Re: Running Through Daisies
+the priests and the flower girl+
That is the road to Heaven, my love,
and that is the road to Hell.
And that is the road to Faery,
where you and I must dwell.
-Thomas the Rhymer
Your best hope would be to de-personalize what follows
and not to look upon me as
or yourself as
Remember, we are both seekers of truth, and in this quest,
I am your friend, philosopher, and guide.
the sheep's game
(beware the false prophets)
Chains clinking, ice crunching with each step. Flowers crushed under the heels, beaten and strangled into the dirt. Dead. Happily, he thinks, giving a yellow-toothed smile to himself and flicking his cigarette. Days like this, they’re aching to die. Go down with smiles on their faces. The ashes, flames still flickering and sputtering in the mist, flutter through the air to join the flowers’ corpses.
The wind picks up, jostling the overgrown grass, the weeds, the un-pruned trees.
Across the yard, a porch swing gives an unsightly creak. Rosaries, one after another, shift, tinkling, crosses turning on their chains. One baby Jesus, two baby Jesus… There must be fifty, sixty, even, all different—wood, glass, dyed plastic, metal, colors, lots of colors—all with the dead god and the virgin. The cigarette trembles a bit.
A cell phone rings, seems out of place in the wind and the mist—too sharp, too defined to survive in the hazy pall. “Nice flower beds. Good-smelling. Dahlias, I think. Knew a girl named Dahlia once. Fun to step on.”
“If you’re done violating their horticulture, would you mind knocking?”
“’Fraid I can’t,” the loiterer says into the receiver, puffing a leisurely smoke ring into the mist. It floats, barely discernable in the gloom, mixing with the steam of his breath. (Ring of fire, unicorns on the clouds.) “They’ve got their deck all covered in crucifixes. I could melt if I get too close.” He’s too loud, too mean for the still air.
The voice on the other end fits in with the dead air and the fragments. It’s sick, weak and scratchy, like there’s a pack of nails burrowed in the throat. If it stopped talking, he would just assume it’d dropped dead, and would probably hang up on it. “Darrow.” The exasperation sounds more like one-lunged respiration. “You’re Father Alexius Foulon. The girl is Cora Quarles. Enter. Avoid contact. Tell the parents the exorcism will be performed next week. Pretend to be interested. Leave. Order is negotiable.”
“Have some respect. The name’s Nix.”
The man, now identified as one Nicias Darrow—falsely, yes, but at least one of his credit cards is titled such—drops the cigarette butt. One boot smothers the sputtering nicotine carcass into the dirt and the flowers with unnecessary force, leaving inch-deep furrows. “Perform the exorcism? Yes, sounds splendid. (Darrow, the cell phone interrupts.) I even brought a printout of the rites—here, see? Well, no you don’t, because you morons picked me up off the streets and dumped me off like trash, like usual. Now what does this say? (Darrow.) Ecce Crucem Domini, fugite, partes adversae? Is that an igh or an ey? Who cares: I can do what I want. Language is fluid, or so the wise, non-stuffy grammarians tend to say. (Darrow…) Ridiculous notions of the church—these religious folks, by God. Look at all the little Jesuses on their house. Isn’t that insulting to their own religion, their savior hung from their roof like a birdhouse or a wind chime? Maybe I’ll just sprinkle some sink water on her and be done with it, shall I? Or maybe holy wafers will make it all go away. No family doesn’t have Nilla Wafers in the pantry. I could use a few of those.”
“Darrow!” The admonition morphs into wet coughs, mucus sloshing and ribcage contracting.
“Oh, dear. I hope you didn’t lose a vital organ there.”
“Foulon will rip your tongue out.” He sounds serious about this, like Foulon is any different from the rest of them, like Foulon isn’t just another man who grinds through another day and returns home to an empty house (friends, family—still empty, all of it) to devour chips and ice cream by the bowl, as if filling the void his God claims with the tangible and unclean. Like Foulon gives a damn.
Nicias regrets that this conversation is not face-to-face. He imagines shuddering in mock horror and grinning his favorite broken-toothed grin—oh, the humanity, he would say, eyes thrown wide open, hands fluttering in distress, I’ll have to resort to mimery. But no, such antics are wasted on the mechanic, uncaring mouthpiece. Instead, he scuffs his boots over the few still-standing flowers and mashes them completely, then bunny-hops a few times, just to ensure there will be no resurrections.
After the silence has been prolonged to a sufficiently obnoxious length, he resumes conversation. “Foulon will not rip my tongue out. No one actually cares about these petty little diversions of yours. The pizza man didn’t care, that grocer didn’t care, the florist didn’t care, the cat breeder didn’t care—if they cared, they would have done the damned things themselves, then hung me from a pole by my pancreas for ruining their lives. But no, these people, these scapegoats that disappear oh so often, with such splendid inconvenience—they’re helpless. I am just the ghost who hijacks their lives for a few days, then fades into obscurity. And where are they, meanwhile? Under a microscope, still-beating heart bared to the air? Frolicking in the sun? Dead, made new by your little agency? Given new life, new time, more sand trickling into their hourglass—free, and as such, unquestioned?”
He’s pausing now, smiling palely into the mist. It’s a pity, really, that he’s not standing before the man with the power. More itches would be scratched if he were actually moving with the words.
Nicias chuckles, for the cell phone’s benefit. “Oh, no…” It is quiet, soft, a drawn out exhalation. “They couldn’t catch me if they even knew I existed.” Another laugh. “So who’s left? If not them, who? Certainly not me. Certainly not you. Can you even stand? You’re like a stack of collapsible bones—no skin, no muscles, just a human on a stick, with a voice-box screwed awkwardly into somewhere that wasn’t intended to be a throat. Worthless. Powerless.” (And yet with so many lives at his fingertips…)
He clicks off the cell phone right in the middle of the messenger’s first syllable, blows another smoke ring. One of the crucified Jesus figures drifts toward him, glaring as if judging him for his sins. Liar, its starved ribcage seems to say. And in front of my mother, too. Have you no shame?
He has been more… facetious… than usual. He does not make threats he will not keep, usually. Get in, make a bit of a ruckus, do what he’s told, and get out, was the intention. Nicias is a coward, on some level. And yet—now that he thinks the matter over.... He did mean it. On some level, he always means everything. He also has his reputation to uphold. And. Well. He’s always wanted to perform an exorcism.
They’re all sweat and grease and gunpowder, gruff voices, clattering dice, twitching fingers on the trigger. She’s just another one of them, a man in demeanor with bullets on the brain. But even with her face stained black with kohl, skin too light for her poorly-dyed hair and lips fastened round a beer bottle’s neck, she still cheats them out of their money and their rations like the suavest of poker faces.
“Lancre, your wager.”
She gives him a look, a wily, ironic look—grey eyes wide in faux naivety, eyebrows furrowed with confusion. Tugs on her body armor, sucks on the glass. Flashes a finger sequence. Raise. Seven sixes. Not a word from this one.
The guys (three men and another woman, really) elbow each other expertly, avoiding grenade pins and protective spikes. “Oho, she’s going for the big ones,” chortles the lieutenant to her right. “Must gotta coupla sixes under there.” Four rounds of moderate betting, and to them, she’s just another gambler with nervous tics and an over-attachment to her money. Pity for them, she’s got lies coursing through her veins, little hunchbacked hemo-goblins wrapping gnarled fingers around untruths and omissions.
Corporal Lancre just grins her empty-eyed, hollow-faced grin. If you say so, boys. Her silence says more than her twisted words. Poor bluffing, they think. Suckers, says the rush of blood to her twitching fingers. Her hand creeps towards the gun, overeager, trembling.
The three others, privates all, glance at each other from the corner of their eyes. The woman—Lancre doesn’t know her name, but she’s a large broad, handy for meatshielding, with enough of a glint in her eyes to be of use—lifts and replaces her own cup with a threatening glower.
Lancre looks from man to man, her grimy face blank save for the tooth-baring smile, skeletal and sunken. Her fingers twitch against the cup, against the snake eyes and the bluff within. She looks away from the threats of Medusa’s grimace, of the basilisk’s golden stare, lest her lies turn her to stone (for the giant’s eye rolled inward, and died of what it saw). There is poison under her skin.
“I’ll match,” says the lieutenant.
Lancre’s smile does not move.
Around them, the copter shudders, blades whirring for purchase against overzealous wind. “Lavender Tower sited,” crackles the intercom. Guns in hand, the gamblers are soldiers again, jaws set, hands curled. Lancre is flicking the cup over, smile stone cold and faded to gray. The lieutenant groans, grins, hands over two grenades and a handful of multi-colored rations stubs. She just slouches and nods, gun slung over her shoulder and hands in her pockets. Doesn’t even bother showing triumph in her expression. Easy prey. They should know better, by now—but they never learn. No one ever learns.
He turns. “Alllrighty. We’re headed down from the broadcasting rigs to the base of the tower. Eliminate all Kanto soldiers; prisoners are too much of a liability. Shoot them all to the ground. Try not to raze the place. Once the building is secure, force B’ll take the town.” Voice gruff, solid. He’ll do what has to be done, because it’s what he’s been told to do and he knows nothing else.
The soldiers are tense, silent, as they approach, not slamming their guns against the ground, not chanting. Lancre flips the dice over in her fingers, tapping her feet and twitching at the neck. This isn’t their usual fair, this midnight copter ambush in an active satellite surveillance field. It doesn’t feel right—stinks worse than the body odor and gun grease around her. But she’s flighty, and paranoid, and has been known to stick her nose in places that don’t actually exist, so she sits back and waits it out. A good (moral, pleasing, fit for the Good Book) soldier waits for the blood and the carcasses to float their way up to the river surface before he calls foul.
(But there’s a parasite in her bones, chomping at marrow, begging for blood.)
There is a hobo at their door.
Well, not a hobo. A priest. But he looks like a hobo. Oversized boots have grime crusted to their tongues, burrowing its way through each and every crevice, clinging to heavy heel-chains and ragged scarf-ends (and—good Lord—is that one of their dahlias on the heel?)… pale white hair frays out in physically impossible directions, as if twisted out of place by barbed wire and gum drops—there actually is something that looks like a gum drop in his left ear. It’s nothing short of disgusting, a walking mass of odd smells and dirt.
John Quarles gives his wife a confused look. “Uh, evening, Cardinal…”
“I’m a cardinal now, am I?” the man mutters off to the side. His breath reeks of smoke and cigarettes.
From his right hand dangles one of their rosaries, ripped from the eaves; from his nicotine-stained left, a Bible worn by something other than care. Something suspiciously like a handful of rocks.
“Well, are you going to let me in? By God, what are you people thinking, leaving a helpless old elector on your deck in the cold? How cruel, how unusual. I think I may just have to report you to good old JP II—here, give me a pen, so I can record this misdemeanor in the Bible and fax it on up to the Big Book, the Man, the pope.” Somewhere between “are you going to let me in” and “how cruel,” the dirty priest has pushed his way past the door. He now examines their sconces with a critical eye and a grimy, fingerless-glove-gloved finger. “Now this is unusual. Have you had them appraised? I rather like…” He licks the dust off his finger.
