that was eerily similar to the last thing his father said on the phone to Mom, but he wouldn’t learn that until Mom threw that at him in an argument in the sixth grade. And he wouldn’t think of that connection until that one disintegrated day of thinking, after which he’d act out bits of his argument with himself as a private form of theatre but never reach a new development in it. That night, however, he found himself not saying anything, and instead trying to make himself stay awake and falling asleep perfectly, a solution so insulting it didn’t feel like one. And he dreamt of the man hanging around the corner of the schoolyard telling people “he stood like him.

Luskonneg woke up and let the amber light from between the pixels on his dimmed screen - still in night mode, which he only used for the colour, not to actually sleep - sizzle into his eyes like wax, resolving it into a post from Llau’s private account.

@honeyheart: kicked out of the grocery store for wandering around muttering suicidal thoughts out loud. didn’t even notice. was looking for new fancy dishwashing fluid from infomercial. parents had to get it again. smh

“if only I got to go to the grocery store,” he typed. Then deleted it, because that didn’t obviously seem better. But there was some appeal to grocery stores, wasn’t there? Just looking at all the different things it was possible to eat… the internet of food…

Some sort of deja vu tickled the back of his brainstem. He rolled over to try and think about it and blacked out again.

Where was the hill? How come he had no idea? He knew he had been there several times. He recognized it in the dream, which meant he recognized it in the memory, which meant… But the map of his childhood was so small - almost a floorplan - even he knew it by heart. Then, this must have been a special place because it was “outside” that “map”. But that would also explain why he didn’t know where it was - because as soon as he was outside of his map, he stopped paying attention to his surroundings, at least until he was at his destination, shutting himself in his skull against overstimulation. Trips on the metro were like disappearing into a tunnel of static and popping out somewhere.

Even then, he didn’t even know what part of the city it was in. Or if it was in the city.

He couldn’t see a skyline over the hill. Just a scraggly beard of tree-tips on either side as he came over the crest. He was focused up at his favourite sky. Pure grey-white, light perfectly interpenetrating and balancing with cloud to release all form. Uniform from horizon to horizon, the Earth sealed airtight, but sealed in something more open than the summer skies on the covers of visual novels could ever be, without even the claustrophobic sense of a vault.

But it was late afternoon, because though the sky was the same white-grey it had been all afternoon, would be until the unwatchable sunset was well under way, something about its light was muted. This manifested in the snow itself seeming to glow a light blue, as if under some kind of blacklight. Apart from split shafts of reeds or tall grasses sticking up here and there on either side of him, not a shadow marred this glow. The trees were accented with it too, a reflective lace stitching these two luminous worlds together.

He opened his mouth to call or say something, and decided against it.

He stumbled forward, looking up and down, tilting his head vertiginously, until he was almost standing on top of the footprints. At first, spread out in front of him in a few interlocking loops, they fit the scene, adding notes of a darker blue, like irises blooming from the snow.

But just a couple of cautious steps further and the world was broken. No, rotten, gnawed. The snow looked like the spit-beaded roughage where a bite had been taken out of an apple. Footsteps had trampled footsteps until you could see the adhesion patterns in the half-moon imprints of the heels of boots but not where the toe had been, let alone a trail. Ridges and basins piled up without rhyme or reason, too uneven to pool shadow. In places it had been packed down so low you could see blackened lip hairs of lawn grass. As he looked closer, he realized there were canals on this alien landscape - names.

Off to one side stood a snowman - its arms bent at the closest its makers could find to right angles on either side of its head as if in some religious salutation - its parsnip nose fallen halfway down its chest.

Luskonneg cried - he must have been old enough that he had stopped for a while, because he was surprised, both relieved and betrayed - and transformed the cry into a scream, a sound like tearing the paper sky in two. He ran at the snowman, arms windmilling. A faint, alarmed echo of his name from far behind placed his mother somewhere in the space, hesitant to involve herself. The side of his mitten chopped deep into a shoulder, sending an arm spinning off into space. The other buried itself two-thirds deep into the head on first impact. Would it be possible, he wondered as he rained more blows, to pulverize it so thoroughly it would redistribute the snow evenly across the ground.

