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CW: slurs, masturbation, possessiveness, fantasy objectification, cogitohazard, OCD/perfectionism triggers, psychosis


Even though the internet was back up, it would be weeks and weeks before it was the same again.


Some of Luskonnig’s favourite artists and posters still didn’t have it for a few days - or have power, for all he knew. Connections were slow at times. Threads bumped at half their previous pace - except the ones speculating about the attack. Which was pointless. There was barely a trickle of information to build on, making most of the rumours obvious and silly in comparison, and the most interesting conspiracy theories were all censored. So many anons would gleefully dogpile the next idiot to say it was an inside job or the Dark Lord did nothing wrong, which happened so predictably, Luskonnig wanted to believe some kind-hearted trolls were now taking bans for the team, just to keep the threads going. Five days in, everybody knew they sucked, but nobody could stop talking about it.


‘Repetition-compulsion’,

Luskonnig typed.


‘What’s that?’

came the reply in seconds.


‘You can show off your fancy theological education but it doesn’t change the fact you’re on here with the rest of us,’

the second appeared while he was typing.


It wasn’t a theological term, he explained, it was psychological, and he knew it from watching The Consulting Analyst, which was a detective show for entry-level plebs he would have assumed they had seen in middle school, unless they were too young to be on this board. It meant when someone who has experienced a trauma feels the need to repeat it over and over again, either in dreams and delusions, or through some action that reminds them of it. What this thread was repeating was the first few days of wondering what had happened, what would happen next, whether they were safe. (The days he had not-so-mercifully missed.)


The silence was longer on this one.


‘Yeah some people are definitely just making the same post every few hours.’


Luskonnig had done this a few times though, it could be fun to see the different responses the same post would get each time.


And then, the interesting posts didn’t get any replies. For instance: “Seer In The Half Light. Watch if this gets censored within the hour.”


Of course if it was real it wouldn’t be, now that they had said that. And if it was, it probably wasn’t real. The censors were smart with rumours, knowing exactly what would and wouldn’t attract attention if it disappeared. But those were good arc words for some kind LARP or ARG. That was probably why others weren’t engaging with it. The attack had been serious - even though nobody had died except a few guardsmen in skirmishes with the shapeshifters and one elderly patient whose life support had gone down with the power, for most people it had just meant dark and cold and no internet. Luskonnig who had experienced much worse on this account than most couldn’t stand the over-seriousness. Then again, he wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to be appropriately solemn even in a real tragedy. Good thing that’s never going to happen. I’ve been hearing about this whole ‘Dark War on Terror’ my whole life and the enemy is… barely even strong enough to hurt me. (He spent the next two minutes adding details to a fantasy he had returned to almost hourly over the past week - in which he hadn’t been able to drag himself out to the coffeeshop, internet hadn’t come back at such a convenient time, and he had starved to death in this very apartment, his rotting corpse found by one of those scheduled maintenance people he had freaked out and thrown a wet cumsock at last time. Not without controversy, he became the second official civilian casualty of the Incident already fading from people’s minds, once the timing of his death and the (non)-activities leading up to it became clear. He became an icon to hikkikomori worldwide, who held online vigils for him and bombarded the government with messages demanding high-speed internet access be treated as a human rights issue alongside the no less unusual necessities provided equally vulnerable sufferers of chronic illness. In the mainstream his death was still considered not even strictly the terrorists’ fault, and prompted a more serious national conversation on the hikkikomori phenomenon which despite the staggering numbers like him he knew existed, had always failed to materialize, presumably due to the hypocrisy and shame of the general public. His parents… here he always found it hard to go further.)

I worry about everything else on the planet, and even I can’t bring myself to worry about this. All it is is a drama the public, the normie world, the namefag world, uses to entertain itself, speculating on real life like it’s an anime, but hypocritically pretending to be solemn and respectful about it. Because they never allowed themselves to admit the real world will never have an exciting, meaningful story like the shows they watched as kids, they have to collectively LARP something like this. Even the Dark cultists are in on it, they’re only like that because even normies would become like me if they didn’t exist. How can you blame the role-players and fanficcers when you’re doing the same thing except you’ve suspended your disbelief so far that you can’t even admit to yourself that the story’s getting boring and needs a few new twists, or even a parody? Maybe I don’t have any empathy or whatever - sure, I can hardly deal with my own emotions without having to deal with other people’s too - but my twisted personality is at least ideal for puncturing such pretensions - maybe that’s why I was born, or at least allowed to live this long.


So he typed back: ‘Getting banned isn’t the worst thing that could happen for posting that.’

And waited.


He had watched a whole episode of Job Interview Girl by the time he got a response.


‘This guy’s right. Cultists can’t post openly on here but that doesn’t mean they don’t use the internet. There’s gotta be at least one of them monitoring each of these threads, probably one for each major sect, and who knows about lone wolves. And it’s possible to run magic through the web too. My friend in magic academy who was working for the Inquisition on his grad project - well, I shouldn’t even have mentioned that much, but you get that I know what I’m talking about.’


This one sparked a flurry of attention.


‘oh h-hi cultist-kun, I didn’t know you were there’

(picture of a furiously blushing anime girl hiding a notebook)


‘Sure, and some of them spread bullshit rumours to make you think they’re watching you when you masturbate.’


‘The cultist reading this’

(moderately memetic gif of a gargoyle spewing shit-filled sewage at such high pressure its head explodes)


‘Only the Ecclesiax is watching you when you masturbate.

(hi anon’s totally real friend in the Inquisition)’


‘was that the first thing in your folder faggot? our Dark homies deserve the best’

(gif of an erect penis being rapidly skinned)


‘was your friend in the Inquisition also your girlfriend in middle school who let you do anal?’


(ASCII of a man gaping his asshole under a banner reading W E L C O M E D A R K C U L T I S T S E N J O Y O U R S I T E V E R Y M U C H !)


(picture of a noose)

‘I’m not sure who needs this more, OP for being a LARPfag or any cultfags who are actually reading this’


‘Did you see the thread on the paranormal board about the ARG that looked like a real Dark recruitment operation, and people would disappear if they tried to report these ARG sites?’


Luskonnig zeroed in and from there on filtered out all other responses.


‘…wouldn’t that…also be part of the ARG?’