“Ah, if you don’t mind, I can direct you to the dining room—” Adelaide Quarles realizes that, for some odd reason, her peace offerings of nourishment are falling on otherwise occupied ears, but her fragile mind does not quite make the connections necessary to reach the appropriate conclusion. “I’ll just go get a hymnal, then,” she says vaguely, and wanders off.
John puts his face in his hands.
The priest unscrews the nearest sconce, lifts his robes to his chest, and sticks the sconce into the pocket of newly unveiled cargo pants. “Must have a holy lamp holder on hand. Just in case.” A pause. “I don’t suppose you have any sterling silver about? Or perhaps a BluRay player?” A longer pause. “No, then. I’ll just have the sconces.”
This is what I get, John thinks. This is what I get for living my life. This stagnant, pointless life. Didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything, and now—demented wife, braindead kid, clergymen sticking my lightbulbs down their pants. Karma’s all over the place. Wrong, it’s got it all backwards and inside out, condemning me for the Jews in the soap and the dead in the street—none of his responsibility, none of his fault. I couldn’t’ve done this much shit. Expression resigned, he resists the urge to slam his head against the wall.
He leads the priest to their dining room and points wordlessly to the China cabinet. Turns to call up the stairs. “Cora… It’s dinner time. Come meet the new priest.” This is what I get. (The priest’s footprints are in his carpeting, a mishmash of dirt outlines and dead flowers.) Miserable life. Crushed under a heel, bleeding from the neck. Suffocating.
Left hand goes around right wrist. Arms behind back, shoulder straight, eyes blank. We mustn’t show our failure.
The priest points at the table, then to the China cabinet. “You’re going to serve me on this flimsy kidsware? I want that bowl. It’s nicer.” He pouts, lightless eyes wide, grime-covered hand dirtying the white linens.
John’s hand tightens around his wrist. Another acid tripping excuse for religious authority, another quack who can’t do a thing for his daughter, who can’t pull the demons from his life any better than he can pronounce half a verse from his own Good Book. John would swear, but he’s been brought up too well. All he can do is stoop down and pick up a dahlia petal off the floor, drop it in a vase of long-dead flowers.
The wife returns. Her turtleneck hangs askew; she grasps a cookbook in one snag-nailed, shaking hand. “I found the hymns…” Vacant smile, blurry eyes.
The daughter flounces demurely down the stairs, wrists bound, muzzle fastened across her smile.
John’s face whitens.
This is what I get.
For the wages of sin, the girl whispers.
There are smoke and tears in the air.
Something’s exploded somewhere it shouldn’t, and she’s caught in the middle of it. Got a burn in the back of her throat and soot on her trigger finger. They’re headed the wrong direction—everything is backwards, inside out. Their tactics are falling apart, fragmenting into bits of refractive glass that catch only seconds of the story, looping time and space and never getting anywhere.
(Bullets spray by her shoulder and in a second she’s whipped around, got the soldier dead on the ground, bleeding at the feet of a tombstone. It’s all around them, the death, the mourning and the buried. The ghosts are hiding, but the death remains.)
The wrong side—they came in from the wrong side. “We’re in the wrong hall—they’ve got it blockaded. No way through. All of the holes’re burning, now. We’re trapped, damn you. There’s no getting out of this.” She hears a panic in her voice that no one else perceives; it’s in the way her vowels wobble, the end of her words rise to a higher pitch. They just hear static and calm, but she’s falling apart on the inside. Her cool crumbles as the fire burns the walls to ash.
There’s always been something about flame…
“The Grey Eminence’s got it covered,” crackles the earpiece.
Her back twitches into a shudder. Memories fill her head, full of fire and hate, of the stench of crisped flesh and singed fur smothering, of far-seeing eyes and teeth that know the taste of blood and bone far too well. Shakes herself out of it. “The hell is that doing here?”
“Master sent him. The Eminence’ll be coming out on your side in a few minutes. Stay put and pick off the blockades.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that thing.” Death trap—that’s what this is. Enemies on both sides, her army and the other, flames devouring the gaps between.
Her head fogs over; fear settles into her bones. It’s in her voice, now, and they can hear it, she knows. She’s fragmenting; she feels that predator’s smile ripping into her arm and her hands are shaking, her feet are stumbling, and then the wall explodes and she’s tumbling backwards into a tombstone. It shatters beneath her.
Box of bones—that’s what she’s in, that’s where she belongs. Rotting away in a box with the dead. (She’ll be there ‘til she dies.)
There’s too much fire, too much smoke, and all she can remember in her muddled mind is the sear of glass melting onto flesh. The dull ring of the explosion in her ears pushes all but a thickened silence and the flaming roar from her mind.
The stench of the dead is all around her, rising from rotten remains. The devil is in the fire, grin wide, teeth sharp. Steel and skin crumple around her. Her blood burns away her veins.
There is something of the Devil in this man.
“I have power here, in this place.” His voice is quiet. The parents say nothing—merely blink with their dull, human eyes. “Why?”
The child hisses. Yes, there is something wrong in this man, in his too-white hair, the shine of his eyes—and it’s there, in the steel of his voice. He knows too well the turning of the world.
He sits across from the child, fingers steepled, tangled in the stolen rosary, poking out from half-intact gloves. His eyes follow her movements, steady, sharp. Waiting. Jumping from hands to muzzle to ringleted blonde hair and back again, but never meeting her gaze.
Look at me.
His face tightens, and the child knows he has heard.
Look at me.
He reaches behind him, scratches a cascade of dirt out of his hair. Turns to the father. Blatant disregard. Deep within the child, something sneers. Feeble humans, always railing against their faith.
The priest resumes his jaw-flapping once again. (Something in him is begging for an excuse to hold his eyes away—don’t look down, as they say.) “Look at you. You’re pathetic. I bumble about, half-drunk and smelling of smoke, and you just let me barge my way on in. You greet me with a feast, give me your grandmother’s untouched China, scrape and grovel and practically kiss my boots on your knees. And why? For your precious daughter—who you’ve chained to the table and gagged like a dog. What child worth so much could be so horrible as that?”
The family is dreadfully silent.
All the while, he’s stuffing food in his face, spitting out around it. And he’s the only one—the others have learned to wait, to sit frozen with their spoons in hand until the child has had her fill. He would learn, in time.
“No child, that’s what. Which means that I’m either here because your child is not a child—doubtful, that—or because my predecessors have been abysmal failures. A far more likely scenario, considering that they’re priests.” He pauses, dragging his teeth along a stripped chicken leg. “Not that I’m not a priest.” His eyebrows twitch in a way that makes it seem he’s begging them to throw him out on his face. (He is the most dangerous of liars—the honest liar, the man who bears his lies on his face and never hides his deceit.)
“Ohhhh, yes…. I’m the holiest of men.” His words are slow, and his face twists into a soft, almost baleful smile. “The daughter, though. What’s she doing? Speaking in tongues? Avoiding garlic? Getting rashy in the sun?” A lazy hand flips the chicken bone into a flowerpot. “Wrong ailment, sorry.” He licks his fingers clean, one at a time, making suctioned pops that slap wetly in the air.
“Tongues, deep voices from the underworld, hellfire in her eyes, contortionist feats….” He leans forward, elbows on the table, face grave, spoon full of mashed potatoes weaving thoughtful circles in the air. “Or perhaps she merely failed a math test? Yes, I could see that warranting a full body-bind. But I suppose… I suppose that would hardly make you quite so desperate.”
An escapist, this one—always talking, never saying a word. Babbles on and on with his meaningless nothing that’s worth just as little of the scraps of food in his teeth. What he has carefully constructed to sound like an elaborate revealing of truth is, in fact, little more than floundering confusion. If he talks enough, perhaps he will find dry land. (What a big mouth you have, says the red-hooded girl to her grandmother.)
“Well?” the priest demands, fork pointing with entitlement.
The child smiles coldly. So predictable in his unpredictability, demanding an answer to a question never asked. (Why do you let me do this? something in him is screaming. Why don’t you stop me?)
The father’s only response is to unhook the muzzle.
And then the child is gorging herself, silverware forgotten, fingers prying meat from bone, face drowning in the mashed potatoes, hair unheeded, dragging through gravy and jam. The child’s hunger is ravenous, unrelenting—peas cling to her cheeks, saliva oozes down her neck, and still she devours, never taking a breath.
The mother hides her face away.
“No one can help our daughter.” The father’s voice breaks, but not with despair. He has lead one too many failures through his house—lived one too many nights with a demon whispering in his ear. All he has left is his anger.
“Yup.” The priest leans back to pat his stomach and release a throaty belch. “So why am I here?”
“We asked and we received.” The father says this with a quiet desperation, like it should mean something, then says it again: “We asked, and we received.”
There is no logic in this, no reason—yet there is truth, of a sort. It is broken, twisted, hidden behind layers of unmeaning and illogicalities, but it is there, bent as the priest’s lies.
“You can’t help our daughter. You don’t even want to. So what the hell are you doing here? Why did you come? Why in hell?” The father spits the word, face twisting, and the wife cringes away, deeper into her hands, farther from the truth.
“I am but a slave of the gods.” Except for those times they allow me to become one. “They sent me, and so I have come.” It rings true (but there are formaldehyde and lye in his voice).
The father’s face burns red; his hands clench, his mouth contorts as he prepares an undoubtedly scathing retort.
The child rolls her eyes. She has had enough of this, the petty squabbles of these humans. “Look at me,” the child demands again, and this time her command has the strength of her human voice behind it.
The priest has no choice. Their gazes meet. The child sees dark, dark eyes—blacker than Hell. And then everything is blank.
Re: Running Through Daisies
Bemalte Blumen duften nicht.
Painted flowers have no scent.
(grown from blood)
She cries out to the shapes in the smoke.
Help me. It’s coming.
And it is. All at once, it’s crushing down on her—the specter of her childhood fears, the shadows stretched across her wall in the dark of night, the creak of the floor and the terrified whimpers of nightmaring children. She’d forgotten, pushed it from her mind for so long, but now the Grey Eminence is here and she’s in a coffin and there’s an enemy soldier and his dragon right by her shoulder but he doesn’t see her because she’s as good as dead and he’s as good as dead and they’re all dead as soon as that thing comes near her the bullets won’t matter and oh God.
She’s landed on her gun, twisted on top of it, somehow. None of that, then. So she fumbles for her belt, pulls away two Pokéballs. The flashes of light are barely red against the fire’s insistent grasp. “Casper… Stay away from it. Stay with me. Stay with me.”
