CW: alcohol, drug aftereffects, social anxiety, rape fantasy (as victim), exhibitionist fantasy, cleaning anxiety, food waste, male gaze, mind sharing kink, pedophilic ideation, false accusation anxiety, sex toys, dirt/mess, cannabis, insects, thought-reality causation, separation

It was early afternoon. Contour was empty - not open yet. Braz had entered not as a customer, but as a military investigator, with the customary death’s hand knock. But she had slumped down at the bar, where Uñuez was checking her inventory, with the expression of someone who had just lost a lover, a job, a parent, or their self-respect - or all at once.

Uñuez had poured a white tea gin just out of courtesy. Braz hardly touched it.

“Tell me honestly.” Braz had pinned Uñuez’s hand - warmly and softly enough to still be friendly; tactically, inescapably enough to be threatening - “Did Lacriz Aeeth know beforehand I would be there that night?”

Uñuez laughed gently, performing that method-actress ignorance to the nature of the situation she was in that had gotten her through so many more dangerous than a guilty Rraihha Braz. “Oh, goodness! I’m genuinely, unbelievably sorry, I thought they might be your type but not to this extent - that you’d either lose your precautionary rigour around them, or get so flustered you’d think you did! To be clear, it’s not the first time that’s happened here, or been cleared up. Knowing you, I hope and wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the latter, although I know nothing of the situation you’re responding to and imagine I never will. You didn’t really… go up there and confess something confidential, did you?”

Not really. Not like that. Something so secret they’d never think of to explicitly prohibit. But referencing several confidential things, either way.

Braz looked awkward in a way Uñuez had never seen her. It almost seemed too exaggerated for this kind of passionate, chivalrous, entirely conventional military scandal. “I’m sorry for involving you in a line of investigation that still seems insane to me. If it’s true the fault is mine, but it should… still be almost impossible for them to be involved in the thing I’m thinking of in the way I’m thinking of, and I hope there’s something simpler I’m overlooking. On the other hand, it should be almost impossible for anyone else.”

That is, it should be almost impossible for magic to operate on thoughts.

Even improvised magic, or the wild magic Shaïgnar’s familiars used, didn’t spring from their thoughts, but the movements they made in accordance with an instinct or law that humans could no longer access.

Today’s magic theorists understood there was nothing inherently exceptional about thoughts that made them impossible to use as magical substrates. They were not, as had once been supposed, pure expressions of the Will of the Goddess that could not be placed on the same plane as material creations - a model that had caused innumerable theological problems. They were material facts like any other - exchanges of electrochemical signals in the brain. The fact that they had taken so long to identify as such was the problem. Thoughts were far too complex, too subtle, too varied, to define as substrates. Defining them as effects - as in the buffs on the Dark Lord - had already been a major breakthrough, though improvised magicians had reportedly been achieving them for thousands of years. Those were extremely general, affecting total domains of cognitive function as defined and refined over centuries of psychological research.

“Do you have any idea where they might be?”

“Impossible for anyone else… you mean like in terms of information, or abilities? If that’s not too much for you to say.”

Braz narrowed her eyes, trying to keep her thoughts from being submerged by the mob of screaming mouths erupting from the bloody pulp at the back of her skull. “Abilities?”

“Oh, I don’t just mean in bed. I’m sure they’re good - yes, I’m sure they’re that good - but they might know some rare magic from Voidhanger Abbey too. Or did they not talk about that?”

Braz had a poker face that wouldn’t break under torture, but the elevator dropping in her stomach was the most stress she’d ever had to subject it to. “Wait, when you said they were a priest I thought you meant at some local parish. They went to Voidhanger Abbey?”

“So you didn’t get the full story.” Uñuez frowned. She would feel bad if she had been a piece in someone’s spy operation - but she really hadn’t had any idea herself Braz would be there that night. “What did they tell you?”

“Someone important to them died… They entered the priesthood only thinking about death, and left it more interested in the spark of life…” She was only remembering abstractions, and it wouldn’t have to have been any magic in spite of Uñuez’s wards, because it was a social engineering technique, the abstractions had taken up all the memorable structural points in the flow. “They were at Romarosa before, in…"

“Theoretical Mysteries. The death, at least, you can corroborate. If you really want to know more about them, look into what happened in the Theoretical Mysteries department in 3384 - maybe someone like you will be able to find something out that a regular person like me can’t.”

“Was it… suspicious?”

“Not in itself, an open-and-shut suicide, but one of their star professors was let go at the same time.”

Braz tapped on the table distractedly. “…how did you know them before?”

“They spent a month here visiting from Romarosa, searching for some obscure text. On behalf of the professor who was let go.”

Braz’s eyes flashed. “Was it a magic text? Was it Dark? I know you don’t forget these things."

Uñuez wrinkled her eyes. “It was a transcription of an obscure Druid poem. You know how those are - they don’t exactly have titles, not the kind you can remember.”

Druid poems, Voidhanger Abbey - an institution that taught not only the doctrines and sacraments of Silmenon clerics, but the rhi techniques of Miwa monasticism, and integrated them in prayer and asceticism. Lacriz Aeeth’s domain of curiosity seemed much broader than the old romantic rites they claimed had sparked their interest - they seemed to have feelers in all the outlying realms of magic and theology at once. That was what a Mysteries researcher did, but.

Even to enter at the undergraduate level of a Mysteries program, one had to pass a whole gauntlet of psychological tests. The qualifications for higher degrees were comparable to those for the upper tiers of security clearance. A suicide in a Mysteries program, by itself, would have been a scandal. The professor might have been fired not for any involvement but simply for failing to prevent it. Because if they couldn’t see the warning signs of that, they might not see the warning signs of someone going Dark either.

Uñuez’ eyes widened. She floated over to and opened another cabinet - “You know, it’s possible I have it still…” - and disentangled several complex wards with a scissor-shaped spell-key she pulled from a pouch hidden a hand’s depth under her conservative, square, silk-ruffled hem. Braz pulled her shoulders up and stiffened. Why hadn’t she asked for this before? Uñuez hadn’t suggested… Uñuez had trusted… but she couldn’t blame anyone but herself.

Five shelves crammed close with bottles and flasks of every conceivable shape - not that different at a glance from the wines, ales, nectars, obscure foreign liquors that lined the normally visible ones, except for the uniform indexing system of handwritten, dated tags. Scanning the tags until she found the right shelf and reaching delicately around at the back, Uñuez pulled out a tiny, diamond-shaped phial of emerald liquid. She held it out briefly to Braz, then before Braz could gather the faith in herself to accept, pulled it back, popped the yellow-white marble stopper and threw back a shot.

Her pupils widened and shrank. Her hand hung half-open in the air as she spoke.

The Structure unfolds by day,

And the Reign imposes by night,

But in the glittering half-light

The eyes of the Regulator

Blink like fireflies…

They widened, and shrank, and fixed Braz’s, and winced, as Braz began the memory-wiping paces around the edge of the bar - “oh…”

Strictly speaking, the abject failure of his drug experiment gave Luskonneg an excuse not to respond to the journalist’s texts. He had tested himself to see whether he might have any story worthy of the name, and even if the test had succeeded he wasn’t sure he could have done it. Going ahead in spite of the negative result would mean he was trying to, he wanted to, and one that was humiliating, why would he want to tell hundreds, thousands of people about his pathetic life - well, he did on Feed, but there he was selecting his own audience of people like him - and two, admitting he was trying at something would throw his entire decision-making equilibrium into shambles.