The anon had posted it like that wasn’t obvious, so - he assumed - some effort had at least been put into making it not obvious, which was to say it sounded like a well-crafted ARG.

Better than the ridiculous one people are playing in their real lives.


ARGs had a certain appeal to Luskonnig because they seemed to represent… In Shunny Naïjda’s Hell Harrowing

one of the greatest anime of all time and a strong contender for Luskonnig’s personal favourite (though he had four or five, always rotating), the lost souls journey to the bottom of Hell to escape it. Below all the grotesquely original tortures and demons of the first twenty-three episodes, they find a spiral stair that goes on and on, totally unlit (originally this was to cut costs) but simple enough you can descend it in pitch blackness, they voyage down it in absolute silence until they lose track of how long they have been in it, and even - in episode twenty-five - begin to lose all sense of space, imagining labyrinths of blind stone around them every time they let go of its walls (the staircase is fairly wide), imagining each other lost forever when they let go of each other’s hands, Kamidzu lost forever on a hopeless mission back up the stairs to find one he believed had fallen behind - and at last when they reach the very bottom of Hell, it opens in the sky above the real world, and they drop from the sky, just like Azamiel, the demon who had fallen on top of the show’s iconic cowardly and reluctant hero Astig in the first episode.


There was a certain feeling of vertiginous descent into a conspiracy theory or an ARG, a deliberate heightening of all the normal characteristics of exploring online “database space”: the fractal expansion of maps of intangible details, the falling away of the physical world around you, the vertigo of the screen in the dark room, the thrills of uncanny juxtapositions and connections possible only in pure information unmediated by physicality, the sense of literal tunnelling depth to its glow, the unravelling continuity of consciousness and unconscious and world. And yet its promise - even if you don’t believe it, you feel it - is that if you go deep enough into this hell, this bottomless pit, you will come out the other side, you will find something that connects back to the real world, an opening onto it you didn’t have back when you didn’t understand the conspiracies of its worm-eaten obverse. Some knowledge valuable not only out in the virtual world but out there. Everyone knew, of course, that the internet was the last place to find a conspiracy. Everything was monitored. Spies, criminals, heretical theologians, Dark cultists, even avant-garde artists recruited IRL, in secluded library stacks, sleazy clubs, streets at night. There was nowhere safer than in your room on a computer. But it wasn’t impossible to suspend your disbelief. Especially since this latest attack, the tension of this so-called Dark War on Terror had been rising to such a fever pitch that inevitably, at some point, it would reach even them, wouldn’t it? They couldn’t stay safe in their rooms forever?


Luskonnig hit ‘New Tab’ and typed in the url for /x/ - Paranormal.


The threads here on the attack, he was soon kicking himself for not anticipating, were far better than on /b/. The conspiracy theories were less censored, because they were more unhinged. The government or the Ecclesiax weren’t threatened by anyone claiming the layout of magic damage in a blurry photo of the site matched the sigil for a fictional demon prince from a Second Era romance. And yet that seemed as plausible somehow as anything anyone was saying on the main board. The ‘paranormal’ was what magic itself had once been understood as before the Ecclesiax had systematized its study, extracted and catalogued and exposed (within its own strict hierarchy of information dissemination) all the jealously-guarded secrets of the masters and sects, living and, as far as they could manage, dead. Much of Dark magic, of course, had escaped their survey, and while outright speculation about Dark magic as defined in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was of course as banned on /x/ as anywhere else, if not more so, the known and unknown unknowns discussed there seemed to inhabit the same mists as it.


But no-one in the thread was mentioning any ARG.


He tried wordsearching ‘website’. All he found was debates about the legitimacy of news websites giving details about the attack, and a mention of an article speculating about the type of spell used being hosted on an expert’s personal website.


Maybe the people investigating really did disappear.


No longer looking for anything particularly specific, nor motivated to go back to the thread about the attack which had already been boring him, he went back to the archive and scrolled.


He let his eyes glaze over the icons, not even identifying most of them, and settle naturally on… a pair of yellow eyes in a black masked face, staring at him with an unsettling fixity.


Elphantom?


He would have expected that on /ln/ - Light Novels. Discussion had to be heated following this incident, but what was Elphantom doing on /x/? Had someone revived the Elphantom Code controversy again or something?


Luskonnig was only moderately familiar with the sprawling franchise. He had seen the most famous animated movie adaptation, but only because its director was a legend in his own right, and read a couple of the novels as a kid when someone had smuggled them into a school library, but as an adult the “where to start” charts were too labyrinthine and daunting, and the whole thing either appealed to edgelords or fangirls, as he understood it. Plus it kept the awkward conversations with parents away.


As controversial as it was popular, and frequently embroiled in battles with the censors, the gory and melodramatic Elphantom light novels portrayed a charismatic, handsome, virtually superhuman and ostentatiously insane Dark terrorist known only by his titular moniker. Though a series of cunning detectives pursued him and usually acted as perspective characters, everyone understood Elphantom was the real main character of the series. His elaborate plans, immaculate disguises, and shocking acts of violence captured reader interest more than the detectives’ own battles and deductions, and more often than not he won, leaving a trail of graphic and unpunished carnage previously unheard of outside of illegal pulps. As a commentary on actual terrorism like the recent attack, it was laughably shallow. Elphantom’s motives were safely distant from any real Dark ideologies: much of his appeal was that he seemed driven solely by a kind of romantic nihilism, rooted in a convoluted backstory Luskonnig had never bothered to look into (it had been retconned several times anyway).


Despite his disinterest in the franchise, the character was somehow evocative here, beckoning him deeper into that hell he could feel himself loitering the edges of. He opened a new tab.


His heart started beating faster as he skimmed the spaced lines of the OP. Its third was an URL. The thread wasn’t about Elphantom, but about a deleted Elphantom website that had been posted in screenshots on /ln/ and nobody had seemed to recognize or remember. After a few threads /ln/ crossposters had started showing up on /x/, talking about their strange experiences after using the site. One claimed a flaming skull, like that of the ambassador murdered by Elphantom in Elphantom in the Clocktower, had appeared in her closet. She had uploaded a photo which several successive /x/ threads had finally managed to prove was fake.


‘We got tricked by a bunch of worthless chuuni kids from /ln/,”

the OP complained,

“and some of you faggots are trolling yourselves for them and claiming they were actually being controlled by dark magic to make us look like clowns. What’s happened to this board?’