The snake is fanged and dangerous, fit for the Garden, ready to kill. He coils, blade-tail lashing, body a mass of twisting spine and poison. (The name Seviper has never been an adequate explanation for the vitriol in this serpent’s eyes—cold-blooded yet burning with hate, just like his master.)
She thinks for a moment he is going to disobey, turn away to devour the Grey Eminence—but then he is around her, comforting her with his squeezing grasp. A death grip, some would call it, but he is the blanket for the frightened child to tangle beneath.
And she needs air, needs cold, she knows—that’s why the Slowpoke’s on the ground beside her, already raising a Safeguard and spraying her with water. The Slowpoke turns to call rain into the room but the soldier is on her in a second, screaming, “No, no, no, it’ll kill me, no, don’t, don’t, it’ll kill me, it so loved the fire, don’t—” And then everything is a mess of incoherent babbling.
The blockade shudders to her right (and she looks around her and sees that even the ghosts are hiding from the darkness). The soldier turns to spray a metal fire of his own—but it won’t do any good, nothing ever does any good. The fire is over there, far away but far too close to her.
She envies the ghosts in their death, stolen away from the fire and the eyes. Every slam against the blockade sends all the tombstones into a reluctant vibration, but there they are, the ghosts, haunting every crack in every epitaph, buried and safe in the stone (because you can’t kill stone, can’t destroy it, can’t send it to Hell in the flames and the blackness—can only wear it away, way after day, in the wind and the sun and the storm. No matter how many pieces you smash it into, you can’t grind stone away completely. Not like flesh).
The blockade is ablaze, turning to ash and cinders before her eyes. And the Grey Eminence steps through, burning cold and proud in the smoke.
She’d forgotten how beautiful it was.
All pride and hate and fire and death—fur and teeth white, so white, even when covered in so much blood. And oh is there blood. It smears the muzzle, drips from the gums and off the tongue, dirties the bared teeth as the lips pull back for a ragged snarl. Flame pours from its mouth like the blood, filling her nose with more flame, more acrid smoke, stealing air from the room. And the flame—so bright, golden, like it’s pulled from the stars as it burns the soldiers to dust.
(Then she is remembering those fangs, those brilliant, blinding fangs pulling her flesh from her bone and it’s all she can do not to scream.)
It’s moving in a blur of white—like ash, like snow—and fire, every step graceful and so, so deadly. One side, one soldier, down and bleeding from the neck, then a second later collapsed to smoking ashes in the center of the burning room—one soldier, two soldier, three (for a funeral) and they’re down, falling like dominoes in pretty patterns, ashes settling into the ground like dust returned to the earth (six, now, and she’s in hell). The bullets are flying and the beasts are roaring but the Eminence can’t be touched—it catches the bullets on its skin and tears the Pokémon to shreds with its claws.
(Her lungs don’t seem to be working quite right, don’t seem to be bringing anything but flame and smoke to her lungs.)
She remembers. The endless grind of the guns and the bullets in too-small hands, the fear of the dark and of the death (their parents gone, all of them—plucked away from dead arms)—but it was a better place, a safer place, until they came to fear the red of its eyes. It, the fox, the demon, the nine-tailed horror with the voices of saints and the master in red (the soldier in priest’s robes).
She can hear the voices now—the saints, speaking to her from those beautiful tails.
(No air, no breath. She’s suffocating slowly—too much fire for life to go on, even protected. She calls the Slowpoke back.)
In the beginning… whisper the voices. In the beginning was the Word. (And she knows this, she lives this; she has torn it into her arms with her nails and her knife because she was a child and without those words she had nothing but they lied and they screamed and she was bound and—)(her head is a mess, a jumble, taken apart and put back together with pieces in the wrong places)
“The fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars—they will drink the brimstone, breathe it in.”
This is the second death.
The Grey Eminence turns to stare at her. She sees the red in its eyes.
This is the second death.
Something’s in her veins, devouring her flesh. (The serpent tightens around her, nearly strangling.)
God, oh god have mercy (and she takes a moment to laugh, laugh at something she’d forgotten is funny, a flitting shadow of memory that seems ironically fitting in the smoke and the fire and the death.)
Kill it. Kill it for what it did. She doesn’t know if that is her or the saints, in her head or in the air.
As her sight slips away, she feels the serpent coiling to strike. The fire coils in retaliation, Prometheus with his damnation at hand.
God have mercy.
This whole “exorcism” ordeal has not gone quite like he expected. Or even remotely like he expected. In fact, the whole thing has been an explosion of not-what-he-expected.
As evidenced by the fact that he currently seems to be a floating blob of non-matter in a dark room that probably isn’t a room, because it definitely doesn’t have walls—or dimensions of any sort. It’s more of a space vacuum, really, and he appears to be stardust. That isn’t quite right—no, as he previously determined, he has no mass. He just is. So perhaps he is the vacuum itself, the endless blackness devoid of sound and color… Or is that a mite too pretentious? Most likely, yes, he realizes sadly.
Well, it appears that, even mass-less, he can still manage to get his mouth moving. Just as well. (Or is his mouth actually moving? The word seemed more… thought than spoken. A vibration of psyche in the darkness.)
Id, meet ego.
That wasn’t him. And he has no idea what that is supposed to mean.
What? his mind projects into the absence.
Careful where you point your eyes. The abyss is looking back at you.
…What? His non-voice appears to have admirable intonation skills.
The other speaker harrumphs. A know-nothing. I don’t suppose you bear unjustified hatred towards immigrants?
He finds himself uncertain of how, exactly, that follows from the preceding conversation, but he can only assume that he is being judged based upon his recollection of useless factoids. Even when he no longer exists. Splendid.
As I thought….
The emptiness shifts, giving a jolt reminiscent of a static-lined television screen twisting into focus. And somehow Nicias is Nicias again, all atoms of dirt and petulance and oversized boots. Before him stands the child, somehow exuding the impression that she is sitting lazily, even though she is undeniably on two feet before him, posture excessively straight-backed and shoes shined to a glimmering point.
She gives a full-bodied contortion and screws up her face. “Blech,” comes a childish, tongue-extending protest suited to threats of a new haircut or a spider.
Nicias is coming back into himself—slowly, for whatever is happening is a process. His body appears to be here, but everything else is… there. His mind is clicking its gears back into place; his joints re-align and his snide tongue crawls its way back into his throat, nerve endings linking back to the rebooting brain.
Around the child, a glow dims and sputters out. She breathes a sigh of relief.
He knows this child. There is something he wants to say to her—spent half of a biscuit ruminating on it, preparing the accompanying hand gestures.
“You’re pathetic.” Ah, yes. “I bumble about, half-drunk—” Wait, no.
The child’s eyes light with a condescending amusement.
Nicias staggers. His tongue refuses to move; it lies thick and heavy in his mouth, tripping up his words. His limbs are twitching, his muscles spasming—and then he’s on his knees, hands grasping feebly at ground that looks real and supports his weight but feels like nothing beneath his fingers. This is wrong, all wrong. This world doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
“I shall be the one doing the talking, thank you.” Her eyes—they shine golden, like starfire, too bright, too strong. They burn. (He has to look away.) “I don’t want anything else coming out of that jumbled mess of a head.”
This is a child before him, a girl that can’t be any more than nine—her limbs are fragile, weak with childhood, her movements hampered by a disproportionate form, her will still chained by webs of legalities and fine print, her tongue unable to form all its consonants and her thoughts softened and beaten by the voices of the world. Yet her words burn in his mind like her eyes, drenching him in fire and agony. This is no child, no human. And she is in his head, driving him mad.
“Let me see. Behind all this babbling—you really ought to reign that in, by the by; it’s not as much of a distraction as you think, and while you may hold the herd in thrall easily enough, you won’t be dealing with much of their ilk for much longer, given the stunning efficacy with which you got yourself flagged by a cult of men who are more or less breaking the universe (and, also by the by, you have me to thank them for)—ngyeh.” She gurgles irritably and throws down her hands in a tantrum-like motion. “You really can get into a demon’s head, I’ll give you—GAH.” A deep breath. “Truthful little bastard, aren’t you. Despite all appearances.”
Nicias spent the first portion of this ramble, which the child delivered in a single rushing breath of air and words, attempting to kick some sense into… into… just into. At this point, he has flat out given up. The burn has receded to more of a dull throb that coincides with each word, and that is enough for the moment.
“Well, this is irritating. By Jove, I want to get out of your head—who even says by Jove?”
Another deep breath.
“Well. It appears you’re under so heavy a delusion that your locutions—locutions? what?—are influenced by the noblest of motives that I am unable to share your head without spilling out copious amounts of… of… tripe. The crossover is usually obnoxious, but Good Lord—” Here, she pauses to splutter indignantly. “—this is absolutely ridiculous. There is something horrifically wrong with your mind. Have you been universe hopping?”
“My God, you have, haven’t you. For shame.” Her eyes roll back in her head momentarily, then focus back around. “Oh, do I want Cora back. Well, because you asked, and your pathetically needy psyche has some existential compulsion to answer every single question as verbosely as possible in the vain hopes that someone will remember you after your death—you see, I lack true identity, in that I am an idea, informed into existence only by the internal conceptions of those who know what I correspond to. Because I am in your head, and you have no idea who or what I am, I am, currently, channeling a bastardized version of one of your own self-conceptions. This is fairly easy to recalibrate, normally, but—” She now appears to be biting her tongue and hiding her breath. “God damn, you just don’t stop. Why can’t I—” Another gurgle. “I AM GLUTTONY, SCOURGE OF TURKEYS AND DAMMIT, NO ONE CAN TAKE A WORD THAT COMES OUT OF YOUR MOUTH SERIOUSLY.”
“Gluttony?” And the connections are flaring up again; the heat is unbearable, turning his thoughts to ash.
“Yes, Gluttony. The fat piece of lard in fig leaves riding a pig and drinking beer in The Faerie Queene—left the common people cowering in my wake, if I hadn’t eaten them. You know how it goes. Oh, those were the days, back when they still abhorred us, ran from our shadows with their tails between their legs. You lot, now, you’ve gone all Freudian on us, embraced the irrationality. ‘Who needs to fear the Sins? The gods made us for them,’ they say, mouths spitting out hatred and sex and jealousy. We, the bedtime stories, the demons that hold mankind in check… We’ve been obsolete for so long…”
A twitch, involuntary, full-bodied, wracks through the demon-child; the whites of her eyes twist and shudder, and spittle flecks her lips. Her head twists into a contortion that should only be possible for an owl. “Oh, yesss. And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen.” She cringes. “Almost. As soon as I’m out of your head, I’ll never say anything like that again. No more humanity in my thought patterns, at the very least. Although now I’m thinking about food again. Thank you for that. The rest shouldn’t last. …I hope. It could be permanent. The rambling seems to have—”
Nicias has never really seen a demon pout before, and he would never have expected it to be possible, but it occurs to him that that is precisely what is happening before him.