Once he had that distance on it, Luskonneg could face the objective facts of the event: it was really fucking funny.

Absurd, which was his favourite kind of funny. (The years he’d spent worrying he might be Dark because of that…) The way the journalist had appeared, like a mysterious fighting girl in an anime… The idea that she wanted to interview him about - not even being a NEET, because she didn’t know he was one! just some kind of unspecified weirdo. If he thought about it that way, that was probably why he seemed interesting in a way the specified kinds, quietly cared for by their respective social services, weren’t. Maybe just a NEET wouldn’t be that interesting anyway…

Right. How would he explain this without admitting he had gone outside - a betrayal to at least 30% of his followers?

Actually, hadn’t he already almost done this with @Suburbophile?

(He had already pretty much forgotten his mutual’s weird powerword and defaulted back to the handle that appeared on his Feed every day, but that ghostly face, frozen in the moment of its breaking smile just before everything went wrong, appeared superimposed over the screen whenever he read a post, making it hard to focus on them.)

Maybe if everything had gone perfectly they would have talked it through to the same conclusions and kept it on the downlow - there was no real reason to believe they wouldn’t have - but the morning leading up to their rendezvous, when he’d pictured it idly it had been in the completely alien register of everydays he knew from media, taking pictures of their meal and posting it, somehow knowing an angle that wouldn’t cast distorting shadows across their faces…

In any case - @Suburbophile knew about November Thistle.

That didn’t mean he needed to know about the ways Luskonneg kept humiliating himself there (once was enough). Those were… also funny, but not in the way he liked to make himself online, even when he was making fun of himself. The @moephrenology brand - the person @Suburbophile seemed to admire - was someone whose withdrawal was an act of deep dignity and self-control. There were people who made fools of themselves in public, some even who managed to get away with it and live rewarding lives in the heights of government, business, entertainment - @moephrenology declined to be one of them.

But he had already been planning to massage the story somehow if he posted about it. A simple >tfw so NEET a journo wants to write a story about it (I don’t talk to opps)

would probably parse as a joke (which might detract from how funny it honestly was) and if not, the assumption would probably be that they found him off Feed itself.

Which plugged into another line of paranoia he’d compartmentalized - what if she knew his Feed already? That would explain the absurd coincidence of it; he’d heard about one time an anonymous poster had released a breakthrough magical proof on Feed and a journalist had triangulated them through clues in their posting to get an interview, just like a Punkin Patch user; with Dark or criminal posting they had direct access to government tracking, not that he’d gotten mixed up in anything like that. If she just monitored deep otaku Feed - which seemed likely if she was researching this, not that he had a clear idea what category she mapped him to - she might easily be following him, or someone who followed him, or have seen his posts. He had used this anxiety as an excuse to sift through all 1400 of his followers, blocking ones that seemed suspicious or just inactive.

The part of him that still wanted to respond saw this as a positive. Maybe he could get a whole chain reaction of things happening without him trying. (Usually the trope was just one or two thing happening without trying, and at some point the main character had to “accept the call” or whatever, although Shunny Najda had tried to push this boundary in one of his last works, GoodBad LuckMan, which hadn’t been well-received by the plebs.) Maybe she would blackmail him with the threat of telling the internet, his only refuge, what had really happened. Maybe she would do more with the blackmail than just get an interview. Maybe she would get his address, come to his apartment and break all his limbs except for one hand and rape him and hack his phone so it could only text her number while he finally starved to death like he deserved.

(That wasn’t even a doujin he had read. He had blocked it out panel by panel in his head over a month once. The woman in it had looked a bit like her.)

At some point (five days after recovering from the drugs, which had him shivering too much to do much more than refresh and like for another three, and then the indecision generated such a deep pit in his stomach it felt like he was falling back into that unrecovered state again), the pressure built up to the point that he just fired off the post, half-understanding that if that didn’t bring the pressure of the anxiety back down, he would just delete it, and it would even out.

Almost immediately @Suburbophile replied - not, as he’d expected, under the post, but reopening the DM they hadn’t touched since their plans had fallen through.

I get why you’d hold that principle in general, but if this real you really should think about doing it. If there’s anyone could describe the real world of people like us, the things newspapers don’t get across, it’s you. I really think that haha

The message felt like getting someone’s accidental text to the wrong number.

The messages from the journalist themselves, even, didn’t necessarily feel that way - they belonged to his life in their cruelty, their comedy, their lack of explanation. This was simply a misunderstanding, a message to a self that didn’t exist and he had been making so long he had forgotten existed.

The @moephrenology that existed on Feed spoke for a “people like us”. He had been using 2den so much longer than Feed anyway, where he wasn’t even an “us” or a “people”, just “anon”, that when he started putting the best jokes he made in his head hours after a thread autodeleted on a Feed account, he still instinctively spoke in the voice of all anonymous, even when he belatedly hammered humiliating events from his first couple years on his own into a shape that could bear laughter without collapsing.

But the half-conscious effort he put into coming across as a general type of a shut-in - which in retrospect had to be what Llau admired, anyway, the idea that they had made some kind of connection that wouldn’t fall apart in fifteen minutes offline was cope - was precisely to hide the fact that he knew he wasn’t. No one in their right mind could generalize from him. Being a shut-in worked for him at least because it was one he couldn’t fail out of, that would never be too good for him. Nothing he did could offend his sense of himself as a shut-in, as long as he didn’t waste any of his time on normie crap. But he knew he was wrong even for a shut-in. And another advantage of being one was nobody needed to know that.

Llau didn’t need to know that. He’d leave this on read, Llau would assume he was reading too much into a shitpost, and he’d go back to interacting with Luskonneg’s avatar (Smilia’s facial model, each line annotated with measurements).

His mask?

Oh Goddess - had he created a mask? Not just like a normie - like the normies who were too wrong even for normies, the ones they made after school specials about?

Too shut-in for a shut-in and too normie for a normie - he was wrong in every direction it was possible to be wrong in. He should just end it all.

Or just tell Llau.

Tell him what? His entire life story?

Well, somebody else was asking for that.

Arguing more with the terrifying new mistake forming in his head, he began to type: I really don’t think you want to read that like you think you do

>it’s too little and too much at the same time

He could see what was wrong with what he’d written as soon as it was in the box in front of him.

What, was he writing cover copy for a BellSoft game?

He had to humiliate himself, the longer he didn’t the closer he brought himself to humiliating himself for real. But then, hadn’t this already been a positive feedback loop of humiliating himself?

>“too little and too much at the same time” see, that’s exactly what they don’t get!

>yeah but you can’t make everyone get things by explaining them. I like Feed because if someone doesn’t get me they can just ignore me.

>that’s true of news too. if someone doesn’t like the article they can flip the page.