‘Nice reverse psychology OP, you’re not trying to start a general but you put the link in your post. Right. Who is shilling this so hard again?’


‘seer, is that you?’


This was referring, Luskonnig quickly gathered, to the supposed author of the website,

seerinthehalflight.com.


What a chuuni name, he thought. Exactly the kind of thing an Elphantom fan would come up with. But there was, too quick for any self-awareness to intercept, a feeling that only word-combinations like that stirred in him, a kind of flitting chill, almost physical and yet more real and mysterious than any of the mere interoceptions he could reduce most emotional states to if he didn’t distract himself from them.


The next page or so was solid shitposting; Luskonnig let himself sink into his usual numb rhythm before he was jolted again:

‘Guys I checked registration records. This site never existed.’


‘That’s it, this is an ARG.’


‘nobody’s found any of the usual ARG stuff, right? no messages in the image code or anything’


Negative. Luskonnig felt that thrill again. ARGs relied way too much on things like that, to the point that you could pretty much assume nothing real would. If somebody wanted people to suspend disbelief, they’d have to get more creative than that.


But for that matter -


Hadn’t he just been looking for this? And to just stumble on it like this, in the catalog… without any sign, nothing in the thumbnail had made this look relevant, he had given up, and yet it had drawn him somehow…


…was this the thrill of the first good ARG in a while? Or of real life, real chaos, breaking through his invisible walls to swallow him?


He skimmed the thread until he could find an image file of the original screenshots.


Most of it just looked like any old Web 1.0 fansite. (There were none of the ARG clichés like mysterious symbols, numbers, counters, or Creepy Image Thread images.) A page of fanart, drawn by someone with clearly above-average skills and grasp of composition, proportion, and other theoretical/formal dimensions of art, but not putting in enough time and effort to really make use of them. There were also long and kind of autistic-looking text posts, like ‘Elphantom is a Philosophical Novel’, ‘Literary Influences in Elphantom’, ‘Does the Phantom Killer Have an Endgame?’ (Nothing obviously spooky or occult like the Elphantom Code or its connection to Dark magic or anything like that.) A long analysis on Elphantom’s motives particularly caught his eye:


‘Nobody’s happy with Elphantom’s motivation because nobody understands it. Realist philistines think a radical ideologue should actually believe in his ideology instead of being given an excuse by the author so he doesn’t have to think about it, although the Dark has never had a coherent ideology and if you ask any of these guys to define or explain it, they’ll give some embarrassing oversimplification they read in a newspaper. True edgemasters think it’s not dark enough to explain his actions, and he should have some over-the-top convoluted tragedy like in their fanfics, as if anything could ever be symmetrical with all the shit he’s done and is going to do. A few of each want him to be a true nihilist or just an unexplained force of evil, as if the former exists and the latter isn’t just childish incuriosity. These are the only options that at least try to grapple with the bottomlessness of Elphantom’s depravity, his infinite and inexhaustible will to destroy, which seems incommensurable with any finite motivation, but both of them try to dress up lazy black-and-white thinking in self-aware sophistication without actually explaining anything. The only literary, philosophical motivation, the only one that actually explains Elphantom is the one he was given in canon by the author who’s spent way more time thinking about these questions than you have - probably long before starting the book. No amount of bad things in themselves would be bad enough to account for everything Elphantom does, but lost love - not involuntary celibacy, like some people who haven’t read the books put it, Elphantom fucks and makes men and women fall in love with him all the time, but lost true love - that’s big enough, because it’s purely negative, not a finite bad thing but the absence of an infinite good thing. Anyone can accept any amount of bad things if they hope things are going to get better, but nothing is going to get better for Elphantom no matter what he accepts, because he’s seen the best thing he could possibly have and he can’t have it. It is even, in a more serious sense than any of the ‘ideology’ fags want, a religious motivation: he was almost allowed a life in perfect accordance with Order, did everything in his power for it, and was mercilessly denied it by an Order too high-level for him to process, Time. So he becomes a believer in pure Chaos, either because it can be unconditionally at one with itself, or because it won’t desire any such thing; the fine theological detail isn’t the point. He doesn’t even have to believe, he is consigned to it. He is Time’s, and thus Order’s, sacrificial victim.’


Time? This, Luskonnig had to assume, had something to do with the specifics of Elphantom’s ‘lost love’ backstory (he did remember this being the backstory now, and part of the reason he’d never been sold on the series) that he still felt somehow silly looking up.


‘He has lost the thing - the Hope - that makes him human. I don’t mean this in the sense that he has just given up on or stopped hoping, the way the realist philistines mean when they say, well, why doesn’t he just download a dating app, try again, there are plenty of fish in the sea? I have to assume people who say shit like this are not aware of the implications of what they’re saying, or I’d be really edgy and walking around thinking they’re living dead who have already lost their humanity. If you tell someone they should keep looking and hold on to that hope, that implies that it does exist out there somewhere and they can find it, even if they die or stop looking before they do. Most people even do this, most won’t even really look for it because the knowledge that it could exist is enough for them to go on, and that’s fine, better not to lose it like Elphantom does. But Elphantom knows, doesn’t just believe, doesn’t just hope, because he actually had it. He knew what it was like, and then lost it, and for him to go back out there and say it’s just interchangeable with any old relationship, like he has dozens of in the books, would actually be giving up, telling himself it doesn’t exist. Obviously this doesn’t happen to most people who break up with their girlfriends or whatever, it probably hasn’t happened to you, but it happened to Elphantom because it was written that way because the author wanted him to rebel against the Goddess and become the person he did.’


(reaction image of a woodcut of a man with his head in his hands from a famous old deck of fortunetelling cards)

‘Fuck fuck fuck bros, I’m feeling it, I lost it all. Should I go Dork?’


Begging for the ban huh.


‘you’re never gonna do cool stuff like Elphantom, just gay shit like taking out the power grid for a few days. there’s easier ways to be a pain in the ass, like posting these shit threads’


None of it even close to applied to Luskonnig, someone who had never so much as gone on what he would consider a real date. Not only was he a hand-holdless virgin who had barely made eye contact with a woman since the first year of high school, he hadn’t had much in the way of real crushes, even obsessive unrealistic ones the way people like him tended to. There had been a couple of years when he had almost constantly, until he had put two and two together and realized something almost exactly what this writer seemed to be saying, and retreated in order to keep the ‘hope’ eternally as far away and abstract as possible, too abstract to lose. But it bothered him somehow.