But of course, he was just making something uglier.

The light of the sky seemed to be fading as he drove his knee into where he thought the snowman’s crotch would have been. It was drying, shrivelling up to grey tissue. He felt like he was doing it, somehow, but also it wouldn’t stop if he stopped. He broke off from the jagged cairn he had left and turned towards the names written in the snow - A J and trailing off into something illegible, messy uncials already disconnected by footprints, Frezhenn, Yulwyn. He stomped as his mother’s face floated over the crest, itself white from cold and worry and anchoring the dimming light in an all-too-familiar early evening glower.

Luskonneg “woke up” too fuzzy to move. The room was filled with light again but the light was grained with grey no matter how he focused in or out - only the points themselves focused, folding in and out of themselves. He could move, but he couldn’t feel anything distinctly enough from anything else - not even the shape of his arm as it dragged space - to know where or how it was moving. His sense of time, however, was completely unaffected - with brutal inexorability, he could count down empty seconds and feel certain he would not lose their rhythm even if it never referenced motion or event again. He didn’t try for very long, but kept updating his estimate as it crawled on to half an hour, forty-five minutes - by far the longest he had been awake since he had taken the combination.

Maybe this meant it was finally kicking in. Maybe he just had to wait.

Maybe this meant he was overdosing. Maybe he would finally die, without even having to figure out what it would take.

Either option was exciting, but having exciting options made waiting agony again.

At about an hour, his hand - which must have been moving, in some sense, the entire time, or long enough that he had felt no change in its motion - crossed the doldrums and washed up on a distinct sensation. It was the glass of the vial, containing the rest of the Ambruxa. The tingles all over his skin began to recede, like a tide, and he thought he could make out distinct shadows on the wall.

Maybe it wasn’t kicking in - maybe the trip was already ending.

Reaching another arm over, removing the stopper (when had he put it back?) felt like hauling against a whirlpool. But he had to - accepting the alternative would feel like violence against himself (and not even the kind that made him feel better), not acceptance - what if this was all there was.

The only other “depressed” kid in his class - as far as he knew, in the school, but he barely knew his own class - was depressed because he couldn’t get a girlfriend. Luskonneg knew he couldn’t get a girlfriend because he was depressed.

The kid - Azzzhhhdd - Axhtdauuu - Ackhh - had the opposite of the problem Luskonneg knew from the forums to be usually the problem with this kind of guy’s jaw. It made the term “lantern jaw” seem fresh and immediate, particularly because it was a lantern that hung on a thin pole, rather than sitting on a column. Hung at a bit of an angle. And his eyes always flashed rapidly off to the side when he started going off about something, swivelling in their slightly popping lids. His short hair swooped off the front of his head and to one side like a chinook. He was weird-looking in a way that was more striking than Luskonneg ever dreamed his would be. And he somehow genuinely didn’t seem to see it.

Luskonneg had cornered him after class by pretending he just accidentally thought they were on the same cleaning duty because he was stupid, which anyone would believe. ——- cocked his head into a ray of sunlight. “People come to me all the time because they’re ‘depressed’, they ‘know what I’m going through’, but I bet they could all get a girlfriend.”

Luskonneg half wanted to ask who these other people were, but the fact that he didn’t know meant the kid was probably right about them, whether or not the problem was that they could get a girlfriend.

“I mean, do you really think I could get a girlfriend.”

“But why would having a girlfriend make you not depressed? What part of it?”

If you were the kind of depressed where you couldn’t imagine things worse maybe this wouldn’t hit the same.

“Are you gay and that’s why you don’t get it?” The kid talked out of the side of his mouth, the other side as if compensating for the crookedness of his head, and rolled his eyes and despite that was still looking at him. “Or asexual?”