He didn’t have to seriously defend all these excuses, did he? If someone tried to argue with him that he should strip naked in the middle of the street, he might not know how to defend against that either.

Oh, that’s a pretty hot doujin premise.

>it isn’t necessarily better if they do. like my mom might read this.

>holy shit it’s that big?

Come to think of it, he actually still had no idea how big this story was supposed to be, or how big a news platform (why was Llau picturing a physical paper?) it was supposed to run with.

>how did this even come up?

>uhhh long story

…wow. It was that simple?

They stopped for a while. Then hours later, his DM notification lit up again.

>what kind of interview?

The messages were vague. He couldn’t tell if she knew what she wanted even, really - “feel free to tell me anything about yourself you think might surprise me” - “you know how Porthole works right?” (Porthole was the encrypted video conferencing app exclusive to licensed journalists and therapists. He knew it from therapists.) “you don’t have to enter your own ID if you sign the waiver, although I’ll be obligated to confirm it if we run with a story, and even within the government it’s completely confidential unless you say something mandatory reportable. and I have a journeyman’s investigation license, so I can bypass mandatory reporting if a superior signs off on it”…. “sorry if all this is a lot, ha ha >< I get that you probably don’t think you have anything important to talk about. but that’s what I want to talk about, if that makes sense?” Of course it didn’t, how did someone this spaced out get an investigation license?

>ohhhhh I’d be nervous about video too haha

First he had a mask, now he was “nervous”. What was he, a little tsundere schoolgirl from a coming of age comedy? He had stage fright, and was talking to his best friend about it. The dissonance between this scenario the way it sounded in words and his reality felt like a coat of grime.

He noted his silent disgust with himself, noted the humour in it, and wondered if there was some way to justify it as a joke. At peace with this thought as closure he tabbed over to the first episode of a mysterious new seasonal with a star-studded staff he’d had his eye on, The Clover Association.

The equinox had passed without so much as a grey whisper to him, snow still on the roofs, a flood of art of girls in various Equinoctian festival dresses, Silmenon and Klauxion especially, but barely any that would even hint at the celebrations supposedly outside somewhere, with their cumbersome snow hoods that looked out of season in other countries (except from Llau, who collected all the art of traditional Elthazan fashion he could find that wasn’t from trad weirdos). Spring season was starting.

Hours later he realized Llau hadn’t ended the conversation at the same time:

>actually on that note I’ve been thinking

>since we never properly got to meet up that time

>and idk when I’m gonna be in Winter City again

>would you like to. video call some time

>I mean it could be like.


His first thought was, had Llau been watching The Clover Association too? It had been about something like this. Four anonymous losers - a shut-in like himself, a sex addict, a bipolar person with a dozen suicide attempts and a traumatized kid who tried to kill their parents - are selected for the trial of a private, exclusive thought-linking spell called Clover.

For that matter, his “journalist” probably wanted to do something like this. If it had been a better show, maybe he’d be able to force himself to follow through.

His model of Llau would be significantly off if Llau liked it either. It was stiff and shot like live-action TV - every staff member he’d recognized had animated better on shows that weren’t aiming for this kind of “prestige”. The kid and the sex addict were clearly designed for a safe sort of “moe” appeal as if by someone who had never really experienced that and only grasped it on the level it was joked about on the mainstream internet or haphazardly written up in the kinds of articles Llau wanted him to correct.

Maybe The Clover Association was why Llau was so insistent that he correct the record on shut-ins?…

But he wasn’t as confident as Llau that there was a record to correct. That was what he had already run his experiment on, after all. Anything that wasn’t obvious about a life like his, he got out on Feed.

Everything else - dissolved in the grey stomach acid of indifferent memory, knowledge ground into the hard sediment of a timeless database, experience into soft mush deposited down the garbage chute of nonexistence.

His present stayed eternally young by eating its past. If he could only do the same thing with physical objects, his room would be clean.

Clean room.

Video call.

He couldn’t. But - if that was why he couldn’t -

If he couldn’t even show someone who was like him - the people he spent all day, every day, proving he wasn't worse than - (not like that, he despised those people from Punkin Patch who made up for their pathetic lives by gawking at people worse than them, by telling themselves they were better than someone, and worse still, rubbing shoulders and sucking up to their own betters, the genuine normies with upstanding bureaucratic positions and families he knew were among them from the Punkin Leaks five years ago) - the way he lived, his ground would collapse. He would be forced to either go up or down again, and he had never felt less capable of going up, and there was nowhere to go down…

No, wait, calm down. That’s not the problem. @Suburbophile - Llau de Xiau - didn’t necessarily have the realistic unspoken understanding of their common condition that he was treating as his “ground”, after all. The only person who wanted to go on a video call with him - and look at that - was someone who obviously, to some extent - (the words were blocked several times by flurries of outraged denial before he could finish the thought) - idolized him.

Plus, he lived with his parents - he might not have any idea what a real shut-in’s living space looked like.

What did the shut-in’s apartment in The Clover Association, he found himself thinking, look like anyway?

Luskonneg still didn’t want to watch the show, and spent almost twice the length of the first episode looking for screencaps.

In the first five minutes of the episode, he had to pause eight or nine times to feel bad about wasting his time looking for a screencap and not having been skilled enough at searching to find the right one and how there was still time if he thought of the right key word right now to not waste another twenty or fifteen but there wouldn’t be in another five minutes, or ten…

There was nothing else he was good at, if he had to take a whole twenty-four minutes watching an anime he wouldn’t like to find a frame to prove a point to himself…

A few weeks ago he would have felt proud of his detective’s thoroughness, his willingness to watch twenty-four minutes of bad anime to prove a point. Why was he so antsy these days. Why was he trying to prove this point in the first place.

What point was he trying to prove?

He found he couldn’t string it together in a sentence any more. His mind would just stop like a Panopticon video loading when he had too many tabs open.

But he knew something would reassure (or… the other thing… what would happen if it didn’t) him when he got to a good shot of Jhossan (the character like him)’s room.

You would have thought that would be within the first five minutes anyway. An establishing shot or something.

Was the show actually good or bad, anyway?

What did he remember of the first five minutes?

Grinding his back teeth until they could provide a ground and referent to what he was feeling, he pulled the time bar steadily back, stimming on the viscous smoothness of the reversed movements and retracing the beats of the narrative.

He released and let it roll forward on the shot of tabs deleting across Jhossan’s glasses he had to admit was pretty good, and caught a single cutaway that was almost too fast to screenshot himself - Jhossan (in that stupid hoodie with the thumb holes, something he couldn’t wear inside even in winter without it becoming a sweatbath, another expression of the design principle he had pegged at first glance, and yet he almost fell for until he focused on the garish neon zigzag cuff lines) in the bottom left corner of an overhead dutch angle, slats of light falling through wide blinded windows across half-open tankobon, two rickety towers of TV dinner and instant noodle boxes standing next to a bulky computer tower (a fan server they ran for some idol group, if Luskonneg remembered the post about it correctly, even though the government had started licensing those in the commune of Silmenon where it was set…)

Luskonneg stood up, turned around, tried to picture his room at the same angle relative to the position where he would usually be sitting up on his futon, stained quilt twisted around his knees.