The idea that regret could be the cruellest thing in the world, more than any pain… he had derived the same belief from a completely different pop cultural source. Damn, I wouldn’t have minded a chance to pick this guy’s brain if he was still online.


Wait, he? You’re talking about an Elphantom fan, who’s particularly obsessed with justifying his romantic backstory here. What makes you think this was a man?


Huh… a girl who does competent analysis about female otaku stuff that’s enough to sell me on a series I had no appreciation of before… and you start chatting back and forth on the internet… that’s certainly one way to finally get a girlfriend, Luskonnig…


…and cool fan art. And this whole site has something of a restrained, dark aesthetic that’s a bit less obnoxious than the usual chuuni from these types… she probably has nothing in common with the rest of the fandom, which she’s complaining about in half of these posts.


Guys who read Elphantom who aren’t literal Dark cultists or gibbering nutcases probably hit on her all the time, but they’re all douchebags who smoke too much and wear fake monastic chains and date like three or four edgy girls on the side, there is like a type and she must despise them…


I can almost picture her. Like, the way she draws everyone’s hair in this art, the very discrete and tapering way it hangs down, that must be how her own hair works, this style looks like she didn’t learn from a book but by copying from life, after all… Clothing, makeup, all of it, you can deduce from the sensibility of the website: like you said, dark and restrained… nobody’s that perfectly lined up with their aesthetic though (Goddess knows I’d be a cute girl), maybe she’s like fat or something. Hmmm, just a bit squishy, like that kind of soft, puni plush body that she doesn’t appreciate because her own aesthetic calls for a certain emaciated regal grace, but that appeals to a moe fan such as myself, especially insofar as it establishes a ‘gap moe’ with her personality…


You know, if he’s a guy he might be hot too.

Luskonnig had seen too much of every possible genre of porn to hold onto his heterosexuality.

Maybe a crossdresser? Maybe Xgender? Now we’re getting ahead of ourselves…


He rolled over to hit the lightswitch in one fluid motion, his pillow and baroquely contorted sheets now lit only by the romantic flicker of the computer screen. Shrugging his already-open shirt back off his shoulders, he slid one tense hand deliberately, as if drawing a sword, down the middle of his pants.


He looked at his forearm suspended over the shadow between his hipbones.

This pale, skinny body, which I’ve always been ashamed of, on the other hand, maybe she’d find elegant, refined.

He imagined them drawing him naked - him naked, their velvet shirt slipping partly off their shoulder as they eyed him up and down - them naked too, but forbidding him to touch them with the tip of their non-drawing finger. The chiaroscuro on the paper taking on almost ecclesiastical arches.


Them reaching out to stroke him with one hand and drawing him with the other…


(Moody blue-grey light dappled with sunset orange seeped through the irregularities in the closed blinds. He hadn’t even noticed what the weather had been since he had woken up, six hours ago, the lights still on as they had been all night.)


‘You know if this site got taken down it was probably by the cops. There’s no smoking guns here but this definitely could be read as Dark-sympathizing stuff, especially now. Even if this is all fake and an ARG you’re playing a dangerous game.’


Oh no, Luskonnig, you’re not becoming one of those,

are you? He shuddered at the words - so offensive they were rarely used even on the chans - ‘Dark chaser’.


‘Dude, by that standard half the posts in every Elphantom general on /ln/ must be Dark-sympathizing. Fucking concern trolls have been out of hand since the incident, spare us.’


He turned his head over to argue with his visualization of her, who was pressing into his shoulder.


Hey hold on. Isn’t it a weird coincidence that you were just reading a post about the dilemma of having a lover torn away from you by Time, and now fantasizing about a perfect relationship with someone you’ll never meet because their site doesn’t exist, and you’re only aware of it in the form of screencaps?


The bottom dropped out of his stomach. Like he had just been blown open by a cannonball. There was a deeper pit of hell here, the kind he had never dared to venture down, the kind with dizzying gulfs between steps.


Why did I… click on this… again?


He desperately tried to remember some previous thing he had clicked on or even dwelt on before this - or some evidence, even subconscious, that this was the ARG he was looking for and that finding it hadn’t simply been a coincidence - one connecting his actions not only to the possibility of Dark magic coursing through his computer, but to the content of the website itself - the idea of being denied a perfect love.


Calm down. This isn’t a real love you had and lost, like Elphantom, it’s one you’re imagining. Anything you imagine can be perfect right?


Usually he’d settle for comfort, or affirmation, or arousal, or whatever else recognizable a fantasy like that could give him. He hadn’t tried to fantasize about love in… it couldn’t be years, could it?


Man, you have a fucking waifu. You sound like a cheating husband right now, you know?


Smilia he had felt this way about, yes. The way he had known from her first scene - no, the moment he read her character Wiki before watching the show, because he had always done that as a kid and despite trying to wean himself off it later in his adolescence, slid back into doing it as an ‘adult’ to the point that he read more wikis than he watched shows - that the fantasy of her would be perfect and… inexhaustible. Moe at first sight.


That’s not a comforting thought. You weren’t even supposed to be able to have feelings for a 3D person like you do for Smilia - her designer said outright that was his intention!

When he had still allowed himself to dream of real life relationships, he had assumed there would be some other definition of love for them he’d have to settle for and learn to appreciate for its own beauty. Separate magisteria.


Does this even count as a 3D person, though? It’s words on a page. You don’t even know what they look like. You don’t even know if they’re real or made up for some elaborate ARG.


And you’ve only been thinking about them for… five minutes?


You haven’t even come yet. Focus on that, jackass.


But the theory had already formed in his mind, and roared in like a train to fill the hollow left when he all the heat and tension in his body were spilled over his stomach.


Maybe this is the curse. Maybe they recruit people to the Dark through the internet by magically making them feel an impossibly perfect love, breaking their hearts, and making them hate existence.


Although, since it’s me, I wouldn’t have the balls to become a terrorist even if I wanted to. So I’ll probably be a failed candidate and just kill myself.


(Why do people not talk about “Failed Candidate” being a trope?


