cw: intrusive thoughts (violent, suicidal, sexual), masturbation, pornography, child sexualization, sexism, authoritarian government, confirmed delusions, psychological manipulation

His stomach growled in his sleep.

His eyes opened unconsciously, and grey-blue afternoon light washed out the dream like a chemical spill. Eventually he looked up reflexively at the computer screen next to his head. It was black, and gathering dust.

He pulled his arm tingling from under his stomach and waited for it to unfreeze to press the nearest key, squinting.

As the screen came on, his eye zoomed immediately in to the network connection indicator in the top corner.

Still empty.

Frantically toggling the connection off and on, he watched it stay the same as it had for three days now.

Three days he had mostly spent sleeping.

That was what he did, when there was no reason to be awake.

Madness, he had heard, was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But they kept clicking - on, off. Madness wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

Going to sleep again - wouldn’t that be just as mad? He’d done it what, six, seven times? Every time thinking, it doesn’t really matter when I wake up as long as there’s a reason to be awake.

But what if there never would be?

What if the world was trying to tell him to go to sleep and never wake up? Die, he subvocalized every time the little exclamation mark appeared in the indicator - it felt like getting waterboarded. Die. Die. Die.

He screwed up his eyes, gritted his teeth, scraped at the skin on his forehead and wrists and cheeks, trying to wake up from the dream.

Red-faced, he rolled over face up and stared into the milky light swimming around the bare ceiling. He wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep like this, but his mind was at least refreshingly blank. It was sleep, just white instead of black. Frozen panic instead of melted peace. Faces taunted from the walls creeping up around them.

Maybe I just haven’t appreciated what I have, he thought, rolling over into the bearded crotch of the scummy skumizuof Slina, the Magical Algae Girl, the poster peeling away from the plaster enticingly, his hand creeping below his waistband. It felt good like this against three layers of weight: the underwear, the pants, the blanket.

But every time he started to feel something, he’d start thinking again - what if I never get to see her in another position? The transparency of the image - the effort to maintain it - would become obvious and the energy would dissipate.

The feeling in his stomach, however, hadn’t dulled in intensity or left his attention once since he’d been awake. It had more object permanence than some limbs.

Even more than anxiety, it was the incontrovertible difference between this state and sleep.

Normally, Luskonneg had groceries delivered. He only ate once a day, and sometimes skipped, so it was easy to live like that. Lately, planning several days’ meals in advance had made him too anxious so he didn’t even have anything in the fridge.

Of course, the app he used to order delivery ran on an internet connection.

How long does starvation normally take to set in? …even an hour awake like this was looking intolerable.

When the emptiness swirled like this in his stomach it was like reality swirling inside him, a primordial nightmare. He dreaded standing up. But somehow he did.

He checked the front of his pants for obvious cum stains. There was a fleck, days old, that would probably be no more visible than a crumb, but at the sink he rubbed it out with hot water and hand sanitizer. A sharp diagonal wrinkle snaked around his left sleeve, but it wasn’t worth changing his shirt for that.

Scanning the tiny room for one of the shoulderbags he’d last used years ago when his social anxiety had been less crippling, he settled for the envelope a set of art books had recently arrived in to protect his laptop, the part of himself that was more important than himself, his lich’s phylactery.

The door didn’t beckon. It repelled. The closer he got to it the more unwelcome thoughts popped into his head like randomly generated enemies: Kill yourself. Use it or lose it.You’re grounded. Crawl back in your prison cell and die. You were never fit to leave the womb.

If he closed his eyes he could almost visualize them moving towards him, and imagined them like bullets in a danmaku. He hopped one way and another imagining himself trying to dodge them - I wonder if I’ll look this crazy out there - and banged his shoulder on the corner of a shelf.

In this room, he could simply crawl away from the point of transmission. Sit with his back pressed to the hard cabinets under the sink, even, so he wouldn’t have to look at it. But outside, there would be no such point. The air itself was a miasma of flitting thoughts. A psychic minefield.

He focused on the pain in his shoulder as he turned the doorknob.


Commissioner Braz put down the glass firmly, almost as if screwing it into the black mahogany table. “OK it’s been nice to do this again, really, but if I drink any more I won’t be able to remember what I was here to say, don’t think you’re gonna pull that one on me. The polls are showing frustration with the Ley line failure - up to 70% dissatisfaction with our response. Third- and fourth-class communication frequencies are still out as far north as Fools’ Goldmine. The numbers are much worse in the privately owned papers than they report to the ecclesia, although they’re less reliable so I won’t pass on any rumors. My guys can’t get anything out of your guys so I had to come here myself. What gives?”

The Colonel-Inquisitor, who had drank with the Commissioner before, and perhaps fancied himself more likely to under other circumstances than he in fact was, had been caught in civilian clothes. He fidgeted on the low and ratty beige couch, out of place in the standardized splendour of his wing of the barracks-rectory, facing the wide colonial grid window that framed the Commissioner in her uniform. She always looked intimidating, but especially in her uniform. The navy-blue officer’s tunic, which in its peacetime cut went down past its knees, its platinum snowy owl insignia shining on her collarbone, fit tightly but not revealingly, just stretched and distorted enough to suggest the six feet of martial perfection beneath. The black felt jacket draped her broad shoulders and hung around her like folded wings. It had the same natural, almost geological way of sitting on her as her sandy hair’s sharp sweep across her forehead, hanging down straight behind her ears to her shoulders. (It had been short the last time he’d seen it, but she never grew it longer than this.)

“You’re still letting those bastards run their own polls? …well, with all due respect, I think that’s your problem, Commissioner. We didn’t even have any mages working on repairing the civilian utilities until yesterday. Everyone’s still working around the clock just keeping the area locked down, and on the investigation before they wipe their tracks. Even mages with no military training have been drafted into the effort.”

“Goddess. And your people still won’t even tell me exactly what happened.” She sighed, and sat up even taller in the chair.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to figure out.”

“Oh come on, don’t give me that line - do I have to collect on the debt you owe me for telling you what General Shaïgnar thought of you before your interview?”

The Colonel Inquisitor choked out a startled laugh. “You’d waste that on this?”

“I’m really worried.” Her face was still incongruously gentle. “Nobody’s been talking about anything else around here for a week. I’m not going to have anything more worrying to spend it on in the foreseeable future, am I?”