He didn’t have any tankobon - he read all his manga online. The animators had obviously been too lazy to cover the beige autofill gradient walls with anything like his posters, even though the idol otaku he followed were the most obsessive shrine-decorators he knew, and would have ripped on the state of his if they’d seen them, falling loose at corners and torn at bottom edges and covered up by dozens of cheap bug-wards he’d bought since the cockroach encounter, Preserving beads languishing at third or quarter positions on their string circuits. Nor for that matter the tessellated carpet of flyers, packages, tissues, announcements and complaints (about what? but they were months old) from building management on the floor. It would take a really brilliant background artist, maybe like the team from Cloud Castle Dreadnoughts, or Hell Hospital, to do justice to a real shut-in’s room.

And Jhossan, he realized with a wince, at least finished their meals even if they didn’t throw out the packaging.

(A bowl of charred rice he’d been gingerly crunching on in the mornings, a pinch at a time, like cereal.)

(Rainbow ice cream that had melted into a sinkhole around the embedded spoon, then formed a skin.)

(Chips embedded in crystals of hardening relish - why had he thought that would be a good idea again?)

But that was just another arbitrary inconsistency in the imagination of someone who’d never lived like this, right?

An easy way to test that would be to post it - anonymously, of course, so he wouldn’t - what was he scared of again - what was he testing again - what the fuck was he so antsy about?

When are you not, he ribbed himself - and then realized his memory had drained into not one but two timeless tableaux that seemed to simultaneously describe the same sedimented time: a torture-cube of indistinguishable physical and psychic agony, compressing and transpiercing him at all times - and a painless, weightless peace that was all he could ever dream of, the condition of angels skimming anonymous information like sea-birds, glints of whimsy occasionally surfacing on the waves of boredom.

Imagine that in an anime - a split frame establishing shot - but how would they differ?…

He skimmed through the rest of the episode for more details and Yirilin’s bath scene. Actually, he was sort of lucky The Clover Association was dumb enough to show any of it. Extrapolating from his idea of the two different boxes, he'd realized that if he was directing, he wouldn’t show Jhossan’s surroundings at all, only a haze of grainy interference patterns. Or maybe he’d only show it when someone else looked in, through the Clover link - not that he was paying enough attention to say for sure if that was how the Clover link worked - wait, somebody was narrating peeking over Yirilin’s streaming shoulders, mentally looking away before it got to any of the good parts…

A doujin idea: what if the link was completely involuntary and active at all times? His mind split into two boxes again: comfort and terror. In one box, the only justifiable way to share sexual experience; in the other, eternal rape. (Didn’t Llau read some ethics kink stuff?)

>you still


I never said I was in the first place. He almost typed that. But he had just been thinking about the Clover link, permanent and involuntary.

This wouldn’t be that. The very fact that he was worrying about what Llau would think, depending on what he would say, was how he knew it couldn’t be that. In fact, he didn’t even worry about what @Suburbophile would think when he posted on Feed. Or anyone else. What would happen if that went away?

>did you ever follow @crispykittens? After three minutes, Luskonneg typed the thought that stuck as he deliberated, or rather, tried to probe the cloudy waters where the objects of deliberation refused to surface.

>I think I might have seen you Regurg them a few times, back when I first met you? Luskonneg wasn’t sure for a moment whether “met” meant “followed” or “was followed back” here; there was a good half a year between. No, wait - @crispykittens had deleted within that half-year. Why?

Luskonneg was thinking out loud. He couldn’t stop himself. He was treating it like a reply thread even though it was already more. We had a falling out over whether the Angel Thieves were right in Sugar Matic Fortune Casters and he unfollowed me. When I got banned I just made my new account and followed him again and he didn’t know it was me.

>oh my Goddess. everyone on Panopticon used to hate Sugar Matic Fortune Casters just for the designs and didn’t even get to the part with one of the best moral dilemmas in the history of fiction

>why are you asking though

He hadn’t allowed himself to complete the thought, and now found it unspeakable. “I didn’t lose anything when @crispykittens unfollowed me” - aside from several sleepless nights, over a week of failing to starve himself, a vent thread screencapped on Sugar Matic Struggle Feed describing in detail what he’d do to every single Fortune Caster who had opposed the Angel Thieves - “so I won’t lose anything if I turn on the camera and @Suburbophile stops liking me - I won’t lose his posts, that is, and it’s not like I could operate on the assumption of anything else anyway”.

>I guess what I mean is, it’s easier for that kind of thing to happen in conversation, so I’d rather just keep it low stakes if you wanna call. don’t think about it as practice for… whatever

>but Sugar Matic Fortune Casters would be low stakes to me! now I’m kinda scared…

He felt like an anvil had been dropped on his head.

>I mean @crispykittens was the biggest fan of it that ever lived. like he had a statistical model proving this. but you’re right

>you shouldn’t talk to me if I make you scared

I shouldn’t talk about scary things

>like feelings

>or conflicts

>or journalists

or Sugar Matic Fortune Casters

The “@Suburbophile is typing” ellipsis went on. As and after he typed.

And on.

And on.

And on.

Then it stopped for three hours.

Luskonneg was lying face down in his sweaty, salty pillow, his face starting to sweat but breathing just fine through the tunnels of dust - when he looked up, about to press deeper, and saw:

>sorry I had to go to dinner!

Luskonneg barely registered relief. It wasn’t actually surprising, nor did it change anything except the worst. Low stakes. He remembered why he rarely DMed. He couldn’t do this every single time.

>didn’t mean scared like that. I don’t think I have much of anything to get into an argument with you about?

>unless you think Lucielle should have ended up with…

>sorry I don’t mean this that way either, shouldn’t say it.

Luskonneg felt bad now, and who knew how much worse he would feel if he left off here.

>maybe I would rather do video.

>oh! will you be around in a couple hours?

He looked out the window. No clouds to trap the lonely pale of city-light, no glue-strip of gloaming lingering along the horizon - the kind of dark that sucked light endlessly out of the room. He felt tired, then hungry, then shivery, all of which extrapolated out a couple of hours to absolute bedridden agony in which he would be unable to force himself to finish a sentence without crushing the basic pleasure-seeking instinct that had become the sole load-bearing pillar of his life.


What? He didn’t even not know how he had done that. There wasn’t a perspective shift like last time.

Well, maybe then, the forces deep inside him (he personified them sometimes as a shadowy but gentle assemblage of rounded heads and clay hands molding him) that knew somehow what he could and couldn’t handle knew this would be a safe thing to learn. Like posting, posting under a consistent username, disagreeing with people less popular than him, disagreeing with people more popular than him, doing both of these on the same account, picking out an avatar, replying to replies, following back. Unlike going out to the November Thistle, taking memory-inducing drugs, talking to weird monk journalists. Maybe he’d lose all those crazy things and get one normal thing in return.

As his thoughts over the last four hours - each premised on forgetting all of the others - (to the point that when he typed yes he hadn’t been aware of it at all) - fell into place, one simple criterion of resolution emerged.