Maybe the Seer In The Half Light would.)


(It had occurred to him, of course, that he might not be as scared of things if he didn’t care about any of them. But if that was the case, he would be all right now. He barely cared about anything any more. But even when he did something with real, material consequences and expected the worst outcome, anticipated it, there was something like an invisible wall that he ran up against when he tried to realize that destiny. A stutter in his spirit. No more or less than a purely abstract failure-compulsion. Repetition-compulsion. Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.)


But - you’re not in Elphantom’s position yet, are you? You haven’t been rejected and they’re not dead. The ‘hope’ still exists out there. Absurdly minute, but the point was that even an absurdly minute hope isn’t the total absence of it, right? The point of the Seer’s blog post - the point of your living this way - which was which again? Maybe one day, when you figure out how to crawl out of here, you’ll make up for lost time and travel the world or whatever, and at some bar in a faraway country under a rose quartz sunset, you’ll strike up a conversation with some dark stranger about Elphantom, and bring up the unique interpretation you saw years ago on a deleted website, and they’ll say -


Ha ha. He couldn’t even joke about that.


The ‘hope’ that he’d ever leave this place, for more than a brief excursion like during the outage, didn’t even count as a ‘hope’ any more. Death stood between him and the outside world. If he could force himself into the outside world longer than - than he had during the outage - he could, and would, force himself to die first. The ‘hope’ that his life, his humanity had hung on for the past year - more? - was that he could have a life he wouldn’t regret on his own, that everything that would be worth anything to him out there he could, theoretically - even though he probably wouldn’t - have in here.


If he were to fall in love with a real person, if that were to become essential to his ‘hope’, his happiness, there would be only one way this could hold true: if the person was online, if he could connect to them through the screen, if they could be satisfied being together virtually, or perhaps even they could come visit him, move in with him, look after him.


‘Anyone know if this person has any current accounts?’

he typed.


The sixteen minutes he did almost nothing but refresh the page - the thread had been old and not very active when he found it - or go to the front page of the board, skim through and refresh that - were agonizing.


‘No, nothing attached to the name or anything of the old identity at least, you can see people went looking in this thread. >>57979896 Even searching keyword combinations from some of these rants. And this was a personal website, not a blog, so we can’t track down old friends or anything.’


His stomach plummeted.


Get a hold of yourself. You have no idea if they’re anything like you’ve imagined

- you haven’t even imagined them that clearly -

they’re probably some fat annoying girl or they deleted the website because they stopped caring about Elphantom or anything else and got an office job and became a dog mom. Well, they have to be more interesting than the average Elphantom fan but. Would that even make them compatible with you in a relationship? You’re not interesting.


And? If that was the proof that sent him into despair? That the perfect person for him - didn’t exist?


You can’t be having feelings for - just words on a page. They’re not even words you care about. You don’t even read Elphantom.


What he was reacting to was the image he had formed in his head. The image that was already evaporating as his hands left his dick. That was familiar territory. He knew how that worked.


Luskonnig fantasized about camgirls - and a few boys - all the time. Constructed entire personalities, manners of speaking, for them, with a commitment he had never been able to attract success in fandom by mustering for an OC. True, compared to this there was usually a speed bump, he had to work himself up more. And he had never come close to anything that felt this close to right since the time he….


He sat up, fell over dramatically on his back and laughed.


It was a wheezing laugh that made his back hurt as his skinny shoulders moved even against the mattress.


If I’m in love with something in my head, that’s perfect - then what happened to Elphantom can’t happen to me! Right, what they’re saying happened to Elphantom can’t happen to anyone, this idiot is flat out wrong about everything - and I’ll seduce them by proving they’re wrong - because I can make…

a tulpa!!


A shiver recoiled through him at the moment he thought it. For a long time making a tulpa girlfriend was one of those few things he had held out as too pathetic even for him. And making one of a real person, not even an anime character… But if this person was right, never finding the one person you can truly love would be more pathetic than even that.


Could he make a tulpa that could write things like that? He couldn’t -

no, that’s not true, I totally could write something like that, he thought. It almost feels… like if I had been a girl, if I had read Elphantom, whatever, like I’d have… like I’ve written that before.


With that he brought the image into his head again.


Naked, he tried to imagine the body first - suspended in airy blackness as if in some sort of glass tube - his dick distracted him whenever he hovered over the nipples (rich, almost purple) or pubes (just fine enough to see between each black hair) or even something like, the two buttons of collarbone rising rounded from the soft pale neck flesh, the surprisingly large and pillowy eyelids with scraggly scratched-out lashes - the eyes flew open - the experiment was awake Heheh, what are you doing?


What was the look in those flashing blue-green eyes?


Was she already-


His own were open, and the evening light on the ceiling was hellish flame.


OK, try something simpler.

Just picture her sitting in your chair over there, don’t lose her, until you can think her all the way over without losing your composure.


God, how often did he even use that chair any more? Sitting up was so uncomfortable. He hated feeling his bones against it - hated thinking of his bones.


All he was picturing was a black slouched shadow, like the chair itself cast against the wall. A comforting presence, like the last time his mom had come into his room to try and help him sleep and not gotten mad at him. He could almost see it with his eyes open. Hair hanging down onto shoulders, hoodie clustering in the chair, playing with a pen, tablet moved to the table, a skull -


A what?


The image was completely gone.


He tried to think about how hard he should think about this. He decided to think about it as little as possible. He’d gone down tangents like this before that got unthinkably horrifying from an accidental bubble in his brain foam. One of his therapists had told him this, when he’d had a therapist. But how could he try to picture her, and not…?


Just try and think about her again. Maybe not the visual, your imagination always runs away with you, just answer some basic questions about her first, flesh her out. Like:


Is she or is she not interested in Dark magic?


Eww, of course she’s not, I couldn’t fall in love with a cultfag,

and yet - the person who wrote this clearly took this stuff seriously, wouldn’t be as endearing if they didn’t. And the person in his head wasn’t the kind of person to take an idea seriously and hold back from following it somewhere scary or even disgusting because society wouldn’t let her; wasn’t like him, in that sense. She couldn’t fall in love with

him if she was - falling in love with a smelly dirtbag otaku who constructed a tulpa of you in his head because of a blog post was just as pathetic as getting into Dark magic because of a light novel. And if she was the kind of person to understand him the way he wanted her to, and too scared to even dabble in something like that, she’d be just like him too; she wouldn’t leave her room or talk to anybody, even in his head….