“Well, business. You’re an idealist. It’s obnoxious. And rather embarrassing. Yet another aspect of your imprint that had better not linger. You in general, really—do you realize how annoying you are? Yes, yes, of course you do. It’s rather the point of you, isn’t it? And all these rhetorical questions. SHUT UP, would you?”
It comes in waves, now, the fire. Ebb, flow, soft burn, full blaze… He can’t move, can’t think—on some distant plane, he knows he should be panicking, writhing, screaming in horror and pain and confusion. But that is neither here nor there. He is an aborted being, awash in the flames.
Nicias has resigned himself to the furnace. Its flames whisper to him, flickering, flitting—undecipherable words, burned away into the air before they reach his ears.
“You think me a monstrosity, manipulating those people the way I have, leeching from their lives like a parasite… using my power over them for my own gain—not that you would know anything about my motives. No, even bearing the fires of hell in your mind, you cannot sense my essence. To the point, though. An utter dismantling of your character is in order, to make you properly cooperative and-or subservient, so that I might utilize you to get myself far, far away from the miserable Quarles family.”
She is pacing, now, hands behind her back, shoes glimmering darkly. Her words flow through the fire in her eyes, resonating in his limbs.
“You abhor the power I hold over them, the ways I use them. But are you not the same, you, breaking through their doorways in the robes of a priest, demanding their cutlery and heirlooms? You, who wields the power of God at your fingertips as if it were yours?”
All Nicias can do is croak. The walls of his throat have been parched by the heat, devoured into uselessness.
“Well?” she demands, hand making a gesture of entitlement.
He sees himself in the demon’s eyes, and he wishes he could scream.
“Ah. Nerve control.”
He can move again, inexplicably, but the inferno is rising and now his body understands. His eyes are watering, his mind is burning, his limbs are convulsing and there is nothing he can do—nothing but reach for the one thing that might do… something.
His fingers reach inside his robes, scrabble against a metal surface. It’s red-hot, screaming with all the fury of the flames and the moment he makes contact, he can feel his flesh blistering but he has to get closer, has to press the button because it’s the only thing that might be able to do anything and by God if he doesn’t he knows he will die here, because whatever this demon may think, it has no self control and it’s burning him and devouring him and killing him and it’s in his mind and so hungry and and and—
The familiar red light flashes, a beacon of hope in the inferno.
And the demon just laughs.
“Oh, now that’s new. I haven’t seen one of those since—” Her head twists around, and her neck gives a sickening crack. The fascinated, childish interest is misplaced in the demon’s burning eyes. “What is that? A Dunsparce? My, my. Someone really has been universe hopping. And… that far? The walls haven’t been that broken in… Well, they just haven’t. How did you—”
The demon smiles.
And the fire releases its hold on his mind, enters the air around him. He breathes it in, swallows it a bit.
“I think we’re going to be very, very good friends.”
He’s burning on the inside.
She hears her heart in her ears. For a moment, nothing else. Then a beeping—steady, slow, mechanical. In time with her heart. Lifeless, cold and sharp in the stale, disinfected air…
She blinks blearily—sees a moment of white, everywhere, before the harsh, washed out fluorescent lighting stabs at her eyes.
Takes a deep breath.
And then she’s ripping all the cords from her arms; needle-fulls of fluid spray from un-anchored IV bags and her veins seep blood. The oxygen tube’s out of her nose in a second, spluttering listlessly. The heart monitor flatlines the second her hands are free of its clamps, and she smiles a dull, joyless smile. Somewhere in the hospital, an alarm begins its desperate keening.
I’m watching myself die, she thinks, mouth wry, mind steady. Dehydrated, suffocated, blood stagnant in my veins—I am the machine, and the parts have fallen away.
Returning to her bed, she draws her knees to her chest. The chill of the hospital sets into her bones through the thin material of the shift, and she wonders idly why the halls are so very lonely. No one else is here to watch her die.
The monitor continues with its heartless line and its monotone drone.
I am the machine.
As Nicias comes around in the dining room, facing the white-faced Quarles family, he spends a moment idly pondering how it is, exactly, that he fainted himself out of a metaphysical realm. That brief moment pains his head enough that he decides he would rather just not think about it. (He’s coasting now, so deep in panic that everything is a game and the only thing keeping him from hysterical laughter is the fact that the oxygen has been burnt from his lungs.)
And then he sees the child.
Or, rather, the giant, fat beast that now lolls where the child used to sit, tongue hanging to its feet and drooling rudely on the table. He has no idea what it is, but it appears to be of roughly the same origin as his trusty flying pancake, otherwise known as Claude the Dunsparce.
And speaking of Claude. “Hello, Claude,” Nicias says fondly, stroking one fledgling wing of said trusty flying pancake, who somehow ended up in a bowl of creamed corn half his size. Or, rather, he tries to say—but there’s a fire in his throat, soot and ash and blistering burns. He doubles over, coughs with sickly, body-wracking coughs that steal the air from his lungs.
He thinks he might be dying.
It occurs to Nicias, as he eyes the demon-turned-pink-drooling-blob-of-tongue, that now would be a good time to call the mysterious man with the unfortunate voice and the impeccable suit. The thought is lost as he clutches at his burning throat.
Somewhere at the end of the table, John Quarles lets loose a high-pitched shriek and faints himself off the chair.
“I’d been wondering where you’d gotten to,” Nicias mutters at his body.
“Are you quite finished?” asks the blob, beady eyes blinking indulgently.
“Give me a moment.”
Eyes quick, heartbeat quicker (jumping into his throat).
Massive table of food—something out of a carnival, all honey-glazed pigs with apples in their mouths and mounds of mashed potatoes and silver cutlery next to cheap china and flickering candles. Ridiculous fancies made real. Nothing useful for getting him out of this jam. He turns. China cabinet, lots of glass, lots of porcelain. Probably enough to shred its stomach lining, in theory, but something like that evolved for eating. And even if there isn’t some natural biological failsafe mechanism—well, demon.
His eyes leap across the room, from the antique tables to their lace doily coverings and the dusty lamps on top—books, cards, windows, more dishes, chairs, cushions, windows really looking like the best option. And, damn it all to hell, it’s time for speed dial and pancake stalling. His thumb flicks to get the Big Man on the line. As much as his insides squirm at the thought of it, it’s this, and hope help comes before the slobbery thing digests him, or… well, get digested with a bit more speed.
On second thought, maybe he better not call the company. A speedy death would be…
“Who am I kidding. I don’t want to get eaten to death.”
And then Nicias is on his feet, one hand snagging Claude by the tail, the other clinging desperately to the cell phone. He casts one last glance over his shoulder at the dining room to see Adelaide Quarles staring numbly at a crucifix clasped between trembling hands.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” whispers the demon in his ears.
She’s not sure how long she’s been here, now. They tell her that she became sick (which is impossible—she can’t be sick, none of them can be sick. They’ve been made better than that.) They tell her she failed to obey orders, failed to operate. They tell her that she turned on an ally, ordered her pet serpent to force poison through its veins. She can believe the last part. She remembers the last part. But she has never failed them. She is made to never be broken, to always grind forward, gears and smile in place. Illness is not possible. Not true sickness—not in her blood.
(Valuable ally, the nurses say, smiles plastic and needles bright. You’ve hurt a good man. Well, the nurses never watched the Red Eminence smile indulgently as the Grey Eminence held a child by the neck in its jaws. She hopes the poison stains them for eternity. She has weighed his sins, and he is guilty. He is damned.)
So they won’t let her out. And she’s not sick, she thinks—she can’t be. She’s just dangerous. Maybe a bit ill. But not in that sense. Her body is fine (she tries not to look at her ribs when she bathes). Her mind—that’s the problem, and it can’t be much of one—not for long. They don’t care about the mentally imbalanced. They love it. The crazier, the better. The less sanity in her head, the more judgment in her bullets. The higher she will go.
But now Kainan is here. Kainan the Cripple. Kainan the Court Jester, the Laughing Man. Not because he’s funny, but because they laugh. (Kainan, the man who pulls the strings, makes the puppets dance to his tune.) Kainan, with his sickness, with his infirmity. What she was never supposed to be. Here to tell her she’s weak like him, useless like him. She’ll be sent away. (And where will she go? Her hands aren’t hers anymore, they’re theirs, and they’re covered in blood.)
Kainan sits quietly, hands folded, posture neat. That’s how he is. She’s never seen him break the calm, break the cold. Even when angry, when joking, everything is perfectly in place, arranged symmetrically and unsympathetically. He’s more the suit than the man, and she’s not sure there’s much man left to be.
“Elle.” Not Corporal. Not Lancre.
She doesn’t want to say the next words.
“You’re not fit.” His voice rasps. Grates against her ears, hurts her head, makes her want to jerk her shoulders upward into a shudder. “We can’t afford to have you in the force.”
She’s never been a desperate person, but she’s imagining her life without this—where she’d go, what she’d do. Through the rabbit hole, she supposes. They’ll leave her without a life in the middle of some city, dump her out like trash on a curb now that she can’t do anything for them. Everything looks so different without them, and that scares her.
“I can fight, still—I’m stronger than I look.” Her arms are roughly the diameter of candle-sticks, and she hasn’t been able to stand even once in the past two weeks. But she’ll get better. She has to get better. She doesn’t have anything else.
She’ll do anything.
Something in his answer makes her taste bile. “I know that,” he says, “I made sure of that.”
“So you knew.” Thought so. He’s always been in charge of everything. They give him too much power. Something of her old smile—knowing, stone cold—works its way back onto her face.
He’s laughing, now, and it’s skeletal, sick. Green eyes so far back in their sockets, skin stretched painfully over bone, coughing hacks that shouldn’t even be possible with human anatomy—she wants to push him over, and see if he’d crumble and break on the sterile tile. “We all know. Child armies. What else would happen?”
She sneers. No justification, no supplication—he understands, understands it all, and he accepts it for the horror that it is.
“You were better off,” he says. “All of you. Dead and alive.”
And she knows it’s true. Kanto, Johto—even Sinnoh. They have no use for children. The factories are long gone, demolished when they still had bombs; the war depends on scavenging and imports. No need for cheap labor because there’s nothing left to labor on. The land is ravaged, empty; the people hide away. All children can do is fuel a few fires (and even then, they’re not much good as kindling—too smoky).
“You could have regulated it,” she says, half-heartedly. “Watched them. We were children. Doomed or not, we needed to be protected from the dark.”
“We did. We do. You are. Are, not were. And that… that was an accident. A mistake. Alexius should never have been let near children. We know that now.”
He’s so calm, so even. It makes her so angry, the way he just takes it. Like they can’t say anything, can’t do anything (because they can’t—it’s done, it’s over, it’s gone, and she knows this and she’s so powerless). “It’s too late for that batch.” Spits vitriol like it’s Casper’s venom, burning her mouth. “They aren’t just soldiers, not even just child soldiers. They’re so much more violent than that, so much more deadly. Caged and ready to turn on themselves.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.” He pauses, taps one fingertip against another in thought. “We tried very hard to make you forget.” A shrug, the first careless action she can remember seeing from him. (The bones of his shoulders raise painful-looking points in his suitjacket.) “It didn’t work quite as planned.”