It had been months since he had cleaned his room (as opposed to taking specific objects, usually by themselves, to the garbage chute at the back of the hall, a procedure that was permitted on condition of not having anything in particular to do with the room as a whole). He wasn’t about to now. He wasn’t asking anyone to be in it. (And if he lost the will to order food or found it to do something more drastic and that journalist got an excuse to finish her story without his consent - the scenario he'd spent the most time imagining lately - he didn’t want to let her get away with any illusions about what kind of person she was investigating.)

All he needed to do was clean enough to look more or less like Jhossan from The Clover Association - his working upper bound of Llau’s lower bound of a recognizable human.

(Wait, Llau had to have watched some better shows with shut-in characters, right? There was Shut-In Magical Girl Reirei, but he had complained about that one…)

He stood up, turned 360 degrees, and did the preliminary exercise he’d learned for when his mom occasionally made him clean years ago.

The one she’d -

No, it didn’t matter now.

He was standing up into a space centred on him, where his head held up the sky, and he could see the logical extent of every direction.

He divided this space into nine squares.


Except that was four.

Each square had quadrants - it divided into four. He had thought about this, right, it had just been so long.


The primes of two and three intersecting, the same combination in two directions, a multidimensional symmetry.

Only one-tenth a longer count than half a minute, or half an hour.

Half an hour theoretical baseline for the time it took to pick up everything that shouldn’t be in each quadrant and put it where it belonged or throw it out.

Of course, he rarely hit baseline.

And what belonged in its quadrant, and where it belonged, weren’t self-evident.

But there had been rare occasions he’d cleared a 3x3 square, a whole four quadrants, in under a minute, which allowed him to feign hope he could compensate before giving up halfway through.

This time he mapped out, based on the overview of Jhossan’s room overlaid on his own perspective's rhomboid, the quadrants that would be most visible from his webcam, in the grainy dim light of his single aging bedside lamp - (the last overhead bulb had broken half a year ago) - which he could never get it not to degrade into pixel necrosis.

That was already one difference - which he could probably turn to his advantage, at least: he was going to look like a creepypasta.

He would - unless he sunk extra paralysis and effort into finding another position for his laptop, swept the figurines off the top of his drawers maybe or just called from the toilet (he remembered what the toilet looked like) - be looming over the camera, which he had nowhere else to sit but his lap, in bed, as always. He had cracked his one flimsy table in two in a hanging attempt; its pieces still lay tipsily to the right (from his current, backward-facing perspective) of his mattress. The paint was chipping from their edges, scored from random venting attacks with his kitchen knives, pornographic doodles attempted and gouged out with their tips.

Yeah, that would never show up in Jhosann’s room, would it…

If he kept the camera angled up, and pointed the light up at his face from below, maybe Llau wouldn’t have to see any of this. Just the posters, which whatever the state of the rest of this place, were still his pride and joy, still the most home he’d ever created.

A found family of young girls and boys who looked only at him and all the time.

Afraid of the judgment of even fictional eyes.

No, there still had to be something to do to settle his stomach. He might want to change position - he usually did, sitting any one way felt like a stress position.

(Change position - shit, that sounded kind of gay. And rolling around, kicking his legs, scratching his balls, all that stuff he usually did on the mattress - an affectionate dance with his laptop - that would be kinda gay on a call, wouldn’t it? Or with a female journalist, couldn’t she decide it was sexual harassment?…)

So. First quadrant - immediately where he would be seated.

Half buried under the edge of the pillow, the tissue box probably needed the dozen or so balled up yellow-crusted tissues removed from inside it. And crumbs and hairs and pieces of… gum? When had he ordered that?

Just off the edge of the mattress rolled - five, six, seven, along the top eight, nine - along the other side he wasn’t going to look, it was outside the visible area, blacked out by Fog of War - (no it isn’t - stop looking over there! - no it isn’t - who cares, this is just wasting time - yeah you just wanna waste time huh. come on, just a little more - fuck you!) - empty plastic (two, three glass) bottles of varying shapes and sizes.

The drug flasks, of course, included.

Come on, they just wouldn’t bother to draw that much of anything on a cheap lazy show like The Clover Association!

Scissor-slit plastic wrapping from the cardboard delivery package six of the bottles had come in.

Another cardboard box in which the entirety of the collected works of one of his favourite doujin artists had arrived - hadn’t he stuffed some of those under the mattress? - yes, there they were, corners dog-eared out from under the edge - a cumstain on a corner so hard and thick he was actually kind of proud of it -

Still, he probably had to hide that too.

(What would it look like, a grey ring of flickering static?)

On that note, three cum-socks, a used onahole and a hyena dildo - he flicked them all effortlessly into the half-open bottom drawer.

A lot of crumbs, fingernails, hairs, that same brown grit he’d been playing with and then erased from his awareness… Jhossan could have those implicitly, they just wouldn’t show up in the frame either, but as much as the webcam was cruder and less precise than the state of the art line art programs at Studio Blackbox, it didn’t know to colour within the lines.

He had a brush and a cute little plastic dustpan (sized for a child’s hand) based on Seztzna’s from Interdimensional Maid Agency somewhere. He couldn’t see it anywhere except in Seztzna’s left hand, crossed with the brush in her right, on her poster, beaming.

No - there it was in the garbage pail - one corner was dipped in a sticky blob of… honey? jelly? - already catching a skin of black dust.

He sucked in a breath that shook his ribcage like a sob although his eyes and heart were dry.

He pulled two doujins out from under the bed - at least there were two he decidedly hadn’t liked, Smilia got cucked in them by fucking Jenshen no less - and rolled one up a short way from the edge, bending the other into an outward-curving scoop. The combination was actually pretty effective. His hands were stiff and steady. His position the springy, mobile squat of a sculptor.

Still, every time he did a sweep he seemed to just drag half of it back, and the half never dwindled to nothing. He had never in his life solved this problem or even heard it acknowledged by another human being.

Instead of worrying about whether each of them were worth keeping individually, he decided to stack the flyers and receipts and doujins and order sheets into one pile like Jhossan’s tankobons. It collapsed demurely in one corner.

He finished the last of a melon soda and rhubarb CBD left in the bottles. He didn’t have any good plastic bags to pile the bottles in since he hadn’t been going to regular grocery stores. There was the box, but he’d have to hold it up by the already torn edges… There had to be something in one of the other quadrants, but he wasn’t looking at them. (There were cans too, he had never gotten rid of those… he wasn’t looking. Not even for a plastic bag, because he’d start looking.)

He ended up just taking them, wrapped up in a helplessly torn (from trying to cut himself) and stained (from a nosebleed) shirt. He walked down the hall to the garbage chute with his feet bare. People had seen him once or twice. It was, he was pretty sure, one of the good things he had gotten used to.

He hummed, as he always did, the hell-shovel’s ditty from Hell Harrowing as he pulled the chute mouth far enough out to fall open. The chute’s bubble-pocked black paint reminded him of the scrapes and stains on the hell-shovel that its voice and the animation of its face subtly, brilliantly equated to stubble as it burbled its baritone feasting-song.

But something about the tone of the shovel’s song, the pungency of its belch, was more mocking this time. He wasn’t just thinking of the shovel’s singalong appearances, but episode 15, “The Augean Storage Bank”.