Argh! What’s the point of a tulpa if you’re going to talk yourself into logic traps like this?


“But that’s the point of love,” came her voice in his head, “that’s why you can lose it absolutely and lose your entire world and the Goddess with it, there are conditions and necessities, inhuman laws. You can’t pick and choose a headcanon. Do you want it or don’t you? And of course if you don’t…”


He closed his eyes. Hers flared blue. And now - he was thinking of it because he was trying not to think about it, he knew, it wasn’t any more vivid than an average intrusive thought, but it was there, he couldn’t shake it - the skull’s. Blue, flaming, a particularly vivid white flame flickering around its teeth like a tongue.


Hey, didn’t you start this because you were worried about a curse?


No, thinking back on it little more than a minute (really? it felt like an hour - but the computer clock said - that happened, sometimes) later, that reasoning hadn’t made any sense, no one but a god had that kind of magic power, and the Goddess and the Serpent didn’t do things like that.

God damn it you fucking idiot how do you think of these things you better not get yourself scared shitless about a curse now.


You better not get cursed now, you mean.


He lay back, totally stiff. When he felt paralyzed like this he liked to paralyze his body, holding himself as still as humanly possible until he broke and did something.


He thought about his skeleton, perfectly still, and thought he heard a wordless whispering from inside himself.


He sat up bolt upright, tried to scroll through the rest of the thread to bring himself back, found his eyes glazing over, and clicked over to /ma/.


Luskonnig knew nothing beyond a high school level about magic - and barely the last two or three years of that. /ma/ was one of the few large boards he almost never went on. But it occurred to him - if anyone knew anything about the possibility of transmitting curses through the internet, they would be there.


He opened another tab.


First, to not look like the complete newfag he was, he opened the archive and tried a few basic keyword combinations. He had soon spent half an hour reading a year back through threads that affirmed, with almost suspicious regularity, that cursing through the internet was impossible, and in which magic users swapped stories about how they’d had to educate their gullible family members and friends who had fallen for hoaxes in chain emails, about how the Censorship Board should expand the definition of or devote more resources to cracking down on (legal term) “miseducation”.


And then there would be, in each thread, the occasional comment stepping back and reasserting that for any newfags reading, your first year textbook wasn’t wrong, from a general, theoretical perspective, it wasn’t impossible, any relationship between two objects involving a reciprocal regularity of action or state (Zagrew’s Law) could act as the vector for any kind of spell, and this included other spells (which the internet was) provided they compensated for magic bleed. The issue was that the internet’s massive complexity and distribution made the magic bleed enormous and prohibitively costly to cancel out; the sheer number of magic users, including highly trained security specialists, maintaining it made it easy to notice and intercept even if one somehow did, and they could do it from anywhere.


It was very much like the difference in difficulty between Dark cultists attacking a temple and simply taking out the power grid across a large area (and hijacking some of the finely tuned weather spells, but those were maintained by a smaller number of specialists), and distributing a curse through the grid directly to all the thousands of people it served. If something like this had been possible, modern infrastructure would never have been worth the effort of developing in the first place. Any Dark magic user who had the power to launch curses through the internet would have had the power to do the latter, and not have needed to resort to the former, so in this particular case, almost designed as an educational example, it was especially absurd to contemplate.


The last time Dark spells had been transmitted through networks like that, in fact, was when the last Dark Lord was active, which was why everyone had to take a half-year survival course in high school anticipating, among other things, the lockdown of all civilian magic networks if the Dark Lord were ever to break free of whatever containment they supposedly had him under.


It was strange that on /ma/, where 90% of threads were so densely technical Luskonnig could barely read a third of a sentence in, threads on popular and sensational topics like this read in the tone of an instructor on a field trip, speaking to an audience with whom they had no particular rapport or idea of their background familiarity, full of those telling and patronizing omissions like that not even the chain emails these days talked about direct network hijacking but “inexplicitly overlaid” point-to-point spells that defined a small number of targets connected by the internet with a distinct relationship technically non-overlapping with but indirectly influenced by the internet connection (this was the holy grail of the file sharers). He supposed the question was how many lurkers like him were on /ma/ at any given time.


Tulpas, themselves, weren’t technically magic - they were purely internal, not based on a relationship between anything and anything else - but there were various magical techniques to realize them to certain extents. These were hard to manage in their own right, of course, and affecting one through the internet would be even harder.


But on some level… the logic was sort of vague to him, but it sounded like the problems solved each other. The extreme mental specificity of a thoughtform made a distinct target at the other end of the internet connection that could be specified without taking all the complexities of routing into account.


They couldn’t have guessed the thoughtform he would create, that he would create one, that… but it all followed from the text, the text had made him do it, it had given him no other option, with inexorable logic.


Surely it had been written for someone out there who would follow that logic through to its conclusion?


Or was there anyone who wouldn’t?


He didn’t have an idea of how normies with love and fulfillment in their lives would react to a post like that, but he supposed they wouldn’t be reading it anyway.


He had imagined it being written as a love letter, a message in a bottle, a cry for help. If it could be any of those things, why couldn’t it be a meticulous mental trap, a curse?


Why?


Why did Elphantom do any of the things he did?


Oh God. It explained itself. It all fit too perfectly.


The more he tried to remind himself how little sense it made, the more it made sense.


This has happened before,

he reminded himself. And usually you can’t make head or tails of it the next day.


That was what his psychologists had told him, before they had given up on him, and vice versa.


So everything’s fine, right? Go back to making the egregore,

a mirror of his face with a big stupid manic inhuman grin, with eyes bulging out of their shadows, said, and he closed his eyes and obeyed, and immediately the skull was there, so real this time he was afraid to try to open his eyes and find they were already open.


It left a blazing blue afterimage on the swimming light on the posters, the crawling shadow on the plaster, the horrible anthill of his senses…


No use. You couldn’t even if you wanted to, now. It’s an intrusive thought and you’re triggering it. You’re going to have to get rid of it.