It occurred to Luskonneg - maybe he wouldn’t mind being with someone if it could be like this, if they could keep looking down on him and still be with him.

“No. I play straight dating sims.” He played them for the bad ends and when he did get around to the main routes he’d stop after all the major plot points had been resolved and all that was left to do was gesture around the couple’s dawning life together, which when he tried to insert himself into would make him so scared he couldn’t think straight. The last few times he had noticed the fear congealing into sadness.

“Huh. You should get it then. It’s like a game and you’re not allowed to get to the end.”

“But it’s not. They literally talked about that in health class.” They had played a dating sim the Ecclesia had developed to teach healthy norms about dating and consent, in which the characters broke the fourth wall multiple times to explain where real humans would be more complicated and how, which seemed to defeat the purpose to Luskonneg, because if real humans were so complicated what did any of the rules the game was trying to teach have to do with them. The game controlled for this by randomizing some of the character reactions and Luskonneg got impossible strings of reactions the entire time he played it, as if the computer was taunting his doubts, which wasn’t supposed to happen but made perfect sense to him. “It’s not the end.”

“They’re not gonna tell you this, but they have a relationship simulator you play in two years in high school. And I won’t even have passed the dating one.”

“So you just… want to play the other game? And it doesn’t bother you that you're still just playing? That’s stupid, you might as well be depressed because Arcology 3 isn’t coming out…” wait. He should have picked a game he wasn’t actually sad about the sequel not coming out to. He turned away as the lump in his throat pumped the tears to his eyes.

“Wow, you’re not depressed at all, you sound like a counsellor or something. Do you think telling me shit like that is gonna help me?”

“No!” He spun around and yelped and the tears in his eyes looked like they weren’t even about Arcology 3. ——- visibly recoiled in surprise and that surprise - that was something, too. “I mean it won’t help you, and it doesn’t help me either.” What’s different about a friend, he wanted to ask, because he didn’t think he could have that either. But he had the energy to get out maybe one of five things at a time he wanted to say against the resistance. Having a friend, having a girlfriend, would mean selecting like that for hours every day - how.

“Then why don’t you kill yourself. I would if I couldn’t still maybe get a girlfriend.”

“Something… stops me. The same thing that stops me from doing other things.” How are you depressed if you don’t know that, he wanted to say, but if he did he felt like wouldn’t get to keep looking at those eyes moving.

“So you’re saying, there’s no way to prove or disprove anything you’re saying.”

“There’s no way for you to prove or disprove it either.”

“You can prove it,” ——- spat. “Bend over for me. And see if you’re still depressed after that.”

Luskonneg burst out laughing genuinely, like a tiny sun had just melted and broken through glass. He then immediately started gasping, because each failed breath was unteaching himself how to breathe. “How would that prove that? You’re not a girl, and you’d be the not depressed one.”

“No, you’re not a girl so it won’t fix me, but you’re definitely gay or something so it might fix you.”

——- was genuinely startled when he swung his lantern jaw back around and the weirdo had actually done it (he managed to yell STOP before the underwear).

Luskonneg’s world was suddenly flashing blue and purple and orange static, terrible discharges from endless above to endless below.

His face was on its side on the desk, steaming like a meat bun.

He wanted to make sure it still looked happy.

He wondered if something bad was going to happen to him and then he remembered he was doing a million times worse in his head to everyone he looked at every day. If ——- took out his frustrations on him he would be tortured and flayed and pierced millions of times over in Luskonneg’s imagination in the ultimate power of never knowing it at all. Not just the ones that made him feel good but the ones that made him run into walls.

He was at the black hole centre of an inverted sunburst of solid gold pillars, slamming into him endlessly with dull clangour from every angle.

Luskonneg had already humiliated himself, and saw no need to move. If he tried to move something like that might happen again.

“Are you… drooling?”

Maybe he was. Did it look like happy drool?