He wasn’t taking on an Augean task. He wasn’t even taking out any more than he usually did, he reminded himself. And he wasn’t going to take any more after he cleaned the four squares of his ideal perspective.

On his return, Luskonneg returned to his camera-angle station.

In the two squares he bare floor almost looked worse than it had before. The colour of the wood, richly warped and knotted, might appeal to Llau’s classical C’harnian sensibilities even though it looked all the more like mud with the dust popping on it with long shadows in the smothering warm light. In the two quadrants he’d cleaned, there were so many bits and pieces he’d missed - beads, tape, more gum, more Kleenex, safety pins, a bottle cap pierced too many times by safety pins to close a vessel - and faded, translucent bug corpses. He hadn’t seen many since he’d set up the wards, but these had been here a lot longer than that.

He supposed he could allow himself to be pleasantly surprised there weren’t more of them.

Then there were still two left… a roll pillow based on the “dick sushi burrito” /b/ meme, sticky with more substances than he could remember. A spiderweb sewed it to a stuffed puppygirl Slina with a mix of gin and cum swirling in the plastic bottle attached to her harness. A spilled bag of rose gummies. Bottles of rum and black rice liquor rolling open (he mixed them at will with his other non-alcoholic drinks). A few cans, but beer and iced coffee, still not the energy ones. A couple strategy guides for RPGs he hadn’t played (he’d have to shove them at the bottom of the paper stack…) Paper towels crumpled around dried pink. Right - a few days after emerging from his drug-induced blackout, he’d had shivers verging on a seizure and vomited…

There had to be live bugs in here still. These stupid traditional floorboards were so deep-grooved there could be a whole reality hidden down them where wards didn't reach. If he disturbed enough he would find them.

Luskonneg fell to his lap and regrouped. Maybe there was some other order that would make this feel less daunting - classes of object, rearranging to a pre-established vision…

He collapsed, again, onto his side. This was the kind of thinking he couldn’t do while looking at anything. He had to close his eyes and try to summon the images, alone, from the grey rains cape of cool under-blanket air crawling over his skin.

But this time, he fell asleep.

Had the drugs fucked up his whole ability to stay awake in his inner non-world? Collapsed it on itself, like a black hole?

That would be bad, he would get worse if there was a way to get worse, he would only be able to skim his thoughts the way he could barely skim the surface of this room…

Or had it just been what he wanted. It would be simple if it was that - he still, he thought, seemed to know what was best for himself, and he had been feeling on the brink of getting away from himself in some direction.

If he still knew what was best for himself, why was he trying to talk to a stranger from the internet for advice at all?

Because he didn’t know how to listen to himself in this whole new language yet, he decided.

And, as he noticed his own thought in an empty head (his and desktop both cleaned themselves, the only things could trust to), it would be nice to say things like that out loud to someone as I think them, then explain them.

Not in an article, who would possibly care? But maybe in the vanishing window of a video call, deleted as soon as it ended except in a cache whose location he could forget…

A clank through the hall-facing wall. Was the hell-shovel laughing, or coughing on its cigar?

In thirty seconds, it would be the time he had offered.

He would start the call exactly on time - that would look responsible.

He sat down and positioned himself carefully. Screen tilted up, looking down, as planned.

When he turned the camera on, his eyes were half cut off at the top of the window. His height was making the position nearly-impossible without pushing his laptop far forward, past the edge of his lap where it was controllable, or bending uncomfortably close forward.

But the light, at least, was better than he had expected.

Because he was still facing the opposite direction.

Llau came online before he could correct either of these defects.

“A half-head!” he burst out laughing. (A West C’harn highland folkloric entity that Luskonneg couldn’t place in any good media but a number of mediocre ones.)

Llau de Xiau was sitting in a more expensive gaming chair than he had ever posted a hint of online. But its regal lines were broken by post-it notes Luskonneg couldn’t read, despite the huge rounded letters on them; his lighting and webcam, although stably centred on his face, didn’t seem much better than Luskonneg’s. Kitschy pseudo-dynastic wildlife paintings and birthday cards in wooden frames alternated with dogshit mall-kiosk-tier posters of mons shows (favourites and ones he’d barely mentioned alike) and, also surprisingly never mentioned online, a giant wall scroll with a cutaway blueprint of a mech from Najda’s underrated debut, Letter Archons Extraea.

Luskonneg fell to his side, out of the screen entirely.

“A name-capturable half-head!”

(Luskonneg had no idea what game mechanic that was referencing.)

Moans, grinding throat noises began to rise from out of frame.

“Oh man, you’re not even okay with those, are you? Sorry, sorry, I’m - you would be okay on Feed! I thought!”

That was maybe true. Luskonneg pushed himself up on his hands and pulled himself, like a shonen hero recovering impossibly from an enemy’s death blow, to the side and back, holding himself on his palms and knees face into the centre of the window, albeit coming at the camera strangely, and squinting into the light that was turned straight into his face, illuminating the lines away from the corners of his eyes and nose and mouth.

(There was a bleating quality to the sound of Llau’s voice. Luskonneg had no idea how his own would sound.)

“You realize none of those things are like, making fun to me, right?” Llau's voice was soft and a little scratchy now. He was looking up at the ceiling, chewing his upper lip, and tapping his fingers next to his ears. “Like, it’s funny, but I’d think it was cool if you actually were a half-head. Or that you have that unibrow - Northern Elmut Confederation? - where your half-head would be…”

This little- ! Luskonneg hadn’t thought about the unibrow in years -

“They gave a princess that in Princess Museum 5 but I wish it was used in more character designs…” His eyes fluttered back into the frame. “OK, I recognize 5, 6, 7 of those posters, although the light may be making it harder - do you have candles in there? Lighting an ita-room with candles would be so cool - dangerous, if you don’t have good wards, but I see a bunch of wards on the walls…”

Luskonneg forced a smile and decided to play along. “Yeah! It’s an… aesthetic I’ve been… playing with since I… read this weird… site about… Elphantom…”

“Oh sweet! Can you turn your computer around! I wanna get a screenshot, maybe even post it somewhere…”

His smile cracked. “I’d rather not.”

“Elphantom though… like the 3290 Elphantom? I really love how fluidly those designs move, the mix of rounded and sharp edges, but the mysteries and gore made my head hurt too much to really want to watch more than the sakuga compilations… But you’re really smart so I bet you can keep up with them!”

I can’t keep up with the mysteries, I spin them off in dozens of directions in my own head and then lose track of what happened in my head and what happened in the show. Online he would have replied with that without difficulty; now he seemed to be losing track of the sentence by the time the words were out, too slow to hold a thought but too fast to think. His voice was low, evenly raspy, like a finely raked gravel yard, not unpleasant, at least in his own ears - but he had the sense that it would run off in some other direction if he spoke too fast. “Actually I meant… the books…”

“Oh right, you read too, I remember you posting about the Hell Harrowing light novels years ago!”