These days he didn’t really have any reason to get rid of “intrusive thoughts” when they came to him, 90% of the time. He could spend an entire day riffing over and over on one, turning it around like a prayer-wheel, like a mantra, until it stopped meaning anything, until it was comforting, until it was arousing. This one was different. Nothing had felt like this in years - the pressure building, the heat of hell inside him, every time he turned it around, not a prayer-wheel but a thumbscrew. Not just the skull, but the original thought, the thought of the text, the thought of who might have written it, the whole curse he had been trying to escape and cursed himself -


She was there too, like an afterimage, a succubus hovering over his shoulders. Beckoning him to lean back, into her arms, and be consumed by whatever -


Intrusive thought. Psychosis.

The diagnoses still stuck. He had never been so glad for the sniffy, patronizing voice of the psychiatrist in his head. He had felt like this before. He had only ever found one way of dealing with it. The psychiatrists had never suggested it, or supported it, because it wasn’t compatible with the kind of life he was supposed to have.


And who really wanted a life like that, anyway?


Luskonneg minimized the internet window and opened his music player. He rolled over on one side (away from the phantom arms). He selected his all-instrumental playlist - lyrics could set him off on a rollercoaster of association, interpretation. It was mostly progressive metal, wailing guitars wandering and never resolving over syncopated bestial heartbeats of synthesized drums. Ten, twenty, thirty-minute soundscapes. They evoked in him some sort of dark landscape, a shadowy but pure landscape of rock and smoke, a planet before life but rich with chaos and order, with fractals that appeared and disappeared. He closed his eyes.


He could stay awake for hours like this, listening, coccooned, wandering. It could take that long, it could take days, but eventually any thought would erode. Any curse. Nothing could touch him without eroding.


And eventually it did. And with the only force that could resist erosion - boredom - scratching at him, he rolled back over and opened the internet again.


He was still on /ma/. The thread about curses hadn’t updated, and had locked. He closed the tab and found himself back on /x/. The thread on Seer’s website was still open with nothing but a lonely anonymous “bump” having updated since he had last seen it. So someone else cared about this… did they care in the same way he did? Or had - he couldn’t remember the caring - it was buried under layers of grey confused sediment he didn’t dare scratch at. Were they cursed too, desperately banging on the door of the thread for someone to free them (But I don’t care, that means it wasn’t a curse or love or whatever I thought it was…) He thought of answering, trying to put words around what he had just experienced, dispassionate enough not to awaken it again but just enchanted enough to evoke frisson, provoke a screencap, become part of some accretion of memories that he fished in the dark waters for on days like this… (He was suddenly aware that the sun would be setting outside. The only window in his apartment was in the kitchen which he barely ever went into - hadn’t been in today - and he kept it covered by straitened blinds and a curtain, all electric lights blazing in the main room around him. The first weeks he had lived here the changes of light, particularly the morning and evening, had been overwhelming. The warm colours were like some alchemical fire-water rising from within him, drowning him from the inside, overflowing his eyes in the form of tears. Time itself burning. The outside world he had abandoned flowing in around him, purified of all distracting forms into a solution of pure being he couldn’t touch, sweet lava, suffocating his heart. Every now and then he could still feel it, without the slightest change in his monotonous light, prowling around his carefully warded boundaries like a tiger, strong enough to knock down the walls but content to taunt him.)


It was the thought of someone just like himself a few hours ago on the other side of the connection, longing for someone to understand what he was going through, that triggered the sudden jolt of cruelty that decided for him. Giddily, as if he had just chugged an energy drink, he closed the thread.


Warm in the satisfaction of his impulse, he sat up. He scrolled up and down the catalog of /x/, not reading the threads, barely even registering the images. He rocked back and forth.


It was over.


Wasn’t it.


Then as if in equal and opposite reaction a strange foreboding crept up the back of his neck as he let the rhythm of the scroll bar slow, as words began to slip past the blur of motion.


“Cross-dimensional contact vs. tulpas: War of the Waifufags: FINAL EDITION”


“what’s the Darkest thing you can post without getting banned”


“Let’s settle this once and for all, can ghosts haunt computers? also true haunted computer thread no copypasta”


“THE RATS IN THE WALLS THE RATS IN THE WALLS THE RATS IN THE WALLS THE RATS IN THE WALLS THE RATS IN THE WALLS THE RATS IN THE WALLS”


“stare at this sigil to find out if you’re cursed. 98% effective, /ma/ poster certified”


The pendulum stopped.


Three voices, almost simultaneously: -

You’re not actually going to click that, are you? - How would it hurt, if everything’s fine? - Dude click it now, that’s gonna get deleted in like 30 seconds


He clicked, and expanded the image, and waited.


The sigil, black on white, was a circle with three small triangles pointing downwards beneath it. A small lick of ink between the circle and the triangles, almost like a single tongue of flame. From the mouth of a skull…


He wanted to click out of the thread- but he was frozen- he needed to wait- needed to see-


The most horrifying face he had ever seen, filling his screen, filling his vision, filling his brain, screaming…


Another long night and this would be the first week in over a year, Luskonneg realized ruefully, that he had been unconscious for more than half of.


Mostly that had been when the internet was out. And then he had knocked himself out freaking out over a jumpscare. Unironically.


The sleeping wasn’t the half of it. How was he supposed to recover from this week, even by the precarious standards of his own dignity?


He sighed. It was noon. He wasn’t even looking at the clock. The light was the same as always. He just knew it was noon. The cruellest hour, the bluntest, the most comforting. A distant teacher with a switch, a demiurgic god.


He would do what he always did. Go to the one place he had dignity.


He sighed, and opened Feed.


If nothing else, weeks like this gave him things to think about. To post about. To instruct those half-normie plebeians beginning to descend into the dungeon, the endless tunnels of the abyss he called home.


‘People who are only sexually attracted to 2D like to act like they’re so pure and holy. Dirty 3D is fine for dirty things like sexual fantasies, but what is a 2D girl, a Kleenex to you? 2D girls are for falling in pure love with. Isn’t this like when priests become celibate to show their devotion to the Goddess and then decide to molest kids instead? Guys like me may not be pure enough to give up on sexual desire entirely but at least we keep it where it belongs.”


Of course, this was complete rank hypocrisy on his part, he thought, ruefully looking down at the body pillow next to his head.


He had stained it with cum three times trying to wipe that face - those three faces - from his memory.