She is silent, for a time. Then she speaks, soft, slow. “I would like very much to continue to be of use.” She wants to see it all end—because she’s trapped, they’re all trapped, in the center of this cesspit, drowning in the waste. They’ve left the bellum iustum in the muck. And Kainan Fawkes with his child soldiers and his toy guns and the bullets that never made sense in their world is the closest thing they have to sanity.
The man just nods, skeleton face bobbing in the pale fluorescent lights. A moment more of sitting by her bedside, and then he stands slowly, unfolding bone by bone, joint by joint, cracking in chorus along the way. He shuffles to the doorway. Puts his hand on the frame. Gives one of his usual hacking coughs.
“There is more of Alexius in you than you might realize.”
And then he leaves. No goodbye, no remnants—just a slight impression on the chair by her bed and a buzz in her head, petulant and indignant. Such a petty attempt at manipulation. She deserves better.
We know that now, Kainan had said, lying through his crooked teeth. They knew it now, and they had known it then—his violence, his excesses. Vice. The human Eminence has always claimed the color red for ferocity, for the loyalty and the sacrifice and the courage that justifies their existence. But they know, they all know—he is red with the guilt and sin of the apple, the Fruit of the Tree and all the hate and blood and the fire it brings.
She will fail, and it is his fault.
That night, she’s caught trying to smash her way out of a window with an oxygen tank. She’s crushed her hand against something; three fingers twist angrily to the side, broken. The nurses crowd her in, hold her down—lock her away.
A Murkrow crows to its murder outsider her window. It’s the first Pokémon she’s seen since Lavender Tower. (She tries not to think about that.)
She thinks it might be saying
Re: Running Through Daisies
all must be hidden)
one two three four five six seven eight nine ten –
(ready or not)
lupus in fabula
(there’s a wolf in the tale / / …so speak of the devil)
Nicias is running. He doesn’t know where he’s going, and he’s really not that good at running, so it’s more of a crazed stumble, complete with a half-flying yellow fish-pancake flopping about in one hand, dripping creamed corn chunks all over the place. But it’s getting him away from the demon, and that’s what matters.
“Hi there, asshole.” (Tries to ignore the fact that he can barely breathe, the way the fire and the horror have drowned his lungs.) “You sent me into a death trap and now I am about to die. Also, you’ll want your cleanup crew, because there’s a slobbery joy with a tongue that appears to think it’s one of the Seven Sins and God damn it, you need to get that thing away from me.”
Succinct, to the point. Every word sets his lungs aflame. And now he’s running low on air. So he hangs up and keeps running, away from the demon.
Well, he thought it was away from the demon. But apparently not, because the demon is now somehow directly in front of him, hot tongue sending bucketfuls of steam into the frigid winter air.
It stands, stubby legs parted, tongue lolling menacingly. Says, “I’m very hungry, you know. And you’re distracting me from my dinner. If you didn’t have such friends—” Pauses, takes a deliberate, circular lick that begins at its knees, sweeps around up its side, over its head and back, then back down to its knees, smearing glistening trails of drool all the way. “Well. You’re a very lucky man, Nicias Darrow.”
He’s stumbling backwards, tripping over his boots and dragging air into his desperate, panicked lungs. And then he falls flat on his back. Claude wriggles free, tries to huff and glare and intimidate, but all it takes is one step, and the demon is grinding him into the concrete with its foot.
“Our goals are compatible, yours and mine. I have no intentions of eating you, unless you fail to be of worth. You have no intentions of binding me, unless I attempt to eat you. You want the world to abandon its follies, realize its manipulations. I want the world to once again fear the dark. These are compatible ends. You know some that, I think, would be… sympathetic to my cause.”
“You don’t want to eat me?”
The demon sniffs disdainfully. “You’re bony and you smell like a smoked steak that’s been ruminated in beer past its spoiling point.” It makes a sickening attempt at a smile, but appears anatomically incapable of it. “You have no idea,” its voice sneers, “how good it feels to not be you.”
Now that they’re clear on the “not going to eat me” point, Nicias has other concerns than defending his honor. He’s on his feet and the bravado is back in his voice, but it’s shaking, just like his hands. Time to make strange faces and rant incoherently until someone shows up with a spare red-and-white-capsule-thing. It’s not as if he’s good for anything else.
It shouldn’t be too long—they rarely give him much breathing space, and his phone call was rude and breathless enough to get a faster-than-usual response. He hopes.
“Now, we have—”
The demon just rolls its eyes and knocks him off his feet with a giant sweep of its tongue.
Time has slipped away.
There is the fluorescent light, the chemical tang of disinfectant that fails to conceal the stench of disease and age, the drip of the IV bag, achingly slow (onetwothreefour drip onetwothreefour), the scabs flaking away and fading into angry, deformed skin. The days twitch by one drip at a time—or is it ten drips? Twenty? She loses count (onetwothreefour) too easily. But she knows: with each drip, ages slide through the delicate tubing, get sucked into her veins.
One of the lights above her head flickers out—takes its time, shuddering into its death gradually. For a moment (drip) everything looks warm, lit by a light that seems to stop glowing mid-way down its rays, leaving the room sterile and artificial. And then there are new shadows creeping their way towards her.
She’s been doing a lot of this, lately, this fearing the dark.
(Before her is the hourglass glass, ground from thee bones of the dead and centuries marked by the timeless flutter of their ashes. And from this hourglass hangs the scale and the feather, and the hearts of man placed in a perfect little line, still beating in their sin. Which is heaviest—a pound of dust, a pound of feathers, or a pound of hearts?)
(in the beginning)
sua maxima culpa
And then the lights have returned—and with them, the sun and the wind, cool and crisp on her skin. A nurse presses a Poké Ball into her hand; it feels foreign, as her fingers curl around it—too bulky, awkward—and she feels a pang of loss. It was once so familiar…
The hourglass sifts faster through the ashes, hissing in her ear. The scale creaks. A pound of sin—sarx, sarcophagus the [pied purple?] people-eater—a pound of sin is heavier than a pound of flesh. The hearts pile up now, a monument to their follies. The ghastly obelisk towers above her, bleeding from the clouds.
(At the base, a plaque: I have not stolen the bread of the gods.)
She remembers, now, more of what she has forgotten. The words seep back into her flesh with every beat of her heart.
Cold metal bites into her fingernails as her hands clench. The letters on the plaque shift, rearrange in a swirl of ink.
I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.
The hearts beat faster; their souls are weighed—against time and against their sins.
Heavier or lighter than a feather?
Once light, light as a feather—the wings of a bird, fallen from Icarus’ back—the judgment has grown frigid and lifeless. It has lost the soft mercy of its goose down to the jaded, industrial weight of the Stymphalian, the elegant raptor that is little more than a carrion-crow, and its savage wings. (She fought by the side of such a beast, once, long ago, before the Eminence melted him into armor and the tools of death. Its bloodless flesh encases her heart, cold and black as stone.)
The scales now stoop beneath the burden of the metallic feather, weights bent and twisted like a cripple’s back. No sin is lighter than her judgment. Not any longer. For all have sinned… so none are punished. Not by this scale. For she no longer has the right.
It is a very heavy feather, this weight that judges our sins.
They’ve taken her to a clearing, dirty and lifeless, and a man stands on the other side, Poké Balls in hand, camera on shoulder.
“Casper,” she calls softly. Her voice fractures; the wind snatches away the pieces and tosses them into the dirt.
The ball opens, and the snake rears. His eyes protrude too far from his head, and his whole body reeks of stagnant poison—they haven’t cared for him, not properly. Each coiling movement jerks baggy, flaking skin and scales. He is the shadow of his skin, a Jack-in-a-Box ready to fall free from his springs. But still, his fangs are sharp and his venom scores smoking burns in the dust.
Even rusted and covered with spider-webbed cracks, a good tool will always be of use.
The spindled clouds grasp at gray sky with thin, snaggle-nailed fingers of cotton-candy wisps. The first sky she’s seen since before the hourglass began to overflow, and it’s no less gloomy than the hospital—sad and tired.
A glare of red flashes. Across from her, their test appears, jagged and cold, but offensively small—it stings, that they’d send her an insignificant hunk of metal to challenge her worth. Little more than a seed, puffed up with spikes and armor to look intimidating, but capable of nothing. Hemlock may bring death and poison, but its seeds are only seeds, and the poison is all hers.
“Ferroseed,” says the man in the voice of a soldier, quiet and even, but somehow still a shout, “Iron Head.”
Casper needs no instruction. Disuse and neglect has left him vicious and prowling, hissing at the slightest movement. He slithers away, kicking up clouds of dust. The Ferroseed loses itself in the wind and the dirtclouds, just for a moment, and it is all the serpent needs. He flies through the air, coiling around the spikes and the plating, pulling himself taught around it.
The scale tips.
For a moment, she stands in the wind. Barbed-wire trees sway in the distance, barren branches withered with age, grasping at the sky. Elle sways with them, the husk of a human patched together from toothpicks and chicken bones, joints weak, veins too black against colorless skin, and arms stained with darkened morphine tracks. The paper hospital gown flutters around her, weightless on the breeze.
Then she smiles.
Hatred and violence and poison, colder than breath curling on the wind—poison can do nothing against steel, but still, it burns. The serpent wraps its coils around the husk, strangles tight until the steel cracks, metal hull clacking like gears slipping out of place, frameworks collapsing under their own weight.
The Ferroseed’s spikes rip into the serpent’s side, tear scale from flesh and draw pale blood. But still his grip strangles, fangs piercing the cracks, ripping steel off in innard-flecked chunks. Casper bleeds, burns as the metal creature spins its spikes deeper into his venom-laced wounds, knocking against bone, cutting and ripping. The serpent is screaming through his fangs. And still he tears the machine apart, plate by plate, breaking off the spines between his jaws and spitting them out disdainfully. The pain cannot stem the rage that burns in his venom.
Soon the Ferroseed is nothing but junkyard parts and machine-oil fluids in the dust.
Casper bleeds, slithering amongst the remains.
“Thank you,” she whispers, and turns her self-satisfied smile on the camera. She has left their challenge crushed and mangled at the feet, taken it for her own, and waved their broken laws in their face. She assumes they know enough to know this.
(Again, the plaque fades, ink black and letters tenuous as shadows.
I have not eaten the heart.)
Somewhere far away, through many rabbit holes and twists in time, Kainan Fawkes smiles back. “Good as new,” he says, with his skeleton-stretched grin and his bone-pale teeth, and returns to his paperwork.