He felt cautious fingers on his hips - the cloth now hanging loose around his hips pulling - he felt a hard point of alien cloth pressing his underwear between his legs. A black crystal was doubling its size and number of points and facets from inside his diaphragm twenty times a second. He had miscalculated himself. The line between imagination and reality was about be dissolved and every horrible thing he had ever imagined would spill out like the guts of a whale. “Stop! I don’t… I don’t wanna have nothing in common with you any more,”

The pressure immediately vanished. “In that case you already have nothing in common with me.” The clip of his fresh white rubber soles (he’d been given a brand new pair after standing in a mud puddle to impress a bunch of girls who laughed at him for it. Luskonneg stared at them between the chair legs in class) on the floor vibrated through the desk to his ear. “And you also just proved I can’t… even with a guy. Can’t believe I almost did that. Don’t talk to me again.”

TheLogicKingFTW, who Luskonneg considered his only friend - if you had posted 5000 times in someone’s server, you had talked to them more than most of his classmates talked to each other - would say this was a perfectly normal thing for any human to do in a free exchange of interests and anyone who felt bad about it was probably a latent narcissist. Luskonneg was a latent narcissist. He was still trying to invent scenarios that could salvage them kissing or something.

And what would he do then. They would probably end up cannibalizing each other.

But letting this end was already so bad he couldn’t compare it to things any more.

It was so bad, it might force him to stop things being bad, and that was the last thing he wanted.

He felt something like an endless army marching up through him. Waiting for him to point it at the source of his pain.

What was the source of his pain. Waves of ice static were rolling over his skin and the sharp reflections on the corners of desks surrounded by waves of evening reddishness were sparks lighting them on fire.

“I guess you’re right!” He planted his hands on the table and pushed himself up. “I have nothing in common with you! You’re not depressed and you can get it any time you want!”

As soon as the words were out the contents of his stomach followed.

The door that had just creaked open slammed shut again. “Oh fuck. Fuck this. They warned me about you. I should have just got out of the room.”

The boy’s hands pulled his belt back around his waist. The heel of one hand slapped his back several times as if any more contact would bring infection. Except then another hand, or the same one, was sliding under his armpit, between his briny yellow shirt-seam and already mostly discarded jacket. “Goddess fuck. Don’t tell the nurse anything when you get there, and pay me $50 for having to stay late and clean up after you, I might even consider being your friend or whatever. That’s basically just standing around and listening to you talk about dating sims or something, right?”

That army was already here. Its soldiers stood at attention behind his eyes. They swung his head like a drawbridge. Ready to protect all the fragile bad things he was made of - all the writhing worms just begging to be crushed. When ——- saw those pupils he saw the weaponized incomprehension of black ants. “Why. I won’t have anything in common with you.”

“We’re obviously both still miserable about something."

That was true, and Luskonneg’s heart was still spasming like a bird trying to get off the ground with a broken wing.

“And you still haven’t killed yourself about it yet.”

——- grabbed Luskonneg’s head with both hands, tilting it into something like the same angle it always sat at, to look him straight in the eyes. “Do you really wanna go back to that. While I’m holding up all your useless weight, you can’t even move, and there’s a window open.”

Black flame ate his memory.

A teacher found him passed out in the room. According to the records, ——- transferred to another school. No one ever mentioned him again.

The last time Luskonneg woke up it was evening again and all the fuzziness had moved to his throat and mixed with driness to become a sort of awful clay, and he had to eat, and he had made sure to have some burgers stored in the fridge beforehand, and it was over.

He didn’t “publish his results”, as it were, for almost a full work week (lol). He kept dredging the grey sludge of his experience over and over for some hint of anything he might have dreamed or felt during the hours he’d been unconscious, or waiting for some wave of afterglow to at least justify the experiment with wistfulness. He saw a plane cross the corner of his window once and thought of the animated visual language for the way even a hopeless love could feel like catching sight of something beautiful in passing by, and of course in thinking of it he didn’t feel it. When the sentences of the “report” he kept spontaneously turning over in his head were sufficiently scathing he cut his losses on finalizing it that way, both on the Drugs board and in an epic thirty-post Feed thread. He got positive notes on Feed from people who seemed to think he was making the whole thing up to go with his “cynical” brand.