A thirtieth-anniversary spinoff written by an experimental novelist. He had read them more for the rumoured scene where Smilia serves her vaginal discharge at a convoluted tea party death game than out of an interest in literature, but found they evoked more of what was unique about the atmosphere of Najda’s vision than almost anything the fandom or the owners had produced since. Where were they, anyway? Presumably in one of the fog of war’d squares of his room - but he had no plans to go back to those. He might even keep pretending they didn’t exist after the call was over.

But he suddenly remembered the shape of her legs in the cream succu-spats so cutely blocky in the layered pencil semi-chibi, the eye with its two square oval sparkles peeking out from under the halo-MRI -

A purity none of his pleasures had had since he’d stopped being able to look at things outside the fog of words -

The whole picture was coming back. He had put it in the basket. He had been upset about the hair and dust falling on her face, and had wiped it off with his finger, and then put her back to finish the last chapter when he wasn’t ashamed.

What blue basket? Why had he had a blue basket?

His mom had brought him a bunch of stuff from some new healthy grocery store, and wanted him to keep the basket she’d brought it in because it came with some discount, and also so he’d just remember the name. The store was all the way on the other side of town.

Her smile had been so weightless, it was obvious how much better she was doing without him.

The name was already scratched off the basket by the time he left the book there.

The basket had been sitting at the bottom left corner of his bed -

It had been covered by the inflatable Nimbus Mallow he hadn’t been able to inflate, it had been the base for his cutting board when he tried to make that fancy meal package, then he’d left the remains of the meal package all over it -

He tried to pull himself away from the screen, in the opposite direction, crawling like he was possessed.

His leg pulled up towards and kicked the screen as he scrabbled with vague boxes in the background, a radioactive horizon against which the posters portrayed a sepia diagram of heaven.

He knocked over several of a row of plastic bowls near the foot of his bed against which he’d been unconsciously backed. One rolled toward the camera.

He wasn’t ‘cleaning’, so it didn’t count. He didn’t care where any of the things he pulled off the gently indented flatness he recognized as the top of the basket went. None of them would be in frame anyway. He pulled it out of the dark like something from nothing, and the dark rolled off it like water. Even the dust flickered gently in silhouette like small signal fires, as the light scored a clean reflection off it.

He whipped it around and held it out in front of the camera. (Too late, he noticed his gritty and chipped fingernails.) “This one!”

And pressed his cheek delightedly against the back -

Before noticing the bowl now rolling between his knees, and flipping it upside down to rest.

“Yeah I was wondering what was in that cereal. It looked like some kind of crème or hard mousse. I know they’re crazy good at that in the Eastern High Provinces, I’m so jealous you get to have that all the time…”

The closest Luskonneg had come to sampling any such regional delicacies (who still said High Provinces?) was the ill-fated croissant.

The hard, pink crust in which his half-finished bowl of cereal had been submerged - after coming up from the drugs, several times he’d lost the meager contents of his stomach, tried to lose contents his stomach didn’t have -

He couldn’t even try to come up with a lie.

He tried to laugh at the whole thing. He had long known that a villain’s over the top laugh was a real kind of thing, even though most people would never hear it. It was a laugh of pain. A laugh that’s loud and taut for the same reason as a scream.

Then he hit close on the stream.

That proved it. He couldn’t even let this happen again. He unfollowed @Suburbophile on Feed. His messages asking what had happened still went into @moephrenology’s inbox, but as message requests, which separate tab he’d have to click over to. Not that he had anything else in messages now.

He sat up in bed and tried to finish the last chapter of the book, one sentence at a time. The sentences didn’t seem angry at him, they welcomed him, but he kept wandering off.

He methodically kicked one bowl after another off the edge of the bed.

When he finally, so half-asleep he suspected he could forget anything he didn’t want to see by the morning, clicked over to his message requests, he saw - over a page in a single message block:

I see why you don’t want to do a video call I think. I asked my mom about it and here’s an intro letter you can write the journalist:<.em>

Hi, My name is ________

(he still hadn’t introduced himself, had he.)

I am still a little dumbfounded by this whole request, but I understand human interest stories can sometimes be random or quirky. So while I would be flattered by the attention, I am very unused to it and would be rather nervous. Would it be all right to conduct some preliminary interviews by text before considering a video call? Would you want to know most about:

- My life story

- My tastes & hobbies

- Why I became NEET

- What I’m doing to get help

- What I need most

- My dreams & aspirations

Uncontrollably, with the relish of a whole new website where his most deranged thoughts had never been heard before, Luskonneg was adding in his head - my rankings of today’s professional and doujin animation and game studios - my favourite threads of the past five years - the closest times I’ve come to suicide - my waifu - my preferences for a live-in partner -

“The problem,” Shaïgnar rumbled almost inaudibly, only lightly burnished by the echoes of the small chapel, as when he was concealing an emotion he couldn’t release for fear of scarring the souls of anyone in earshot, “is not that you can’t be memory-wiped. It’s that the [Taboo Preserver] can’t. There are too many spells it would risk interfering with. You knew that when you accepted the changes in protocol - when you petitioned for them.” Whenever his voice raised on one word at a time - it struck like an iron bell.

Shaïgnar fished in the hexagonal font that stood at the centre of the altar, the opal-coated egg suspended from it golden chain just barely touching the surface of the water. He pulled, from among the donations purified in its waters weekly, a single, tiny, almost-blackened coin with a winged skull embossed in its centre.

"I would have had to imagine it could be used in a way I still don’t understand…”

For the past week, Rraihha Braz had been witnessing something that should have been impossible given what she knew of magic.

Whenever Ymañn Ulwenn crossed her mind - whether he was awake or asleep right now, whether he was worried, whether he had tried drawing anything less terrifying, the texture of his hair springing unbidden to her hand or cheek when too much static charge built up in her from paperwork - the paper tag Shaïgnar had given her fluttered.

When she tried to prove this was a coincidence by imagining him in as much detail as she could - lying down, shaping the surface of his face like a wireframe, his eyes open, his eyes shut, almost close enough to kiss - it whipped around in all directions and nearly tore itself off her and she had to stop.

It fluttered again - how do you stop thinking about someone - again - without thinking about them.

And now she knew why. Though she had no idea how - not how they had known where she was, nor that she might even harbour such a vulnerability, nor how they might have exploited it - she had been entrapped by no less than the Seer In The Half Light.

Her feelings were being used as a substrate for the same kind of disruption attack that had been used on the power station.

Shaïgnar took the coin and fitted it into the round, even hollow that was the pupil of the spiral flame in the left eye of the acacia-carved serpent entwining the rose quartz column at the left of the altar. “It could have been used - for regular blackmail - or simply to identify you as a point of contact. I don’t care how secure you think Contour is - the reason you use our priests isn’t just so we can watch you, although we clearly needed to more than I thought.”

“I would have confessed to our priest if I had… believed it first. I confessed to a travelling priest because… I didn’t want it in the records forever.”

A convex, bulging, bubbling flame appeared in the lens that stood on its wheeled brass scaffold in front of the altar. The candle in the niche beneath the font it was meant to magnify was unlit. “If you had falsified a confession, that would have been worse.”

“It didn’t feel like falsification either. Like… the feeling isn’t real, it can’t and doesn’t have to be real. But it would have to be confessed even if it wasn’t.”