“We’ll see. The cultist infiltrators were targeting our weather temples - if we hadn’t shut down the Leys when we did your Winter City would be on the brink of an ice cyclone worse than in 3290, let alone the carnage they were going to trigger down South. We need to know if it’s only the one, but we’re just beginning to grasp the scope of the shapeshifter problem now too. Intelligence estimates they might be 12% of the population in the strongholds of the Dark insurgency by now.”

“In Stirnia? I was sure that was Shaïgnar being paranoid as always.”

The Colonel Inquisitor’s voice hushed. “That warehouse we found and torched - they were rolled up in cubes and stacked from floor to ceiling, I’ve never seen anything like it - would have been 3% on its own. So if we assume they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket…”

“Do we have to assume that? It’s one thing for a successful colony to have gotten full of itself, but for them to be coordinating on that level would put them on war footing.”

“They were coordinating. The Dark terrorists and cultists who pulled off that attack didn’t just use them in the attack itself, they’d been sharing information with them for months, maybe years beforehand. And it’s now confirmed that Antinomians and Black Mushroom Initiates were working together on this. Shaïgnar thinks they might be privy to our wargames and acting in accordance with them deliberately to trick us into thinking they were ever in conflict at all, now hopefully that’s him being paranoid.”

“Wouldn’t there be some signs in the census, surveillance, plainclothes operations? 12%?” She had slumped back down and quietly poured herself another drink.

“We’re installing blanket CCTV with facial recognition in affected areas, hopefully that’ll catch some, especially if we synchronize the data with cell phone tracking. But it’s not like when the commoners lived in villages. It’s normal now to see hundreds of people in a day and never see them again… even our memory mages can’t process all the faces. Who knows who’s real and who’s not, in a crowded modern city?”

“How bad are the polls on mandatory state phones?”

“The ones we’re putting out are about at 50%, but we can’t get the real results above 43.”

“Are you telling me a hundred thousand shape shifters can wander around the streets and nobody notices, but add seventy thousand to a poll and they’ll start wondering what’s up? Things are as bad as you’re saying and we’re letting the lay synods and the burgher media hold our balls like this?”

“I mean, ignoring or suppressing them would amount to acknowledging war footing ourselves. ….don’t look at me like that, you’ve read the holy chronicles. Black always moves first. The forces of good are always at a disadvantage when the Dark Lord rises. The question is how big.”

“How far do they have to escalate for this for it not to be worth it any more?”

The Colonel-Inquisitor shook his soft halo of taupe hair, adjusted his glasses, twitched his mustache. “Much, much farther than attacks like this. This is how they want you to react. That’s what ‘terrorism’ is. It’s more terrifying than just being at war, it pushes and pulls and shakes you so you can never settle into that ice-cold do-or-die clarity. It makes you constantly look over your shoulder, impatient and paralyzed at the same time… it’s their own version of what we’ve done to the Dark Lord, one could say. But as long as they don’t have him, they don’t have their biggest advantage. The kind that could wipe out everything we’ve built overnight and reset us to zero as a civilization.”

“I know, but…”

He had expected to look bad in front of her, talking about all of this, but couldn’t say he wasn’t enjoying how the dynamic had shifted.

“And if open war breaks out, keeping our lid on the Dark Lord becomes exponentially harder.”

“Shaïgnar told me once we either have to be loyal to our civilization, or loyal to the war.”

“That’s Shaïgnar being paranoid.”

“…I hope.” Commissioner Braz downed the rest of her drink, posed her chin on her hands. “And do we still not know what the attack itself was? What did they do to the Preservers?”

“Some kind of psychic attack. It’s something we haven’t seen before.”

“Haven’t seen - ever, or?”

“Not since the Warring Era, at least. Academically, whatever, I mean, of course we left a few interns to sift through dusty old documents on that stuff, but it’s not worth it, we don’t understand half of our own magic from then, let alone theirs. For all strategic purposes, it’s new.”

“Can you guess how powerful it is?”

“You mean - would it work on him? On the [Taboo]…?”

Braz nodded.

Of course, if Braz wanted to get involved, it had something to do with the [Taboo] Preserver. “You have to just think of it in common sense terms. The only way to know if it’ll work on him is to try it on him. Even whatever data they were able to gather from an attack like that, they don’t know if it’ll work on him. And if they try something on him, we’ll know and we’ll move fast.” He frowned. “This attack itself, it doesn’t look… fast. The Preservers had been calling in sick, shaking off premonitions, etc. for a couple of weeks at least before this. So we’ll be more careful.”

“You got any more specific descriptions than that?”

“My investigators will email you in a couple days,

they’re still scraping together everything they can.” He looked up. “Look, whatever it is it’s powerful but it’s not that versatile. All that time preparing and it only knocked them out for a couple of hours. There haven’t been - any signs of complications, aftereffects. The Preservers are back and doing their jobs again, better than they’ve been in months.”

“Yes. But with him, a couple of hours is all it’d take.”

But Braz hadn’t managed to hide the warm, relieved smile on her face.

It wasn’t the kind of smile one smiled at the safety of something as small as the world.


Down the birth passage that was the narrow stone hallway hung with classical allegorical tapestries, as if passing through the earliest memories of social indoctrination, to re-enter the world that had rejected him on those very terms - and then he opened the outer door to a riot of competing whites and greys. Stepping outside his rowhouse he immediately avoided the sight of the cobbled tenements on either side of the road, the wood-shingled roofs starting to fall into disrepair and patched up with board and tin, and angled his gaze into the sky, where drafts swept dustings of snow up and away like curtains. Someone almost backed into him as he stood there - a worker backing out the same door he had just left (how long had it been?), heaving an old stove. He pressed himself against the wall muttering “sorry” for about a minute until a strange calm came over him, and he looked down and examined every face in the street one by one, looked away as methodically, and began to move.

Winter City - the crown jewel of the northernmost of the seven kingdoms, Elthazan. Not the capital of Elthazan, that is, but its most beautiful city, its most famous, its oldest, its most modern, its richest, its most holy, and its most geographically distinct, lying above and below the cliff of Palluna, the upper and lower town connected by filigreed funiculars and the never-ending Winter Waterfall, whose majestic force surged into the Whitewater Fountain, then was diverted by underground canals and captured by the sacred jacuzzis, underneath downtown’s beautiful and foreboding green copper domes, like a ring of hardy northern mushrooms.