It was official now. He wanted to die, more regularly and more seriously than he had in a long time.

He wanted to die so badly that if he didn’t he might start wanting to live.

Braz woke up with her large frame awkwardly enveloping a small plastic folding chair, unable to stand up without lifting it from the ground.

If that was supposed to actually prevent her from standing up, whoever had put her here had underestimated her physical coordination. Hands and upper legs alike ziptied to the chair, she levered herself carefully up and down until she found the optimal crouching angle in which to remain upright with her feet on the ground and move with the chair jutting helplessly out behind her. She estimated she could fight off one or two men with standard recruit’s training like this. She walked forward in utter darkness and silence - probably a sensory quarantine spell, but not a sophisticated one. The floor’s echoes rang with a particular shape she recognized as the marble of the sacred quarry The’lleth used in high-grade Ecclesiastical buildings.

She kept walking for what her internal clock approximated to five minutes without hitting a wall, and turned left. Same, extending her estimate to ten. She turned back in the other direction, doubling again, estimating the scale of the space. Infinite spaces had been made with magic by high-level clerics of the Dark Lord in certain legends and crank mages in unreplicable papers but she had heard of these broad flat catacombs under certain Ecclesiastical complexes, their use as psychological torture, and the height of the ceiling - almost scraping the top of her head even bent over to carry the chair, dripping something sticky and cold, seemed to confirm what she knew.

She knew what was supposed to happen next in this interrogation method. She hadn’t been trained to resist it - Dark cultists didn’t have the resources for it, and there was nobody who did you were supposed to resist interrogation by - but she had trained herself as an exercise, because Shaïgnar did that and if he ever went rogue, she supposed, she would have to be able to do what he did, but it also just gave them things to do.

She wandered around, attempted magic and different systematic movements, acted out stages of panic and despair. When she finally hit one of the walls - and grasped, by extension, the space of at least fifty hectares of homogenous emptiness she was enclosed in - she collapsed and started to cry - to her own surprise, genuinely, not that they would have been able to tell.

The voice came from everywhere (she had guessed from the beginning the scale of the space simply from the limits of the spell that would allow it to act as a transmitter/receiver, assuming the Ecclesia used the same units of preservers as her section, and was also keeping their interrogators in a totally separate building). It sounded like an average of every voice she had ever heard. The masking was a matter of procedure too, but at the level she and anyone doing this to her had to be operating, it was a near-certainty that if it hadn’t been masked she would have recognized it.

“Commissioner Braz, you are being held under existential threat authority but there are no charges against you. If you answer our questions satisfactorily you may be released with no memory of this interrogation. First: name the Ecclesiastical asset who made contact with the Dark Lord on the eleventh day of the third month.”

…what. Why the hell would they think she would know that? The Ecclesia wasn’t even supposed to know the identities of their own assets. Everyone close enough to the Dark Lord to figure into the [Taboo Preserver]’s reports was given a code designation and an open dossier with a set of basic context to parse their function in the reports. Anyone significant enough to become an asset was given a siloed team of handlers. During the Dark Lord’s childhood, Braz’s predecessor, Commissioner Iaid (Shaïgnar she respected, albeit probably in a different way than everyone else did; Iaid she admired) had supervised dozens of such teams; thanks to his success, by Braz’s time, the number of active assets under Elthazan’s authority had dwindled to six. (The last thing she remembered before this, in fact, she’d been finalizing instructions for a new team to handle that reply guy the Dark Lord had almost met up with.) She’d joked about the [Taboo Commissioner] but in a way, it was Ymañn who really commissioned them, transmitting his knowledge of the assets’ identities to an amulet for each member. When the members wore the amulets, they knew the identities of their targets; when they took them off, they didn’t. The amulets were bonded to their wearers by the [Taboo Preserver]’s spell so that if anyone else wore them, the information would be hopelessly scrambled. The Commissioner only managed the teams; she didn’t have any amulets herself, although she did know a fair bit about the assets from her teams’ reports.