He’s lying there, on the concrete, hands bloodied from his fall and blistered from the sear of the ball against his fingers. Has no idea where his gloves disappeared to, or how that even happened. The demon looms above him, a column of tongue, drowning him in shadow and spit. Every breath spears glass through his throat and rips apart his lungs—but the panic has passed, replaced by a cool, resigned terror that gnaws its way up his spine. And even though the demon has promised not to eat him, he’s probably going to die anyway, with the way the air doesn’t reach his blood and the black clouds over his vision.
So maybe he won’t talk.
He’s fallen into a suburban driveway; there’s a rock a few feet a way, and a window a bit past that.
And all he knows is that he needs to get away.
The world doesn’t connect properly, after that: cause-effect relationships lose themselves in a crash of glass and blood and burglar alarms, and he finds himself huddling under a cupboard, bleeding into burnt hands. Every breath is too loud in his ears. His lungs scream louder than the alarms; his head pounds and the blood in his ears blurs everything else out of existence.
There’s a crack in the cupboard door, and he doesn’t want to see—so he turns to his hands, his dirty, bleeding hands. The leap through the window left him with a gash across his forehead, and now there’s blood in his eyes (it should be red but he can’t see the color—can’t see anything but black) sticking his lashes together and sweetening his lips.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The alarm cuts out abruptly, and all is silent.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The sink creaks; water creeps through its pipes, draining hollowly away.
The demon’s footsteps echo in his head.
“Oh, little human, you have no idea how delightful this is. Such a fun little human, when he’s silent as the grave, playing his little games. Where are you? Where aaaare you?”
The fire is in his mind, again, feeding off his thoughts. He remembers, so long ago—hide and seek, the child never found. Waiting in the darkness. Alone in a closet for hours.
“Ready or not, here I come…” The voice isn’t in the air—it’s in his mind, in the fire, in the recesses of his thoughts. “You won’t be left alone. Not while I’m looking for you. Never while I’m looking for you.”
The footsteps sound lighter, now, pinpricks of sound in the silence.
It’s been too long since his last breath, but he can’t bring himself to make a noise. Even his heartbeat threatens, thundering away in the silence as blood drips from his hands.
A single black shoe steps across the cupboard crack.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” whispers the demon in his ears. (It is the child with the burning eyes and the voice of hell—every word for him.)
He turns from his hands and looks the Devil in the face.
Consciousness abandons him in a rush of terror.
The hallucinations have lessened. They’ve deemed her psychologically sound (mostly), so she’s back in the field again. Not quite in the same capacity—now her guns fit beneath a jacket, in the calf of her boot, subtle and quiet, like she’s forced herself to become. But while silence has always suited her, her flare for drama will never fade. Upholding both is more difficult in her weakness. This, she learned the first time out, through the gun that shoots only six bullets and the man that could wrap both her wrists in one hand. Mistakes were made. Assets were lost. One of the Eminence’s menagerie beasts escaped her universe.
And so, she returned to the rabbit holes once again, hopped between them until she found its trail.
She remembers the park ranger that served as “janitor” to her mess. Not quite the same as the old Rangers in her world, but still competent. He’d been a nice man—the first she’d met in ages. Kissed her hand when he met her, then blushed and apologized. Said she was too young to be bothered by the likes of him. It’d been so long since she’d been called young; the rabbit holes take their toll. So she’d smiled, she’d laughed. Found out he was old, ailing, expecting to die. She’d let him help out a bit, hunt down the monster and put it to rest.
“Where’d that thing come from?” he’d asked.
“A rabbit hole.” She had smiled softly, eyes far away. “The most frightening of rabbit holes.” A warren of the damned.
He hadn’t said anything in response, nothing that meant anything. Gave her privacy and stepped away. “Rabbits aren’t supposed to be that large.” It was simple, and it was nice.
And then she’d killed him. Given him one last laugh, then taken him away. Because that is what she does, what they do through her (an eternal tool, an extension of their far-reaching arms—useful, purposeful, worthy, as long as she is a cog in their reaping machine).
Her hands shake and the gun’s recoil has left blood on its grip.
It is good to be back.
A foot slams into his ribs.
He blinks blearily, first at the boot—military grade combat boot—then at the man who ordered the man with the boot to kick him. (Shakes out his head, tries to find where all the pronouns in the last thought went. Gives up. Says, “Uh,” and almost whimpers as the boot reels back for another go.)
And then it sinks in.
Nothing makes sense. The sickly man with the skeleton fingers and the lungs of a chimney sweep stands above him, the demon is dipping a shrimp shish kabob into some sort of steaming beverage on the bumper of a car, and a bewildered couple is staring rather foggily at the bustle of gun-toting thugs swarming over their lawn and replacing their windows. And he’s alive.
Lightness and energy pool through his muscles, and all he wants to do is twitch, leap to his feet, pace.
“Quite an adventure you’ve had, there,” says the ill voice of the man on the phone, tinted by a sideways amusement.
The buoyant energy rushes out, replaced by fury, but it’s covered by a manic, full-bodied contortion that somehow twists Nicias onto his feet. He’s cradling his hands on his forearms, dripping blood on the pavement, and something painful still crawls in his lungs, but he’s alive.
Alive, despite this man, this impartial general’s oversights, the death sentence he was dealt. Bile rises in his throat.
“It is good. You are not particularly hurt.”
He needs to vomit.
“Very good…” And the pale green eyes flicker to the child, just for a moment, and there is something in them. You have brought us a valuable prize. From his hands dangles a string of ivory rosary beads, probably freshly torn from the Quarles’ roof. “I do hope you had some fun.”
The fury burns hotter than the flames still fanned by his breath. But he’s trapped, cornered, for as he looks at the soldiers and their guns, the way the man who now talks to the shocked family is leading them away from their home, making them forget, the way the cross turns under the sick man’s hands, he knows suddenly and clearly that he is nothing—one in a million, a hundred million, of useless sacks of meat that will scramble to do this man’s bidding. He can be thrown away in an instant. And this, whatever it is, is so, so much bigger than a few disappearing acts and a demon. Trash is not recycled nicely, in this world—it is shredded, torn to scrap metal and melted down for parts.
He wants to defend himself, fight back. And he knows, in that instant. All he can do is pretend. As per usual, but for very, very different reasons. So Nicias gives a crazed smile, all nicotine-stained teeth and hysteria. “I’ve always wanted to perform an exorcism.” His lungs burn and his hands bleed.
“I’m not sure that counted.” The skeleton man holds up the rosary, smiles coldly. Places it around Nicias’s neck.
Nicias faints again.
In his flashes of pain and white light, there is a woman by his side. She always says nothing—merely looks him in the eye and somehow grimaces without moving her face.
He wonders whose role she plays.
She took the fingertips on your left hand, the woman says one day, apropos of nothing.
When she holds her own right hand up to the sterile light, its fingers are crooked and their prints are only burns.
The man with the broken lungs visits her (not him).
She calls the man Kainan. He thinks it is supposed to mean the land of promise, but all he can think of is the first birth and the second sin.
The demon has bartered often with the Devil—blood and lifetimes and souls, she has sacrificed. It is hazardous work, outplaying her master and his lake of fire. It’s always one misstep from oblivion, a word out of place, a ploy that does not amuse: one tarnish on her silver tongue, and she will be dust.
Playing with this man, this Kainan Fawkes (the face that burns for the bonfires), is so much more dangerous. There is a certainty in the Devil’s game. He weights the dice and palms your coins, and you either live or you burn. It is his caprice that dictates your fate. If you escape with your life—well, you have cheated admirably, and the Devil has seen fit to reward you. You have, in the eyes of some (especially of those who dare not touch the bones of our dead), already lost, again and again, with each bargain struck and each soul promised away—because there is no game, not really. You subject yourself to his whimsy, and perhaps he feels benevolent. Your victory has little to do with you and everything to do with fickle chance. All you have done is lived.
But Fawkes is wily, brutal and merciless like his namesake animal but less inclined to save keepsakes and more inclined to maim, dismember, and discard everything in his path. The child sees it in the lines of his face, in the shadows cast by his hands. There is a chance, here, but it is even less than that of the Devil’s fun. The child sees, and she dares not play his game. So she plays her own.
She could win, perhaps.
And now she stands by his side and watches them through the looking-glass. They are feeble on the screen, burned irreparably by the fires of hell and earth, identity stripped from their fingers and breath torn from their lungs. The threads of fate are thick around them, hampering every movement and strangling their will. There is too much coincidence in the room—she can hear the apportioners’ laughter. Their lives are not their own, and for it, they burn.
“I feel clean for the first time in a decade. How could you?” snarks the would-be priest, futilely, with his first conscious breath. Fawkes does not move, but she can feel a change in him—heavier breath, tenser fingers.
“You have Mister Fawkes to thank for that. You’ll regret that, soon enough.” The girl is twitching for her gun, listening to voices that no one else can hear; the man has swallowed too much hellfire to breathe properly. The child sees it, and the child smiles. The Fates will allow neither their humanity for much longer.
It’s almost as if the man with the too-black eyes can sense it, the way he snarls and twists with his words. Kindly gentleman, he calls Fawkes (Mr. Fox, who hangs the hands of maidens above his head). The child giggles, and the look Fawkes gives her would incinerate any mortal. But she has no fear. She tosses her own coin.
The girl grows tired of the man quickly—her face sneers and her shattered hand drops to the capsule at her waist. But she waits for her time, silently. The child can practically hear Ma’at’s scales tip in her head.
“You’ve had your fun,” she cuts in abruptly, mid-word, mid-sentence. “Now I’m going to have mine.”
Then: “In the past few hours, you have done a number of incredibly stupid things.” His eyes glint. “I will not explain to you what they are—you have no business with the political climate, and if you are a very, very lucky man, you never will. Your friend with the appetite possesses an uncanny knowledge of matters she has no right to, and that alone will inconvenience you. Your humanity has also been compromised. She will be joining you and I on a little trip, of sorts. Courtesy of my employers.” Her hands fold before her. “Protest will be met with consequence. In the most euphemistic sense of the word.”
The girl’s rage makes a smile twitch at the corner of the demon’s mouth. Kainan Fawkes does not move an inch or take a breath—merely stands immobile in the dark room, face illuminated in the pale, unnatural glow of the watching machine as he watches the mortals play his petty games.
“Huh,” the man says again, eyes shuttered, then extends a bandaged hand. “Nicias Darrow.” The ticking clockbeats of another universe flow through his veins.
“Elle,” she says, without a smile.
The demon who was a Sin and is a child slips her hand into the fox’s grasp. He squeezes tight. There is no affection in the embrace. Already, she is winning.
Re: Running Through Daisies
chapter i - 23133 [COMPLETE]
chapter ii - 28948 [COMPLETE]
chapter iii - 22903 [COMPLETE]
subtotal - 74984
seviper - 20k
lickitung - 20k
ferroseed - 20k
dunsparce - 10k
Re: Running Through Daisies
I am going to bring down the hammer. Politely. If you disagree with my interpretation of what makes a good or readable story, and I can see valid grounds for disagreement, you can count this grade as non-binding and get someone else to claim your story.