Braz frowned. “That take is too hot.” She pointed from the elbow, still pressed against her side as it would be when her arms folded again. “The internet is big now. He could still make friends and enemies, build a following, everything it would take for him to awaken to his destiny on there now, if he starts attracting attention. We can’t get him off it, but we can’t just treat it like last reincarnation when it was just a bunch of eccentric village mages arguing about spells they couldn’t use in greentext. Ban him for a few days.”


The containment officer, stationed at a computer with backdoors to every major social media platform, individual citizens’ computers and the underlying magic frameworks of the web itself, logged into Feed in admin mode and nonchalantly locked Luskonnig’s account for a reply swearing at a game developer a week and a half ago.


It was a striking day in Crach-Houarnez, capital of C’harn, if not as striking as it would have been anywhere else. Stiflingly dark as if a lid was being closed over the sky and pushily windy, and barely drizzling tantalizing gossamer sheets of rain.


Braz stepped out of the doors at the end of the long steep stone staircase - shining and even its echoes shining - that ran down the tower at the front of the government building which housed the containment office (five floors up) and immediately started hearing the specifically pitched tinnitus indicating a psychic transmission from the Inquisitor.


Without thinking she picked up. Then realized she would have to get somewhere she could focus. She couldn’t do that while scanning for a cab or even


I can’t hear you here,

she thought.

It’s too busy. Call me back in a few minutes.


She could hear the urgency in his mind.


She ran into the first door she could find leading down to the Underground Harbor.


Mountainous - or rather, terraced - as the rest of the country (known as the Thousand Plateaus) of which it was capital, most of Crach-Houarnez was situated several dozens of meters above the harbour that had for centuries made it the major source of trade flowing into C’harn. When mass-scale magic had grown shipping traffic beyond the capacities of its natural fjord, the architects of Crach-Houarnez, encouraged by the widespread success of infrastructure projects such as sewage systems, had decided on the nonetheless never-before-attempted solution of blasting long channels for the sea out from under the cliffs. In the busiest places these ‘inverse docks’ even went below the outside sea level through a series of locks, allowing them to pool up to three layers beneath each other. The largest, most complex and vibrant underground city outside the Anthills of Gnush soon sprang up around them. Where the Crach-Houarnez above ground was stunted, stoney, and at the mercy of stormy skies, the Underground Harbour was a brightly lit, densely decorated phantasmagoria.


Finding her way to where the light soothed her, she sat down in a tiny booth and ordered a ramen, and called the Inquisitor back.


- We interrogated one of the cult leaders. A guy we’ve had a lead on for a while, although he almost slipped us. The Initiator of the Black Mushroom.


- Those are the ones that are borderline insane, right?


- I’d say that for any Dark Cultist… but no, we’re well aware of the issues around the reliability of an informant like that, but the way I see it that’s an asset because we know how he’d lie, and what he told us didn’t sound like it. It’s also consistent with a few rumours we didn’t consider corroborated enough to talk about until now.


So, all the alliances we’d heard about between the different cults were real, but they hadn’t been planning this attack together. The whole thing was one guy’s idea - someone unaffiliated, whose name has only showed up in the margins of anything until now. He’s supposed to be something of a magic specialist, and just about everybody who’s mentioned him has been scared of him. The Initiator had been relying on him since the last time we infiltrated their supply lines to keep their whole recruitment in the clubs under our radar somehow, you know, the thing where they drug people’s drinks and give them the command hallucinations… The other cults he had blackmail over and stuff. He’s been setting up something like this for a while, it seems, and had the whole thing planned out to the last detail. He’s also the one who developed that spell they used. He paused. He didn’t tell anyone how it works, except the ones using it, who they killed.


- That seems like a bit too much opsec for such a small attack. It almost sounds like…


The Inquisitor transmitted the image of himself nodding at the other end of the phone.

A test run. That’s why we’ve just made capturing this guy our top priority, over identifying the shapeshifters, breaking up the cult alliances, or any of the things I’d been saying were most likely to become bigger threats. So here’s what we know:


They call themselves the Seer in the Half-Light. They wear a magical hooded cloak that looks like storm clouds - as in, the colours move like storm clouds. Underneath it they’re supposed to be… very pretty, which is another reason so many cultists hate them. Mid-length black hair. Thin face. They’re pretty much always moving around, doing some kind of petty crime or confidence scam to support themselves, but we haven’t figured out what since they also mind wipe themselves off records very effectively. Might even be a sex worker. Put your ears to the ground if you hit the brothels, huh? But one place they keep showing up is universities and Ecclesia, probably trying to access or steal advanced magic research.


That whole description sounded like something made up, an > otaku’s idea of a Dark cultist. A cringey OC, presumably complete with a tragic and tortured past. Like Elphantom or something. - Anyone hate them enough to co-operate with us going after them?


- We’ve created a magic channel for anyone who wants to pass us tips.


- What if their allies get in on it?


- The security’s on the highest level we have because they might get into it, we know they’re capable of jumping secure lines. But it sounds like we really don’t need to worry about ‘allies’. They’re acting practically alone, only working with cultists they have direct leverage over. They’ve fucked with every established power player they’ve come across. It’s not a question of does anyone hate them enough, so much as does anyone not fear them.


This, too, felt more like fiction than reality. Pop culture made Dark cultists out to be rebels, loners, haters of everyone and everything, but for all their baroque and petty schisms and infighting, most of them were people who desperately wanted to belong somewhere, and fell into their place in whatever facsimile of society the Dark offered them with a devotion few had, even in the government or military, for the real society Braz was part of. And of course they were all ready to subordinate themselves at a moment’s notice to the Dark Lord.


- Well that’s good news. We’ll find them somehow, if we keep our noses to the ground and wait.


It was one thing for a character like that to exist outside of fiction. Apparently they did, but accepting that didn’t mean Braz had to accept yet that they could be a threat outside of fiction - that was a step further. They had pulled off one of the most disruptive Dark attacks in a while, but the “while” between those was getting shorter and shorter, and weak groups - and occasionally individuals - got lucky all the time.


That was what Braz’s instincts said. But something about this story also felt like Braz’s normal instincts didn’t apply to it.


She spooled and let down her ramen and let it grow cold as, with the dreamy calm of someone who had long ago killed the living part of her that would vibrate with pain at the mere thought of such a worst-case scenario, she tried to figure out what it was.