The Ecclesia’s asset wasn’t even an asset in this sense. In their longstanding battle against the Dark cults that they considered to supersede secular efforts, they maintained a net of sleeper assets throughout the entire population, with no regular duties but awaiting any arbitrary mission. The current Colonel Inquisitor had considerably stepped up this program. If one of those assets encountered the Dark Lord, the [Taboo Preserver] was required to report it, and they flipped into another kind of asset entirely - one with special information from the [Taboo Preserver], managed by the same kind of siloed team. This was supposed to memory wipe everyone except the team that the person had ever been an asset. However, the current Colonel Inquisitor had also quietly revoked this policy, giving the Ecclesia privileged information on where and who the Dark Lord was.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” she spat, bleakly confident that it wouldn’t matter once she figured out how to give a serious answer. “You benefitted from the recent containment breaches. Do you think I’ve been spying on your assets? Did you lose them and think it’s my fault somehow?”

“You would benefit from the entire series of breaches if you can answer this question. I understand you think you have no reason to incriminate yourself to us. As unlikely as it sounds, that option will genuinely be better for you than the alternative.”

Wait. She remembered the notes. This latest encounter was a journalist.

Anything a journalist wrote in Winter City would go through Elthazan censorship. Braz had a station on the censorship chain to prevent their activities from getting out into the press. Whenever she got a story out to that censorship chain, they would probably be able to piece together from details who the Dark Lord was. Braz hadn’t even been considering doing anything with the information - she had expected to dutifully erase the memory as soon as it crossed her desk.

She didn’t really want to have to think about Ymañn’s tormentor as a person with a name and a face and an address, a certain combination of streetcars away from her at all times.

But if that was what they wanted they should have waited. None of the latest reports suggested the article was getting written any time soon, or in her opinion, would ever get written. Did they think she knew through the journalist registry some other way?

It had to be a trainee from Yn Dahh’t, but…

Wait, how many Yn Dahh’t trainees would be there be in Winter City? They usually went somewhere there was a crime beat, not cozy tourist traps with a culture sector.

“I might have been able to figure that out if you’d let me at all my files instead of doing whatever this is. You can’t be that confident that I didn’t just luck into this, can you?”

“The existence of the journalist is not the reason we believe you didn’t.”

Now she was really starting to panic. What the hell was going on?

“Can I attempt to address these reasons if you tell me them. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t feel insane to invoke under existential threat.” And they couldn’t do that unilaterally… suddenly, she imagined it was Shaïgnar’s voice under all the masking.

They stopped and let her languish for half an hour. Then, apparently satisfied she really didn’t have an answer to the first question, asked the second.

“What is the spell you have been Preserving for your last three Confessions.”

“Huh? There’s my wards, but those are all standard….” If Shaïgnar had put her under some non-approved ward… but then the Confessors definitely wouldn’t be able to tell.

“Is it possible…” she hated saying this, because it wasn’t. It shouldn’t be. “That I am not aware of this spell.” And it hit her - if she wasn’t, then the existential threat precautions made all the more sense. If say, the spell was supposed to trigger somehow when the journalist gave her the information - what spell? - if she were somehow being used to obtain the Dark Lord’s identity for someone…

That option will genuinely be better for you than the alternativep>


Maybe this was punishment somehow.

She thought back to her conversation at Contour. She still didn’t consider it a failure of piety that she didn’t think of the Goddess intervening in those kinds of ways on an everyday basis. As far as she was concerned, that the Goddess was perfect, self-aware, self-consistent Order was demonstrated best in the indifferent universality of Her laws. That she could use the ironclad law of causality, that nothing would happen if she didn’t do anything, or say anything, or even put a thought into words to contain…because the words were part of the consistency of the world and the feelings didn’t have to be - this now struck her as potentially an inconsistency in itself. And the Goddess corrected inconsistency, the Scriptures said, with inconsistency if necessary.