He hadn’t seen any of that since elementary school. For the last five years he had only on a few rare occasions, such as this, had to venture as far as his destination - the coffee shop at the end of the street.

Which was something of a classic Winter City building, even something you could show a visitor. This neighbourhood wasn’t without its charm - no neighbourhood was in Winter City. It occupied the small circular tower, topped with a flat, ever-so-slightly convex copper dome, that rounded off the end of the rowhouse on the other side of the street. (His own rowhouse stretched around the block so its similar “head” tower was located on the perpendicular street in the opposite direction, and housed a chess club.) The three floors inside were laid out around a cast-iron spiral staircase which coiled up through the centre. Light from the dome’s skylight (magically cleared of snow) streamed down through the airy gap.

He almost bumped into somebody on the way through the door, and his glance flitted around the room, expecting everybody to be staring. He couldn’t very well turn back now. I am a desperate man. He imagined himself as a rogue like Yogne, holding up taverns because his family had been ostracized for serving the Dark Lord. ‘Don’t I deserve to live?’ - No - Yogne hadn’t been to blame for his great-grandfather’s crimes, you are entirely responsible for turning into the shambling waste of space you are. But he couldn’t stop. He was on autopilot.

He tried to let his mouth water like a wild man as he looked at the menu. Blueberry mousse cupcakes, flaky spiral pastries with honey glaze, mint glazed snowflake brittles, juniper mochi, white chocolate and berry bran cookies~! But he was actually hungry, and needed a real meal, like a good quiche, or a zaatar, or - since when did they have lasagna?

He wanted all of them, and he wasn’t going to come back here again who knew if for months or years, and knew if he didn’t choose the one he really truly most wanted he would be regretting it for Goddess knew how long - he had no idea which, but would exactly as soon as the money was out of his hands - even if he picked the right one you’d regret not eating the others, he told himself, trying to reduce an absolute distinction to one of degree (one that like most distinctions of degree, like the distance between the door and the counter, he could outright expunge by forcibly not paying attention to) - but that didn’t help, now he didn’t dare move and collapse that crest of regret that would instantly wash away all the anticipation of eating, maybe even the taste itself? (things like taste, touch, none of that ever felt as strong as regret, fear, envy unless it was this raw hunger, the closest he knew a physical condition to come to what he regarded less as an emotional than an existential one, and even that was now stalemated) -


How long had he been standing there?

He made the mistake of raising his eyes.

The eyes of the barista flashed into his like a big cat’s on a moonless night, close enough to close the distance in the same instant as the jaws of dark.

They felt themselves move - anything to get out of the way of those beams.


They were back in the doorway clutching their collar around the flesh was that heaving up around them hot and cold.

Someone glanced back at him - at least one - but most of the still blurry silhouettes seemed to be looking, at least, to the front of the line.

I have to get out of here. Do I even know any other places.

Wandering the street, at this point, would just give his feelings more time to build up. If I do it fast - if I don’t look -

He glanced at the glass of the door, transmitting the light of the street.

It seemed to shiver in the light, as if beckoning him to break it.

No no no no no. Not this.

He stumbled back towards the back of the line. Just do it fast. Just don’t think. Whatever you do, don’t think.

He closed his eyes. He played three anime openings in his head, in line for line and hex code detail. He didn’t know he had got to the front of the line until the next “sir”.

Just - point at the first thing you see when you open your eyes.

He forced his eyelids half-open and tried to read through the blur.

“Chocolate matcha…”

Hey, isn’t that like that legend about the hero who said he would sacrifice the first thing he saw when he came back from fighting the Dark Lord, and the first thing he saw was -

God will find some way to punish you if you don’t make your own choice you know.

What could God possibly do? It’s just a…

He examined the shape. That demonic spiral, like a unicorn’s virgin-goring horn…

(Wait, that’s not what unicorns do, that’s just in that one guro doujin. No, don’t think about that before eating, no, wait, wasn’t that about a guy’s firstborn-


It’s happening)

“I’m not going to let my firstborn daughter choke to death on a chocolate matcha corneeeeeeeeeeeeet!”

…wait. Since when am I going to have kids?

“He’ll be getting a lavender latte and a Has’qarn Delight,” came a voice from behind him.

“And a spinach burger!” the shut-in blurted, voice escalating in seconds from barely audible to abrasive, closing his eyes and clutching his computer to his chest, pulling everything tight then gradually unwinding to pull the money out of his wallet. His last 20, all at once.

Even he couldn’t resist a glance over his shoulder at the angel who had rewarded his heroic non-choice.

Six wings, wheels, fire, shifting-coloured eyes,


At ‘eyes’ a wave of impossible warmth rolled through his entire body.

He blinked again.

A woman.

(Luskonneg was bisexual, technically, but had made himself that way largely out of fear of women.)

A 3D woman. That’s not even the same thing.

There were pores around her nose. On her nose, too. But on either side, on her cheeks, in a place where they were slightly sunken just over her cheekbones, two small wings of black pores were immediately visible. Like tunnels into another dimension. Like burrows for worms of white paste (he remembered, how he remembered…) They were giving him trypophobia. He couldn’t stop looking. He looked away and they started appearing on the walls. And her eyes, her eyes also followed him to the window, so much smaller and narrower than he was used to, but they needed to be for protection, for they were not just vulnerable, in the way a 2D girl’s doe eyes were vulnerable, they were vulnerable and disgusting and reaching out of their sockets to be pulped, no get a hold of yourself that’s disgusting, and in the moment he thought the word ‘disgusting’ he saw them in 2D, pure, beautiful, the light that had struck within him when he had first made contact and before he had looked away from the focal point of the pupils projected as if onto an invisible screen in the air, in greater detail, subtler modulation of colours, more startling rhythms of shards of crystalline starburst and bubbles of dew, than anyone, any of his waifus - and then he saw himself smashing them to red pulp, over and over, everywhere the screen was projected around him, which was everywhere he looked, and when he next blinked he kept his eyes shut.

But are scent, the weight of proximity and emanating warmth, dimensions- ?