“But you couldn’t simply tell our priest you were having intrusive thoughts.”

Braz scanned the few lit votive candles in their rows on either side of the chapel until she recognized the shape of the flame magically projected in the lens. She twisted its square base in its socket. “No, because they’re not thoughts. That would have been falsification.”

“You wanted to seal away a contradiction in an envelope and burn it up.” He nodded. “If Voidhanger is what I remember, the spell may be Preserved not on your thoughts, but on your rhi. That might give you a framework for understanding the reality of what you have been dealing with."

The last of the five panels of the soapstone reredos depicting the Goddess dancing the five stations of living systems (in a tastefully abstract neo-Nordic style, Her silhouettes only accidentally human, as if they had been carved by sea-wind atop some cliff) - her arms bent and crossed towards the ground, Her leg raised behind Her - slid behind the others, revealing the hallway leading to the [Taboo Preserver]’s chambers.

“My… rhi?” Braz stepped forward, paused; Shaïgnar stepped ahead of her, through the breach.

“Yes. Emotions produce predictable rhi movements. Your thoughts, on the other hand… you haven’t been able to explain your thoughts about Ymañn this whole time, because you don’t have them - and thus, to admit them, you had to stop thinking. Rhi-magic capable of using rhi as a substrate is rare. But I’ve seen the Voidhanger Abbot do it. I’ve attempted to learn it from him, and failed. I don’t like what that might say about this Seer In The Half Light."

“The Half Light… right! Do you have any idea what that druid poem means? Have you heard those lines?”

Shaïgnar furrowed his brow. “There are things they would not teach me. Because I was not the right type of person.” Braz nodded gravely - feeling the bitterness he felt saying this to her, now, wafting across the air. “The druids don’t just believe that magic is too dangerous for humans - they believe even language is incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. And they hardly lack for anything we have of it. The stories the lay people of Zorrh tell each other all day, their years-long role-plays, excel in variety and beauty any of the slop that Dark Lord guzzles and calls himself an aesthete. Those who know not, know not what they lack. Not even the way our citizens know the blurred outline of the Dark. They do not know what they could possibly lack, as it must be something they could not invent, and there is nothing they could not invent. Nor do I.”

Arched niches in the walls of the stone corridor, lit by ice-blue candles, were painted in deep woad calligraphy with poetic warnings in the ancient style, redolent not of military confidentiality but ancient curses and long-forgotten magic - Death comes on swift wings, Abandon all hope ye who enter here. “Then how would academics in Romarosa have heard it?”

“Don’t you think that’s your job to find out now?”

“I’m still going to be memory wiped, aren’t I?” She looked up through tears that stuck absolutely still in her eyes which wore them without ostentation. “Losing me might destabilize Ymañn a bit, but it’ll settle. He was selected to withstand shocks or he wouldn’t have passed selection. We don’t have to tell him the whole story, the hard parts. Just that I was compromised.” She swallowed. “We could even pretend I died.” Gulped. “We could really kill me, to be maximally safe.”

“You may come back to the sense I saw in you yet.” Shaïgnar shook his head. “I suggested this when the special permissions were first proposed. You haven’t found out why they were first accepted, then, have you? We have rhi measuring devices throughout the [Taboo Preserver]’s chamber. When your absence extends beyond their expectations - or when had to refuse their affections on grounds of protocol - Ymañn’s rhi fluctuates and disrupts the spells to the same extent we’re now measuring from your curse. The others, I suspect, had not heard enough Druid songs to understand the tragic purity of what they were looking at. They saw a small deviation from Order, an imbalance of finite needs to be corrected, not an already-perfect Order that could only be realized in death… I suppose it makes sense that such an anachronistic soul as you would become the vessel for such a story in our time. A story that requires such total control of your thoughts that the remainder of feeling raises itself up in terrible isolation. I’m sorry I couldn’t see earlier that your structure would be so cruel.”

Braz’s throat was dry. At the end of the hall she could see the first of the series of curtains. She was suddenly aware of the presence of his familiars, hidden somewhere on him or around them.

“If you’re willing to do that, turn back now, and get it over with. No one will have to know.”

She stopped.

Gripped the handle of her sword.

Gritted her teeth.

The tears advanced a millimetre down her cheek.

He could do it without her - do it regardless of what she did. But she didn’t want to disappoint him this last time.

But would the person in his story be able to turn around, here?

She wasn’t in a story. She couldn’t tell if Chaos or some higher Order had led her here, but her Order was the Order of the world, and the Order she chose. Her Order wasn’t selfish - and above that - above? - her love wasn’t.

The word she hadn’t allowed herself to think since her confession clamped the symmetry into place and erased all doubt in its perfection. She turned, eyes closed, not even thinking of -

Curtains rustling. Serrated echoes of sharp barks that trailed off into throaty moans. She couldn’t hear the footfalls.

Shaïgnar’s blue-grey wolf, face lined with a mask of lighter fur - his executioner, untransformed from the white cape no longer wrapped around his shoulders - stared down the gigantic white dog, its long face descending towards them like a comet, a drill of writhing spikes, its paws stretched in front of it to either side of the two humans.

Dog and wolf growled subsonically at each other, and the air, no, the fabric of space, warped and bubbled around and between them.

Braz was looking past the dog, staring in poisoned terror at the fluttering curtains through which it had slipped like a wind, watching them settle, trying to settle what she would do if they parted again without thinking.

The wolf flattened its ears, pressed its shoulders back, bent its tail between its legs, flicking its tongue around its lips and speaking in gentler whimpers and yips as the dog bent its nose close for licks of obeisance, eyes beady and inscrutable.

Braz still didn’t know how many familiars Shaïgnar had with him, but no more emerged - provoking the three dogs at once would be suicidal.

“The [Taboo Preserver] has closer and wiser guardians than us, and I defer to their judgment.” He turned around, no longer making eye contact with Braz. “You have a lead on the Seer in the Half Light. Pour all your grief, all your humiliation, all your…. into that. Perhaps you can tie up this thread before it unravels our project - I should say our world. If you go to Voidhanger, they might even be able to teach you to suppress your rhi. But you should harbour no illusions about coming back here even if everything goes well. If this truly was an unforeseeable event, we can’t allow any others. I will inform your immediate superiors what they need to know and no more. As of today, consider yourself a ghost.”

“Do I - even get to say good-bye?”

“You have sixty seconds to tell me what that would do besides give yourselves another image of each other to return to.”

That was one of the ordinary functions of a farewell.

On the other hand, closure, not having to think about it any more - but she knew there was already a plan for that. There probably had been before she and the [Taboo Preserver] even met.

And she knew a farewell wouldn’t give her that anyway.

But for thirty seconds she stood and experimented diligently with the beginnings of words. She knew there was an answer, a kind of magic she hadn’t learned. She counted the seconds herself. Then Shaïgnar nodded and she turned away, letting the pace of her stride pick up as the cool fingers of light from the chapel door stretched out toward her, and Ramaña Shaïgnar dragged his feet as he advanced, a dog and a wolf at either side, to be the bearer of false news.