The voice had vanished again. She lay on her side, and imagined the drapery of [Taboo Preserver]’s enclosure falling around her, so opposite in texture but somehow like the heavy, rough traditional C’harnian curtains of dark grey goatswool yarn threaded with gold fibre that surrounded her childhood bed and made the world outside seem more wide and cold and exciting when they shifted at her touch and she felt a draft from the crack-open window.

She tensed, let go a shuddering sigh, and mechanically stretching her body out in release the chair cracked.

“Holy shit it’s” - and the voice echoed distantly, as if from the other side of a room, into the space and abruptly cut.

She tried various lines of clarification - and racked her brain for possible spells she could be Preserving, or bits of info that might narrow down the journalist - but the voice never replied after that.

The basic requirements of ordinary magic - the kind practiced by clerics and mages, as opposed to rhi cultivation or the wild magic of animals - were an Executor and a Preserver. These could be the same person, although recursion made a spell less stable - in the scenario where she knew what the hell was going on, she would probably be both. The Executor defined the spell as a relation between an action and an effect. The Preserver only had to repeat the action as long as the effect was to be maintained, unless it was a one-shot. Much of the modern workforce was employed as Preservers for standardized spells they had no conceptual understanding of, operating assembly lines or power grids or the internet. A Preserver technically didn’t even have to be aware of the spell they were Preserving, although such unwitting magic was rare; both because it was conventionally (as opposed to theoretically) Dark (military and Ecclesiastical agents of Braz’s rank were allowed to use it in keeping with approved mission objectives), and because the standard Executor-Preserver Contract that was the foundation of modern magic avoided the finicky recursion of an Executor having to define, Execute and Preserve a spell designating a Preserver.

In orthodox doctrine, the invocation of a spell by its Executor was a kind of prayer. Execution and Preservation both mobilized rhi, and magic users had their own rhi cultivation exercises which helped build the power to accomplish more difficult spells, in terms of complexity of parameters or scale of effect. But fundamentally if a spell succeeded it was because it had been sanctioned by the Goddess as compatible with the ultimate Order of the universe, a momentary law of physics for its defined parameters that would not leak out of them and conflict with the others. Which posed a problem for understanding Dark magic. The prevailing theory was that Dark magic was a sort of free riding, in the same sense as human evil but at a higher level of abstraction; the consistency of subtle, undiscovered congruence principles of successful spell definition demanded that certain magical forms and actions be possible despite contradicting the ultimate teleological goal of magic, and the righteous action of pious magic users was the feedback correcting this inconsistency.

She had good wards on her, so for her to be Preserving any spell against her will would mean her wards would have to have been circumvented, which would take an exceptional magic user and very close quarters. She didn’t go out much; her workplace was full of good magic users, but not on that level and under exceptional security. Most of the ones who could do it were with the Ecclesia; and it occurred to her that the simplest explanation might be that this was a setup, couping her from the Containment Board right when the Dark Lord was about to fall into their asset’s hands.

Dark penetration of the Ecclesia was the stuff of stupid conspiracy theories, message board heretics the likes of which the Ecclesia themselves didn’t bother to go after any more because they discredited themselves so easily. She didn’t like the Colonel-Inquisitor, but this seemed a bit ridiculous of a length to go to over organizational politics. Did the Ecclesia have some plan to deal with the Dark Lord in a way they didn’t think would be approved - a return to frontal attack? How deep would that go?

Eventually she snapped the remaining halves of the chair, which basically gave her free movement of her arms and legs, not that the restraint was more than a formality at this point. The door, wherever it was, according to procedure, had been magically sealed, and there wasn’t enough in the space to improvise a counterspell. It was possible to use the body as a substrate for magic, especially unusual and repetitive actions, but likelihood of overlap both limited the effects and decreased the rate of success of body magic; you were better off manipulating the body’s rhi field directly.