“You’re… together?”

(He only remembered this line being spoken hours after the fact. And then suppressed it again.)

He didn’t dare look back to see her nod. He stared straight down at the counter, and hand trembling, held out his card. With internet down, he hadn’t spent anything on gacha in the past few days, so he could splurge. He would have paid… at least $50 before making himself argue with a stranger, let alone a woman in public. (Would he really… speak up and defend himself for just 60, 70 dollars?)

The ration card beeped. He flinched. He had forgotten it was that loud.

And people were desperately whispering in the line behind them but he couldn’t pin words down.

Luskonneg scooted over to the side of the bar and waited for the spinach burger. The woman sidled up next to him. Her hand pressed backwards, white-palmed against the countertop. Of all half dozen ways he could murder her he was too weak to succeed in any of them. That gave him the relief to look back at her but not her eyes. Her hair was chestnut-coloured and fell like blinds.

“I meant… we were together. Not that we were going to pay together. Sorry, I was in a bit of a rush. I wasn’t expecting you to pay.”

“…are we?”

That would have been the simplest thing in the world to say. Indeed, he had decided to say it, by the time she had finished talking. He just had to make sure. That decision had been suspiciously easy, hadn’t it?

Too good to be true.

He iterated his thought process two, three times. At the same time a subprocess of his mind was trying to count the split seconds in the ticking of dust in the shaft of sunlight.

No, it worked. Although if you’re still missing something…

Right. What tone was he going to use?

That subvocal creak at the back of his throat - booming in his ears - that was no good. That’s not possibly going to produce the tone you’re thinking of.

Try again. He swallowed. How long had it been? Her hand had been on the counter, now it wasn’t.

He opened his mouth. Nothing came out.

Come on now.

- no, but he had to keep it closed, or what if nothing came out again, it would look like he was flapping his mouth like an idiot? Or if the words did, it would look like he had started and stopped before saying them, which would ruin the tone, ruin the impression, which would be about the same thing. You should wait… thirty seconds.

In thirty seconds, he realized he had no idea how to speak in that tone. He had never produced it in his life.

He wasn’t sure he even remembered how to speak any more.

What if his voice came out sounding like a bestial growl - a croak - a cackle - a burp - a sneeze -

The thought made him aware of everything in his nose. The air was a minefield of motes of dust.

He opened his mouth to speak, and sucked them in.

He wasn’t producing any sound.

He hadn’t decided on a sound to produce. But his mouth was moving. Shit. That’s - exactly the wrong way to do this. But he couldn’t force a note from the back of his throat, because the moment he began, he felt something move in his nose.

“Are you OK?”

He redoubled his efforts and immediately felt like the inside of his nose was being stabbed with tiny jacks. The air coming up from his lungs took a sharp detour and he barely had time to raise his hand before spraying - not just vapour but, to his horror, a whole slug of snot in a clear arc down to the tips of his shoes.

She had taken three rapid steps back and avoided all of it.

“Sorry. Said I was in a hurry. I’ll uh, pay you back some time, OK?”

mouth opened and he staggered a titanic half-step in her direction.


She was smiling. Smiling, right?

He’d actually made someone smile! He couldn’t ruin that now. And couldn’t expect anything else.

Out of this interaction, or frankly, this entire cafe.

Every part of his mind was aching, but he would have to settle.

He turned back, afraid to look at her smile too long. His hunger was suddenly all-consuming.

He scanned for the lavender latte and Has’qarn delight.

The warmth of the bag under his fingers was as satisfying as the warmth in his pants at the start of a god-tier doujin. He could have eaten every spinach burger in the cafe.

Speaking of that warmth, he could feel the tent in his pants, which was currently facing the counter, at least away from anyone looking.

He scurried to the nearest unoccupied table, not even thinking about his internet connection.

The table was a slab of rounded, worn wood that had been glazed several times; streaks of caramel grain in gold.

His erection wasn’t just uncontrolled; it didn’t feel in any way like part of him.

He hadn’t time to form any attraction to her outside a paradox, but it had reacted to things he hadn’t even had time to think about, things he hadn’t felt or seen since middle school.

(He wouldn’t be able to look at women, even 2D, even lolis, for what, weeks now? He’d have to pivot hard to femboys…)

Why did he still have this middle school part of his body. Why hadn’t it just dropped off and been replaced by a new thing, like a deer regrowing horns.

>There is a doujin about that, isn’t there?

He had a nearly irresistible impulse to look it up here in the coffeeshop.

After all, he could hardly look like more of a freak.

Had he done all that on purpose? To set up some sort of force field between himself and people?

He couldn’t imagine any other way he could be sitting here without tearing himself apart.

Even knowing how little he cared about their judgment, he couldn’t imagine himself, in its absence, not caring about their judgment, more and more unbearably every time he escaped it.

But anyway the internet wasn’t working here either.

The burger was so good it made him dread returning to the old routine of takeout. Well, I don’t know when I will be. I don’t know if the internet is ever coming back. Maybe I’ll just stay… do they let people sleep here? …it’s a cafe not a church… and it’d be easier to go back home than go to a church. What could happen in a church? Maybe a cute nun finds me and takes care of me… now I just wanna read My Bedside Nurse Is A Visionary Mystic?! (there’s no way the real thing would be as good as that, it’d have to happen exactly like that, and it wouldn’t (I’m pretty sure ‘being mistaken for a vision of the God’ is my fetish, but it only happens in this one doujin, Goddess!)… or even just Bleeding Heart Sisters… don’t churches have a special intranet? maybe they’d let me on the intranet, if I just used it to look at something like that… do any nuns read Bleeding Heart Sisters?) The burger had been sitting in his hands for about a minute.

It’s like there’s nothing to time my thoughts to, around here.

Anime, music, even the rhythm of clicking page by page through a comic or a web novel, it’s like those things situate me in time and my own mind.

Otherwise he got overwhelmed trying to process the rhythm of several conversations, his own chewing, faraway footsteps, passersby walking below the window, and his own thoughts, time itself jumping from one track, one measure to another and his own thoughts, unmoored in time, spiralling into their private infinities like dreams where a day can pass within a few minutes of waking - shit, was that another minute, wasn’t it.