I apologize for the excessive time I took on this grade. I had such a hard time, to be honest, that I disappeared from BMGF for months and months. I will have to be more careful in the future.
TVTropes material will show up from time to time as a useful shorthand for things that pop up in the course of telling a story. I assume you know your way around this vocabulary.
The introduction is indefinite. There's a good amount of material before the actual story begins. You start off with a little tagline, mixing relatively sophisticated language (victims of fate) and scatology (pissy). A time-honored technique; so long as it doesn't get pretentious, it's not a bad way to begin. There are then a bunch of notes, though. This disrupts the immersion the reader should have in the story. You somewhat spoil the roles of Elle and Cora, and put us on guard for Nix. If he/she is an old, valued character, the way Nix is used will tell us a lot about you.
Consider what would have been better to say at the end of the story instead of the beginning. I also don't entirely understand what "thematic relevance" means in the second set of notes, but I guess it just means that the headings aren't important to plot events. They're only there to set the mood. Also, "incidental relevance." These are not adjectives often used to modify "relevance."
On the T.S. Eliot mention: You should be a bit careful with stuff like this. The trap you might fall into is sounding like you're showing off. Erudition is good, but remember to consider when it is necessary and when it is not. When you are writing stories about pocket monsters on the internet, this is particularly important thing to worry about. I'm not saying a definite yes or no on this; it's all up to you. Just... don't pull out the philosophy or literature without constantly thinking of whether it will have a definite benefit for the story and its presentation.
A minor thing is that T. S. Eliot is known for more than just stuff like Prufrock's Love Song or the Wasteland. Did you know he wrote the original poetry which was later adapted into Cats? Yes, the Broadway musical. The poems are very cute. So you have to be more specific when you say you're going after his themes. Which themes? There are many.
Borges makes me happy, too. Is this statement a promise? I'll be hoping for delicious mind-bending meta-ey stuff in this story now. So will others. You better deliver!
Then something that the wikis tell me is a movie quote from a film I've neither seen nor heard of. You seem to be going for a "down the rabbit hole" approach. In my opinion, the mounds of dirt around the hole's entrance are a bit high; there's too much stuff in the beginning. A lot of people at this point would probably consider both all this extra stuff before the actual story and the sheer length of the thread and give up.
Then you launch into the actual prologue. The sheep's game, you say. That could mean any of many things. Both "sheep" and "game" have multiple interpretations. You knew that, of course. We'll see if any of them fit the story ahead.
The first actual sentence of actual story is a fragment. Done for effect, I imagine. It's all atmospheric here. We hear chains and the crunching of ice. Further sentences give us desecration of flowers. You indicate that this isn't a tragedy; the active character in this scene is happy to see them die. The details come together to show a rather unpleasant character. The attributes of "yellow teeth" and "cigarette" are directly related; smoking yellows teeth. I would have either chosen only one or explicitly mentioned their relationship, but you chose not to. I'm not sure that this is big enough of a stylistic point to worry about, anyway.
The second paragraph is all description of the setting. So is the third. We see an unkept yard and Catholic kitsch. And the cigarette again. Channeling Frank Miller much? I note that the ice is gone. There is a gap in the description in general; the plants aren't mentioned to be dead. Either the ice is unnatural, and thus a plot point of some relevance, or you need to take another look at your description. Future paragraphs will tell me which it is.
Fourth paragraph is when things start happening. You jump directly to the active character picking up the phone, skipping any greetings and formalities. That ambiguity with "fun to step on" was pretty edgy.
I don't know if cell phones have receivers. Unimportant.
The general atmosphere and description seems predictable but rich. You're going full-on noir. I'm not a noir person, but I think you're doing all right. To be honest, this is not a story I would have read if I wasn't asked to read it, but horizons, expanding, comfort zone, exiting boxes, you know.
Some dialogue innovations going on here, especially with Darrow's handler trying to interrupt. I don't know if you're imitating someone's style here, especially with Darrow's fancy vocabulary, but it seems to be very self-consistent. Not very Pokemon, which isn't a big deal actually, but it knows what it is and where it's going. That's good.
Use of the term "bunny-hops" may break immersion. You move from noir to self-mocking noir. At this point in reading (I do introductions "live," writing as I read) I don't know if you're aiming for that. I get this mental image of a cartoonish man in a trenchcoat and fedora jumping up and down on the flowers with a Snidely Whiplash grin on his face. Moustache-twirling! I am, of course, overreacting. Anyway.
Up to the first narrative break, the place where you put that — in, the plot could go anywhere. No Pokemon at all. Allusions to vampires. Insinuations of sinister plots and cons. Let's see where we go from here. I'm not optimistic.
I can't say I enjoyed this story. I guess my tastes tend more towards more straightforward genres like science fiction and fantasy. This here is dark-noir-crossover-something-I-don't-know. I think I've read others like it before, but not many. There's definitely an audience for this kind of story, but I'm not part of it. This puts me in a difficult position as a grader; I have to discriminate between parts I personally dislike and the possibility of actual suckage. Which is unlikely from you. I have to find positives in a story that I would normally never have finished reading. I have to be constructive!
Well, I like to think of myself as reasonably grown-up, so let's have at it. See what I make of myself...
Now, I don't know if it's a product of the genre, but your plot looks really incoherent to me. The worst kind of incomprehensible, where I have to read through it more times than I've done anything else in a long time. So far as I can tell, you've got two plots going at the same time that are somehow joined at the very end. Let us refer to the Nix plot as Plot A and the Elle plot as Plot B. These two have almost no connection, even in theme, until the end. I appreciate that this is meant to make the story sound disjointed, chaotic, and dreamlike. Certainly I've read enough science fiction to know that this is A Thing. Plot B itself is a war story and chaos is a big plus in things like those. Unfortunately, I lack the capacity to understand this as readily as a more conventional narrative.
Your story is difficult to read. The action jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, literal to metaphor. That's when there even is any action at all. Much of the time seems to be spent in witnessing the protagonists experiencing various mental breakdowns and paranormal incursions. One rule of writing is "link your subplots." Another is "you can break any rule you want if you have a good reason."
There are major issues with continuity in this story; namely, what was the order in which things happen? The writing style here is very heavy on pronouns, such that it's hard to figure out what is happening to whom, and when. You know the rule for things like these, and I know the reason you broke it. So it's hard to write an assessment. I can say this, though: you may have fallen on the wrong side of the balance between artistic vision and plain old readability. When your grader can't match "he" and "she" to the characters they're supposed to refer to, there's trouble.
You mention a German saying at the end of PROLOGUE 1. PROLOGUE 2 is named for a line from the Wasteland. A children's rhyme, translated from the German. A Latin phrase for PROLOGUE 3. An eclectic set of references, to be sure. I can't really connect these to the story beyond the general gritty-noir-dead-people vibe of the story. Perhaps that's what you meant in the beginning remarks.
Let's look at Plot A and what I was able to get out of it. I have to do this or I'm going to continue to be totally lost. Nicias "Nix" Darrow is a mercenary/bad guy/something who likes to run his mouth. He goes to a sad household that clings to Catholicism as some kind of talisman against an empty world and walks all over the residents. The Quarles are utterly pathetic Stepford-Smiler suburbanites and sufficiently downtrodden by their possessed daughter to not care when Nix goes to town on their house. He even goes so far as to talk about how he's taking advantage of them while his inner voice starts up as well. The viewpoint then goes back and forth between Darrow and Cora erratically, and then the acid trip begins. Gluttony enters his head and is infected by his neuroses. We then discover that this is a universe-hopping story and that Plot A is not taking place in the Pokemon world. He has hellfire in his lungs as he come back, and then Claude and Gluttony in Lickitung form manifest as well. There is a brief chase scene. Gluttony declares that it wants to bring darkness back while it thinks Nix wants to disilllusion the world. Panic and despair have been alternating in Nix's mind. Then everything gets even more blurry and Plot A and Plot B have a head-on collision. END.
Plot B: Elle Lancre fleeces her comrades en route to an airdrop mission. There is a jump to a mid-battle scene where things are going wrong. The Grey Eminence is inbound. She calls a Seviper (one of the three Magi, misspelled?) and a Slowpoke, unnamed against a soldier with a dragon. The Grey Eminence arrives (du Tremblay/Ninetales/shiny?) and kills everything. She ends up in medical after fragging the Grey Eminence's handler (Richelieu) with Casper. Kainan her handler (Gunpowder Plot/Biblical Cainan, misspelled?) then arrives and accepts her request to continue her service. She then returns to duty after some introspection and battles a Ferroseed. She gets a new mission in another universe and takes down an escaped Pokemon and her local helper. Finally, she meets Nix.
These two weave in and out together with maybe a few parallels between them, but I can't tell. They seem to tell an overall story that goes as follows: there is an organization that hops between universes for its own ends. Nix is a field agent who is sent to encounter supernatural beings at least once. Elle is a military asset who fights engagements both in her homeworld of Pokemon and occasionally in other worlds. Both have been anonymized with removed fingerprints and trained in various skills. Elle breaks on a mission and is rehabilitated. Contact is made with a demon and Kainan attempts to liaise with it, although he is being overwhelmed. At the end, everyone is brought together for the real story to begin.
It took me far too long to suss that out, and half of it is conjecture. This is one of those stories where you have to fill in the blanks yourself, isn't it? I read a webcomic like that once. I found that webcomic annoying. In fact, I found your story annoying. But perfectly intelligent people who are not me eat this sort of thing up, and your story fits right in that category. It's all according to taste.
However. I'm not equipped to tell whether you are doing this style correctly, as I can't say I grasp it at all. It could be that your story is incoherent without any mitigating factors. I know of the existence of mitigating factors but I don't claim to have the ability to identify them. You should ask someone who properly appreciates this style of writing what they think. That would be most useful to you.
I seem to be losing coherency myself, but I just want to get this grade out so it stops weighing on me.
I'd like to talk about allusions now. You've decided to have a ball with this literary technique, yes you have. Most if not all names in this story are references to something or other, often religious. I see the Ancien Regime, the Magi, various European languages, and more theological terms than you can shake a Sudowoodo at. Any names I didn't find allusions for are probably due to me not trying hard enough. This must have taken you quite the effort. Certainly I've been making an effort in running back and forth between the story and Wikipedia...
The Quarles are heavily Catholic, you call on some Latin from the Mass, there's one of the traditional demons, the list goes on. You like yourself some Catholic guilt, too. Although... consider your use of Christian-spectrum material. It's a big go-to for authors from western civilizations, as most people have a rough understanding of the more notable Christian vocabulary and its meaning. However, your tone here is flirting with what more conservative Christians would call sacrilege. Be aware that you are doing that; it pretty much sets in stone how certain subgroups will automatically view your story. Your audience automatically grows narrower.