She was even wearing a standard grey captive’s jumpsuit, without any of the complexities of her military uniform (the uniformity of which was itself normally too much of an overlap factor, but a space this featureless did have the self-defeating effect of making spell definitions stronger). She stood up, breathed in and out, started circulating rhi - at this point no longer worried about looking helpless, not sure they were even monitoring her any more - and took inventory of her senses, waiting to notice any minor environmental regularity her captors might have overlooked.

Wait - if they had taken all her normal clothes and accessories, why wasn’t her hair piling up on her shoulders?

She had gotten so used to having it up she hadn’t even noticed. She reached behind her head and took hold of - it wasn’t cold and pitted like the traditional bronze of her usual barrette - it had sharp bumps and felt almost papery, fragile - she adjusted her grip strength, resisted a momentary counter-pinch, and, eyes narrowing in bewilderment, removed a six-inch stick bug from back of her head. An oily sheaf of relinquished hair swung against her neck.

“I was just about to make my appearance known.” A voice that sounded even more anonymous than the masked interrogator - like an automated answering system on a phone line - issued from the insect cradled in her palm, which she could now see as a ball of blue-purple light hazily illuminated everything in a small radius around it, including herself and the door-outline in the wall. “Your rivals are currently occupied with your own function. Praise the Goddess for the ironies with which she corrects us. This travesty of justice will come to an end and my master will punish their recklessness and arrogance by both official and unofficial channels.”

“Your Master?” The next word came out as a sigh of brain-melting relief swaddled in exasperation. “…Shaïgnar?”

So he did have secret familiars. Of course he did.

“Let go and step back."

She did. The stick bug opened the casing of its thorax and spread its wings. It shook them in a strange pattern, starting and stopping and vibrating almost in place where they stopped. If she had seen it on a branch she would have assumed some sort of mating dance. If she had watched it in slow motion and zoomed in, she would have been reminded of letters in a flag code.

The air around them roared like a vacuum. Braz’s newly loose hair pulled itself over her head and past her ears, a seaweed tunnel filtering her world. Her collar floated around her neck, and pulled on one side then another as the air-flow reversed. The crack in the wall beginning to narrow and shake, emitting a high-pitched whine. As she started to feel like she was being pulled back into the dark of the interrogation catacomb (her own version of the [Taboo Preserver]’s chambers, and the Dark Lord’s apartment, wouldn't that be consistent? wouldn’t that be right?) It popped out and inward, far enough the bug itself had to jump back onto her settling pants leg as the top edge of the featureless door-slab cracked against the floor just inches in front of her bare feet.

Nobody knew how animals could do things like that, or why they almost never did in the course of their ordinary lives.

She hoped this one was well-trained enough to know the implications of its doing things like that. This would just have a whole Ecclesiastical complex down on them, wouldn’t it?

But it turned out, the interrogation site was as compartmentalized as the interrogator themselves. A lightly ascending tunnel half a kilometre long opened into a warehouse full of magical substrates tucked away behind the meditational grounds on the Ecclesiastical Territory outside Winter City, an artificial lake and stream tucked between two terraced earthworks pyramids overgrown with natural local forest. They borrowed a parked groundskeeper’s buggy, the stick bug transforming effortlessly into a key. It was one of those weird close moons you miss because they’re in the early morning, although it was still a dreary, river-ice white-grey even at its size like a huge boulder slipping down from one terrace to another, the steps crosshatched with bare broken branches.

Shaïgnar met her at the gates. His three recognizable familiars stood by in half-hidden, but deliberately half-visible positions throughout the woods around - enough to disable whatever security would be operating at this hour if her specific captors were occupied.

“I’m sorry. I did have to sign off existential threat precaution on you, but I didn’t think this is what they would do with it. I’ll get this sorted out, and I don’t mean in your favour if it turns out you are screwing us somehow. Put this on.” He held out a little paper talisman, two strips braided several times at the top with flame- and wave-style scroll calligraphy inked down a central line. “And start writing down when it moves.”