He had the sudden, vivid, nonsensical vision that the burger was rotting in his hands - even though he knew it couldn’t, or they wouldn’t sell it, but -

You’re wasting your time. You don’t deserve this burger. Time is rotting it.

And his eyes stared deep into the ragged edge where his spit was softening the burger, like a fly’s -

Something rose up in his throat and he had to close his eyes and lean back and breathe.

This is why I don’t like to look at food while I’m eating it.

And now he could feel the judgment of others again. As concrete as time - as if they were staring at their stopwatches and timing him.

They were talking.

What are they talking about? Is it me? Listen, see if it’s:

Teenagers above him:

“It could have been worse, power was out on my uncle’s farm. He always says they shouldn’t have so much magic concentrated in one big station like that.”

“My mom was yelling at me all dinner for saying it was a Dark attack! Calling me a conspiracy theorist!” *sigh* “she’s not gonna apologize, of course. But like, man, is it even such a big deal if I’m a conspiracy theorist? She says it like I’m a thief or something!”

“It’s not even a conspiracy theory? It’s a reasonable assumption at this point, like, the censors didn’t even put a disclaimer on that article in The Valkyrie claiming a new Dark Lord might have reincarnated ten years ago. We should be expecting stuff like this at least. And they should.”

“Do you really think… there’s a new Dark Lord? There’s gonna be a war?”

“Well, it’d be easier to buy that this new magic for sealing the Dark Lord is a game changer that’ll keep him sealed for good this time if they hadn’t said that last time. I was reading primary sources for my history assignment…”

“They say they’ve already successfully suppressed one.”

“Would they even know it was the right one? The Dark Lord’s never been suppressed. The only way we know it’s him is that there’s a war every time. I dunno, I think it’s one of those things that just happens, like people dying.”

“You’re too chill about this, man.”

“I’m not chill about dying. I worry a lot about dying, that’s why I can be chill about everything else.”

“My mom has a spell subscription for her headaches, it’s been down and she’s just gone straight to bed after work the last few days.”

“Oof. That’s awful, hey I’ll pitch in some credit so you can get a nice potion for her.”

“Really? Thanks so much bro…”

…So was that why the internet was down? Some kind of Dark attack on a big magic station? That would do it.


A weird sense of self-worth washed over him, and after everything that had happened in the last fifteen minutes, he took the time to savour it, tuning out the strangers’ conversation (which would have inevitably taken some other triggering turn).

I might be a pathetic shut-in, but at least I’m not a Dark cultist.

He had somehow never gotten this from his own parents, but (despite the internet being heavily censored, and Dark cultists mainly recruiting through the criminal underworld, which he was too much of a coward to dare venturing near any place associated with) lots of otaku on forums would always complain about responsible adults in their lives, after an event like this, sitting them down to ask if anyone had been talking to them about… forbidden magic, or secret religious teachings, or how the world was unfair and corrupt. “Of course I can see why you’d think that, life is tough sometimes, honey, but you don’t… think it would be better if the Dark Lord returned, right?” Because the Dark, everyone knows, preys on lonely disillusioned young men who haven’t achieved anything remarkable in their lives and give in to despair.

Well, that’s how a normie would see it. That’s what they would assume because they don’t understand it from a shut-in’s perspective.

From that perspective, the Dark cultist has no idea what despair is. No matter how much the truth is staring them in the face, they’d throw out their very humanity to hold on to the belief that there’s some hope in this world. Even if only for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Even at the expense of civilization and all the achievements that have given them everything worth surviving for - anime, manga, fanart, video games, pop idols, fast food, toys, memes, anonymous online banter without any of the pressure of maintaining control of your voice and heartrate or being identifiable by a name and face if you say something embarrassing. Anyone expressing the slightest sympathy with such a view wouldn’t be given the tearful intervention they might get from bleeding heart relatives at home. Screencapped, spammed with gore and the most disgusting fetish porn that was still legal (fuckers probably like it), banned on sight - by the mods if not by the government censorship algorithm.

From a shut-in’s perspective - from the unanimous (undoubtedly heavily censored, but who cares) consensus of the textboards, imageboards, blogs, forums and chat rooms - Dark cultists were the worst kind of riajuu.

Self-centred, self-important, overdramatic, chuuni emo whiners - the epitome of cringe.

Even basement dwellers need someone to look down on.

There was nothing in the world someone like Luskonneg would less rather be.

The thought of someone he was better than was giving him the strength to finish his burger.

He sighed and looked back down into his hand. Eight bites left to finish.

Now that he could count them, time them, it was as good as already over.

One-one-thousand, something in his head had started, two-two-thousand-thousand, three-three-thousand-thousand-thousand…

He felt something crawling on his scalp but when he touched it there wasn’t any sweat. He looked out the window to see if the sun was in the same place. He bit down into the burger. The glare of light off the table was attacking him.

The taste of the burger was already too familiar. They shot taste through him, but it wasn’t like… a predictable number in a video game. Why not? Why was it empty of whatever minimum reality those numbers had?

Everything around him was time, rolled-up twisted incoherent time, and time was unbearable.

I guess I’ll have to go back and sleep if off when I’m finished, he thought. But his body felt different. Even though you were supposed to sleep better on a full stomach - maybe I’ll fall asleep here - he’d been sleeping so long without one. And the walking hadn’t worn off.

How much longer?

He wasn’t sure he could stand another few seconds - thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand-thousand moments - he had lost track of the conversation above him, which filled him with a longing more intense than any moe he’d experienced in the past four months - maybe he’d go up there and try to talk, after all, hadn’t he almost? Wasn’t he desperate? No humiliation could be worse than just sitting here awake focusing on the empty gravelly brilliance of his consciousness.

Of course he could. But then he knew what would happen. If it was just for the sake of alleviating his boredom, the mere act of thinking about it would be enough. He could sit here for hours (minutes) not only contemplating what to say, but spinning whole conversations in his head out from it, branching paths like in a visual novel; or if he stood up, deliberating every single step, every detail of his expression, stopping halfway up the stairs or at the top pretending to be absentmindedly looking for a washroom, how long a wait would disqualify him from approaching, and how he could approach again if he disqualified himself. He could do this forever, and the forever would be infinitely longer than the last forever. It would be just as agonizing, but it would be exhilarating, more dramatic than any anime or game (“life is being a hero of RPG game that has undecided purpose”, the poorly translated slogan from a Stirnian doujin circle he had scrawled over and over to a manic density and eventually scratched out, ripped up, burned with cigarette stabs on his high school notepad), sickeningly more, especially since it would never have to end. Life was the only media addiction he had ever given up. Standing, waiting, perfecting, rejecting, refusing, running away, watching himself run away. Even now he was watching it. Watching himself decide whether to move or not. So simple, so stupid, binary, 0-1, yet infinitely entrancing, single-bit video game. And he couldn’t stop it any more.