The feather of Ma'at. You invoke Confession 13 of the Papyrus of Ani to show that Elle does not regret her actions. There is a shoutout to Greco-Roman mythology as well with Icarus and the Stymphalian birds (which you link to Skarmory). This is somewhat appropriate as the Greeks and Romans swallowed the Egyptian pantheon whole.
You've done enough research on these topics that I have a fairly easy time with figuring out what you mean with your allusions with Wikipedia at my side. At least I hope so. In that, at least, I must say "well done." I feel that having this many allusions in one story, though, makes it too dense and impenetrable for the intended genre. You are indulging your intellect / things you learned at school at the expense of making your story easier to understand. That's not a bad thing in itself; James Joyce, a better writer than both of us combined, did this in Finnegans Wake and people are still talking about that. Just be aware that it is a tradeoff and you have to strike a balance between aesthetic value and narrative value. Fail at it and you become just another pretentious windbag of the internets.
In the end, I did not find much of Eliot or Borges in this story. While I am neither an Eliot nor a Borges scholar, I have read enough of each to kind of get their flavor. It was a disappointment; I would have much liked to see some Borges-ness here. He really tells the most wonderful stories.
I am getting heavy whiffs of deconstruction, though. You've taken a literary sledgehammer to the concept of the Pokemon Trainer. In the games, power over the elements of nature is more or less given to young children whenever they ask for it. In your world, these children are molded into broken soldiers with barely-controllable superpowered monsters at their beck and call. The Eminence Rouge would seem to be the furthest development of this idea: all-powerful, owner of an entire menagerie, completely amoral. They fight unjistified wars in a destroyed world. Gritty grit grit grit. This idea was well-developed.
Lancre wears kohl on her face. Kohl is a black pigment applied around the eyes in south and central Asia, Egypt, and the Middle East. Perhaps you meant eye black, like the quarterbacks wear? In any case, it's not clearly described what the kohl is doing exactly.
I have determined that Lancre is playing liar's dice. You decided to tie in the game's name with all the talk of Lancre's lying nature. That's clever. However, it also indicates that you want your reader to do a lot of digging. I had to go to Wikipedia and do a lot of deductive reasoning. This is a barrier to entry; it means that those who like your writing will have more to appreciate, but it also narrows your potential audience for this level of writing quite a bit. I am speaking of those who get to this point, read about what seems to be an incomprehensible game to them, and decide it's not worth it to think about it further. This is fine, but do remember to write more accessible stuff from time to time. Pulling True Art is Incomprehensible is all well and good, but you should take preventative measures against that nagging suspicion that you have no idea what you're talking about, and neither does anyone else.
Playing a dice-based game in a military helicopter midflight... that's only a bit better than playing a card game. I'd imagine that with all the shaking, the dice would be in perpetual motion. Lancre's drinking beer, too, though that bottle seems to disappear after that brief mention.
As you've mentioned to me, Elle's people are Mildly Military. This is not a problem; I'm not enough of a military nerd to take offense. I wouldn't do much better myself. It's the depiction of the spirit of warfare that's important, and you've given us a decent on. It's very heavy on the chaos and despair parts, but it's done what it needed to do. Ripping out one's IVs, though, is a step too far. I don't know if that's even physically possible without debilitating pain and major damage.
The Quarles seem to be too underdog-ey in the scene where Nix visits them. Certainly crippling-level Catholic guilt would make them less likely to stand up for themselves in your viewpoint, but accepting open taunting with barely any reaction at all and thinking they deserve it is a bit much. Also, Nix shouldn't be able to talk like he does while "stuffing food in his face," no matter how he tries. At the very least, you should have written in some kind of messed-up pronunciation effect in his speech.
You quoted John 1:1. The usual rendering is EN ARCHE en ho logos, etc. I don't know if the declension difference was intentional or just a spelling error.
All other considerations of laws of physics, gods, etc. are out the window in a multiple-universes story. We won't talk further about that.
You're going for an at least semi-poetic style. You largely succeed. However, your disregard for proper pronoun usage and your constant parenthetical statements make this story a lot harder to read than it could be. I can't track who's "he" or "she" in far too many scenes. I can understand why you want to do these things. However, they elicited an instant "I'm not reading this" reaction in me. And then I had to read it. Okay, I'll stop whining.
GRAMMAR AND STYLE
Grammar is pretty much spot on. I only caught a few typoes. There wasn't anything really too big to break immersion in the story. Let's talk about other stuff.
"But even with her face stained black with kohl, skin too light for her poorly-dyed hair and lips fastened round a beer bottle’s neck, she still cheats them out of their money and their rations like the suavest of poker faces."
Starting with "but" is forgivable. What I'm going to focus on here is the "like the suavest of poker faces." The way this sentence is written, a poker face seems to be a type of person. "Like" points to "she" in that last clause, if you get what I mean.
Ideally, French loanwords obey French spelling/grammatical rules. An exsmple from your story: "naivety" becomes "naïveté." This is unnecessary but sophisticated. The main barrier to entry here is figuring out how to get those little fiddly bits of diacritics in. Note here the acute on the e and the diaeresis on the i. I usually don't bother.
"Fingerless-glove-gloved" I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE
There are, in fact, many I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE moments. "Hemo-goblins" comes to mind. Also, your Know-Nothings pun almost caused me physical pain. You got me good.
Technical note: the official name of the optical disk format is "Blu-Ray," not "BluRay."
Dash usage: Dashes do not link words like hyphens do. "Didn't go anywhere, didn't do anything, and now-demented wife, braindead kid, clergymen..." That there is a dash— a verbal pause similar to a colon. Dashes are followed by spaces, like I demonstrated in the previous sentence. Dashes are also a bit longer than hyphens and have a different input method: ALT-code 151. Actually, I think it might have been you who told me this originally. I don't remember... Anyway, spaces go after dashes. Use the ALT-151 entry method if you want to be proper, but the hyphen is fine too for informal writing.
Redundancy: "her lungs don't seem to be working... to her lungs" used "lungs" twice. Parsing this, the second clause with implicit subject added in would be "her lungs don't seem to be bringing anything but flame and smoke to her lungs." You can see the problem. Also, usage of "flame" instead of "flames" is a poetic thing. You're aiming for that overall, it seems, so ensure the style of the rest of the sentence follows suit.
Typo: "ground from thee bones" should be "ground from thy bones." Old-fashioned English follows old-fashioned English grammar. To be specific, as Wikipedia tells us there are two types of second-person pronoun: "thou" and "ye." "Thou" is singular and informal. Biblical usage to refer to God was meant to highlight intimacy. "Ye" is plural or formal singular (honorific). Hence, "Thou art God" as opposed to "Ye gods!"
There are four cases in English: nominative (subject), objective (object), genitive (possessive adjective), and possessive. We can do the declension of the first-person plural in this way: nominative WE; objective US; genitive OUR; possessive OURS.
Therefore, we have nominative THOU; objective THEE; genitive THY; possessive THINE.
Nominative YE; objective YOU; genitive YOUR; possessive YOURS.
You can see that YE evolved into YOU and became used for singular as well.
*The usage of YE as a replacement for THE is an ancient typographical error/workaround. We used to have a single letter for TH, called THORN, which looks like a P with the loop moved into the middle. Slant the loop a little and it looks like Y. Now, medieval printing presses didn't have the equipment to print TH, so they went with the lookalike Y instead, and this has stuck. In literature, this is not an appropriate way to sound old-fashioned.
A major stylistic quirk of your story was the comma splice. I don't mean that you're splicing independent clauses together willy-nilly like a total noob, but you decided to approximate a steam of consciousness by stringing smaller sentence pieces together. Hence it is a quirk rather than an error.
You also like to end sections with short punchy sentences. It's very dramatic.
You jump between narration and metaphor/other figurative speech all the time. For instance: "She hears a panic in her voice that no one else perceives ... her cool crumbles as the fire burns the walls to ash." This is reasonably possible to follow if I make the effort. However, it is very noticeable. Noticeable is not something I recommend in writing style, as it breaks the suspension of disbelief. Most stories are told in such a way that the grammar or style is unobtrusive.
He talks with "formaldehyde and lye in his voice." One makes him dead and preserved. The other is caustic and sounds like "lie." This pretty much sums up his character. Just as you've planned.
His pretentious vocabulary and motormouth tendencies were very (intentionally?) annoying. Cora/Gluttony manages to break through this facade of his. Interestingly, he does like what he is. I think he thinks he's Holden Caulfield, at least according to what Gluttony says about him. His ideals seem to be "keeping it real" and "look how clever I am." I think. It took a bit of noodling over why Gluttony calls him an idealist.
Also, he jumps on flowers and pouts. He is a silly, silly man.
The first paragraph in which you introduce her is very evocative. You have a very certain view of war and you're definitely getting it through. Here is a woman acting like a man with "bullets on the brain," a nice bit of alliteration. The "lips fastened round a beer bottle's neck" part is a bit unclear in terms of if she's actually drinking the beer or biting down on the side of the neck or whatever.
Is Lancre new to the squad or not? You keep going on about her being an old hand but then you alternate that with her comrades' susceptibility to her gambling skills. If they've worked together for a long time, they should be wise to her gambling style. Perhaps she is a new transfer to this unit; however, this was not made clear.
Also, her demeanor seems to change wildly during the helicopter scene. One moment she's wily and ironic, another her face's blank, and a third she's smiling. No perceptible transition.
She is there to carry your deconstruction of the Pokemon Trainer and provide an example of PTSD/psychotic breakdown. She fulfills these purposes. There's little else to her; she's all doom and gloom. There's a hint that some bent form of Christianity is part of her past, but what is revealed is nebulous enough that I can't interpret it.
The part where her individuality as a character comes through is where she attacks the Eminence Rouge. This is probably intended to show some remaining bit of her humanity.
Cora/Gluttony and Kainan
They're just there to taunt people and mess them up. The scene where Darrow's silliness infects Gluttony reminded me of this time in Discworld where someone got reverse-vampired by one Granny Weatherwax. Perhaps you should read some Discworld. It's good stuff. Actually, given you named a character Lancre... it's quite likely you have. Anyway, these characters also have easy-to-define roles, even if it's difficult to watch them in action: challengers to Nix and Elle respectively. Gluttony tries to dismantle Nix's persona while Kainan is responsible for all of Elle's problems.
Cora/Gluttony gets really meta in her/its hard-to-read rants. I don't have much to say about Nix just because she/it's said so much already.
So did the victims of fate get a little pissy? I have managed somehow to identify said victims. I would say there was little pissiness on either protagonists' part; they spent most of their time staving off insanity or despair. That one bit where the Eminence Rouge gets poisoned was a bright spot, but this story overall... I'd say it was gray. Gray as the Eminence Grise. Blurred. Dreamlike. Too dense for regular consumption, and it was not to my taste.
You wrote with skill. The right skills? There I have to hem and haw.
((INSERT RESULTS HERE. GIMME A BIT.)