You could just die.

Live, not live. Die, not die. 1-0, 1-0, but this metronome was almost calming.

He closed his eyes.

Patterns bloomed and wilted, opened and closed, in dry blue. This is the world I belong in, he sighed noiselessly, and the sweat from his palms settling on his forehead. Why can’t I stay.

After an undefined time he opened his eyes.

Looked over to the screen, dim and fresh as afternoon snow. Smacked refresh.

A loading circle appeared in dull blue, crawled brighter.

He sat transfixed, welcoming the thrill even if were to prove a false start. Is it… for real?

As colour and text dropped across the window, he almost cried.

Then immediately minimized it. There was no-one behind him, but he didn’t even want to project a page that lewd at the window.

Smacking it shut. Time was moving normally again. He let almost violently large breaths in and out.

Looking down he saw he still hadn’t finished his burger. He swept it up in its wrapping in his other hand to eat as he strode.

So briskly, so confidently, maybe he even looked cool. But he wouldn’t ruin the feeling by looking at anyone’s faces looking at him.

He couldn’t even feel, hear anything around him, except the sunlight, radiating pure energy or information like that which was at his fingertips yet again.

Not even the conversation above him continuing, “shit, I can’t transfer you the credit, internet’s still down!”


Rraihha Braz, Commissioner of the Paladin Guard for Elthazan, pushed through the white curtains, layer after layer, until she almost doubted herself and thought she had gotten lost, tangled up - and that was always when she broke through into the skylight of the sanctum, a single drop of nervous sweat disappearing into her wide and crooked smile of relief.

She looked down serenely at the young man sprawled on the round bed in her innocuous pink-and-blue tartan pyjamas - before her anxiety jerked her eyes out of their repose and up at the dogs.

They gazed down at her with their stony blue marble eyes, heads imperceptibly and inscrutably swivelling.

Corpse-thin and more than three times her height, the [Taboo] Preserver’s guard dogs towered more like white fir trees with their branches folded against their trunks by a heavy snow than dogs, narrow cones bristling with points of hair as sharp as hedgehogs’ quills, their peaks collapsed in proboscis-like borzoi muzzles drooping downwards. Every time she came here, she thought she had gotten used to them, and yet -

A pull from the bottom corner of her coat. She shook her shivers out through her shoulders and looked down.

Normally, the [Taboo] Preserver would sleep in sacred robes adorned with chrome feather filigree and embroidered with curves representing the highest and subtlest equations and paradoxes, but this one - Ymmañ Ulwenn - preferred the fluffy felt pyjama shirt and pants that ballooned around his legs and slid around his neck and collarbone as he pushed himself into a sitting position with one hand, pulling at Braz’s coat with the other. She dropped, as if a spring had released, into a squat next to her bedside, and with one hand reached out to pat the Preserver’s mint-green hair.

A little over a year ago, this gesture of affection had had to be cleared with a half dozen high ranking scholars, magical jurists and political authorities. The fact that it had been at Ulwenn’s direct request had made the process significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.

“You have no idea how long it’s been,” Ymmañ rubbing his head back and forth against her hand until his hair started standing up.

“I think the last time I was away for the same amount of time.” The last time she had seen him had been shortly after the attack - not as shortly as she had wanted, when she’d thought the [Taboo] Preserver might have been targeted somehow.

She felt at least one dog’s judgmental eyes on her.


“I have been busy, though.”

“How was


sleep? Did you get any?” Ymmañ started with concern.

“How long do you think I can go without sleep?”

“As long as you want! You’re a cool Commissioner with a ninth degree magic seal.” She narrowed her eyes more seriously. “As long as I can go without waking up.”

“Yeah, see for that, it wouldn’t be enough to be cool - I’d have to be a Taboo Commissioner.”

They laughed. There was, of course, no such thing.

If there was, Braz would probably be it. But you couldn’t just make up jobs as important as the most important job in the world.

Preservers of some form or another accounted for a 45% of jobs that had stayed stable for about three generations. Even the most sophisticated magic spells did not naturally last much longer than the action of casting them. Ongoing spells supporting something like a power grid, or a network connection, or many other modern amenities required a Preserver (or many, depending on the spell’s strength); someone performing an ongoing ritual to maintain them. On a well-established circuit, Preservers could be cycled in shifts, making the elaborate, efficient magical technology of the modern world possible. But cycling introduced vulnerabilities - like the ones the attackers had probably exploited - vulnerabilities that couldn’t be allowed in the most important spells in the world.

The [Taboo] Preserver’s job was to maintain the spells that kept the Dark Lord at bay.

The history of civilization - of order, and peace, and the worship of the Goddess and the Light - was a history of struggle against the Dark Lord.

4000 years ago - all calendars were reckoned from that date, and all time before was a muddy prehistory - the seven great heroes defeated the Dark Lord and freed humanity from uncounted ages of slavery. Their Golden Age lasted three centuries before the Dark Lord was reincarnated; thus began the Warring Era, a millennium of siege, the descendants of the heroes unable to kill the Dark Lord before he reestablished the Dark Kingdom but just barely managing, for generations, to hold its forces at bay. The few times the Dark Lord was killed in the course of those long and fabled wars, he was immediately reincarnated within his own line of succession in the Dark kingdom, under a magical procedure only understood by his priesthood. For all its brutality and unpredictability by modern standards, the predictably relentless violence of the Warring Era and the stability of the Dark Lord’s lineage brought with it a sense of constancy that would prove beneficial to the humans, who learned and evolved to match their enemies until finally the Holy Alliance stormed the Dark Kingdom, killing the Dark Lord and exterminating his priests.

He would not be born again for another thousand years. In the First Dark War that followed when he was, all the cities and temples of the Warring Era were razed, libraries burned, millions massacred, and humanity brought closer to total subjugation than at any time since the beginning of written history.

In the second interval of peace, detecting and if possible preventing the Dark Lord’s reincarnation became a priority of the Ecclesia. A partial emulation of the spell used by his acolytes to control his reincarnation was achieved, and the next Dark Lord was detected at birth. A special task force - professionals, not heroes - was dispatched to kill him in the cradle. All measures to do so - or even capture him - proved impossible. His immunity to magic, overwhelming innate abilities, and a significant measure of intellect were awakened the moment a hostile spell was cast on him. Fortunately the child Dark Lord was less powerful than his previous full incarnation, and the Second Dark War did not reset civilization to zero. The next peaceful era would become more advanced and prosperous than any before. Magic users harnessed the power of the Ley lines to build a power grid that fuelled mass communication, heavy industry, rapid transport that could shuttle people and resources around the world, and widespread advances in computing and robotics.

None of this gave them any protection against the next reincarnation of the Dark Lord.

Or that was how it appeared to everyone except the cunning General Martolod. Martolod looked to the neglected, but inexorably growing non-magical sciences for a solution. He found one in the new and controversial science of psychology, which claimed to break down the different faculties that made up a functioning mind and the fragile equilibrium they had to maintain. The spells he had his mages cast on the Dark Lord when he reincarnated were technically buffs, and thus not blocked by his many immunities. But by strategically increasing his suspicion, anxiety, negative perception, conscientiousness and sensitivity to a degree that they couldn’t be balanced out by other traits, they hoped at least to make him ineffective as a general and uninspiring as a leader to his own Dark minions. They were even more successful than they expected. The emotionally stunted Dark Lord they created did not come into his powers until he was forty (and homeless), twice the age of any previous Dark Lord’s awakening, and when he did he killed most of his own forces in a paranoid fit, taking only a single city with them before committing suicide. By the time he reincarnated again shortly after, the formula had been improved. Martolod’s team had requested access to the mass media. Soon the cultural authorities whose role had been to select the most aesthetically sophisticated, morally and philosophically serious art for public funds and distribution were turning a blind eye to and even promoting hyper-addictive products that encouraged unrealistic fantasies, harsh disillusionment and social isolation. Crucial social supports for mental illness - better and more widely available in this than in certain other universes - were mysteriously withheld. The Dark Lord reincarnated over and over, as routinely as he had in the Dark Kingdom. He was now on his fifth failed incarnation; the last had been the first to die entirely without incident, starving himself to death in a manic episode in which he hadn’t drank water for three days trying to beat a record in a visual concentration game.

Throughout all this time, the Dark forces, however, had kept building up without their master, and increasingly, over the lifespan of the current Dark Lord, seemed to be learning to self-organize, taking back sections of the former Dark Kingdom and launching insurgencies deep into the heart of the Seven Kingdoms. The “Dark Cold War” inaugurated by General Martolod which humanity had been inarguably winning had transitioned into a “Dark War on Terror”.

No matter how weak they made him, they couldn’t aggress him directly. Keeping him under surveillance and occasionally engineering circumstances indirectly was the most they could intervene in his life without triggering the Dark Lord’s magical defences and self-awareness - which, based on psychological models of past incarnations of the Dark Lord, the longer he maintained the more he would recover from the psychological handicaps placed on him.

As well as maintaining his psychological limits, the [Taboo] Preserver was entirely responsible for the surveillance. They were, in fact, the only person in the world who knew who the Dark Lord was - the sizeable committee that had been tasked with predicting his birth and casting the spell that the Preserver maintained had all been mind-wiped so that they didn’t even know they had participated, though some could safely guess. The information was too dangerous to risk being exposed by some bureaucrat in an attack like - well, the one that had just taken place. Everything the Church and the Kingdoms knew about the current condition of the Dark Lord came from the reports of her dreams the [Taboo] Preserver delivered involuntarily. The [Taboo] Preserver only woke when the Dark Lord was in a deep sleep cycle, and when they slept they dreamed his entire life, including his own dreams. They spoke in their sleep, dictating significant events to an enchanted notepad in complex formulaic language which exhaustively classified types and levels of potentially threatening thoughts or behaviour without giving away valuable specifics, unless a breach was significant enough to merit an emergency report. More subtle observations they could report at their discretion in one-on-one interrogation - although that was like remembering a dream; they didn’t have continuous conscious memory of the Dark Lord’s memories, since that could risk causing them to identify with him and tailor their information accordingly.

When he was awake Ymanñ hardly thought of the existence he had sacrificed the vast majority of his life to contain. He thought of his dogs; the luxuries provided by his servants; the exquisite beams of the skylight; and the attentions of his occasional visitors, sometimes an Academy doctor, sometimes a distracted ecclesiastic or politician delivering a perfunctory prayer for TV, sometimes Commissioner Braz.

His face - significantly magically preserved, and made up like a movie star’s by his servants - was beginning to show some of the lines of his actual forty-one years - although in waking years, since he’d been chosen out of the Magic Academy at 19, he was little more than 22, the same age as the current Dark Lord himself, and a dozen years younger than the Commissioner.

White hairs camouflaged themselves amongst his sea-green ones, never standing out, never more than one standing alone. Reeds among grasses.

He had a boy’s softness and a man’s softness, and it was impossible to tell which was which.

Commissioner Braz had at first thought everyone found this combination as uniquely poignant as she did.

“H-hey Rraihha! Look at these!” Ymanñ shoved a pile of papers towards her.

Braz picked them up and sifted through. Normally the only papers she looked at here were the original drafts of the reports on the Dark Lord - if she suspected her briefings were missing some detail she was interested in, not that anything in the Dark Lord’s life was ever


- but these were drawings. From one page to the next they demonstrated sharp improvement; the first few were somewhat self-awarely shaky, baggy, outlines, adapting rapidly and returning to form when a shoulder or finger ballooned out of proportion, the lack of internal detail or shading except a few aggressive scratches for emphasis here and there contributing to the sense of weightlessness evoked by the extremely light pencilling; confident and accomplished outlines began to appear over eraser smudges. The last was a portrait of a face, the outline only suggested by its heavy shading, blotches of sickly front lighting emerging from an exhaustive chiaroscuro with haggard features receding once again. It was a ghost’s face - a face that would be circulated in chain emails attached to constantly shifting backstories that never quite managed to live up to the nameless unsettling quality it evoked, that you’d pass on against your conscience in superstitious hope that it wouldn’t keep haunting your mind hours later. Except in this context, the explanation was horrifying enough.

“You shouldn’t… be showing me that.”

“There’s no rule against showing you a drawing, technically. And if anything goes wrong, and he uh… you should know what he looks like.”

Braz nodded grimly. The possibility, he supposed, didn’t seem as distant now as it had a few weeks ago.

But still - “when did you draw all these?”

Even in the 2 hours or so they were awake per day, the [Taboo] Preserver’s freedom was severely curtailed. They couldn’t go outside, of course; they were also forbidden access to the internet or any mass media except a classified public servants’ news bulletin, and any cultural pursuits that might overlap too much with the Dark Lord’s interests, promoting identification. The role of [Taboo] Preserver was understood, in religious terms, as a kind of ascetic calling - the opportunity for a brief, hyperfocused life of austere self-awareness sold as one of its perks. And while previous Preservers had deviated from this from time to time (the last had been an enthusiastic student of classic literature who had written several essays respected in their fields and, according to private ecclesiastical records, an equally sophisticated wine taster), Ymanñ had embraced his role to the fullest; his pyjamas and liaisons with Braz only seemed to demonstrate that he didn’t need solitude or ceremonial vestments. His life of single-minded prayer, inexhaustible attention to his guard dogs (the most pampered in the history of the office), and occasional composition on a toy synthesizer were enough.

The simplest man in the world.

(“If the Dark Lord could live like me,” he had told her, the second or third time they’d met, “he could be happy.” And his tone - she remembered it like a recording - was of bottomless desolation.)

“They didn’t tell you.” His voice sunk - more audibly than he had allowed it the last several times he had had to intimate her emotions. “He’s been asleep virtually the entire time since the attack. His internet was out. It’s been… I forgot what it was like, being awake for this long. I wasn’t ready. Don’t be sorry, it’s my fault. I didn’t think something like this would even happen.” He laughed - and sounded his age. Or was it a kind of overtone - a resonance between what a twenty-three-year-old and a forty-year-old would sound like, unique to this specific situation? “In, in this place - like, it’s beautiful, it’s meditative, but not for this long.”

They both looked apologetically up at the dogs.

“No, it’s funny,” he continued. “I just forgot. I used to kind of hope for something like this to happen when I signed up for this job! And then I slept so much I just forgot about it. Forgot to prepare for what that was like. And the anxiety, because of the attack obviously and I don’t know what effect it’s gonna have on him if it goes on this long… I probably would have been more up for it in the Academy than I was when this hit. I would have made the most of it, I wouldn’t have wasted it on…” she ruffled the drawings - not roughly. “All this shit.”

“They’re beautiful,” Braz reassured. A shadow shifted across her nose as one of the dogs nodded. “I mean.”

“I know. Just…”

“And I’m sorry I couldn’t be there…”

Ymanñ reached out and touched her wrist. “It’s not… missing you didn’t make it worse or anything, right? Just so you know.”

Braz looked nowhere, hoping she wasn’t blushing.

Then Braz looked down at the documents in her hands. Expecting simply to mull (involuntarily - he didn’t enjoy it, in a situation like this, but he would) - over the shock she had been through. Instead, there was something more shocking.

“What the hell?” Braz’s eyes darted over the documents. “Outside his apartment for… three hours? And… he


to someone?”

Ymanñ cringed, and laughed. “Nothing


I’m sorry.”

“I mean, you didn’t have anything to do with it!” The [Taboo] Preserver had no power to affect the taboo individual whose life they dreamed, even if they were lucid in their dream. All their magic energy was occupied maintaining the spells. Any such effort might kill them - and then all hell would break loose.

Braz sighed dramatically. “Goddess. Goddess. Maybe that’s what they were aiming for? Maybe that was the point of this whole attack? - sorry, I’m not looking forward to Intelligence seeing this, but I shouldn’t worry you. You must be already worried.”

Ymañn screwed his face up in a curious frown. “Sometimes I don’t know if I know how to worry any more.”

Braz skimmed momentarily over the paradox of his statement. “That’s good. I don’t get it, but… if you’ve figured out a way not to worry in your position, that’s like, the Holy Grail.”

“Did the others worry?” Ymanñ asked briefly, earnestly. His eyes pierced the Commissioner’s soul like raindrops. He wasn’t allowed to access the records of the other [Taboo] Preservers (this one had never even made sense to Braz)


Rraihha read and re-read over the report. “Went to a cafe - Containment got hooked him up to our backup network in under twenty minutes so he could go back online - went back home.” She exhaled with involuntarily audible relief. “Well, if you’re gonna apologize, I guess I better congratulate you. This thing we’ve got, this system, it really works. It took all that effort to get just one thing to go wrong, and they’d have to break down so many more.”

This system that brought me to you.

This system that took everything to you.

This infinitely bittersweet system.

But everything in the world is bittersweet.

That was her mantra, the affirmation that let forbidden thoughts waft away on the current of all things, the current of the Goddess’ will.

That’s what someone like the Dark Lord will never understand. Everything in the world is bittersweet.

Well, what she knew of the Dark Lord from Ymanñ’s reports.

>Most people just laugh at them. But he really is something scary. Something incompatible with a human, something incompatible with the human world.

And Ymanñ has to live with him all day in his dreams.

“Take them, huh?” Ymanñ held out the pictures. “I don’t necessarily want them around here. And I feel like you’ll appreciate them more than I do.”

They’d remind me of you. They’d only ever remind you of…

Rraihha nodded, gripped the edge of the stack, but couldn’t resist frowning a bit.

They’ll also remind me of what you’re tied to.

Can I imagine you separate from the [Taboo] Preserver? Separate from the Dark Lord? Can you?

Do I have a right to?

Quite literally, in a legal sense, probably not.

And as simply as that, the thought dissipated into a feeling, and blended into the others - loyalty, admiration, affection, l…

That’s how a human works, she thought grimly, staring down into the drawing’s somehow accusing eyes.